[FFML] [Fanfic][Anime][X-over]Darkness Chronicles: Book I: Part I: Chapter III

Craig fanfic at magister.net.au
Tue Feb 17 01:40:41 PST 2009


All right; here we go with Ch. 3.  Hopefully, these are getting out, as 
the FFML has stopped responding.  Anyway, as before, any C&C is always 
appreciated.

--------------------

"Viko! Viko-Chan! Oh Kami! Oh, please no! Not you; not like this!"

The agonised scream tore through the crash and roar of wind and storm like 
the cries of some tormented thing, driving yet another spear of horror 
through his already shattered heart.

Turning, knowing with a horrible, numbing certainty that as always he 
would be too late, he watched helplessly as the shattered, broken body 
burned and melted before his eyes, even as the red-clad figure leaped 
away, her demonic screams of wild, lunatic triumph melting into the 
howling and shrieking of the wind, as she vanished into the fiery heart of 
the maelstrom that was now so much a part of what she had become.

Frozen, tears of rage and terror half blinding him, he watched in numb 
horror as the remaining figure: a twisted, ruinous mockery of the girl who 
once had been more precious to him than life or warmth or all the 
happiness in the world, moved swiftly to reach for the man Viko had given 
her life to protect. And still he could not see his face.

Still laughing, she lifted the broken form in her arms, bending low, her 
blood-covered lips parting in a languorous smile of triumph and appetite 
as they reached almost gently to touch his own.

"Such a tragedy!" she purred softly, her smile widening still more as the 
veiled figure fought in vain with the last of his strength to turn his 
face away. "To think that after all you've suffered together, and all 
you've been through, it should come to this. But then, we can't escape our 
destiny; the future is ordained and can't be changed. Isn't that what you 
told her, just as he told me?"

She laughed again, a hungry, searing sound of oblivion and boundless 
content. "Oh Greg, isn't it just so perfect; and with such delicious 
irony.

"But I really mustn't delay. Mistress is hungry for your little touch of 
positive reality, and my counterpart is growing very impatient. After all, 
I still must take *your* counterpart. He's close and listening, did you 
know? Thinking and hoping, and deluding himself. But you really must see 
that I can't possibly be expected to wait?

"Are you ready?" she called suddenly, her tone abruptly quick and touched 
with a hungry, urgent excitement as she turned for a moment away from him.

In the next instant, two figures stood before her, and he gasped. One 
could have been her reflection, so perfectly did she match her 
counterpart. Yet of the second, cloaked and hooded, he could discern 
nothing save for the fact that it was a man, with no clue as to the face 
the sable hood might conceal.

The storm seemed to be surging with ever-increasing ferocity, and it was 
becoming difficult to hear the words through the howling of the wind and 
the roar and crash of thunder.

"So perfect," Purred the mirror softly, reaching with almost gentle 
fingers to brush lightly at the form's broken cheek. "and so defiant 
still."

She turned towards her companion, her languorous smile widening to match 
that of the first. "Your completion my darling; at last!" she continued 
softly. "The last one; and then everything is ours! Take him, my love! 
Take him, and make him scream."

A low, terrible laughter came from beneath the hood.

And then, the figure was reaching for the form the blue-clad figure held, 
the body seeming to dissolve and vanish even as his last, despairing 
scream was lost beneath the sudden searing, ruinous triumph of the hooded 
figure and his two companions.

For one frozen moment a darkness seemed to conceal him. Then he was 
standing tall, his head thrown back as his roaring, surging laughter 
reached a terrible, shattering crescendo.

"*FREEEEEE*!"

The cry tore skywards, his empty arms lifting as he turned, hands reaching 
to throw back the hood. "Free at last! Free and *one*!"

And with that, the hood was cast aside; and Urawa Ryo felt the ruin leap 
to engulf him as he stared at last into his own face.

For one impossible moment of nightmare, he teetered upon the knife-edge of 
madness. Then he was plunging down into an oblivion that was for ever, and 
he began to scream: a scream that had no beginning, and that would last 
until the uttermost end of eternity.

And they looked; and thought that it was good.

 				     ** ** **

Darkness Chronicles

An anime-Manga Cross-over

 				     ** ** **

Book I:

Part I: The Gathering

Chapter III:

 				     ** ** **

"World Shaking!"

"Deep Submerge!"

The twin attacks crashed into the place in which she had been scant 
moments before.

"Where?" Was all Uranus had time to gasp, before the whispered: "Dead 
Scream!" sent both her and Neptune spinning headlong to crash in a painful 
and undignified tangle of arms and legs in the sand.

"Better," Came Pluto's calm, quiet voice as she hurried to where the two 
lay half stunned. "Better; but not good enough. You're still hesitating, 
assuming your initial attacks will at least come close to finding their 
mark, and not preparing to follow immediately in the event you're opponent 
has anticipated. Do you truly believe the enemy will stand and wait while 
you stop to wonder why he's still alive?"

Growling, Uranus disentangled herself from Neptune's prone form, moving to 
help the other girl stand as she rose swiftly to her feet, and spun to 
glare at their teacher.

The sudden and intensive training had begun at her own request. The 
growing uncertainty, culminating in their helplessness against Neherenia 
and the appalling scope of the nearly-catastrophic defeat Galaxia had 
dealt them, had frightened her far more than she was willing to concede, 
even to Neptune, and time was growing short; of that she had begun to feel 
ever more certain. Just when the final cataclysm and the cold that would 
cast the Earth into a frozen stillness for perhaps a century would come, 
Pluto would not say: perhaps she could not. Yet even Uranus, unused to 
brooding upon such things, felt increasingly of late that it would be 
soon, a sentiment she was almost certain her quiet, turquoise-haired 
companion shared, although she had said nothing. It was not something 
either of them seemed eager to discuss.

Staring now at Pluto's tall, implacable figure as she stood calmly waiting 
for one of them to speak, Uranus felt a momentary savage resentment at the 
green-haired Senshi's seeming indifference to the troubles of the world, 
as though at a whim she might pick the possibility that best suited her 
purposes from a myriad of choices, leaving them to fend as best they could 
while she stood cold and aloof, and watched and waited, and said nothing.

Then Pluto's cool appraising regard softened, and the illusion was 
banished as she shifted to become Meiou Setsuna once more.

"You can't do this alone, Haruka."

Her voice was little more than a murmur, almost lost in the gentle surging 
and sighing of the sea as she studied the other Senshi's set, almost 
savage face. "It's time to go back; time to face her."

For a long moment Uranus made no answer. Then with a short, almost vicious 
gesture, she detransformed, and turned quickly away.

"We failed...*I* failed her," she said simply, her voice hard-edged with 
tension and something almost akin to self-loathing in the sudden quiet of 
the sea.

Beside her, Neptune shivered suddenly, even as her Senshi-self slipped 
beneath the surface, and Kaiou Michiru reached to touch Haruka's hand.

"We couldn't have done more," she said softly, her own voice tense behind 
the sudden tightness in her throat, as much for Haruka's pain as for her 
own uncertainty. "We did all we could."

"And it wasn't enough." Abruptly, Haruka whirled on them, eyes blazing. 
Yet the anger seemed to be turned almost entirely against herself as her 
hands clenched convulsively at her sides. "It's *never* enough!" she 
snarled, the pain now roar in her voice, although her face remained a 
savage stoic mask.

"How long?" she continued low and tight. "How long before the next enemy, 
and a greater; and always we arrive too late, and do too little.

"Damn it, we owe her for this; can't you see that? We...*I* betrayed her; 
I gambled everything on a fool's hope. And for what! If it hadn't been for 
her and an unbelievable amount of good luck, we'd be lost; slaves to 
Galaxia and Chaos; slaves for the rest of time! No Crystal Tokyo; no 
future. And it's down to me. If I'd held on, fought to the end--"

"No!" Michiru's answer was fierce. "We stand and fall together, you and I. 
So it's always been. It's our way; you yourself told her that. If you want 
really to blame yourself, to believe you weren't strong enough, then I 
can't argue with you. But at least accept the truth: that we were all 
equally at fault, and that it was both of us who agreed to that last 
desperate plan. Do you think I didn't know what you were trying to do? Do 
you think I didn't understand that there was no other way!"

