Chapter 48: But the Tigers Come at Night
-VERTEX ONE: 15.556984-
Arisugawa-no-miya Memorial Park
Minami-Azabu, Minato Ward, Tokyo
Inspector Jounichi Nakamura of the Minato Ward Police Department took his job with utmost seriousness. No one could dispute that. In fact, some would say that the man badly needed to loosen up. Nakamura would not even dignify those people with a response; a withering glare would be his only answer. It was his answer for a lot of things, to be fair.
Nakamura was just entering middle-age, with a bit of a bald patch forming on the back of his head and flecks of grey in his hair. He was stocky and solid, if not slightly portly, but he kept himself in shape. His morals and values were set in stone, and he stuck by them. In every respect, he thought, he was the model of what a Japanese man should be: stern, proud, obedient of authority, not quick with emotion, fiercely loyal to his job, his ward, his city, and his country. He wore the asahikage badge with greatest pride, and he strove to be always worthy of it.
The coming fall would mark his fifteenth year assigned to Azabu-Juuban and the surrounding areas. Which meant that, yes, he was around for all the "unfortunate incidents" that started around eight years ago, thank you very much. "Unfortunate incidents" was his default terminology for all parts of his job which fell outside the scope of typical police work. So yes, he would say testily if one asked him, he did know about the monsters. He saw the thousands of cases of inexplicable exhaustion, comas, and outright death that they caused, and the massive amounts of property damage they left behind. He knew of the many mysterious vendors and businesses which would appear out of nowhere with no licenses or registrations, become staggeringly popular for a few days, and then disappear overnight. He was there for the demons, the UFOs, the cult that sprung from Mugen Academy, the circus that planted itself in the downtown area for a month, the Three Lights concert disasters… If one asked him, he would grudgingly admit that he saw it all, and yes, it was all real.
If one continued to press him, as many people did, he would also admit that yes, he had seen the Sailor Senshi for himself. And yes, in fact, one of them had saved his life on one occasion... she lifted him up and carried him out of the way of a fearsome blade-handed creature. And yes, he had been the subject of a firestorm of attention after that happened, one that still plagued him to this day. Mentioning his media-bestowed nickname of "Sailor Keisatsu" in his presence was a guaranteed way of attracting one of his trademark angry glares, even years later.
"I am of course grateful to Jupiter-san for pulling me out of harm's way," he had said to the frenzy of cameras that greeted him the morning after the incident. "However, much as I appreciate the assistance of Jupiter-san and her compatriots, I cannot condone the actions of these so-called 'Sailor Senshi', for one reason: they are vigilantes, plain and simple. The Police Departments and the JSDF should be handling threats to this city and this nation; that's what we pay taxes for." The segment that aired on that evening's news only included the phrases "I am of course grateful to Jupiter-san for pulling me out of harm's way," and "I appreciate the assistance of Jupiter-san and her compatriots." Of course.
His celebrity afterward was supremely unwanted. Suddenly, he had found himself having to answer a deluge of inane questions from strangers, day after day: "No, I cannot confirm or deny that Jupiter-san is a human being." "No, I did not get a good look at Jupiter-san's face." "No, I do not know Jupiter-san's three sizes." But no matter how many times he answered these questions, new people would appear and pester him again with mostly the same ones, over and over again.
Over the course of the last eight years, he had seen all the speculation and heard all the theories about the Sailor Senshi: that they were angels, that they were time-travelers, that they were aliens, that they were part of a secret government plot to distract the populace from Japan's true enemies. Nakamura wanted no truck with any of it. Whoever or whatever the Senshi and their many enemies were, they were collectively but one thing to him: nuisances who prevented him from doing his job.
Then, five years ago, it all stopped. The Senshi disappeared, the monsters disappeared, the supernatural phenomena disappeared, the city ceased to be threatened by apocalypses once every month or so, and all returned to how it used to be. No, how it should be. Nakamura was nothing if not glad.
And then came the events of the past month.
Last month, as if by some coordinated signal, it all started up again, even worse than before: armies of monsters in the streets. Massive damages to city property. Vulnerable citizens preyed upon. And a new, very unpleasant phenomenon: a record high spike in the rate of disappearances and suicides.
Inspector Nakamura was not the highest on the chain of command, but damn it, he was a Police Officer, and he would do his duty as long as there was breath in his body. Monsters or no monsters, Senshi or no Senshi. If that meant helping to institute and enforce a city-wide curfew, he would do so, and he did. If that meant patrolling all of Azabu-Juuban and the surrounding areas, he would do so, and he did. And if that meant doing so alone and in the middle of the night? By God and Buddha, he would do so. In fact, he was doing so alone and in the middle of the night when he saw the lights at the library.
That summer night, the Arisugawa-no-miya Memorial Park was peaceful and quiet, just the way he liked it. A Japanese police officer's job was supposed to be peaceful and quiet, because Japanese people respected authority and respected the law, as they should. Not like in America, where one could get shot for simply walking down the street, for no reason at all. Nakamura did not care for America, or Americans… they were loud, boorish, disrespectful, and ignorant of the rules. Japanese people knew better, he thought as he walked the circular path around the statue of the Youth Playing the Flute, in the shade of half a dozen varieties of cherry trees. When Japanese people heard there was a curfew, the majority of them damn well stayed in, he thought. The only ones who didn't were the drunks and young hooligans here and there, and those were typically easy to catch.
It was during this train of thought that he saw the lights in the Tokyo Metropolitan Central Library, flitting through the darkened windows of the great grey square as he rounded the north bend of the Youth's pedestal. Putting on his favorite frown, he stopped and watched to check if he had been seeing things.
He hadn't, for the lights returned a moment later. Inspector Nakamura moved to the side of the glass entranceway and peered around the edge. There was no longer any doubt: they were thin cones of light, sweeping over the darkened shelves. Flashlights. There were people inside the library… people who shouldn't be.
Officer Nakamura was not especially known for his imagination. If he were an imagining man—which he wasn't—he might have stopped to wonder, "Why would anyone bother to break into a library after hours?" The thought did not occur to him. His thought process, in fact, was simply this: At least two sources of light. Two suspects, possibly more... violating curfew during an emergency situation. Breaking and entering, most likely. Trespassing on government property. Possibly burglary, attempted or otherwise. Given the circumstances, arrests are more than warranted. Nakamura nodded to himself and drew his sidearm, a New Nambu M60 revolver. Sliding five rounds into the cylinder, he raised the weapon and peeked around the corner of the building again for another look. There was no telling what type of hoodlums would be in there…
They were not even remotely the type of hoodlums he expected. They were four teenage girls, in fact… one slightly older than the others, by his estimate. Nakamura's frown grew more pronounced as he studied them. They were all huddled together in hushed conversation, too faint to make out from his position. All but one of them wore bright colors; it was actually difficult to see the fourth, as she dressed in full-body black and had a black bobbed haircut to boot. She was pale, too, pale as a ghost. The second wore a school uniform of a style he had never seen before… certainly no school in the area that he knew of had beige blouses and plaid skirts. Even stranger, it was a winter uniform, in the middle of June. Her pink pigtails were lighter-colored and shorter than those of the third, who stood beside the girl in black. Hers were worn long and topped with odango evocative of a rabbit's ears… and this one's uniform he recognized. It was from Juuban Public Middle School, almost a kilometer from here on Juuban's eastern border. The fourth was the oldest one, an athletic type by the look of it, with short brown hair. All her clothes were casual and loose-fitting, easy to move in. As she turned to her side to listen to Short Pink Pigtails, he caught sight of a pair of bright green eyes.
Why would any teenage girl break into a library wearing an easily-identifiable school uniform? Why was only one of them dressed for any kind of stealth? How did they get out past curfew? These questions did not occur to Officer Nakamura. His only thought was to do his duty and take these girls in for questioning on the double. Holstering his revolver for the moment, he marched to the front doors, grabbed the handle, and yanked.
It stayed resolutely in place. Puzzled, he looked down… and found that the front door's deadbolt was firmly in place. Unable to imagine why that would be the case and stuck for any other options, he simply pounded on the glass door and shouted at them. "You in there! You young ladies! Stop what you're doing and come out at once!"
