Chapter 40: The First Attack
-VERTEX FOUR: 8.36679-
Dead End had come.
Of course, the mysterious warning message that flashed across every TSAB screen weeks before reached here as well, though its audience was much smaller. Vertex Four's Earth—"Non-Administered World #97" in Bureau parlance—was not considered at all notable until a few years ago. More specifically, it was Uminari, a seaside city nestled in Tokyo's Minato ward, that piqued the Bureau's interest, though it was hard to tell why on the surface. At a distance, Uminari could have been almost any Japanese city: clean, peaceful, somewhat crowded. It used to be wholly unremarkable, no one's idea of a place to stage an invasion.
However, after the extraordinary first meeting of Nanoha Takamachi and Yuuno Scrya three years before, Uminari had become an unlikely hotbed of Bureau activity. Uminari was the home of the Takamachi family, Hayate Yagami and her Wolkenritter, and later the extended Testarossa-Harlaown family as well. The first meeting between Nanoha and Fate Testarossa (later Harlaown), and the majority of the Jewel Seed Incident skirmishes, happened in Uminari and its surrounding waters. Six months after that, after the Book of Darkness reawakened and choose Hayate as its Master, it was Uminari where the first clash between the TSAB and the Wolkenritter took place. It was a mile out from Uminari's primary harbor where both the city and the planet narrowly avoided destruction when the Book's corrupted self-defense program, NachtWal, caused it to go berserk and awaken its Will.
After two near-catastrophic incidents happened in the same city in the space of the same year, the Bureau's management thought it best to house a small, semi-permanent outpost there. The Three Aces being powerful, gifted, and famous as they were, they tended to attract trouble… better to have staff on hand to monitor them while they grew and trained, the higher-ups thought. Once all three graduated from school and became independent, plans could be implemented to relocate them to Mid-Childa, or any number of other Class-M planets, should they choose. The outpost could then be shut down quietly with little trouble, leaving Earth in relative peace. In theory, anyway. For now, the outpost stayed.
Not that the outpost, the TSAB officers on hand, or the mysterious warning were of very much help when the invasion came. Command structure, communication lines, and logistics were all in tatters in the wake of the Unisoned Will annihilating the Dimensional Navy and Headquarters with it. Without their fleets of trans-dimensional ships, Bureau officers could only rely on small craft or their personal transport spells to travel from place to place and planet to planet, the latter of which cost vast amounts of mana for each use. The only military branches of the TSAB left operational were the Ground and Air Forces, spread out across Bureau territory and all largely stranded. With no fleets, moving any of their forces any substantial distance was a long, slow, arduous process, prone to failures. Even the divisions in some semblance of proper order were hardly combat-ready, for everyone knew someone who had died in the Will's massacre. The families, the friends, and the fellow officers that the thousands of dead left behind were haunted wrecks, barely functional and hanging on by threads. All their best and brightest were assembled as part of the Navy that day, and they all knew it.
So when Dead End came to Uminari, it soon became apparent that the officers assigned to the outpost were woefully outmatched. None of them lasted long; the fortunate ones were killed immediately upon discovery, overwhelmed by sheer numbers. The less fortunate were captured alive, either snatched off-world to God-knew-where or used for something far more sinister. As their numbers dwindled, all they could do was to evacuate what civilians that they could, and try to protect the ones that were left…
The darkness that cloaked the back streets of Uminari's shopping district hid the two men well. For once, they were thankful that the city's power grid had failed a week before… it made moving around that much easier. They ran in silence, the weapons they each carried sheathed at their sides, their footsteps muffled with practiced skill. The older of the two, a burly, muscular giant of a man in his late-thirties with a network of terrible scars covering both upper arms, wielded twin bokken, blades of solid oak with kanji engraved on their flats. His companion, a much younger man, favored lighter and swifter short swords constructed of folded iron. The two spared no glances at each other. They ran on, hoping that by now their pursuers had given up the chase.
When they finally stopped, it was at the back door of one of the shopping district's many small stores. While the older man kept watch, the younger man tapped an ordinary brick in the wall. A holographic keypad lit the alley with a cool blue glow as it materialized; the young man tapped in a code and allowed the pad to scan his pupil. Success. The door's locks clicked open, and both men slipped through, into the darkened shop.
Once he was certain they were not followed, the older man called out low: "Ferret house." His companion repeated the same phrase.
Someone moved from behind a shelf. The beam of a flashlight reflected off a pair of round glasses. "Papa? Onii-san? What are you doing back so early?"
"Trouble," said Shiro Takamachi to his eldest daughter. "We had a run-in with Dead End and had to retreat."
The girl looked over his shoulder expectantly, but saw no one. "Wh-what happened to the Bureau officers?"
"They... didn't make it," said Kyouya, his voice full of bitterness. "They tried holding them off so we could get away."
"No. Oh no." The girl sagged into her father's chest. "Nouera-san, Trezia-san… not them too!"
"Shhh." Kyouya Takamachi moved to embrace his sister. "Don't cry, Miyuki. Please don't cry."
Two much smaller faces peeked up out of a half-meter-thick bulkhead door set on a hidden swing joint in the floor, something that would have been more at home in a high-security bank than a simple café. The door's upper side was camouflaged with the same wooden paneling found in the rest of the shop. Its lower side sported a huge rotating dog lever, a manual wheel that took both girls working together to move. The girls were of the same age, one with Caucasian features, normally loud and brash; the other quiet, demure, and unmistakably Japanese. Both were considerably more subdued these days.
"Shiro-san, did…" said the latter. "Did you manage to get the signal out? About the tower? About us?"
"We did, Suzuka-chan. That much went right."
"Well?" said the other girl, impatient as ever. "Are Nanoha and the others coming?"
"There's no way to know, Arisa-chan," said Kyouya. "Last we heard, the Arthra was still missing. If they're out there and they got the signal, nothing will stop those three from getting here somehow, fleets or no fleets. If it was intercepted…" No need to finish that thought.
Four Takamachis, four Tsukimuras and their two household maids, and three Bunnings, all in hiding in the basement of the Takamachis' family bakery and coffee shop, the Midori-ya Café. Two years ago, when Nanoha first revealed her secret "job" to them all, the TSAB put steps into place to protect her home, her family members, and her friends in the event of an emergency. Bureau magitech was installed within the homes of all three families and in their various places of employment. The barriers enclosing the Midori-ya Café were holding so far, and the perception filters on the windows revealed nothing to the outside world save for an empty, abandoned shop. By staying in the shop's newly-fortified basement shelter and keeping a low profile, Shiro hoped that he and the others could wait out the invasion until help arrived, be it from Nanoha's Bureau or from Nanoha herself. They were well-stocked with food and necessities, there were enough books on the bookshelves to last for months at least, and the magitech generators provided an adequate amount of power. If all else failed, the shelter's bulkhead door, unpowered and capable of being locked securely from the inside, would keep enemies at bay for at least a while… but Dead End was relentless. Dead End was merciless; they had shown that they could and would take any advantage they could find, up to and including attacking the families and loved ones of their enemies. Worst of all, Dead End was cunning… it was anyone's guess how much longer they could stay hidden.
Shiro, Kyouya, and Miyuki stepped into the basement through the bulkhead door, following Nanoha's longtime friends from school, Suzuka Tsukimura and Arisa Bunnings. At the bottom of the hidden stairs, an array of faces met them: Shiro's wife, Momoko; Suzuka's parents, Shun and Haruna, their eldest daughter, Shinobu, and their longtime housekeepers, the Ehrlichkeit sisters; and Jodie and David Bunnings, Arisa's mother and father.
Embraces were passed around. "Shiro," said Momoko, falling into her husband's arms. "Did Nouera-san and Trezia-san—"
Shiro shook his head.
"Shit," David hissed, slamming a fist into a support pillar with a sad, impotent thunk. "That's the last of them, isn't it? All the people that the Bureau sent are—"
"We're on our own now," said Kyouya, sliding down against the wall. Shinobu, his girlfriend, came to his side and wrapped her arms around him for support. Grateful, he leaned into her shoulder. "There's not much else we can do but wait."
"I hate waiting." Arisa stamped her foot in a show of her signature temper. "I hate all of this! Why can't these bastards just leave us alone?! What did we ever do to them?!"