"I could have held on; fought to the end, until I had nothing left. But 
for you, I betrayed her. Can't you see! I was lying to myself, *and* to 
you. I wanted to live Michiru: or at least, some small part of me did. And 
I didn't care what it cost. I wasn't wholly lying to Galaxia in those last 
moments.

"Don't you understand! We can't go on like this; not after Galaxia. 
We...*I'm* a liability to her, and I *won't* have that: not again. I care 
too much, damn it; for you; for the princess; for Hotaru; for the others; 
yes damn it, even for you," she said suddenly, turning for a moment to 
Setsuna, a sudden wry smile quirking for a moment at her face. Then it was 
gone, and the fierce mask was back once more. "I...we have to sort things 
out in our own minds before this can happen again: before we fail her 
again, and their are no more miracles left. I have to know that what I can 
give is enough."

Abruptly she whirled away, her sudden brisk, savage strides carrying her 
from Michiru's suddenly reaching hand, to vanish quickly into the 
gathering darkness of the glowering late afternoon.

For a long moment, Michiru remained, one hand reaching still helplessly in 
the direction in which the taller girl had disappeared, half turned as 
though to call, or to try to follow her. Then a gentle hand touched her 
arm, and she turned surprised to catch the sudden un-looked-for sympathy 
and understanding in Setsuna's red eyes.

"Give her time." The voice was uncharacteristically gentle. "She's afraid, 
and she doesn't know how to deal with it. Let her walk for a while; a few 
minutes; then find her. I'll wait with Hotaru in the kissaten.

"But don't be too long," she ended with a sudden full smile, and a lighter 
bantering edge to her voice. "That storm won't wait, and I'd prefer to be 
back in the city before I have to endure Haruka's particular brand of 
driving in the dark."

Abruptly Michiru reached for the hand on her arm, squeezing it with a 
sudden intensity of warmth she had not been sure she possessed for the 
cool aloof senshi.

"We'd have fallen long ago without you, Setsuna." The words slipped into 
the sudden stillness between them, almost before she had realised how 
absolute was that truth. "We'd have failed, and the Princess would be 
gone, and the future so much ash but for you. You know I can never--"

"Shh," setsuna said softly, her own hand pressing the younger girl's in 
return. "You underestimate her, Michiru. I think that's a mistake everyone 
makes at least once; yes: even I." A wry smile tugged at the corners of 
her mouth. "She may be frail on the surface, but within that golden heart 
lies a core of unbreakable steel. None have learnt that to greater cost 
than the enemies who have dared challenge the good in her, and in the 
future she has fought so hard to protect. She has enough strength and 
faith and love for all of us, and some to spare; never forget that.

"Now go on; I think a certain senshi's had long enough."

And pressing Michiru's hand once more, Setsuna slipped almost silently 
away, her face once more its calm, inscrutable mask as she vanished in the 
direction of the kissaten, and the waiting Saturn.

For a moment, Michiru watched her as she disappeared. Then with a smile 
and a gentle shake of her head, she turned swiftly away.

"We see that too little, Setsuna: the kindness beneath the guardian," she 
murmured softly.

Then pulling herself abruptly from the sudden introspection, she turned 
her eyes along the shore, and began to walk, hurrying in the chill of late 
afternoon to bring Haruka home.

 				     * * *

Peaceful darkness, and the quiet, reassuring stillness of his chamber. As 
always, that was the first thing of which he became aware as the horror of 
the nightmare faded, and he opened his eyes with a gasp of relief. For a 
moment they continued to smart reflexively with the remembered agony of 
the terrible, unimaginable brilliance they had seen, the phantom torment 
of the agonising burns he had endured coursing for one horrifying moment 
of memory through his head. Then the gnawing chill bit into him, and he 
sighed and shifted on the low pallet, shivering a little in the gentle 
darkness as he drew the thin Kaihei fur closer about him.

Kalleth had forgotten to charge the brazier again.

Not that it would make much difference. The land, like everything else, 
was dying, and with its death, the last of the magic that maintained the 
ruins of a realm that he, like all its many denizens, had once believed 
unassailable. Every enchantment, every power and ability no matter how 
small, grew ever more difficult to manifest as each day raced inexorably 
towards the final dissolution: the final death of the last pale shadows of 
the Dark Kingdom.

Uranite sighed again. As the last high mage: the last trained by Nephrite 
and Kunzite themselves - not that that was likely to count for much now - 
he, more than any of the six who had taken this last gasp of power after 
the terrible disaster of the fall, understood just how desperate had 
become their situation, and how vital it was that they prepare as swiftly 
as they could to flee what little remained of the last surviving 
stronghold of Beryl's once mighty realm, to the dubious safety of the 
dimension and the world they had once sought to make their own.

To Uranite, as to the others, it was a desperate, perhaps an all but 
hopeless plan. Granted: they could sacrifice some few ruined, shattered 
youma, their minds so broken after the impossible horror of contact with 
the terrible crystal, that they were useless for anything but conduits for 
the mana their brothers and sisters so desperately needed. Their final 
destruction would give them and their followers a short respite in which 
they might draw upon the natural mana of the earth to sustain them, until 
they could gain the life-energy they would need.

But in the end it was, he believed, a lost battle, unless they could be 
almost inconceivably fortunate. They had no kingdom to draw upon in any 
confrontation with the senshi: no kingdom, and no Metallia. The force that 
had once sustained them and the land they had come to call home was gone: 
wiped from the very fabric of reality, as though she had never existed. 
And it was this more than anything else that had prompted Uranite to 
attempt his latest desperate proposal, a proposal of which even Tellurite 
dared not speak beyond the confines of the chambers that had become their 
personal domain, lest it be heard by even the most loyal of their people: 
the faintest possibility of, at the last, a plea for clemency from the 
terrifying, dreadful leader of the senshi.

They had laughed at first as he knew they would: called him a fool, and a 
dangerous fool at that. Even fierce, yet honourable Cryolite had glared at 
him, and demanded to know at what point in particular he had decided to 
take leave of his senses. Apatite had mocked him openly - not that he had 
expected more of her - while Halite had remained stoic, and as always kept 
his own council. Of all, only Zeolite, herself a healer, and closer to the 
mage in nature than the rest, had maintained at least an outward calm, 
listening without comment while he outlined the barest inklings of that 
last fools' hope.

Yes: it was a desperate plan. No: he did not see it as anything save the 
last desperate gasp of a people with nowhere else to turn. Yes: he 
accepted that they might well die and bring the last of their people to 
ruin, before they could hope to negotiate. But he could see no other 
realistic alternative. Energy was at a premium, and the number of broken 
youma were few. Escape to the world was their last chance, and even were 
it possible beyond all reason to stabilise and maintain the ruins of the 
Kingdom, they could not afford to continue to sacrifice the shells that 
were capable still of procreation, if possessed temporarily by others. 
their population base was already critically small.

It had been a long and protracted council, and all of them had been 
exhausted and in ill-temper by the time Tellurite decided nothing more 
could be achieved without rest, and brought it to an end with the sealing 
of the chamber lights, and the releasing of the collective enchantment 
that kept out unwanted eyes and ears and prying minds.

Uranite shivered again. The days were growing swiftly more chill, and in a 
realm without seasons, the gathering cold was killing what little flora 
and fauna had survived the cataclysm with inexorable swiftness. If they 
did not escape within the next quarter-month and before the festival of 
Metallia at its end, they would be finished.

"High-Lord Uranite-sama?"

The sudden soft voice by the door almost caused the mage to start in 
surprise. He had not sensed Kalleth's approach, and that was not good. 
Very foolish, and *very* dangerous, even though he did not doubt the sleek 
felinoid-woman's loyalty.

Even now there were those too stupid to comprehend that any attempt to 
seize a share in the power of the new Kingdom from one of the six, even 
should they manage by some miracle to survive the attempt, would spell its 
end, as surely as though they had set out to destroy it themselves.

Only with him and his companions did any hope remain. They were the last: 
the last of a vanishingly small few that had ever been, who could survive, 
even if only for a little, without a constant background of mana, 
powerless though they would swiftly become without it.

