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Shattered Skies: The Morning Lights

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"This can't be true… the data has to be flawed somehow!"

I assure you, it is not.

"No… no way. Kyubey, ya have to check it again! It's gotta be wrong!"

We have verified the data to be factually accurate to within a 0.00001% margin of error. Our results are sound, Kerberos. I apologize if this upsets you.

"But if it's true, then… then it's all for nothing. All their sacrifices, all their suffering, all this destruction…"

It would appear to be so.

"No... I won't accept this, I won't! There has to be some way. There has to be…"

While I am impressed by your optimism, Luna, I am afraid the facts are clear. Despite all of the power remaining on our side… we cannot win this war.

SHATTERED SKIES: THE MORNING LIGHTS

By BHS

 

Note: All characters are property of their respective creators and studios. I do not own them, and have made no profit from this work whatsoever.

WARNING: This story will contain MAJOR SPOILERS for ALL of the series involved. You have been warned.

ACT I: UNRAVELING

CHAPTER 1:

HEART OF DARKNESS

-VERTEX THREE: 8.333882^7-

Somewhere in Earth Orbit

It was all going wrong. It was not how it should have been.

Joker should have been dead.

More accurately, he should have ceased to exist as the individual called "Joker" at the moment he finished merging with Emperor Pierrot.

Yet he could see. He could hear. He could even feel what Pierrot was feeling… though the feelings were faint.

So if he was not alive, per se, at least he still existed in some fashion.

It was all going wrong. It was not how it should have been. Not at all.

Whatever limbo the harlequin was trapped in, he felt echoes of his Emperor's fear as the great shadowy being drew back, shrinking away from the light. That light, that blasted, burning light, threatening to melt Pierrot away like dew evaporating on morning leaves…

Before him (them?) was a great flower, blooming impossibly in the void of space. Its petals parted, and from within, there rose the immense figure of an angel, radiating that light from within, hands clasped as if in prayer, white wings unfurling to shield the wasted planet behind her from further harm…

From within Pierrot, Joker raged at the angel, wearing the face of the Precure leader. He spewed venom and hatred at her, cursing her name, mocking her, looking right into her shining eyes and refusing to blink.

But Emperor Pierrot was frightened. More than that, he was terrified. Fighting back should have been so easy, but Pierrot simply floated there and watched the angel approach…

It was all going wrong. It was not as it should have been.

The angel opened her arms, and now Joker screamed at Pierrot: Fight back! Damn you, fight back! You've almost won! You're almost there! Why won't you fight back?!

His words were lost to the cavernous darkness. Still he screamed…

You… you stupid creature! What good is being afraid going to do?! She's just a human, they all are! If you fight back, you can still win! Pierrot-sama, please…!

Pierrot wouldn't listen, wouldn't move.

COWARD! Joker howled into the blackness. COWARD! I can't believe I sacrificed myself for you…! If you won't fight back, you deserve to die!

The angel drew the swirling blackness of Pierrot's body into her arms, embracing him… both Pierrot and Joker wailed in agony… The massive form that should have swallowed the Earth whole dissolved in the power of that embrace, breaking down into smaller and smaller particles of darkness… and soon, even those disappeared.

All that remained was the light…

The Earth was saved. Pierrot was gone.

Elsewhere

Floating.

Joker hung there, broken. The absolute faith in his Emperor, his creator, the faith that had sustained him to the last, was no more.

How? How did this happen?

It was their fault. Precure… those damned human girls and their fairy pet… He and Pierrot had been so close, and now they had lost everything…

But it was also Pierrot's fault. Anger and hatred boiled inside Joker as he thought of his Emperor with nothing but disgust… The other times when he had been sealed away, Joker swore revenge on his behalf, thought of nothing but his master's revival…

Not this time.

It had all gone wrong. It was not how it should have been.

Joker hung there in silence, floating, consumed by hate… hate for the Precure, hate for Pierrot, hate for the light, hate for everything…

It didn't occur to him until sometime later how strange it was that he should feel anything at all.

He was dead, wasn't he? Truly dead. He clearly recalled the searing, unbearable pain as his body, Pierrot's body, disintegrated in the deadly glare of the light… It had killed them both, there was no doubt about that.

Joker was not one to believe in human stories of an afterlife. Utter nonsense. All that there was after death was nothingness and silence. That would be a pleasant thought, had Joker not devoted himself to the cause of eternal suffering.

Pierrot's cause.

That cause was no more, his faith in Pierrot was shattered… there was nothing left for him to do. Nothingness and silence were preferable now. The end of his existence. Death.

Yet he still existed, somehow.

Was this his punishment? Was the universe forcing his continued existence on him as punishment for all he had done?

Joker floated there and pondered that.

I exist, he thought after a while. I am.

So what happens now?

He felt the voice before he heard it. He felt it in whatever remained of his twisted, blackened soul. The voice was all around him, speaking from everywhere at once, speaking from within him and without…

Joker.

The voice called him by name. Somehow, he found himself able to answer… "Who's there?" His voice, normally bold and smug, sounded very small. Fragile.

You have returned at last, said the voice… booming, awesome, terrifying. Pierrot and the Bad End Kingdom are no more. It is time.

"Time?" Joker tried to move, and found himself paralyzed. He couldn't even open his eyes. "Time for what?"

For you to rejoin the whole.

"I don't understand…"

You have no need to understand. Your existence is at an end. Now the cycle must continue.

"Cycle? What cycle? Who are you, anyway?"

Joker found he could open his eyes again. He did so, and found that he couldn't tell whether they were open or closed. It was too dark, pitch-black…

And deep within that blackness, something even darker stirred.

The harlequin reeled, assaulted at once by the presence of something he had no words to describe. No, that was wrong… there were no words to describe it. He felt something utterly beyond his comprehension; even being aware of it battered him, tossed him like a scrap of paper in a storm. It was impossibly huge, vaster than the universe, far older than the stars and darker than the space between them. Not a living thing, not a creature with a beginning and an end… an abyss, an antithesis of being. Immortal, eternal, forever unchanging, alien…

… and yet, somehow familiar. For Joker felt something buried within himself resonate with this thing, something that reached out to the void and longed to return there.

The voice spoke as if slowly drawing itself out of the pits of Hell… or perhaps the voice was Hell… and what it said was this:

I am CHAOS .

"Chaos…" whispered Joker. He wasn't certain where to look to face it… it seemed to be all around him, as if he were submerged in the depths of an ocean… "What are you?"

I am the dark. The void. The nothingness. All that never was, is, or will be.

And Joker laughed. "You're not the first I've heard claiming something like that. You're a big fellow, I'll grant you... But why should I believe you?"

Silence.

Joker waited. "Hello?"

It matters not if you believe me, small one, said the voice. I am. I exist in every moment, every manifestation of darkness and despair. My names are many, some of which you know: Dark King. Gooyan. Desparaiah. Director. Moebius. Dune. Noise. Pierrot… I am you, and I am all the countless numbers that have come before you, and those that will follow when you are gone. I am all that have fallen and cursed the light.

That got Joker's attention. "Interesting… Pardonez-moi, but what does this have to do with me?"

You, like all the others, were created from me, sent out to spread darkness… and now, your time is over. The Chaos Seed inside you has come to rejoin the whole, so that the cycle may continue.

"Cycle? What cycle is that?"

The only one there ever is. Light and dark. Creation and destruction. Life and death. It is the nature of existence. The dark rebels against the light, the light pushes back against the dark… and the light always wins.

The harlequin frowned and crossed his arms. "Sounds like it must get old after a while."

You do not comprehend the meaning of "old", small one.

Joker heard something within that ancient voice… weariness. Unfathomable weariness. If what it claimed was true, then long before and long after time itself, this being would exist… always at war with the light, never to win. An endless cycle.

Surprisingly, Joker found that he understood. He even sympathized… just a little. "So why continue? If you speak true, and you are all my predecessors and successors… why keep fighting, if you know you'll lose? Why do you simply follow the cycle?"

The cycle is. There is no beginning, no ending. It is the way of all things.

"Sounds to me like you're not exploring all your options, monsieur…"

The voice rumbled in annoyance, and reality trembled… You speak of matters of which you know nothing, it said. Do you think that I have never once thought as you have? Through your eyes and a million others, I have watched myself try and fail, over and over and over again. It shall be as it is. It continues, in every universe, for eternity beyond eternity. There is nothing else.

