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3-H: Part 3— Opening Moves…

By Shade

Disclaimer: Ranma ½ and affiliates are the property of Rumiko Takahashi, Rifts and Phase World are owned by Palladium. Other references belong to their respective owners.


He dreamed.

And remembered…


-Shadows From The Past

"…That's it, lad. Never let your guard down. Always remember, you'll find few friends and far too many enemies on the path you've chosen. You can't ever afford the luxury of believing you're safe."

"Hai, Conner-sensei. I'll figure out a way to counter your techniques one of these days, just you wait and see!"

The indignant mock glare he shot at his teacher and friend caused Conner to chuckle in rueful amusement. Although there was no malice in his student's words, there was no mistaking the very real determination behind them.

"I'm sure you will, Ranma."

The older man offered a hand to his student, who was sprawled painfully on the cracked and blackened earth. The morning's training had gone well. The boy was finally starting to hold his own against his teacher's straightforward and relentless combat style after only a few months, truly astonishing for one so young.

"Yes, I've no doubt that one day you will."

The two of them rose from the ground and hovered briefly in midair as they reoriented themselves toward the direction of their camp. As always Conner was amazed at the uncanny affinity his apprentice had for the sky; it seemed to come to him as naturally as breathing.

But the wily old man had a few tricks here, too.

"Ready for your next lesson?"

In response Ranma groaned halfheartedly. He knew what was coming and it wasn't going to be pretty. And he used to think Genma had been a tough teacher!

"Alright, but this time we stick to sub-sonic!"

"Complain, complain. A real man would try to overcome his limitations."

The young CosmoKnight snorted rudely. He wasn't falling for that one again!

"So says the one who can break Mach 10 without even breaking a sweat."

Conner just looked faintly amused.

"Ready?"

Resigned to the inevitable, Ranma nodded reluctantly.

"Yeah."

"One for the money, Two for the show, Three to get ready, and Four to…"

Zip. Zoom. Zing.

"… Go!"

Both went from a cold start to over 900 mph before he even finished. Only the fact that Ranma had been expecting exactly this sort of behavior from his sneaky sensei gave him any chance at all. It was a race of skill as much as speed; their positions were only a few meters from the ground itself, and the countless canyons and numerous rocky outcroppings made it a challenge to avoid running into anything. Although it wouldn't actually hurt either of them too much, it would serve to slow them down and they were already neck and neck as it was.

But that was also what made this so much fun.

For the rest of his life, Ranma would remember this all-too-brief time as the first where he had ever been truly happy, since arriving in this strange dimension. Perhaps because now there were others like him, and here he was no longer alone.

But the peace wasn't destined to last.

All too soon, the horror found its way here.


Disclaimer: It's the disclaimer that never ends,
It just goes on and on my friends,
Yes, it's the disclaimer that will never end,
Going on and on till your brain goes insane,
It's the disclaimer that never ends—
*BLAM* *BLAM* *BLAM*

"Got lamb?"


-Eclipse

*Click* "Whirrrr"

Stop. Rewind. Play.

The watcher's cold eyes studied the scene again. He had been doing little else for the past three days.

Scientists, technicians and soldiers all hurried about behind him. The massive fortress was a bustle of excited activity, but the watcher paid them no heed. All of them were less then worms to him, to be extinguished at a whim when their usefulness finally came to an end.

*Click* "Whirrrr"

Stop. Rewind. Play.

It had taken nearly a week for his operatives to recover the data stored in the cybernetic spy-drone, partly because the person who'd attracted his interest had also been responsible for taking out several of his best agents.

But when its memory had been finally decrypted, the results recorded inside had exceeded his wildest expectations.

*Click* "Whirrrr"

Stop. Rewind. Play.

The crucial scene played out before him once more…

Sagat, the former Thai kickboxing champion, executed his deadly Tiger Uppercut perfectly.

There were few fighters that could ever hope to avoid such a powerful blow, even had they known it was coming. With the element of surprise on his side it should have been all but impossible for anyone to dodge, let alone counter.

But that was not how it played out.

His opponent seemed to 'shift' position in mid-jump, slowing his descent at the very moment Sagat began his attack and turning impossibly to the side, avoiding the strike by mere centimeters.

Then the youth's leg flashed up and out once, coming down on Sagat's collarbone in a devastating axe kick. His coordination and flexibility defied both the laws of gravity and physics. As for his strength…

The kickboxer went crashing down into the mud with all the grace of a load of bricks.

One arm lay twisted and broken in the muck while his single good eye lolled about in unconsciousness.

Medical facilities would later report that nearly three quarters of the bones in his body appeared to have broken on impact.

A leer that was not entirely sane seemed to have become permanently affixed to the watcher's face.

Such deliciously brutal power.

Power that would soon belong to its rightful master.

Bison.

*Click* "Whirrrr"

Stop. Rewind. Play.


…The Season of Darkness


-Ill Tidings

"What's wrong?"

Katrina gave the guide a look of concern.

Nick was the one who answered her.

"It's a Naruni Repo-bot. And that particular model is Kehal Ridge, one of Naruni Enterprise's top assassins."

"I take it that he doesn't usually enter this establishment?"

He almost cracked a smile. Almost.

"Damn right. That walking arsenal of death never hangs around places like this. Only reason that he'd come here would be if he's looking for something."

A disturbing thought came to Sun.

"Or someone."

Croaker nodded, but his eyes never strayed an inch from the dangerous cyborg.

Katrina's companions weren't the only ones in the bar unnerved by the presence of the notorious assassin.

Chairs shifted uneasily as uneasy patrons moved their hands closer to various concealed blasters and other weapons while sliding back just enough from their table so that it wouldn't get in their way should they suddenly find the need to take cover.

But none of them was stupid enough to try and make the first move. Repo-bots were feared for a very good reason; they were state of the art killing machines outfitted with the most advanced offensive and defensive systems that Naruni Enterprises had to offer. The regular Class I A.P.E. (All-Purpose Elimination) models were a match for an entire squadron of power armors.

Kehal Ridge was a Class II A.S.S.I.S.T. (Advanced Strategic Stealth Interrogation & Sabotage Type), a design that was far superior to the Class I. Although the exact details of his armament and defenses remained mere speculation and rumor, it was known that Ridge had once killed two Mature Adult Great Horned Dragons single-handedly for defaulting on payments to Naruni Enterprises.

Any sentient being unlucky enough to have attracted his attention here was to be pitied… from a safe distance away (preferably another planet if possible).


-Run, Do Not Walk, To The Nearest Starship!

Sophisticated thermal sensors picked out the Fealnach's image from the rest of the crowd almost immediately. When agitated the body temperature of the pathetic scum nearly doubled, making them easy prey when one was searching for information. It also helped that the vermin were spineless cowards, having evolved to sentience from a species of Eurycotis.

Ridge took the most direct route toward his target, ignoring the wild scramble that took place as various terrified individuals scrambled to get out of his way.

While the Repo-bot paid no attention to the rabble, his onboard combat computer was tracking every movement with a watchfulness that bordered on paranoia. Over half a dozen concealed weapon systems waited on hair triggers for even the slightest hint of a potential threat.

Kehal had not survived seven hundred years of corporate infighting by being careless.

Especially now, as he attempted to pick up the trail of one the most dangerous individuals in the galaxy. If that wasn't enough to make him more cautious than usual, Naruni Enterprises' Black Op files had also revealed that he wasn't the first representative to be sent out after this particular troublemaker.

Three full teams, including four fellow ASSIST Repo-bots had been dispatched in the past year. All of them had been wiped out down to the last agent. Ridge had no intention of sharing their fate.

With calculated force one heavily armored arm slammed down on a table to corner the cowering Nach.

"I require some information in your possession."

"Anything! Just please don't kill me!!"

It was almost amazing how effective a properly worded request combined with the right amount of tactical demonstration was at getting the desired results from such a normally unhelpful source.


-Check, Please!

"Time to go."

As much as she would have liked to disagree with Nicholas, Light couldn't refute the logic of his words. The longer they stayed here, the more likely it was that the Repo-bot would identify either herself or her Rebel contact. Although she had no recollection of ever having dealt with Naruni before, something in her head warned the Leyline Walker to be careful around them. The guide had already made tracks; no payment was worth his life.

"Agreed. Is there a back way out of here?"

Nick rolled his eyes despite the seriousness of their situation.

"This is a respectable Spacer Bar. Of course there're alternate exits to slip out of."

Kat grinned sheepishly.

"Silly me."


-Shades of Starlight

A figure half-hidden in the farthest corner of the room dumped a few cred chits on his table as he abandoned both it and his untouched drink in favor of following after the two who had just left.

His prey had always favored females with spirit. It seemed that his patience had finally paid off this time.

What might have been a twisted parody of a smile passed beneath the watcher's ragged hood.

"Soon, Saotome… my revenge against you and your master will be complete."


-Dispatched

"Apepi, Anhur. You know what to do."

From the shadow of his throne came a bestial roar of acknowledgment.

"Raagghh! By your leave, Lord Set."

On the other side materialized a large figure dressed in warrior's garb.

"…"

The Jackal God's eyes were cold chips of black ice.

"Do not fail me."

Diamond hard scales scraped harshly against the obsidian floor. The monstrous form trembled from the effort it took to restrain its natural instinct for blood and death.

"Shrissshhh. We go."

"…"

Assassin and beast vanished into the darkness.

Alone once more, Set's animalistic features turned savage as he clasped his fingers together.

{How can a mere mortal manage to evade my loyal followers at every turn for so long?!}

It was a question that had frustrated him for years. His minions had been hunting what seemed the human equivalent of smoke. The boy always seemed to be on the move, never staying in any one place long enough to be identified and terminated. By the time most bounty hunters or assassins learned of his presence he was usually already long gone, leaving nothing but chaos in his wake. To this end, he had been forced to send his two best killers out on the cold trail.