Uranite was still postulating as to why and how they and the thousand or 
so other survivors, had managed to weather the obliterating wave of the 
Ginzuishou. The most popular theory was simply that they had been far 
enough from the epicentre of the wave to escape the worst of its 
cataclysmic power.

For himself, Uranite doubted this to be the case. With what little he had 
been able to glean from the watcher-crystals Beryl's paranoia (not to 
mention that of her generals) had ensured were concealed in myriad 
locations throughout the realm, distance simply did not matter to the 
reality-warping powers of the terrible crystal. It's destruction had been 
as absolute in the furthest reaches of the realm as in the very 
throne-room of the insane queen's palace.

For Uranite, another possibility seemed more likely, if very dangerous to 
suggest even now within hearing of any save his companions. The crystal 
sought out and destroyed what it perceived as evil or negative, and in 
this case more specifically, the evil inspired by, and created of 
Metallia. Only should one possess, even if in the smallest of measure, 
some inherent defence against that influence, could, he suspected, one 
survive its touch. In which case, a curious philosophical point was 
raised: that being why they had not changed to become what would remain 
after that influence was no more, perhaps revert to their original base 
form.

For that question Uranite had no answer. Perhaps it was something as 
simple and indefinable as an instinctive protection of the soul, a 
recognition by the Ginzuishou of some long-buried remnant of what they 
might have been. Perhaps the Ginzuishou did no more than re-awaken that 
latent potential for good in those few Metallia's long influence had not 
yet utterly overwhelmed. Whatever the answer, it gave Uranite the faintest 
flicker of hope that they might in some way be able to bargain with its 
wielder, and the terrible warriors who served her, as vanishingly small as 
that hope might prove.

"High-Lord?"

Kalleth's timid inquiry brought him once more from his introspection, a 
state into which his mind seemed to fall of late with ever greater 
frequency.

That also was not good.

Sighing, Uranite allowed her to help him from the pallet, then sat calmly 
on its edge as she drew water, and filled the low rock basin on the 
further side of the small cavern. Even he, as a member of the High Circle, 
was allowed only two servants, one to be on hand whenever he wished; they 
simply could not afford the energy wasted in a retinue attending to their 
needs.

Still seated, he watched silently as the cat-like woman heated the water 
with a murmured incantation that expended a little of her daily allowance 
of mana, then felt a faint smile trying to touch the corners of his mouth 
as she turned to move swiftly to him.

As always, she bowed low, baring her small sharp teeth in a smile as she 
reached to help him to his feet, purring low in her throat in a fashion 
she had learned soothed him, despite his insistence that it was a 
singularly irritating sound. But then, he was determined to keep at least 
this distance between them; he had already allowed her too much, and from 
the beginning she had misinterpreted perhaps wilfully his gentler 
treatment as carrying intentions he could never have.

For him, only chill, self-assured Cryolite could reach the something 
within him that he was almost certain his agonised encounter with the 
power of the Ginzuishou had touched into blazing fire. Only she could set 
his usually steady heart to racing wildly, and his ordered mind to turmoil 
as he watched her drive herself day after day in her determination to 
overmatch even Tellurite in the finest control of her mind, and of her 
powers. If any of them could survive the Tartarus their future had become, 
it would be the fierce, beautiful green-haired Cryolite, of that he was 
sure.

Even in those last heady days of the Kingdom, when Beryl's absurd 
propaganda had even him believing that their birthright was ripe for the 
taking, Cryolite had remained coldly sceptical, risking an agonising end 
should her views become known to any save the five with whom she had 
shared her childhood, and whom alone she trusted, and who trusted her and 
one another in return, as diverse as each of them might be.

Of all of them, Apatite: an impulsive and viciously unpredictable 
dichotomy to her elder sister's cold self-control, had been the most 
certain that they could not fail, that their glorious queen would lead 
them to Earth, and to victory.

Uranite could remember still with terrible clarity their gathering upon 
that last night before the end, their spirits save for Apatite's crashing 
with Kunzite's death in a sudden terrifying realisation of what until only 
days before had seemed utterly inconceivable: that the terrible wielder of 
the Ginzuishou might bring the war to the Kingdom.

Even then, Apatite had insisted that there was no cause for alarm: that no 
matter what powers Sailor Moon had displayed, she and her accursed court 
were after all no more than helpless human girls, with no hope of 
challenging the might of the Kingdom.

Cryolite had laughed openly, and suggested that her impetuous younger 
sister present herself as part of the vanguard, perhaps as Kunzite's 
replacement, if she was so sure still of victory, let alone the sanity of 
the queen.

As always, Apatite had erupted in a furious burst of infantile temper that 
had left her sister laughing all the harder as she had held her at last 
pinned half beneath her, and waited while the younger woman struggled and 
screamed, and swore that she would see them all in the chamber of eternal 
sleep when this was over, and the Earth was theirs. And as always, they 
had paid no more heed to her threats than ever they had done since they 
had become old and wary enough to know that she was as much a part of the 
‘Circle’ (as they had called themselves, even as young children, beyond 
the hearing of others) as any of them, and that for whatever reason, she 
would never be their enemy.

The struggle had ended as it always did, with Apatite's rage dissolving 
into frustrated tears as she wound her arms around her elder sister's 
neck, and buried her face in her emerald hair in a gesture Cryolite seemed 
to tolerate, although she knew well her sister's attempt at affection was 
far from innocent. Such advances had always sickened her, though such 
liaisons were as accepted as were most things within the Kingdom. Only in 
the matter of breeding was a certain genetic distance demanded; after all, 
there was no use for the cumulative faults such progeny were likely to 
possess.

Cryolite had waited with long-practiced patience until her sister's 
infantile sobs had ceased, then summarily disentangled Apatite's arms from 
around her, and moved to rise.

Then the first tremors had struck, and moments later their universe had 
exploded in light, and terror, and searing, agonising pain.

Uranite started, wrenching his memory with difficulty from the horror of 
that terrible night, to focus once more on the tall sleek form before him. 
Kalleth was studying him intently, her vague telepathic sense granting her 
but for an instant and dimly, the merest shadows of the echoes of his 
remembered fear. And she needed no more to understand, as a moment's 
terror at her own memories caused a catch in her gentle purring, and a 
momentary flashing of her jade eyes.

For a moment she tensed, baring her teeth in a low snarl as her head 
darted from side to side, eyes slitting savagely as she searched for some 
unseen foe. Then Uranite's hand touched her arm, and the memory was only a 
memory once more.

"Peace," he said simply, his tone pitched to soothe. "It's passed, 
Kalleth. Let it go.

"Now," he continued more brusquely, "unless of course you intend to 
explain to the others why I was delayed before this morning's council, 
shall we proceed?"

Gulping, the moment lost, as to her it always seemed to be, Kalleth leaped 
swiftly to attention, moving with fluid grace to help her master from the 
simple gown in which he slept, and to the now steaming basin to bathe 
before his breakfast of Kigha, the pale fungi the only staple that 
remained viable in the dying ecology of the Kingdom.

"It begins today High-Lord?"

It was a transparent attempt on her part to make conversation, since 
everyone knew what was to happen that morning. But he allowed it to pass, 
and answered with his mouth full, watching as she busied herself with 
stripping the pallet of its woven covering, fascinated as always at her 
efficiency as she re-absorbed the silk-like fabric she could create, and 
began to spin more, very much in the fashion of a spider, though no 
obvious source was visible, and the silken stuff seemed simply to flow 
from her long taloned fingers.

"Vedris and Alaegra are preparing now," he told her, not needing even to 
concentrate to feel the subtle shift in the dying mana of the Kingdom to 
know that the two were still drawing from it in a now-rarely permitted 
frenzy of feeding for the journey they would soon begin. "They should be 
ready by the time I reach the council chamber.

"Speaking of which: the others are gathering; I must be on my way."

With that he rose swiftly, turning for a moment to regard his reflection 
in the tall copper mirror by the brazier. The roguish, angular features 
stared intently back at him, the dark eyes regarding his own with cool, 
unnerving appraisal, the dark hair swept severely back in a fashion he 
knew added to a chill, ruthless demeanour he found it increasingly 
difficult to cultivate.

