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A Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon / Ranma ½ crossover story
by Jeffrey Vasquez

Disclaimer: All characters and settings are used here without permission. Ranma ½ was created by Takahashi Rumiko, and is licensed to Shogakukan Inc., Kitty, Fuji TV, and Viz Communications Inc. Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon was created by Takeuchi Naoko, and is licensed to Koudansha, TV Asahi, Toei Douga, and DIC Entertainment, L.P. All original characters belong to me. Please drop me a line if you want to use them.

Foreword: Special thanks go to John the Revelator for sharing his vision with the world. For those of you who are biblically minded, I borrowed a bit from John's prophecies that seemed to fit the story all too well. Also, the prayer offered by Rei and Grandpa Hino is an actual fire ritual from the Shinto faith. I made a few changes to protect story continuity, and borrowed from another prayer to aid the feel and intent of the scene. You can find the real prayers here:

http://www.stavacademy.co.uk/mimir/shintorituals.htm
http://www.nihonbunka.com/shinto/shinto-norito.html

The other elements of the ritual are taken from various sources, and are not necessarily a 100% true representation of an actual shrine ritual that is presented for the sake of the public. The ritual is meant to be something more private. For more info about Shinto rituals and established practices, here are a few links that I found handy:

Shinto Ritual in words and Pictures
Japanese Journal of Religious Studies
Encyclopedia Mythica
BBC Religion and Ethics
Shinto Concepts


Chapter 8


Hikawa Shrine,
Azabu-Juuban,
Minato-ku

Rei woke from a restless sleep, feeling unsettled and unnerved. There was no true voice for the anxiety she was experiencing; nonetheless, it was readily apparent that she wasn't getting back to sleep anytime soon.

With a sigh of resignation, she tossed the covers off and set her feet on the cold wooden floor. She shivered and stretched, trying to work the stiffness from her shoulders and lower back with little success. Even the darkness of the chill predawn air seemed weighty. The shrine maiden wasted little time in donning a robe and slippers before making her way out to the Sacred Fire. Its comforting warmth had never failed her. If peace were anywhere to be found, it would be there, in the presence of the spiritual light of those holy flames.

The walk to the shrine was lonely and more than a little unnerving. The darkness felt alive with hidden threats, just as it had when she had first come to live with her grandfather at the shrine. It made Rei feel like a five-year-old girl all over again. She didn't like the sensation one bit, and her self-purification before entering the shrine proper did little to alleviate the feeling at all.

It was surprising to note that she wasn't the only one seeking respite from the dark night either. Kneeling before the flames, hunched though he was, Grandpa Hino chanted with strength and vitality. Rei was rarely one to indulge in moments of introspection, but in listening to her grandfather's prayers, she realized just how much he revered the spirit of the Flame. His voice was filled with respect, and conveyed something bordering on love. It brought to mind one of the first real lessons Grandpa had ever taught her. The lesson, like so many of those early teachings, had made no sense to her young mind, but now… now she understood a little of what her mentor had been trying to get across to her.

"The spirit of the Flame is the spark of hope," he had said. "It was not the first spirit to take shape, but it was among the Elders. We honor the Lightgiver for pushing back the darkness. We respect the Purifier for consuming the dross of the world. We embrace the warmth of the Flame with gratitude for keeping winter's chill at bay."

The words brought peace to Rei's troubled heart, especially in light of all that was weighing on her. She listened to the chant of her grandfather's prayers for a time, taking comfort from his steady, unwavering voice. And as she watched over him, she could feel the years peel away from him, leaving him young and vibrant again. She smiled at the image it brought to her mind. Grandpa Hino was just like the Flame he honored. Warm, comforting, and full of light. She didn't honor him as much as she should, and it made her feel terribly ashamed.

"Will you join me?"

Rei jumped, shaken from her reverie at the sound of her grandfather's voice. "I don't mean to intrude."

"Nonsense." He patted the mat beside him. "It has been far too long since we have shared a quiet moment like this. Come. Sit."

Rei moved from the doorway over to the small woodbin, and gathered a handful of dried sakura petals and a prayer mat. She offered the petals to the Sacred Fire, and then knelt on the prayer mat beside her grandfather.

"How are you feeling tonight?"

The question was rhetorical, and Rei knew it. She also knew that Grandpa Hino was wearing his "Teacher's Face", which meant that he expected her to reply as honestly as she could.

"Cold. Uneasy." She pulled her long black hair over her shoulder and toyed with it absently. She was hesitant to say anything else, but there was little reason hiding from something that Grandpa could already see. "Maybe even a little bit afraid."

He nodded and returned his attention to the fire, preparing himself to begin a new ritual.

She watched carefully as her mentor presented the heiji, a small white-lidded bottle of omiki, to the fire. He set the ritual sake on the stone altar beneath the flame's basin, and then reached for the dish of okome, presenting the washed rice to the fire just as he did the sake. The mizutama was presented next, followed by the oshio. The small white jar of water and the plate of salt were placed on the altar with great care and reverence.

Rei handed him the tamagushi branches, which were finally placed in the tall sakaki tate vases. There was something to be said for rituals. They were very comforting. The practiced movements and the symbolic actions went along to focusing the mind.

Rei sighed as the uneasiness slowly passed from her, and watched as her grandfather selected a bundle of sakura branches from the small woodpile at the base of the altar to give as his personal offering. He smiled and motioned for her to make her own offering. She quickly selected and added a bundle of maple branches to the fire. They both lit a handful of jasmine incense and added a bag of sea salt to the flames to finalize their offerings. She followed his lead as he drew out his harai-gushi and began to pray.

"We declare with the great ritual, the Heavenly ritual, which was bestowed on him at the time when, by the word of the sovereign's dear progenitor and progenitrix, who divinely remain in the plain of high heaven, they bestowed on him the region under heaven, saying: 'Let the Sovereign Grandchild's augustness tranquilly rule over the country of fresh spikes which flourishes in the midst of the reed-moor, as a peaceful region.'

"When the two pillars, the divine Izanagi and Izanami's augustness, younger sister and elder brother, had intercourse, and she had deigned to bear the many tens of countries of the countries, and the many tens of islands of the islands, and had deigned to bear the many hundred myriads of gods, she also deigned to bear her dear youngest child of all, the fire-producer god, and her hidden parts being burnt, she abode in the rocks, and said: 'My dear elder brother's augustness, deign not to look upon me for seven nights of darkness and seven days of sunshine.'

"But when, before the seven days were fulfilled, he looked, thinking her remaining hidden to be strange, she deigned to say: 'My hidden parts were burnt when I bore fire.' At such a time I said, 'My dear elder brother's augustness, deign not to look upon me, but you violently looked upon me'; and after saying, 'My dear elder brother's augustness shall rule the upper country; I will rule the lower country,' she deigned to hide in the rocks, and having come to the flat hill of darkness, she thought and said: 'I have come hither, having born and left a bad-hearted child in the upper country, ruled over by my illustrious elder brother's augustness,' and going back she bore other children.

"Having born the water-goddess, the gourd, the river-weed, and the clay-hill maiden, four sorts of things, she taught them with words, and made them to know, saying: 'If the heart of this bad-hearted child becomes violent, let the Water-goddess take the gourd, and the clay-hill maiden take the river-weed, and pacify him.'

"In consequence of this we fulfill his praises, and beg that the august king of flames may deign not to be awfully quick of heart. We honor his light and life, and appease his hunger against the day of judgments. We praise his beauty and reverence his strength. In light and truth, we cherish his children and tribute their names as well.

"With all the respect from the depth of our hearts, we ask that they hear us, such as the spirit that hears our intent, with sharpened ears, together with the spirits of the Ember and the Flame, the Light and the Warmth, take the evils, disasters and sins and purify all by the heat of your flames.

"Amaterasu-ou-mi-kami, You bless us and protect us with your life-giving light,
"Fudo-sama, You bless us and protect us with your wisdom and guidance,
"Futsu Nushi-sama, You bless us and protect us with the strength of your sword.
"Kagutsuchi-sama, Bless us, oh King of Fire, for the expansion of our souls' and the fulfillment of your will.'"

She lost herself in the cadence of his chant and her mind danced in time with the flames. The world slowly fell away as the prayer continued, and was replaced by a field of crimson and gold. Flashes of color mixed with the chaotic sounds of a thousand different symphonies, and Rei found herself surrounded by a host of spiraling flaming columns. Some were huge tornadoes spinning seemingly out of control in her general direction, and others were lazy spires dancing slowly yet inexorably towards her. If she squinted hard enough, she would have sworn that there were people at the center of each flaming pillar. Still, that impression, as vague as it was, did not hold her attention long in light of the vision that rose beyond the dancing columns of flame.

High above the clouds, at the center of Tokyo, Ami and a dark-haired man held hands. They seemed to stand on nothing but air as a dark shadow eclipsed the sun above them. The man seemed to shimmer for a moment, fading from view, and leaving Ami to face the shadow alone.

Rei's heart skipped a beat as the darkness loomed over Ami's small form. But, at the moment all seemed lost, the man returned, blazing like an angry red sun and driving the miasma away from Rei's friend. He tore into the darkness like a wild animal, decimating it. Sadly, it seemed that the darkness was no less ferocious, prompting Ami to step forward. Makoto joined them, followed closely by many of the other Senshi. Ami led them forward against the shadow, she herself following in the footsteps of the ferocious man.

For each step he took, the Senshi changed, and with their every step, the world changed with them.


Grandfather Hino had always known Rei was a special girl. The sacred fire had shown him long before she had been born that his granddaughter would play a pivotal role in some grand, world-changing event. It was why he had insisted she live with him from such a young age. Rei's father had never understood the reasons, and Grandfather Hino had never seen fit to try and explain. In the end, there was truly nothing that could be explained. Rei's father lived in a world of cold logic and political certainty. There was little room for faith.

It had taken years of careful manipulation to encourage Rei's father to agree to allow her studies as a miko to go forward. In the end, Grandfather Hino had to resort to playing off his son's pride and ambitions, to secure his granddaughter's training. The ploy, for all the hot air backing it, had accomplished what it set out to do — and to Grandfather Hino's shame, his son had capitalized on his daughter's "traditional values" to further his own political career. Being the busy man that he was, Rei's father visited the shrine on holidays with a full retinue of press and public to visit his daughter and pay respects to his own "traditional values", before returning to the fast-moving world of politics.

Rei's mother set the only stipulation to the arrangement. In Grandfather Hino's view, having Rei attend a Catholic academy was an insignificant price to pay. He was happy to encourage his granddaughter to broaden her horizons. If anything, the duality would only aid her in identifying with people in the future.

The problem was no longer in the past; it was in the present.

Rei's destiny had begun unfolding, and Grandfather Hino watched with pride as his beautiful granddaughter waged a private war against evil. It was a testament to her spirit that she had not broken beneath the weight of her responsibilities, even with all that Grandfather Hino had done to alleviate the pressure from the shadows. However, recent fire readings had left the old priest feeling hollow with terror. He dared not share the visions he had seen for fear of breaking her spirit, but each night, his dreams were wracked with apparitions of death and destruction. The Earth was going to suffer greatly in this new battle against evil. There was little doubt that Rei and her friends were going to suffer alongside it as well.

Grandfather Hino stirred the coals and looked to his heir. She was lost in meditation, and from what he could see in the flames, she was caught up in a vision of her own. He wasn't as surprised as he probably should have been when she began speaking.

"Nine crowns for the queens of Earth and Heaven.
Nine scepters for the Forgotten Avatars.
Nine times nine stewards, drawn from the sands of the past.

"And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and with the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars; and she being with child, cried, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered.

"And there appeared another wonder in heaven; and behold, a great red beast having seven heads, and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads. And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth; and the dragon stood before the woman which was ready to be delivered, for to devour her child as soon as it was born.

"And she brought forth a man-child, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron. And one hand would bear forth peace, while the other brought low the wicked. And the Nine Seas would part before him, to offer up their fruit to the children of Zion.

"And the beast rose against the woman, and smote her against the mountain to bring ruin to her children. And her child was caught up in grace and carried on the wings of angels.

"And there was war in heaven anew; and the angels fought against the beast and the beast prevailed over them, and the throne of glory was destroyed. And the woman was sundered, and her crown broken. But her children fled into the wilderness and were caught up to the stars, where there had been a place prepared for them before the foundations of the world were set.

"And a voice cried out in the darkness: Now is the day of Chaos, but soon, the son of hope will be brought forth from heart of the earth, wreathed in flame and power, and his glory will be a wellspring, and his wrath will be as a fierce storm driving the beast to his knees. And the darkness shall be sundered, and the stars will sing with life anew, and the heavens will proclaim the child of the woman to be their king forever more."

Rei's voice tapered off, and her body fell limp and exhausted in Grandfather Hino's arms. He gently pillowed her head on his rolled up prayer mat, intent on sprinting off to the shrine office to record the prophecy. He was surprised to hear a mechanical "click" somewhere near the doorway.

His eyes traveled up the long, shapely legs of Rei's friend — Setsuna, he thought her name was — before finally coming to rest on the small tape recorder in her tanned hands. The nightgown did little to hide her curvaceous body, and had he been twenty years younger, the old priest might have made a pass at the beautiful young woman. Sadly, all that escaped his lips tonight was, "Are you sure you don't want to be a shrine maiden?"

The young woman smiled and thoughtfully tapped her lips. "Perhaps in my next life."

Grandfather Hino sighed and shared her smile — at least until her eyes filled with a hungry, no-nonsense look.

"Tell me about your dreams." The small tape recorder was pointed in his direction, and with another "click" he could see a small red light flare to life.


Saotome Dojo,
Azabu-Juuban,
Minato-ku

"HA!"

Ranma slipped beneath Makoto's jab and lightly poked her in the belly. Her block came too late to be effective, but it was a slight improvement. She followed up the block with a knee that, in her opinion, should have broken his teeth. Ranma decided that he needed to be elsewhere in order to teach his new "sister" about leaving herself open. If she was going to be a part of the family, there was no way that he was going to let her embarrass him with sloppy form. He kicked her a bit more forcefully in the fanny to drive his point home.

She stumbled and let out a little scream through her clenched teeth, before spinning on her sparring partner viciously. Lightning unconsciously began to arc around her fingers, drawing Ranma's attention. He had seen her manifest this ability on more than one occasion since their first fight almost two weeks ago, and Ranma had been itching to learn how she did it.

It didn't feel like ki and from what he could tell, Makoto didn't even realize that she was doing… whatever it was that she was doing. He had also noted that she wasn't able to do it all the time either, just when she was particularly focused and upset. Which was why Ranma went out of his way to piss her off as much as he could.

Case in point.

He flipped over her rapid three-kick combo (noting with no amount of wonder that she really was generating an electric current) and promptly thumped her in the back of the head with his middle finger. She growled and spun, hoping to elbow him with her follow-through. He pivoted at the last instant, moving with her almost like a dancer might follow his partner. She tried to anticipate him, but Ranma kept moving in time with her.

She tried to nail him with a fast sweep, but he simply caught her leg between his ankles. He could feel the charge building within her and could smell the ozone in the suddenly heavy air.

Maybe she was pushing her hot ki into the hot air, exciting the molecules or something. It would explain the ozone. No. He was certain that he would have felt it if she had been affecting the environment. How in the hell was she doing it? It didn't make any sense! Was she tapping the environment? The difference in approach would be something incredible, that if mastered would bypass the dangers associated with emotionally charged attacks.

He'd read something about tapping the world's chi in a manga once, but had written is off as fantasy. He hadn't found anything in his studies to back the idea up. And while that didn't necessarily mean that the technique didn't exist, Ranma was certain that he would have come across the idea somewhere along the way.

Whatever the source, it was obvious that Makoto had no idea what she was doing; otherwise Ranma would have been able to see her pattern by now. Maybe it was a void technique, kind of like hiding one's presence as he did with the Umisenken. Maybe she was unconsciously inverting her ki and masking herself, and that was why Ranma couldn't sense anything. It was a stretch, but it was all that he had at the moment.

It's magic.

The thought came from nowhere and caused Ranma to stop dead in his tracks.

Makoto's free leg took him in the back of the knee and Ranma bent forward with it, stealing all of its momentum and power. He cursed himself for allowing the distraction and rolled with her calf still locked between his ankles. The thought lingered in the back of his head, attempting to drive the truth of the matter home.

Stop fighting it.

The voice was smug, bringing an image of a black uniform to mind. He remembered the uniform from his dream, but did his best to suppress the memories associated with it.

You're only prolonging the inevitable, Ranma. Sooner or later you're going to have to accept me and all that I represent.

Like hell he was!

It's only going to get more painful from here on out. Stop running and embrace your past.

Ranma growled in frustration, and in a supernal demonstration of strength and control, tossed Makoto across the room. She screamed and tried to right herself, but still found her face planted into the mats and her butt stuck in the air. There was no dignity in the pose at all, which only made the tiny arcs of lightning more pronounced.

A sense of déjà vu crashed over him like a wave, leaving him feeling on edge. He crushed the sensation mercilessly as he had so many times before in the recent past, and turned his attention back to his new sister to deal with her humiliation.

He watched as she angrily slammed her fist on the mat and noted the telltale roll of thunder outside. Just like Kuno used to do. But how was it being done? He snuffed the magic idea and all that it represented the moment it resurfaced, focusing instead on other alternatives.

Maybe she was tapping the body's natural electrical system and augmenting it with her ki? That made more sense, but still had a number of holes in it. Makoto came after him again with renewed vigor, and Ranma could feel the hair on his neck stand on end with each missed strike.

This was ridiculous! How could she channel that much electricity through her body without frying herself in the process? With a body full of water, one would think she'd burn herself out each and every time she performed the trick. Maybe the water chakra had something to do with it?

When will you learn that you can't run from yourself?

Ranma crushed that thought just as savagely as the others, and focused completely on Makoto. Nothing was falling into place like it should, and it was really starting to piss him off to no end. There had to be a key to the whole lightning thing, and he'd be damned if he was going to let it be magic! He dodged her every punch and kick effortlessly, moving just enough to drive the point home that the gap between them was much greater than he had been letting on. She was screaming profanities at him now, cursing him for mocking her, which inevitably meant that she was going to start shooting at him any moment. Seeing as how he didn't feel like giving her the satisfaction, Ranma went on the offensive.