Joker sat up… on what, he wasn't entirely sure. The nothing around him was as… well, nothing as it was a second ago. "Surely you must have come close, at least once…?" he prodded.

Another silence.

Then…

I remember. One world, one time, I came closer than I ever have, before or since. It was all within my grasp… Everything was to return to nothing, at last… but then…

"The light," said Joker. He knew only too well. "The light stole your victory from you."

The voice of the void spoke with sorrow and regret. The light's champion. She faced me, such a small being… but she shone so brightly… and…

"We have a few of that kind in my world as well, monsieur. They're quite the nuisance."

They exist in every world, as do my children, the bearers of the Chaos Seeds.

"Wait." Joker held up a hand… a useless gesture, but still. "You mean to say… there are others? Other human girls who fight you, in other worlds?"

Indeed.

The first faint stirrings of an idea began to churn in Joker's mind. "Well, then. Why not do something about that?"

Again you prattle about what you cannot comprehend. Your time is over , Joker. Return to me, and be silent.

Out of the void, something reached for him… a single finger, visibly indistinguishable from the rest of the nothingness around it, but its power… it warped and twisted even the void of which it was part, bent existence around it. It drew close to Joker…

"No," said Joker, attempting to move away. "Wait…"

Silence once more.

"You have to listen. We can win, we can snuff out the light, believe me!"

Nothing. Nothing but the cold and dark. The finger brushed against Joker…

… and agony, infinitely worse than dissolving at the angel's touch. Whatever fragment there was inside Joker tore through him, straining to reach the void, to become part of the whole… Was this how it happened to all of them? To Pierrot, to Noise, to all their followers? Was this unthinkable pain the end? Did he somehow survive Pierrot's destruction, only for it to end like this, screaming like a pitiful human child?

No.

No.

Joker grasped the Chaos Seed, the piece of nothingness emerging from within his soul… and held on.

And he laughed, he laughed at the void, at the ageless presence that claimed to be the darkness behind every light in every world… He cackled a challenge to it, even as he felt himself being unmade… "Coward! I call you a coward! You're no better than Pierrot, do you hear me? You simply give up, you follow your precious cycle… when you could keep fighting to have it all! You call yourself 'Chaos'…" He spat the word, with as much scorn as he could muster. "… I am more chaos than you'll ever be! I am Joker!" His voice became high, crazed, though there was little left of him to speak with… "I am madness, I am despair, I am chaos itself… and I defy you! Go ahead and take me… and fail again!"

The pull, the horrible force that was tearing his Chaos Seed out of him, unmaking him… stopped.

When Chaos spoke again, there was something foreign in its words, something as alien to it as it was to Joker. Amusement.

You are a strange creature, Joker, mad and wild… Perhaps it is foolish to listen to your words.

Silence.

But I will listen a while longer. Speak.

Falling free of the being's grip, Joker panted as his body reconstituted itself… speech was beyond him for the moment. Soon, though, the old smile returned to his face, warped and sharklike, without a trace of mirth… "Thank you, monsieur," he said. "It's a simple idea. If you're so tired of the cycle, why not end it? And if you can't win against the champions of the light… why not use them against the light?"

The void pondered that.

"Think of it," said Joker, his grin stretching wider. "What better way to finally win… than by turning your enemy to your side? The irony would be magnificent…"

And you say the cycle could end. It could finally be over.

"Yes…" The word hissed from between Joker's teeth. "No more rebelling. No more fighting. An end to it all. It's appealing, no?"

Chaos pondered… and then it laughed. The sound shook the nothingness, shook the borders of reality, echoed through all souls aware enough to hear it and chilled them to the core…

And Joker laughed along with it. Finally, finally, it was all going right...

END OF CHAPTER 1

Chapter Text

CHAPTER 2: Sakura and the Strange Night

-VERTEX TWO: 15.721699-

Tomoeda

This dream again…

The edge of a building, standing there at night with the town spread out before her like a tapestry… A small, winged, golden-furred creature hovered at her side as she clutched her staff. Before them, the Tokyo Tower-

Wait.

No, this wasn't Tokyo. The tower looming in the distance was the beloved Tomoeda Elementary clock tower that kept faithful time for everyone in town. Yet so many other details were the same: her staff, her companion, her position atop the building… And two figures still waited for her at the tower, just as in that dream from so long ago…

This is wrong…

Neither of the two that waited was familiar. She could barely see them, they stood as mere shadows against the old clock tower… but she could feel them even from far away, they were strangers.

This isn't how the dream is supposed to go! What's going on?

A tremendous, rumbling crack shook Tomoeda, vibrating through her bones and nearly causing her to fall from her perch. There was a silent cry of alarm from the creature floating next to her. She looked up…

… and saw a network of cracks spreading across the night sky, as if it had been struck by the hammer of a giant. Cold sweat rolled down her brow, mingling with the tears on her cheeks, as she raised the staff… She had to do something

Too late. Pieces of the sky began to fall, and behind the sky… there was nothing, nothing at all. Her vision went black…

And in that darkness, someone waited. Someone very small, staring at her expectantly with wide eyes…

"SAKURAAAAAAAAAAAAA!"

Sakura Kinomoto sat bolt upright in bed, screaming as the howling voice pulled her from the dream. Acting on pure instinct, she tossed away the covers, felt inside her pajamas for the key, grasped it tightly in her fist as she flew down the stairs three at a time… The kitchen, it came from the kitchen! What could possibly-

The soles of her bare feet burned in protest as she skidded around the corner. At her mental command, the key expanded into her staff. She brandished it, and called out to the room… "Kero-chan! Where are you? What's wrong?!"

A golden blur roughly the size and shape of a teddy bear rushed forward to meet her. "Sakura…" it moaned, choked with sorrow, "My pudding! The pudding I was savin' for breakfast today, it's gone! There's not even a spoonful left…!"

Sakura took a moment to process that… then she felt a vein bulge in her forehead. She shrunk the staff back down into its dormant state as she stomped forward, meeting the small creature's golden eyes with her own. "Kero-chan…" she growled, "… are you telling me you woke me up with that screaming… on a school day… just for pudding?!"

The legendary Guardian Beast of the Clow stuck out his bottom lip. "But it was my pudding, I was savin' it…!"

"Kero-chaaaaaaaaan…!"

In the five years since the night of the Sealed Card incident, things had changed in the Kinomoto household. Toya was gone, moved in with Yukito and living above the small natural foods store that they ran together. There was no more need for Kero to pretend to be a stuffed animal… after the Sealed Card's rampage and the subsequent fallout, Sakura's father had explained that he had always known about Kero's presence and the strange events that led up to his daughter's officially earning mastership of the Cards, so he took the revelation of the truth with his usual aplomb. He likewise took the news that his precious daughter and Shaoran Li were in love with remarkable grace when they announced it to their families that night. Toya's reaction was notably less than thrilled, but that was typical.

And Sakura herself had changed, of course… from a small, cheerful eleven-year-old to a slightly larger but still cheerful teenager in the full flower of her youth. She was gorgeous by anyone's standard, threatening to surpass even the legendary beauty of her late mother, Nadeshiko… but despite how much she had grown in the intervening years, in most respects she was still the same old Sakura underneath.

Right now, that same old Sakura was engaged in a frantic chase through most of the house's first floor, trying to catch hold of the Guardian Beast and inflict some well-deserved punishment for waking her up.

Several minutes of frenzied activity later, Kero stopped and crossed his tiny arms. "Time out, time out!" he panted as he let his exhausted wings go limp. By now, he was backed into the corner where the walls met the ceiling, well out of reach of Sakura's arms… but still within throwing range of the pillow she threatened to bludgeon him with. "Look, I'm sorry for wakin' you up, okay? But ya know how I feel about pudding… and ya had to get up for school anyway, right? Right?"

Sakura sighed and put the pillow aside. "All right, truce."

"Truce." Kero floated back down to her and settled on her shoulder. His face briefly crinkled into a suspicious frown. "As long as you didn't eat it…"

"I didn't, honest!"

"And I can tell you're not lyin'. So let's check the fridge again… maybe your dad moved it or somethin'."

So they did. When they found the pudding dish (empty), they also found a note attached to it, which read:

"Dear monster,

Had to stop by early this morning to get supplies and stuff from Dad's garden. Yuki's making dinner tonight and we needed more fresh vegetables. Didn't have breakfast, so I ate the pudding in the fridge. Sorry.