Sighing again, he moved swiftly to the entrance, turning only to remind 
Kalleth to seal his chamber when she had finished the task with which she 
would be occupied until noon, and her daily battle-training: that of the 
continued cataloguing and packing of those scrolls he had been able to 
salvage from the ruins of the palace library, in preparation for a 
departure he above all knew must be soon.

For this, Kalleth was ideally suited. Literate, yet limited in the nature 
of her powers (although not in using what she possessed), she could gain 
nothing by reading of techniques she could never hope to master.

Smiling and shifting in a seductive stretch that left him unmoved, she 
assured him that today she should manage to catalogue and seal the last of 
the scrolls.

Uranite did not doubt her. She had been an astoundingly valuable find, 
ever since he had first discovered her wandering, dazed and half witless, 
only days after the cataclysm, in the furthest reaches of the realm.

She had tried to tear his throat out, half mad with pain and fear as she 
was, and he had assumed her to be beyond help. But Zeolite, reaching them 
in time to down the crazed cat-woman with a single touch that had frozen 
her in mid-thought, had assured him that her mind was intact beneath the 
pain and terror. And together they had wrenched her back to awareness and 
her right senses; they could not afford to waste time with coaxing, and 
nothing more was expected in the Kingdom.

Zeolite had dismissed her immediately, but something in the unusual 
sincerity of her gratitude had caught Uranite's interest, and he had 
accepted her bond-oath as slave to master, and had not regretted the 
decision, save for the problem of her increasingly overt infatuation.

Now he remained for a moment by the unsealed entrance to his chamber, 
watching silently as she settled at the low stone shelf that served as his 
work-table, her head already down, and a quill pen moving between hand and 
teeth as she alternated between writing, reading, and sealing the scrolls 
with a quick, fluid flick of a fine silken thread. Then he felt the 
impatient touch of Tellurite's mind, coupled with the fainter echoes of 
Apatite's irritation, and turning swiftly, he left the chamber, reaching 
back to touch the seals with his own awareness even as he hurried through 
the passages towards the council chamber, and those that awaited him.

 				     * * *

"Huh-ha! Senshi! Can't catch me!"

The taunt, as it always did, drew a snarl of frustrated rage from the tall 
humanic youma-girl as she lunged furiously at the darting, illusive form 
of her younger brother as he flitted in and out of the deeper shadows 
amongst the rocks of the narrowing canyon. Magnetite had begun to use that 
particular taunt almost as soon as the first tales of the re-arisen Senshi 
had reached the Kingdom, whenever he wished to annoy his elder sister, 
despite her warnings that he would die, and slowly, should anyone save 
herself be close enough to hear him.

He had ignored her of course, something the little veshka was particularly 
good at doing, and she was certain it had been the cataclysm alone that 
had saved the imbecilic little fool's life.

Galenite cursed vehemently under her breath and bared her teeth in growing 
fury. They were not supposed to be here: would not have been, had it not 
been for his continual determination to try her patience, not to mention 
that of the Circle guard: the new title for those few their diminishing 
mana could ensure were fully active and prepared at any time of the day or 
night. It had been decreed that all must remain within the immediate 
environs of the stronghold, save by direct command of the circle, upon 
pain of death for any who disobeyed; the rest of the realm was simply too 
dangerous a place to wander, with their final departure so imminent.

And still the Ginzuishou-cursed little fool slipped away to explore, even 
daring the shattered strongholds of the generals and the gutted ruins of 
the mad queen's palace itself, venturing even to the very throne-room that 
had until so recently held all save the bravest, or the most foolish in 
stark, unrelenting worship or terror: to Galenite, the distinction seemed 
at best a dubious one.

It was towards one of these strongholds he was leading her now a merry 
dance, determined, she knew, to climb (as he had done before) to the very 
summit, and enter once more the shattered star-chambers of the disgraced 
Lord Nephrite that stood upon the very margin of the realm, in the vain 
hope of touching again the power he had just begun to realise before the 
cataclysm had brought the old world to an end.

"Magnetite!"

Her tone had long ceased to be conciliatory, and her sapphire-blue eyes 
seemed to blaze with their own inner fire as she increased her pace, and 
began at last to close the distance between herself and her wildly running 
quarry, her long blue-green hair streaming behind her as she prepared to 
do something foolish, and let loose a pulse-shock of air to knock him from 
his feet, and hopefully into better sense, before he fell, or worse, 
brought a decury to investigate the forbidden stirrings of power far 
beyond those parts of the realm still believed to be habitable.

At nearly thirteen, she was just beginning to realise the full potential 
of her maturing abilities, while at a little under four years her junior, 
he was still small and wary enough to dominate, even discounting the fact 
that neither of them were typical; after all, she troubled to care what 
happened to him, and he for his part knew he could trust her to take care 
of him for the little time remaining until he was considered adult enough 
to fend for himself. Such care was both rare and frowned upon, and one of 
the reasons he was certain he could test her patience within limits.

Youma were expected to survive or perish on their own merits, save when 
they were very young, and any sentimentality on the part of another was 
likely to be rewarded with death should it prove advantageous. There had 
simply been no room in Metallia's world for such defeatist traits as 
warmth, compassion or closeness.

"Magnetite!" her voice was now a low vicious snarl, sufficient usually to 
demonstrate he had pushed her far beyond her limits. But today, he was 
proving unusually intransigent. "I warn you, I've far passed the limits of 
my patience!"

"You gotta catch me first, Senshi!" he grinned, turning to poke his blue 
tongue out at her, then back-flipping with a telekinetic boost to land 
upon the first of the ledges at the canyon's further end that could prove 
as steps for one with his natural abilities, to the high plateau, and the 
ruined stronghold beyond.

Cursing him and herself aloud for not subduing him before it came to this, 
yet smiling inwardly with a sudden surge of relief, Galenite gathered 
herself, then with a single bound leaped to the ledge upon which he had 
been standing a split-second before, and to which he had only managed to 
leap by using his growing powers.

Now she had him. As nimble as he was, he was far from a match for her in 
strength, only managing to reach each successive ledge by expending some 
of his daily allowance of mana. He had lost himself in the chase, and 
would have nothing left by the time he reached the plateau, while she was 
expending nothing but physical reserves as she kept him at a frantic pace, 
letting loose the occasional snarled curse to keep him racing and too 
frantic to realise what she was doing.

He had at last begun to understand that she had long ceased to be amused 
by the game, and real fear had begun to replace the self-assurance of only 
moments before, as he realised that he was in for the beating of his life, 
when finally she caught up with him.

"That's right! Keep running, you little Vaghrae!" she hissed to urge him 
faster, her fury evaporating into grim satisfaction at regaining control 
of his little game. "When I get my hands on you, you'll wish I'd *fed* you 
to a Senshi! I'll make what Moon did to Metallia herself seem like brazier 
tales, before I properly start with you!"

He was frightened now, she could sense it as something close and tight, 
and she had to force down the sudden moment of guilt before driving him 
still faster with another snarl.

He had to learn, and learn swiftly. The days of their games, far from 
prying eyes and probing minds, were at an end. His foolishness was 
endangering all of them with the needless waste of precious mana, little 
though it was, and better that he learn from a beating and a little terror 
from her now, than that he should be taken before the Circle, and perhaps 
his very soul wiped of everything, to become nothing more than a conduit 
for the mana he could channel and hold.

Whimpering, his breath coming in desperate gasps, and his thoughts a 
sudden surge of barely-controlled panic to her acute senses, he hurled 
himself from the final ledge, struck down upon the plateau, and stumbling 
forwards, collapsed panting to his knees, half-incoherent sobs and pleas 
pouring from his mouth and mind, as she reached the final ledge and made 
to close the distance between them.

Then she felt him start and raise his head. And then he began to scream.

For one heart-stopping instant, Galenite was numbly certain a Circle 
guard, or worse, one of the High Circle themselves had found him. Then she 
was soaring to land at his side, and a moment later she too was frozen, 
staring in gaping, nightmare terror at the black nothingness before them: 
a black nothingness where the ruins of Nephrite's stronghold should have 
been.

"Oh Serenity's Ginzuishou-cursed *palace*!" she gasped, her voice a broken 
whimper in her own ears.