His hands blurred, poking her in vulnerable spots so fast that she was unable to keep up after the first three strikes. With her focus gone, Ranma noted that the air no longer felt as charged as it had. He feinted left, then dropped to the floor and neatly swept her feet from beneath her. She cried out in alarm and surprise as she fell backwards, landing roughly. She panted and immediately rolled to her knees, presenting Ranma with so many vulnerable targets…. It was a disgusting lack of concentration that he needed to remedy.

Another wave of déjà vu crashed over him forcefully and Ranma's vision blurred for a moment. When it cleared, Makoto was wearing a skimpy outfit loosely designed to resemble a fuku. The green skirt and gold tiara caused him to shake his head and close his eyes for an instant.

I won't let you hide anymore, Ranma. Akane's voice drifted in his ears, causing his eyes to flare open and scan the dojo. There's too much at stake… too much to lose.

Ranma growled and stared back at Makoto, who was simply looking up at him dumbly. She looked confused and worried, which only heightened Ranma's sense of frustration more. She was no longer wearing the strange outfit, but there was definitely something different about her… something odd that he couldn't peg down. He sighed disgustedly and decided to take control of the situation again.

Two steps took him to Makoto's side, where he promptly grabbed the waist of her pants, making sure to snag her underwear in the process. Before she could register the movement, he had scooped up a handful of the back of her gi in his left hand, including a goodly amount of her sports bra. Content that both hands were in the correct position, Ranma heaved, giving Makoto the mother of all wedgies. His left hand pulled back and twisted, stretching the elastic on her bra to its peak before he let go. The resounding snap coupled with the incredibly uncomfortable feeling of the wedgie made Makoto squeal with righteous anger.

Satisfied that he got his point across, Ranma stepped back into his original position and knelt, waiting for Makoto to recover. She didn't take long to jump to her feet, but the lightning was really dancing around her now. Ranma squinted trying to see, one last time, how she was manipulating the electricity. To his surprise, the aura was plainly visible, but it was unlike anything he had ever seen before. It wasn't a corona of color or the ghostly wisp that he had come to associate with ki. No, it was very different. At first he thought it an extremely condensed layer of energy, but the closer that he looked, the more he saw. It wasn't just one layer of energy, but hundreds… all shaped like a tangle of tree branches and roots. There was something else there too… right in the center beneath her collarbone… a symbol of some kind. He squinted and then blinked as a rush of images burst through his mind. He couldn't catalogue all of them, but one word floated to the surface of his chaotic thoughts.

"…Jupiter…."

He didn't really notice the murderous look on her face, or the way that her eyes were now glowing white. Had he been paying more attention to Makoto, he might have agreed that she looked very much like a goddess of the storm.

"Ranma." Ranma's ears perked at the sound of his mother's voice coming from the garden. The images melted away just as he stood and leaned to the right, avoiding a nasty bolt of lightning that left the air smelling charred. "Telephone for you, dear."

"Coming." He bowed to Makoto respectfully, still ignoring the rolling waves of power she was emitting. "Good match, Makoto-chan. Speed's definitely improving!"

A lightning bolt slammed into the mat where he had just been standing. He waved back to her, turning as another bolt scorched the wall where his head had been an instant before. He ignored the scream of primal feminine outrage, as he had done every other morning for the last week.

He crossed the yard to where his mother was kneeling, tending her garden, ignoring the strange and disconcerting images that continued to surface with every step. Dancing with Makoto in a room with a large glass window. Chatting with Makoto and Ami over cookies beneath a strange tree. Taking a blow meant for Makoto, who in turn had been shielding that blonde friend of Ami's from something… Makoto and someone very familiar riding into a courtyard on the back of a… dragon.

"Are you okay, Ranma-kun?" His mother's voice was tinged with concern. The sun had yet to rise very high, but Nodoka still had a great deal of perspiration on her brow. There was also a long smudge of dirt along the side of her nose. It was just the type of thing he had dreamed of all those years on the road — a safe normal life. She reached up and touched his cheek gently. He smiled and patted the back of her hand. It was such an uncharacteristic moment for him, all tender and mushy. He was going soft. Could the fat man have been right? Ranma mentally squashed any idea with relish. "Genma" and "right" were paradoxical.

"Paradoxical?" Where in the hell had that come from?

"Ranma?" His mother's voice slid away from the realm of concerned right into full-blown worry.

She had been watching him like a hawk since day one, more so since Makoto had made her appearance. It was obvious that she had no clue how to deal with the situation any more than he did — they both got up everyday and dealt with things one day at a time. Still, she was doing her best by making herself available to him whenever he needed her. It wasn't like they talked or anything. She was just there… you know, when the dreams got bad. She wasn't Kasumi. If anything, she was better. He smiled brightly at her, giving her his most cocky and invincible grin. "I'm cool, Mom."

She nodded and handed him the phone with a smile of her own. "It's Dr. Mizuno, dear."

Ranma's smile was wiped clean from his face. He groaned and dropped his face into his palm as he accepted the phone. "This is Ranma." A taut grin slowly stretched across his face. "Mizuno-sensei! How are ya doing?"

He swallowed heavily and rapidly ran through a number of excuses to escape the doom he knew was heading. There was no doubt in his mind what the woman was calling for; she'd been trying to find out details about the damn date nonstop for the last two days.

Not to mention the whole "Let's-get-together-sometime" gimmick at the end of his day with Ami. Why'd he have to be so flaming stupid and open his mouth before his brain could catch up? Sure, Ami-chan was probably his newest and closest friend here, but you'd think he'd have learned his lesson by now.

He knew that there were a number of reasons to escape this "apology dinner", but for the life of him he couldn't really think of any. He couldn't say that he was sick; she was a doctor, after all, and would insist on checking him out. After his last "check-up", Ranma had decided that he didn't need no grabby, whacko women doctors taking care of him. What else? What else?! Ranma wracked his brain, but the conversation turned back to him.

"That's great to hear. No, I'm doing fine. Just fine, thank you."

He could say that he had plans… helping his mother out in the garden! Yeah!

"They are?" Ranma blanched and looked down at his grinning mother vacantly. Damn. Another one shot to hell. "Yes. I think that it's great that they're going shopping together tonight. Mom deserves an evening out."

Damn it! He wasn't about to give in to this, no matter what she said! What else did he have? He already sparred. He never studied until after dinner. He didn't hang out with friends… hell, he didn't have any friends besides Ami-chan… CRAP!

"Five o'clock? You'll meet us after the field trip? Um, no… that's fine." He forced himself to laugh, even though he wanted to cry. "Italian? Yum, haven't had it in a while!"

Free eats. Maybe this wouldn't be so bad after all. Maybe if he did the whole Picollet-thing, he'd be off the hook in less than an hour!

"Dinner… Yeah, that sounds good. It ain't nothing fancy though, right? Fancy and I don't mix well, if you know what I mean. Cool. Sounds like a plan." Ranma glanced over to the dojo, and noticed Makoto stomping his way. She still had death in her eyes, but Ranma failed to notice.

He danced around a nasty five-strike combo calmly, and tried not to sound too enthusiastic about the "date" that Dr. Mizuno had planned out. A punch to the head was dodged subconsciously as he listened to the tail end of the conversation.

"Ami's on her way to walk me to school? Crap! Oh, uh…. No! No! There ain't nothin' wrong with that. I really appreciate it! 'Specially since it's my first day an' all."

He softly redirected a nasty snap kick to the groin and smiled into the receiver.

"Yeah. Thanks. I'll… uh, I'll do that. See you then!"

He thumbed a button, terminating the conversation, and caught Makoto's fist in his palm as it rocketed towards his temple. He turned slowly and looked Makoto dead in the eyes, causing her to come up short. She was breathing heavily and all but growling.

"You're going to save me from Ami-chan's grabby mother tonight. Ami got my last present and it took me all day to pick it out!" Makoto's eyes narrowed dangerously. "I need your help to find something nice on this damn field trip today to distract Mizuno-sensei so she'll quit pinching my butt."

"DIE!" She lunged for his throat.

He grabbed her wrists and flipped her onto her back in the grass. She tried to recover, getting only as far as rolling to her stomach before Ranma plopped squarely onto her back. He pinned her arms with his legs and popped his neck.

"Now we can do this the easy way or the hard way, your choice."

"$&$:!#% KILL YOU!" Ranma saw Nodoka stiffen at the use of such… colorful language, and grinned.

"Hard way it is, then. SAOTOME SIBLING OPENING ATTACK: TSAO'S TICKLE TORTURE!"

Ranma began tapping in small patterns at the base of the neck and became increasingly more aggressive as Makoto resisted his impromptu attack. Eventually he found the spot that he wanted and renewed his assault with a vengeance. She laughed and squealed and kicked. She bucked and thrashed and cried, but Ranma would not relent until she started banging her head into the ground.

"You got guts, Makoto-chan. Not many people could have lasted this long. But I'm on a deadline here." He leaned as close as he dared so that he could whisper in her ear. "I knew a chiropractor in Nerima that showed me this shiatsu thing for constipated people. Loosens everything up real good, if you know what I mean."

Makoto's eyes bulged.

"You wouldn't dare," she hissed.

"Now, the way I see it, I've got about twenty minutes before we gotta go to the train station. That gives you about ten minutes to shower, get dressed, and eat before Ami gets here."

Makoto narrowed her eyes.

"I hate you. You know that?"

"Isn't that what brothers are for?" Ranma asked innocently.

"You aren't my brother, you little ^%&:%:^!" Makoto bucked and thrashed again, but stopped immediately when Ranma tapped a spot on her lower back. He let her up and calmly started walking towards the house.

"What did you do?!" she screamed. Her voice was shrill and panicked. Ranma feigned a look at an imaginary watch on his wrist and started whistling. "WHAT DID YOU DO?"

"You've got about three minutes to make your decision, Makoto-chan." Ranma could hear her stomach rumble from where he was, which made him grin all the more. He glanced over his shoulder and saw Makoto clutching her stomach worriedly. You would think she would know the difference between hunger pains and the beginnings of diarrhea. He wouldn't fault his luck, though. If she saw through his bluff, he was up the creek without a paddle. There was no way he was going to ask his mom to take him shopping.

"FINE! Be ready in ten minutes!" Ranma nodded and quickly moved behind her, tapping a spot a little higher on her back to keep up appearances. After all, one never knew when this was going to come in useful again. He grinned smugly.

She growled profanities at him as she angrily stomped into the house.

Ranma smiled and waved happily to his mother, who shook her head and went back to weeding the flowerbed. Who could have known that having a sister would be so much fun?


Mother's Grove,
Izumo no kuni,
Shimane-ken

::How goes the Hunt, Mother?:: The ancient voice of Othepsis touched the minds of the trees, causing them to rustle their leaves. It was difficult to ignore the voice of a dragon.

::Progress is being made, Othepsis. Our advances, though slow, are better than I dared hope.::

::Then they have found him?:: the dragon asked hopefully.

::Yes, but they have yet to confront him.:: Othepsis could hear the double meaning in her tone, but could not unmask the ancient tree spirit's hidden message.

A new voice entered the conversation from the tree tops of the forest surrounding Mother's grove. ::Ur advances on unchecked, Mother of Trees.::

::It is as we anticipated, Temry Tuthain.:: Mother turned her attention to the giant thunderbird that had roosted on one of her children's taller branches. ::He will continue to advance like a plague, until he breaks upon the Drumheller.::

::The Raja Naga are not confident in this one. He has forgotten too much. He fights against the course of his current.:: The voice was cool and deep, carrying with it the mystery of the sea. Mother stretched her mind out to the ocean and touched the Great Seaturtle in welcome.

::And who can blame him, Gui Xian Long?:: an impish voice mocked from the base of Mother's trunk. ::He has never been one to be bound to a set course. The Drumheller dances free of all ties, in both Heaven and Earth.::

::Spoken with the ignorance we've come to expect from the Ley People, Tailtiu.::

::Spoken with the all-knowing arrogance we've all come to love from the Threy, Ghez Ghimai.::

::Enough.:: Mother's voice settled over the gathered minds like thunder. ::We are not here to bicker amongst ourselves, Brothers and Sisters.::

::And pray, why are we here, Mother?:: Tailtiu grinned from her perch on Mother's root. She was a curious creature. Her shape shifted constantly, sometimes taking the form of a raven or a fox or a flower. She, like all of her people, had many faces and none.

::You know as well as any, changeling. Plans must be laid if we are to survive,:: Mother said crossly.

::Such depressing talk is not the favored pastime of the Laughing Folk.:: Tailtiu grimaced childishly.

::But depressing talk is what draws your useless hide here all the same.:: Ghez Ghimai was best described as a tall, nondescript personage. Sexless, ageless, shrouded in tight-fitting black leather. Its face was masked, but its bone-white arms were left bare. When it spoke, time itself seemed to shudder.

::USELESS!:: Tailtiu screeched. Her from melted into something akin to a cobra with long black wings. Fire had replaced her tongue and sparked fitfully from her mouth. ::Let us see who is useless, Threy, when Ur sends his legions to the Gates! Let us see who you come crawling to then!::

::Enough.:: Mother's voice was firm, but neither Ghez Ghimai nor Tailtiu heard her.

::If Ur makes his way to the Gates, Trickster, he will do so over your corpse.::

::ENOUGH!:: The ground trembled and the forest shook with the force of Mother's mental command. ::Is it not enough that we face Ur? Must you do his work for him?::

::I will not apologize for speaking the truth,:: Ghez Ghimai said flatly.

::Then go, Time Keeper, and bother us no more with your pettiness.:: Mother's reply was cold and uncaring, shocking those assembled. ::Lock yourself away in your cold castle and spare us your traitorous temperaments.::

::TRAITOROUS!:: the Threy roared. ::What base accusation is this?!::

::You divide us with your judgments,:: Mother said plainly. Tailtiu looked smugly up at the floating black figure. ::You and Tailtiu may take your differences and leave. I will not suffer them to destroy what little balance remains to the Elder Nations.::

::But, you need us!:: Tailtiu craned her neck skyward. ::How will you fight the Rakshasa…?::

::FOOLS!:: Mother's branches creaked ominously, raining leaves to the forest floor below. ::Of course we need you. It is why you were called. It was why the pacts were laid down in a time long since dead. We need you freed from your prisons and unified against a common foe, not bickering like shortsighted humans!::

::By Oath we are bound. We cannot forsake the Pact.:: Ghez Ghimai looked away from Mother coldly.

::So be it. Settle your feuds elsewhere then. We've work to do.:: And Tailtiu said nothing, for which mother was glad. ::Have the Avatars awoken?::

The question was addressed to all, but it was Othepsis that answered first. ::Shevat of the Nine Seas still sleeps. But the Little Prince has sent her a dream and will rouse her soon. Jupiter's children will come when called.:: The foggy apparition of the Great Dragon turned his attention to Temry Tuthain. The Thunderbird ruffled his feathers, causing the air to rumble.

::Safat yet sleeps, Mother. We have sent the winds to wake him, but he does not answer our calls. We fear he is lost.::

::Not so.:: Ghez Ghimai's silky voice calmly replied. ::The Seer will see that he wakes.::

::Themus is active then?:: Mother asked politely.

::The Seals are breaking. Even as we speak, the Keeper of Mysteries rouses. And with him, Ozmandius Cain stirs the might of the Ul'Huld.::

::Worthy news. I had wondered at Saiida's absence here.:: Othepsis mused.

::Bound and trapped, a slave to her own folly in tempting Solomon's wrath.:: Ghez Ghimai sounded almost smug. ::Thankfully, she and those that followed her were bound to Narya through the flames. When Cain arrives, the seals will be sundered.::

::Is this a foretelling, good Threy?:: Othepsis inquired.

::An inevitability, my Lord Dragon. An inevitability.::

Satisfied, all eyes turned to the sea. Gui Xian Long sighed mournfully and his sad eyes stared heavenward.

::Doris refuses to hear our calls.:: The grief in his voice was plain. ::She dreams of love lost, and mourns the bitter rejection she received at the hands of the Drumheller.::

::Such is the way of things,:: Mother said softly. ::Will you call to her still? Or will Tethys appoint another?::

::Tethys keeps her silence, but her mirror croons to us in the deep places. We will sing to Doris and perhaps, in time, we will soothe her heart-wounds and bind the chasm of her soul.::

::Do you wish our aid in this endeavor, Brother Gui?:: Othepsis asked.

::The Raja Naga must follow where the currents will take us. It is not within us to divert the paths of destiny.::

::We will hold our faith, then, and pray that the currents bring Doris swiftly back to you.:: Mother moved her attention to a dark, foreboding shadow, beyond Ghez Ghimai. ::What of the Satyrnine, Uthiad?::

::You know as well as any the fate of Shalot, Mother.:: The wind moaned at the cold voice of the feminine shadow. ::She sleeps the eternal sleep. She will not wake.::

::Is there another to assume her role?:: Temry Tuthain boomed.

::Perhaps. It is not for me to choose,:: Uthiad said. ::Xianin, the Silence Bringer, will anoint whom she will. I am not privy to the mind of the Life Giver.::

::So be it.:: Mother turned her attention to Tailtiu. ::And of the Ley?::

::We have chosen our Voice.:: The shapeshifter grinned impishly.

::Do they know their role, changeling? Will they lead the Ley into battle?:: Mother asked.

::When the time is right, all will be ready.::

::Meaning you haven't asked them yet.:: Ghez Ghimai snorted.

::Our representative has been quite busy fighting for her life, thank you very much! It is not so easy a thing to approach someone of her caliber while she is still jumping at shadows! We'll act when the time is right, and not before. Besides, she draws near to Merin even now. It's easier to capture two birds with one net if they're sitting on the same branch.::

::It will be as you say, Tailtiu?:: Othepsis intervened. ::All will be ready and in place?:: The shapeshifter nodded and bowed.

::And of the Horus?:: Temry Tuthain rumbled.