"Easy, Arisa-chan," said Suzuka, laying a hand on her shoulder. "There's no use getting any more upset."
"But it's not fair!" Arisa moaned. "We're just ordinary people, not magical girls or whatever! They can't just—"
A muffled crash and the musical sound of breaking glass above their heads. Shiro glanced sharply upward, then put a finger to his lips.
Arisa fell silent in a hurry, the color draining from her face.
There were footsteps upstairs. Loud, heavy footsteps. And all of the survivors were here, present and accounted for…
Then a voice, a brash, arrogant, unfamiliar voice: "Attention, family and associates of Nanoha Takamachi. This is Major Crimson Rubeus of Dead End. We know you're here; your former companions Nouera and Trezia were quite forthcoming after their, ah, attitude adjustments."
Terrified gazes were exchanged across the shelter. They all knew that Dead End had the means to turn forcibly turn people into monsters, but if they now had ways of accessing those monsters' human memories too...
"In fact," the one called Rubeus continued, "they were so kind as to tell us about your secret shelter, and how to disable your security systems. Granted, it would be simpler to bring this whole block down on your heads and be done with it, but I thought I'd make it interesting. I'm giving you one chance: if any of you have any desire at all to make it through the next half hour or so reasonably intact, surrender yourselves, fully and unconditionally. The clock starts now. You have five minutes to comply... I'm waiting."
Arisa and Suzuka fell into each other's arms, holding onto each other for dear life. Arisa's shoulders shook.
It was Shiro who took action first. "Everyone," he said softly as he took up his bokken, "stay down and stay quiet. There's a chance that they still don't know how many of us are here. I'll keep them occupied… the rest of you need to run."
Momoko's hands flew over her mouth. "Shiro, no—"
Shiro only smiled... a quiet, rueful smile. "It's all right. I got lucky last time." He followed his wife's gaze down to his arms, still crisscrossed with faded scar tissue like road lines on a map. The scar from the bullet wound over his heart was hidden underneath his shirt, but she stared at that, too, knowing exactly where it was… they were all permanent reminders of the dangers of his old job. "Maybe I'll be lucky again this time."
"You can't do it alone." Kyouya stood and fixed him with a steely glare. "I'm staying."
"And me, Papa." Now Miyuki rose, taking up her kodachi. "I know Mikami-style too."
Sighing, Shiro rubbed his forehead. He knew better than to try to argue with either of them. "When did all of my kids get so brave?" he said, mostly to himself.
"Brave and stubborn," said Miyuki.
Even Momoko had to laugh at that. A bitter, quiet laugh, but a laugh nonetheless.
"Um." Suzuka raised a hand, hesitant to break up their moment. "Pardon me."
"Suzuka, you can't be serious!" Arisa goggled at her friend in disbelief.
"No, no, I'm not volunteering, it's just…" Suzuka fidgeted in place as she pointed across the room. "I… I hate to bring up more bad news, but… Shiro-san, your books are glowing…"
"What?" Baffled, Shiro followed the girl's finger.
All the books in the bookcase standing against the wall in the far corner were indeed glowing, emitting a soft pink light that grew brighter by the second.
Jodie was seated closest to the bookcase, but not for long. She shrieked and scrambled backwards, clinging to her husband. "What's happening? Are they attacking us? What's going on?!" She still hadn't quite gotten used to this "magic" thing yet… this wasn't helping.
"Easy, Jodie," said David, moving ahead of her and Arisa. If it was an attack, he could shield his family from the brunt at the very least.
Shiro, Kyouya, and Miyuki all drew their weapons at the bookcase. An odd position for a last stand, but so be it. Seconds ticked by, the books shone on their shelves, the light grew blinding…
… and with a cry and a clamor, five girls fell out of the bookcase, tangled in a heap.
"Ow! Ow ow ow ow…" The oldest, sporting twin blonde odangos and long pigtails resembling a rabbit's ears, had landed flat on her face and was now rubbing her sore nose. She wore something that resembled a stylized sailor fuku in shades of red, white, and blue, but with long boots and gloves and a lot of extra jewelry.
"Sorry, Usagi-san, I should have warned you," said the smallest as she picked herself up. Just as blonde and dressed in yellow, her hair was a curious fan-shaped ponytail that extended from a cone at the back of her head. "But see? I told you the Book Code would work!" All smiles, she flashed a V-sign in triumph.
"The hell...?" The fiery redhead in the long crimson coat dusted herself off and sniffed the air. "Why do I smell coffee?"
"Is this where we were supposed to be?" said the older girl next to her, slightly older, her hair in twin drills, dressed in a costume resembling an old European rifleman. She adjusted her beret in a prim and proper fashion until it sat at just the right tilt. "Could we have been redirected somehow?"
The assembled families stared in complete confusion. Four of the new arrivals were strangers, but the fifth, they now saw, was known to them all…
"Hi, Dad," said Nanoha Takamachi sheepishly, rubbing the back of her head. "Sorry for barging in—" That was all she could get out before she was buried under an avalanche of her loved ones' hugs and tears.
"I can't believe it's you! Where have you been? How did you get here? And who are all these people?"
"Easy, everyone, easy. Mmf. Dad, that's a little too tight, it hurts…"
"Oh my God, Nanoha, you're walking! We thought you were just out of the hospital! Wait, what happened to your hands?"
"There's a lot to explain," said Nanoha, finally prying herself from their embraces, "and we don't have much time. I'm here to take you all to Mid-Childa, where you should be safe. This is your evacuation... sorry it's coming so late."
"Um," said Arisa, "you might want to take care of the guy upstairs with one of your pink sparkly magic lasers first, if you can. He says he's Ruby-us or something from Dead End—"
Usagi Tsukino, Sailor Moon, knew that name. She clenched her hand into a tight fist.
"—and he turned a bunch of people into monsters, and there's this huge ugly tower thing in the park down near the lake..."
Nanoha's brow wrinkled. "Yes, we've been monitoring. Sorry, Arisa-chan, I'm still nowhere near full strength." There was no hiding how much that admission hurt, it was plain on her face. "All I can really do right now is take you where you're going, then I have to go back to our headquarters. But these four here…" She indicated the rest of her group. "I promise you, they'll do whatever they can. I trust all of them with my life. Peace?"
"R-right. Excuse me," said Yayoi Kise, Cure Peace, bowing in rapid succession to each of them. That huge ponytail of hers bowed with her, about a second behind the rest of her. "I-it's really easy, just do it like I show you, Nanoha-chan." She turned to the bookcase, now seemingly ordinary once more, and guided Nanoha's hands over the volumes. "Once you get to the Magical Library, think really hard of where you're going, then take one book off the shelf. Push the others to the right like this, then the lower ones to the left, then the upper ones apart from the center, and…" Click. The spines of the books lit up one by one, until the entire case shone pink once more. "That's it! Everyone, step on through… er, if you please."
Nanoha's family and friends formed a mystified line behind her, everyone thinking the same question but unsure of how to ask it.
"I know," said Nanoha to them all, "it sounds really strange, doesn't it? But I promise you, it works. It's how we got here, after all."
"Travel safe, Takamachi-san." Mami Tomoe bowed. "We await your orders when you get back."
"B-but Ruby-whatever said he was gonna attack in five minutes!"
"Damn," said Kyoko Sakura, clucking her tongue. She glared up at the ceiling. "Impatient sonuvabitch, ain't he?"
"Language, Sakura-san," said Mami.
Nanoha paused as she shepherded her parents through. "If you're going to fight here, let me make an adjustment first… Raising Heart?"
"[Yes, my master!]" chimed her Device.
"Wide area temporal force field, please. Diameter of… let's see, factoring in the AMPs... two hundred kilometers, that should be safe."
"[Understood. Standby, ready… initiating Wide Area Force Field.]"
A pulse surged outward from Raising Heart's globe, enclosing a vast swath of Uminari City in a shimmering rainbow dome…
"There," said Nanoha. "Now no one needs to hold back... that should have swept up the bulk of the occupying forces, too. Good luck, everyone."
The reaction from upstairs was immediate. More footsteps pounded the floorboards, and Rubeus's voice shouted indistinct words at "you two", demanding something to the effect of breaking the basement shelter open.