It was as if they looked into the final darkness that awaited all beyond 
death, and of which night-tales told: a darkness that had no beginning, 
and that would stretch until the uttermost end of eternity.

For a moment, she remained, head up, sapphire eyes wide and starting in 
horrified fascination at the impenetrable wall of uttermost night, as it 
moved inexorably towards them, devouring all before it: land and sky and 
mana, and the very fabric of reality. Then she was seizing Magnetite in an 
iron grip, and a moment later she was leaping wildly from ledge to ledge, 
screaming and screaming silently for any Circle guard who might be able to 
find them, while she kept her mouth tightly closed, lest she begin to 
scream aloud, and never be able to stop.

For one brief instant, an image of the stronghold and the chamber of the 
High Circle flashed clear in her mind. Then with a cataclysmic detonation 
of unchannelled mana, she was spinning in wild, helpless confusion, and a 
moment later she tumbled headlong from the unfocused teleport into the 
very hall before the chamber, seals shattering around her as she managed 
in her terror what should have been impossible, a leap into the very heart 
of the High Circle's domain.

For one stunned moment, Uranite, who had himself prepared the seals and to 
whom they were most attuned, reeled in agony in the midst of a chill 
retort to one of Apatite's more sadistic barbs, barely keeping his senses 
as he staggered from his place almost to his knees. Then the six were on 
their feet, leaping as one to the doors, the inner seals falling away as 
they hurled them wide to face the enemy; and froze at what they saw.

"What in Beryl's name!" Tellurite gasped, while Zeolite was already moving 
to the two prone forms.

"The boy is dead," she said simply, although there was no need. The small 
body was already beginning to dissolve, fading and dissipating, even as 
they watched. "The girl is drained, but she will live, should I be swift. 
Do we save her?"

"And have the Ginzuishou-crazed little witch do something like that 
again?" Apatite snarled.

She showed no apparent concern for Uranite, although that was simply her 
way, and she would have trusted him with her life. But the thought that a 
half-grown girl could smash down seals created of someone of his potential 
sent sudden chills of terror racing up and down her spine; the more so 
because the girl had remained an unknown until this moment, and it was 
impossible to guess as to what else, and perhaps of greater subtlety, she 
might try, should she be allowed to recover.

"She's completely helpless," Zeolite assured her coolly. "and if you don't 
trust me by now to ensure she remains so...

"Well?" she inquired, turning to the others.

"We can't afford to waste *any* potential unless we've no choice," said 
Tellurite, his cold grey eyes turning to regard the limp, huddled form. 
"And it's clear she has tremendous latent abilities. Even fully trained, 
it's no mean feat to break the seals of a High Mage, and she hasn't the 
aura of long discipline."

"Besides," Cryolite added as she moved to kneel at Zeolite's side, "it 
would be the height of stupidity to allow her to die before we discovered 
what drove her to this, and what she hoped to achieve, if anything."

"A surprise attack; that's obvious," Apatite responded immediately. 
"Perhaps that boy possessed temporal or spatial abilities for which she 
assumed we would have no defence, and they planned to take us unawares. 
Let the little traitor die; we haven't time to waste with her."

"I see," Cryolite responded, her tone laced both with amusement and 
contempt. "In which case, we can assume she leaped from the margins of the 
realm with the boy, expending almost the last of her mana, and *all* of 
his I might add, in the belief that we'd be so astounded by her sudden 
appearance that we'd all die conveniently of apoplectic collapse. A 
battle-plan the finer points of whose subtlety I must say, utterly escapes 
me. But then, incomprehensible and machiavellian over-complication was 
always your strong suit."

"Why you...you serenity-damned bitch!" Apatite screamed, her face a mask 
of sudden rage as she whirled towards her elder sister, although all of 
them knew very well that the fury was born of humiliation and her helpless 
fascination, rather than anything else.

With an incoherent snarl, she launched herself bodily at the tall 
emerald-haired woman, and the others shifted in irritation, knowing as 
always how this would end.

Not even deigning to shift her position, Cryolite waited, holding 
perfectly still until Apatite's sharp nails were within a fractional 
distance of her face. Then her hand blurred towards her, and an instant 
later the smaller blue-haired woman was pinned in one arm, her face 
turning the colour of her hair as Cryolite held her impotent and unable to 
move with her own greater power, while her long, slender hand tightened 
about her throat.

"I could break it, you know," she remarked conversationally, a sudden 
deadly purr in her cold, clear voice. "Don't try me, Apatite; you know 
what will happen. I'm only willing to stand these little tantrums because 
I know you're too much of a spoilt little girl to do anything else. But 
I'm fast losing patience, and we don't have the time.

"I assume you understand? An affirmative gasp will do."

Apatite could only gurgle something incoherent in answer, her sister's 
mind already having wrapped her own in a smothering cocoon that made even 
a telepathic response impossible.

"All right," Tellurite snapped impatiently, the tight, barely controlled 
fury in his tone showing to the others just how unsettled he was still; 
"enough! You've proved your point."

Cryolite half turned, not relaxing her hold for a moment even as her eyes 
flashed to his own in fierce challenge. For a moment, Tellurite met her 
implacable emerald stare. Then abruptly he whirled away with a savage 
twist.

But Uranite had caught the unease in his grey eyes, and he knew that even 
Tellurite, powerful as he was, knew better than to challenge the fierce, 
self-assured fighter on something so close to her heart, and something she 
considered increasingly threatened their security.

He made as though to say something himself, then Zeolite's voice cut 
through the sudden silence: "Cryolite, you're hurting her; let her go."

Uranite turned at that, and started as he saw real terror in Apatite's 
starting eyes as tears streamed helplessly down her cheeks. And suddenly 
he understood that Cryolite was pushing the limits of her sister's trust, 
and that the look was very close to one of horrified realisation and a 
growing betrayal.

Then Cryolite had relaxed her hold, and the smaller woman was curled up in 
her arms, whimpering and shivering and clutching at her in a nauseating 
display of melodramatic distress, and the moment was gone.

‘One day you will push her too far.’ Zeolite's quiet thought to Cryolite 
was for her alone, but Uranite caught it. ‘She won't change; you're 
wasting your time if you think she will. She's as much a part of the 
Circle as the rest of us, and you know we can trust her.Â’

"Damn you!" Apatite choked, not relaxing her hold. "Damn you to Tartarus, 
Cryolite!"

Then she pressed her face into her sister's hair, and tried to force more 
tears.

"I assume," Halite's cool tone cut through the absurd moment, "that the 
entertainment is over for the morning? We do have more important concerns 
just at the moment. So can we forget Apatite's melodramatics, and get back 
to our guest?"

He jabbed a finger in the limp humanic's direction, then froze as he 
sensed Zeolite had already begun the flow of mana that would give the girl 
a chance at healing.

"She would have been dead a dozen times, had I waited for the rest of 
you," she said simply. "I assumed we wanted her to live."

"If possible; and certainly until we learn more, and discover what she was 
trying to do," Tellurite agreed, as Apatite at last composed herself, and 
the rest returned their attention fully to the strange girl once more. 
"Can you probe her, or is she too deep?"

"She's in no fit state for an intensive interrogation," Zeolite answered. 
"Probably, I can pull the last few moments before she arrived from her 
memory without doing any lasting damage. But any more..."

"Then that will have to do," he said brusquely.

"Give me a moment then. Uranite, you might want to see this."

"Mm," The mage nodded, glancing for a moment to where Apatite stood, her 
eyes fixed still possessively on her sister in a way he did not like at 
all. As usual, Cryolite was ignoring her, her attention fixed on his 
cousin as she reached to lay a slender hand on the young youma's head.

"This should only take a moment... Metallia's black soul!"

The horrified exclamation brought Uranite to her side and into contact 
with the probe in an instant. A moment later both were on their feet, 
Uranite whirling desperately to face the others.

"Have Vedris and Alaegra here, now!" his voice and eyes brooked no 
argument. "Get the warriors prepared, and the rest mana-fed and ready."

"What in Tartarus are you babbling about?" Apatite demanded shrilly, 
although her suddenly ashen face told him that she had already reached a 
guess.