::Saffron has finally woken from his madness and flocks to the side of Isis.::

::Will he remember us?:: Gui Xian Long speculated. ::Will he remember the Pact?::

::I pray it is so,:: Mother whispered.

::What of the Dam Turiel?:: Uthiad's voice was quiet on the air.

::The Dam Turiel are dead to us, Sister. Little more than ghosts drifting aimlessly upon the surface of a buried kingdom,:: Mother said harshly.

::Death is but a doorway. Either of them could call them back,:: Uthiad countered.

::True. But that is something that none of us truly want.:: Othepsis let the statement hang in the air before bowing to all and vanishing. One by one the others followed suit, leaving Mother feeling very alone in her grove.


Azabu-Juuban,
Minato-ku

The shadows flowed up the wall of the alley, like a river moving up a mountain instead of down. Rats scurried into their nooks and holes, driven like sheep before a lion. Men and women that the shadow traveled with felt an unnatural terror grip their hearts, leaving many to pause in storefronts or in the doorways of restaurants, clutching their chests and looking for the monster that had inspired the fear. Those that the shadow touched, more often than not, ran back to their homes and locked themselves away from the world.

Marut would have it no other way.

Their panic and dread nourished and filled him with a heady power. The only thing keeping the Rakshasa from succumbing to a feeding frenzy was the young woman he was trailing. He watched her every step and measured her every move, committing them to memory to savor in the days to come. Every curve was catalogued for planned tortures, from her dark, flowing hair, to the shapely turn of her calf. He could feel his mind breaking down with each imagined torment, and he welcomed it with open arms.

He drew closer and closer to her, testing the boundaries of her awareness and assessing just how sensitive she was to his presence. He was sorely disappointed that he had been able to draw within six feet of her without even earning a twitch. Still, the knowledge that he could strike her down with impunity only whetted his appetite for their inevitable confrontation. He had waited so long for this moment, he wasn't about to strike until he was certain everything was perfect.

You are mine, and no one else's. Mine! And I will enjoy playing with you, sweet Isis. An eternity will pass before I free you to death's sweet embrace! The demon's thoughts spiraled down into the dark morass of its imagination, losing itself in the blood and gore of the torture Marut sought to unleash on his prey. None shall stay my hand! You are mine.


Saotome Dojo,
Azabu-Juuban,
Minato-ku

"Auntie! I'm here." Ami doffed her shoes and slid her feet into a pair of slippers before entering the house. She checked her watch again to be certain that they were not going to be late for school. It wasn't a good idea to be late for your first day.

"In the kitchen, Ami-chan." The smell of miso reminded Ami that she had forgotten to eat breakfast in her haste to get here on time. She quickly navigated her way into the back of the house, passing a glowering Makoto, who was growling under her breath about something or another. Honestly, the girl was such a thunderhead these days! Ami giggled at the pun and nearly mowed Ranma down as he was coming down the stairs with his nose in a book.

They still collided, and for a brief moment Ami was in heaven as Ranma's arm supported her back. His blush was so cute, and he filled out his uniform so well that Ami felt the need to fan herself. It was really warm in there. Whew!

"Uh, mornin', Ami-chan."

"Good morning, Ranma-kun." Ami was only slightly disappointed that he let go of her once she had regained her feet. "Are you ready for your first day?"

He smiled worriedly and shrugged. "It had ta happen sometime. Better today than tomorrow."

Ami patted his shoulder sympathetically. "Well, at least it will be fun, right?"

That earned a snort from Ranma.

She graced him with a wry, disproving frown. "I'd think you would be grateful to ease into things. What better way to start school than by going on a field trip? You get to make new friends, and Tokyo Tower has a wonderful view of the city. Plus, the shrines and museums are really educational."

"You're talkin' ta a guy that spent ten years on th' road, Ami-chan. I've had my fill of field trips."

"It will be fun. You'll see." She smiled confidently.

"That's exactly what my old man told me the night after we left Mom."

"I promise it will be fun."

"And if it ain't?"

Ami lowered her eyes to the floor almost immediately, blushing. "If it's not, then… then I'll make it up to you somehow."

Ranma's warm hand gently patted her shoulder, sending tingles shooting through her body. "Thanks. That means a lot."

"That's what friends are for, Ranma-kun."

"Yeah." He smiled gently and scratched the back of his neck. Ami couldn't help but smile happily. Had she known what an effect it had on Ranma, she would have used it more often. As it was, the poor boy was rooted to the spot for a very long time.

By the time he finally came back to himself, Ami was sure that they were going to be late for class.


Somewhere,
Tokyo, Japan

Xian Pu grumbled darkly beneath the weight of the garment bags that her grandmother had sent her for. The fifty or so school uniforms were a mismatched collection of pain and suffering to the pride of the surviving children of the Joketsuzoku.

They had barely settled themselves in the house before Khu Lon started sending groups out on errands. Some ran to the other safehouses, both within the city and without, to set up shop and watch for stragglers. Others she sent for supplies and to exchange currency. Xian Pu… Xian Pu she sent for school uniforms.

The young Amazon didn't understand the need for the school uniforms, nor the need to go school in light of their situation. But when her great-grandmother spoke, there wasn't much that she could do about it. Khu Lon, even bedridden, was demonstrating that she was still a Matriarch.

The fact she was apparently the only known Elder that they had left weighed heavily on everyone as more and more reports filtered in from the refugees that were calling from other locales. Five groups confirmed dead, two M.I.A., and two more that hadn't been seen since leaving the village. It was enough to make the heart lose hope.

Oh! How the mighty fall.

The Amazon maiden groaned again, and shifted the burden to a better angle. The whole situation stank like a gutted pig in the summer heat, but she had to admit that her great-grandmother's plan had merit — blend in and regroup, train and prepare until such a time as they could meet the enemy face to face again. She couldn't wait, and neither could her Sisters.

Khu Lon's plan gave them focus, and helped more than one child to sleep at night. It might be from exhaustion, but at least they were sleeping. Already Khu Lon was increasing the training regime of every able-bodied warrior, male or female. They hadn't even been there for more than a few hours before the property had become a training ground!

Traditional family politics were being buried beneath the weight of their enemy, and all the stops were being pulled to teach even the youngest warriors the most powerful techniques. Three thousand years of Amazon lore was being stuffed and crammed down everyone's throat at break-neck speed.

Family styles no longer existed. There was only one family now, and every sister taught her brother. Even the Musk had begun sharing their lore, solidifying the shaky bond between the two peoples. There had never been such a unity of purpose amongst the Amazon nation in recorded history. The synergy of the tribe amazed Xian Pu. Not only were they learning, they were consuming every tidbit of knowledge in their path voraciously.

Xian Pu could understand why, too. The Joketsuzoku were facing extinction, and that fear drove everyone, old and young alike, to push themselves to the breaking point and beyond. Khu Lon was set on cataloguing every secret that she knew through her circumstantial scribes. The youthful scriveners were assigned to those too old or too wounded to teach, and both groups were being run ragged as the Matriarch did her best to dredge up every last scrap of wisdom that lay hidden in the shadows of memory.

It was a sign that didn't sit well with Xian Pu. Khu Lon was the closest thing to an immortal that the young Amazon had ever seen — next to Saffron, at least. To watch her great-grandmother slowly waste away while battling to save the traditions and culture of her people, though inspiring, pierced Xian Pu's heart painfully. It was only a matter of time she supposed, but in light of all that had been lost, it was just too much to accept the idea that some day, the old battle-axe would pass away.

Xian Pu could feel the tears starting to well up in her eyes, and crushed them fiercely. She wouldn't cry. Not now, not ever. Khu Lon had lived a full life, and Xian Pu wouldn't allow herself to degrade it by being childish.

<"Here. Let me help with those.">

Herb's tired voice caused Xian Pu to jump, as her load suddenly began to lift off of her back. She reacted instinctively, lashing out with a vicious elbow strike that was blocked. Her follow up was just as fast and furious as the first strike, but it too was met with a solid parry and the free expanse of empty air. Both warriors sprang apart from each other, the ground between them quickly becoming a no man's land.

<"I don't need your help, Herb!"> Xian Pu's face was filled with a weary passion that had plagued the dreams of the leader of the Musk Dynasty. <"I can manage just fine on my own, thank you.">

She was surprised to see that he was wearing a uniform similar to the ones that she had just purchased. It was unnatural to see him out of his armor, but the results were… impressive.

<"You haven't gotten more than three hours of sleep this entire trip, Xian Pu. Please, let me help.">

Herb started forward, only to stop as the Amazon's ki flared an icy violet.

<"Why are you being so obstinate, woman? Could it be that you feel threatened by a man willingly offering to help you? Or is that you're too stubborn to admit that even you have limits?">

Xian Pu snarled and spun around. She didn't have time for this! There was a sudden sense of weightlessness that made Xian Pu look down. The ground was rapidly disappearing beneath her!

<"HERB! PUT ME DOWN!">

The young prince of the Musk looked down on his passenger. The bulk of the clothing in draped over her shoulder hid his mouth, but the mirth in his eyes told her that he was smiling.

<"DID YOU HEAR ME?">

<"How could I not?">

<"Then do as I say!">

<"No.">

Xian Pu growled and thought of ten different techniques that she had learned in the last two weeks that needed perfecting. She had just found her training dummy.

<"Put me down, or you will live to regret it. I promise you.">

Herb's eyes peeked around the bundle again, and this time their mirth had doubled.

<"If you insist on being a fool, then you can suffer as one."> Something snapped in Xian Pu. Perhaps it was the struggle to get back to Japan. Perhaps it was the tragedy of all that she had lost. Or it could have been because Herb was being a rat bastard and needed to be taken down a peg. Whichever the case, Xian Pu wasn't about to let the insult stand. She tightened her grip on the shouldered bundles and then used them as leverage to flip herself up and over. A little mid-air maneuvering — she offered silent thanks that she had spent so much time watching Ranma's fights — and she was suddenly on Herb's back, using the bundle of uniforms to effectively blind her tormentor. She locked her legs around his waist and pulled back her fist to serve up her retribution, but her mind paused at the wonder of unhindered flight, distracting her for an instant.

The whole city sprawled beneath her in a rat's warren of buildings and alleys. She had never really flown before, which made the whole event extremely surreal. Sadly, her hesitation cost her the element of surprise. Herb twisted deftly beneath her, capturing and holding onto the bundles in one hand, and then inverted himself. Xian Pu squawked indignantly as she fell against his back and wrapped her arms around his neck.

<"So you want to tame the dragon, Sword Maiden?"> He grinned at her over his shoulder. <"So be it. Ride the Wind, and learn the folly of so many before you.">

Herb dove, but Xian Pu refused to cry out, regardless of what her stomach was doing. The rush of the pavement combined with the screaming air caused her arms to tighten around Herb's neck. The speeds at which they were moving, along with his erratic maneuvering, made Xian Pu reconsider her notion of choking him to death then and there. There was no way that she could successfully pull it off and survive the fall. The last thing that her people needed was her dead from her own foolishness.

Herb grinned back up at her, causing Xian Pu's stomach to flip-flop. He created a sonic boom as he pulled out of a horizontal run and into a vertical climb at nearly a ninety-degree angle. Xian Pu gave up all pretenses and screamed as she almost lost her grip on her mount.

The wind still rushed in her ears and she closed her eyes against the pressure of the climb. The noise was deafening, and she could feel her arms and legs weakening. But for some reason, she wasn't falling.

<"Open your eyes, Princess of the Amazons."> Herb's whisper was loud in her ears, overriding the ringing. <"Look and see.">

Xian Pu opened her eyes reluctantly and found herself looking into Herb's deep crimson eyes. There was fire there. Fire and passion. Her heart pounded in her chest with wild abandon.

<"Look. See."> His breath was warm against her cheek, and she noted idly that he was supporting her with his free arm. The casual strength that he held her with sent shivers down her spine. There was something unquenchable in his eyes that sang to Xian Pu. He was so much like Ranma had been, before Akane's death. Nothing could conquer him, nothing could hold back his might… not those demons, and not even Xian Pu.

She could feel the strength of his body pressed close against hers, keeping her warm. She could see the wonder of life in his eyes, alive in spite of all that he had experienced. Just— just like Ranma had been.

Damn him. Damn him for loving another more than life itself.

<"Look."> Herb's voice was quiet but insistent.

Xian Pu frowned but followed his request. She wouldn't fall in love again. She wouldn't. She would live out her penance and eventually marry, but love…? Never again.

That thought died in her throat as the Amazon princess stared out over a vast ocean of billowing clouds. Mount Fuji lay a few miles before her and the endless sea lay at her back. Never, in all her days had she seen the like. It was a wispy dream, filled with magic and beauty. A whole new world, untouched by the ugliness of humanity and demons.

<"The world is much larger than we think, and filled with more beauty than we can ever hope to see."> Xian Pu's eyes were filled with tears at his words. <"And yet it all pales when compared to the beauty of a woman.">

Xian Pu's head whipped around to glare at Herb, only to find his lips pressed firmly against hers. She struggled. She beat his chest until her arms were tired. But she did not break the kiss. She dare not.

It was the first sign of true hope that she had seen or felt in years.

Eventually, her struggles died and she returned Herb's passion. A fire that she had thought long since extinguished flared to life within her. It was terrifying. It was breathtaking. It was magical.

Her tears still fell freely, but whether from joy or mourning she could not say. Considering the moment, Xian Pu did not care either.

She had waited so long… too long… to be loved.

It was a wonderful thing.


Azabu-Juuban,
Minato-ku

Ami ran. She ran and cursed herself. This is what came of being distracted by boys. She was late, in spite of how early she had started her day. It kind of made her wonder why she'd bothered setting her alarm for so early. She checked her watch and sighed mentally. It wasn't Ranma-kun's fault. Sure, he had been acting weird, but Auntie was certain that he was fine. Ami wasn't so sure. He had just been standing there, staring at nothing for so long! It was creepy in a way.

They had five minutes to meet the rest of their class at the station before the group went on to the first museum. Unfortunately, they had a fifteen-minute run ahead of them. She had rarely been tardy in her life, and had only missed two field trips due to her duties as a Senshi. But it looked like today was going to be the magical number three.

There was something to admire in Usagi. She had a twenty-minute walk to school, but she managed to make it in 8.65 minutes or less every day. Her best record to date was 6.37 minutes, but that had been a miraculous fluke that had yet to be repeated.

"What time did ya say we needed ta be there again?" Ranma asked. He jogged at a leisurely pace, matching her easily. The fact that he was doing it backwards seemed a bit much for Ami's mind to wrap around, so she tried her best to ignore that little detail.

"7:45." She tried not to show any discomfort from the sudden stitch in her side. Ugh! She was a swimmer, not a long distance sprinter!

"Crap! Why didn't ya tell me we were runnin' so late?" One thought, spoken in his mother's quiet, authoritative voice, repeated itself in Ranma's mind. Real men are punctual.

He gulped, remembering his morning sparring sessions with his mother before playing with Makoto-chan. It wasn't what she had said that gave him pause. It was everything that she hadn't said. Ranma scooped Ami into his arms, ignoring her cry of surprise. He didn't break his stride, nor did he jostle her too much when he hurtled over a rather old lady out for her morning stroll. Ami shook her head and looked over Ranma's shoulder to make sure that the old lady had had actually been there, and that she wasn't just seeing things.

"Which way?"

Ami pointed in the general direction of the station, wide-eyed.

"How much time do we have?"

She gestured again, spreading out four fingers on her hand. Ranma cursed. "Hold on tight."

Ami did as she was told without reluctance, blushing at how good it felt to be in his arms again. The libido raspberried the logic centers and seized control. She felt the ground fall away from her and a sudden rush of wind as she and Ranma rocketed to the rooftop three stories above them.

There was a moment of weightlessness, and then gravity reasserted itself, bringing Ranma and his passenger down gracefully to the shingled roof. The feeling of near-flight was nothing compared to the interesting new sensations that now coursed through her body.

The instant he touched down Ranma was running. The end of the roof came and he felt Ami tense in anticipation of the jump. He remembered the times when he had carried Akane like this. The sweet smell of her perfume lingered on the wind in his mind, and the supple feel of her toned body raced through the memory of his arms.

Ami wasn't as strong as Akane, and her body was a lot softer and curvier than his fiancée's had been, but Ranma felt that the situation was surprisingly familiar. Her perfume was different, but it smelled just as sweet. Remembering was painful, but, somehow, Ami dulled the sting even as she acted as a constant reminder of what he had lost.

Ranma didn't like where that line of thought was heading, so he violently pushed it down and locked it away. No sense in opening another can of worms. He turned his mind to the task at hand and concentrated on making it to the station on time. He could see a bank clock two blocks over on his right. He grinned and doubled his speed.

Plenty of time.


Azabu-Juuban,
Minato-ku

Usagi Tsukino was not your average teenage girl. Not many girls her age could claim to be a princess and actually have it turn out to be the truth. The number that could claim the mantle of superheroine were even fewer and farther between. Aside from that distinction though, Usagi tried her best to live a normal life. For her, that meant boys, manga, ice cream, more boys, and lots more ice cream.

While there was really only one boy in her life that really meant anything, she felt that she could occasionally admire choice specimens. It was like going to an art museum. That's how she could justify her careful, guilt-free examination of Eijiro Honami; she was admiring him as an art form.

The warm, oak brown color that made up his eyes complimented his dashing smile. And the dreamy way he walked… definitely an art form to be appreciated.

Considering that they would be going to an art museum today, Usagi felt that this was a perfectly acceptable way to begin the field trip. She was… broadening her mind, that was all. Seated on either side of her, Minako Aino and Makoto Kino were in complete agreement, if the vacant expressions and drooling were any indication.


Mio Kogara, Usagi's homeroom teacher, watched the girls in amusement as she rechecked her clipboard. Oh, to be that young again.

It pleased her that the Tsukino girl was at least making an effort to be on time this week. She was certain the field trip had a lot to do with it, but Usagi had been gradually getting better. It didn't really matter to her that the girl spent most of her class time daydreaming.

Like most teachers, she would take what she could get, and then try to build from it. Most of the time, it was a miracle that any of the kids made it through. But miracles were Mio Kogara's stock in trade. Even so, considering the report that she had received on the new transfer from Furinkan, she had her work cut out for her for the rest of the year.