"Civilian casualties," said Nanoha, after checking a holo readout from Raising Heart. "Two humans, transformed into Youma... Oh no." Her face fell. "They're my family's backup detail…"
"That's my cue." Moon nodded and put her hand on Nanoha's shoulder. "Go with your family, Nanoha-chan. I'll handle this."
A high-pitched noise, rather like an overheated steam pipe springing a leak, startled everyone present.
"Geez!" Kyoko clutched at her heart, which was trying to claw its way out of her chest. "What the hell was that?!"
"Sorry, sorry! That was me, it slipped out," said Peace as her face turned fiery red. Despite the embarrassment, her starstruck gaze never left Sailor Moon, her idol, her hero, standing right next to her and about to leap into action. "She's so cool…"
Mami smiled gently and suppressed a giggle.
To her credit, Moon took it in stride. She gave Peace a cheerful thumbs-up for support, which nearly made the latter faint dead away, and refocused her attention on Nanoha, now helping Suzuka and Arisa cross through the portal. "I tell them to go straight to Mid-Childa once they're back to normal, right?"
"That's right, to Mid-GH. They'll know what you mean. Thank you, Usagi-san... and good luck, all of you." After one more longing look, Nanoha stepped through the portal and was gone.
"Better stand back, everybody." Moon squared her shoulders and took a breath. "I'm really not sure how much kick this will have."
Mami, Kyoko, and Peace scooted back to the far wall, but no force on Earth or any other world could prevent Peace from leaning as close as she could to get a look. A new Sailor Moon technique that no one had ever seen before, and she, Yayoi Kise, would be one of the first to watch her do it…
Raising her hand high, Moon felt for her Moon Stick and plucked it from its pocketspace. The wand materialized at her command… but the moment it solidified, one of the three jewels mounted beneath its golden crescent moon began to flash on and off, chiming in a steady rhythm. "Huh?" Moon blinked at it, confused. She felt like she should remember what that meant.
Another delighted squeal came from the back wall. "That… I know that sound, that's the Rainbow Crystal radar! It's picking something up!" said Peace.
Now she remembered. "But the Rainbow Crystals were…" Oh, her head. She remembered those, yes, but only from one set of memories. Curse this multiple timeline business. "Why would one of them be here?"
"Wait, wait, hang on," said Kyoko, grimacing in annoyance. "There's way too many crystals and gems and jewels and magic friggin' rocks for me to keep track of. Which ones were those again?"
"I believe they were—" Mami began.
"The components of Sailor Moon's Silver Crystal!" Peace interrupted before anyone could stop her. "Her mother—well, Princess Serenity's mother, Queen Serenity—split it up after the Moon Kingdom fell. There were seven Rainbow Crystals, and each one had one of the Seven Great Youma sealed inside it!"
"... You really get off on this stuff, don't you, Peace?"
"S-sorry, Sakura-san. Sorry."
"Stop apologizing, dammit."
"Well, if that's the case," said Mami, "shouldn't we prioritize trying to locate the Crystal? That would be one less we would have to find later, wouldn't it?"
"Right, right," said Moon. She turned in a slow circle on her heel, watching the indicator jewel for any change in the frequency of its chiming. "If I remember right, the Rainbow Crystals were all hidden inside…" Ping. Ping. Ping, went the wand with increasing urgency. "... inside… people…" Her voice petered out.
The Moon Stick now pointed directly at Mami.
Baffled, Moon tilted it slightly to the left. The pinging slowed. Moving it farther to the right had the same effect. When she took a step closer to Mami, the wand chimed at double speed.
"The hell...?" said Kyoko again, staring wide-eyed. "Peace, you got an explanation for this?"
Peace shook her head in the negative.
"Could…" Mami swallowed heavily. "Could it be picking up my Soul Gem by mistake?"
"I—" For lack of anything else to do, Moon shook the wand to make it stop. There was no noticeable effect. "I don't think so. If it is a Rainbow Crystal, why would it be inside you, Mami-san?! You're not even from our Vertex!"
Mami started to answer that she had no idea, but her words were drowned out when the ceiling shook above them with a thunderous impact, raining dust down upon their heads. A second blow followed the first, and the basement's armored shell creaked in protest. Clawed feet scrambled over the floor, searching for the shelter's entrance…
"I suggest," said Mami, "that we put aside the matter of the Rainbow Crystal for now, and try to focus on the task at hand. Sailor Moon, if you please."
"Got it." Of course Mami had the sensible idea; she was selected as second-in-command for this mission for good reasons. People just trusted Mami; she was a natural at giving orders, and charismatic enough that people tended to follow her without question. In fact, she was so good at it that Moon didn't feel the slightest bit weird about deferring to someone roughly six years her junior. Not like she had much of a head for tactics and strategy, anyway.
Regardless, it was time to do her thing. She took a deep breath and palmed her AMP Device, a diamond crescent moon attached to the lower rim of her transformation brooch. "Rise, Imperium!"
The AMP chirped and hummed in response, shifting into a white bolt of power that affixed itself to the pommel of the Moon Stick. The Lighthouse's Immaterial and Doctor Atenza's magitech melded to the ancient Silver Millennium artifact with nary a seam; it extended the length by a good meter and a half, changing the compact, hand-held wand into something resembling a staff, or the Eternal Tiare from her fifth transformation. The pommel, now somewhere down near her ankles, incorporated a shiny round jewel, smooth and pearly white, that was the core of Imperium's released form. "[Standby all set,]" said her AMP in musical, feminine cadence.
Not a moment too soon. Judging by the hammering from above, the Youma had found the entrance. Moon sucked in a breath, took hold of the staff with both hands, and pointed the horns of the crescent moon at the bulkhead door. She dropped into her best defensive crouch and waited…
Youma. Rubeus hated Youma. They were ugly, primitive things, all blunt force and no finesse. By any objective standard, the Black Moon Clan's Droids were far superior. Droids were clever enough to strategize by themselves, they could take initiative on their own, their models were simple to mass-produce, and they were just more elegant than any Youma could be. He made no effort to suppress his sneer as two of his Youma platoon pounded on the armored door to the shop's hidden basement, one with twin iron warhammers and the other with her fists, enlarged to quadruple their normal size and made of solid rock. The rest of the platoon were either lagging behind, checking the rest of the shopping district for more civilians, or guarding the tower in the park. At least these two had made themselves somewhat useful. Using the modified Dark Crystal that Commander Eas gave him on the two captured Bureau officers made the resulting Youma perfectly obedient, ready and willing to give up the location of their former friends. They had done well. That didn't mean Rubeus had to like them, he only had to tolerate them. Even then, only just.
"Major," said Oniwabandana from behind him, bowing respectfully. Her voluminous sandy ponytail fell and dangled over one of her shoulders. "Our intelligence states that at least three of the Takamachis may be armed and dangerous. Does your plan account for resistance, ~banban?"
Rubeus sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. Of course they gave him a Youma as an underling for this mission. Eas's assigning of her to his ranks came with much acclaim, for apparently she—or one of the Oniwabandanas; there were also multiples of certain Youma types now, acquired through methods he didn't bother to understand—had been a favorite of one of the Dark Kingdom generals in her previous life, but a highly-recommended Youma meant barely more to Rubeus than a highly-recommended cockroach. "Oh, I don't know, Oniwabandana," he said to the ninja-esque Youma, dripping with sarcasm. "If they attacked us, I thought I'd call a full retreat and let them go, because heaven knows the civilians of this time period are such a dire threat to us."
"It's not a hard question. We open up their little vault, storm inside, and threaten any children we find until the adults surrender. If they're stupid enough to resist, we slaughter them. If they come quietly?" He flipped the Dark Crystal between his fingers. "Well, perhaps we'll turn a few of the smallest and most helpless ones and see what happens."
"Let's hope so."
"Major Rubeus!" called one of the Youma at the door, waving a hammer at him. "That was a temporal force field spell just now, it shifted us into an alternate dimension to reduce collateral damage! That means they definitely have at least one mage with them, but the good news is, we're almost through! I can just about see inside!"
Rubeus groaned. "Well then, get on with it!"
"Uh, Major?" said the other, pausing with her rocky fist raised. "I'm sensing an energy buildup down there."