All four of them jumped, but the oldest one made a curious sound as she did so: "HOEEEEEEE~!" A mad dash to the doors ensued. Green Eyes was the first to arrive. "S-s-s-so sorry, Officer!" she said, hands up to her mouth and eyes wide. "We, uh, we…"
Next was Short Pink Pigtails. "... We got locked in after the library closed for the night! W-we just got too into our studying..." She punctuated that with what she clearly hoped was an innocent chuckle.
It didn't take a master detective to see the holes in that story. Nakamura raised an eyebrow. "It's well past ten o'clock at night," he said. "Curfew was at six thirty sharp. You expect me to believe that you were studying for four hours?"
The one in the Juuban Middle uniform cringed. "Uh. Well… you know girls our age have got to worry about entrance exams—"
"Naturally," said Nakamura, crossing his arms. "And of course, you thought to thoroughly prepare yourselves for your study session by bringing your flashlights along."
"Hoeee~!" This time, the peculiar sound came out of the older one's mouth as little more than a squeak.
Now, belatedly, the girl in black spoke. "I don't think we're convincing him," she said in a soft, quiet voice, shaking her head.
Green Eyes waved an arm wildly, vaguely in the direction of the girl in black. Her frantic gaze never left Nakamura. "Nonononono, this is all a big misunderstanding, perfectly innocent, there's no reason for anyone to get upset…"
Nakamura reached for the door handle again. "Young miss, if you and your friends will kindly unlock this door and step outside in single file, please. We can sort out this matter at the station."
Short Pink Pigtails made a sound like that of a mouse being stepped on.
"Um! Um! Um!" Green Eyes seemed to be stuck in a loop as she fumbled with the deadbolt. Her face slowly turned the color of a ripe tomato. "O-Officer, th-there's r-really no need to—"
Finally, the lock turned over. "Thank you. Now then," he said to the group once he was inside. "In ordinary circumstances, I could let you all off with a warning, but these are not ordinary circumstances. The curfew is in place for a reason, and it's up to us in the Police Department to enforce the law—"
The Juuban student pointed at him, her jaw agape. "I know you! I saw you on TV, you're the officer that Jupiter saved that one time! You're Sailor Keisatsu!" The sentence was not even a half-second out of her mouth before she clapped her hands back over it in instant regret. She turned to the girl in black, making a silent, desperate plea for help.
The girl in black only tilted her head quizzically and shrugged.
Officer Nakamura's eyelid twitched as he shot the Juuban schoolgirl the coldest and most vicious glare he could muster. "Yes," he said. "Quite. But that was a long time ago, and I'd thank you not to mention it. As I was saying, it's up to the Police Department to enforce the law, and you girls are flagrantly breaking it."
"I advise you not to incriminate yourselves further," said Nakamura. "Now, if you'll all line up, hands where I can see them, please. There's no need to make this any more difficult than it has to be."
"Officer…" Green Eyes took a deep breath and reached into her shirt. "I'm really, really sorry about this, but we have a job to do!"
A weapon. So they were armed. Officer Nakamura drew back, his hands hovering at his belt. "Hands where I can see them, miss!"
"Release," said Green Eyes. There was now some sort of birdlike staff in her right hand. A shining circle bloomed at her feet, and a strange card materialized between the fingertips of her left hand...
Nakamura knew the supernatural when he saw it, and he knew that it was beyond one officer's ability to control, teenage girl or not. He pawed for his walkie-talkie. Time for backup. "Miss, in the name of the law…!"
"SLEEP," said Green Eyes. Something small and trailing glitter emerged from the card's surface, and—
The police officer toppled over like a felled tree, landing face-first at Sakura Kinomoto's feet with a resounding thud.
Chibi-Usa Tsukino cringed. "Welp. There goes our low profile entrance."
"He'll be all right, won't he?" said Madoka Kaname, gently nudging him with her shoe. A deep, rumbling snore drifted up from him, muffled by the carpet.
"He will be if we leave him here, I think. When he wakes up in a few hours, he shouldn't remember seeing us at all." Sakura fidgeted, shifting from foot to foot as she called back the pixie-like form of the SLEEP Card. "Ohhh, I've never been in trouble with the police before, that was terrible…"
Hotaru Tomoe laid a pale hand on her shoulder. "It's okay, Sakura-san. He didn't manage to call in, we're in the clear."
"Guess we should call in too, and let them know we arrived," said Chibi-Usa. She raised her wrist to her lips. Luna P was still in place there in wristwatch form, but now it was joined by a grey bangle that bore a cartoon representation of Diana's face. "Strike Team Tiger to Musain, this is Faraway with our scheduled comm check. We're here, we made it to Site A."
"Musain to Faraway, this is Tsubame," said the voice on the other end. "Tigers, check in, please."
"Cassini here," said Hotaru into her own AMP Device, which hung around her neck. Its resting state was a pink pendant shaped like a rabbit's head, a contrast to her usual dark colors. It dangled from a piece of fine silver thread, strung from a thin black necklace.
"Swan to Musain, checking in." Madoka's was the simplest of all: seemingly nothing more than a red satin ribbon tied in a bow around her wrist.
"This is Strength 8," said Sakura into hers, one of a pair of red fingerless gloves marked with matching symbols of the stylized wings that Tomoyo so often used in her past costumes. "We got through the Book Door fine…"
"Er," said Sakura as the officer let rip another mighty snore. "N-not exactly..."
"Dokomo" - Communications Hub
"... h-he was really mad at us, and he had a gun, and he was about to call for backup! I didn't know what else to do…"
"It's okay, Kinomoto-san," said Rikka Hishikawa into her headset mic as she tucked a lock of dark blue hair behind the arm of her red-rimmed glasses. She smiled reassuringly, even though Sakura was infinities away. "I think any of us would have been nervous in your situation." With her free hand, she stroked the head of the small blue puppy-like fairy who sat curled in her lap, breathing shallowly… her fairy partner, Raquel. Poor Raquel maintained her Cure form the entire time she was held captive on the Merry-Go-Round, and put everything he had into shielding her from harm as much as possible, at great cost to himself. Letting him rest and recover was for the best… but Rikka would not let him out of her sight any more than necessary.
Her headset transmitted her words of encouragement to the laptop that sat open on the console in front of her, which in turn broadcast them to Vertex One's Earth. Such a laptop would have turned many heads back on Earth… or even in the Card Republic, she wagered, where technology was far more advanced. Its outer casing appeared to be carved from ice, its screen was a 3D hologram, and its keyboard could liquify and reconfigure itself into any set of keys she could imagine with only a few gestures. It could even project its screen directly to the lenses of her glasses, if she wished. An AMP Device, these wondrous machines were called. Though Rikka couldn't transform into Cure Diamond again until Raquel regained his strength, she decided to configure her own AMP to allow her to help the Lights in other ways. At this stage, it was both the most and the least she could do.
"Are you sure you don't want to rest more?" the Arthra's nurses kept asking Rikka during her periodic check-ups. That the Morning Lights and Iron Mouse were able to free her from the Merry-Go-Round's clutches was miraculous, they said. Thanks to the Arthra's medical technology, she would make a full recovery with time. When she saw what it had done to poor Yuko Omori, Cure Honey, who had been forcibly removed from it… she agreed, "miraculous" was the right word. Rikka was lucky, unfathomably lucky, that she had escaped with minimal injury and scarring. That was the thing about the Merry-Go-Round, though: not all of its torture left visible scars.
Rikka's muscles were atrophied from confinement, that much was expected. The Arthra staff's medical scans showed that her nerves were damaged and severely overtaxed, which was logical… from what they told her, Dead End's victims had their nervous systems directly wired into the Merry-Go-Round's power systems. Grotesque and barbaric, but she understood the basic principles at work. Medical science, the medical science she had studied since she was a small child, could explain these things. What it could not explain, and what kept Rikka awake at night in her infirmary bed, was how she was alive at all.