Ranma landed just before the platform gate, startling a gaggle of girls as they walked up the stairs. They squeaked as his landing kicked up a small breeze. Ranma ignored them, intent on double-checking the platform information. When he was satisfied that they were in the right place, he gently set Ami down and casually checked the clock over the platform benches.

He grinned. A little over two minutes to spare. Not bad. Not a record, but not bad.

He scrambled to get his paperwork out of his jacket pocket. The last thing that he needed was to be kicked out because they didn't think that he was a student. The clustered girls allowed their eyes to roam over the sight of this new hunk of man-flesh before them. Looks of envy had already begun to creep in at the sight of Ami and her proximity to the new boy, not to mention how she had arrived.

For her part, Ami wanted to find the nearest available rock and climb beneath it. Not only because she had just arrived in cradled in Ranma's arms, but because she had enjoyed it wa-a-a-ay too much.

"Hey, Ami-chan, who's Kogara-sensei?" Ami stopped adjusting her skirt and looked up at Ranma in surprise.

"You have Kogara-sensei for home room?" she squeaked.

Ranma nodded, still studying the sheet of paper in his hands. She willed her heart to stop pounding so hard. It was getting really hard to focus on anything — especially with that weird pink light and the rather beautiful, if not romantic, music. It was starting to make her feel funny. She had to admit that the sakura petals were a nice touch, though.

"That's wonderful, I have her too." Her small, embarrassed smile brightened considerably, causing the group of girls behind her to groan in frustration. "Come on. We had better check in before we're counted late."

Ranma nodded again, and then looked up at the clock. Time was still ticking away, and he still needed to be on time. Men were punctual, and he was a man. There was no time to dodge the crowd, so he started looking for alternative routes while Ami purchased their tickets. Inspiration struck again and he turned to Ami, silently hoping that this idea turned out better than the first.

"Do you see the teacher or the class rep?"

Ami looked at him quizzically. "I'm sorry?"

Ranma looked at her in frustration. "Who do we check in with?" Ami pointed out Ms. Kogara on the other side of the crowd and to their right.

"Whaaaaiiiiiiiiiii!" she screeched loudly as Ranma gathered her in his arms again and leapt, all in one swift, fluid motion.


Mio Kogara looked at her watch casually. Ami Mizuno had yet to check in, which caused her to wonder if the girl was ill. It just wasn't like her to be so late. There was no sign of Mr. Saotome either, which was both a relief and a disappointment to her. He sounded like a challenge worthy of her skills as an educator, and she had hoped that he would at least be on time for his first day of school.

Sighing inwardly, she walked over and checked in the few stragglers that she did see. Loud laughter and other sounds associated with teenagers, free from the drudgery of the classroom, echoed around her. By the end of the day, she would need a whole bottle of aspirin, but from the smiles that she saw on her students' faces, the event would be worth it.

As she checked off Jiro Fujikake's name, she saw a dark blur fall from the air above her, and her mind froze. A young man carrying Mizuno-san in his arms alighted on the platform before her, stirring up a small eddy of dust. The rest of the class followed her gaze, and Usagi Tsukino was one of many students that fell from their benches in shock. The fact that she was the cause of most of the other students' misfortunes was completely ignored.


He was glad that there was only one other student near the teacher. Landings amongst a crowd by himself weren't so bad, but landings with passengers in a crowd were always tricky. He wanted to make a good first impression, and flattening a bunch of kids didn't seem to be the way to do it.

Ami clutched at him, drawing his attention down to her smiling face. Her eyes were shut tight, but she had a silly grin on her face. He silently wondered if she was in shock from the flight. It wasn't everyday that someone normal got to ride the rooftop express in care of Ranma Saotome. He'd have to watch her carefully today to make sure that she was okay.

The teacher loomed beneath him, and with practiced ease, he angled his descent perfectly. His landing was silent, kicking up a little air and dust as he and Ami settled down in front of Kogara-sensei. He looked at a clock on the far wall and noticed that he still had a minute or so before the train was due. Whew! Made it!

"Ranma Saotome and Ami Mizuno." He leaned over the teacher's clipboard to make sure that their names were on the list. The tightness in his stomach settled when he found both there. Careful not to jostle Ami, because her eyes were still shut tight and her arms seemed to be locked around his neck, he slipped his paperwork on top of Kogara-sensei's clipboard. The woman before him just blinked and stared at Ranma as if he had grown another head.

Man, this place was weird! Ranma shook his head and chanced another look at Ami. Her face was really red, and every once in a while she would shiver. He remembered Doc Tofu saying something about shock victims and chills. It hadn't been all that cold on the way over here, but he had been the one running. Maybe Ami had caught a chill or something? Best not to take any chances.

He motioned with his head to a young kid with really thick glasses to slide over on his bench, and when the boy readily complied he gently set Ami down. In no time his jacket was off and around her shoulders, drawing more than a few giggles and whispers from his new classmates. He didn't hear them. If Ami got sick because of him, his mother would kill him!


The boy hadn't leapt over the crowd.

He couldn't have.

It was impossible.

Really.

All the stories that Raiiji told about Furinkan were ludicrous fiction. Old wives' tales meant to sensationalize a poorly run school. That was it. Yes. Who cared if they had constant monster attacks in Juuban? The only thing truly out of the ordinary was a group of magical girl vigilantes that stepped in to save the day every so often.

Nothing noteworthy at all.

Nope.

No boys leaping large crowds in a single bound. They weren't carrying star pupils either. See? That wasn't Ami Mizuno cradled comfortably in his arms. Nope, not at all! This was some sort of hallucination from only getting three hours of sleep the last three nights running.

The boy, who didn't exist, stepped forward and gently said something. Saotome Ami… something. He dropped some papers on her clipboard and then casually stepped away. The Mizuno girl, who was not nestled snuggly in the crook of the phantom boy's arms, had her eyes closed and a silly grin plastered on her face.

The crowd seemed to breath again, and someone shouted that the train was arriving. Mio glanced down at the loose papers fluttering atop her clipboard blankly for a moment, before finally securing them. She sighed and read the name at the top of the first paper. It read Ranma Saotome.

"I need a drink." It was a sentiment to be shared by all in the hours to come.


Yen Lung Mountain,
China

He stood motionless watching the clouds dancing amidst a cerulean sky. It had been over ten thousand years, and yet such a simple sight could still move him. The air at these heights had a bite to it, and left his breath to puff in small, frozen clouds before his face.

The moon hung overhead like a ghostly scythe waiting to fall upon the inhabitants of the Earth. The bare-chested man chuckled at the irony.

"Oh, how the mighty have fallen," Ur whispered to the wind. "What would you say about your bounteous kingdom now, wife? Do your lofty morals and self-righteousness comfort you in that chill grave of yours?" The blasted and barren landscape of the moon offered no response to Ur's mocking questions. He turned his attention eastward and narrowed his eyes. "Or perhaps you have yet to sleep in oblivion's sweet embrace?" The black-haired man stroked the stiff whiskers of his goatee ponderously. With a light shake of his head, he turned his attention away from the pull of the Ginzuishou to focus on other matters — the lesser of two being the more enjoyable.

A group of five men and three women knelt at his feet. Fear still rolled off one or two, but the rest were in the grip of shock. It had been a long two weeks for them. He supposed that had their places been reversed, he too would have felt a similar reaction. It wasn't an easy thing when one faced the total annihilation of one's reality. The current trends that science and logic had taken held no place for demons and magic. As such, it was nigh impossible for these technicians to embrace their situations… or their futures, for that matter.

"Set your hearts at ease." He knew that his magic would translate the words, but no amount of magic could convey intent. He smiled softly, reaching out with a tiny glamour to calm their terror. "I have brought you here for a purpose. Serve me, and you will live." The other option was left unspoken.

"What do you want?" One of the women spoke emotionlessly, staring out at the peace of oblivion that was so very close yet completely out of reach. Her short, mannish black hair reminded Ur of the perverse whore, Uranus.

Her body was not much to look at. She had adequate muscle tone, a squashed nose, and ears that were slightly too large for her face. All in all, her appearance was rather plain. Her spirit however, was something else entirely.

There was no mistaking a descendent of Atlantis. They had been — and for all intents and purposes, still were — a breed apart from humanity. The next link, as it were, in the Aldus Chain. To Ur's eyes, she burned with all the glory of her heritage, now that she had chosen to open herself.

"To make you kings and queens over the Earth," he whispered. The winds carried his voice to her ears and her ears alone. "To exalt you to your true potential." The woman's eyes slowly widened as Ur drew a finger's width from her face. "To reclaim the past for the sake of the future, and punish the sins of the wicked that cry from the depths of the Earth."

His breath was hot on her skin, and she shivered, equally aroused and terrified anew by the power that radiated from Ur.

"What is your name?" His voice caused her to gasp and shy away.

"Xiao Xing Hsiao."

"'Morning Star'. How appropriate." Ur stepped back a pace and lightly caressed the scientist's cheek with his knuckles. She pulled away guiltily from his touch, ashamed that her body was betraying her. Ur smiled and turned away from the gathered minds. "The first light before the dawn. Truly prophetic."

"Leave her be, monster!" One of the men — a portly specimen at that — gathered his courage and lunged at Ur blindly. The former king of Atlantis calmly caught his attacker by the throat, halting his forward momentum. With one arm firmly behind his back, Ur lifted the fat little man a foot off the ground until he was eye to eye with the Lord of the Hunt. The man trembled in fear, and from the stench assaulting his nose Ur knew that he had soiled himself.

Shame filled the man's eyes and face as he tried desperately to look anywhere but at his captor. Ur ignored the smell and drew the sweaty man close so that he could whisper in his ear.

"Noble sentiment, pathetic attempt." With little fanfare, he tossed the man back to the crowd and turned his attention back to the eastern horizon.

"You will tutor me in the uses and customs of your technology. You will share with me your history, both ancient and contemporary. You will teach me your languages and enlighten me on the prevailing philosophies. You will come at my call and reveal your secrets at my command. You will disclose the names of others like yourselves and betray former acquaintances to further my goals. Do this and I will be well pleased." Ur snapped his fingers, and four Rakshasa appeared at his call.

"Please me and I will exalt you. Fail me, and all that you love will wither and die before your very eyes." He motioned abruptly with his hand and his demon servants dragged his newest acquisitions away. Their screams held no meaning for him, but when he turned to watch their departure, his eyes fell upon the silent gaze of Xiao Xing.

Something unspoken passed between the pair. An intimate bonding of kindred souls.


Tokyo Tower,
Minato-ku

Usagi sighed and slumped onto a bench between Minako and Makoto. The girls were watching Ranma stare blankly out the large plate glass windows that overlooked the northern half of Tokyo. It was a perfectly sunny day, and yet the world seemed clouded whenever anyone looked in his direction.

Usagi, as usual, broke the lingering silence. "He seems so lonely."

"He's supposed to, he's the new kid on the block." Makoto's voice was gruff.

It was more than apparent that she hadn't gotten over the sting of her many losses to Ranma, which seemed to continue to grow day in and day out. His skill was something that Usagi thought Makoto would come to respect, but it appeared that she hadn't. Makoto was as sour as she had been upon first meeting the boy just not as vocal. Usagi wasn't sure which was better the fiery and explosive rants, or this cold, simmering hatred.

"Nobody should be lonely on their first day of school." Minako pouted. "It's just not right."

Makoto frowned but kept her mouth shut. The silence was heavy, as was the gaze Makoto leveled Ami's way. Usagi was worried for the two, especially in light of this new enemy that Rei and Setsuna had spoken of. The last thing the Senshi needed was infighting to compound a growing threat.

"So, how long are you going nurse this grudge?" Usagi tried her best to keep her voice light and playful, but even she could hear the tired exasperation in her voice.

"Until she apologizes or he's dead," Makoto growled. Usagi raised an eyebrow at her friend and frowned.

"You are the most stubborn person I know."

Minako wrinkled her nose and rolled her eyes playfully, silently agreeing with Usagi's assessment.

"Worse than Rei?" Makoto's grin was positively cheeky.

"Rei's in a class all of her own." Usagi grinned irreverently. "I'm comfortable with her temper tantrums. Yours, on the other hand, are going to take some getting used to."

Usagi rolled her eyes as Makoto slumped against the pillar at her back and began to pout.

"This is silly, Makoto-chan. Ami's your friend." Minako moved so that Makoto was now sandwiched between the two blondes and wrapped her arm around the taller girl's shoulder lovingly.

"Friends don't stab each other in the back."

"She didn't stab you in the back, Makoto." Usagi's voice was laced with irritation.

"Then what do you call it, Usagi?" The tall brunette sat up, freeing herself from Minako's arm and cast a challenging stare Usagi's way. The future queen of the Earth fidgeted for a moment, but gathered her courage enough to return her friend's stare pound for pound.

"I call it standing up for someone important to her. She didn't mean to hurt you."

Makoto glowered at her, causing Minako to fidget uncomfortably.

"She tried to slap me! How can you say that she didn't mean it?"

Usagi bit her lip and stared at her hands for a moment before answering. "Ami was defending Ranma. He came at just the right moment when we… when we were attacked. She felt that she owed him."

Usagi quickly pushed down the memory of the pawing hands and the fear that had gripped her heart when Butsu and Kinyobe had grabbed her. She had faced greater dangers in her life, but nothing had ever prepared her for the utter violation that she had felt in that moment. If Ranma hadn't have shown up when he had, well, Usagi wasn't certain what would have happened.

"Big deal. So he pulled your fat out of the fire. How's that any different from what I've done on a hundred different occasions?"

Minako gasped in disbelief and pulled away from Makoto. Usagi couldn't believe her ears either. Of all the self-centered…! She gave her friend such a regal and disapproving scowl that Makoto flinched.

"How can you be so… so… petty?" Usagi hissed.

Makoto's back stiffened. "How can you side with her?"

"Because I was there." Usagi couldn't believe how cold her voice was. "Because he saved me from being raped. I don't care what you think he did to Mrs. Saotome in the past. What matters is here and now."

Makoto frowned and crossed her arms petulantly.

"The past is dead and gone, Mako-chan — he can't change it any more than we can. Ranma-kun's doing his best to heal old wounds, no matter how much it hurts him in the process." Makoto shifted uncomfortably and shifted her gaze to Ranma's back. "Ami and I owe him more than we can ever repay, and if Ami thinks you're being bitchy, well…" Usagi paused for a moment, gathering her courage to say what she knew needed to be said. "…I have to agree with her."

Minako blinked, obviously uncertain if she had heard that correctly.

"WHAT!" Makoto was nearly out of her seat. People from all over the observation deck turned to look at the pair, causing Usagi to blush. She could see Makoto's anger building and was decidedly tired of it. In light of everything that Ranma had done for her, not to mention Ami, Usagi wasn't going to let Makoto's little grudge match to continue any longer.

"The truth hurts, Makoto-chan. You're wrong. Deal with it."

Makoto looked satisfyingly dazed at Usagi's sudden show of backbone.

"Ranma let you beat him." Makoto opened her mouth, but Usagi pushed forward, cutting her off. "Don't try to deny it! You've complained every day since the fight in the dojo, about what a jerk he is for holding out on you. He let you beat him to a bloody pulp, just so you and Mrs. Saotome could have a fresh start — and you know it!"

Minako began shifting in her seat self-consciously, but Usagi pressed on. This needed to be said, here and now. Maybe the public humiliation would go a ways to reinforcing the lesson.

"He offered to leave again if you won, and from what I've seen of the guy, he would have kept his promise. Do you have any idea what that means?" Usagi took a deep breath and allowed Makoto to catch up to her. "He cared enough about your past with his mother that he was willing to sacrifice everything he had just regained to give you some peace of mind, just because you care for his mom. He's given you a second chance with Mrs. Saotome. What have you done to thank him for that?"

Makoto sat quietly for a moment and then turned her eyes to stare at Ranma's back. Her lips trembled with emotions barely held in check. Usagi could see her friend's eyes beginning to gather tears.

"You expect me just to forget everything that he's done to me?"

Usagi put her hand on Makoto's forearm and smiled warmly at her friend. "What has he done to you, Makoto-chan?"

"He ruined my life!" Her words and anger were raw, but controlled. "His ghost stole my last chance at happiness!" Usagi didn't quite understand, and that confusion must have shown in her face. Makoto growled and swiped at her eyes with the back of her hand. "Forget it."

"No. I don't think I will." Usagi's voice was soothing, but held more than a bit of steel in it. "Tell me how he stole your happiness."

Makoto sighed and leaned forward, hiding her face from Usagi and Minako's view.

"I don't want to talk about this any more."

Usagi stared at Makoto's back for a long time, piecing together the puzzle of hints that the girl had dropped over the last two weeks. The picture that was forming confused Usagi even more. But when she felt that she had all the pieces in place, she had to laugh.

"What's so funny?" Makoto growled.

"You." Usagi chuckled. "You're so-o-o-o stupid."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Why are you mad at him? Really?" Usagi crossed her arms and crossed her legs expectantly. This was her best, "I'm-not-taking-'no'-for-an-answer" look, and judging from the anger in Makoto's face, it was working.

"He could have written her. He could have called."

"You don't know anything about Ranma's trip with his father. How can you judge him?"

"You don't know anything about Auntie's suffering, so how can you judge me?"

"Are we talking about Mrs. Saotome, or are we talking about you?"

Minako stared raptly at the drama unfolding between her dear friends, unwilling to disrupt the flow of the discussion. This was better than a soap opera!

"Can we just drop this?" Makoto stood, but was surprised to feel Usagi's hand wrap around her wrist. Usagi was a bit surprised herself, but she plunged forward any way.

"Sit down, Makoto-chan. Stop running from the truth." Makoto frowned, but made no move to comply with Usagi's command. "Fine. Be that way." The blonde-haired girl pushed herself to her feet, and for all appearances seemed to tower over Makoto in spite of being so much shorter than the other girl.