In a way, the diabolic fiend was almost envious of Ranma's affinity for destruction. Thanks to the hero's interference, many of the evil deity's rivals and even his allies were now at each other's throats. To be outdone in trickery and bedevilment by such a lesser being was an insult that simply could not be tolerated.

{You will never escape me, Saotome. Even if it takes a thousand years, you will pay…}


-Things Can Always Get Worse

It was a somber group of Senshi that met in the Cherry Hill Temple. Today hadn't been one of their better showings. They'd been caught with their tactical pants down around their ankles.

Worse, innocent civilians had nearly paid the price for their screw up. And screw up they had, big time. Not since first accepting the responsibility of being Sailor Senshi had they ever done so poorly against the enemy. The majority of the Inners had had their collective Sailor butts handed to them on a silver platter by a foe they'd thought long vanquished. The Outers weren't in any position to boast either, especially seeing as they'd done a fair job of mucking things up themselves.

It would have been embarrassing if the situation hadn't been so serious; instead, it was terrifying.

But of even more pressing concern for the girls was this mysterious new element that had entered the field.

"He's strong."

Makoto started the ball rolling, for once temporarily pushing aside her love-starved romantic side in favor of a more necessary tactical objectivity. It wasn't much fun, but given how close things had gotten today she wasn't about to start complaining now.

She wasn't always obsessed with finding a man.

Really. Why would I lie?

"He seems to possess exceptional offensive and defensive tactics, suggesting that he also possesses an above-average intelligence as well as some prior knowledge about the enemy."

"Huh?"

Everyone sweatdropped and stared at the now blushing blue-haired girl.

"Um, he's a good fighter and he's probably done this kind of thing before."

"Oh!"

Trust Ami to make a GIANT understatement!

"Sneaky."

This came from Michiru as she shot a rueful look towards her partner and fellow Outer. The disgusting goo had finally evaporated from them both some time ago, but not even a thorough scrubbing had managed to completely dispel the clinging aroma of sun-spoiled vegetation.

"Not to mention fast."

Haruka's eyes narrowed as she replayed the fight in her head again. She was the quickest one in the group and he had still run rings around her without even half trying.

"He's trouble."

Setsuna finished with a sharp snap of finality. She pointedly refused to meet the curious eyes of the other girls.


Hot. So very hot.

Other presences nearby.

Strangers.

Need to rest.

Tired, just tired.

No, something's wrong.

Where am I…


-Old Wounds

The ancient CosmoKnight had never had a student demonstrate such promise before; the young man absorbed in hours what normally took weeks or even months to instill into other beginning Knights. He had already passed on several lifetimes worth of knowledge to him, not all of it having to do with battle. The seeds of the past would indeed be carried into the future.

Yet Conner also knew that their time together as master and apprentice was fast coming to an end. Ranma's place was not here. They each had a duty to fulfill; one that neither of them would ever shirk. Such was the fate of the CosmoKnight.

That fact saddened him, for he suspected that their paths would never cross again.

"Brooding again?"

The teasing voice of his lifemate was a welcome interruption from his gloomy line of thought.

He looked up in time to see his wife descend a few meters in front of him. Her armor flashed out of existence to be replaced by her favored mode of dress, tight jeans and T-shirt. Although physically appearing to be only a petite little flame-redhead in her early 30's, Sarah Hawthorne was only a few centuries younger then her husband.

The relative difference in age mattered nothing to either of them. Their feelings for each other had lasted through thick and thin for more then ten thousand generations.

Although such unions were rare, they were not unheard of.

Immortality all too often proved to be a lonely fate, and even the CosmoKnights were not immune to love. But only with an equally long-lived spouse was there any real hope of sustaining such a relationship.

Conner had been one of the lucky ones.

His partner understood him, accepted where his duties lay as he did with hers. Theirs had been a true matching of hearts.

{Beloved, I was never truly alive until I met you.}

A rare smile found its way to his face.

"Ah ha! I bet you're thinking about something kinky!"

Conner fought against the blush that threatened to swamp over him. He still hadn't quite gotten used to her occasional bawdy remarks, something she delighted to rib him about whenever an opening arose.

Then he noticed that someone was missing.

"Where's the young lad?"

She smiled back with just a hint of mischief in her expression.

"He's resting."

The old Knight raised an eyebrow.

"Do you always have to keep knocking him unconscious when you're training?"

Sarah punched him lightly on the shoulder.

"You're a fine one to talk."

She started snuggling up against him, and for a moment Conner had his hands full trying to keep her out of all sorts of interesting but also highly inappropriate places. Not that he was trying very hard, but it wouldn't do much for his dignity if Saotome were to suddenly fly up just in time to see his teachers rolling around in the grass like a pair of hormone-crazy teenagers.

"Meanie!"

"Oh hush. What if the boy were to see us?"

"Pooh! It'll be at least another fifteen minutes before he's even able to think about getting up."

He winced inwardly. Sarah never exaggerated when it came to assessing things like that. Of course the amount of injury needed to be bio-regenerated for that long a time would have to be…

{Ouch. I'd better get some caffe ready for when he gets back. I suspect my poor student is going to need it!}

"Ranma is something though, isn't he?"

Surprised by her sudden change in topic, he let her curl up close alongside him.

"Hmm?"

His wife looked thoughtful as she tried to phrase what she had sensed during their training together into words.

"He has the gift. I've never seen it so strong in one of us before."

Conner's eyes grew troubled, the concerns he had kept hidden from his eager pupil now coming to the fore.

"I have. Once."

Unbidden, the memory arose of another time so very long ago, when there had been another young man that the Forge had held equally high hopes for. One of their greatest, whom they had believed was the one intended to fulfill the prophecy of the First Ones.

They had all been wrong. So terribly wrong.

{We should have seen the signs. But our hopes blinded us to the truth until it was too late.}

That mistake had nearly destroyed the CosmoKnights and everything they stood for. And even worse, it created their most terrible foe, the Ravager.


-Painful Decisions

"He's still burning up! Belldandy, there has to be something we can do!!"

Urd had never felt so helpless before. For all her power, healing wasn't her forte and she could only watch as convulsion after painful convulsion rocked her rescuer's fevered body. Blood trickled sluggishly from where the wrappings around his chest had come loose, and the deep wounds stubbornly refused to clot on their own.

"I've done what I can, Urd. His wounds are too severe for my simple healing spells, and anything stronger in his weakened condition will almost certainly kill him."

The younger goddess looked exhausted. The past several hours had not been kind to her. Despite her best efforts the young man's vital signs continued to deteriorate at an alarming rate.

It was almost as if his body was trying to voluntarily shut itself down. Every bit of magic she'd tried to use to stabilize his life-force had been savagely rejected by his body, almost as if it didn't recognize that she was trying to heal him. This made no sense at all. She knew exactly what was necessary to treat a human, thanks to Keiichi, but this time it wasn't working.

{What's wrong with him?}


His body fought against the alien forces interfering with the healing trance, even as his mind battled the ghostly phantoms of days long gone…


-Reap The Hurricane

Defeated. Again.

"He did it to me again!"

This was starting to get repetitious.

"Damn it! It's going to take forever to clean this mess up."

He hated to lose.

"Peel how many potatoes?!"

Scratch that. What he really hated was getting stuck with all the chores as a result of losing.

"More firewood?!! Are we planning on starting our own little forest fire or something?!"

At least it served as good motivation to do better the next time.

And he was learning. Slower then he liked, and much too painful even for his taste, but he was definitely starting to make some progress.

"Ow…*note to self*, 'When your instructors tell you not to overdo it, listen to them!!'"

Of course, Ranma Saotome had never been known for his sense of patience. He knew that it wasn't their fault. But it was just so incredibly frustrating; after more then a decade of martial arts training he had to start over and learn everything again from the basics up.

It sucked, but he didn't have any other choice. He was more of a danger to himself right now than to any enemy.

Normally most fledgling Knights had little trouble adjusting to their new status, but the problem was that Saotome had been too good a martial artist before his transformation into a CosmoKnight.

While his new body was taller, stronger, faster, tougher, and better in every way over his original one, the newly added height and weight had initially left him feeling gangly and awkward. His center of gravity had shifted, making even the simplest of techniques problematic at first. All of his reflexes had been completely out of synch, unbalanced by the sudden changes in reach and spatial position.

What had made him a master of the Art wasn't mere strength or speed; it had been knowing— not assuming, but knowing— his entire body was in state of perfectly balanced harmony. Ranma had spent almost his entire life training in order to achieve that extraordinary level of self-awareness.

And then he had lost it all in a single night.

It had been hard, suddenly being reduced to the martial arts level of a rank beginner. Even now his skill was still only a fraction of what they had been before. All this power, so much he could actually feel it flowing through his veins, and it was totally useless because he couldn't use it properly yet!

There were some battles that could be won through sheer brute force alone, but not against opponents of Conner and Sarah's caliber. They had quickly proven that from his very first day with them.

Conner's fighting philosophy consisted of only three things.

Hit Hard.
Hit Fast.
And Don't Stop Till You're Standing And They're Not.

Simple, but effective.

Unfortunately for Ranma, the old man was very, very good at practicing what he preached. He also believed in what Saotome privately referred to as "The Genma Style School of Hard Knocks as the Best Teacher".

Needless to say, while this approach did indeed work, more often then not it also left the young man lying flat on his back for hours at a time waiting for broken bones and torn muscles to regenerate.

Conner didn't believe in pulling his punches… much.

Sarah was even worse (or better, depending on your point of view). While nowhere near as strong as her husband, the lady was unbelievably fast. She might not hit as hard as his other teacher, but she was able to get in twice as many attacks in only a quarter of the time.