From when she was a child, she wanted to be a doctor like her mother, and she devoted almost every spare moment to studying to understand health, medicine, biology, countless other subjects. She was perhaps in a unique position among the Lights to understand exactly what was done to her… but what was done to her defied medical science. What she felt when she was connected to the Merry-Go-Round was pain that should have killed her in minutes. Every cell of every nerve was lit up with nuclear fire, but somehow her nerves never dulled from shock over time… every new second of the agony was just as raw and blinding as the last. It was not only her own endless, timeless pain, but the pain of the hundreds of other victims, experienced—no, endured—in sync with them. It was suffering that even she, with all her knowledge, could not describe in words and could not make sense of… in any rational universe, that suffering would have long since killed her along with the other prisoners. But Joker had found a way to sustain and prolong the lives of prisoners even through pain that should have granted them merciful death. That was a refutation of all the science, medicine, and natural laws that she held dear… the foundations of her reality were upended. She kept coming back to that one thought at night, during long, sleepless hours of staring at the infirmary ceiling: I should be dead.
Yet somehow, here she was: not only alive, but able to speak and function like normal. She was able to stand up and walk on her own with full use of her arms and legs and hands and feet… which was far more than Yuko could manage. It was almost obscene, she thought, for her to be relatively unscathed when Yuko couldn't get out of her mobility chair. And there were so many other victims, from so many worlds…
Including Mana, Cure Heart. They had taken away her Happy Prince.
Hearing of the loss of her universe and the horrors of the Time Crash cut her to the bone. Her mother and father, her friends in Oogai and the Card Republic, all gone. Rikka grieved for them, and she grieved for her teammates Alice and Makoto, Cure Rosetta and Cure Sword, still held prisoner along with the other fairies, Raquel's friends. She grieved for little Aguri, Cure Ace, vanished into thin air along with Regina. She grieved for Princess Marie-Ange, returned from beyond the grave as a twisted mirror of herself and forced into Dead End's service… and likewise, she grieved for Iona Hikawa, Cure Fortune, her comrade-in-arms whose body and mind were stolen from her. She grieved for all the others that Joker had enslaved, killed, or made to suffer. But when it came to Mana, it was more than grief.
She knew, of course. She knew that Mana was cheerfully oblivious to her real feelings. That was Mana, always thinking first of who needed help and how best to help them. Mana would probably be flabbergasted if she knew that her best friend since kindergarten didn't just love her, but was in love with her… but Mana didn't know, she had no inkling of it. When and if they recovered her and things went back to normal, it would most likely stay that way. Rikka had loved her from afar for all this time, as she would always love her. The thought of Mana, her Mana, suffering through the same agony that she did, and the thought of her own failure to protect her back in Oogai… those thoughts made Rikka burn with blistering rage, rage that threatened to consume her from the inside like a blazing inferno. It appalled her to think of herself as capable of such emotion. Yet despite that rage, there were precious few things she could do to help Mana at the moment.
So she declined the opportunity to simply spend a month or two recuperating from her ordeal, because that was what Mana would do. She volunteered to serve as a support role for the Lights until she and Raquel recovered, because that was what Mana would do. She would move heaven and earth to do as much as she was humanly able, because that was what Mana would do. She would do all this and more, full strength or not full strength, powers or no powers, and woe betide anyone or anything that stood in her way.
"Hishikawa-san?" said a gentle voice from behind her.
Rikka's head snapped up. "Oh! Standby, Tigers, hold your position," she said into her headset before taking it off and setting it aside. She swiveled her chair away from the console so as not to wake Raquel by standing up. "Yuko, I didn't know you were awake!"
"I just woke up half an hour ago. Please, don't let me interrupt." How was it that Yuko could smile almost like she always did, even with all she had gone through? Rikka didn't know; perhaps it was something unique to Yuko. Though her eyes were tired, her smile was still genuine. Her copper brown hair hung a little longer than its usual short crop these days, and she wore loose-fitting sundresses rather than her favorite golden yellow overalls… the dresses were easier for her to get into and out of with the bandages restricting her motion.
Made of some kind of glittering, silvery material, they crisscrossed every centimeter of her arms and legs. Far from simple things made of sterile fabric and latex, these bandages were a part of Yuko's treatment in and of themselves. Every centimeter of them was charged with spells, provided by the Arthra's entire nursing staff. In effect, the bandages constantly bombarded Yuko with healing magic, gradually restoring her damaged nerves... something that would have been impossible with Earth's current level of medical knowledge and technology. Of course, they also served in a more traditional manner as barriers against infection and as protection for the sites of the cloned skin grafts that the nurses promised were coming once she healed more.
The bandages were not the only magitech used in Yuko's treatment either. The mobility chair she rested in vaguely resembled something one might find on Earth, but beneath its surface, it was powered by TSAB magitech. Said magitech included a gyroscopic sensor calibrated to her movement; Yuko could pilot the chair to and from wherever she wished by simply leaning in her seat, which allowed her to train her weakened core muscles in the process. Such technology amazed some of the other Lights, but Rikka knew from her studies that engineers on Earth had developed mobility vehicles based on a near-identical concept.
One feature of Yuko's chair was a surprise only to those who did not know her: wheels. No hoverchairs for this patient, though the Arthra's staff were more than capable of making one straight out of a science fiction story; Yuko insisted on a set of wheels, and that was final. In Rikka's memories, Yuko was always a humble soul, a warm, snuggly teddy bear of a girl who wouldn't think of calling attention to herself or putting herself before others. There were few more down-to-earth than she was; the simple practicality of wheels suited her. "Besides," Rikka heard her say to one of the nurses, "if I didn't have wheels, what would I do if the chair ran out of power?"
"I came by to see if you had had lunch yet," said Yuko. "I didn't know you were on with the team... I can come back later."
Rikka shook her head. "No, it's okay, they haven't even made it into the city yet. Let me just—" She turned back to the console for her headset...
... only to find several of the Lighthouse's resident non-humanoids had already taken up where she left off. "Strike Team Tiger, this is Diana," said the tiny grey kitten leaning over the headset's mic. "I am happy to hear that you and the others made it, Small Lady! Please excuse Hishikawa-san for stepping away, Omori-san just arrived."
From the other end, Rikka heard something that sounded like "Callsigns, Diana, callsigns! Remember?"
"Oh my!" Diana put a paw to her lips. "It completely slipped my mind... Please excuse me, Small Lady! Dear me, that is to say, Faraway—"
"Now, Diana..." Luna gently nudged her daughter away from the mic. "Ahem. Fieldmouse Pudding here, Tigers. You have your orders. From your present location, it's four hundred twenty meters to Site B, and from there it's another two hundred forty-five meters to the southwest border of the district. Unless there's an emergency, I advise you to keep your magic usage and comms activity to a minimum until you're within the district limits. Do you copy?"
A quartet of voices answered: "Copy that!"
"Then if there's nothing else—"
"Oh, oh, wait!" Now it was Luna's turn to be pushed aside, and with far less grace than she had shown Diana. "Strength 8, this is Supercool!" said Kero, flapping his wings with agitation as he took the mic in his tiny arms. "If you get a chance before you start fightin' and stuff, can you go to Three Choume-Six-Two?"
"I—" There was a moment of silence on the other end while Sakura checked the address. Then, with considerable annoyance: "Kero-chan, that's a pizza restaurant!"
"Awww, c'mon!" Kero moaned. "I've had nothin' but replicated stuff for weeks now! Please?"
Rikka chuckled and shook her head. It seemed that talking animals were mostly the same, the multiverse over. "I think they have it covered... maybe. I'll set Gerogero to automatic mode just in case. About that lunch," she said as she turned back to Yuko. "No, I haven't eaten yet, but I'd love to. It's been way too long since I've had your cooking, and I can't tell you how good an Omori bento box sounds right about—"
Yuko said nothing, but faint clouds dampened her ever-present smile.
It was as if someone had dropped a brick in Rikka's stomach. "Oh... oh God," she said, horrified with herself. "I-I didn't even think. Yuko, I'm so sorry, it just slipped out... wh-when you asked if I'd had lunch, I just thought you meant that you had made it—"
With difficulty, Yuko raised one bandaged arm with the other and patted her stiff hand against Rikka's own. "It's okay, Hishikawa-san," she said. "Don't beat yourself up. Food is my life, it's what I do... if I were you, I'd probably have done the same thing."