"Ranma had nothing to do with Mrs. Saotome refusing to adopt you. Stop punishing him for something that his mother did." Makoto blinked, shell-shocked by Usagi's bluntness. "I can't make you like him, Makoto. I can't make you and Ami patch things up either. But I won't put up with you being so mean to either of them."

Makoto glowered.

"Don't give me that look! When was the last time that you saw Ami show interest in anything that didn't have a cover on it?" Makoto shrugged uncomfortably. "Ranma makes her smile. He makes her blush. He's saved her life twice now, carried her to school in his oh-so-hunky arms, and he's given her something that none of us could: a real reason to live outside of her studies. That makes him special."

Usagi would have continued dressing Makoto down had it not been for the sudden screams and the sound of shattering glass.


The Palace of Seven Clouded Heavens,
China

Xiao Xing Hsiao moved numbly through the halls of the fortress along with the rest of her peers. At the age of thirty-five, she was one of the world's top five nuclear physicists, with multiple degrees from both western and eastern universities. She was not considered beautiful by the standards of the conventional world, but neither was she unattractive. If anything, she considered herself "average", perhaps even homely. Physical attractiveness had never been a priority for her — not while there were so many other things in the world that outweighed the pettiness of her own self-image.

After returning from the West, she had naively set out on a mission to solve the problems that plagued the civilized world, only to have that adolescent dream crushed beneath the weight of political entrapment and blackmail.

Xiao Xing had joined an underground movement in the wake of the events of Tiananmen Square, hoping to free her country from the grip of communism. Her dreams of a free and democratic China died a bloody death as the group she'd pledged her allegiance to turned out to be funded by the Chinese government as a means to ferret out dissidents. In the end, she was given a choice: work for the beast she had been trying to bring down, or watch from a small unknown prison cell as her family was executed for her betrayal. It wasn't much of a choice at all, yet it hadn't truly made any real difference either.

Two years after her arrest, her mother and sister had an "accident" and her father was "lost" in a factory fire. Fear for her life was the only thing that kept the pain and loss at bay. Shameful though it was, her cowardice had kept her alive.

Now, she stood alone against a new, but familiar, monster, one that elicited the strangest sensations in her body and mind. Her logical mind tagged these feelings as something akin to the Helsinki Syndrome, where the captive slowly began to identify and empathize with her kidnapper. And yet, she couldn't really understand how that could be either. After all, she'd only met the man once; surely it took more than a single meeting to switch loyalties so fully. Right?

She chanced a glance up at the crocodilian monstrosity escorting her through the gilded halls of the palace and shivered.

Had she truly lost all hope in ever being free again? Had she stopped caring who she served, so long as she lived another day? Was she really that much of a coward, that she would willingly entertain a new form of slavery over death?

"There is no cowardice in you, my dear Xiao Xing."

The young scientist blinked and looked up in shock. She was standing in a moderately-sized, but richly furnished banquet hall. The table before her was filled with all manner of foodstuffs, and she felt her stomach clench with hunger. At the far side of the room was the man whose face haunted her conscience.

"On the contrary, your courage is a wellspring that sits untapped."

The words were filled with honey and to her shame, Xiao felt herself warming to them.

"There is nothing to be ashamed of, child. The truth must be embraced, for good or ill, regardless of its source."

"And you speak the truth?" It was a clumsy verbal jab, especially considering Xiao's education. One would think that a person with multiple doctorates would be able to come up with something more… scathing. Still, there was more than a little sarcasm lacing Xiao's bumbling words, even though she was unnerved at the man's ability to read her thoughts and emotions. She knew he could kill her, or worse, but she was tired of caring. She was tired of being afraid and sick to death of being used.

"There are many truths, child. And all of these truths are immutable from a certain perspective."

Xiao snorted derisively before she could check herself. Rather than being offended, the man simply smiled and poured a goblet of wine.

"To a man who lives on a plain, the world is flat. If he should never venture beyond his plain to a mountain, his world will remain flat." The man gave Xiao the golden cup and poured himself another without pause. "He will pass this knowledge on to his descendants, who will in turn perpetuate the tradition to those that follow them. This truth cannot be contested or disproved without evidence of another equally powerful truth. But even in the face of such evidence, the plain-dwelling man's truth remains; the confines of his world are flat. One truth among many that will invariably build upon a larger and more universal certainty."

"And you are saying that I'm brave."

"No. I am saying that you are courageous."

"There's a distinction?"

"Of course. Bravery is finite. It is a base emotion that lives and dies in a moment. Courage, however… courage is a higher emotion that cannot die."

"I do not feel courageous." The man laughed, and Xiao found herself watching him out of the corner of her eye. He was handsome, in a forbidding way, and the scientist found herself reacting to his presence in ways she had only read about in cheap novels. It simply added to her shame and confusion.

"My dear Xiao, you are the very definition of courage." The man set his goblet down and walked over to her, cupping her chin and staring deeply into her eyes. It made her want to look away, but she found herself looking back. "You stand here, amidst all my power and converse with me, where others would cower in my shadow."

He caressed her cheek and smiled. Something in Xiao woke and responded. It was as if her spirit had been asleep all these years and now… now it was awake.

"You underestimate your heritage, Daughter of Atlantis. Courage has been written on your soul since your birth. Let it awaken with the rest of your birthright."

His finger traced something on her forehead and Xiao's whole body was aflame. A physical weight was lifted from her body as power stirred deep within her spirit. She screamed in ecstasy, leaning into the man's touch for support. To her surprise and wonder he held her close, tenderly allowing the event to run its course and giving her time to collect her wits.

"What was that?" Her voice trembled.

"Your inheritance, Daughter of Atlantis."

"I don't understand." She looked into the man's eyes again, and immediately saw the difference. The cold, blue gray orbs were no longer closed to her. She could feel his contentment and his happiness. She could feel his affection for her, and behind it all a loneliness that bordered on madness. He could feel her clumsy probing and opened himself further to her. She knew him intimately then. Ten thousand years of injustice bound to the earth. He was a titan finally freed from its bonds — Prometheus unchained. She saw his hopes for the world and his thirst for vengeance.

In so many ways it mirrored her own needs and desires, but on a much larger scale. She understood now, but that knowledge taxed her body greatly. She felt her strength fail her, but the man did not let her fall. He gathered her close and lifted her in his arms, holding her as one would an infant.

"Xiao Xing Hsiao." His voice was but a whisper in her ear, but it carried so much more in its tone, hidden meanings and power that Xiao could barely catalogue.

"No longer are you bound to the life you once led. I, Ahbrim Ur, as a Lord of Atlantis, break the bonds placed on your soul and free you to embrace what has long been denied you." A sudden strength built in her heart and spread slowly outwards to her limbs. She didn't move, afraid that the spell of peace and security this man had woven would shatter. Ur seemed to understand her reluctance and made no move to set her down.

"You are no longer Xiao Xing Hsiao. That name is unworthy of what you have become."

Xiao nodded but did not lift her head from his chest.

"I name you Eosos, for you are the dawn of a new era made flesh."

Eosos, the woman once known as Xiao Xing, wept. No longer was she trapped in the clutches of a cold and cruel government. No longer was she a faceless slave to heartless men. Ahbrim Ur, a god made flesh, had freed her and made her feel precious again. He valued her. Her old self would have questioned his motives, her old self would have looked for a way to fight against his authority. Her old self was dead, though, and reborn from the ashes was Eosos, the first true Atlantean woman to walk the face of the Earth since the waves claimed her ancestral home ten millennia agone.

A new life, full of potential and wonder, lay before her, and she owed it all to this man. She clung to Ur and continued to cry in gratitude. She vowed in her heart, even as exhaustion overtook her, to serve him and to love him for this priceless gift.


Ur upon the slumbering form of Eosos and smiled triumphantly. It was a testament to the Atlantean bloodline that it had survived ten thousand years of perversion by mixing with the lesser races of Terra. It would take time for her blood to purify itself, but Eosos still represented the rebirth of a superior race. It was more than Ur could have hoped for.

He would have to alter his plans to accommodate this new development. The Rakshasa could still glut themselves on the lesser bloodlines, but steps would have to be taken to find and reclaim the sons and daughters of Atlantis. Perhaps, once he had control of the Ginzuishou, he could even find a way to raise the sunken nation to house his people again.

Eosos would need to be trained in her heritage, which meant that the pace of Ur's own plans would need to increase. He disliked rushing things, but once he had enough Atlanteans backing him, the Rakshasa would become obsolete and he could remove them from the equation completely. He looked down to Eosos again and his smile deepened. He would task her with finding and gathering her brethren in secret. Once their numbers were great enough, he would teach his children how to leash and unmake the Rakshasa. Then the world would be theirs to remake as they saw fit.

"Indra, attend me."

The shadows behind a tapestry boiled, heralding the tiger-headed demon's entrance into the room. It knelt on one knee before the Lord of the Hunt, silently awaiting Ur's command.

"The Eve of the Hunt draws near, Indra. However, before we fully reveal ourselves to the world at large, we must prepare a suitable demonstration of our power. Bring me the scholars and then prepare your pride to strike our secondary targets."

"It will be as you say, my Lord."

There was nothing in his words that betrayed any concern, but Ur felt waves of worry coming from the kneeling Rakshasa. The Lord of the Hunt narrowed his eyes, gauging his servant thoughtfully.

"What troubles you, faithful Indra?"

"Marut, my Lord."

"He has not returned." There was no need to question the validity of the statement, or guess at the reason for Marut's disobedience.

"No, my Lord."

"Send another to gather the scholars, then. You and your chosen will seek out our wayward Marut and return him to me that I might chastise him for his defiance."

"What are your orders concerning the Senshi, should he engage them?"

Ur remained silent for a time, looking down at Eosos thoughtfully before responding.

"Observe his battle, but do not interfere. Your report suggests that the Senshi are less than they once were, this would be an opportunity to test that supposition. However, should you find Marut before he has moved against Isis, you will return with all due haste. The Senshi will be dealt with in due course. Is this understood?"

"Yes, my Lord."

"Then go."

Ur watched as Indra melted into his own shadow before turning his attention back to Eosos.

"Soon, child. Soon, we will remake the world in our image."


Tokyo Tower,
Minato-ku

Ami listened all morning as a number of girls gossiping about this mysterious new student who hadn't been introduced yet. It was hard not grind her teeth whenever they commented on his handsome face or his well-toned body. More than a few envious stares and remarks had been directed her way throughout the course of the trip as well.

The attention made her uncomfortable, but it also sparked an emotion never before experienced — prideful delight. She had been on the receiving end of praise before, but never like this. Teachers lauded her intellect and encouraged her to become all that she could be. Her peers would stand at a distance and wish to be as smart as she was, but never had they envied her like this. It was a whole new world for her.

"His frown is depressing," Fumi Atsuda groused to the quartet of girls around her as Ami passed. "We should do something to make him smile. I bet he has a beautiful smile."

It was hard for Ami not to stare once someone brought her attention to that sad frown. The expression seemed all too common, and if there was one thing that Ami wished above all else, it was that she could drive it away forever. She knew why it was there, and she grimaced every time she caught him stealing a glance. It was hard to be a living reminder of everything that he had lost, but thankfully, their friendship was holding.

"Like what?" Ai Kotetsu ventured distractedly, her eyes never leaving Ranma's back. Ami sighed and tried not to notice the hungry longing in the girl's stare.

"Too late, girls." Ami blushed at Umi Daito's playfully husky voice. "Someone's already beat us to it." There was a murmured comment about wallflowers blooming, and Ami did her best to ignore it as she continued on her way.

She juggled the cold cans of juice that she had bought for her and Ranma and nervously bowed her head to hide the blush that decorated her cheeks. She combed her hair behind her right ear and tried to hide the small, if inappropriate, smile that was growing on her face. She glanced up at Ranma's back, silhouetted against the brightness of the sunlight coming in from the pane glass window overlooking the hazy Tokyo skyline. The sight of him leaning casually against the window support tickled a sense of déjà vu in Ami, causing her to pause for a moment. All at once the tower fell away from her mind and she felt herself standing in a different place… a different time.


The Arbiter, Queen Serenity's flagship, was the pinnacle of Lunar craftsmanship. Equal parts magic and technology, it was to be a symbol of hope and ingenuity amongst all of the sub-kingdoms. Staffed to brimming with people chosen from throughout the solar system, the Arbiter was to be the first in a series of exploratory delegations sent to the inner rim of the galaxy. And she had worked for seven long years at her mother's side to see it completed, Onyx and her ilk notwithstanding. It was only fitting that she shared her moment of triumph with the other half of her heart.

She watched him staring down at Mercury, leaning casually against the hull support that neatly framed the thin window before him. Goddess! He was beautiful! The casual grace with which he lounged belied the deadly efficiency that he had moved with just days before. Princess Serenity's assassin hadn't even had a chance to blink, let alone attack. What surprised her all the more was the fact that he had barely touched the Venusian dissident. The woman had simply stiffened before falling to the flagstones with a soft sigh, never to wake again in this life.

Gentle and deadly. He made her blood sing! And he loved her! Not Merin or Narya. Not Shemue or Serenity. Her! She sighed again and shamelessly took stock of his physique one more time before scooting in next to him. His warmth and comforting closeness were just the perfect gift to celebrate her day.

He grinned down at her and pointed out the window. "I can see your house from here."


Ami giggled and jabbed Ranma in the ribs with her finger. His grunt caused her to look up, and the Arbiter fell away, being replaced with the mundane surroundings of Tokyo Tower once again. She could feel Ranma's nervous warmth radiating through her blouse and realized that she had somehow pressed herself against the boy's side. She dared to look up at his face and noted with some serious disappointment that he looked ready to jump out of his skin.

Someone behind her, who sounded very much like Umi Daito, whistled a catcall that was shamelessly mimicked by several other groups. Giggling and cooing echoed from her immediate left and right causing Ami's flesh to burn with embarrassment. She rapidly put almost two meters between her body and Ranma's, but the damage had been done. More people started to chuckle, but their laughter seemed to die rapidly. Ami wanted to know why, but for the life of her couldn't bring herself to look up.

What had she been thinking? The rapidly fading images of a time long since dead left her feeling confused and vulnerable. She couldn't decide whether the memory had been of Aramas, or if it had simply been her subconscious changing the memory to better suit the present.

…Aramas?

She mentally clutched the name like it was a lifeline. In a sense it was. It was easy to remember the symbol that had blazed on Ranma's forehead in the alley, but that didn't automatically mean he had been a part of the Silver Millennium… did it? She shook her head slightly and filed the problem away for another time. At this moment she had more pressing concerns.

It wasn't until she felt a soft, gentle weight settle on her shoulder that she dared turn. To her surprise, Ranma was glaring at a group of snickering boys with such intensity that the trio was forced to turn away nervously.

"You okay?" His voice was soft and low, meant just for her. She nodded and shivered.

"I'm so sor—" Her voice was cut off as Ranma held up his hand and smiled.

"Don't worry about it."

"But they'll think…!"

"So what?"

Ami's heart skipped a beat, and she wasn't certain how to reply to his statement. The room seemed incredibly hot for some reason.

"I thought that you wanted to just be friends?" she said weakly.

"I do." Ranma's voice was casual as he turned to face out the large window once more.

"I… I don't think I understand." Ami wasn't certain that she could understand much of anything at the moment. Those silly little hearts kept getting in the way of her vision.

"Let 'em think what they will, Ami-chan," Ranma said dismissively, leaning his elbows against the low railing in front of the window.

"But, doesn't it bother you that they will assume we're dating?"

Ranma shrugged. "The rumor mill's gonna make up their own stories anyway. At least this way, I won't be bothered by no air-headed chicks lookin' for a trophy boyfriend." Ranma turned back to her and grinned in that oh-so-familiar way of his. "…'sides, if I have to be datin' someone, I could do a lot worse than a cute girl like you. Don'tcha think?"

Ami blinked and immediately dropped her face to the floor to hide her still growing blush. After a few minutes of silence she finally gathered up her courage and passed Ranma his juice.

"Thanks."

His smile sent shivers down her spine and left her fingers feeling tingly. She watched his hands as they carefully opened the can. It didn't seem to matter how mundane the things he did seemed, he moved with such grace and control that Ami found herself completely mesmerized. It wasn't hard to get lost in a hazy daydream involving those powerful hands.

The logic centers of her brain, after having lost so many battles in the recent weeks to this young man, put their collective foot down, effectively squashing that line of thought and replacing it with something more appropriate for the situation.

"Pretty amazing, isn't it?" she asked, nodding to the city beneath them. It was a lame attempt at conversation, but Ranma didn't seem to notice. "So many people doing so many different things, and all of them living side by side…."

He just shrugged and turned his attention back to the city that sprawled beneath him. There was a look of mild disgust as she watched his eyes take in the crowded sprawl of the tedious urban topography. Looking out over the northern half of Tokyo, it was easy for Ami to see the Diet and the Imperial Palace from where she stood, but the sight had lost some of its grandeur next to the constant temptation of the boy next to her.

She stole another glance up at him as he sipped his juice, and lost herself in the memory of his effortless strength. It was impossible to forget the warmth of his arms or the calm, calculated way that he breathed just before leaping to the next roof. Ami suppressed a shiver of delight at the thought of indulging in such a wonderful sensation again someday. She stole a surreptitious glance at Ranma again and noted that he was looking down at the crowd below.

"Penny for your thoughts?" she asked with a small smile. When he didn't answer right away, Ami reached out and gently touched his arm.

"Huh?"

"Are you all right, Ranma-kun?"

His smile was tired, and carried with it a shadow of cynicism. "Yeah. Just wishing for a normal life."

It was Ami's turn to smile tiredly. "What's that?"

She smiled warmly as he chuckled and turned his back on the sprawl of the city and leaned heavily against the glass. He glanced at her out of the corner of his eye and shrugged. "Not real sure. I ain't seen everything out there yet, but if I find it I'll be sure to let you know." He chuckled lightly and Ami couldn't stop herself from joining him.

She watched his beautiful blue eyes, luxuriating in the warmth and acceptance that she found there. The warmth was replaced by shock as he looked behind Ami. She started to turn, but never got a good look at what had caused him such concern. One minute she was standing, and the next she was flying, propelled by Ranma's incredible shove.