"Collapse," his tone was cold and final. "We've perhaps an hour to escape 
before there is nothing left of this reality, or of us. The Dark Kingdom 
is finished."

 				     * * *

"Usagi, you *really* are impossible!" Rei glared down in exasperation at 
the hopeless odango-atama as she pulled herself to her feet.

Usagi stood, staring down miserably at the remains of her ice-cream cone, 
the expected tears already beginning to shimmer in her blue eyes.

"It wasn't my fault! I can't help it if they let the grass get like this, 
and put weeds everywhere."

She pointed down at the hump that had tripped her, and prepared to let 
loose with a full-fledged wail.

"And stop that noise! Everyone's looking at us! Not that that ever seems 
to make any difference to you."

"Rei-chan!" Usagi began, then abruptly the tears vanished as though cut 
off with a switch.

"Mamo-chan!" she shrieked. "Where did you get to! We've been waiting for 
simply ages!"

In the next instant she had nearly bowled over a man, his wife and their 
three children in an effort to reach the object of her attention.

Stifling an exclamation of despair, Rei hurried to catch up with them.

"Honestly, Usagi; can't you at least look where you're going?" she 
demanded, knowing already that it was a waste of time.

Usagi had already latched on to Mamoru's arm, and was paying about as much 
attention to her as to the ground before her feet, This fact demonstrated 
amply a moment later when she tripped again, and would have sprawled 
headlong had not Mamoru caught her in time.

It had been Usagi's suggestion to visit the new theme park on its first 
day, the others agreeing, despite Rei's assertion that it would be packed, 
and that they'd be better waiting a few days for the excitement to die 
down. But patience was not one of Usagi's or Minako's more notable traits, 
and she had at last capitulated, rather than endure Usagi's pleading, not 
to mention be the only one left behind, since the others had convinced Ami 
that a single day away from her seemingly ever-increasing study schedule 
would do her no harm. The extensive Science Hall and the international 
exhibition that was to be a part of the park's inauguration had also gone 
a long way to convincing her.

Usagi had even asked Hotaru (and by extension, the other outer Senshi), 
but Hotaru had apologised, saying that they had something else they needed 
to do.

There had been real regret in her voice. But all Rei had been able to see 
was the outers distancing themselves yet again.

"If they want to be like that, forget them," she had snapped none too 
charitably, when Usagi had continued to harp on the matter that morning, 
the resulting tears and accusations concerning her ill-temper doing 
nothing to improve said temper as the day progressed.

Now she sighed as she watched Usagi manipulate an unresisting Mamoru into 
buying her another ice-cream. She had started out in a particularly 
accommodating mood, determined for once not to quarrel with the girl she 
loved as a sister (though she would never have admitted it, especially to 
her) and spoil the day; but Usagi could be just so impossible, and as 
always her resolve had come to nothing. Almost as soon as they met Usagi 
had mentioned the outer Senshi, and the arguing had started.

"Stupid Odango-Atama!" Rei muttered, far more angry with herself than with 
Usagi. "Why do you always manage to do this to me?"

She sighed again, a faint smile trying to touch her lips as she watched 
Mamoru capitulate, and Usagi beam as she hurried beside him towards a 
stand, seeming utterly oblivious to Rei until suddenly she glanced back 
with a full beckoning smile that brought a sudden choking lump to Rei's 
throat.

"Oh Usagi-chan! You really are impossible," she said softly once more.

Then hiding a secret smile of her own, she moved swiftly to take her place 
once more at the side of her princess, and her friend.

 				     * * *

"*Yes*!" Minako exulted as the last ball sailed perfectly through the 
centre of the hoop and struck the pin, to send it falling with a 
satisfying ping, turning for a moment to flash Makoto a triumphant grin as 
the stall's proprietor sighed good-naturedly, and moved to lay yet another 
furry bundle in her arms.

He glanced helplessly for a moment at the considerable pile she had 
already accumulated as she gestured for the game once more to be reset, 
casting a pleading look towards her taller companion before he moved back 
behind the counter to begin retrieving the balls.

"Um, Mina-chan? Don't you think..."

Makoto gestured with the same helplessness at the pile of stuffed toys, 
and shook her head. "How are you going to *carry* all these?"

Minako turned, seeming only then to become fully aware of just how large 
the pile had become.

"Oops!" she blushed, her hand abruptly behind her head, giggling nervously 
as she turned to the harried but still-smiling man, her expression 
suddenly apologetic as he placed the refilled container before her once 
more. "Um, sorry. I suppose I wasn't really counting."

He smiled without annoyance, and made as though to answer. Then abruptly 
he turned, glancing at what seemed a momentary disturbance at some little 
distance from the stall.

At the sudden movement, both girls turned to follow the direction of his 
gaze.

For a moment, they could see nothing. Then suddenly, people were moving 
hastily as though shoved aside, and a moment later a youth of perhaps 
sixteen burst from the mass of moving bodies, and stumbled frantically in 
their direction. For a second he looked wildly about as though at a loss, 
then spotting the two girls, he gave a cry of relief, and came pounding 
directly towards them.

For an instant both stared bewildered. Then Minako started, and waved.

"Urawa-san!" she shouted to him in astonished surprise, grinning and 
waving, forgetting in that moment that he would of course not remember 
her.

Then, even as she remembered and flushed in sudden embarrassment, he 
pelted the last few steps, and stumbled to a halt, panting for breath as 
he regarded them intently.

"Where..." he tried, then choked off, still gasping. "Where is she?" he 
managed at last. "I have to find her."

Minako and Makoto stared, taken utterly aback, both by the desperate 
urgency in his tone, and by the fact that he seemed to know them when it 
should have been impossible.

"How--" Minako began at last, half turning to help the stall's proprietor 
as he began to push her prizes into three large plastic bags.

But Urawa cut her off.

"No time!" he said, still panting. "I have to find Ami-chan! 
There's.there's something she has to know!"

"Whoa," Makoto tried to reassure him; "calm down. What on Earth's 
happened?"

But Urawa shook his head, the old easy warmth they remembered buried it 
seemed beneath a mask of frantic haste. "I can't explain now!" he said 
urgently. "Memory's been coming back for about a week, but I didn't 
remember everything fully till this morning. I knew...*saw* you'd be here, 
and I've been looking everywhere. I'LL tell you everything later if I can, 
but now I have to find Ami-chan before it's too late! Please! If she's 
here..."

"She said something about the Science Hall," Makoto volunteered, shocked 
and bewildered, but with a sudden sense that this might indeed be 
important. Perhaps his powers had returned with his memory; perhaps he had 
seen something they needed to know.

She turned as Minako flashed the proprietor a quick smile of thanks, then 
spun back as Urawa thanked her quickly.

"The science hall?" he continued. "Of course! I'm an idiot for not going 
straight there. Thanks," he said again.

And before either of them could say more, he had turned and bolted 
headlong into the crowd.

"Come on!" said Makoto urgently. "We have to get to the bottom of this."

"Hey!" Minako cried, struggling to gather up her packages. "Mako-chan! 
Who's going to help me carry these!"

But Makoto had already disappeared.

"Damn!" Minako said feelingly as she fought with the bags.

She shot another quick smile of thanks to the bewildered proprietor, then 
turning she began to move as fast as her burdens would allow in pursuit.

"Mako-chan, wait up a minute!"

Cursing again she tried to move more quickly. Then abruptly she stumbled 
into someone, and sprawled headlong.

"Why don't you look where you're going?" An irritated and vaguely familiar 
voice began, then stopped short. "Minako-san?"

"Naru-chan?" Minako gasped a little dazedly, struggling to gather up her 
bags yet again while trying to stand at the same time.

Smiling suddenly, the other girl moved quickly to help her. "I didn't know 
you'd be here today, though I suppose I might have guessed. Is Usagi-chan 
here too? She didn't call."

There was a sudden momentary tightness in her voice, and a flash of pain 
in her eyes, quickly masked behind the return of her smile as she helped 
Minako with the last of the packages. "Um, what are you going to do with 
all these?"

"Yes she's here," Minako answered quickly, ignoring the second question in 
her haste. "Sorry Naru-chan; I'd really like to stop and talk, but Ie 
really have to find someone. Do you know where the science hall is?"