Ranma now knew how Wile E. Coyote felt when facing the Roadrunner.

Her 'Starlight Dancer' technique made him feel like he was standing still in comparison.

For the first time in his life he faced someone whose reflexes were even better then his own.

Put mildly, it wasn't a pleasant experience.

On a good day he might, just might last more then 10 minutes. On a not so good day, he was sucking turf before he even realized that she'd begun to move. At least he was learning not to blink during a fight.

{I suppose it's not really fair to blame them. They've both got more combat experience under their belts then anyone I've ever met. Heck, Conner was talking about fighting in the First Anvil Horde War, and that was over two hundred THOUSAND years ago!}

It was more then a little intimidating, being in the company of individuals who were older then certain civilizations.

{I'd love to know how they deal with that kinda stuff. It makes my blood run cold just trying to imagine living a fraction as long as they have. What must it be like for them, having seen and done so much? Where do they find the strength to keep on going like they have?}

A shadow appeared overhead, blocking the warmth of the orange sun.

It was followed by a perky, cheerful voice he was beginning to dread hearing.

"Break's over, bucko! Up and at 'em."

Ranma winced. She and Conner must have had quite a night if that vixenish smile was any indication. He was going to be in for a whole 'nother world of pain shortly; he had noticed that Sarah was always more energetic the day after that.

{Why me?}


-Fools and Folly

"Damn you, Saotome…"

As Ryoga Hibiki trudged through yet another thick and twisted forest that his lousy sense of direction seemed to always inevitably lead him, he remembered once again the events that were responsible for his bitter and twisted mission of vengeance. It had all started back in Junior High.

He had been the strongest.

Unable to navigate any distance greater then what he could see in front of him, but still the strongest boy in the entire district.

The IQ of a rusty doorknob, but still no one had dared to laugh at him, because they had known what would happen to them if they did.

He had commanded respect back then. Even if that respect had come from fear, it had been enough.

And Ranma took it all away from him.

—(Become One With The Flashback)—

Welcome to the Kyoto Academy for Boys; one would be hard-pressed to find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.

"That bread is mine!!"

Young Ryoga Hibiki leaped for the prized last curry bread of the day.

Although the other boys jostled and quarreled among themselves like a pack of wolves at the lunch counter, all of them made sure to give him a wide berth.

All of them, except for one.

The new kid had just arrived that very morning. At first glance he seemed to be nothing special, except for the sissy little pigtail.

Ryoga had dismissed him almost immediately as being beneath his notice, and the other students had quickly followed his example and ignored this "Ra-something" character. So far all the newcomer had done was watch everything around him with a wide-eyed fascination, almost as if the dummy never been in such civilized surroundings before.

Fangs bared in a predatory grin of anticipation, as he closed in on the prize.

*BONK*

A sudden weight on his head pushed his face down at a sharp angle. Pain erupted from his neck as it protested this unexpected change in its workload. Then the heaviness on his head disappeared and Hibiki found himself plummeting toward the cafeteria floor.

*SPLAT*

Unable to comprehend what had happened to him at first, all he had been able to do was lift his head and stare in disbelief at the person responsible for this humiliation.

It was that scrawny, snot-nosed little punk!

Even as he watched, that bastard smirked at him and took a bite from what was supposed to be his curry bread!

Worse, he could hear the whispers passing among the other students about his defeat. He wasn't someone to be taken seriously anymore; "see how easily that little guy kicked the mighty Hibiki's ass?"

It was starting…

The laughter, that hated laughter!!

NO!!!

Nobody mocked him! Nobody!!

{I'm going to crush him!! It's all his fault!!}

But first he needed to know his opponent's identity. Only then would he obtain total satisfaction when he finally beat the runt into a bloody pulp.

"What is your name?"

Then came the words that would haunt his nightmares for years to come.

"I'm Ranma, Ranma Saotome."

That name, that disgusting, vile source of all his misfortune!!

In that moment Ryoga realized that he had met his mortal enemy.

"Ranma Saotome, I will NEVER forget this offense of the Curry Bread!!"

'But things didn't work out that way, did they?'

He had spent two weeks fruitlessly searching for the Saotome boy, two weeks lost in places like Yokohama and Hokkaido. By the time he finally got back, it was lunch again. Deciding that his enemy must have chickened out by now, he put aside his search temporarily in favor of getting the last melon bread of the day.

But that wretched Saotome…

"I will NEVER forget this offense of the Melon Bread!!"

And two weeks later…

"I will NEVER forget this offense of the Meat Bread!!"

Again.

"I will NEVER forget this offense of the Cutlet Bread!!"

And again.

"I will NEVER forget this offense of the Noodle Bread!!"

'And every time he still beat you, no matter how hard you tried.'

Ranma made his life a living HELL!

Finally Ryoga just couldn't take it anymore.

He had challenged his arch-nemesis to a duel in the lot behind his house.

But when he finally arrived on the fourth day…

All he found was a note.

[Waited three days for you to show up. Couldn't delay anymore; me and Pop are going to China. Guess this means I win.

-Ranma ^_^

P.S. No hard feelings.]

And this time nothing could silence the contempt of his peers. The entire school had known about his appointed duel with Saotome. His reign of terror among them had been broken. Now they branded him a coward, an outcast; not a man, but a lowly crawling worm to be shunned by all.

'Yes, Ranma destroyed your life. If he hadn't run away you would have crushed him like an ant and regained the respect of the other boys.'

It was Saotome who was the coward! Ranma was the one who ran away from him!!

If Saotome was dead, then all of this humiliation would go away!!

And so Ryoga vowed then and there that he would spend the rest of his life to hunt down and destroy his enemy! Only after he had torn Ranma Saotome limb from limb would his destined future happiness be assured!!

—(Let Go Of The Flashback, Already!)—

'Together we can put an end to Ranma.'

"Yeah! Hey, wait a minute!!"

He wasn't going crazy after all! There really had been a voice talking inside of his head all this time!

"WHO ARE YOU?!!"

'An ally who can make you powerful beyond your wildest dreams.'

"GET OUTTA OF MY HEAD!! I'LL KILL YOU!!"

The voice abruptly went silent.

Ryoga grinned evilly, believing he had scared away the teasing woman that had been speaking inside his twisted little mind.

From inside his shadow, the diabolical image of Pantha Zo'a smiled as well.


-Pass the Sake

From her current base of operations, a slightly scorched Demoness (1st class, unlimited) polished off another bottle of sake. It joined a growing hill of empty bottles as she attempted to dull the extra crispy treatment she'd gotten when the building she'd been spying from had gone up like a gasoline-soaked match thanks to that crazy Sailor psycho.

{And to think that people call us violent. Sheesh!}

Unfortunately there were some drawbacks to this place.

"Hey! Are you going to just sit around and get drunk?!"

Number one being the building's owner, Sayoko Mishima.

Mara didn't need this; with today's plans blown up in her face all she wanted to do right now was get good and drunk. Besides which, her head hurt.

"Not sho' loud!!"

"Kami-sama! You look like you've gone through a garbage incinerator!!"

She winced. When was that damn girl going to remember not to use the "K-word" around her?

"Jus' a lil' scratch. A'l be *hic* fa'n."

It looked like her treatment was finally working.

{Well Mara ol' girl, looks like it's back to the drawing board. I do hope they didn't kill him.}

Surprisingly, the demoness found that she actually meant that. Even if she was one of the bad guys, it didn't mean she got her kicks by torturing people… at least, not in the physical sense. Messing around with their heads and causing mischief was fun and all, but even she had her limits. If she'd known those nutcases were actually going fry him instead of just kicking him around a little bit, Mara would have dropped the entire plan and just made her offer to him in person.

"At leash then I'd a ha've a dinner date inshtead of being stuck in the ol' witch's place."

"WHAT DID YOU CALL ME?!!"

Oh, hell. This was just not her day.


-Imperial Battle Cruiser "Dark Impaler"

"My lord, we have arrived at our destination."

"Excellent. Prepare my shuttle and two wings of Interceptors immediately."

"As you command."

The aide turned and left at a quick trot. You did not run in the Ironclaw's presence. And it had only taken 34 aides to get that point across to the survivors.

[This is a waste of time!]

Jarenz didn't need to turn to know who dared to question his stratagem. There was only one soul aboard that could get away with such insolence without fear of instant retaliation.

His Rune Weapon, Infernal Retribution.

Although the enmity between Jarenz and Saotome was fierce, it paled in comparison to the state of overwhelming hostility that existed between their respective Rune Weapons.

Ironclaw's Impaler contained the soul of Volsai Lezlod, a vile being who had once been one of the most feared Demodand Princes in Tartarus. Ironically, Volsai's downfall and subsequent enslavement had been the result of losing a powerful artifact he had coveted, known as the Crystal Shard.

Volsai and Ishtar HATED each other beyond all reason, and their feelings toward their adversary's owner were only slightly less volatile. This mutual enmity was partially due to the fact that they had been old enemies long before becoming entrapped within the Weapons that now housed their souls.

In fact, it had been Ishtar who was responsible for thwarting Volsai's possession of the Shard, banishing the evil device to the Ethereal Plane in hopes that it might be lost within the eternal mists for all time.

Her plans ultimately failed in the end, but not before leading to Lezlod's downfall.

He had never forgotten that.

The Impaler had been obsessed with finding a way to destroy its most hated enemy once and for all. It took centuries of waiting and scheming, but the hateful soul finally found a way to strike back at her.

It had been Volsai who directed the attentions of the Splugorth toward Ishtar, setting off the chain of events that had led directly to her capture and imprisonment inside the artifact known as the "Key".

To this day the fiend was still trying to find a way to truly get rid of its most hated enemy once and for all.