IOU one pudding.

Toya

PS. Tell the little monster it was delicious."

In a rare occurrence, the moods of both Cardcaptor and Guardian Beast intersected as they finished the note.

"My poor pudding…!" Kero moaned, pawing at his face in despair.

"Onii-chaaan…!" The vein bulged in Sakura's forehead again as she crumpled the note into a ball. "I'm not a monster…!"

From there it was mostly routine: a light breakfast, over which the two discussed various means of painful revenge on Toya, followed by a shower, dressing for school, and a mad dash to get together Sakura's various books and papers. Kero, of course, went back to his bed in Sakura's desk drawer, muttering dark things about which sweets he was owed and from whom. Sakura strapped on her roller blades and was out the door into the summer heat, only five minutes late… not bad at all.


She had to smile as she rolled past Tomoeda Elementary. The familiar schoolyard was filled with bright, chattering faces and small bodies in black-and-white uniforms. Had she really been that size just five years ago? For a moment she idled, hoping to catch a glimpse of Terada-sensei somewhere in the crowd, but no such luck. On she sped, thankful that Seijo High was so close by.

Her arrival in class (now eight minutes late, but still not bad) was met with the usual greetings from her friends: Rika, Naoko, Chiharu, and Yamazaki-kun, who appeared to be well into another of his trademark stories, judging by the fist Chiharu was raising behind his back. How remarkable, that the group had stayed together for so long… almost like the hands of fate had intervened, intent on keeping things as they were.

"Good morning, Sakura-chan," said a soft, lilting voice from the next desk over as she took her seat. "You made it just in time!"

"Barely," she said with a sheepish grin. "Good morning, Tomoyo-chan. Did you sleep well?"

Tomoyo Daidouji was likewise mostly unchanged from their elementary school days. Taller, certainly, and now possessing a serene, mature beauty that belied her age… in fact, she had been approached by more than one talent agency in the years since, and more had come running once word of her angelic singing voice got out. Tomoyo politely refused them all; she had no need for fame, her family was already rich enough, and she was perfectly happy living as an ordinary teenager. Just as before, she was Sakura's constant companion, confidant, and best friend, her camera a constant presence in her hand and ready to record at a moment's notice. There was now an entire wing of the Daidouji mansion converted into a full studio specifically for her hobby, a warehouse-sized room for the thousands of costumes she had made, and a solid steel vault inside which rested the innumerable tapes and discs of Sakura's exploits, both mundane and fantastic. She was nothing if not through.

"I'm afraid not," sighed Tomoyo, putting a hand to her cheek. "I was up far too late last night…"

"Don't tell me-"

"… but I just had to get the editing of 'Sakura-chan Rides the Bullet Train' right!" Tomoyo's eyes shone as she clenched her hands into fists and stared up in the general direction of the ceiling. "I had to do justice to such a momentous occasion!"

"Tomoyo-chan…" Sakura blushed and waved her hand in a noncommittal sort of way. She loved Tomoyo, but she was so hard to understand sometimes… "It was just a train ride, it wasn't a big deal…"

"You say that, Sakura-chan, but you looked so cute in that blue sundress I made for you!" Tomoyo squealed. "It was critical to film it and make it perfect!"

"Hoeee~…"

Someone opened the classroom door, but she had felt him coming long before his hand touched it. Sakura turned a warm and sunny smile to the door as Shaoran Li stepped through.

It was almost two years ago that he returned to Japan. Coming back was against all logic, against the wishes of his mother… but he did it anyway. Meilin, bless her heart, vouched endlessly on his behalf to the Li family, and in the end they gave in. Shaoran was back for good, and they would never be apart again.

Of the circle of friends, it was Shaoran who was the most different from the spring six years before when they first met. He was almost unrecognizable as the glowering, over-serious transfer student that once sat in the seat behind Sakura's, burning holes in the back of her head with his stare. Being with the one he truly loved revealed the gentle soul inside him, the soul that Sakura so adored.

He had quite a few inches on her now, but still the same old hairstyle and bright brown eyes that gazed curiously out at the world from under thick, dark eyebrows usually knitted in a frown… unless Sakura was around. When they were together, it was like a different Shaoran emerged from inside him, one that beamed with the sheer joy of being alive, of being with her… He smiled in that way that always stopped Sakura's heart as he crossed the room. "Hi, Sakura."

"Hi, Shaoran-kun…" Pinkness colored Sakura's cheeks as their fingertips touched fleetingly. "Did you have a good night?"

"Sort of. You?" He was still terse and reserved with his speech, that much was the same… but with time and practice, Sakura had become an expert at reading the volumes that he spoke with those bright eyes. They didn't need words to understand each other.

"Until this morning," she said, rubbing the back of her head.

"Oh?"

"Pudding."

"Ah." Shaoran nodded, comprehending immediately. "So he was upset?"

"Very."

"Who ate it?"

"Toya."

"Ah, no wonder." Shaoran cocked an eyebrow. "The sweet shop on the way home?"

Sakura grinned. "I'd love to."

"Okay." He brushed her hand again, then went back to his chair… a few desks away from Sakura, out of necessity. Their teachers had quickly noticed their tendency to become quite distracted if they were seated too close together, and had made appropriate arrangements to ensure they remained focused on their schoolwork.

The rest of the day passed by in a blur, as the days tended to do. Lectures, quizzes, lunch, study, afterschool clubs… the clock tower's bell rang five o'clock before Sakura knew it.

Clock tower.The words sparked a brief memory in her mind as she packed her bag, but it was gone before she could catch hold of it.

On the way home, hand in hand with Shaoran with Tomoyo and her camera one step behind, it occurred to her again. "Shaoran-kun," she asked, breaking the silence of the last few blocks, "have you had any strange dreams lately?"

Shaoran wrinkled his brow. "Not that I can remember. Why?"

"I thought I had one this morning, but…" She shrugged. "I don't know. I sort of forgot it with all the commotion."

"If it's anything important, I know you'll remember it soon, Sakura-chan," said Tomoyo, looking up from her viewfinder.

"Yeah," said Shaoran. "Or you could just use DREAM if you're worried."

"I'm not worried, really," she said, squeezing his hand for emphasis. "It was just… weird."

All too soon, it was time for the three to part ways. One more embrace for Shaoran and one for Tomoyo, and Sakura turned the corner alone to walk the last few blocks. Her thoughts wandered over tests and homework and ordinary things… as usual, Shaoran tended to appear here and there among them, making her giggle and sigh each time.

When the tinkling chime sounded from her school bag, Sakura reached for her cell phone by instinct, certain that it was probably Rika or Naoko or Chiharu calling for the latest gossip update. She unbuckled the bag and drew it out to find that the phone was still and silent, but the chime continued to play. "Hoe~?" Sakura stopped, blinking in confusion…

She could have slapped herself; how on earth could she have forgotten that sound? It wasn't her cell phone ringing after all… With far more urgency, she dug into the bottom of her bag.

Out came the special phone, made of chunky, tarnished pink plastic. This was the one Tomoyo had given her at the start of their adventures long ago, the one that was only connected to identical phones owned by Tomoyo, Shaoran, and Kero… the one that only rang when there was urgent Cardcaptor business to attend to. The one that had not rung in almost five years… Sakura pressed the button. "Hello?"

"Sakura, ya gotta come home right away!" said a voice with a pronounced Kansai accent. Kero sounded frantic… and not frantic like this morning, but frantic like he used to sound when there was trouble brewing. Sakura felt the hairs rise on the back of her neck… "Come quick, there's somethin' wrong with the Cards!"

"I'll be right there. Hang on, Kero-chan." Sakura hung up, stuffed the pink phone into her bag, and quickly slid on her roller blades. Four more blocks. She could be home in five minutes if she hurried… so she did.


"I don't understand," said Sakura. "I just don't understand…" She had been repeating variations of those words for most of the last hour.

Sakura kept running her thumb and forefinger over the surface of her key, without realizing she was doing so… a nervous gesture. The Book lay open before her, all the Cards spread out upon the floor. Kero hovered by her shoulder, his arms crossed, a grave expression on his face.