"I just left gurio-Kun there," she answered. "Is it Ami-san you're trying 
to find?"

"Her boyfriend...um, well sort of ex-boyfriend. He was in a real hurry to 
find her, and I told him that's where she would be. Mako-chan went after 
him but--"

"Come on then," Naru moved to take one of the bags. "It's not far."

Moments later they were hurrying through the milling crowd, Minako keeping 
up a quick pace, despite the people moving all about them. It was only a 
little later that they passed through the denser throngs, and she caught 
sight of the sign directing them towards her destination.

"Thanks Naru-chan," she smiled, reaching to take the last of her bags. "If 
you're looking for Usagi-chan--"

"She'll be where the food is; I know," Naru finished for her, a warm 
nostalgic smile flickering for a moment across her face.

She waved to Minako as the other girl hurried towards the entrance, then 
sighing she turned away, brushing for a moment at the wetness that seemed 
to hover at the corners of her eyes, before shrugging sadly, and moving 
swiftly in the opposite direction to the food stalls.

Minako spotted the two of them almost as soon as she entered the hall. 
Makoto was standing by a table that held a large glass fish-tank in which 
Minako caught glimpses of some unidentifiable creatures as they glided 
beneath the rippling surface of the water, while Urawa paced frantically 
back and forth, his eyes seeming fixed on a point near the hall's further 
end.

"Oy! thanks for giving me a hand!" Minako complained as she hurried 
towards them. "Where's Ami-chan?"

"She's...um...busy," Makoto pointed towards the sign that indicated the 
conveniences beyond the hall's further end. "This baka here was going to 
go charging right in there to talk to her."

"Hentai!" Minako exclaimed, turning to glare at Urawa in mock-indignation.

But he did not smile in return.

"Come on Ami-chan, come on!" he muttered urgently, seeming almost 
oblivious of the two girls, his expression darkening still more as he 
continued to watch the further entrance as though he might will her to 
appear.

"Look, what *is* this all about!" Minako demanded, at last beginning to 
lose her patience as she stalked to stand directly before him.

Urawa opened his mouth as though to answer; and it was then that they 
heard the first screams begin.

"That," he said simply, his tone grim and final. "It's begun, and there's 
no more time."

And with that, he whirled away from them, and plunged with wild 
desperation into the suddenly panicked crowd.

 				     * * *

Agony: an agony he knew, even through its haze, simply could not be.

For one impossible moment, this was all Vedris could know or understand as 
he stepped from High-lord Uranite's perfect gate, and into a sea of 
searing, soul-rending pain.

It had been a terrifying minute or two, from the moment he and Alaegra had 
been torn violently from their feeding by the frantic, wrenching pull of 
the call of the High Circle.

Racing desperately for the inner domain, they had reached the council 
chamber to find all six waiting, their faces as grim as they had ever seen 
them. Only then, as they listened in growing horror to High Lord 
Tellurite's urgent instructions, did they come to understand the 
unimaginable enormity of their situation.

"You have exactly half an hour," high Lord Tellurite had ended as the 
high-mage prepared the gate, and nodded to him that he was ready. "That is 
all we can give. If we hear nothing within that time, we must assume you 
are dead, or beyond our help. Understand also that there is to be no 
deviation of *any* kind from the instructions you have been given. Make no 
mistake. Our future depends upon the success of this reconnaissance. 
Should you feel a need to indulge yourselves in pointless heroics, or a 
sudden desire for vengeance and so jeopardise our escape before the 
collapse, your reward, should you survive, shall both be swift and 
terminal. Do I make myself clear?"

"Yes, High Lord Tellurite-sama," Both had answered with a shudder, 
although the idea of engaging the dreadful wielder of the terrible 
crystal, let alone in their present condition, could not have been further 
from their minds. The few months since the fall were still too vivid in 
their memories for them to have any illusions concerning what would happen 
to them should they fall pray to some pointless quest for revenge.

"Very well," high Lord Tellurite had ended. "Go, and good luck. Uranite?"

The High Mage had gestured, and the gate, visible only to those at least 
latently sensitive to the subtleties of spatial manipulation, had appeared 
before them.

"Do not fail us," he had said simply.

And nodding, they had stepped forwards, and entered the shimmering portal.

All had been perfect until the very instant they had passed from the 
council chamber into what should have been a deserted Juuban alley. Then 
the outer edge of the gate, invisible even to High Lord Uranite's limited 
sight within the collapsing reality of the Kingdom, had twisted horribly, 
and Vedris had stumbled out into screams and light, and blazing, agonising 
torment.

 				     * * *

"What! Where!"

It had been as always impossibly swift. In one moment Usagi was reaching 
for the ice-cream cone Mamoru was holding out to her. In the next, the 
screaming had begun. For one stunned instant the shock of the sudden 
spreading panic caught all three of them utterly by surprise. Then 
abruptly Rei was whirling wildly away, staring in gaping disbelief towards 
a building only twenty yards or so from where they stood.

"Youma!" she shrieked above the rising tide of pandemonium all around 
them. "Gods! How!"

"What!" Usagi almost screamed, trying to be heard over the sudden din. 
"But that's impossible!"

"I know the aura of a Youma, Usagi!" Rei snapped savagely in return, 
already turning wildly this way and that as she sought desperately for a 
place in which they could transform. "Quickly, the stand!" she screamed.

The others needed no further urging. In moments all three were racing 
wildly for the ice-cream stand, it having been vacated the moment its 
proprietor had heard the first of the screaming.

Diving desperately behind the concealing counter, the two girls burst 
forth a moment later in senshi form, Tuxedo Kamen only an instant behind 
them. Then they were standing atop the little kiosk, searching desperately 
for the source of the trouble.

"There!" Mars shouted, gesturing swiftly to a point less than twenty yards 
from their precarious perch. "Almost by the far end of the science hall. 
There's only one I think. Although how it survived undetected all this 
time, and what on earth it thinks it's trying to do--!"

"Let's worry about that later," Moon cried with uncharacteristic venom. 
"I'm sick of having every outing we arrange ruined by whatever enemy 
decides it's time to show up. Come on! This thing's moon-dust!"

With that, she leaped to the roof of a larger stand, the others beside her 
as they closed the distance with frantic speed.

 				     * * *

The pain was inconceivable, beyond even the searing power that had turned 
his familiar world to ruin. Dimly he understood what must have happened; 
that somehow the Senshi must have been aware from the beginning, and had 
diverted the gate's exit-point beyond Juuban and the precious few miles 
protected by the capped mana-source that existed beneath its centre: the 
few miles in which a Youma could survive for any length of time without 
swift death brought about by mana starvation in the hostile environment of 
the mana-sealed Earth.

Screaming: fighting with everything he had to hold his leaking mana to 
him, and avoid immediate catastrophic disintegration, Vedris lashed out 
blindly, knowing it was in vain, pulling hopelessly with a savagery born 
of the terror of death and the darkness that lay beyond at the 
desperately-needed life-energy of the panicking humans that surrounded 
him, hoping that by some miracle he might gain enough to teleport back to 
the Kingdom before the last of his shielding broke down, and his body was 
torn apart by the mana-hungry Earth. He knew before he began that it was 
hopeless. Even should the Senshi not appear in the next few moments to 
kill him outright, he would not last another half-minute, let alone the 
frantic moments he would need to gather the energy to return unaided to 
his dying home.

Then the hated words reached him through his pain, and despairing, 
all-engulfing rage replaced all that he might have become, and nothing 
mattered but to try in his last moments to see the destroyers of the 
Kingdom pay in some small part for the ruin they had wrought. Where was 
Alaegra?

"Stop!" The dreadful voice seemed to overwhelm him with its malevolent 
hatred, and his last hope was gone. "A park is a place of--"

Through the haze of approaching oblivion Vedris saw the nemesis of his 
people, and releasing everything, his body already beginning to vanish 
around him, he hurled himself blazing towards her, his only thought to 
burn and rend and destroy. And something horrible and impossible lurched 
and twisted sickeningly in the fabric of reality around him, and in the 
next instant Vedris erupted in a brilliant blaze of flaring, shrieking 
mana gone insane, and chaos ruled supreme.

 				     * * *

"Damn it; let us through!"