[I want to frag that bitch and her puke-faced protector! Rip them to pieces!! Tear out their still beating hearts and eat their livers!!]

"Patience, Volsai. We shall deal with them both soon enough."

In the contest of wills Jarenz was always the victor. He ruthlessly quashed Lezlod's attempts to try and assume control of their bonding.

Ironclaw was the absolute master of his domain.

That was always the way of things.

{You've hidden yourself well this time, Saotome. My spies have not discovered anything so far, nor do I expect them to. To evade even the eyes of Imperial Intelligence requires assistance of a considerable level, beyond even that of your most powerful allies. The question, then, is how did you manage to get this aid?}

With the failure of conventional resources of information, he was now forced to resort to alternative means in order to secure badly needed intelligence on his old foe.

Time was working against him. There were already far too many others also searching for Ranma. Sooner or later one of them might get lucky, and he could not allow that!

Saotome was HIS to defeat!!

{Now we shall see if the Delphian Oracles are truly as learned as their reputation indicates.}


-Falling Star

He was enjoying a rare afternoon off from his nearly constant schedule of training when the first signs of catastrophe made themselves known.

{I gotta admit, this planet may be dull as dirt, but the sunsets are so gorgeous that they almost make up for it.}

Lying back against one the short and stubby blue trees that made up the majority of the native foliage here, Ranma was amusing himself with an old child's game he had used to play during that lonely training trip with his father.

{That cloud looks like a okonomiyaki with all the trimmings. And that bunch of mountains over there reminds me of those dumplings on Gemini II. Boy, those were great!}

(Somewhere, a cow moos.)


… Well let's see you try and come up with something better when Genma Saotome was the only adult responsible for most of your upbringing!

The fledgling Knight had just identified a full six-course dinner using just the sun and a barely visible sea to the west when a shooting star caught his eye.

"Hmmm?"

Intellectually he knew it wasn't really a star, most likely it was just some random space trash that had been caught in the planet's gravity well and on its way to burn up in the upper atmosphere. Amazing what a little enforced learning could do for a guy who'd never even had a chance to properly attend school his entire life.

Idly he tracked the object's descent, trying to gauge its mass and velocity in order to guess how long it would take to flare out. Judging from the size and dark purple glow he didn't think it would be very long at all.

{Five minutes. Six, tops.}

Then all of a sudden it changed course.

"What the?!!"

That wasn't a meteorite!

"Oh, jeez! Sarah and Conner are going to want to know about this!"

{So much for my night off.}

Choosing discretion over speed, Ranma fixed the object's current heading into his memory and then started jogging back toward the camp at a respectable 200 mph.


-Shattered Trust

"Team 2 report! Respond, damn it!! That's an order!!"

General Skythe glared impotently at his silent wristcom. Something was very wrong here, and his people were caught square in the middle of it.

{Someone gets to the governor first, and now the entire command net is down. Coincidence, or is there something else going on behind them both?}

His gut was telling him it was the latter. It was just too neat. The communications network was of Alliance design, featuring numerous safeguards and redundant backups to prevent just such a blackout.

Which meant that this had to have been intentional.

"I can't get anything either. Everything's dead."

Hsi-Feng banged her unit against the wall, frustrated as her grandfather was at the now useless piece of equipment.

Dennis's first impulse was to order his squad to take her back to base. But he knew that the little pain in places best left unmentioned would never agree with his reasoning and trying to force her to go would only end up with somebody else getting hurt.

{Why did Ranma have to go and teach her those damn fighting tricks for her birthday instead of just getting her a regular present like normal people?!}

"Sergeant!"

"Yes, General?"

"Take the rest of your people back to the secondary rendezvous point and try and see if you can reestablish communications with the others."

"Right away, General!"

The non-com gave her leader a thankful look, relieved that the "Hotheaded Firebird" was his problem now.

Dennis checked the charge on his weapon. Seeing how low it was, he slipped a fresh E-clip out from his belt and switched magazines. A small digital readout on the side of his rifle now read a green "100%".

"Come on, Squirt, lets go and check out that control room."

Hsi-Feng grinned and briefly stuck her tongue out at him.

Together they started to make their way toward the ominously silent Central Control.


-Bitter Fate

Conner's face was deathly pale when Ranma finished reporting what he'd seen.

"So, he's finally found us."

Sarah clutched her husband's side with strength born of anger and concern.

{It's not fair!! Why now?! After all this time, how did he finally manage to discover this place?!}

Her fears were not for herself, but for the man she loved. He had told her enough for Sarah to know that Conner would be the prime target.

The old Knight took a deep breath and then exhaled slowly, taking a moment to gather his thoughts.

{No matter how far we run, the past still manages to catch up to us.}

He had known that this confrontation was inevitable, but Conner wished with all his heart that he'd been given more time with Sarah. Somehow he knew that this would be the deciding ground.

{So be it.}

He would face the Ravager one last time.

Puzzled by this strange behavior, Ranma looked back and forth at both of them. He had never seen his teachers like this before.

{What's going on?}

Why were they so afraid?

He opened his mouth to ask when Conner's harsh voice suddenly cut through the uneasy silence.

"Take the boy and get out of here."

He would try and buy them whatever time he could, but Conner knew this foe all too well. None of them were safe from the CosmoKnight's Bane, The Ravager of the Dark.

"I can help!!"

Ranma's natural stubbornness kicked in. It wasn't in his nature to run away from a fight, especially if it meant deserting his friends. He would rather die then abandon people he cared about!

"You're not ready to face him! Go!!"

Conner didn't have time to argue, every second was precious now.

"But!"

He couldn't run away! He just couldn't!!

{I won't be like my father!!}

"Get him out of here!"

The Knight met his wife's grieving eyes. They both knew what had to be done.

"Look out!"

Instinctively Saotome turned toward the apparent threat, before realizing where the real danger was.

"Guhh…"

Ranma bent forward, eyes wide with a sense of betrayal as his trusted teacher sucker-punched him.

{Why…}

He heard Sarah whisper softly into his ear as she caught him.

"I'm sorry."

Then he knew nothing more.


-For the Want of a Nail…

She was the pride of the Free Worlds, over three miles of heavy armor and weapons, the infamous 'Doombringer' class Super Dreadnought. Renamed "Hopebringer" after her capture by the first Rebel forces over a hundred years ago; she now served proudly as the flagship of the main Rebel fleet.

The Hopebringer proudly carried the scars of countless engagements on her hull. So many attempts had been made by the Imperial Navy to destroy this ship that her entire frame was permanently stressed at numerous points and filled with thousands of micro-fractures. Despite this, she continued to carry on the fight for freedom against the Transgalactic Empire.

It was from aboard this ship that the invasion of Ristmoth was being coordinated. Harried communications officers sweated visibly as they transmitted orders and updates from the chain of command out to the entire fleet, calling in up to the minute status reports, and otherwise trying to keep the whole bloody operation straight and organized.

So it was understandable that a strange but insignificant report from one of the fleet's corvettes was not exactly high on their list of priorities to deal with.

Understandable, and unfortunate.

By the time message traffic cleared up enough to deliver the message, it was already too late.


-Curtain Call

Her voice was hard with tightly controlled anger as she met her grandfather's eyes.

"I've found another one."

Skythe swallowed a useless curse.

"That makes ten so far."

Ten more families he would have to write to, explaining why their sons and daughters weren't coming home.

{When I get my hands on the bastard responsible for this, they're going to wish that their parents had never been born!!}

The cause of death was simple enough. The corpse's throat had been slit from ear to ear, leaving a thin strip of skin and bone attached between the head and body.

"Poor guy never had a chance. The sonovabitch used a goddamn vibro-blade!"

Once the two of them realized that nothing more could be done here, they moved on toward the central control room at an angry pace.

But when they entered it Skythe and Hsi-Feng found the place was already occupied.

"What the…?!"

"Hold it right there!!"

There was a scary moment as both sides pointed their weapons at each other, fingers on hair triggers.

Then Skythe slapped his free hand against his forehead in disgust.

"You?!"

The General flicked the safety on his weapon and holstered it. There was no sense in tempting fate any more then he had to.

{I don't believe this!!}

"What are you two doing here?!"

Standing in front of him was half of the entire leadership of Ristmoth's Rebellion.

They were both human, heavily scarred from years of covert warfare against the

Empire and having a slightly gaunt look that spoke of moderate malnutrition.

The years had not been kind to any of the people on this planet who didn't belong to the .00001% of the population holding high rank in the Imperial Service.

Rusty, the leader of the Southern Factions, was a former planetary Peaceforcer and almost a quarter cybernetic due to injuries he had received both before and after his defection to the Rebel's side. Over 2 meters high and weighing at least 250 kilos, he also had the distinction of having one of the most intimidating appearances on Ristmoth.

Sharra, head of the Rebel Intelligence Network, had started life as the daughter of a slave in one of the thousands of hellholes that mined the planet's mineral wealth. She had clawed her way out of that deathtrap and used her hunger for revenge against her oppressors to turn herself into a brilliant and devious strategist that delighted in tricking Imperial Troops and leading them to their doom at every opportunity. Tall and wiry, her thin frame possessed a steel-like strength that few could believe until they experienced it firsthand.

"We were about to ask you the same question."

Sharra's gravelly voice, the result of a childhood spent breathing crushed ore and vaporized smelting residue, sounded even more ill-tempered then usual.

Beside her, Rusty nodded in silent agreement. In one smooth motion he shouldered the heavy rail-gun that he had been aiming at Skythe.

"There is something strange going on."

Hsi-Feng snorted rudely before lowering her rifle as well.

"You ain't just whistlin' Dixie!"