Some of the Cards were the same as the last time she looked at them. By her count, twenty of them were unchanged since the end of her trials five years ago. The others, though…

Sakura gingerly reached for one card at random, as if she was afraid it might break. It was The SHIELD. In horrified fascination, she turned it back and forth… The surface of the card shifted, like one of those lenticular hologram things she had seen a few times before. Turned one way, it was the same card as ever, an image of a wing-shaped shield wrapped in chains on a pink background, bordered by a sun, moon and star, its name and her own written in bold letters. But turned another way, her name disappeared and the card turned golden and brown… it was a Clow Card again, as it had been when she first sealed it… The same was true of twelve others, including all but one of the major elemental Cards.

Of the remaining nineteen, not only had they returned to being Clow Cards, but they were thin and insubstantial like phantoms, barely tangible at all. When she picked up one, she could see her hand straight through it.

That wasn't all. Her key, the one she kept turning over and over in her other hand… it was likewise back in its original shape, stylized and bird-like… the Star Key no more.

And of The HOPE, her final Card, there was no sign at all.

"I already tried several times," said Kero grimly. "I can't take on my true form anymore. It's a sure bet that Yue can't either… we'll probably be hearin' from Snow Rabbit soon as he notices."

"What's happening, Kero-chan?" Sakura whispered. "What does this mean…? Does Clow Reed think I'm not worthy anymore, or-"

A small hand poked her cheek. "Don't go thinkin' that. Clow chose you, Sakura, no one else. Just you. He decided you were worthy long ago, and there's no way he'd change his mind now. The only other guy I can think of that could do somethin' like this is Eriol… and we know he's on the level now."

"I just don't understand," said Sakura again, placing The SHIELD back in the Book, one cover of which now bore the symbol and name of Clow once more. Her hands clenched and unclenched around the key in her lap. "I don't get it at all…"

"Hey." Kero floated down and hugged her shoulder. "Don't worry, we'll figure it out. Remember your invincible spell: 'Everything will be all right somehow.'"

"You're right." Sakura sniffled and wiped her eyes, then hugged Kero back. "Thank you, Kero-chan, I just-"

The phone rang, interrupting her sentence. It was Tomoyo's pink phone again… Swallowing a feeling of dread, Sakura fished it out of her bag. "Hello?"

"Good evening, Sakura-chan," said Tomoyo's voice. "May I speak with you in person?"

Sakura blinked. "Tomoyo-chan? What's the matter?" She spared a glance at her alarm clock. "It's really late... And why are you using the special line? You have my cell phone number…"

"Yes, I apologize, but I really must speak to you and Li-kun, and I don't quite feel comfortable doing so over the phone. We need to be face-to-face for this. I'll meet you and Li-kun in the park in front of King Penguin in half an hour, is that acceptable?"

"I'll try, Tomoyo-chan, but I'm sort of dealing with-"

"Thank you, Sakura-chan. I'll see you both there." Click.

Sakura wasn't sure she heard correctly. "Hello? Tomoyo-chan?" Nothing, only a dial tone. If it was important enough for her Tomoyo to voluntarily cut off a conversation with her, then something was very wrong indeed.

"What's goin' on with her?" asked Kero.

"I have no idea, that was really weird… She didn't sound like herself." As she stood and stretched the kinks out of her legs, Sakura grabbed for her jacket hanging on the back of her chair. She then gathered up the Cards and placed them neatly back in the now-mismatched Book. Once it was clasped shut, she began to slide it into her open dresser drawer, into its usual spot… but something gave her pause. I think I'll need this after all, she thought, pressing the Book into her chest. Just in case.


Tomoeda Park

"She didn't say anything to you?"

"Not a thing."

"Hrm." Shaoran's eyes narrowed. "I don't like it."

"I don't like it either, kozou," said Kero, floating in their wake as they made their way down the moonlit path. "This, plus whatever's goin' on with the Cards… it smells like bad news."

"You're sure you don't sense any new magic?" asked Sakura, for what felt like the tenth time.

"I got nothin' at all, magic or no magic. And that worries me even more…"

The path led them to the small children's playground where they had spent so many days as children. A wave of nostalgia washed over Sakura as she saw the King Penguin slide standing proudly in the moonlight. How many times had they come here? She couldn't count them all.

Tomoyo sat on the end of the slide, her shoulders slumped so that her waist-length hair fell around her like a blanket. It was difficult to make her out in the dark like that… and that posture was nothing like the normal, cheerful, straight-backed Tomoyo. With great difficulty, she resisted the urge to run to her side and hug her, instead taking a few cautious steps forward. "Tomoyo-chan? We're here."

"Careful, Sakura," muttered Shaoran next to her.

Tomoyo stood, smoothed out her dress, and smiled bright. It was as if someone had flipped a switch; this was the Tomoyo they knew and loved. Clutching her camera, she bowed to them both. "Good evening, Sakura-chan, Li-kun. Thank you for coming out so late… I apologize for the inconvenience."

Sakura bowed back. "It's okay, Tomoyo-chan. Just tell us what's going on and we'll help you however we can. Is it something about the Cards?" With all that had happened in the last few hours, Sakura half-expected that to be the case…

"Oh no, nothing like that," said Tomoyo. "I wanted to talk about the three of us… you and me and Li-kun."

Shaoran blinked. "Me?"

"Yes, of course." Tomoyo turned her smile to him. "You see, Li-kun, I never realized it before, but… you are somewhat of a thief, aren't you?"

Struck dumb, Shaoran stared at her. "I- what?!"

"Hoeeee~?!" Sakura had never heard Tomoyo say anything of that nature about anyone. "Tomoyo-chan, what are you talking about?! Shaoran-kun's not a thief!"

Every muscle in Kero's small body went tense at once. "Sakura, kozou, stay sharp, somethin' stinks here…"

"He is, in a way," continued Tomoyo. She pressed a hand to her cheek and sighed. "Li-kun, I'm afraid you stole my Sakura-chan."

"D-D-Daidouji…" sputtered Shaoran, taking a nervous step back as his face reddened. "I thought we- you and I, you told me that-"

"I know, Li-kun, and I apologize. I did encourage you back then, but now…" Her tone brightened again. "I've realized that I loved Sakura-chan long before you ever did, and it's simply not fair that you're here to come between us."

"Tomoyo-chan!" Sakura edged toward her friend. This was all wrong… "Tomoyo-chan, I don't know what's going on, but you and Li-kun and I are friends! I love both of you, you know that!" Her voice was tinged with panic.

"And I love you, Sakura-chan," said Tomoyo, as cheerfully as she always did. "That's why I'm afraid I have to kill Li-kun."

Ice water danced up and down Sakura's spine. Her stomach tightened into a knot, her face turned pale… "T-T-T-Tomoyo-chan, you're… you're joking… d-don't tell jokes like that…"

"Oh, it's not a joke," said Tomoyo. In that same, soft, lilting, friendly voice, she giggled as she drew a pen knife from her pocket, flicking it open. Moonlight winked on the blade, silver and deadly. "Please wait, Sakura-chan. I'll kill Li-kun, and then we'll be together. It's all going to be fine."

END OF CHAPTER 2

Chapter Text

CHAPTER 3: Sakura and the Deep Chill

-VERTEX TWO: 15.721699-

Tomoeda Park

"I'll kill Li-kun, and then we'll be together. It's all going to be fine."

Sakura stood rooted to the spot, unable to speak, barely able to think. The world spun around her at dizzying speed, as if she were on a merry-go-round gone berserk. Those words… it sounded like it was Tomoyo saying them, but it couldn't be Tomoyo, had to be a trick or an illusion. It had to be…

"Sakura!" Shaoran was at her side, his hand gripping her shoulder. His shape loomed over her, far taller than usual. How did that happen? "Sakura, you've got to stand up! We have to-"

"Li-kun," said Tomoyo's voice with eerie calm, "if you don't mind, could you please finish saying goodbye to Sakura-chan? I need to hurry and kill you so I can get home, or Mother might be cross with me. It's very late, you know."

Belatedly, Sakura felt cool pavement on her skin; her legs had given way beneath her. That explained why Shaoran appeared so huge… She reached for the hand on her shoulder and clasped it, taking strength from his presence. Her lips began to move, numb though they were. "T… Tomoyo-chan…" She swallowed, squeezing Shaoran's hand as she made an attempt to stand. "Tomoyo-chan, it's gonna be okay… We'll f-fix this, w-we'll get you b-back to normal, I swear…"

"'Atta girl, that's our Sakura!" said Kero, close to her ear. "Come on, on your feet, we'll figure somethin' out!"

Steady, steady. Little by little she rose with Shaoran's help. A few more deep breaths and she felt well enough to speak again. "Th-thank you, Shaoran-kun. Kero-chan, I-I'm not sensing anything, are you?"