"If you'd spend more time breaking in that door and less time talking, perhaps they wouldn't have time to build up energy, hmm?"
"I told you to—" Sizzle. A jolt ran down Rubeus's spine. Now he felt the energy too. He felt a lot of energy. Acting on instinct, he grabbed Oniwabandana by the hand and warped ten meters backward, out of the shop and into the street…
The shout that went up from the basement raised the fine hairs on the back of his neck. He knew that voice. But she couldn't be here, it was impossible…!
"MOON DIAMOND ABSOLUTION!"
The shop vanished in an instant, incinerated from below by an immense energy beam, not so much a beam or a ray as a volcanic eruption of sparkling silvery light that blasted up from the building's foundations, filling its entire footprint. The light stretched tall, reaching half a kilometer into the sky, tearing gaping holes through the clouds overhead. Its shockwave shattered every piece of intact glass left on the block and blew Rubeus, Oniwabandana, and the rest of the platoon off their feet… His and Oniwabandana's backwards flight hurled them through the entrance of the train station opposite where the shop had been. The radiance all but blinded him, the residual heat darkened the outer layer of his skin. Oniwabandana screamed, throwing her hands over her face, her long ponytail blown straight backward by gale-force winds.
When the wall of light shut itself off, leaving a wide green streak that lingered in Rubeus's vision no matter how he shook his head, all that was left of the civilians' shop or their shelter was a rectangular, ten-meter-deep depression in the street, and the many, many motes of ash that swirled in the vacuum that the blast left behind. The two Youma were nowhere to be seen... but after an attack like that, they would be lucky to find a single intact claw. In the resounding silence that followed, a heavily armored bulkhead door, charred smoking black and so warped out of shape as to be nearly unrecognizable, plummeted from the heavens and crashed through the train station roof. It made a sonorous, shuddering boom that rebounded off the walls of the empty station as it hit the floor, missing Oniwabandana by a hair and leaving a three-meter crater at the point of impact.
Oniwabandana's mouth made a perfectly round O-shape that her cloth mask did nothing to hide. "What in all the hells was that?!"
Rubeus was about to answer when four shapes burst from the depression, leaping high and alighting on the lip of the nearest building, shapes silhouetted against the starry sky. At the sight of one of those shapes, Rubeus scrambled where he lay, channeling dark power to his hands. His face contorted into a hideous snarl.
"Hold it!" came the first silhouette's voice from on high. The evening breeze set a pair of long, golden pigtails fluttering, they glimmered in the light of the moon now streaming down from the hole in the cloud ceiling. "A café is a sacred place for people to relax and eat delicious food together! Attacking one is unforgivable, I won't allow it!"
Oniwabandana let out a miserable moan. Further down the street, the rest of the platoon roared a mixture of panic and outrage.
"Dammit!" Rubeus hissed. "Dammit, dammit, dammit, dammit!"
The pigtailed figure's hand raised to the heavens. "For love and justice, the pretty Senshi in a sailor suit! I am Sailor Moon!"
And next to her, the small one, visibly and audibly trembling with ecstatic joy: "S-s-sparkling and glittering, rock, paper, scissors! Cure Peace!"
To her left, the most mature of the quartet, calm and refined as she curtsied: "Puella Magi, Mami Tomoe!"
And the last groaned and made a sound of deep emotional pain. "Really?! We have to do this?! For God's sake… Puella Magi, Kyoko Sakura," she said with no enthusiasm whatsoever.
Their voices raised loud together (well, three of their voices, one only grumbled): "We are the Morning Lights!"
"In the name of the moon…" And Rubeus's stomach churned on tic as she crossed her arms and finished the speech that he couldn't forget if he tried: "I shall punish you!"
"HEADQUARTERS!" Even as he launched a volley of flame at the roof and the Lights scattered, Rubeus roared into the comm embedded behind his ear. "Reinforcements, NOW!"
"Oh my… whatever is the matter? Are you perhaps having problems, Major?" The voice on the other end was that of CereCere, one of those damned Amazons.
"Sailor Moon is here, along with two Puellae Magi and a little yellow Precure!"
"That does indeed sound troubling," said CereCere with maddening calm. "I shall endeavor to send a Mockery, along with additional support as soo—" A burst of feedback made Rubeus wince as someone let out a banshee's screech in the background. "Please, calm yourself! There is no need to—"
Another voice cut in, as manic as CereCere was passive: "Keep her there! KEEP HER THERE!"
Oh no. Of all the luck. Of all the rotten, stinking luck.
A lightning bolt split the sky, and the peal of thunder that followed was like a shot from a cannon. The bolt struck the ruined tile floor a meter to Rubeus's left, resolving into a small form wrapped in skintight black. Kanna Kise, Bad End Peace II, stood up with a grin plastered across her face that suggested she was about to go for someone's neck. "Hi, Ruby-kun," she said as she cracked her knuckles. "Point me at her, I wanna see what all the fuss is about."
"Don't tell me you're the best she could send!"
"Oh, Ruby-kun, I'm the best period, you and the readers all know it! Now, just chill for a minute or two while CereCere cooks up the Mockery." Somehow, that smile grew even more frightening, showing too many teeth for a human—formerly human—mouth . "So where'd the moeblob go? She's dying to meet me."
One particularly unfortunate Youma hurtled between them headfirst, its hide singed and sparking in half a dozen places.
"See for yourself," Rubeus snarled. "I'm going after my target."
Guerilla tactics, Nanoha told them. They were far outnumbered and outgunned by the enemy; full frontal assaults would be pointless. Until they could recover all their missing comrades, the only option was to fight smart. Take the enemy by surprise, strike hard, accomplish the objective, get in and out as quickly as possible. Simple… in theory.
In practice, there were so many ways that missions could go wrong that it forced everyone to become adept at improvising on the fly. Facing an entire Dead End platoon plus Rubeus wasn't in the plan, but the primary objective was now accomplished; Nanoha's family and friends were on their way to safety. The two de-Youmafied Bureau officers were next, and then the tower.
While the others provided cover, Sailor Moon dove back into the smoking remains of the shelter, using Imperium's flight engine to slow her descent. Fortunately, since there was little left in the way of things to hide behind, the recently de-Youmafied Bureau officers were easy to pick out: both dressed in Ground Forces brown, both only just regaining consciousness.
"Are you two all right? Can you stand?" said Moon, kneeling down by the side of the first, a woman with crimson eyes and matching pixie-cut hair.
"You…" she said as her eyes regained focus. Then the memories hit her, and after that the tremors… "You saved us. That man with the red hair, he turned us into those horrible things…"
Her comrade put a hand over his mouth, trying not to be sick. He was younger than she, barely out of his teens. "Kaiser help us, I remember everything. I couldn't stop myself, I was going to kill the children..."
Moon cringed. This wasn't like the old days, when the victims simply went back to their normal lives, remembering almost nothing. Not like she expected mercy from Dead End, but. "Listen to me, both of you. I'm Sailor Moon, I'm with the Morning Lights… Nanoha Takamachi sent us here. She says both of you need to transport yourselves back to Mid-GH right away. Can you do that?"
"I-I think so. Morning Lights? Who—"
"All you need to know right now is that we're fighting the bad guys, in the name of love and justice and all that good stuff. Now please, get out of here! There's not many of us, and I don't know how long we can keep you safe."
"Roger." The woman nodded and climbed to her feet with Moon's help. "Sailor Moon, I'm PFC Nouera, 2nd Ground Member, and he's Private Trezia, 3rd Ground Member. We both owe you our lives," she said, snapping into a salute, "and we won't forget this."
"You really don't have to do that, you're embarrassing me..."
"Sailor Moon." The growl came from above. Moon's eyes snapped upward…
Rubeus floated at the edge of the shop's footprint, the soles of his combat boots three meters off the pavement. Both his hands filled with dancing red flames, and a cluster of dark energy orbs hovered behind him, waiting on his command. "I hope you haven't forgotten me, moon brat. I damned well haven't forgotten you…"
Moon threw herself in front of Nouera, spreading her arms wide. Until her personal barriers went up, this was all she could do. "You two, go! Imperium, Dome Shield!"
"[Activating Dome Shield, standby.]"