Rikka sagged in her chair. "But that was so insensitive of me..."
"Maybe just a little, but I forgive you." Yuko sighed and stared down at her hands and fingers, sheathed in layers of glittering silver and almost immobile. "It's true, I won't be able to cook for anyone for a while. Maybe for a long while, and that hurts. But it's not hopeless, Hishikawa-san. The nurses from the TSAB have already done so much more than any doctors on Earth could. Just look." With that, she twitched her fingers and thumbs, just a millimeter or two at a time. "I can already move them a little bit, and that's better than I could do last week. I'll get there someday. And until then..." Her smile returned, warm and genuine as sunshine. "I still have all my recipes and all my techniques in my head. There's nothing stopping me from teaching the nurses and ship staff how to cook. Most of them are quite good students... Chief Nurse Yugo in particular. He's taken to making some rather spectacular rolled omelettes."
"Yuko..." Rikka moved Raquel to her shoulder so as not to disturb his sleep, then gingerly leaned forward to give her comrade a hug. She could hardly think of someone less deserving of the agony the Merry-Go-Round inflicted on her… but theirs was now a shared pain, in a different way than when their minds were linked. They were sisters in suffering, the first two of hopefully many survivors. They would get through this together, somehow. "You really are amazing."
Yet another talking animal made his entrance as they parted, this one far less welcome. In fact, his voice stopped all chatter in the room, like an unwelcome guest wandering into a party. Hello, said Kyubey, now seated on the arm of Yuko's chair and eyeing it with his eternal unblinking stare. As usual, he ignored all of the gazes turned on him, which typically ranged somewhere from suspicious to outright loathing. His words were not only transmitted through his usual telepathy, they were broadcast through a speaker integrated into a thick black collar clamped around his neck. Not everyone felt comfortable with giving him a direct line into their heads. The collar was also programmed to keep him firmly within the bounds of the Lighthouse, and it served as a physical reminder that he worked for them, not the other way around. You know, Yuko Omori, if you want to resume your cooking activities sooner, he said, there is a simple way to regain use of your limbs in an instant.
Rikka grimaced and opened her mouth to stop him then and there. Behind her, she heard Luna growling and raising her hackles, and that was probably Kero grinding his teeth.
Kyubey continued unperturbed. Simply make a—
Yuko closed her eyes and turned her head in Kyubey's direction, slowly, deliberately... if she had been in a horror movie, an ominous creaking sound would have accompanied the motion. But rather than a murderous glare, she gave him her biggest, sunniest smile, and in a perfectly polite and friendly tone, she said: "Would you excuse yourself, please?"
Kyubey's ears jumped up as if attached to marionette strings. I... he said. I beg your pardon. To the astonishment of those watching, he leaped down from the arm of Yuko's chair and shot out the door, fleeing down the corridor as fast as his little legs could carry him.
"Well then!" said Yuko, breaking the awed silence that had settled over the hub. "Let's go see about that lunch, Hishikawa-san."
"Yes, let's," said Rikka, happy to banish Kyubey from her thoughts, literally and figuratively. "Gerogero," she said to her laptop, "switch to Automatic Mode, and keep Luna and the others connected to the team until I get back. You know what to do."
The laptop chimed with a musical croak. "[Rrroger, Rrrikka!]"
"There we go," said Rikka, turning back to Yuko once again. "All set." The two girls left the hub all smiles, the puppy fairy still sleeping peacefully on Rikka's shoulder.
Kero, Luna, and Diana were left staring at the empty corridor in the direction Kyubey had fled. "Maybe I'm a bad person for askin' this," said Kero after some time, "but does anyone like that guy?"
"No," said Luna flatly. "Nobody does."
Diana nodded in general agreement.
-VERTEX ONE: 15.556984-
Sendai Hill, Approaching "Site B"
Minami-Azabu, Minato Ward, Tokyo
"I can't believe him!" Sakura fumed, her cheeks puffed out like a chipmunk's as she marched uphill at a brisk pace. "Thinking about pizza at a time like this, when all our worlds are in danger... Honestly, Kero-chan is such a glutton!"
Tagging along just behind her, Madoka couldn't help but giggle a bit. "No offense, Sakura-chan," she said, "but if that's the biggest problem you have with your magical fairy, I'm jealous of you."
"Hoeee~!" Sakura stopped dead in her tracks. "S-sorry, Madoka-chan, of course you're right. I shouldn't be complaining..."
Chibi-Usa and Hotaru brought up the rear. Neither of them was much of an athlete, so the nearly four hundred meter uphill climb was slower going for the two of them. At least for them it was familiar territory, though. Chibi-Usa's heart ached to think about just how many times she and the others came this way to see Rei in happier days. When she was younger, she would take the huge stairway up to the main gate at a run, and more often than not, she would find Rei, her grandfather, or Yuuichiro—sometimes all three—sweeping up ginkgo leaves. This time, there was no heading in directly through the gate, thanks to the very real possibility that the enemy might be expecting them there. They had to cut through the back and sneak in, as if they were criminals or something... Chibi-Usa found that thought upsetting.
Next to her, Hotaru was quiet, as always. If the climb caused her any discomfort, she hid it well. Chibi-Usa had learned to treasure the long silences between them, born of faith in one another. There was no need to fill every second with idle chatter as long as you had that. Thinking of long silences, though...
Rats. Chibi-Usa tried not to think about it, tried to suppress it, but it popped back up anyway... like pushing one of those inflatable pool toys underwater, sooner or later it always resurfaced. She trusted Hotaru, really she did, absolutely and completely. But damn it all, this situation they had been in lately wasn't normal. She made every effort not to pry, to give Hotaru her privacy when she asked for it, but every so often the thought would pop into her head and...
"Something wrong?" said Hotaru, soft and gentle.
Double rats. "How could you tell?" she said, her shoulders sagging in defeat.
Hotaru chuckled. "Come on, Chibi-Usa-chan, it's all over your face. You've never been much of a poker player, I can read you like a book."
"I—" Chibi-Usa stewed in place. Now that Hotaru knew something was up, should she just go for it? She could feel the question bubbling up from inside her, like a full tea kettle ready to blow. That settled that, no stopping it now. "What's been going on with you and Akemi-san?" she blurted out.
Hotaru did the unexpected: she laughed. Just a short, polite laugh, but. Her arms slid around Chibi-Usa as she leaned close. "You have absolutely nothing to worry about, Chibi-Usa-chan. We're just talking, nothing more. I'm helping Akemi-san work out some problems. She's very troubled."
"And water's wet," muttered Chibi-Usa under her breath. Aloud, she said, "But it's not just about you talking together, Hotaru-chan! I see her staring at you..."
There was a strange expression on Hotaru's face, almost like she was trying to hold back another laugh. "You do? When?"
"All the time when she thinks you're not looking! It's creepy! The only thing that makes sense to me is that she's mad at you, and I can't figure out what you could have even done to make her angry... angrier."
"Chibu-Usa-chan," said Hotaru. Now she could hear the laughter threatening to spill over, but she couldn't think for the life of her what was so funny. "Like I said: you have nothing to worry about. I'm pretty sure I know exactly what's going on... If I'm right, Akemi-san isn't angry at me at all."
Much of the tension in Chibi-Usa's nerves relaxed; Hotaru was good at that. But that last part, though… "What is that supposed to mean?"
Hotaru wouldn't answer, but Chibi-Usa couldn't help but notice the sly little grin she wore all the way to the top of the hill...
As they cut their way across the deserted parking lot to the southeast of Hikawa Shrine and approached the copse of ginkgo trees that surrounded it, Madoka felt a peculiar tingle in the back of her skull. It was a feeling that made the summer night go cold, a sensation she was mostly unfamiliar with in this life, but it was unmistakable from the memories of so many other timelines. "Stop," she said to the others.
Sakura came to a halt and clutched her wand to her chest. "Madoka-chan?"
"There's a Witch here," she said, speaking softly though there was no one else around to listen.
"Just what we're looking for, right?" said Hotaru.
Sakura fidgeted in place. "But if there's a Witch here… what about Rei-san's grandpa and Kumada-san?"