The crash of breaking glass was muffled as she hit the floor and rolled. She stumbled to her knees, bringing the impromptu flight to a quick end. The world around her had erupted in an all too familiar scene of chaos.

Men, women, and children of all ages screamed and stampeded for the elevators and emergency exits. Ami scanned the observation deck, looking for Ranma and for what caused the disruption, but nothing was visible.

Terror was palpable in the air as the people attempted to escape the invisible danger, making it impossible to find her friend. It was bedlam. Ami's vision slowly tracked back to where she and Ranma had been standing, noting for the first time the frigid winds blowing through the shattered remains of the window.

She blinked at the long, fluttering scrap of cloth impaled by a shard of bloodstained glass. Had she not already been on her knees she would have fallen to the floor. Her stomach was twisted in a sick knot and her whole body felt as if someone had stolen all of her strength. How many times had she lived this nightmare? How many times had she worried that someone close to her would be stolen away? A vise of guilt gripped her heart, making it hard for her to catch her breath.

Tears slowly fell from her eyes, blurring the large diabolical shadow that suddenly took shape before her. It hovered menacingly, waiting for something. Ami blinked away the tears enough to take note of the fine silks and masked face of her tormentor. His furred arms were large, the size of thick branches, and his enormous clawed hands, resting casually at the creature's sides, were tattooed with strange yet oddly familiar runes.

Memory, true memory, raced through her heart and mind at the sight of the beast. Ami brought her hands to her chest, subconsciously remembering the feel of the arrows striking home once more. The heat and the smell of blood washed over her… and the sounds… Ra's golden wings! The sounds of the dying! They were everywhere! All because of this beast and those like him.

"Oh, how the mighty have fallen."

The fiend's deep baritone voice was chilling, stealing all sense of hope from her numb frame. She tracked one massive hand, dazedly noting the grotesque black claws that seemed to absorb the light. She followed the appendage until it led to the thing's eyes. Once her gaze found them, she felt lost in the grip of horror. One milky blue orb stared down at her sightlessly, but its partner was aflame with recognition and obsessive hunger.

Ami wanted to crawl away, to hide beneath the covers of her bed or find comfort from this nightmare-come-to-life in the arms of her mother. But there was no comfort to be had here. There was only the dark memory of blood — fiery blood — and a name.

"Marut." Her throat constricted around the whispered name, attempting to keep it hidden in the dark recesses of her heart. The fear attached to the name seemed to cause the beast to smile darkly.

"Yeeesssss."


Tendo Dojo,
Nerima-ku

Kasumi settled herself onto a pillow at the dinner table and sighed. With father and uncle out drinking, and Nabiki entertaining her new friends in the dojo, the house was quiet once more and Kasumi found it unsettling. The quiet moments were always to be dreaded. That was when the emptiness came and the memories of the dead would return full force. She hated the quiet moments more than anything, which was why she would turn the television on to drown out the silence. She never really watched or even paid attention to what was on, it was just noise to fill the emptiness that had once housed the voices of her mother and baby sister.

Today was no different. She pulled out her sewing basket from the corner and thumbed the remote. A TV novella came to life and Kasumi immediately turned her attention to the new skirt she was making for her sister. It wouldn't be polite to point out that Nabiki had become a bit more hippy than she had been, especially since the poor dear hated any reminder that she was different now. At the same time, it wasn't proper for a young lady to wearing clothes that were two sizes too small.

Kasumi sighed again as she threaded her needle. She had lost all desire to cling to propriety long ago, but in the face of the changes that her family had been forced to endure, Kasumi felt a need to give them some sense of normalcy to cling to. Nabiki and her father needed the dutiful matron to remain, regardless of what Kasumi wanted.

It was times like these that Kasumi, to her eternal shame, cursed her mother and sister for dying. She'd always hated the role of caregiver, but who else could do it? Father had always been too lost in his own grief to step up and take responsibility, and Nabiki had been too focused on her own needs to be bothered… at least up until Akane had died. They had both changed a bit for the better then, for Ranma's sake. But they still expected Kasumi to manage the mundane, day-to-day routine, in spite of the fact that Kasumi had other dreams, and needs of her own.

What she wouldn't give to switch places with Nabiki right now! She would embrace her destiny without looking back! To hell with the laundry! To hell with the grocery lists and dinner menus! She would ride the backs of dragons and scream triumphantly in the face of the storm!

She would be free, as she had always yearned to be.

The eldest Tendo daughter lost herself in a silly little daydream as she sewed, wherein she met a handsome prince and together they quested to unlock a curse that kept an entire kingdom asleep and imprisoned in their dreams. She would, of course, be a magical princess that held the key to freeing the people from their eternal slumber.

Kasumi had to admit that she was rather fond of the storyline. It was one that she revisited quite often, mostly because she would always be interrupted before she could break the spell. The last time she'd visited the daydream, she'd discovered that the handsome prince was actually her long-lost older brother, and that he had come to find her because she was the only one with the power to defeat the witch that had cast the spell.

A part of her knew it was a silly pastime, but she couldn't help but cling to it. Father had Uncle Genma and his memories of their training together, and Nabiki had this whole Huntress business. Who could begrudge Kasumi a little wishful thinking?

It wasn't like it would ever come true.

She sighed again and paused in her sewing as the TV novella was interrupted by a breaking news bulletin. The young reporter looked nervous and excited, directing the cameraman to aim his camera up at Tokyo Tower. One the bottom right portion of the screen there was a photo of a middle-aged man, with the words: "The voice of Eijiro Hirashi, Producer, Channel 8, live from Tokyo Tower." The voice coming through the television's speakers was panicked and terrified. The screen spilt, showing a very pixellated view of the interior of the tower. A large shadow seemed to be stepping free from the shadows and moving towards a familiar silhouette. A sudden stampede of bodies moving away from the commotion caused the images, obviously from a mini-camera of some kind, to be jostled. Amidst the chaotic images, Kasumi caught a glimpse of a little girl clinging to the cameraman's leg. Right beside her face was the numeric logo of the Channel 41 news program.

"…stay close, Moemi-chan!" The camera righted itself. "I repeat: something has just stepped from the shadows on the north side of the main… Oh! Oh no!" There was a loud crash and a great deal of screaming.

"Hirashi-san?"

The pictures were frenzied and jumbled as people continued to run past the camera, but the scene cleared enough to show a girl being menaced by a monster on the main observation deck of the Tokyo Tower. The window behind her was shattered and covered in blood. Kasumi gasped and felt her heart constrict fearfully for the girl.

"Hirashi-san, what just happened?"

Hirashi-san's voice was sedate as he quickly moved his child to safety.

"The creature just knocked some poor kid out of the window."

The live feed on the left, outside of the tower, caused Kasumi's world to shatter. The camera zoomed in close, magnifying the tiny speck that was falling from the tower enough to recognize the familiar figure plummeting towards the ground at an ungodly speed.

Ranma.

Even from a distance, she could read the determined expression on his face as he rocketed to his death. Kasumi felt a growing sense of helpless anger at the world and its cruelty. The television switched back to the conflict inside the tower, leaving the eldest Tendo to clutch Nabiki's new skirt tightly until the fabric tore beneath her trembling fingers. Her heart knew an unquenchable grief at the thought of losing yet another person, and that grief was rapidly becoming something else.

She growled deep in her throat, and somewhere above her thunder seemed to mimic her. It had never felt right letting her rage find a voice. Mother never would have approved. But now… upon seeing this, there was nothing but fury left. The television was the first victim to weather her ire, but it would not be the last.

There was an old saying, forgotten by many over the years: "It is best to let sleeping dragons lie."

Kasumi had no idea what she intended to do but, by all that she held dear, someone was going to pay for stealing her happiness. Her first thought was to go and deal with the issue herself. Sadly, she did not have the resources to handle monsters. However, she knew someone that had recently been blessed with the means to move on her behalf.

"NABIKI!"

The thing about dragons is that once woken, they're a devil to put back to sleep. Heaven help whatever poor soul crossed their path.


Tokyo Tower,
Minato-ku

Minako, Makoto, and Usagi turned to the sound of the screams and saw a shadow pulling itself from the darkness of the ceiling. The crowd had already started its stampede towards the exit, buffeting the girls left and right. Makoto and Minako secured Usagi's arms and towed her up onto the bench they'd been sitting on, before the crowd could steal her away. The added height gave the taller girls a clear sight of the monster as it rapidly bore down on Ranma and Ami.

Makoto could only watch as Ranma shoved Ami out of the line of fire and was backhanded through the window for his troubles. She watched mutely, as time seemed to slow. His face seemed frozen in rage as he desperately twisted his body to protect his head. Minako screamed as Ranma's side was cut by a long jagged piece of glass, painting the air and what remained of the window crimson; and then… he was gone, falling over 150 meters to the ground below.

"NO!" Makoto roared her denial, and began vainly pushing her way through the thinning crowd. All that she could see in her mind's eye was the happy smile on Auntie's face, the smile that would forever be shattered at the knowledge that her son was well and truly dead. Somewhere in the back of her mind, Makoto could hear Usagi calling out to her, but her mind was focused solely on the monster that was even now menacing poor Ami.

There was no thought about identities. There was no thought about past quarrels. There was only the liquid fire of Makoto's anger. The heavens outside of the tower screamed in answer to her rage as she called the lightning to her.


Somewhere,
Tokyo, Japan

Herb and Xian Pu sat high above the hustle and bustle of the Tokyo streets, enjoying the thrill of the wind and the silence. Their initial discomfort had been replaced by a quiet acceptance, and Xian Pu had allowed herself to rest peacefully in the Musk king's arms. They should have been back long ago, but neither could bring themselves to end the special moment. It seemed an unspoken fact that they wouldn't get another one for a long time to come.

Herb stiffened slightly, and Xian Pu felt his head turn to look to the northwest. She turned slightly to see his brow furrow thoughtfully, and then he smiled.

<"Why do you grin like a fool?"> She drew his chin back to face her.

<"How can I not?"> His eyes softened as he looked at her, causing Xian Pu to blush.

<"If I knew you were thinking of me, I might be flattered. Your eyes tell a different story, though.">

<"You are very perceptive, my Amazon Princess.">

<"Contrary to popular belief, my head is not full of air. Unlike a flattering dragon I have come to know."> She elbowed Herb in the ribs and shifted in his arms until she could look him fully in the eye.

<"Ouch!"> He rubbed his side and poked Xian Pu in the belly in retaliation. She grabbed his wrist before he could fully escape her. They sat like that for a time, before Herb leaned forward and stole a kiss. Xian Pu put up a token resistance, before relaxing into his arms again.

<"Are you going to answer my question?"> she asked.

<"I found something that I've been looking for?"> he evaded.

<"Oh? Do tell?"> She snuggled deeper into his arms as a chill wind swept over the roof top.

<"I had a dream recently… a dragon's dream."> Xian Pu bit her lip and fought not to sit up and interrupt Herb. <"I met one of my ancestors and was told to look for someone.">

<"Who?"> Xian Pu frowned at the long silence that grew between them. It was almost as if Herb didn't want to reveal anything more. When he finally did speak, Xian Pu noted that he seemed to be hunting for the right words.

<"A kindred spirit. Someone that could break a spell."> He paused and looked ready to continue, but didn't say anything else.

<"Can you tell me more?">

<"Later perhaps, when the dream is clearer in my mind. Suffice it to say that I now know where to search.">

Xian Pu draped her arms over his and looked over to Tokyo Tower. The needle-like spire stabbed heavenward like an angry metal finger. A coldness gripped her heart, and she felt Herb stiffen again. This time though, the air was not charged with excitement as it had been. There was a tenseness that seemed all too familiar to the pair. When lightning struck the tower out of a clear sky, there was little doubt that something was seriously wrong. Quickly gathering their burdens, Xian Pu climbed into Herb's arms. He barely waited for her to settle before launching himself from the building's roof, towards the disturbance in the distance.


The Library of Beth Usel,
Aumemnon

The past was stone, the present fluid, and the future a fine, yet elusive mist of possibility. Aevi had told him that the day he was chosen as the avatar of the Threy. If anyone would know, he supposed the Guardian of the Gates would.

As much as he wanted to deny her wisdom, Mu Tsu knew that there was no escaping what was. He had long ago been an urchin named Themus, picking pockets on the streets of Medea and avoiding all contact with anyone remotely tied to authority. He had lived free, until the Threy came for him. He'd tried to escape them, but every time he'd found sanctuary, they had already been lying in wait for him.

They gave him no explanations and they had offered no comfort to a terrified child. He remembered all the stories about the Threy he'd heard as a child. Most of them were silly tales meant to scare a child into behaving, and some of them were tame fantasies when faced with the reality of Threyan cruelty. They had changed him and he had hated them for it.

They stole his eyes, so that he could "see" time as it flowed around them. He was their voice to the rest of creation, for good or ill. Mu Tsu could still feel the sensation of people cringing and squirming uncomfortably as he entered a room. The only people besides the Threy who had been immune to his presence had been Aevi, Serenity, and Aramas. Serenity, though she held no true power over him, was an inspiring figure he'd come to love and respect as the mother he'd never known. Aevi was the love he longed to know, but was forever forbidden to pursue.

And then there was Aramas….

Mu Tsu could see the ties between Ranma and Aramas easily enough, and was amused at the cosmic irony their lives had become. In the days of the Silver Millennium, Serenity's son had been a breath of fresh air to Themus, becoming the closest thing to a friend the Avatar of Time had ever known.

It was quite the contrast to what Ranma Saotome had become for Mu Tsu of the Joketsuzoku.

Mu Tsu knew that he was at a crossroads. The Threy were obviously aware of this moment, and therefore would not let him simply return to being the young man he had been. They would come for him as they had in Medea, hounding him until he reclaimed the mantle once more.

There was little to do but embrace the destiny he'd been called to, but that didn't mean that he would serve the interests of the Threy blindly, as he had the first time around. Until he could make a trip to the Gates with Aevi, he was limited in what he could "see" and do, which was both a blessing and a curse.

Mu Tsu closed his eyes and allowed himself to drift upon the currents of the present, marking the places he could go and events that he could influence. Xi Fu was being looked after, but Phau Set was obviously in need of something to focus her anger and frustration. His beloved Xian Pu had found someone to fill the void Saotome had left in her heart and, strange as it might sound, Mu Tsu was happy for her. Sure, he felt a twinge of jealousy at the thought, but reliving a past life had a way of tempering his emotions. Her choice was rather odd, to be sure, but Mu Tsu couldn't think of a more powerful guardian for his darling Xian Pu.

Dwelling on failed romances was leaving a foul taste in his mouth, so Mu Tsu glanced into Ranma's current doings.

"Gods above and below! What have you gotten yourself into now, Saotome?"

Without thinking, Mu Tsu reached out and grabbed hold of Ryouga in one hand, and bent time and space to collect Phau Set with the other. Even though he could walk between moments now, Mu Tsu knew that there was no time to waste. Once he was certain he knew when to go, he stepped through the fold in time, dragging his companions with him.


Odan had lived for over ten thousand years without the benefit of reincarnation. He was tired and his spirit was ready to move on. The moment Mu Tsu embraced his past, the seals binding the old man to this plane were sundered. He appeared on the steps leading up to the Great Library of Beth Usel, amidst a gathered crowd of concerned citizens who had been drawn by the magical display playing out above the building.

Odan looked up and saw the past lives of Mu Tsu and Ryouga on display for all to see. Most could not comprehend the information, but there were many among the crowd who connected the young men with the stories and myths they had heard from Odan as children. He chuckled and rasped at the wide-eyed look on Phau Set's face. She saw his shady, although tragically heroic, past in all its glory, and the poor girl's world had once again been turned upside down. It was obvious that she was more in love with the fool than she had been, and that made Odan's smile grow.

The twit would have to be truly blind not to see her true feelings. Themus or Mu Tsu, or whatever he ended up calling himself now, would be in for it if he spurned her. Maybe the boy would embrace love this time around and find some measure of happiness.

Odan's smile never faltered as hundreds of his descendants gathered around their ancestor. His passing was quiet, and it would be noted that he died surrounded by the love of his progeny. What greater legacy could one hope for?


Tokyo Tower,
Minato-ku

Mio Kogara watched in horror as her newest student was launched through the plate glass window. She heard her students crying and screaming around her and watched numbly as the newest in a long run of monsters turned its attention to her star pupil. There was no one to stop it, and somehow, she knew that she was going to have to be the one to tell Saotome-san and Mizuno-sensei that their only children had been killed.

Lightning flashed outside, causing her to blink. She quickly scanned the crowd for any sign of her other students. One look at Makoto Kino caused her to faint dead away. There was only so much bad news that a person could handle in a day.


Usagi was assaulted by noise and fear. A tide of people nearly overwhelmed her, and had it not been for Minako and Makoto, she was certain that her body would have been trampled. The air around her was supercharged with panic. The need to run and hide was instinctual, but after fighting the forces of evil for such a long time, that need had become buried beneath something more maternal.

She fought down the urge to join the crowd and started searching out the bad guy. She heard the glass breaking before she saw it, but all too soon she found herself staring down the nightmare come to life. Minako screamed and Makoto yelled something that was drowned out by the screaming of the crowd, but Usagi didn't spare her friends a glance. All of her attention was on the creature advancing on Ami.

The enemies that they had faced to date had never looked quite so imposing before. Standing at over six feet tall, with its long, thin legs bent backwards at a very inhuman angle, the creature was draped head to toe in expensive-looking blue and red silks. The sleeveless shirt revealed brown and gold fur covering its hands and arms.

In any other setting, Usagi might have complimented it on its stylish fashion sense. However the thing was about to squish Ami, so telling it that she thought its wardrobe was snappy just wasn't cool. Nope. It was time to take this thing out before anyone got hurt.

Usagi started hunting for a place to transform, noting that most of the crowds had bunched around the elevators and emergency exits. Most had their attention on the tableau unfolding between Ami and the monster, but more than a few were trying to get her and Makoto to join them.

Drat! How was she supposed to handle this without revealing her secret?