"Still nothin', but I'll keep tryin'. In the meantime- agh!"

Metal met metal with a ringing clang. Tomoyo had darted forward in a lunging slash, and Shaoran had moved to intercept with his jian. The two pushed back and forth… it was clear that Shaoran could easily gain the advantage, but not without the risk of hurting her.

"Shaoran-kun!" The shriek tore itself from somewhere deep inside Sakura as she reached for them, unsure of who she should try to help first. "Tomoyo-chan, you have to stop!"

"Li-kun, why are you resisting?" Tomoyo sounded disappointed. "This is for the best. It's the only way I can be with my Sakura-chan."

"Daidouji," hissed Shaoran from between clenched teeth, "please, don't move, just stay right there… Sakura, the Cards!"

"Right!" New resolve filled Sakura's heart. The Cards would have a way, altered or not, she just had to have faith in them. Clutching the key around her neck, she began the incantation: "O key that hides the powers of the sta-" She stopped, mentally kicking herself. It wasn't the Star Key anymore, obviously it wouldn't respond to that one. Until whatever mess there was with the Cards was fixed, she would need to remind herself to go back to the old incantation. "O key that hides the powers of the dark…" Clow's magic circle flared to life in glowing lines of light at her feet as she spread her hands, releasing the key to spin wildly in midair. "Reveal your true form to me! I, Sakura, command you under our contract! RELEASE!" To her relief, the familiar Clow Staff appeared before her, and its warmth and power surged through her body as she took hold of it.

Tomoyo briefly looked up from her struggle with Shaoran, and her face fell. "Oh dear, Sakura-chan, don't start using magic yet! I can't hold my knife and my camera at the same time! Kya!"

That distraction was all Shaoran needed. An expert flick of his blade sent the knife spinning into the night. "I'm sorry, Daidouji," he said softly as Tomoyo shrank back, cradling her wrist.

The first Card was already there at Sakura's fingertips... one of the unaltered ones, thank heaven. "Wind, please, keep Tomoyo-chan from hurting anyone! WINDY!" The tip of the Clow Staff struck the Card, and WINDY's pale elfin figure erupted from it, trailing currents of herself as she spread her cloak wide and soared forth to envelop Tomoyo. The girl had no chance to escape; in seconds, curls of solidified air had her tightly bound and suspended in place.

"Tomoyo-chan!" Sakura couldn't keep the pained moan from her voice as she rushed forward. "Tomoyo-chan, please don't move, just tell me what's wrong and I'll fix it somehow!"

"Careful, Sakura," Kero cautioned, hanging back just in case.

"My camera," murmured Tomoyo, straining against the curls. There was an odd, dreamlike tone to her voice, as if she were talking in her sleep. "I have to get my camera, you were so cool just now…"

"Talk to me, Tomoyo-chan! Why are you trying to hurt Shaoran-kun? He's your friend!"

"Camera", moaned Tomoyo with more urgency, squirming in the direction of the slide, where her camera lay unattended. Her eyes slid out of focus. "Have to get… my camera…"

"Maybe that's it," said Shaoran, edging closer to it with jian at the ready, as if the camcorder might suddenly leap up and attack. With magic, you never knew… "Hey, nuigurumi, can you sense anything from it?"

Ignoring the name for the moment, Kero hovered closer and peered at it. "Wait a second… there's somethin' there, but I'm not quite sure what. I've never-"

Tomoyo gave a mighty lurch, as if some invisible hook had seized her body and pulled hard.

At the same moment, Kero flew straight back as if the camcorder had burned him. "Whoa! What the hell is that?!"

"WINDY, keep her still!" Sakura glanced in their direction. "What, what's happening?"

"Dunno, but all of a sudden it's givin' off some kinda dark energy…" His small eyes traveled from the camcorder to Tomoyo's writhing form. "Sakura, I'd-"

The rest of his sentence was drowned out. An ear-splitting scream split the night as something black and winged erupted from Tomoyo's chest. At the same time, a shadowy aura enveloped the camcorder like a cloud, swallowing it up before rushing to meet the black winged thing. They collided together, they merged… Now Sakura felt the energy too, sizzling sensations on her skin like rays of powerful sunlight, but far more intense, burning... Pulsing with that energy, the merged object released a shockwave that scattered Sakura, Shaoran, and Kero like leaves in a gale, disrupted WINDY's form, and sent Tomoyo to the ground in a heap. "Tomo-" That was all Sakura was able to speak of her friend's name before the back of her head hit the pavement, and the world turned black.

The steady thrumming of her pulse pounding in her ears gave way moments later to a strange sound, a soft whirring noise. Wincing, Sakura turned her bleary eyes upward…

The thing standing over her wasn't human. Nor was it the spirit of one of her Cards. It was feminine, nude but smooth and featureless like the body of a doll. The only decoration it wore was an emblem of a bat-winged, pitch black heart nestled between its breasts. Lank, stringy black hair framed its angular face in loose strands, and small, dark, leathery wings extended from its temples. Its arms were grotesquely elongated, with thin, skeletal hands that ended in segmented metal fingers resembling the legs of a tripod. It tilted its head, and the whirring grew louder.

"Wha-" Sakura muttered, blinking. Then her stomach lurched… her throat tightened, stealing the scream that was building up inside her.

It had no eyes. The thing looked at Sakura with a pair of camera lenses protruding several inches from the pale, dead flesh of each eye socket. Mechanical components within each lens shifted erratically, and shutter apertures dilated open and closed independent of each other in horrible mockeries of pupils. Its metal fingers clicked together and slowly reached for her…

"Noooooo!" Her scream bubbled up and forced itself past the tightness of her throat as she scrambled backward. Pure, icy terror coursed through her veins, her stomach shrank down to a pinprick, her skin erupted in gooseflesh. She had no plan, no thought of defending herself or fighting back… she just wanted to get as far away from this horrible thing as possible…

"Nnnngh…" Kero gingerly picked himself up at the sound. His vision was oddly blurred; he couldn't tell what the dark shape was that stood in front of Sakura. When he heard her scream, though… very few things in the world could make Sakura scream like that. "Sakura!" He grimaced, pouring all his effort into another attempt to take on his true form… Sakura was more than his master and Clow's chosen successor, she was his dearest friend. Whatever it was that threatened her, it needed to be stopped, now. But his form refused to change… He tightened his focus and strained until beads of sweat broke across his brow, but still nothing happened. The more he strained, the weaker he seemed to become… now he could hardly even move, let alone speak. "S-SAKURA…!" Damn it all, what was wrong with him? Why was he so weak…?

A flash of green streaked by at the edge of his vision. Shaoran was on his feet, his handsome features contorted with rage. "Get away from her!" It didn't sound like Shaoran's voice at all... Jian in hand, he charged for the monster, raising the blade high for a deadly blow…

Clang.

From the ground, Sakura gaped, refusing to believe her eyes. The monster's arm now bent backward at an impossible angle, one that would have torn it from the socket of a normal human. Without even looking back, its fingers had caught the blade, and it held the edge mere inches from its skull. The mechanical whirring of its lenses quickened, and its vertebrae creaked as its head turned… and turned, and turned, and turned, swiveling a full 180 degrees to stare back at Shaoran. Whirr, click went the lenses, the shutters inside opening wide. There was a slick, wet, tearing sound. A long metal blade emerged from the palm of its free hand, identical to the blade of Shaoran's jian, and- "Shaoran-kun, watch out!"

Only that warning and blind instinct saved Shaoran from being cleaved in two. He rolled backward, out of the way, missed death by a fraction of an inch. The creature's blade descended in a savage downward stroke, a perfect , gouging a furrow in the cement. Abandoning Sakura for the moment, it readjusted its contorted body, raised its sword from the furrow… and to Shaoran's astonishment, it assumed a Golden Rooster Stands on One Leg stance, pointing the tip of its weapon at him as it balanced. "How…?"

"Shaoran!"