Chibi-Usa smiled, albeit sadly. "This place got attacked enough times back in the day. Rei eventually put an evacuation system in place in case things ever got bad again. If her grandpa and Yuuichiro-san heard about the monsters over at Osa-P, they would have gone to a shelter. They should be safe."
"Still. We should scan the Labyrinth once we're inside, just to be sure." At her mental summons, the silver ring on Madoka's middle finger unwound itself and took on its true form as her Soul Gem in the palm of her hand. The gentle pulses of the Soul Gem's pink light led them right to the source in short order: three meters tall, hovering over the trunk of a particularly old and gnarled ginkgo. To the others, it likely appeared like a rough circle of air in front of the tree was affected by heat mirage, but Madoka knew that it was far more than that. The space here, the fabric of this world's reality, was warped and twisted by the being living within that distortion… the tortured remains of a broken soul, a soul that once belonged to a Puella Magi just like herself.
Madoka trembled, clutching her Soul Gem tighter. Going in there and killing the Witch was more than necessary, it was critical to the mission. Homura and the others—and she herself, for that matter—needed Grief Seeds to continue the fight against Dead End. They needed them to survive outside of the Lighthouse. And apart from that, it was the right thing to do: Witches had no minds left to comprehend the pain they caused others, no feelings left beyond their own constant suffering. Killing them was saving them from their torment, and saving countless others that they might otherwise hurt.
So why was it now so hard for her to step in there and do it?
Salvation. The word floated through her mind, and her flesh prickled, colder than ever. It seemed a few of her past memories were of her own Witch form. Not many, as a Witch transformation left little that could remember… but she recalled a single, all-consuming drive to save everyone she could, however she could. She drew everything that lived into her massive Labyrinth and reduced the rest to dust, all in the name of salvation… In the name of salvation, she destroyed the world…
And once again, Homura invaded her thoughts. Doing unspeakably terrible things with noble intentions. Saving people whether or not they wanted to be saved. Now who did that sound like?
"Madoka-chan?" A cool hand on her shoulder gave her a start. It was Hotaru, having broken away from the others. "Is everything all right?"
Madoka tried her best to smile. As if her feelings for Homura weren't complicated enough, now Hotaru was mixed in with them. Homura was willing to divulge precious little about what the two of them were doing together, beyond "talking"... pressing for anything beyond that made her close up tighter than a clam. From what she was able to piece together, Hotaru was giving her some kind of makeshift therapy sessions. It made sense; Homura and Hotaru had a lot of similarities, she couldn't deny that. There were few who would be better to help Homura work through her problems. However, the thought of her Homura going to someone else when she was troubled, confiding in someone else, telling someone else her secrets… she couldn't lie, that hurt. It was an ache deep down inside, which came surging up to the surface whenever she thought of the two of them together.
Hotaru didn't deserve to be burdened by knowing about her selfish feelings, she thought. In all their interactions during their preparations for this mission, she was nothing but kind, one of the sweetest people Madoka had met since beginning this strange ordeal. Hotaru was compassionate, understanding, insightful, and a valuable addition to the team. She was fiercely loyal to the cause, to her loved ones, and especially to Chibi-Usa, her devoted partner. One look at Hotaru and Chibi-Usa together and anyone could tell that they were soulmates. There was absolutely no danger of Hotaru stealing Homura away from her, the very thought was ridiculous.
And yet, the worry lingered. It was a nasty little green woodpecker that kept tap-tap-tapping its pointed beak inside her head at intervals, usually at the worst possible time. Here it was now, tap-tap-tap, and its presence caused Madoka to blush and turn away from Hotaru's gaze. "I-it's nothing," she said automatically. "I'll be fine."
The hand on her shoulder squeezed. "You're worried about me and Akemi-san, aren't you?" Hotaru said in almost a whisper.
Madoka goggled at her, thunderstruck. "You can tell?!"
Hotaru held a finger to her lips. Her eyes darted back to Sakura and Chibi-Usa, a meter or so behind them. Sakura was helping Chibi-Usa through a stubborn thicket of brambles. "You're not the only one," she said, still in that low voice. A smile played at her lips. "Of course you feel uneasy, you're both in a situation you've never been in before. Your relationship has changed, and you're scared that it'll never be back to what it was. That would worry anyone.
"Listen to me, Madoka-chan: it's okay to be worried that Akemi-san and I are spending time together, it's only natural. I can't tell you exactly what she and I talk about, but you have my word that there's no one in all the worlds that she thinks about more than you. She loves you, and I love Chibi-Usa. Nothing will change that. You just need to give her time."
Forget being intuitive, it was as if Hotaru could peek inside her head, see her every worry, and give the perfect answer to each of them. "How do you do that?" Madoka sputtered in awe.
Hotaru gave her a wink. "I learned from Michiru-mama… from the best."
Madoka simply shook her head. No one talk could fix everything, but Hotaru had an undeniable gift for assuaging worries. Chibi-Usa was a very lucky girl. "Thank you, Hotaru-chan," she said, patting the other girl's hand. "I feel a lot better now. You make a heck of a therapist."
"Oh, no." Hotaru giggled, soft and musical. "I'm just a good listener."
By now the others had caught up. With a new determination to see this through, Madoka turned to Chibi-Usa. "Everything okay?" she asked.
"I just want to say that we don't have brambles in the 30th century." Chibi-Usa grumbled and picked a few more stray thorns out of her socks. "We grow all our blackberries and stuff on renoberated mizunite trees and pick them from diffused crystal bubbles."
"Ren…" began Sakura. "Renobera—"
"I got in trouble for picking some from an orchard once," Chibi-Usa continued with a dreamy look on her face. "Geez, I was such a little kid back then, I couldn't have been more than four or five hundred years old…"
Sakura went cross-eyed. "Fuh," she stammered. "Fuh-five hundred… hoeee~!"
That one threw Madoka for a loop too, but she elected to ignore it for the time being. "Team," she said, taking position in front of the shimmering circle of air. She drew in a breath to try to calm the remaining butterflies in her stomach. "I just want to warn you one last time before we go in: this Labyrinth won't be like the one we practiced in during our training with Nagisa-chan. I can't tell you what will be inside, because every Labyrinth is different, just like every Witch is different. You'll need to stay on your guard at all times… no matter how harmless something looks, it's probably deadly."
The three of them nodded, Sakura and Chibi-Usa a touch nervously.
"Okay," said Madoka, more to herself than anyone else. Facing the Labyrinth's entrance once more, she spoke into the red satin ribbon on her wrist. "Musain, this is Strike Team Tiger, Swan speaking. We've located a Lotus, about twenty meters southeast of Site B. I'm taking temporary command of the mission until we've dealt with the Mahjong… now commencing Operation Empty Nets."
"Roger, Strike Team Tiger, this is Keeper," said the voice of Yui Nanase. She must have taken over for Luna. "You are go to commence Operation Empty Nets. We've marked your position, but please be advised: due to the spatial distortions, comms between us will be cut off while you're inside the Lotus. We can't provide much support, but all of us up here will be rooting for you. Make sure you come back safely."
"Roger that, we'll do our best. Swan out." Just like that, there was nothing left to do but step into the portal, less than half a meter away. Madoka swallowed, feeling a sour taste in the back of her throat. She felt like she should say something, lead by example, but she couldn't even move…
Hands clasped hers on either side. "We're with you," said Sakura, holding her left. "Everything will be all right somehow."
Chibi-Usa nodded on her right side. Her other hand was entwined with Hotaru's. "Sakura-san is right. There's no reason we can't all go together."
Courage flowed into her, warm and golden. Maybe this was the real magic, Madoka thought… holding your friends' hands like this as you all faced danger together. Something about it felt so right, as if she had been doing this all her life. "All right," she said. "Make sure your shields are up, everyone."
One by one, they all glanced down at their own AMPs' readouts, then double-checked the others' to be safe. Four lines of glowing blue holo-text spelled out the confirmation: "SHIELDS HOLDING - 100%." The AMPs' shield spell programs had undergone additional tweaking since the mission in Uminari; now they formed a skintight, invisible barrier over the user's entire body, which was complete with its own air supply. In the current configurations, they allowed free movement and full use of the senses while also providing passive protection against hazardous substances and environments… In a Labyrinth, where potentially anything in the environment could be hazardous, such things were essential.