Rubeus roared, hurling flame and dark orbs at his hated enemy. Explosions ripped through the footprint, great clouds of black smoke blossomed from the points of impact…
Yet when the smoke cleared, Sailor Moon still stood, enclosed in a shimmering rainbow bubble. The two Bureau officers were gone, safely off-world.
"... How?" said Rubeus, half enraged, half impressed.
And Moon smiled. "Upgrades. They're the newest trend."
Above, the blood sang in Cure Peace's veins as she threw herself into the fray, Mami and Kyoko at her sides. Many of the Youma were faces she recognized, and more than a few had shown up in her nightmares as a little kid. There would be many more in those nightmares after tonight... Seeing a Youma as an image on a screen was scary, but ultimately harmless. A Youma inches from one's face, brandishing claws or teeth or weapons and howling for blood, looking and sounding and smelling more real than they ever had on TV or in her imagination? That was another matter. Shudders ran the length of her arm as she hit one of them in the nose and felt its bones crumple from the force of her fist. Its hot, green, stinking blood painted her knuckles as it collapsed screaming. That was another thing: fighting Akanbe or whatever, that was clean and simple. Akanbe didn't scream, and Akanbe didn't bleed… if they did, after her first fight as a rookie Cure she would have run home and hid under the covers for a week. Maybe a year.
Kyoko, however, seemed to be having the time of her life. "Gotta say, these things are way more fun than Witches or Wraiths, eh Mami?" She grinned around a stick of chocolate pocky clenched in her teeth. Where she got that from, Peace didn't know. "Easier, too. Least with them, you can usually tell where the heads are, right?" Her spear turned in a whirling circle of bladed death, scattering projectiles and shredding whatever else came too near it.
The staccato of Mami's muskets didn't let up for a moment. She drew one after another, aiming and firing with deadly precision, her face set. "Don't get distracted. They're mostly humanoid, but they're not harmless." As if to prove her point, a pale-skinned being dressed as a kunoichi leaped for her neck clutching a long bandana with both hands like a garotte. Mami glided out of the way with a dancer's grace, seized the Youma with her ribbons, and tossed it halfway down the block.
"I really don't want… Kyaaaaa!" What Peace really didn't want, the others never found out. One of the horrible things snuck into her blind spot, bared its curving fangs, and tried to take a chunk out of her left thigh. Her skin withstood its bite thanks to her Cure form's heightened endurance, and her AMP's emergency barriers absorbed the brunt of the force, but she still felt those teeth, and she still felt its tongue… "Get off get off get off! Peace Thunder!" The Youma spasmed, current racing through its body and frying its nerves. Still way too close; for good measure, Peace lashed out at it with her foot. The toe of her boot caught the Youma square on the chin. Crack. Its head snapped back and forward again as if mounted on a rubber band. When it fell, it didn't rise again.
Mami turned away just long enough to offer Peace a hand. "Are you all right?"
"Fine! Fine!" That was an obvious lie; Peace shook like a leaf as she attempted to wipe glue-like Youma slobber off her leg.
A voice raised with uncharacteristic alarm spoke from their AMPs: "Musain to ABC Strike Team One, this is Lyrical!" said Nanoha's voice, from infinities away. "What's happening down there?! You were supposed to wait for orders!"
"Apples to Musain," said Kyoko, tapping the bronze cross attached to her Soul Gem. Chain link barriers rose from the pavement around the three, closing them off from the remaining Youma, who threw themselves at the wall separating them from their prey. "Sorry, Lyrical, the bad guys didn't wanna wait. New orders?"
Another voice, smaller and more frantic. "ABCs, this is Fieldmouse Pudding. Did the officers escape?"
"This is Mochi!" came the response from Sailor Moon, more anxious than either. "They got away, but I'm a little busy right now, Luna! Sorry, I mean Fieldmouse Pudding!"
"Peach Pie to Mochi," said Mami into her own Device, a series of interlocking golden rings encircling the flower-shaped Soul Gem mounted in her hairclip. "Do you need backup?"
"Imperium's still cooling down, but I think I'll be fine while she does, as long as my shields hold!" A tinny explosion mixed with a burst of static. "Ow ow ow, that's going to sting… Take care of the tower, I'll catch up!"
"Lyrical again. The target is about four kilometers south-southeast of your location. Wait a minute…" A long pause, then an intake of breath. "That's the same park where—"
"Um, Hongo to Musain," said Peace. Her AMP was clipped to the pouch that held her Smile Pact, its resting state chrome silver disk with a depressed red-on-black windmill design in its center. "You mean that tower, r-right?"
It was, admittedly, hard to miss. Looming far over the tops of even the tallest trees and drowning them in its ugly shadow, it was as if a giant hand had grasped a square half-kilometer of the park and pulled it up and and and up like a piece of taffy, then twisted it lengthwise into a braid. Soil, trees, grass, buildings, and even the lake were visible in its spiraling structure, held in place in defiance of physics and gravity. Peace even made out a few of those swan paddle boats that families sometimes rented, distorted and deformed. The way their necks stretched out grotesquely was an unpleasant reminder of that Youma just now…
"Musain to ABCs, this is Fantine," said a third voice, calm as the ocean but strong as steel. "Yes, that's your target. It's a Tower of Geddon, like the ones that appeared all over Vertex Three after the Time Crash… it's like a visual representation of damaged space and time. I don't know why one is appearing here, but it can't be a good sign. Try to destroy it if you can, but don't take any unnecessary risks."
"Unnecessary risks, right." Kyoko rolled her eyes, then dropped back into her stance. "They're almost through the barrier, we'd better step it up. Apples out."
A few of the more clever Youma had discovered that they could gnaw through Kyoko's chains with some effort. The snapping of metal links gradually increased in frequency, and one by one, clawed hands began to reach through the gaps.
"Mami?" said Kyoko. "You wanna Finale them?"
"Actually…" Peace raised a timid hand. "Um, I think we can do it easier than that… i-if you don't mind, Mami-san, of course!"
"Of course not," said Mami, smiling gently. "What's your idea?"
"Well, if you could please fire a shot over there…" she said, pointing at her prospective target.
"Right away." Mami being Mami, she saw the plan right away. "Barriers up, you two. We don't want anyone catching colds." With that, she drew another musket, took aim through the crowd of Youma, fired…
A perfect hit. The top of the hydrant across the street exploded into a small geyser, and fine spray of water droplets rained down on the street.
"Kyoko-chan, drop the barrier!"
Kyoko grinned. She liked this plan. "Done and done! Do your stuff!"
And as the Youma pounced them in a coordinated charge...
"Precure Peace Thunder…!" Lightning fell from the heavens, struck Peace's outstretched fingers… and spread in a ripple effect, channeled through the bodies of every Youma unfortunate enough to be caught in the hydrant's spray. Smoking bodies dropped in waves as bolts of electricity leaped from one to another to another in a cacophony of pops and crackles…
"Way to go, squirt!" Kyoko said with a somewhat frightening smile as she watched the carnage. "Where'd you learn that trick?"
"Um," said Peace. She shuffled her feet, her cheeks bright pink. "I got the idea from a Buffy episode I watched with Yui-chan…"
"Ahhhh. Say no more." Nodding sagely, Kyoko draped an arm around her and produced a pocky box from… somewhere, and used her thumb to flip it open with practiced ease. "Want one? Hurry, before the water makes 'em soggy."
"Ladies," said Mami, looking over their shoulders. "There are still a few stragglers left, stay focused."
"C'mon, Mami, we just tore through like two dozen of them, you don't have to—" Kyoko stopped and hugged herself tight, shuddering. "Shit, did it just get a lot colder all of a sudden?"
"I believe so." Mami pointed down the street with a grave expression. "And I think that might be the cause. Look."
Isolated at the end of the block was a feminine shape in white and blue, one given a wide berth by the few other Youma running for their lives. Snowflakes swirled through the summer air around her where she stood, stock still, her back to them.
Peace sucked in a breath. "Is that…?"
"Is that who, squirt? Friend of yours?"
She wore a stylized sailor fuku and sported a cerulean bob cut, someone almost as familiar to Peace as Sailor Moon's was, but… but the temperature continued falling and the snowflakes thickened and grew in number, and she knew something was not right. Something was not right at all. She raised a hand, trying to ignore the growing queasiness in her stomach. If it was her, they needed to rush to her aid right away, but the atmosphere around her was all wrong. The onset of snow was supposed to feel clean, crisp and bracing. This… the gradually cooling air was grimy and stale, unclean, diseased. Peace forced a name past her lips as she reached out to her: "S-Sailor Mercury…?"