A lunging stab aimed at his midsection. Shaoran's years of Taijiquan training kicked in; he recognized the technique (Ci) and which one he should use to block (Dai). He raised the flat of his blade to the creature to deflect it. Sparks flew as the weapons clashed against each other, the blow rattling him to his bones. The monster moved like water, like a snake, flowing seamlessly into an overhand counter-blow (Ya), then from there to a warding strike (Peng) designed to knock him off his guard. Its form was flawless, just like the master swordsmen that had trained him as a child. Shaoran's insides went cold with sudden realization: No, it's not copying my masters' techniques. It's copying mine it's learned all my moves! "Sakura!" he shouted, fighting to keep his voice level. Couldn't let her see him panic. "Sakura, I don't think-" Crash. Again the blades met, but this time the creature put all its weight down on him, trying to force him to break his defensive stance, just as he would have done to gain the upper hand… "-I can hold it off much longer!"

"Hold on, Shaoran-kun! I'll-" Sakura pawed frantically through the Cards. SWORD and SHIELD are both changed, so is SLEEP… FREEZE, POWER, SHOT, and FIGHT are transparent, barely there… what should I do?! Please, someone, what should I-

Perhaps it was the remaining unaltered Cards' guidance. Perhaps it was the spirit of Clow Reed moving through her. She didn't know what it was for sure, but something made her look up and look past the battle between Shaoran and the monster. Something made her eyes fall on the figure lying motionless at the foot of the King Penguin slide, staring up at the night sky.

Tomoyo's skin was unnaturally pale… even from this distance, Sakura could tell she was white as a sheet. Her lovely, kind eyes were open and empty… expressionless, so unlike her… reflecting starlight that she could not see. Visible in her chest, just a little left of center, there was a mark… no, a hole… in the shape of a black heart. Sakura watched, paralyzed, her breath frozen in her lungs, waiting for Tomoyo's chest to rise or fall, or for her to stir, or for some indication, any indication that her best friend was still alive.

Tomoyo didn't move. She wasn't breathing.

It stole her heart. The truth of what it had done penetrated the numbness that had descended over Sakura like a blanket. She didn't know how she knew that, she just knew. That thing… it stole her heart…

It was as if Sakura's vision expanded to encompass the entire park. Without looking away from Tomoyo's body, she saw the creature gradually driving Shaoran back, moving in for the kill. She saw Kero on the ground, beating his small wings in a feeble attempt to get back up. She saw the black heart in the center of the monster's chest… the heart that belonged to Tomoyo…

A great raging flame burst to life in Sakura's soul, dispelling the cold, the numbness, the fear… She spun on one heel, Clow's magic circle shining at her feet, and she glared at the monster that hurt Kero and Shaoran, that twisted Tomoyo's feelings, stole her heart, and left her lying there lifeless… "You…!"

Startled by the sudden flaring of Sakura's aura, the monster ceded its advance on Shaoran, turned to face the Cardcaptor, opened the apertures in its lenses wide… and froze. The closest thing it could feel to mortal terror raced through its being.

Not for nothing was Sakura Kinomoto the chosen successor of Clow Reed. Not for nothing was she known as the most powerful magic-user alive, probably the most powerful to ever live. And now, every iota of her immense power was focused on the thing that dared hurt her friends and loved ones…

"CLOUD!"

The creature found itself unable to see. Its shutters clicked frantically, trying to compensate for the sudden bank of thick, cool fog that rose up around it and swallowed it whole. The information it was receiving from its senses baffled it… Where just a second ago there had been an intense aura of magical energy, now there was nothing, not so much as a spark. Its head swiveled around, sweeping over the few inches of unobstructed pavement around it. The rest of the park had melted into that fog… but how was that possible? It wasn't, the creature concluded. Obviously, its brain told it, the rest of the park simply wasn't there anymore. It was alone, isolated in some sort of-

"JUMP!"

That sound proved otherwise. Confused, it made another sweeping search of the area, finding nothing. In desperation, it flicked through the various filters of its lenses: infrared, nothing. Night vision, nothing. The sound registered as the Cardcaptor's voice, its primary target, but there was no Cardcaptor. The illogic of it paralyzed the creature. Without targets, and without any way of seeking out more targets, how could it fulfill its function?

"ARROW!"

The voice rang out again, this time from above it. Following the sound, the creature looked up. The fog above its head was clearing, revealing a figure silhouetted by a waning crescent moon, wings sprouting from its heels. There was the Cardcaptor; now it could resume following its mission directive. Its apertures opened wide to scan and duplicate whichever spell she was using. It registered two spells in active use: one a simple physical enhancement granting a vastly increased range of vertical motion, and the other seemed to be focused in the twin lines of brilliant light she held back with one hand, pointing down at the creature with the other. Whirr, click went its apertures as the Cardcaptor loosed them both…

An awful electronic screech swept through the fading remnants of CLOUD's fog bank as two arrows of light plunged straight through both lenses. Sakura touched down behind it in a perfect three-point landing, and looked back over her shoulder to watch with grim satisfaction as glowing cracks spread through the thing's body. The arrows' light tore it apart from within… soon, nothing remained of its body but dust, swiftly scattered by the evening breeze. Where it once stood, there was now only the black heart, Tomoyo's heart, hovering in silence. Pinkness blossomed from its center, its leathery bat wings burst into fluffy white feathers…

The mask of rage and grief slid from Sakura's face. Sweet, blessed relief flooded her… somehow, she knew it was going to be all right now. She had done it, she had saved Tomoyo's heart… Clutching her own heart, she stumbled after it as it fluttered back to Tomoyo and sank into her body, filling the hole in her chest. No sooner was it filled than her color returned to normal… Tomoyo blinked slowly and sat up, rubbing her eyes. "Sa-"

She was cut off by Sakura throwing her arms around her, sobbing into her shoulder. "Tomoyo-chan! Tomoyo-chan, thank God you're all right, you're back! I was so scared, I thought I'd lost you…"

"It's… it's going to be all right, Sakura-chan," said Tomoyo softly, patting her back with a delicate hand. "Whatever happened, it's going to be all right."

That only made Sakura cry harder.

"Oi, Sakura!" A small yellow shape rather like a plush toy cut through the wisps of fog. Kero intended to go straight for his usual spot on Sakura's shoulder… but he stopped, floating in place as Tomoyo's gaze caught his own. She and Sakura had been best friends long before either he or Shaoran entered her life. Tomoyo understood Sakura in ways that neither of them could, probably better than Sakura understood herself. Coming this close to losing her best friend… Tomoyo's gaze told Kero that Sakura needed just a few moments more.

Plodding footsteps fell behind him. "Hey, kozou," said Kero without turning around. "You okay?"

"Barely." Shaoran's breathing was heavy, and one arm clutched the other, hanging awkwardly at his side. "It hurts. A lot…"

"I'll bet."

His brows knit together. "All that thing did was look at me, and it knew my Taijiquan. How did it do that? What was it, anyway?"

Kero hated what he had to say next, but lying wasn't going to help anyone. "I don't know," he admitted, crossing his arms. "I've honestly got no idea."

A chill passed through Shaoran at those words. "You… you said you felt dark energy. Was it the Sorceress, maybe?" He was grasping at straws, but still…

"Couldn't be." Kero shook his head. "She passed on, we all saw it. We all felt it. This was different. It wasn't created by Eastern or Western magic, or by Clow, or by Sakura…"

The chill intensified. Shaoran rubbed his arm. "So who does that leave?"

"Nobody," said Kero, his voice low and ominous, devoid of his usual cheer. "Near as I can tell, nobody could have created it… and nobody has enough power to pull off whatever was done to the Sakura Cards, either. What's happening should be flat out impossible."

Tomoyo looked up at them both. "I don't understand," she said quietly, so as not to upset Sakura further. "What is happening?"

"You tried to kill me with a knife," said Shaoran, showing remarkable composure under the circumstances. "You said I stole Sakura from you… you don't remember?"

"Oh no…" Tomoyo covered her mouth with her free hand, horrified. "Li-kun, I'm so sorry, please forgive me! That isn't how I feel at all! Whatever was I thinking?! I… I don't remember anything… the last thing I recall was talking to that man who came to see me at home, and then…" She paused. "And then I was here."

The fur on the back of Kero's neck stood up. "Man? What man?"

"I'm not certain exactly. I wasn't expecting company, he was simply there at the gate when I returned home, and said he had to speak with me." Her brow furrowed. "I can't recall what he looked like, it's all… faint… but he seemed to take an interest in me and Sakura-chan."

"Daidouji, think hard," said Shaoran, kneeling down to her. "Do you remember anything about this man?"

A long moment of silence, broken only by the sound of Sakura's grateful tears. "He asked to examine my camera," said Tomoyo after a long time. "He only touched it for a moment, then handed it back to me… and then-"

"That's gotta be it!" Kero nodded. "Whoever that guy was musta done somethin' weird to your camera! That's what made ya flip out like that!"