"Looks good," said Hotaru, nodding. "I think we're ready."
"Mmm-hmm." Madoka stood up straight and set her shoulders back. Now or never. "On three," she said. "One… two… three!"
They all took a step forward, and the world came apart around them.
No one ever forgot their first time stepping into a Witch Labyrinth, and Madoka didn't envy her teammates for the experience. Their training sessions with Nagisa could only prepare them for so much; Nagisa was one little Puella Magi with access to her Witch form's shape and some—but by no means all—of its powers. No matter how hard she might try to fashion her makeshift Labyrinths like the real ones, it was still her mind controlling them, a mind that was human and intact. She simply couldn't reproduce the surreal chaos of a true Labyrinth, like the others were seeing right now…
All the ginkgo trees in the copse split in half as if cleaved by giant knives, then rotted and shriveled away like time-lapse photos. Tiny stars burrowed up from the not-earth beneath their feet and turned themselves inside out before bursting into strings of brightly-colored yarn. The earth and sky exchanged places, turned sideways, and spiraled into each other until they were indistinguishable, and yet all four girls remained stationary, three of them frozen in shock. From beneath—or above, or beside, or around—them came a terrible sound, a sonorous bass tearing noise like a massive piece of fabric being ripped apart…
There was no way to tell if the time they spent in transition was instants or hours, but relative normalcy reasserted itself with a fierce snap. Of course, in a Labyrinth, "relative" was the operative word…
The first sensation that registered was the feeling of the air: an intense humidity that put Japanese summers to shame. Madoka could taste the moisture, hot and damp and heavy, an atmosphere that made her clothes stick to her body after only seconds inside the Labyrinth proper. The smell hit next... Normally she liked earthy smells, they reminded her of her father's vegetable garden, but this one was a sour and musty locker room odor, or the stench of a pond that had sat stagnant for way too long. There was growth here that was wild and unchecked, long since left to rot...
Once the phosphenes cleared from Madoka's eyes, she made out a forest of white trees, many of them as wide around as buildings. There was something weird about the air apart from the humidity, it was thick with fine, floating particles… dust? Certainly unusual, yes, but a forest was awfully prosaic for a Labyrinth, she thought—
A series of gagging noises came from Chibi-Usa's direction. "God, that smell! It's like wet socks…!" she moaned. Once a relatively tangible surface materialized beneath them, one of her feet shot back up the moment it made contact with it. "And the ground's all spongy… What's with this place?!"
"It's not ground..." Hotaru said, wide-eyed and staring down at their feet.
While she looked down, Sakura looked up. "What in the world—"
It was difficult to tell exactly what it was they stood in, for it was of such gigantic size that they couldn't see all of it at once. The porous, rubbery "ground" spread out beneath them in a saucer shape, shallow at the edges where it met the rim, but sloping downward from there, and deepest around the perimeter of an enormous white trunk. If twenty people had linked hands and tried to encircle that trunk, the hands of the people on either end of the chain would have just barely touched each other. Translucent ridges lined the saucer's insides, each a meter high, paper-thin, and veined, arranged like the spokes of a wheel around the trunk. Looking up, the trunk—if it even was one—had a smoothness and texture resembling that of a hardboiled egg. It ended in a dome shape which sprouted thousands of white branching threads, all twitching and wriggling like worms. Ranging from as thick as a drainpipe to as thin as a hair, the threads formed a vast network that served as a makeshift ceiling low overhead, blocking out all but a few patches of pea-soup-green sky. The threads were closely entwined with that of the tree next to theirs, and the threads from the one next to that, and on and on out of sight. Only once Madoka got a good look at a distant "tree" looming in the damp and dusty air beyond the saucer's curving rim, did she realize the nature of the forest. Not a forest at all, but… "Mushrooms," she said. "They're giant mushrooms… we're standing inside one of the caps!"
Sakura shivered as she took it all in for herself. "A-are the mushrooms big, or did we get small? I hope we didn't get small… I got shrunken once, and it was awful…"
"But they're upside-down!" Now Chibi-Usa was dancing from foot to foot, trying to touch the insides of the cap as little as possible. Each time she raised one foot, an imprint of her shoe was left behind in the soft, cushiony flesh. The imprints slowly filled themselves back in with nauseating thuuuup sounds, and were erased by the time her feet came down again. "Why are they upside-down?!"
Fascinated, Hotaru reached for one of the strange, thin ridges, brushing it with her fingertips. "If this really is just a giant mushroom, then these must be the lamellae. The gills," she clarified, in response to uncomprehending stares from the others. "They distribute spores from the hymenium, which is the tissue layer that we're standing on…"
The sound Chibi-Usa made was one of abject misery.
"... and those things up there," Hotaru continued, pointing at the network of threads overhead, "must be the mycelium. They're like the roots of a plant, if the roots were a plant's main body."
"Wait," said Madoka. "You said 'spores...'" She trailed off, looking from the hanging particles of dust to Chibi-Usa's footprints and back. Now she saw it: every time her foot came down, an almost invisible puff of fine dust came up. Gears turned in her mind, and something clicked. "Chibi-Usa-chan," she said, but quietly so as not to alarm her. "I'm really sorry, I know it's gross, but I'm going to need you to stand still now."
"Huh?" Chibi-Usa gingerly lowered her foot. This time she saw the dust, a much smaller puff of it this time, and the color drained from her face. "Oh my God, I'm sorry, I—"
"It's okay," said Madoka, trying to smile. "You didn't know. We just need to move more carefully from now on, there's no reason to kick up any more spores than we have to. We need a plan of action."
A delighted smile spread across Hotaru's face. She leaned close to Chibi-Usa's ear. "If you really don't want to touch it, I could carry you around, bridal style…"
Blood rushed to Chibi-Usa's face, coloring it a spectacular scarlet. "Hotaru!"
Hotaru giggled and patted her on the back. "Silly, I'm just teasing you. Mostly~."
"Um." Sakura raised her hand, as if she had been called on in class. "Don't our AMPs have flight engines?"
Madoka took another scan of the surroundings, specifically of the mycelium close overhead. "They do," she said, "but we don't have much airspace to work with. Plus, didn't Mary-san say not to use those until she tested them more?"
"Oh. Right," said Sakura. Her face fell, then brightened. "I know! We could use FLOAT!"
"FLOAT?" said Chibi-Usa.
"It would be perfect for this!" Now Sakura looked quite excited indeed. "And it's gentle, so it wouldn't disturb the spores in the air too much, either. Just a second! Release!" Once again, the Sealing Wand expanded in her hands, taking on its true form as a Card appeared between her fingers. "Take us to find the Witch! FLOAT!"
Soft light welled from the Card and gathered into an indistinct round shape that hovered just off the mushroom's rim. Once its edges solidified, the shape was instantly recognizable: it was a stripy pink-and-purple hot air balloon. An ornamental gondola basket big enough for four hung suspended from a series of golden ropes attached to the balloon around its diameter. The basket sported four plush chairs, and a pair of Sakura's signature ornamental wings sprouted from each side.
"That's so adorable!" Chibi-Usa blurted out before she could stop herself.
Madoka and Hotaru politely clapped their hands.
"Hoeee~..." Sakura turned almost as red as Chibi-Usa had a moment before. She rubbed the back of her head nervously. "Um, all aboard?"
It was a slightly cramped ride, but not an unpleasant one, Chibi-Usa thought. They eventually had to force Sakura to stop apologizing for not making the basket bigger because "FLOAT's never carried four people before!" For now, she and Madoka were pressed up against the north wall of the basket, with Sakura making minute adjustments to FLOAT's flight with her wand as needed, and Madoka guiding them onward with her Soul Gem. Fortunately, they had seen no signs of humans trapped in here…
Down below them, apart from the caps of the enormous mushrooms, there was nothing but a lake of water choked with huge, thick mats of algae. The lake stood so stagnant that it was impossible to tell how deep it was, but one look at the water was enough to reinforce their decision to travel by balloon rather than risk wading through it.