The thing that was not Sailor Mercury turned. Even in the dim light of the darkened city, Peace could tell, she could see how wrong this creature was. Her skin was a clammy, lifeless mix of blue and grey, a color more at home on something hanging in a fish market than on a human body. Her Senshi fuku was tattered at the edges, its detailing askew and asymmetrical… as if some outfitter had tried to reproduce her iconic uniform with only faded memory of what it looked like and meager level of skill. And as she raised her head, they saw that she didn't have a face… oh, she clearly had the structure of a human skull: eye sockets, a hollow for a nose, cheekbones, and a chin underneath the corpse-like flesh and muscle tissue, but her face was one unbroken, hairless, featureless void. There were no eyes, but Peace could feel her gaze, piercing her, rooting her to the spot.
She moved. More accurately, she lurched, shambling a few steps forward. They heard it now, a high but muffled sound, slowly building in volume. With each shuddering step, it grew louder. As she came closer, her non-features becoming clearer by the second, the area where her mouth should be tore open. Thin strips of rubbery flesh still connected what passed for her upper and lower lips, but her mouth still opened in a toothless, rictus smile that spread too far across her lack of a face, stretched too wide, a wobbly red crescent of paint splashed carelessly across a canvas. The sound from her mouth became clear: "Uhiuhiuhiuhiuhiuhiuhiuhiuhiuhi…" A laugh, a wispy, warbling, high-pitched giggle that sounded to Peace like deranged birdsong. It was a sound that nothing human or close to human should ever, ever make.
"That's—" Peace had trouble forming words, they stalled behind the lump of pure terror stuck in her throat. "That's not Mercury! Mami-san, Kyoko-chan, that's not Mercury!"
"UHIUHIUHIUHIUHIUHIUHIUHI..." She… no, it dropped to all fours, its horrible not-laugh now a deafening shriek, and it charged. Its elbows and knees bent in sickening, unnatural directions as it did not so much run but scuttle at them at phenomenal speed, its back bent upwards at an angle that would have snapped a human spine…
Mami didn't need to give the order; Peace's only instinct was to get as far away from the abomination as she possibly could. She jumped ten meters back and to her left to land in front of a deserted toy store. The thing's noxious air left a greasy film on her skin as it rushed by, making a beeline for Kyoko. "Hang on, Kyoko-chan!" she sputtered, fumbling for her AMP. "Don't let it touch you, I'll get it from a dis—"
The outer wall of the toy store exploded. Caught off-guard in a storm of dust and debris, Peace could only cry out in shock as a hail of mortar and shattered brick pelted her. Hands reached out of the cloud, grasped her shoulders so hard that her bones creaked, pushed them both down... no, not just pushing. The owner of the hands was like a runaway freight train, grinding her against pavement as they keel-hauled her across the street, into the next row of buildings, through a second wall, then a third. Peace couldn't see, the world passed by in dizzying streaks of color as the hands plowed her through abandoned shelves, furniture, more walls, support beams, metal pipes, soil, rocks, tarmac, concrete… Her body rasped against every surface, as if her attacker meant to tear off her skin with friction alone. Only by being in her Cure form was she still alive at all, the pain was incredible: one long and endless scouring, like she was being scrubbed raw with steel wool.
Then, abruptly, it was all over. Their motion came to a screeching halt in the middle of a street, having torn a furrow some fifty meters long through the shopping district. Someone was seated atop her, pinning her to the ground. "Well," they said, "just look at you. Or, look at me… all bright and sparkly and cute and happy. Geez, how disgusting. I feel sick."
The dust cleared... Peace found herself staring at a distorted mirror of her own face. Words failed her, her lips moved without sound.
Her dark twin cackled at her confusion, her laugh harsh and grating. "Oh, look, it's trying to think! Don't strain yourself. You did get the End of Eva reference though, right? Right?"
"I—" Peace stammered.
"Aw, forget it. Philistine," she said, blowing air through her lips. "Eva's probably too deep for your tiny little brain anyway. I'm sure you'd rather watch toku shows and Sunrise mecha anime, that's more your speed."
It clicked. Peace's skin crawled, goosebumps raised on her every inch. "You. You're… Kanna. You're the one he—"
"Ding ding ding!" Kanna cackled again, even louder. "Oh, bravo, butterfuck, you finally got it! I'm Kanna Kise, the new Bad End Peace. You can call me 'Kanna-chan' if you like." She leaned close, too close, her breath hot on Peace's cheek. "Now, what game should we play next?"
This was wrong, this was all wrong, monstrously wrong. Peace scrambled where she lay, revolted to her core by this other self's presence, by her voice, by her obscenity. The original Bad End Peace wasn't like this, she was merely a lousy, soulless copy. This was—
"Awww, is widdle Crybaby scaaaaared~?" One black-clad hand wrapped its fingers around her neck and applied gradual pressure. "You should be, I'm you. A better you, the you that you could have been with just a little push in the other direction. 'I am a shadow, your true self…'"
Kanna's thumb was on her throat, crushing her windpipe. Peace couldn't breathe. She pounded against Kanna's arm with all her strength, but it wouldn't budge, her grip was like iron… "You—" Peace choked, prying at her double's fingers. Unbidden tears sprung to her eyes. "You don't understand… what you're doing! You have to… stop! Please… let me… help you…"
"Bzzzt, wrong." Kanna let up the pressure, just a bit. Her eyes sparkled with malevolent glee. "I do understand. I understand exactly what Master Joker did to me to make me this way, and I love him for it. He showed me what a weak, sniveling little coward I was, and how to be better. Stronger. I owe him my life, and I'll do anything for Master Joker. Anything. I'll kill myself if he orders me to... I'll slit my own throat in a second and smile for him while I bleed out.
"So if you're thinking 'Oh, the poor thing, the mean old clown's got her brainwashed!'—and you're me, so I know you are—just forget it." Her lips stretched into a grin that reminded Peace of the Mercury abomination from moments before. "What I'm gonna do to you, I'm gonna do because I want to, and because I love Master Joker with all my heart. Master Joker ordered me to make you suffer, and that's totally in my wheelhouse already, so bunky…" Her free hand raised high, her fingers curled into a fist, crackling with voltage. A mad, joyous light blossomed in her eyes. "... you're pretty much fucked."
Blows fell upon her, each strike like that of a hammer, without relent, without mercy. Peace's vision swam... she was already going numb from Kanna's electricity, but not numb enough to deaden the pain. Desperate, she did the only thing she could think of, something she had never considered trying against a living being before. Releasing the fingers trying to strangle her, she built up a charge of her own, focused it, raised both arms, called out: "PEACE THUNDER!" … and set it lose with her thumbs pressed into Kanna's eye sockets.
Air. Freedom. Kanna flew backwards across what Peace now saw was a decrepit family market, the shelves long since stripped of food and valuables, the aisled littered with trash. She crashed into the meat counter's empty display case, breaking glass and plastic and spilling coolant… and there she lay still.
Please stay down, Peace thought, barely holding back a sob as she hugged herself tight. Please, please stay down.
The universe denied her that kindness. Singed but alive, Kanna sat up, still smiling. "Wow!" she said, with genuine respect. "You've been learning from those other magical girls, haven't you?! Going right for my eyes? That was hardcore! I wanna shake your hand before I rip it off and ram it up your cooch…"
"K-Kanna," said Peace, gathering her courage, though she still trembled. "Listen to me: this isn't you, Joker's brainwashed you! You may think you love him, but he… Joker doesn't love you back, he can't love you back! There's nothing inside him that can even understand love… You don't have to do this! I can still help you, I can still save you from this nightmare! Please, let me save you!"
"'Save me?!'" Kanna burst into uproarious, screaming laughter. "Fucking hell, first for the eyes, then for the funny bone! Seriously, Yayoi-chan, that's hilarious!" Her fit of merriment stopped all at once, like someone flipping a switch. "Read my lips, dingshit: I don't wanna be saved. I'm perfectly happy with the way I am, with what I'm doing, and with the way I'm gonna kick your sparkly yellow ass. Really, was your little speech supposed to shock me? Make me question my loyalty and reconsider my evil ways? Pfft, of course Master Joker doesn't love me back! He wouldn't be the Master Joker that I love if he did! God, was I really as thick as you, or did I give you a concussion?"