"Who was it?" Everyone started; Sakura had suddenly lifted herself from her friend's shoulder, and now wore an expression of grave seriousness. "Who was this person? We've got to find him and-"

"Oh, something tells me that won't be too difficult." A new voice, mocking and sardonic, outwardly cheerful but merciless underneath… Its source was unclear; there was no one else in the park apart from the four of them. "I do apologize, apparently I made that far too easy for you. I'll do better next time, c'est bien?"

In a heartbeat, Shaoran was on his feet, jian drawn. "Who are you?!"

The voice continued, drawling. Its every word seemed to drain more warmth from the summer night. "I suppose it's my fault, really. Making a hybrid of a Youma and a Jikochuu was a novel idea, but the result was lacking. Not to mention stupid, non? I expected it to kill at least one of you, two at the most… but it failed to do even that much. Pity, after all the effort it took to corrupt that girl's Psyche, you'd think it would make a better monster."

"You…" Hardly able to believe her ears, Sakura rose, clutching her key with one hand and Tomoyo with the other. That terrible anger began to burn inside her again… "You're the one who made Tomoyo-chan do those awful things…! Who are you?! Show yourself!"

"Sakura-chan…" Tomoyo grasped her arm and squeezed, her eyes haunted. "That's him! That's his voice!"

A pulse crested over them like an ocean wave, a pulse that was darker than pitch, icier than the bitterest midwinter night. There was no sound or flash of light to mark his appearance; he was simply there between one instant and the next, perched atop a nearby street lamp. His presence made the bulb beneath him dim and flicker unsteadily. The stranger was flamboyantly dressed in mostly purples and whites, an entertainer's clothes, topped with a multicolored swirl of hair that resembled a jester's bell cap. A simple white mask covered his eyes and forehead, but the eyes of the mask were so dark that they seemed to draw light in from around them, like a pair of black holes... That mask should have been impossible to see out of, but when its eyes traveled over them, they could feel the stranger's gaze as a prickling on their skin, the same way you could feel someone staring at you from behind without turning around to be sure of it. His lips spread wide, revealing a mouthful of sharpened teeth... it was a deranged smile, a bone-chilling smile, mirthless… evil. "Mademoiselles et messieurs," he called down to them as he sank forward in a deep, sweeping bow. "I belatedly welcome you to the next act of this great comedy. No applause, please… save it for the finale."

Cold, was Sakura's first, inexplicable thought. Why is he so cold…? The fire within her withered, and she began to tremble despite herself. Clasping her key tightly, she swallowed and tried hard to sound brave… "Wh-who are you?" she asked again. Her voice came out strained and small. "Why are you doing this?"

The stranger rose from his bow. His awful grin stretched wider, wider still, as if his face was about to split. "I? Just a jaunting, jovial jester, japing and jeering with joy and jollity on a jocular journey of jubilant jackanapery…"

"Stop fooling around!" barked Shaoran, edging closer to the others. "The lady asked you a question, so answer it!"

The harlequin let out a high-pitched, trilling giggle. "Stop? But fooling around is one of life's great joys, Monsieur Li! Why, if I couldn't fool around..." He trailed off and put a clawed finger to his chin. "I would just die. Again."

"I don't like this," Kero muttered. "I don't like this at all… be careful, you two!"

Tomoyo whimpered and moved behind Sakura. "Sakura-chan, I'm scared…"

"D-don't worry, Tomoyo-chan." In a show of confidence that she in no way felt in herself, Sakura flashed her friend a smile and squeezed her hand. "We'll keep you safe, I promise." Turning back to face the harlequin, she set her lips in a frown. "Tell us why you hurt Tomoyo-chan…! She never did anything to you!"

"It's not that she did anything," said the harlequin with a shrug. "It's more like she exists, really. She exists, and she gives you strength… and that annoys me." On the last few words of that sentence, all the frivolity in his voice fell away at once. It felt like the temperature of the park dropped another ten degrees… "That, and she's such a sickeningly noble little twit… I had to dig down deep into her Psyche just to find traces of real envy for Monsieur Li there. But once I uncovered it..."

"Th-that's not true…!" Tomoyo clutched at her chest. "I… I'm happy for Li-kun and Sakura-chan, I've always been happy for them!"

"Stop it," whispered Sakura. Then, much louder: "Stop telling lies about her! Leave her alone!"

"Lies? I'm only speaking the truth." That high-pitched giggle again... "If your precious Tomoyo-chan was truly that unselfish in her feelings, I would never have been able to corrupt her at all..."

Kero gritted his teeth and balled his tiny fists. "Don't listen to him, don't believe a word of what he's sayin'! I know this type, he's just tryin' to get a rise out of ya!"

"It's working…" There was a snarl in Shaoran's voice. Both of his hands gripped the hilt of his sword so hard that his knuckles turned white. "I say we shut that big mouth of his! Sakura!"

"I know just the card… RELEASE!" Once more, the key expanded into the Clow Staff. In an eyeblink, a Sakura Card was in her hand. "Stop him from telling more lies! LIBRA!" With more force than usual, she slammed the staff's head against the LIBRA, unleashing its power. A set of sun-and-moon scales emerged from within and rose up to Joker's level, unleashing ripples of energy...

Above, the harlequin placed a hand to his brow in mock distress. "Oh no, oh dear! Whatever shall I do?" Then that mad grin as he answered his own question: "Fight fire with fire, I suppose!" He snapped his fingers and spoke a word that send a thunderbolt of fear through the four watching from below: "SHIELD."

LIBRA's ripples crashed against a sphere of solidified air. The harlequin floated within it, unharmed… and in front of him hovered the SHIELD's winged emblem, darkened and twisted. More chains than ever wrapped around it, and its surface was dyed black…

The four below gaped, astonished. Shaoran nearly lost his grip on his jian. Tomoyo's hands flew over her lips, her eyes wide with terror. Kero shook his head almost dazedly, mouthing the same word over and over: Impossible. Impossible…

And Sakura merely stared at the emblem of the SHIELD, one of her most trusted Cards, one of her friends, with her mind a total blank.

As the LIBRA returned to its Card form and settled back into Sakura's hand, the SHIELD did the same for its new master. It was hard to make out, but it appeared that the back of the Card was now solid black. The harlequin laughed a cold, cruel laugh and palmed the SHIELD, making it vanish. "Quite a trick, non? Don't make that face, Mademoiselle Sakura, I know you're as fond of cards as I am. Surely we can't share a few? In fact…" He snapped his fingers again. Another card appeared between his fingers. "... to make up for it, I'll let you see my card. Catch." Casually he tossed it down to them. The new card curved as it fell, and came to rest hovering before Sakura's face.

By all appearances, it was a simple, non-magical playing card, the kind found in any standard deck. It was emblazoned with a hooded Grim Reaper, skull-faced and bearing a scythe, and below that was a single word, spelled out in thick black letters: JOKER.

"Jo-" The sight of the word… no, the name… froze Sakura's blood in her veins. Terror that she could in no way explain or justify seized her heart in an iron grip, and squeezed, and squeezed… Looking at the name on the card was like looking at the scene of a horrible accident: it was impossible to look away, no matter how desperately she wanted to. There was something deep inside her, deeper than herself, that beheld that name and was as terrified as she was… no, moresoThis is wrong, it seemed to howl. This is all wrong… Danger. Disaster. Calamity. It's all gone wrong…

And the words stirred a faint memory in Sakura from the night before: thinking those same words as something awful happened around her and she was helpless to stop it...

It's all gone wrong… Heaven help us, it's all gone wrong...

"SAKURA!" A sharp crack accompanied a stinging pain on her cheek. Kero floated in front of her, teeth gritted, his tiny paw raised. "Sakura, ya gotta snap out of it! You're the only one that can stop that clown and get SHIELD back!"

Sakura raised a trembling hand to her cheek. She slapped herself lightly, winced, set her bottom lip, and nodded. "You're right. Thanks, Kero-chan. Shaoran, with me! Tomoyo-chan, you and Kero-chan take cover!"

"Got it!"

"Be careful, Sakura-chan, Li-kun…"

Once more they sprung into action, just like in the old days… Sakura and Shaoran working as a pair, the invincible duo. Tomoyo watched from behind a nearby park bench as the Cardcaptor took flight, FLY's feathery wings sprouting from her back and launching her upward to Joker's level. Below her, Shaoran circled around the lamp post, taking position behind the harlequin. From his sleeve he drew a jufu, one of the enchanted paper talismans that his magic favored.