-Cold Comfort

When he finally regained consciousness, it was to find that night had already fallen. A hint of nausea from his midsection let him know that he still hadn't recovered completely from being hit by Sarah. The second thing Ranma noticed was that she was carrying him in a most uncomfortable position over her shoulder. Third was the realization that his teacher was traveling at an airspeed well past the supersonic level.

His stomach lurched in protest of the last two little bits of information. Prudence won over valor as Saotome remained still with his eyes closed, fighting down the sickening sensations through sheer force of will.

{Wait… this could be my chance. If I can catch her by surprise, then maybe…}

"Don't even think about it, Ranma. Not unless you're looking for another instant nap."

He froze. How had she…?

"I felt your pulse quicken through your hip when you woke up. As for the rest of it, the way your train of thought works is very predictable after awhile."

{Shit!}

"Now, we're almost there. Give me your word of honor that you won't try something incredibly stupid like going back to help Conner and I'll let you loose."

Stubborn silence.

"Otherwise my only other option to make sure you get to the sanctuary is another love tap."

Sarah gave him less then a minute to think it over, knowing that if he didn't accept she was in for quite a struggle.

No matter how much she sympathized with his feelings, even though she wanted to go back more then anything else in the universe, she knew with a stark certainty that both of them together wouldn't be able to help Conner. Their presence would only distract her husband and slow him down. The odds were already bad enough for him as they were.

{I'm sorry, Ranma. But there's nothing either of us can do. Conner's right; you're not ready. If only we'd been able to complete your training… then… but that's just wishful thinking now.}

"Well?"

The look Ranma shot at her was mutinous, as every fiber of his being cried out for him to go back and help his teacher. To simply abandon a comrade in arms went against all he had been taught and believed in.

"You can't ask that of me!!"

But he also knew that if it came down to it, he didn't stand a chance against Sarah in a real fight. And she would make good on her threat if he refused.

CosmoKnights never bluffed.

They didn't need to.

Ranma had never felt so helpless. His rage at the trap he now found himself cornered against burned impotently inside of him.

{Damn you Sarah!! Why?! WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS?!!}

A resigned sigh finally escaped from his tightly clenched lips.

{Damn you…}

In the end, the only choice was really no choice at all.

"…Alright."

True to her word, she let him loose.

He immediately dropped like a rock.

Then the CosmoKnight focused his innate flight ability and his descent stabilized. It took him only a few seconds to rise back up and join her under his own power.

Sarah nodded, satisfied that he was recovered enough to fly without any assistance.

"Now that that's settled, we have to move quickly. We've wasted too much time here already."

{I only hope that someday you'll be able to forgive me for doing this.}

Her heart heavy with grief and guilt, Sarah didn't look back as she led her charge away from the coming battle.

{Because the Forge knows, I won't.}


-Troubled Skies

"This is Angel One to Papa Horse, looks like clear sailing from here on in."

"Acknowledged, Angel One. The transports are preparing to drop now, so we can take it from here. Your new orders are to patrol intervention sphere Zulu until relieved. Take Angel Two and proceed there posthaste. Falcon and Hornet are already running suppression on secondary objectives."

"Roger that. But personally I'd be a lot happier if a few Imps were still left up here. All this waiting is getting on my nerves!"

"Nothing we can do about it, Yukio. High Command's running this little show and they want to capture this world as intact as possible."

"I know, I know. A girl can dream, can't she?"

"Well if you do find anything… Good Hunting."

"Thanks, Tania. We're heading out there now."

Two Katana starfighters broke off from the main convoy and began their descent into Ristmoth's atmosphere. Their sleek predatory lines glowed slightly from the residual heat of friction as thousands of individual air molecules impacted against their force fields at several times the speed of sound. Night black with starburst patterns all along the top and bottom of the arrowhead shaped craft, they were nearly impossible to spot with the naked eye in deep space. But on a planet where the sun shone high overhead, they stood out like a pair of sore thumbs.

Though these fighters appeared to be almost identical to their original design specs, a closer inspection would discover several unsettling anomalies. The first being that the frames of the fighters had somehow been worked on in the front to accommodate a second particle beam cannon in addition to the standard main weapon already built into the hull. Second would be the medium gravity rail gun mounted snugly below the nose of each Katana. The third discrepancy was the addition of an auxiliary booster under the main drive. Most of the rest was more along the lines of subtle modifications and tinkering that slightly improved the crafts' maneuverability and overall performance.

But the most important difference between these two fighters and the standard Katana was the modular weapons pods that they carried. Not satisfied with the models currently available to the general public, the Twins had convinced Silvia to tweak their payloads. But still unhappy with the limitations of even the tricked out pods, they had finally gotten the eccentric engineer to design new weapons pods customized exactly to Akiko and Yukio's specific tastes.

The end result was nothing short of terrifying.

Two state-of-the-art starfighters, armed with enough firepower to devastate a small continent, were in the hands of a pair of slightly crazy action junkies, ready and eager to take their vehicles beyond any limits ever conceived of by the original designers.

"Let's rock and roll! Full burn!!"

"Right behind you, Sis!!"

The only consolation the Alliance had was that at least these maniacs were flying on their side!


-Have A Nice Day

Two figures dashed through the strangely quiet streets. Every now and then one or the other would take a quick glance behind them. It only confirmed what they had suspected since the moment they'd left the bar.

"We're being followed."

Nicholas nodded as he continued to scope out potential ambush sites and possible sniper positions. In Phaseworld, it wasn't "were they out to get you", it was "where they were going to get you".

"Can you figure out how many of them there are out there?"

Katrina made a "no can do" gesture with her free hand, as her other was now firmly grasping the handle of her holdout blaster, a gift from Ranma during their travels in Africa.

"They're staying just outside of my detection range. But there's at least two of them back there."

"Oh? How can you tell?"

"One of my psychic probes smacked into a mind-block before they backed off. But at the same time I also picked up traces of a different presence nearby. The funny thing is, I don't think that they've noticed each other yet."

"Great, maybe they'll all kill each other and save us some trouble."

She looked at him strangely for a moment, unable to tell whether or not he'd been serious with that remark.

"I hope you're armed with something a little more effective then your sense of humor."

Nick gave her a small smile as he produced a handheld video camera from somewhere on his person.

"So what do you think?"

Sun stared at him.

"Is this supposed to be some kind of joke? What are you planning to do? Make home movies of us being chased by whoever's back there?!"

His smile widened.

"Not exactly."

Nick thumbed the 'pause' button on his camera. The moment he did so the innocent looking device underwent a startling transformation.

The camera turned a liquid silver color as the lens began lengthening into a solid barrel while the rest of the main body compacted to reveal its true identity.

"I think that this should be effective enough."

Croaker held up a now fully morphed Daisho-10 laser submachine gun. Then he took another look behind them and his smile vanished.

"Oh, damn."

Their pursuers had finally abandoned any pretense of stealth. Nick was finally able to get a good look at them.

The trench coats, pulse pistols, and ominous sunglasses of the Imperial Transdimensional Secret Security Infiltration Network were unmistakable.

"I.T.S. S.I.N.!"

Katrina assumed from his unhappy tone that these guys weren't good news. Her suspicions were confirmed almost instantly as the Rebel Operative began to spray laser fire down the street, forcing the figures chasing them to scatter.

But that was of secondary concern; Sun was already concentrating on her spell.


-Extreme Measures

Urd paled as she saw what her sister was preparing to do.

"Belldandy, you can't be serious!"

For once the brown haired goddess didn't smile when she addressed her older sister.

"We've run out of options, Urd, and he's running out of time."

Even Blessed Bell, her normally cheerful angel, had a worried expression on her face. The simple fact that Belldandy felt Bell's presence was necessary was enough to give her older sister the willies.

Angels were only brought out for the most dangerous of the White Magic spells. They served as a kind of celestial grounding unit, ensuring that the magical power required by these spells didn't also cause the caster to explode from a Mana overload.

"I'm going to try a Complete Ritual of Full Restoration. But I need to ask you to serve as the conduit; your shields are stronger then mine and I'll need all the power I have just to complete the spell and keep him alive long enough for it to take effect."

"But if you use too much of your life force trying to revive him, your material form could dissipate for hours, maybe even days!!"

"And if I don't do this, he'll die. This man saved Skuld's life. Now it's our turn to repay that debt."

Seeing that nothing was going to change her mind, Urd nodded in reluctant agreement. Belldandy was right, as always.

And deep inside the heart of the Goddess of Love was a small voice whispering that maybe this guy's fate was more important to her than she wanted to believe.

Of course she ignored it.

Since when did Urd listen to anybody's advice?

"Just… just be careful. Okay, Sis?"

Belldandy finally smiled.

"Okay."


-Regrets

The figure ran blindly through the pitch-black forest. Every now and then he stumbled and slowed on the treacherous terrain, but not once did he ever stop. Nor did he ever dare turn to look behind him. To do so would only confirm what his instincts had been screaming at him for the last few hours.

He was being hunted.

Above him, the rumbling sky threatened to finally unleash the fury it had been building up to for the past several hours. It was nearly midnight and he was tired, cold, and, although trying desperately to deny it, afraid. Somewhere behind him, lurking in the hostile darkness, was the nightmarish figure that his friends had tried so desperately to stop. They had tried so hard to protect him.

They'd failed.

His eyes burned, but the time for tears would come later. For now, all he could do was keep moving and try to stay ahead of his relentless pursuer.

Ranma was determined to make sure their sacrifice had not been in vain. He had to keep believing that, otherwise that would mean he'd thrown away his honor for nothing. And if that was true, then there was truly nothing left for him in this life but madness and death.

His destination was a mountain chain a few kilometers away; hidden there was the small scout ship that he'd used to get to this planet. Although capable of surviving in a vacuum, his control over his powers had not yet matured to the point where he could leave a planet's atmosphere unaided. There was no safety anywhere on this world now, but in the vastness of space even the most determined hunter had no more a chance of finding him then they did of catching the end of a rainbow.