Peace cringed as if slapped. There went her last chance to resolve this without a fight. It was a slim chance, almost nonexistent, but it was a chance. "Okay," she said, balling her fists. Her face screwed up with determination. "Okay. I tried to be nice. I tried to do this the right way. Because you're me, and because I love myself, even if I'm a weak little crybaby… even if I might have turned into you if things were different. But if you're really gonna be cruel and disgusting and horrible like that… then I guess fighting you is all I can do to help you."
"Help yourself," Kanna spat, stepping out of the ruined counter and shaking shards of glass from her hair. "You're the one who needs it, Yayoi-chan… Master Joker taught me things, see? Lots of things. Let me show you how he taught me to win."
Arcs of lightning danced like frenzied demons on the walls of the market as Peace and Kanna rushed each other, and thunder rampaged through the street...
A crash of thunder, a brilliant flash of light. The battle raged on in the skies above the Uminari shopping district, the two old enemies once more locked in a mortal struggle. Rubeus had new tricks of his own, Sailor Moon thought. The exploding dark energy ball thingies were no picnic the first time around, but this time they seemed stronger and hit harder, even with the added protection of her new shielding. The Black Moon soldier roared and made a headlong charge, his hands brimming with flame. She pirouetted out of his way, diving down a few meters before once again checking Imperium's readout: Cooldown 78% complete. Great.
"I remember, you know!" Rubeus said from above her. "I remember dying when my ship exploded above Earth… I remember the heat, the pressure, my body catching fire and crumbling away… and I have another set of memories of Wiseman killing me! I was supposed to be a great warrior for the Black Moon Clan, but both my lives ended in pain… Do you know what it's like, Sailor Moon? Do you know what it's like to die in agony?"
"I do!" Moon brought her staff to bear, brandishing it before herself to block his next volley of fireballs. "All of us have died at least once, it's not just you!"
"Oh," said Rubeus, "but I also died without ever getting a chance to pay you back…" His eyes lit with a baleful red glow. "You and your whole accursed family. When you banished us, you led us right into Wiseman's filthy hands, did you know that? All we ever were, our whole purpose, our whole lives, were just pawns for his sick game! Now I'm back from Hell, and I'm still nothing but someone else's pawn..."
"It doesn't have to be this way!" As she had done so many times before, Moon lowered her weapon and extended her hand. In all her lives, in both timelines, so few ever took this chance… but no matter how it hurt, she couldn't not offer. To deny an enemy the chance at mercy and redemption would be to fundamentally stop being Sailor Moon… worse, to stop being Usagi. "You can join us. You can use your power to start to fix what's been broken. You've done awful things, Rubeus, but so have a lot of us! Everyone can change, I know you can too!"
A cold sneer formed on his lips. "Pathetic. As if I'd stoop so low. If my fate is to forever be a puppet… at least I'll be a puppet with the opportunity to kill you." Another charge, another battle cry…
Regret lanced through Moon's heart. Once again, no other choice but to fight. He threw himself against her staff, spittle flying from his mouth, his eyes aflame with loathing, and she felt pity for him, as she felt pity for all those who were born into the endless war of light and dark.
Pity, however, had never stopped her before. It wasn't about to stop her now. Cooldown complete, said the readout on her staff as they twisted and spun in midair, in a deadly embrace. If Rubeus refused to end this madness despite her offer… she would end it herself. Such was Sailor Moon's duty. She gazed into Rubeus's maddened eyes, trying to convey without words that she bore him no malice, that she was sorry for all he had suffered because of her… but her feelings dashed against the wall of his hate, of his need for revenge. So it had to be. "Imperium," she said to her AMP. "Switch to Offensive Mode."
["Engaging Offensive Mode! Standby all set!"] The Moon Stick melted into white light, which compacted into a glowing orb that sank into the jewel of her tiara…
Rubeus had enough sense to back off. He had never seen the technique in person before, but clearly he had been briefed as to what to expect. Erecting a barrier around himself, he pitched backward, letting her fall away…
She raised her hand, lifted the tiara from her forehead, and focused. It smoothed itself and flattened as it spun, forming a whirling golden discus that hovered above her outstretched hand. Taking aim, she pulled back and called out the words of her invocation as she hurled the weapon: "Moon Tiara Action!"
The discus trailed golden glitter through the night sky. It homed in, seeking its target… and a meter and a half before it was due to strike Rubeus's barrier, it veered wild, over his shoulder…
"Was that it?!" said Rubeus, erupting into a crazed laugh. "I think you've been out of practice for too long!"
"No," said Sailor Moon. "That wasn't it." She clenched her fist…
Rubeus looked over his shoulder.
The discus, the tiara, was behind him, coming in fast… but it was no longer just a discus. It was a cloud of smaller discuses, a dozen or more, all the size and shape of tea saucers, locked on and screaming toward him as if guided by radar.
"Moon Tiara Shuriken!"
The first crashed into his barrier. The second shattered it. The third and upwards all scored him, slicing into his neck, his cheeks, his arms, his sides, a flurry of glowing buzzsaws pouring blessed, searing light into him with each tiny cut… Cursing, he allowed himself to fall, plummeting back to Uminari far below…
Moon followed him, pulling her limbs in close for a steep dive. If he wouldn't allow her to help him… she would at least try her damndest to ensure he didn't die this time.
"UHIUHIUHIUHIUHI…" The abomination didn't stop laughing, ever. Attacking, defending, retreating, being struck, or simply scanning for more prey, it laughed and laughed and laughed without any pause...
"I'm getting really damned sick of that sound…!" Kyoko fought for breath as she hid behind a collapsed bookshelf in the small store where they took refuge. It smelled of mildewed paper in here, but that was the least of their worries. "What the hell is that thing, anyway?!"
"An enemy," said Mami next to her, always unflappable. "At least it's not one of our allies… Eleganza's readout says there's nothing human about it, former or otherwise."
"Works for me. It's trying to kill us, so I kinda don't care if it used to be human or not. Where is it? What's it doing now?"
"Just a moment. Eleganza, deep scan and analysis, please."
["Right away, Miss Mami,"] said her AMP in a deep and pleasing bass voice. ["Scanning. Target signals are in flux, possibly due to dampening fields. Based on extrapolations, target is moving in erratic patterns fifty meters from present location."]
"Well, that helped a ton. Is it looking for us? Or for Moon and Peace?"
"Oh, blow off, already. Well, if we can't tell where it is or what it's doing, maybe we can lure it out. Let's give the new toy a spin." All agrin, Kyoko slapped the bronze cross attached to her Soul Gem. "Rejoice, Psalm 23!"
A three-tone church bell chime sounded, followed by a feminine voice rather like Kyoko's own: ["Ready to raise hell, ma'am."]
Next to her, Mami smiled a prim little smile.
"Psalm 23, let's give the hyena out there a few new targets. Rossa Phantasma Mk. II."
Not one but four Kyoko Sakuras ran from the gutted bookstore, each in a different direction, each hefting her own spear.
It didn't take long to draw a response. The abomination's constant laughter escalated in volume as it scaled down a wall nearest Kyoko #2, more like a spider in vaguely human shape than ever. "UHIUHIUHIUHIUHI!"
"Shit!" said #2, "Since when can it do that?!" Her spear extended on its chain, resembling a snake seeking its next meal.
It sprung from the wall, landing atop the spearhead, and skittered down the chain with impossible grace, a blur of motion. #2 never had a chance; the abomination extended its body by half a meter, wrapped its toothless jaws around her windpipe, tore away with savage glee…
#2 sputtered, wheezed through the ragged hole that used to be her throat, and slumped to the pavement in a spreading pool of red.
Ten seconds passed before her body dissolved into ruby particles of light.
A spear rammed through the abomination's back from behind, emerging from a bloodless hole out of its chest cavity. "Whoops," said #3 with a smile of perfect smugness. "Doesn't seem fair, does it, Chuckles?"