Makoto took that choice away from her as lightning flashed angrily around the tower from a clear sky. Usagi immediately began to pray. Pleasedon'ttransform! Pleasedon'ttransform! Pleasedon'ttransform!

Too late. She noted the sign of Jupiter exploding to life on Makoto's forehead, and without the aid of her henshin, Makoto's clothes melted away in a cascade of electricity. Usagi went bug-eyed, as did a number of their classmates. She wanted to scream and cry and stomp her foot. She wanted to smack Makoto silly for blowing their cover in front of so many witnesses, but the fact that the monster was about to kill Ami pulled her up short.

True lightning, complete with the scorched smell of ozone, danced up and down Mako… er, Sailor Jupiter's body. And now that Usagi had her attention riveted to the Senshi of Storms, she noted a remarkable difference in the familiar uniform that her friend wore. The bodice of her fuku was no longer white, but scaled much like a fish or reptile. Normally sleeveless, the whole left arm of her uniform was covered in an iridescent metal that reminded Usagi of a dragonfly's carapace. The normal tiara was gone as well, replaced by a crown adorned with… antlers?

Usagi was so taken back by the change that she barely registered the second crash of glass that echoed throughout the observation deck. There was no denying the sonic boom that followed soon after, though — that was enough to knock Usagi off the bench and onto her bottom. Sailor Jupiter wasn't far behind her.

Usagi looked at her friend worriedly, and followed her shocked gaze to where someone was beating the snot out of Mr. Nasty. The pair moved at such astonishing speeds that she could hardly track their movements. It was only when the monster was launched across the length of the tower that Usagi got a good look at Ami's savior.

"RANMA?!"

She wasn't sure which was more disconcerting — the fact that he had just punched the bad guy the length of the observation deck, or the fact that he was glowing blood-red and looked ready to kill.


The Ministry of Education and Culture,
Office of Cultural Heritage,
Japanese Diet Building

Setsuna looked up from her desk tiredly and felt something notably shift in the air. It wasn't the temperature, the weight, or even the quality… it was something more. Something… magical. She closed her eyes and immediately focused her spirit, easily picking up the disturbance. It took her some time to find a window, but once she had a clear view of Tokyo Tower, she was just in time to see Jupiter's massive lightning bolt strike the monument. She could already hear the sirens of emergency vehicles moving towards the tower, and it didn't take much to guess at what was happening. Ur had made his opening move.

Tapping the ornate silver bracelet at her wrist, she activated the all-call that would summon the other Senshi and made her way hurriedly to an emergency stairwell. She waited only long enough for the door to start closing before she called upon her planet and transformed. Power flooded her body, and with it came an awareness of something very familiar. A grim smile graced her lips as songs of rebirth coursed through her soul. A heartbeat later, Sailor Pluto was gone.


Tokyo Tower,
Minato-ku

Ranma had known the sensation of freefalling since the tender age of four. He had battled in the air most of his life, and thus knew intimately how to "dance the winds". He angled his body back towards the tower, streamlining himself to gather as much speed as he could. His face was murderous as he sought the appropriate set of bars that would allow him the momentum he needed to get back to the observation deck.

He didn't have much time to choose, either. The longer that he fell, the longer the trip back up was bound to take. And from the way that giant shadow monster had launched him through the window, time was something he didn't have a lot of. Not if he was going to save lives.

An image of Ami's body, broken and bloody, flashed through his mind just as he caught the first iron crossbar. He looped and allowed his momentum to build even further before letting go near the apex of his swing. Had anyone been there to see the maneuver, they would have admitted to only seeing a grayish-black blur shooting upward at incredible speeds.

The higher he went, the more speed bled off of him. He ignored the flashing lightning and the subsequent thunder that made his ears ring. He had other more pressing problems at the moment than a storm. Namely, that he was going to fall short of the deck by at least ten meters. He swore and looked for another vaulting point, even as he angled himself closer to the tower's supports. The jump wasn't going to be all that difficult. There was one hell of a crosswind to contend with, but that wasn't his main concern. It was all that damn glass that he'd have to navigate through.

He pushed aside the smell of rain and let out a short string of curses as he launched himself from another iron beam. The wind had pushed him around the tower, away from the window that he had been knocked out of, and there wasn't enough time to climb back to where he had been. The thing had been too close to Ami, even after Ranma had pushed her out of the way. No, Ranma was going to have to make a new entrance for himself.

An unbroken window came into view and Ranma knew that he was in for a world of hurt. Another vicious wind caught him from behind and sent him rocketing straight towards the thick glass wall looming before him.

Ranma cursed never learning the Breaking Point technique, but decided that it was past time to come up with something of his own. He gathered his ki into his right index finger and stabbed it forward repeatedly at Amaguriken speeds. He combined the air pressure with the wind pushing him forward and focused them on one single point, much like he had done to defeat Ryouga time in and time out.

The glass rocked at the assault and then, after a heartbeat, cracked. Ranma held his breath as he shot towards the window and continued his brutal assault. With little more than a foot left to him, the entire window exploded inward, allowing him free passage onto the glass-littered floor of the observation deck. He rolled, feeling tiny shards of glass cutting and imbedding into his back, and slid to a halt on his knees on the opposite side of Ami.

The beast, a demonic parody of an anthropomorphic cheetah, had its arm raised, ready for the killing blow. Ranma reacted, violently forgoing the desire to cringe in a corner at the sight of the thing's feline nature in favor of killing the creature outright. There was no kiai, no fancy name to announce the attack, just cold, calculated death. His hands blurred, cutting through the air at supersonic speeds that created a sonic boom. The observation deck shook at the noise, and more glass shattered throughout the monument.

He was surprised to see its arm intercept the attack at the last second. Black blood exploded from the monster's forearm as Ranma's vacuum blade visibly cut to the bone. It growled in pain and settled itself eagerly for Ranma's continued assault.

Ranma unlocked every single lethal attack he knew, and invented some on the spot, in order to savage the monster before him. Blow after blow hit true, at speeds that Ranma had never dreamed he could attain. His rage was now visible to the naked eye in the form of ghostly red flames that made the air warp and blur around him.

With a cry, Ranma slammed his fists against the thing's chest with almost everything that he had. Bones shattered beneath the assault, and a part of Ranma's mind rebelled at the thought of what he had just done.

The monster roared as it flew the length of the deck into a support, crumpling it like cardboard. The tower shook again, more violently this time, causing people to scream. Ranma noted their locations while keeping his hulking opponent firmly in his peripheral vision. He felt more than saw Ami drawing up carefully at his side, but made it a point not to look at her. He needed to remain focused on the task at hand, and the best way to do that was to get her out of harm's way. Something in him knew that the battle had just begun, and that fact was coldly driven home as the monster began to shift, lifting itself from the debris that had fallen on it.

The creature's body was misshapen and broken, but even as Ranma watched he could see wounds healing and bones resetting themselves. It was impossible, but the evidence was there for all to see. Ranma felt sick to his stomach, and an unnatural fear twisted his guts into knots. In spite of that feeling, he knew that he had to win this fight regardless of the cost. That meant getting Ami to safety. "Run."

Ami shook her head in grim determination.

Ranma growled at her refusal to move away from his side as he settled into a loose ready stance. He blocked the monster's path to her with his body, backing her slowly towards the crowd as his opponent advanced. "You're going to get in my way."

"I can help!" Her voice was focused and he noted that she was reaching for something. More anger swelled in him as history began to repeat itself in his mind. He growled and watched as the thing stood to its full height again.

"Dammit, Isis!" he barked, not catching his slip, as the monster started to take another step forward. Why did women have to be so difficult? Images of Akane defiantly proclaiming herself to him filled Ranma's heart. He never noticed the bloody color of his aura change to a sickly green. He wasn't going to lose someone else! Never again! Without taking his eyes off of the tattered and bloody thing before him, he shoved Ami as hard as he dared, away from him towards the security of the crowd.

He heard her stumble once and then she was crying out his name. Someone must have pulled her into the crowd.

Good.

The beast started to circle wide, moving towards the crowd, but before Ranma could react, a bolt of lightning caught the thing from behind and to the left. It roared in agony and started into a stumbling run, heading directly toward where Ranma had pushed Ami.

Without thought for his own safety, Ranma launched himself at the creature. The pair collided and rolled through a number of benches and a souvenir counter. The thing was tough, Ranma had to give it that. Strong, too. But there was no way in hell that he was going to let it get to Ami and the others. No matter what it cost him.


Blow after vicious blow rocked the observation deck as Ami tracked Ranma's progress. She was mad at him. No, that wasn't true. She was royally pissed at him. His skills were amazing, but for every blow that he landed, his opponent landed three. And while his fighting prowess was beyond description, nothing had caught her more off guard than when he had called her Isis.

Something clicked and the name, in and of itself, became a key to a torrent of memories, none of which she could afford to indulge in at the moment. As if to punctuate the point, there was a sharp crack and Ranma growled in pain as the monster slammed him face first into the tiled floor, causing it to spider web outward beneath his poor battered body.

The air about her began to freeze visibly at the sight of his dilemma, causing those holding her in check to look at each other in concern. Their breath came out in small puffs, but that was not what had truly garnered their attention. Ami was certain that she was the cause of their unease. She could see the cold ambient glow of her power radiating off of her body, and when she chanced a glance at the tile beneath her feet, she saw the symbol of Mercury mirrored there.

The men restraining her hastily let go as Ami's clothing began to harden. The sound of ice cracking drew the crowd's attention to her, but she didn't care. All of her attention was on Marut as the cheetah-headed Rakshasa continued to grapple with Ranma.

Her school uniform shattered and, like Jupiter, her former ensemble had been replaced, leaving her clothed in the armor of Mercury. The white bodice of her uniform was replaced with silvery blue chain mail. It jingled coldly, sounding like icicles chiming in a breeze as she advanced into the battle. Her delicate tiara also disappeared, being replaced by a translucent crown of ice. A hooded cobra, wrapped in the downswept wings of two falcons, framed the glowing symbol of Mercury that still radiated fiercely on her forehead.

The rapid staccato of her boots rang out on the tiled floor as she reached into the air and instinctively reshaped the moisture available to her. There was no thought for what she did or how she did it. All that she could see was that Ranma was in peril. He needed her, and she wouldn't stand by and watch him die for her sake.


The Sony Building,
Chuo-ku

Saffron, restored to his adult glory, stood atop the Sony building surveying the hodge-podge nightmare that was Tokyo. The sprawl was confounding and very ugly to his eyes — nothing like the orderly cities of Sepsis and Thun that had once graced the now barren wastes of the Sahara.

It had been over three thousand years since he had visited the graves of his brothers and sister. Three thousand years of madness. Three thousand years of darkness. Ra's radiant wings! How could he let himself forget?! He wanted to fly there now and atone for his dishonor, but there was little doubt that the sands had long ago claimed the monuments he had built for the fallen.

"Isis, forgive me," he prayed, trying to escape the weight of his guilt. He stared into the sky, hoping for a response… any response, to know that he had been heard. The heavens were silent, and so too was the earth. Perhaps there was no forgiveness for one such as he.

"Goddess! What have I become?" He collapsed in on himself and wished that some divine hand would scour his soul clean from the face of the Earth. A pair of warm, comforting hands began kneading his shoulders right between his wings. It was a wondrous sensation…. The incongruity of the situation hit him full force, and he launched himself from the tower with a mighty flap of his wings.

Akane Tendo looked up at him hauntingly from the edge of his roost. She showed no fear of falling, as if being at this height was the most natural thing in the world. Sadness and shame flashed across her face as she let her hands drop to her sides.

"Masura tripped and dropped his canteen on me." It was odd to hear Kiima's sultry voice speak from Akane's lips. "We cannot build a fire here without attracting attention," she added matter-of-factly.

"So be it." He tried to sound understanding, but all that came from his mouth was aloof indifference. "Bring me water, and I will heat it for you."

"Does it bother you to look upon me, Lord?" He could not hide himself from the hope in her voice, nor could he lie to her.

"A little."

Kiima held her head in shame and started to turn.

"Please. Stay." He wasn't sure why he stopped her, save that she brought him comfort. He flew back to his roost and continued his vigil over the city. Kiima began massaging his shoulders again.

"What do you seek?" she asked softly.

"A sign. Absolution. I cannot be certain."

"Will we find her? Isis, I mean."

Saffron sighed and leaned back against the young woman's chest. Kiima wrapped her human arms around his neck and held him close.

"Of that I have little doubt, Kiima." He pointed at a large iron tower near the center of the district. "The Ginzuishou sings to me from there. And nearby… nearby…." Saffron stopped and sat up straight, staring at the tower through narrowed eyes. Small tongues of flame erupted from his body.

"I can feel the cold fires of Mercury building! Quickly, Kiima! Gather the others!"

Saffron's seneschal ran as fast as her human legs could carry her, calling out to the others. It was all that the Phoenix King could do to contain his eagerness. The Horus had been asleep too long. It was time that his goddess woke them to their past glories.

In no time at all, the small contingent from Phoenix Mountain gathered around their ruler. Kiima handed him a small glass of water that he heated with just a touch. He poured it over the woman's head, and Akane Tendo's features transformed into another very attractive young woman with beautiful white wings.

"Come." Saffron launched himself into the air, blazing a trail for his followers straight toward Tokyo Tower.


Tokyo Tower,
Minato-ku

Ranma bit back a scream as his left arm snapped just below the elbow. The shoulder had already been dislocated twice, and up until this last injury he had done an amazing job of ignoring the pain. Now it was all that he could do to remain conscious as he swept the demon's legs out from underneath it. He swallowed desperately and back-flipped away in order to give him some breathing space. The thing was down, but Ranma wasn't sure how much of a break it was going to give him.

He hadn't had to deal with a broken bone in a while — not one this bad, at least. Had he been a lesser man, there was little doubt that he would have been a red stain on the wall long ago. The only consolation that he had was that the monster was in the same boat, in spite of it ability to regenerate. Broken ribs had been making it difficult for the thing to breath for a while now, and the wound Ranma had given it at the beginning of the battle was still leaking like a small black waterfall. Ranma's only hope had been to tax the thing's ability to heal itself to the point of overload. The only problem with that strategy was that Ranma had to outlast the thing.

The young martial artist watched the demon warily and began to prepare himself for his next, and most likely final move. He had run out of tricks about half way through the fight and had been holding the Hiryu Shoten Ha in reserve in case things turned dicey.

He could readily admit to himself that things had progressed beyond dicey and were now officially in the "how-in-the-hell-am-I-gunna-make-it-outta-this-one?" basket. Nothing was coming to him. He reset his shoulder again as quickly as he could and tenderly tucked his broken arm into what was left of his school jacket, causing his legs to turn rubbery and his mind to swim. There was no way to really secure it yet, but he felt confident that he'd be able to avoid further injury. He desperately focused on where his opponent had fallen to block out the fatigue and pain.

The mountain of rubble shifted, and for an instant, Ranma's eyes were wide with hope. The demon had fallen on a shattered display case and glass had impaled it through the chest and throat. It labored to its feet, drawing Ranma's eyes to the grotesque wound in the middle of its chest. How in the hell was it still alive?

Damn it! It was just his damn luck that he was dealing with another terminator knockoff.

Laughing at Ranma's shock and dismay, the demon wrenched the main shard from its body and tossed it aside. The glass shattered, shaking Ranma from his stupor.

"Well done, little man. But sadly, our playtime must come to an end."

"Why does every bad guy under the sun have to be a cheesy bastard?" Ranma growled. He thinned his profile in order to protect his arm and offer less of a target to his enemy. The beast just laughed all the harder as he ripped the remnants of his silken robes from his shoulders.

"Soon your bravado will give way to terror, Son of Adam." The creature's bloody face split into a severe smile that made Ranma shudder. "Let us see what fears lurk in your heart, shall we?" The monster brought his arms above his head and clenched his hands into fists, causing the world around Ranma to fall away.

Ranma fought the invasion as best he could, but the demon tore through his attempts with ease, leaving him completely disoriented. The smell of fish was strong in his nostrils and he could feel his skin crawl at the feeling of a hundred pair of hungry eyes on his back.

NO! It was a trick — an illusion! He just had to concentrate and pray that the thing didn't kill him before he could break free of the hallucination. He closed his eyes and started to push his ki outward. He wasn't going to fall to this! Not now! Not when there was so much at stake!

Ranma's eye's bugged as an all too familiar purr rumbled in his ears, shattering his focus. He felt something brush against his back, and tried to move into the weak light that filtered down from the top of the black pit that he had been imprisoned in. Somewhere in the back of his mind he heard someone screaming in terror, and knew instinctively that it was his voice. It was no use trying to escape from the pit any more. After all, what was the point when the beasts could always find him? He could run all he wanted, fight as hard as he pleased; in the end it was always the same. In the end, he always became a beast himself.

He could already feel the darkness stirring within him.

The beginning of a silent prayer to his ancestors was all he got out before the shadows of his darkest horror claimed him. And then the world truly did descend into blackness.


Marut reveled in the terror that washed off his opponent. He had to give the human credit. He had offered up a wondrous, if pointless, battle. Sadly, all things must come to an end. He spun and held the boy aloft, prepared to consume the warrior's soul to demoralize Senshi Mercury.

What he found facing him was not the person he remembered from so long ago. Her uniform was different than he remembered, and her badly concealed fury was like blood in the water. The Rakshasa was going to enjoy breaking her before he took her head. Her indecision and concern for the human whelp made the boy's death all the more appealing to Marut.

Plans on how best to draw the moment out were interrupted as the boy kicked and scrambled for purchase. Marut was truly surprised that the human had any fight left in him at all. Truly this was an amazing toy he'd found. When the boy's body began to convulse and squirm, Marut smiled darkly. The torture the child was experiencing must be exquisite indeed, to provoke such a reaction!

He watched raptly as his opponent's sanity fled, and then, without warning, Marut felt an incredible pain explode across his torso. The insane boy hissed at him much like a cat, and made a clawing motion with his fist. The Rakshasa's face blossomed in agony anew, burning with a pain he'd only experienced at the hands of Mercury. He roared and screeched, thrashing about until he finally threw the boy as far from him as he could in favor of clutching his ruined face.