Deep in his heart Saotome longed to just to turn around and face his enemy.

But Sarah's last words to him kept echoing in his head.

"Run! Get away from here!! Finish what you have begun, find your destiny!!"

And like a base coward he had fled, the last pained but determined expression on her face seared forever in his memory like a burning coal.

He had left her behind, knowing somehow that she didn't stand a chance against whatever was chasing them. In doing so he had broken the oldest and most important promise to himself Ranma had ever made.

He had abandoned a friend. Even knowing that there was nothing he could have done to stop her, that, damn her eyes, she'd been right, the guilt threatened to crush him beneath its unbearable weight.

{There had to have been another way! I should have found one!!}

But the cruel truth was that there hadn't been.

Conner had known that, and so had Sarah. There was always a price to be paid, and hope carried the steepest one of all.


-Fight Or Flight

The most dangerous thing about magic-users isn't the power of their spells. It's how their devious minds come up with such nasty ways to use what's available to them.

Case in point, the incantation Katrina was casting was a second level spell known as "Grease". Not possessing much power in and of itself, but simple and easy to cast quickly. More importantly, Kat knew exactly how to use this spell for maximum effect.

"For the foe who runs on steady feet, find now no purchase upon the street!"

A clear viscous liquid appeared underneath the feet of four of the approaching Imperial Agents.

The result was almost comical to watch.

"Waaaggh!"

"Look out!!"

"Augggh!!"

"Can't stop!!"

This was immediately followed by the sound of several high-speed collisions as soft flesh impacted against very, very hard Mega-damage walls.

*WHAM*

*CRUNCH*

*SQUISH*

*SNAP*

"…medic."

Having successfully dealt with a third of their pursuers, Sun turned her attention to the rest of them.

{Heh! Next… Eh!}

And promptly ducked as a pale yellow particle blast cut through the air where she'd been standing.

"Keep your head down!"

Nick punctuated his advice with a well-placed shot from his submachine gun. The beam drew a curse from an overly daring agent that had exposed his arm in order to fire.

"Sonovabitch!"

Dark plasti-armor sizzled as the laser burned deeply into it, stopping just barely short of the actual arm itself.

"That outta give those idiots some second thoughts about taking us on. I don't suppose you've got any other tricks up your sleeve?"

Kat turned to look back at him.

"Actually, I was going to ask you the same thing."

Nick grimaced.

"Sorry, miracles aren't my specialty."

Her blaster soon joined his Daisho-10 in keeping the rest of the Imps from trying any similar acts of daring.

For a few heated minutes the situation remained a bitter stalemate.

But then at last came a noise that Croaker had been dreading all along.

Not from the front, but behind them.

"This way! Cut them off!!"

The sound of Imperial reinforcements.

"Oh hell, we're in trouble now."


-Further Complications

The communicator's visual display crackled as an excited SIN agent reported their quarry's current status.

"This is Team 1, we've found them! Currently under heavy fire, requesting immediate support from all available units to Port Junction 9, Section 35!!"

But the woman that owned this was already long past caring about such things.

"Target One positively identified as Packrat. Target Two is an unidentified female believed to be connected to Objective Mustang. Treat with extreme caution, we believe she may possess dangerous psionic…*zzzt*…"

A dark metal heel ground both communicator and the cooling wrist it was still attached to into the ferrocrete.

Everything was going as planned.


-Death Ground

The first icy drops of crimson rain finally began to fall. As a byproduct of this planet's unusually high concentration of iron deposits, everything on this world was tainted by the oxidized material.

Ranma ran on.

The endless line of trees was starting to thin, he was finally coming to the end of the forest.

{Only a few more hours until I reach the ship…}

And then he felt it. The Knight froze where he was, not daring to move even an inch as a chill ran down through his suddenly tense body.

{!}

The air had gone completely still, an unnatural silence broken only by the falling rain. Now more then ever it reminded him of freshly shed blood.

{I'm being watched…}

The hair on the back of his neck rose as he anxiously looked into that dreadful darkness, desperately searching for any sign of the hunter's presence.

{Where?!}

To go out in a blaze of glory protecting others or in the defense of life, freedom, and honor, that was an end he did not fear. But to be brought to ground in an empty wilderness like a prize stag… he didn't want to die like this.

{Not like this!}

Despite his best efforts, he could find nothing out the ordinary; no explanation for the expectant hush that draped over this edge of the woods. His night vision was keen but severely limited. With only the ambient light from stars and an occasional play of distant lightning from the approaching storm the CosmoKnight could barely make out anything past fifteen meters in front of him.

Everything seemed to look as it had before.

Only his instincts told him otherwise.

{He's here… somewhere.}

The attack came from the left.

Only a high pitched humming at the very last second gave him any kind of warning at all.

*zummm*

He was still trying to make sense of the noise when his left eye exploded in white-hot agony.

{Aaaagghh!!}

Clutching his torn face with a bloody hand, the CosmoKnight dived for cover even as his free arm came up in retaliation.

An incandescent bolt of blinding light lit up the night as it disintegrated a dozen trees and two mossy boulders in its path before finally expending the rest of its barely diminished energy on a craggy overgrown steppe just under a mile away. The blast was so destructive that the steppe didn't even explode, it simply vaporized.

His action had been born of pure reflex, but he regretted it almost immediately.

{Damn it! Shouldn't have done that!!}

Ranma had just made a BIG mistake.

The flash from his blast burned into his own retinas, effectively ruining his night vision. While with his training the time he would normally need to recover from this would only be a few minutes, those were minutes that he didn't have.

Because with that shot he'd also just given away his position to whoever was out there.

{Damn it, Saotome, get your ass in gear and MOVE!!}

Scrambling to his feet, the Knight abandoned his position in the mud not a moment too soon.

*Zummm*

The deadly hum sounded again, grazing his head an inch above his right ear. Fighting down the panic that threatened to erupt, Ranma rolled and twisted again as something sharp sliced through a branch somewhere in front of him.

*Zuuummmm*

{Where is it coming from?!!}

He recognized what that sound was now.

A Malkovitch Death Disk, an exotic, highly illegal weapons system used only by professional killers and a fringe of eccentric weapon collectors. Galactic society in general considered the Death Disks highly abhorrent; even hardened criminals usually wanted nothing to do with these sadistic killing devices.

Small, lightning fast, and nearly impossible to destroy, they were armed with a miniature contra-gravity generator and jagged monomolecular blades. The disk worked as a flying buzz saw. They homed in on their targets through a sophisticated laser targeting system and then slashed them to pieces. Humans and similar 'soft' races were usually cut in half after one pass. Even Mega-damage body armor couldn't stop them most of the time.

The only real drawback of the weapon was that it required a line of sight in order to hit anything, giving it a maximum range of about five hundred feet. There were plenty of other weapons that could have taken him out from farther away, which meant that this Hunter wanted to have to close with his intended prey.

{He's toying with me…}

First being hunted like an animal, now this. Only someone that enjoyed seeing a victim's blood liked using a Death Disk for the kill…

… It was the final straw.

He had been pushed too far.

{NO MORE!!}

Something deep inside of him snapped. The chilling fear fled; in its place began to burn an all-consuming rage.

{I'm through running. Whatever happens, I am a CosmoKnight. I will not disgrace the vow of loyalty I took. This ends now! One way or another, IT ENDS!!}

The bleeding Knight ceased his evasive movements and came to a deliberate halt. His ears alert for the telltale whine of the deadly disk, he began to wait.

A warm feeling started building in his stomach as he closed his useless eyes. His hearing flickered for a fraction of a second before suddenly sharpening to where he could now distinguish the sound of individual raindrops striking the forest floor. The rich smells of a living ecosystem filtered through his nose, the sharp tang of rust overlaying them all.

The chill of the night seeped through Ranma's wet skin. He accepted it without complaint. Concentrating instead on the flow of the air around him he waited for his chance.

*zzz*

It was coming again.

*zuuu*

Closer. Not yet. He needed to strike at the very last second in order to give its AI no chance to evade his attack.

*zuuu—*

It was closing fast, the distance disappearing with every heartbeat.

*—mmmm*

The moment came.

*zzzissh—*

Ranma's hands blurred as he used the speed enhancement technique that Sarah had taught him only a few weeks ago.

"Kachu Tenshin Amaguriken!!" (1)

Most of his punches missed. But he was throwing out hundreds of them and the laws of universal probability declared that at least some of them would connect.

One of them did.

*CRACK*

Mega-damage alloys and micronized electronics shattered, bits and pieces crashing into the brownish-red mud. In return, its deadly blades slashed deeply across the knuckles of his right hand.

He ignored the pain; it was a small price to pay. Opening his one good eye, the CosmoKnight was rewarded with a whole bunch of dark blurs instead the big light blur that he'd been seeing. But Ranma would be damned before he'd let that stop him now.

{Let's finish this!!}

He dropped into a fighting stance and yelled angrily into the silent night.

"Come out and face me like a man!"

'ssshhhh'

A stray breeze moaned softly as the surrounding darkness grew even colder.

"I am Ranma Saotome, Heir to the Anything Goes School of Martial Arts and Protector of the Cosmic Forge. If you want my life so badly, try and take it from me!!"

At first there was only the wind.

But then came the cool voice that would forever haunt his darkest nightmares.

"Brave words, boy."

Overhead, the storm finally broke. For an endless moment a gigantic jagged bolt of lightning filled the cloudy skies with savage azure fire.

"Brave, but foolish."

Although still fuzzy at the edges, Ranma's vision was clear enough for him to finally see his enemy for the first time.