"UHIUHIUHI…" In reply, it swiveled its head in a half-circle, opened its rictus grin wide, and spewed a torrent of baby-blue vomit. Its cackles took on a hideous gurgling sound.
Unprepared for the assault, #3 stumbled backward, crying out in disgust and trying to claw the stuff from her eyes and mouth. It didn't take long for her movements to slow, then stop altogether as a glittering sheet crawled across her flesh, encasing her upper body in a latticework of ice.
The beast simply let her fall, watching with what could have been pleasure as her shocked expression hardened in place. By the time #3 struck the pavement with a musical sound, her upper half was frozen solid. A glancing blow of the abomination's hand was enough to shatter the corpse into a thousand pieces… then those too vanished into light.
Kyokos #1 and #4 stood together at the end of the block, their spears held together in an X-shape. Neither moved, neither spoke. They merely waited…
"UHIUHIUHIUHIUHIIIII…" Its laughter sounded almost enraged now. As it barreled down the street, contorting further and further from a recognizably human shape, it tore up great chunks of asphalt and pavement with its mouth, hurling them at its opponents like missiles.
"Shi—" That was all #1 got out; a jagged-edged piece of cement split her down the middle. She melted back into the light from whence she came…
Only one Kyoko left. The fourth and last stood firm, clutching her spear with both hands as she raised chain link barriers around herself… waiting, waiting. Only one chance. The abomination had to be in the exact position she needed for a perfect shot.
On it came, thirty meters away, then twenty, then ten, screaming with laughter. Almost as if it was anticipating the fall of the last one.
Five meters from Kyoko, when its clamberings brought it directly into her line of sight… "Heretic Inquisition!"
A spear erupted from the asphalt beneath the abomination's feet. Shrieking, it twisted itself out of the way… and into the second spear, only a second behind the first. Then another, and another, more and more skewering its body, pinning it in place in a grisly cage. Its laugh softened, petered out, and faded.
"Well then," said Kyoko. "Guess it's not so funny anymore." With a wave of her hand, she dismissed the spears, letting its body fall with a dull thud. "Hey Mami, I think you can come out no—"
Its chest exploded. Pale, deadened flesh rained in tatters from its torso as six enormous, yellowed ribs, curved and sharpened like scythes, burst from within its mangled body. "UHIUHIUHIUHIUHIUHIIII…!" Its laughter began again in earnest, ragged from the holes riddling its lungs. Using the bones as leverage to right itself, the abomination shot to its hands and feet. As it pounced, Kyoko saw the wounds her spears had made knitting themselves back together before it fell, knocking the spear from her hands and sending her sprawling.
"D-Dammit! Mami…!" Kyoko scrabbled for her spear, but the abomination was already upon her. The noxious spray came from both its mouth and its chest cavity now, coating her feet, her ankles, her knees, her thighs… "Mami! Peace! Sailor Moon!" A tide of ice inexorably covered her waist and upper torso, then spread from her shoulders down her arms, to the tips of her fingers, stopping her struggles entirely. "Help… please..." And as the ice climbed her neck, crawled over her cheeks, her lips, and her eyes, her tormentor stood there laughing, watching her every reaction for any sign of something amiss.
It was over. The frozen corpse that used to be Kyoko lay at the abomination's feet. Still it watched. Still it waited.
Silence from the body, broken only by the cracking of hardened ice, and the gentle crinkling of snow as it fell and gathered.
Still it waited. It never stopped laughing. "Uhiuhiuhiuhiuhi…"
Before it could see for itself whether or not the frigid body stayed intact, its gangly limbs were seized from below by a network of golden ribbons, coiling around it like snakes. "I think that's quite enough of that," said Mami smoothly, stepping from her hiding place. "Sakura-san, that was appalling."
Out of a shadow emerged Kyoko Sakura, the genuine article, spinning her spear from one hand to another with a triumphant smirk. "Hey, it worked, didn't it? We found out what it could do, and Psalm's holo-clones put on a good enough show to fool it, at least for a while. No more nasty surprises."
"It was sadistic."
"But it worked. You can't deny that."
The abomination's laughter took on notes of outrage. Its limbs and distended ribs clawed at the ribbons ensnaring it, only serving to entangle it further. "UHIUHIUHIUHIUHIIIIII…"
"In any case," said Mami, drawing another musket and aiming it at the abomination's skull, "I think we should finish this cleanly. We still need to regroup with the others and assist them if we can."
"Yeah, yeah," grumbled Kyoko. "Don't get your huge mutant cow boobs in a bunch. Let's do it already."
The musket fired. The abomination jerked twice, then went limp.
Kyoko kept her hands on her spear; she didn't buy it. "Better make sure it takes. It's smart enough to play dead."
"Noted." Mami drew one musket after another, aiming and firing with a frightening calm. After six shots, she placed the barrel of her seventh musket against what was left of its temple and squeezed the trigger.
The abomination did not stir.
"Finally. Good riddance." For good measure, Kyoko spat on the corpse. "Let's do what we came for and get out of—"
Before either could blink, a red comet dropped from the heavens and shook the entire street with a thunderous crash as it made impact. Kyoko whirled, and Mami turned with her, already summoning an entire battery of muskets…
"You…" Rubeus rose slowly and painfully from his crater, his body smoking in a dozen places. His eyes flicked over to the hideous corpse lying in a heap. "I can't believe… you killed a Mockery…"
"Is that what they're called?" Kyoko raised an eyebrow. "At least you're useful for that much."
Click, went the hammer of the musket clutched in Mami's right hand, aimed at the center of Rubeus's chest. "I suggest that you stay still. Sailor Moon will be on her way shortly."
Rubeus only sneered. "Am I supposed to beg for mercy from you too?"
"No," said Mami, "but you're free to try. It might be amusing."
"I…" He twitched. Something was off. His eyes wandered down his body for an unclear purpose.
"Yeah." Never one to resist an opportunity, Kyoko stepped forward and poked him with her spear. "We're not nice like she is."
Descending from on high like an angel, Sailor Moon touched down and switched off Imperium's flight engine. "Careful," she said to her teammates. "I've dealt with him before. You can't take your eyes off him for a second."
"No you can't!" Rubeus's hand moved. Clutching something in his fingers, something black but glowing bright in intermittent pulses, he aimed and fired blind. A bullet of dark energy struck Mami in the heart…
In the ensuing chaos, Rubeus vanished in a streak of purple light, laughter on his lips.
Mami fell to her knees, screaming as if possessed, clutching her heart… there was a swirling dark portal over her chest, a whirlwind kicking up around her. Something bright and colorful and glittering fell from that portal, unnoticed…
"Mami-san, hang on!"
"What's happening?! What the hell did he do to her?"
The whirlwind became a cyclone, swallowing Mami up inside it and driving both Moon and Kyoko back. Moon cried over the rising wind: "It must have been a Dark Crystal! Two of the Dark Kingdom generals used them to turn people into—"
The vortex parted, her screaming stopped. Mami Tomoe was gone; in her place knelt a bizarre figure with stark white, gleaming skin decorated with patterns of climbing ivy vines. She wore an open-chested bodice resembling a flowery teapot, and a Victorian dress with a hoop skirt and many petticoats. The features painted on her smooth, gleaming face were like those of a porcelain doll, and they resembled Mami not in the slightest. Two blank, cherry-red eyes like rose petals blinked, as if in confusion.
Moon tried not to wretch as she fumbled for the Moon Stick in her pocketspace. "Just hold on, Mami-san, I'll turn you right back to normal!" The wand solidified in her hand. "Moon—"
The newborn Youma moved like lightning. She darted close to Moon and pressed a slim china finger against her forehead. "Tsk, tsk! Impatience is a dreadful trait in a young lady like you. You need to be more refined if you're to be a guest at my tea parties."
Moon's arm dropped. A gleaming white shell spread over her face as she sagged, going limp. Once it solidified, however, her arm was back up, the Moon Stick pointed at Kyoko, the horns of the crescent moon beginning to glow…
Kyoko ran for her life, her pulse thundering in her ears. A storm of pink energy filled the street mere steps behind her as she screamed into her comm: "Oh fuck! Musain! Backup, we need backup…!"
END OF CHAPTER 40
NEXT: NIGHT OF ANGUISH