The humidity and stillness of the air was enough that Chibi-Usa had to constantly remind herself of the spores in the air; the temptation to stick a hand in her collar and fan herself was that intense. Not just hot, but hot and sticky… She would need a long shower when this mission was over.
"It's strange," Madoka said. "I've never been in a Labyrinth this long without seeing Familiars before…"
"Maybe they're afraid of us?" said Sakura, sounding hopeful.
"It's not impossible, but I doubt it. Take us a couple more degrees north-northeast, please."
Chibi-Usa barely heard them. One of her thumbs kept tracing absently over the rim of her Prism Heart Compact, clutched tight in her left hand. Her first battle since the rescue mission was coming up… her first battle since she discovered that her Silver Crystal was losing its light, for reasons still unknown. But would she be able to battle? If the Crystal's light continued to fade, would she even be able to transform? And if not, how would she ever assume the mantle of Sailor Moon someday? Not just Chibi-Moon, but the real Sailor Moon of the future, worthy of the title at last… that was assuming she was ever worthy in the first place...
Seated next to her, Hotaru put a hand on her knee and smiled. Somehow, she always knew. Immensely grateful, Chibi-Usa leaned against her, resting her cheek on her shoulder. Maybe it was a bad time to be so close, with the humidity and all, but it still felt good. She could always lean on Hotaru, no matter what. In a way, it was almost relaxing… floating along above the danger with Hotaru at her side, half-listening to Madoka and Sakura at the helm…
"I should be able to sense if we're getting closer to or farther from the witch," Madoka was saying. "But no matter which way we go, I'm sensing the same reading…"
Sakura leaned down and waved a hand over her left ankle without looking. "I wish I could help, but I'm even more in the dark than you are. All of this is a mystery to me. Chibi-Usa-chan, sorry, but could you move your foot, please? You're kind of poking me."
"Hmm?" Chibi-Usa blinked and looked down. Her legs were tucked neatly under the seat of her chair, and likewise with Hotaru. "It's not me or Hotaru-chan doing it, are you—"
Her stomach dropped. The thing that was touching Sakura's ankle had not been there a second ago, she could have sworn it. Her first thought was that it was a spider, a very big, very shiny spider with ten legs. Looking closer revealed that it was some kind of armored hand, like that of a European knight… no, two hands, welded together at the wrists, the fingers acting like legs. It was covered in gleaming chrome plates, and Chibi-Usa thought of the bumpers of old American cars she had seen in pictures. The hand wasn't doing anything overtly threatening, it wasn't even moving much. All it was doing was gently poking Sakura's ankle over and over with its index finger… but it gave Chibi-Usa the crawling horrors.
"Are you what?" Madoka began, noticing Chibi-Usa's silence. She looked down, and her eyes grew wide. "S-Sakura-chan…"
"Hoeee~?" Now it was Sakura's turn to look.
A pregnant silence fell as the four of them stared at the bizarre creature. After some seconds, it somehow noticed that it was being watched, and withdrew its finger. It made a clattering sound as its many finger-legs turned it around, the finger now pointing at Madoka. Then it turned to Sakura, who squeaked and backed up against the wall of the basket, then to Hotaru, whose eyes narrowed, and finally it pointed up at Chibi-Usa.
Her skin erupted in goosebumps. The creature's fingertip had an eye embedded in it, a lime green eye with two catlike vertical slits for pupils, which widened as it stared at her. A hairline crack appeared between the pupils, bisecting the eyeball. As she watched, the crack widened into a split, from which a lizard-like tongue swept over the surface of the eye in a lightning-quick motion before retreating back inside. A mouth. The eye grinned at her with four rows of tiny, gleaming needle teeth…
Chibi-Usa shrieked and lashed out with her foot, missing it by a mile.
"Team!" shouted Madoka. "Transform, now!"
Chibi-Usa didn't need to be told. She raised her compact and howled, all worry about her transformation forgotten: "Moon Prism Power, Make Up!"
"Saturn Planet Power, Make Up!"
"Soul Gem, transform me!"
Intense light bloomed from within the basket. The hand creature scampered about on its floor, its finger-legs twitched wildly as it sought an escape.
Her transformation was barely finished before Chibi-Moon had her wand in her hand. She didn't even bother to aim, she simply pointed and bellowed: "Pink Sugar Heart Attack!" A burst of hearts rushed from the Pink Moon Rod's jewel. The hand skittered to the left, and the hearts struck the basket floor and winked out of sight.
"Chibi-Moon, calm down!" said Saturn. She watched the hand like a hawk, her Silence Glaive's blade trained on its movements.
"Not until I'm sure it's dead! PINK SUGAR HEART ATTACK!" Another burst, and another, and another. In frustration, she poured her energy into firing a continuous steam. Hearts pelted the floor one after the other, until the hand was driven back into a corner. With nowhere to go, it clambered to try to climb the wall… One final salvo caught it squarely, and it trembled and rusted away to nothing on the spot.
Breathing hard, Sakura turned to Madoka. "Was that—"
"A Familiar." Madoka nodded. "Stay sharp, everyone. If there's one that found us, others will be... coming!" Her bow sprung to her hand and straightened into a staff, the pink rose blossom at its peak closing and drawing in its petals. Now it was Sakura's turn to shriek as Madoka whipped the weapon at her… and past her, smacking the hand creature that had just crawled over the basket's rim right behind her. It flew like a champion fly ball, off the rim and out of sight.
The words "Is it over?" were on Chibi-Moon's lips when she heard the clanking. A harsh, angry sound of metal on metal. She whipped her wand around in a circle, searching for more finger-legs and finding none… which was when the basket tilted violently to the left.
"Below us!" Saturn clutched at the basket's rim with one hand, and indicated with her weapon with the other.
Chibi-Moon stumbled to the opposite corner and looked down…
It was an enormous chain of armored hands, all clasping each other, the closest one latched onto the corner of their basket. Two pairs of hands, four pairs, six, eight… Chibi-Usa lost count after twenty-four. The end of the chain was somewhere deep in the algae-choked water, which now stirred with motion… Other chains were forming out of it, the hands climbing over each other and grasping tight.
"We've gotta do something! FLOAT won't last long like this!" said Sakura. "Madoka-chan, what's your plan?"
"Chibi-Moon, Saturn! You two focus on the stragglers, we'll handle the chains! Sakura-chan, our combination attack!"
"Right! ARROW!" The Card flashed at her demand, a bow of white fire ignited at her fingertips. She and Madoka took position at the corner nearest to the chain. Madoka's bow resumed its true shape, its blossom blazed with pink flame. Back to back, the two of them drew flaming arrows, one white and one sparkling pink. Together they chorused: "Twin Starlight Shoot!"
Both shafts took flight… and split midway through their courses into a volley of dozens of arrows, riddling the Familiars with power. Hand after hand rusted and fell apart. The pressure on the basket slackened… but more climbed up from the waters to fill the broken links in their chains.
Chibi-Moon fired Heart Attacks one after the other, but the Familiars seemed to be spawning from nowhere. "Saturn," she called over her shoulder. "Can you give me a barrier? I'm gonna try an AMP attack!"
"Okay!" Saturn answered as the Silence Glaive sliced neatly through one particularly unlucky Familiar and reducing it to dust. Taking the shaft in both hands, she slammed the blunt end into the basket floor. "Silence Wall!" Violet fog billowed from the blade's edge, filling up the empty space between balloon and basket before hardening into one solid mass. More Familiars climbed up and down the walls, seeking the entry that was theirs but seconds ago. "Ready on your mark!" said Saturn.
"Here goes nothing…" Chibi-Moon took a deep breath. "Change, Diana P!"
The grey watchband leapt from her wrist and piped in a cheerful voice: "[At once, Small Lady!]" It burst into a puff of smoke, revealing its true form: a balloon with Diana's face, a companion to her faithful Luna P. Chibi-Moon had allowed Doctor Atenza to run multiple scans of Luna P during the process of constructing her Device. While not all of its 30th century technology was duplicable, they had come up with something close enough to it that naming it as Luna P's "child" seemed only appropriate.