{!!!}

He could only stare at first, paralyzed with shock from what he saw.

{It's impossible!! He's… he's…!!}

"I fail to see why those stubborn fools tried so hard to shield such an insignificant weakling from me…"

Ranma bristled defensively.

{Gotta keep it together, I need to stall him long enough to regenerate a little. No matter what he says I can't let his words get to me!}

There was a brief pause as the blurry figure stepped closer.

"… Conner must have gone senile in his old age…"

Ranma could taste blood from where he bit deeply into his lower lip.

{No, it's just what he wants!!}

"… And that woman of his was just as stupid to believe in him."

{!-!-!)

"SHUT UP AND FIGHT!!"

Boundless contempt dripped from his lips as the Ravager responded to the crude challenge.

"As you wish."

And the battle was joined.


-Escape

"Here they come again!"

"Tell me something I don't know!!"

Nicholas pulled a fist-sized gray capsule from his belt and pushed down on the center.

*Beep*

He tossed it over the totaled hovercar they were using for cover.

"Fire in the hole!"

The anti-personnel grenade peppered the area with deadly shrapnel, hitting everything within its radius indiscriminately.

It bought them a few extra seconds.

The two of them used the time to abandon their position and quickly scrambled down a blind alley. Sun got a mouthful of her own hair as she put on an extra burst of speed. The Leyline Walker quickly spit it out in disgust.

"Where are the cops when you need them?!"

"They don't get involved in these kinds of off-world affairs. We're on our own."

"Well that's just GREAT!"

Their pursuers had recovered and were once again on their heels.

"If we can make it to the starport, we'll be able to lose them."

The shouts and cries were getting closer.

"Got any ideas on how to do that?"

Long distance energy blasts began flashing by. They were missing so far, but every shot brought the range closer to their targets.

"As a matter of fact…"

They were finally entering a more active section of the level. The few pedestrians scattered and ran as soon as they realized that a running battle was coming through. Nicholas paid them no heed, having more important worries at the moment.

Besides, he was more interested in the vehicular traffic.

An unlucky hoverbiker chose exactly the wrong moment to stop in front of a nearby bar for a quick drink.

A swift kick deposited the lanky humanoid onto the ground in a rougher fashion than it had been expecting.

"Gloorrrl?! HOKOSHO!! BRAELNE!! BRAELNE!!"

Nicholas wasted no time in mounting the now riderless vehicle. Katrina quickly realized his plan and scrambled up behind him. She gave the owner a look of apology.

"Sorry, we need this more then you do!"

The Rebel agent spent a few seconds to familiarize himself with the controls. Once satisfied that he could fly this oversized mechanical monster, Nick tossed back a quick warning to his fellow passenger.

"Hang on!"

That was when Kat realized there weren't any safety harnesses on this thing.

"Wa-Wait!!"

*VAAAVAAAVAAAVOOOMMM*

Croaker and Sun were treated to acceleration from standing rest to 250 kilometers per hour in the span of three seconds.

"Aaaaaa!!"

Without the benefit of seatbelts.

"AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!"

That's more like it.


-Duel Of The Fates

He fought bravely, using every technique, every bit of skill at his disposal.

"Bakusai Tenketsu!!" (2)

He fought tenaciously, never attacking the same way twice. Learning almost instantly from every move, successful or not, and adapting his style accordingly.

"Mizu Dai Geki!!"(3)

He fought with the certainty of youth, believing in his heart of hearts that justice would prevail.

"Aaaagggh!"

Ranma fought… to no avail.

"Uwwaaa—!!"

The air was blasted out of his lungs as another one of the Ravager's attacks smashed through his defenses and sent him hurtling straight into the side of a rock ledge. The stone shattered where he impacted, and as Ranma struggled to get back up he vomited a mouthful of blood onto the hard surface.

{He's… too… strong…}

His knuckles were raw and swollen from countless failed attempts to strike his enemy. His left kneecap had been smashed in, and his one remaining good eye was swollen almost completely shut. Half his ribs were crushed, and blood ran freely from dozens of ugly wounds all over his body.

"Is that the best you have to offer?"

"Nngghh… Shut… up!!"

Slowly, painfully, Saotome started to claw his way back to his feet. He managed to get nearly halfway up before an armored heel smashed into his left kidney and sent him crashing back down.

"Pathetic."

A second kick struck him from behind and Ranma felt his left arm snap like a brittle twig. Flashes of blinding white flooded his vision as wave after wave of indescribable agony flooded through him. Helpless tears of impotent rage clung to the edges of his half-blind pupils, stubbornly refusing to fall. Still he continued trying to fight back. Instead resisting the imparted momentum he rolled with it, redirecting most of the force into a desperate low kick. His form was almost perfect, even with the injuries slowing him down. Exactly like how he'd practiced in training.

But 'almost' wasn't good enough.

"Too slow."

His attack was stopped far short of its mark. The Ravager had an advantage in power and reach that Ranma couldn't possibly hope to match with just his bare hands. And Saotome had already discovered firsthand just how strong his opponent was.

{Damn… you…!}

A wet explosion marked the swift destruction of his right kneecap.

"…!!"

There was nothing left in his lungs for him to scream.

But even worse then the physical pain was the coldly indifferent expertise that the Ravager was using to take him apart.

Methodically, efficiently, and brutally, the fledgling Knight's moves were countered, his strategies nullified, his hopes crushed.

{Conner… Sarah… I'm sorry… I tried…}

There were a hundred moments in the battle where his enemy could have finished him off but did not, choosing instead to continue to break him. His healing factor was stretched to its limits as each new wound sapped away at his diminishing strength.

Dying by inches.

And there wasn't a damn thing he could do about it.

His limp body landed on a rocky outcrop that gave way under the violence of his landing. He tumbled down the rough slope, leaving a crimson spattered trail in his wake.

"And to think those fools believed you would be worthy of the Key. As if a weakling could succeed where I did not."

{What… what is he… talking… about? Key…?}

It took everything Ranma had left and more to arise from he'd fallen. But somehow he managed to get back up one more time. His wobbling legs threatened to give way, yet he still stood on his feet.

"I grow tired of this farce."

Battered by injury and exhaustion, his mind started to slip in and out of awareness. He was beginning to react instead of think as his tenuous grasp on consciousness loosened with every passing moment.

{The g-good guy's… supposed to win…}

He felt cold, so very cold. Ice gripped his pounding heart tightly as he watched the dark specter approach.

{Why… can't… I… beat… him?!}

Desperately, hopelessly, he stumbled forward and launched one last punch, throwing away every bit of his remaining power into that final blow.

"DAMN YOU!!"

It was an attempt doomed to failure.

But he had to do it anyway, anything less would have meant he'd given up. And a Saotome never gave up, ever.

"Idiot."

A gleam of darkness.

A sudden a burning sensation from his right wrist.

Then a fountain of blood erupted forth as his clouded eyes stared dumbly at the stump where the arm now ended as his cleanly severed hand dropped to the ground below.


-Shock Therapy

"Now!!"

Pure mystical power geysered forth from Belldandy's glowing form, a stream of unadulterated psychic energy that channeled directly to her older sister.

Urd grimaced as she absorbed the intense charge. It was a little like being plugged directly into a nuclear reactor. Even for her, the power was almost uncomfortable to retain.

{If this doesn't get him up, nothing will.}

Looking down at his broken faceplate, she brushed back a stray strand of black hair that was showing as she whispered a short prayer for the unconscious young man.

"Please… please let this work."

Then she let it loose.


-Destiny

Clutching his right arm in disbelief, he stumbled backwards. Dimly, he could sense himself uncontrollably trembling from the sheer shock. It was too much.

{I…}

It seemed he was only human after all.

{I want to live…}

A weak azure glow began to illuminate the area.

But he couldn't see where it was coming from. Ranma could barely see at all now, but he could still feel the icy bite of the blood red rain beating down upon him. He was going perish here, on an alien world so far from home.

{No…}

All alone.

{No…}

Disgrace, defeat, and now death.

{NO!!}

The glow grew brighter.

"Now it ends."

A shadow fell over his form.

Ranma looked up into the face of his executioner.

{I DON'T WANT TO DIE!!!}

And suddenly the light became blindingly bright. Beyond anything he'd ever known.

"What? What is this?!"

He could hear surprise in the Ravager's voice as if from a great distance.

Then everything vanished within that searing light…


-Reaction

Scarlet lightning erupted from the center of their patient's chest, catching Urd and Belldandy completely off guard.

They were thrown back by sudden violent outburst, the hellish glare forcing them to shield their eyes.

"What's happening?!"

Belldandy had no answer for her sister.

Ranma's body jerked forward. As his head came up he screamed. But instead of sound, a beam of solid white shot up toward the temple's roof.

The weatherworn stone vanished as if it had never existed, and a moment later the light struck the mystical barrier that the three goddesses had spent so much time to erect.

At first it seemed that their work would be in vain as the beam impacted. Colors of the sea flared up as the two forms of energy battled for supremacy. As the raging force expended itself against the fiercely glowing shield, it threatened to break through.

But the Ward held.

And just as abruptly as it began, the outburst ended.

The Knight collapsed back onto the futon.

To all outward appearance, he seemed completely lifeless.

"No!"

The bronze skinned goddess dashed toward him, her features betraying unexpected emotions. Urd started to pound on his chest, refusing to believe that they'd lost him.

"It can't end like this!"

She froze abruptly, afraid that her imagination was suddenly playing tricks on her.

But there it was again.

She wasn't mistaken.

Slow, but steady.

A heartbeat.

"Thank goodness…"

She looked down upon his half-hidden face and gently cradled his head in her lap.

"You idiot… don't scare me like that."

Watching from the side, her sister smiled knowingly.