Makoto twisted violently, shoving a burly man aside as though he weighed 
nothing as she fought desperately to clear a path to the further entrance 
and the rooms behind, where they could transform unseen. It was no good. 
People were running pell-mell this way and that, most surging towards the 
nearer entrance and away from what seemed to be the centre of the panic, 
perhaps believing the hall on fire: the most likely reason for the 
screaming.

Both girls new better. Whatever it was, Urawa's frantic urgency had 
convinced them it was something with which the Senshi needed to deal.

"It's hopeless!" Minako shouted, using her bags to ward off yet another 
racing form.

"Get out! Get out!" he was screaming again and again as he tore passed 
them. "Oh Kami, something's trying to kill people back there! Out! Out!"

He raced on, his cries becoming half-incoherent as he barrelled through an 
electronics stand, and all but fell through the entrance, disappearing 
into the growing madness.

"To hell with this!" Makoto snarled, spinning out of the headlong rush, 
and diving towards an archaeological display and the relative concealment 
behind the heavy cases.

Minako was only a moment behind her, reaching concealment just as Makoto 
finished her transformation and shot to her feet.

"Venus Crystal," Jupiter heard Minako begin. then every sound was 
overwhelmed in a sudden shattering explosion.

Jupiter half turned, glimpsing for a moment Minako's lips moving as she 
completed her transformation phrase. Then a sudden blinding pillar erupted 
from the place in which Minako had been but a fractional instant before, 
and Jupiter heard her own voice scream.

Soaring, roaring with a thunderous howl, the golden column leapt up, 
punching straight through the steel and concrete of the roof of the hall 
as though they were nothing, the howl rising to a nerve-shattering scream, 
the very air seeming to turn to blazing fire in its wake as the screaming 
soared and waxed, until it seemed that it was all, and nothing else could 
be.

Stunned, half blinded and agonised, Jupiter stared stupidly at the 
maelstrom that should have been Venus's transformation. For one impossible 
moment, energy seemed to flare wildly around her, whilst at its roiling 
heart Jupiter thought she caught faint glimpses of Minako's writhing form, 
her body arched as though in agony, or rapture. Then, with a sickening 
tearing like tin-foil mixed with something horrible Jupiter never ever 
wanted to hear again, a fleeting something: a shadow, glimpsed but for a 
fractional instant, seemed to split from the surging vortex that was 
Venus, and Minako's voice screamed, a high keening sound: but of pain or 
pleasure or both, Makoto could not tell.

Then it was gone, and the pillar was falling, plunging down and out; and 
Jupiter had but one instant to gape in stark, helpless terror, before it 
smashed into her, lifting her as though she weighed nothing, to send her 
hurtling up and away with the speed of a missile. Fortune alone saved her 
life, as the surging front of the blast smashed the glass and brickwork of 
the nearer side of the hall to powder, before sending her spiralling 
headlong into the screaming crowd. For a confused, giddying instant, 
lightning seemed to dance insanely about her as she whirled. Then 
something smashed into her from above, and the world exploded, 
disintegrating swiftly into tiny pin-points of brightness, until the 
blackness closed about her, and she knew no more.

 				     * * *

"Oh *Kami*!"

Gaping, Mars stood transfixed, staring stupefied with Sailor Moon and 
Tuxedo Kamen as the youma literally exploded before their eyes, the 
shattering concussion pitching people headlong like leaves. Then they were 
leaping desperately clear as the front smashed the stand upon which they 
had been perched to kindling, and ploughed on, bringing down the ice-cream 
stand and too others before its energy was at last exhausted. Barely had 
it died when the rising thunder of a second explosion had them whirling, 
just in time to see the science hall erupt in a titanic pillar of golden 
light.

For a moment they froze, watching stupefied as people and debris were 
hurtled into the sky. Then the front struck them like a tsunami, and Mars 
found herself hurtling end over end, somehow impossibly held within the 
folds of Tuxedo Kamen's protective cape, while a sudden scream shrilled 
beside her: "It's burning! Oh *Kami-sama*! The Ginzuishou! It's 
*BURNING*!"

Mars turned her head, and her mouth opened in a silent rictus of terror as 
a light like the sun seemed to leap to engulf Sailor Moon at her side, her 
form blazing bright beyond endurance, before seeming to fracture, and 
dissolve before her eyes. She drew breath to scream; then they were 
slamming down upon the roof of another stand, and the dreadful illusion 
was gone as Sailor Moon's head came into sharp contact with her own, even 
as Tuxedo Kamen cried out in pain, having angled his body to take the 
worst of the impact.

For a moment, too stunned to move, Mars lay still. Then slowly she became 
aware of the near-silence that had taken the place of the thunderous noise 
of a moment before, a silence broken only by groans as people, impossibly 
unhurt in the twin blasts, dragged themselves dazedly to their feet and 
stared stupidly about, wondering how it was that they could still be 
alive, and thanking every god and goddess they could think of, before 
beginning to move slowly away. The festivities it seemed, were very 
definitely at an end.

"What...!" Was all Mars could manage, shivering from head to foot as she 
lay, still wrapped in Tuxedo Kamen's protective cape, uncertain as to 
whether she was imagining Moon's shaking at her side, or whether it was 
simply her own. "What *happened*!"

Tuxedo Kamen groaned softly, and shifted a little.

"Mars," he said quietly, his voice tightly controlled. "I don't wish to be 
discourteous, but do you think you might possibly refrain from moving on 
my arm? I don't think it will do the break much good."

"Mamoru!" she gasped, using his name in her agitation as she lurched 
convulsively into a sitting position. "Oh Kami; I'm sorry! How bad is it? 
Here, let me take Sailor Moon.

"Hey Odango-Atama," she hissed, her voice far harsher than her anxious 
expression as she gathered her into her arms to lift her from atop Tuxedo 
Kamen's prone form. "Snap out of it, you baka! Tuxedo Kamen's hurt, and 
all you can do is lie there with your mouth open?"

"Uh...wha'?" sailor Moon moaned softly.

Then she groaned, and her eyes fluttered, trying for a moment to focus on 
Mars's face before turning to where Tuxedo Kamen lay.

"'nother fi' min'ts, Luna!" she muttered, still barely conscious. Then 
more clearly: "Darien? Wha'? Where?"

"Kami! Usagi; we haven't time for this!" Mars exclaimed with growing 
urgency, not comprehending the meaningless sounds she was making.

Tuxedo Kamen was trying to move, but another gasp of pain had Mars 
wondering whether a broken arm was the worst of his injuries.

For a moment, Sailor Moon remained, her eyes roving wildly. Then at a 
second cry from the prone form, she seemed to come at last to full 
awareness.

"Mars?" she gasped, her eyes fixing at last on Mars's increasingly 
agitated face. "Oh my head! What happened?"

"What!" Mars demanded, now frightened as well as anxious at the 
incomprehensible sounds. "Sailor Moon! Usagi! What are you babbling 
about?"

"What?" sailor Moon demanded in her turn, her eyes sharpening at last to 
fix intently on Mars's own, her expression suddenly confused and a little 
frightened. "Oosa-gee?"

And Mars saw: saw with the sudden certainty of the sight she possessed; 
and suddenly she was on her feet, her eyes blazing as she glared down at 
the thing before her: the horrible, unnatural thing in Sailor Moon's form.

"Who...*what* are you?" she hissed, the power already gathering in her 
hands, ready to send this abomination to oblivion.

"What!" sailor Moon gasped, her eyes widening in sudden horror as she 
gazed helplessly at the sudden death in the eyes of her friend. 
"Mars...Raye! It's me! Sailor Moon! What's the matter with you? It's 
Serena!"

And Mars snarled, and let loose the fire.

 				   ** ** **

Notes:

 				   ** ** **

And that's that one out of the way. ^_^ Like Ch. 2, this was much more a 
general improvement than a complete rewrite.  The main difference is the 
shift in emphasis and tremendously improved definition for the DK 
survivors, something that becomes very important later on.

The one problem is the beginning; it still seems ridiculously 
melodramatic, but it's definitely a hell of a lot better than it was. 
Still, hopefully one more edit should do it, when I'm in the right frame 
of mind.

Craig


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