Blood dripped freely from where Marut's ear and a large portion of his cheek had been, leaving the demon reeling. The room was a pit of vertigo, dancing to and fro in a drunken waltz, but Marut was able to track his enemies. He watched blankly, not truly processing the information being fed to him through his good eye, as his former prisoner sailed gracefully through the air towards a demolished section of the observation deck. The feral human twisted his body mid-flight in order to land on three out of four appendages without so much as a wince. A white corona of light blazed to life around the boy, as he licked his wounds tenderly. To Marut's dread, many of them were healing before him.

The boy's stance was entirely bestial, lacking any of the higher brain functions that could be found in humanity. It was as if the boy's soul had been completely replaced by that of a cat! More disconcerting still was the shining, golden crescent on the manling's forehead. It and it alone told Marut that he was not dealing with someone possessed. Only a pure soul could wield the energies of the Moon.

The sign of Serenity's House was rare among the Lunaris; rarer still was the power that Serenity's line commanded. Marut felt dwarfed by the sudden explosion of power rolling off his opponent, and for the first time in centuries truly feared for his life. Physical wounds would regenerate over time, spiritual wounds took longer still, but magical wounds were more often than not permanent. He had to finish his task before any of that power could be directed at him.

The Rakshasa spun away from his feral opponent and paused at the sight of Sailor Mercury advancing on him. The air about her was so terribly cold that snow fell freely around her armored body, cloaking her in a curtain of white.

Power rolled off of her as well. Not as much as the boy, but it was more than what he expected from his prey. It was considerably more than he remembered her wielding in their last conflict too, a thousand-fold more!

How could this be? He had delved deep into her mind. There was nothing to indicate that this well of magic had been sleeping in her! He cast about and found himself boxed in between the Lunarian whelp, Isis, and Senshi Jupiter. Faced with such power, Marut knew that there was no way that he would escape this intact. His monstrous grin hid his fear behind a mask of anticipation.

At the very least, this would be a battle the likes of which none would ever forget! He started to gather his power, intent on overwhelming Mercury in one final blow when a bolt of lightning struck him squarely in the back for the second time.

Pain and the stench of ozone assaulted him as he was driven back, away from both Mercury and the boy. He growled but refused to take his eyes from the object of his hatred. Lightning arced wildly about him again, but Marut was able to dodge the rest of the attack with little trouble. The odds were beginning to look more and more unfavorable for the demon, which meant that he would have to even the playing field a bit before focusing his attention on his true goal.

His arm shot out at Jupiter, sending inky-black fire coursing her way. When they came, Marut roared in agony and defiance as he was driven closer and closer to the edge of the tower's shattered windows. He was satisfied by her scream of agony even as he braced himself for the next few attacks.


Okay. This wasn't so bad. Really. Most everyone that she could see was focused on the fight between Ranma and the bad guy. She should be able to explain away Makoto's transformation as some sort of hallucination.

Yeah.

Usagi winced as her panicked mind tried to wrap itself around such a complex problem. She watched the battle, wincing as poor Ranma found himself being slammed repeatedly into the floors and supports of the tower. She knew that she had to slip away and change, but there was no place for her to go! The deck was an open area, save for the elevators, and everywhere she looked there was another set of eyes watching and waiting for her to do something. Or so it seemed.

Someone screamed and pointed, drawing Usagi's attention back to the battle. Ranma was being brutalized, but that wasn't where the future queen of the Moon and Earth found her gaze drifting. Her eyes settled on Ami and winced. Not you too!

She watched Ami's face harden as the change took over. It was so cold and focused. People shied back from her, and from the way that it was starting to snow around her, Usagi could almost feel pity for the poor monster. The changes in her uniform were startling to say the least. Both Mercury and Jupiter had tapped into something new and primal during this battle, something that Usagi couldn't remember them ever doing in any of their past battles.

They looked beautiful and deadly. Which, judging from the attack that Jupiter was building, wasn't too far off the mark. Usagi wanted to cheer. She wanted to cry too, but she could understand their sacrifice. There were cameras flashing everywhere now, and recognition was starting to dawn on people's faces, most notably amongst her classmates. She chanced a glance at Minako, who seemed just as torn as she was. Usagi followed her gaze to where a news reporter and her cameraman had pulled themselves a little apart from the crowd and, from what Usagi could see, the woman was giving a blow by blow recount of the battle. There was a mad gleam in the reporter's eye at catching the first documented battle of the Sailor Senshi on film. It made Usagi sick to her stomach, just thinking about the fallout from this.

At the same time, she could feel the pull of the Ginzuishou calling her to transform and battle the evil before her. The pulse and sway of the power was chilling. She had thought long and hard about the consequences of an enemy finding out their identities. Her family and her friends would be placed in terrible danger. Could she jeopardize their lives to once again save the day?

Dang it all! This was just not fair! Her conscience was telling her to screw the secret identity and do what needed to be done. The logical side of her brain, the one that Ami had worked so hard to cultivate, was telling her the exact opposite! Why couldn't there ever be any easy choices?

Her indecision lingered until she heard the monster roar in agony. Her eyes shot up in time to see Ranma gracefully twisting in the air. There was something odd about the way that he was moving to her eyes, but when he landed there was no doubt that something dreadfully wrong had happened while she was distracted.

He was crouched low to the ground and held himself like Luna had when she had sprained her paw. Radiance began to spill from his body, outlining him in a corona of white flames that physically pushed the shadows back. All sense of humanity fled his posture as he began to lick his wounds in a very cat-like way. But the most shocking thing that she noted was the burning, golden crescent that had again taken shape on his forehead. It seemed to pulse in time with her heart.

A thunderous rush of air blasted past her as Jupiter fired off her attack, drawing her eyes away from the young man. Something tickled her memory about the boy, but it remained just out of reach. The demon responded by sending a wave of black fire towards Jupiter, causing her to duck behind a pylon. The metal warped, bubbled, and finally melted beneath the magical flames. Luckily, the monster was too busy to fire off another shot.

Both Mercury and Ranma launched themselves in tandem the moment the monster attacked Jupiter. The Senshi of Ice called out no attack phrase. She just slashed the air with her arm, sending a number of icy javelins the creature's way. It was sickening the way that each frozen spear pierced the thing's body — but not as frightening as the cold rage that Ami-chan was barely holding in check. Usagi had never seen so much hate on the quiet girl's face.

Ranma followed immediately after Mercury's assault, and Usagi almost lost her lunch. There was no beauty in the way that the boy attacked. In a way, he was a lot scarier than Ami was. Especially when a casual flick of his wrist nearly severed one of the monster's legs just below the knee.

Black blood was everywhere, and Usagi clung to Minako for comfort. The fetid, coppery smell of ozone clung to the air as Makoto charged up again. The creature was almost to the edge of the shattered windows. Usagi could see that their plan was to drive the beast off the edge and let the fall finish the job that they had started. All three of the defenders were closing in for the kill.

Every motion captured Usagi's attention. The air about Mercury was growing colder, coalescing into an icy buckler and a wickedly curved sword that sparkled in the light of Ranma-kun's white aura.

Jupiter had somehow called forth a barbed spear and was setting herself to fire another attack when the monster roared again and unleashed a torrent of black fire in a controlled arc that knocked all three opponents back. Mercury was unable to retain her balance and fell to one knee, barely presenting a solid defense to her foe, and was immediately set upon by the crippled monstrosity. A fist shattered her shield and knocked her flat on her back. The second hit took her in the stomach with enough force to compress the floor around the Senshi's body. Usagi could feel the thing's blow all the way from where she stood and winced.

She looked to Minako, worriedly hoping for some miraculous insight, but frowned at the expression of deep determination on her friend's face. She gripped Minako's arm tightly and shook her head, silently warning the other girl not to join the battle. Maybe the others were already on their way. If so, the addition of so many new faces would give them time to slip away and change.

Jupiter flew past them during Usagi's planning, thrown bodily into the wall above the elevator with a loud crash. To Usagi's surprise, many of the bystanders went to her aid. They cheered as one when the Senshi of Jupiter stumbled to her feet, leaning heavily on her newly acquired polearm. Usagi could see that her ponytail had been burnt down to a small stub and winced. If Makoto hadn't been gunning for the monster before….

The train of though was cut off as Usagi's eyes locked with Jupiter's. The future queen of the Earth recoiled from the glare her loyal friend sent her way from the center of the crowd. The look of betrayal that was in Makoto's eyes hurt more than any punch or energy blast Usagi had ever taken. She glanced at Minako and found a similar expression growing on the blonde's face as well. Why couldn't they understand that there was so much more at stake here? It wasn't like she was enjoying standing on the sidelines! Not with Ranma getting himself so hurt, but there were innocent lives at stake here!

But wasn't Ranma an innocent too?

Minako, having come to a decision, stepped forward and drew forth her own henshin pen. Usagi scrambled to stop her, and got a hand over the other girl's mouth before she could call out to Venus.

Uncertainty warred with the need to help. What could she do? Ranma seemed to take that choice from her hands as he attacked the monster from above. Usagi searched out the Senshi of Ice, and found her battered and bruised body being supported by a group of girls. Half of her shield had survived the monster's assault, although her sword was slick with black blood. There was a giant bruise on her right cheek that was already turning black and purple and she was clutching her ribs tenderly.

Ranma howled, sounding so much like Luna did when she was really and truly pissed off that it made Usagi's skin crawl. Everyone's gaze turned to him and a good number of people were violently ill at the sight of his furious attacks. Deep claw marks opened up on the monster's body, and more than a few could be seen gouging long furrows into the support structure, ceiling, and tiled floor of the observation deck around the combatants. It was a miracle that the demon hadn't fallen yet. Usagi couldn't understand how the monster could survive such fatal blows.

It was a terrible sight that would haunt Usagi for a very long time to come.

She watched in awe as Ranma once again single-handedly drove the monster to the edge of the tower in an unrelenting tide of blows. The speed and accuracy of his attacks were literally shredding the thing. She couldn't hold it in any longer and followed the rest of the crowd, purging herself of her lunch and breakfast. The sounds of tearing flesh and animalistic rage continued to assault her as the pair traded even more blows.

Usagi couldn't bear it anymore. How could they continue to fight? How could the monster still be alive after losing so much blood? It was a wonder that Ranma could fight at all, the way that his arm dangled. She tried to shut out the sounds that assaulted her, but couldn't.

"We need to help them!" Minako shouted over the din of battle.

Usagi just stared at the tableau before her uncertainly. Minako growled and pulled Usagi around to face her.

"Don't ignore me, Usagi! Look at him! He's fighting our battle! We should be the ones in there, not him!"

"Don't you think I know that?" Usagi hissed. "How are we supposed to change in front of all these people and keep our secret identities intact? What happens to our families when the media gets ahold of this footage? You were there when everyone pounded that lesson into my head. If it was important then, it should be important now!"

Minako frowned and looked away. Sparing one agonizing glance down at the pitched battle raging before her, she held forth her henshin rod again and looked at the people around her nervously. An explosion rocked the tower again, causing people to scream. Fear and hopelessness reigned throughout the observation deck. Minako looked to Sailor Jupiter as she looked for an opening to re-enter the battle and smiled. She couldn't stand to let Makoto shoulder this burden alone. "Maybe its time to stop fighting from the shadows, Usagi. Maybe its time to shine with hope for all to see."

"But what about our families!" Usagi protested quietly. "What about our lives? How are going to keep them safe?" Minako frowned and looked at destruction being wrought as Jupiter was driven back by the combined fury of Ranma and Mercury as they double-teamed the monster. She looked out over the city and, with a deep sense of dread, saw a group of winged forms rapidly approaching the tower.

"Our lives are tied to those we love, Usagi. We can't protect them from our world forever." She pointed to the newest arrivals, and smiled sadly. "Someday, it will find them whether we like it or not, just as it always finds us." Minako raised the rod high above her head as Jupiter joined them. "Better that we fight these battles on our terms, than always being subject to our enemies'."

Usagi bit her lip and looked away. Jupiter rested her hand on Usagi's shoulder and turned to Minako and silently thanked her. The blonde girl hesitated no longer. She dug deep into her soul and called the power of Venus to her. "VENUS CRYSTAL POWER, MAKE UP!"

The crowd parted for Jupiter and Venus as they hurried back into the fray, failing to see the video camera that a man had pointed in their direction. Usagi saw it, though, and paled. She seriously doubted that the microphone could have recorded their conversation, but she knew that people could read lips. She'd read a manga about a spy once that could do it.

This sucked. If her secret wasn't ruined now, it would be by the end of the day.

"What should I do?"

"What you have always done, my Princess. Follow your heart."

"Pluto!"

"Don't sound so surprised."

"Are the others coming?" Usagi couldn't help but hope that the others could put this menace down without her, but from the look on Pluto's face, that hope was dashed.

"Uranus and Neptune will undoubtedly arrive soon with Saturn, but Mars probably won't arrive in time to be of much help."

Usagi looked at the crowd, seeing more than one person wounded, and sighed. The weight of their suffering was damning. She was supposed to be the one protecting them. Not Ranma, and not her Senshi. She was the Princess, and therefore it was her example that they should be following, not the other way around.

"Can we protect our families?"

"The whole earth is our family, Usagi," she said with a sad smile. Tears were starting to form at the corners of her eyes.

"That's not what I mean, Pluto, and you know it," Usagi said crossly. "Can we protect our families?"

"There are contingencies available, should it become necessary."

"Can you make them forget?" Usagi asked hopefully. That hope died a withering death under Pluto's disapproving gaze.

"Contrary to popular opinion, I am not that cold-hearted." The green haired woman frowned and looked to the crowd, singling out the cameraman and the reporter pointedly. "We protect the agency of men, Princess. We safeguard their freedoms and nurture their hopes. We don't play God."

"Then what do you suggest we do?" Usagi pointed to the man with the camera. "By five o'clock, Venus, Jupiter and Mercury's identities will be public! And I'm certain that mine won't be far behind now! We don't have a lot of time to work with here!"

Pluto remained unruffled. "We have options, Princess."

A bit of the steel that had been shining through lately made itself known as Usagi's back stiffened noticeably. "For once in your life, give me a straight answer, Pluto." Usagi crossed her arms angrily and waited.

"Safe houses."

"How safe?"

"About as safe as you can get."

"Where are they?"

"Do you want that information to be on the five o'clock news as well?" She pointed to the reporter and her cameraman who were no longer trying to be discrete about the camera pointed in their direction.

Usagi sighed and shook her head. "Will they be happy?"

Pluto shrugged. "Who can say? Personal happiness is not my realm of expertise." Yet another explosion rocked the Tower. "What I can say is that I am needed. Will you be joining me?"

Usagi, like Ami, looked into the eyes of her remaining classmates and friends. The fear and helplessness that she saw there seemed to mimic the struggles in her heart.

Her eyes slowly drifted to the cameraman and ultimately his camera. She sighed in resignation, looking back on her friends and classmates one last time with longing. The distance between them might as well have been an unbridgeable chasm. There was no doubt that they knew she was a part of this now, but they couldn't say what role she played. It would be so easy to just transform and be done with it, but something held her back. She nodded at Pluto and cast one last tearful smile in the direction of Naru and Umino.

She felt Pluto place a hand on her shoulder and looked up in time to see her friend's smiling face. It was comforting, but more comforting still were the presence of the others that were even now arriving in a shower of multicolored lights.

"Are you all right?" Mars' voice was filled with concern as she ran over to the pair. Usagi shook her head and looked back to Jupiter who simply stared back at her. Usagi felt as if she had been slapped. She had all but turned her back on the battle raging before her; more than that, she had all but turned her back on her friends.

Usagi looked to where the monster was starting to retaliate against Ranma again and came to a decision. She didn't like it, and the thought of what she was about to do made her stomach tie itself in knots. Her Senshi were right, though. Ranma was fighting her fight and bleeding the blood that she should be spilling. Usagi stood angrily and brushed out of Mars' grip.

"Get the rest of the civilians to safety," she commanded. She spared one last look back to the battle and pulled her broach free. The Ginzuishou pulsed visibly, drawing every eye to her. Time seemed to slow as the eyes of everyone on the observation deck turned to face her. A single tear fell down her cheek as she looked into the camera. "Sorry, Mom. Sorry, Dad." And then the world was bathed in a white, healing light.

Everyone stared at the sight of Sailor Moon replacing Usagi Tsukino. Umino passed out completely. Naru had covered her mouth with her hands, and a number of Usagi's other friends had slack jaws and buggy eyes. Kogara-sensei, who had recovered somewhat from her earlier shock, followed Umino's reaction and fainted again. And then someone screamed.

Sailor Moon snapped her attention back to the enemy in time to see him once again slam poor Ranma into the floor. Skin hung freely from its frame in a macabre display of violence, and one of its arms was missing completely. Rivers of black blood coursed from thousands of deep wounds to pool beneath the demon's body.

Ranma, while not as bad off as the Rakshasa, was snarling and flailing his one good arm, and the ceiling above him began to shred by some unseen power. Sailor Moon held herself at the ready for the next attack that she was certain would come, but to her surprise it never did.

The monster took one look at the assembled Senshi and growled. He then looked at the struggling boy that he had pinned beneath him and smiled at Mercury. Usagi gasped and shook her head as the beast gripped Ranma firmly by the throat with its remaining hand.

"His death for your eternal suffering, Mercury." The thing's voice was a gurgling mess that carried wetly on the wind. "A fair trade in the end."

Mercury screamed and a lance of ice rocketed through the intervening space, tearing through the monster's mid-section like it was paper. Its laughter was wet and insane as he teetered on the edge of the abyss.

Usagi watched dumbly as the creature allowed himself to fall backwards, out of the shattered windows and into the open air beyond. Mercury launched herself from her position next to Saturn without a second thought. The Outers did their best to catch her, but her fear gave her amazing speed. Three rapid bounding steps and she too flew from the observation deck. Sailor Moon felt her legs give out and her heart clenched as Jupiter and Venus scrambled to the edge of the window. Despair filled her heart as Pluto wrapped her in a warm hug.

"Too long," she whispered. "I waited too long."

 

To be continued.

Chapter 9
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Last revision: May 21, 2007

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