Chibi-Moon tossed the balloon into the air and shouted the second part of the incantation: "Abracadabra Pon!" There was another puff of smoke, and it fell neatly back into her hand: a balloon no longer, but now a second wand, fashioned closely after her Pink Moon Rod. Clenching them both tight, Chibi-Moon spoke to Saturn once again: "Okay, drop the walls in three… two… one…"
Saturn raised the Glaive once more. The ten Familiars clinging to the hardened fog fell inward as it dispersed and funneled back into the blade…
"Sakura-san, Madoka-chan, get down!" said Chibi-Moon. Once she saw them duck, she raised her arms straight out from her shoulders, the wands pointed in opposite directions. Bracing herself, she shouted: "Pink Moon Double Heartbeat!" She drew in one leg and turned sharply on her heel…
Both the Pink Moon Rod and the AMP wand erupted with not simple streams of hearts but raging rivers of them. Chibi-Moon pirouetted in place, forming a whirling tornado around herself. The storm's winds lashed the Familiars with light and holy power, tearing through their armored bodies one after the other as they were drawn into the spiral.
There was only so long that an AMP Device could operate, however. When Chibi-Moon slowed her spin to a stop, Diana P shrank back into a wristwatch, chiming: "[Cooldown 2% complete. Standby.]" Its surface burned when she picked it up, hot to the touch even through her gloves and shielding. "That's all I've got for now," she said to the others, panting hard. "Did I get them all?"
Sakura lifted her head and peered over the edge of the basket. "FLOAT's a little more level now, I think you took out all the ones trying to get in the basket."
"We should come up with a backup plan, in case it can't hold out," said Madoka, firing another volley. "We might have to use the flight engines after all…"
Clankclankclankclankclankclankclankclank. More of the awful metallic racket came from below. If anything, it was even faster than before…
"Oh, come on!" Chibi-Moon stamped her foot. "What are we supposed to do now?!"
Lines creased Saturn's forehead. "If we keep attacking the chains from up here, they'll just rebuild them again. We need to take them out at the source. Sakura-san, do you have any Cards that can show us what's below the water's surface?"
There was already a Card forming between her fingertips as her magic circle shone golden beneath her. "I think I have just the one! O waters, part for us! WAVE!" The Sealing Wand struck the Card's surface…
In other circumstances, it would have been awe-inspiring, something to watch and gawk at. Twenty meters down below, a divide took shape in the formerly stagnant water, disrupting the tangled mats of algae. Greenish water roared as it flowed in opposite directions, as if someone had cut a great gash in it with an enormous sword. The towering chains of Familiars teetered, swaying unsteadily like reeds in a breeze. They could now see that the chains extended down, far down below the surface of the water. Though they appeared to be evenly spaced out above it, down below the three of them diverged from a single point. But though they had halted their construction for the moment, the awful metallic noises seemed louder than ever.
Hands over her ears, Chibi-Moon looked over the side. "Why is the racket—" She stopped in mid-complaint, her blood freezing in her veins.
It was not only water down there. Roughly ten meters below surface level, there was a sea of scissors, millions of scissors. Their upturned, gleaming blades clicked ceaselessly in a mindless cacophony. An endless school of razor-sharp fish popping their mouths open and closed, hungering for a meal… The three towers sprouted from somewhere within their multitudes.
Even Saturn's eternal calm seemed shaken. "Everyone," she said, "you might want to brace yourselves. Sakura-san, try to hold FLOAT steady, and keep the waters parted."
Madoka's eyes darted to her neck. "You're not going to use your—"
Saturn smiled, following her gaze. "No, not yet, it's for a last resort. Just trust me, I know my limits."
Chibi-Moon swallowed and backed up against the basket's wall. One look at Saturn's face confirmed which technique she was about to use… The Familiars were weird and gross and deadly, but she couldn't help feeling a bit sorry for them.
Taking a deep breath, Saturn held the Silence Glaive aloft and closed her eyes. Even before she called the invocation, a mass of glowing violet ribbons rose from the basket's floor and twined around her and the Glaive both. A massive and deadly power strained to be unleashed, Chibi-Moon and the others could feel it rising… and at the same time, an intense pressure pushed down on them, as if the force of gravity were doubled...
"What is it?!" cried Sakura. Her knees shook, threatening to buckle. "What's she doing?"
Saturn's eyes snapped open. With great care, she lowered the Glaive, cleaving a path through the ribbons… and as she raised it high once more, gathering them to a single point around the blade's tip, she intoned: "Death Reborn Revolution!"
Only Chibi-Moon, who had witnessed Saturn performing this attack once before, was remotely prepared for what followed. It was not as it was back then, during the final battle against Pharaoh 90… she knew what Saturn's true power felt like, and what washed over her now was measured and controlled. But even when she held back, Saturn was a force to be dreaded.
Her release shook the Labyrinth to its foundations. A massive aura of negative energy shone from her like light from a star, a tremendous roar split the air. From every tangible surface within the twisted space, from the gigantic mushrooms, from the algae, from the water, and from the sea of scissors, ribbons of violet energy sprouted, like blades of grass in some alien meadow. They rippled gently in the hot, still air… and they converged on the Familiars, thousands of them striking at once. There was no escape; the ones touched directly by the ribbons simply withered, the life drained out of them in seconds. They lost all color, they shrank down to tiny, crumpled balls of chrome, and they fell to dust. Great gaps appeared in the towering chains of hands as their foundations crumbled… the lucky few that escaped utter destruction by the ribbons fell helpless into the snapping scissor blades and were shredded to pieces.
In the terrible silence that followed when Saturn lowered her Glaive, she seemed almost… blissful.
"S-Saturn?" said Chibi-Moon, inching toward her. She honestly wasn't sure which Saturn was in control at the moment… "You okay?"
Sakura trembled where she stood, unable to speak.
"That…" said Madoka, scarcely doing much better. "Saturn, what was that?"
Only then did Saturn turn to them all, wearing her friendly smile… a Hotaru smile. "It's going to be okay," she said. "That's not something I like to do often, but—"
Madoka's eyes were wide. "No, no, you don't understand. All that negative energy…"
"What about it?" said Saturn, tilting her head to one side. "Is something wrong?"
"It's…" Swallowing visibly, Madoka clutched at her Soul Gem. "Witches are attracted to—"
She never got a chance to finish. An awful screech of metal on metal echoed through the Labyrinth, its soundwaves buffeted them all…
Madoka shouted something that none of them could hear. Her lips formed words: Below us.
All four of them rushed to the sides of the baskets to look...
The water, having fallen back into its usual place, was no longer stagnant. Enormous ripples spread across the encrusted surface as something moved underneath. There was a thunderous hiss of water rushing off of it as it surfaced: a head the size of a subway car, shiny and chrome and terminating in the elongated cone shape of an enormous lance. There were curved, scything blades on either side, two deadly crescents. More and more of its gleaming, armor-plated shape rose from the lake, shedding rivers of water… ten. twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, sixty meters of chrome coils winding through the forest of mushrooms and barely contained within the Labyrinth's bounds. The head was attached to an impossibly long, segmented body with innumerable pairs of squirming legs. Each leg branched off into smaller legs, and so on until they were lost from sight, but they never ceased to move. As it reared, they saw that each segment of its underbelly bore a huge human face, frozen in an expression of terror… except that the eyes were shiny green and compounded like those of a fly...
The Witch shifted its gigantic bulk until the lance and its scythe-blade jaws pointed down at them. The head had no eyes, but they could feel its gaze, smoldering, hateful… and hungry.
"I… I didn't…" Saturn's face was ashen, her eyes wide. "I didn't know… I'm so sorry, I didn't know it would—"
"Can you do it again? Please say you can do it again!" Sakura made a frantic grab for Saturn's arm.
"Not right away…"
"Stay calm, everyone." Madoka strode up to the edge, coolly notching a flaming arrow to her bow. She took a knee and aimed high, guiding the arrow's point in search of a weak spot. "This is what we're here for. Let's get to work."
END OF CHAPTER 48
NEXT: WITH THEIR VOICES SOFT AS THUNDER