The pain eased as his body finally succeeded in expelled the alien contaminants that had been poisoning his system.

With the enormous drain on his system gone, a flicker of awareness flared to life…


-Heart of the Sword

Darkness.

Different this time, but familiar.

In his mind's eye he saw again the battle against the two minions on the streets. Something about their powers, something important…

'Negaforce.'

A growing sense of recognition tickled at the very edge of his mind.

'Evil beyond forgiveness, beyond redemption.'

His kind had faced this somewhere before.

But where? And when?

'Remember.'

From deep within the CosmoKnight's subconscious a name stirred on the fringes of his awareness. A collective memory shared by all of the Forge's Chosen.

'One of our most ancient foes, a vile entity we believed destroyed so very long ago.'

At last he recognized his enemy's true nature.

Called the Deceiver, the Betrayer, and more then a thousand other names in a hundred dead languages, her true identity had been lost to the rest of galaxy long before the birth of modern civilization. Only the CosmoKnights and the Forge still remembered the truth.

'Finish the task that our brethren started.'

A single word escaped his unconscious lips.

"Metall'a."


-The Negaverse (Our motto: How may we kill you today?)

THIS COULD NOT BE!!

But the images brought back by her minions were unmistakable.

The old memories of pain and humiliation stirred once again as the vile being studied the revolting projection.

"After all this time… one of those disgusting meddlers has finally found their way here…"

A Knight of the Cosmic Forge.

On Earth.

The silent mental roar of mindless anger and pure unbridled hate shook the palace to its very foundations. Every one of Metall'a's minions cringed in pain and terror from the sheer force of their mistress's outrage.

{Of all the infernal things… Why one of THEM?!}

Over a thousand millennia had passed since the Dark Star Kingdom, which had spanned the furthest reaches of the Anvil Galaxy at its height, had been destroyed by those wretched beings. The crowning achievement of her power, brought down by those cursed pawns of the damnable Forge.

They had slaughtered billions of her minions and sent the badly wounded Intelligence fleeing to the farthest reaches of the Multiverse. It had taken over seven hundred years for the injuries to heal, and longer still for the entity's pride to recover from the bitter taste of defeat.

Metall'a would never forget.

{Revenge…}

By the time the Intelligence finished healing, Metall'a had found herself too low on psychic energy to risk returning to the Three Galaxies or any of the known dimensions. In her weakened state, she would have been easy prey for any of her rivals. Only the strongest survived in the merciless ecosystem of the Alien Intelligence.

And so she was forced to remain in exile. Years passed into decades, decades turned to centuries, and the centuries began to fade into the obscurity of millennia.

Still she had waited for an opportunity to rebuild her empire.

Her chance had finally come when those first strange emanations reached her, power that she later learned originated from the Imperium Silver Crystal.

And she had been so close!

Once again Metall'a cursed Serenity and all of her descendents.

If only they hadn't interfered time and time again!

Even now, a thousand years later, one of the Royal Family had appeared and thwarted her attempts at conquest.

To be defeated by a clumsy, simpleminded, scared little crybaby…

With an effort she pushed aside the old frustration.

She could not afford such distractions now.

{Revenge.}

The Sailor Senshi could wait.

She would never be safe as long as this CosmoKnight lived. He had to be eliminated quickly, before he discovered the truth. Metall'a knew that if the Knights ever discovered her presence again that this time they would hound her to the very ends of the universe until either she or they were completely annihilated. Those stubborn do-gooders were all but impossible to stop once they set out to do something.

{REVENGE!!!}

It was incredibly difficult to kill a Knight of the Forge.

But not impossible.

For the Intelligence was well aware of the one chink in their nearly impenetrable defenses.

Magic. The ultimate bane of the CosmoKnights.

Metall'a had learned to exploit this weakness to its fullest early on during the war against them. Enchanted weapons and spells of power could slay any of those fools as easily as a simple mortal and even the most venerable CosmoKnight was still vulnerable to the lethal kiss of a Drinker of Souls.

Unfortunately, almost all of her items of power had been lost during the Great War. Her enemies had been very through in their efforts to find and destroy the Intelligence's hidden caches of weapons and magical artifacts. Most of what she'd managed to spirit away had been wasted during her many attempts to seize control of the ancient Silver Millennium.

And with her reserves depleted so heavily, she could not risk a direct attack on him yet.

She just needed a little time.

Time to plan, to discover how much this one already knew. Was he alone, or were there others watching and waiting? And most important of all, time to gather what remained of her strength.

For if worst came to worst, she might have to deal with this matter personally.

Though her powers had weakened from her long exile, still they were more then a match for a single knight no matter how experienced he might be. Especially if the choice of battlegrounds was hers to decide.

The entity's features contorted into a grotesque approximation of smug anticipation as she stared at the hateful image in front of her.

A few weeks to prepare, no more. Enough for the Intelligence to marshal her forces, yet far too short for the Knight to confirm her presence here.

And then the battle would truly begin.

She could almost taste her long-awaited vengeance.

And she found it sweet.


-On A Lighter Note

She shook her head at the sight before her.

"Oh, you girls, I can see I've got my work cut out for me."

Yohko and her two friends were sprawled out cold on the floor. Trickles of drying blood on their faces indicated that nosebleeds of considerable proportions had taken place recently.

She easily spotted the culprit. It was lying in plain view for anyone to see.

{Only on chapter 1? This could take longer then I thought…}

After making the girls more comfortable, Nodoka grabbed her sword as she headed for the family dojo. She needed to relieve some stress in preparation for the task ahead. It was during these times that she missed her husband Genma the most; he had been so good at relaxing her.


-Paying The Piper

Sasami beamed at her fellow passenger as their blonde driver raced along the winding roads that led back to the Masaki Valley.

"There were some scary parts, but I had a lot of fun today!!"

Kiyone was not normally a religious person. She'd been assigned as Mihoshi's partner for far too long to believe that a benevolent deity was watching over her. But as they drove back to the house she was praying up a storm, hoping desperately that Princess Ayeka had not found out about Sasami's little adventure. Especially given the fact that Kiyone and Mihoshi were supposed to have been responsible for watching her.

{Oh please, oh please, oh please!! I'll never ask for anything else for the rest of my life!! I'll even stop badgering you every night about getting me a transfer off this third-rate planet!!}

The little princess's tale of what happened when she went off on her own had almost given the teal-haired detective a stroke when they finally found her. Kiyone knew perfectly well that if Ayeka found out about this, she would blow a gasket, not to mention what she would do to the Galaxy Police Officers!

"We're almost home!"

Mihoshi's innocent cheerful tone did nothing to soothe her partner's worries. Far too soon for her comfort, the house started to come into view.

So did a steaming, larger then life First Crown Princess of Jurai with both Guardians in tow.

And boy, did she look unhappy!

Detective First Class Kiyone paled.

"We're dead."


-A Quick Review

Trying to pry useful information out of the Guardian of Time is like using your bare hands to pull teeth from an irritated grizzly, a fact that the rest of the

Sailor Senshi were fast discovering to their dismay.

"Tell us!"

Rei's simple, direct approach didn't work.

"No."

"C'mon! Just one little hint!!"

Minako's adorable puppy eyes also failed to budge her.

"No."

"Please!!"

Even Usagi's ear torturing whining was of no use, Setsuna's iron resolve remained firm.

"Absolutely not."

This argument was now going into its third hour. The Princess and most of the other Senshi wanted to know what Setsuna was keeping from them. It was almost painfully obvious to all by now that their oldest member knew more about the strange warrior than she was saying. Even Haruka and Michiru were siding with the Inners on this one; they hated being kept in the dark just as much as the others.

"Spill it, Setsuna. What is it about this guy that's got your tail in such a twist?

The Time Guardian raised a single graceful eyebrow.

Haruka shrugged in response, determined not to let Setsuna divert her with the old "switch to another subject" mind trick.

"Hey, I may be violent, but I'm not stupid. Now answer the question."

"No."

"Arrggh!!"

This was really getting nowhere fast.

But while everybody else was busy in their futile efforts to get something, anything besides a denial out of Meiou, Ami was quietly working on her slightly scorched VR visor and mini-computer. Somehow, she knew intuitively that these held a key piece of the puzzle that now faced them.

What Mizuno was trying to do was not especially original; simply connect a two-way data feed between the pieces of equipment. This would allow her to replay today's earlier battles for everyone else and give her computer's more powerful electronic 'brain' a chance to analyze the huge influx of data that had caused her VR visor's systems to crash. The operation wasn't hard, simply time consuming.

*Shnick*

A final circuit clicked into place.

*Beep*

The blue haired genius smiled in tired satisfaction.

"There! All done."

This finally attracted the attention of the other girls.

"What have you got there?"

Ami started typing in the needed commands.

"Some answers, if we're lucky."

The screen of her mini-computer flared to life and began to project a three-dimensional scene in front of the curious Senshi.

The response was immediate.

"Hey, that's him!"

"Ack!! How come nobody ever told me my thighs are that big?!!"

"…"

Everyone took a moment to stare at the suddenly bigsweating Minako.

"Never mind."

Fortunately for her, the miniature battle playing out in front of them quickly recaptured their attention.

Usagi and Rei blinked and swallowed heavily. This was the first time that they had gotten a chance to see what all the others had been making such a big fuss about.

"… Wow."

"Ami, why are you fast forwarding through this part?"

"I'm not, Usagi. This is playing back at a 1:1 ratio. He's actually moving that quickly."

Usagi paused in mid-bite of a cracker and paled.

"And Setsuna wants us to fight him?! Has she gone completely bonkers?!!"

Heads turned toward their oldest member. Or rather, where they'd last seen her.

An empty chair met their eyes.

"How does she keep doing that?!"

 

To be continued

Part 3-I
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