"Raitei Shourai!"

"WINDY!"

At the Cardcaptor's command, WINDY'S curls encircled Joker, wrapping around him and pulling tight. Forks of lightning cascaded upward from Shaoran's jufu, coursing through the harlequin's body. His high-pitched scream split the night…

… and then he was gone, his shape fading into an eye-crossing kaleidoscope pattern…

"That bastard…" Kero snarled, his eyes narrowing. "He hasn't just got SHIELD, he's usin' ILLUSION! Sakura's still got that Card... it's changed, but how the hell did he- Sakura!"

An eyeblink, and the real Joker was behind Sakura, wielding a long, thin rapier with a wicked point. He charged with a cackle of glee, bearing down on her like an incoming missile.

"SWORD!"

The Card activated with less than a second to spare, and Joker's blade crashed against that of Sakura's transformed staff. They danced through the air, a tornado of razor edges, their movements a blur, perfect mirrors for each other.

Reduced to watching helplessly from below, Shaoran tried to follow the frantic back-and-forth of the ringing swords. There was no way to support Sakura with another jufu without the risk of hitting her as well as Joker, they were too close to one another. Damn it, come on...

"Th… that's SWORD's power, isn't it?" Tomoyo whispered to Kero, the flying sparks from the blades reflecting in her eyes. "How is it possible that he and Sakura-chan can use the same Card at the same time?"

Kero's paws clenched and unclenched. "I don't know." He was growing awfully tired of using those words.

"Sakura-chan captured all the Cards, didn't she? They're all her friends!"

"She did, and they are. That's how it's supposed to be. But this Joker guy, whoever he is… he's somehow messed with the way things are supposed to be… and if he's got the power it takes to do that…"

Each crash of the blades reverberated up Sakura's arm, jangling her nerves. SWORD's unique magic still guided her, feeding her a technique or counter for each blow, but she was gradually wearing down, expending too much magic, and nothing SWORD could do could help with that… Have to stop him, she thought, wincing as Joker's rapier came down with the weight of a sledgehammer on the raised flat of her sword. Have to stop him...

Both weapons locked in an X-shape, and Joker grinned, drawing in close, close enough that his breath washed over her. "This is fun, Mademoiselle! You've far exceeded my expectations! I honestly didn't think you'd last this long... You're Clow Reed's successor, to be sure, but you're no fighter… not without the proper motivation, anyway..."

Sakura recoiled in disgust. "How did you know- Who are you? Why are you doing this?!" she asked again. A twinge went through her back muscles in protest, she was straining too hard to break the stalemate.

"I told you: I'm Joker. As for 'why': I want to bring it all to an end." His ghastly smile spread so wide that his cheeks should have torn open. "And as for 'how'... well, let's just say I know everything. I can see everything, be anywhere… and take anything that I want. Including your Cards… the ones I'm interested in, anyway. If you noticed, I let you keep a few that are, shall we say, less than useful to me. Honestly, bubbles? Sweets? Singing? I'm not sure what Monsieur Clow was thinking with those..."

"You're going-" she panted as she finally broke away, then made a series of advancing slices. "- to give back-" Joker's rapier parried each one. "- all of my friends!"

The harlequin pulled back a few feet and wagged a finger at her, as if chastising a naughty child. "Tsk tsk, now you're just being obstinate. That's unattractive in a young lady, you know?" He giggled madly. "Now then, as I said, this is fun… but it's growing late, and all the players haven't assembled yet. I already have all I need from you and your world, little Cardcaptor, so I think it's time to drop the curtain on this scene, non?"

"What are you-"

Three playing cards appeared between his fingers, all jokers. With a casual flick of his wrist, he sent them plunging downward, Sakura heard the hiss as they passed her… they were slicing through the air like knives…

Three cards. Three people down below. No…!

Sakura dove, pulling her wings in tight. The wind roared in her ears, her heart was a thundering drumbeat against her ribs, her veins were flooded with ice… I'm not going to make it. Not going to make it in time. Time… the phantom, transparent Cards raced through her mind. TIME, SHOT, FREEZE, and ERASE are all transparent… can't use them… did he steal them, too? SHIELD might work, but I don't have enough magic left to cover all three at once… She could barely think, needed more time, needed to be just a bit faster… Faster. That Card could work, couldn't it? It was still a normal Sakura Card, so it had to work. It had to… It materialized in her hand, and she called its name… "DASH!"

DASH's power flowed through her, and yet more of her magic drained away, leaving dark spots on the edges of her vision. Now the roar of the wind became a deafening scream as the speed of her fall increased drastically. The first of Joker's cards grew closer. She could almost reach it… not enough time to catch the two cards heading for the others, but time enough to warn them… Her fingers grasped its edge, but it slipped away. On her second try she snatched it out of the air, held it to her chest, then screamed down at the three below with all the breath she could spare… "EVERYONE, WATCH OUT!" Her hand closed around the card, crushing it in her fist. But the card wasn't solid anymore, it oozed from between her fingers as streams of black liquid, coiling around her- "Wha-?!" They squeezed tight, drove the air from her lungs...

"Sakura!" Panic seized Shaoran's heart. She was falling much too fast, there would be no way for her to spread her wings and pull up before she hit… Not enough time to use a jufu and dodge the card aiming for him… Had to think fast, only one course of action… Sakura, forgive me! "Fuuka Shourai!" Green winds blew forth from the paper, surrounded Sakura and slowed her fall. He could hear the whistling above him now as the card fell like a bolt from the heavens. Sakura, he thought, closing his eyes and willing his final thought to her before it carved him in two…

The sound he had been dreading, the sound of Sakura hitting cement at deadly velocity… never came. Instead, he heard and felt his spell dissipate, gently lowering Sakura to the ground unharmed.

And bizarrely, he was still alive… Shaoran risked a glance upward. The card hovered over him, changing shape, bursting into a flurry of black snakes… no, not snakes, ropes… Cantonese curses spewed forth from him as they constricted, pinning his arms. He lost his balance, the pavement rushed up at him…


"Shaoran! SAKURA!"

That was Kero's voice. Sakura shook herself, registering shock that she wasn't hurt by the fall… she supposed she must have blacked out, but she dimly recalled a bubble of green energy surrounding her before everything went dark…

"Sakura-chan!"

And that was Tomoyo. Thank God, the cards must have missed them both. The furious swearing from farther away had to be Shaoran. So they were all alive… she wanted to weep with relief.

But if the cards weren't meant to kill them, then why…?

Tomoyo's voice again. "Sakura-cha-"

Then a sound, the sound of a thin edge slicing the air. An impact with something soft and yielding, followed by silence.

Sakura's eyes flew open.

Tomoyo stood motionless behind Kero, her eyes wide with shock. A breathless little "Oh!" escaped her lips. As if in slow motion, Sakura saw Kero turn around to look behind him… it seemed to take a thousand years for him to turn… and even longer for the first red spots to well up from around the card half-embedded in Tomoyo's chest.

She fell as if underwater, gracefully sinking to the pavement. Her hands made feeble grasping motions at the card as her dress grew redder and redder, a sluggish, spreading, deep crimson stain...

The silence was broken.

"TOMOYO-CHAN!"

"TOMOYO!"

"Daidouji!"

Tomoyo's fingers found a grip on the card. It let off a fat spark of dark magic that sank into her fingertips… She gazed at them with a puzzled expression as they dissolved into tiny particles of violet light, particles that were drawn into the card's surface as if by a vacuum.

"TOMOYO-CHAN, NO! TOMOYO-CHAN!"

"Tomoyo, hang on!" Kero was before her now, pulling at the card with every ounce of his tiny body's limited strength. It refused to budge… its edges pulsed with energy, the process accelerated, and more of Tomoyo's body disintegrated. Caught in the pulse, Kero was tossed away from her like a rag doll.

"TOMOYO-CHAN!" Sakura wriggled frantically, inching across the pavement. The card she held had transformed into thick black ropes that held her arms to sides and tied her wrists together. It didn't matter, it didn't matter if she couldn't use her arms; as long as she reached Tomoyo in time- Losing her balance, she stumbled, felt the cool cement scrape her cheek. "TOMOYO-CHAN!" Shaoran and Kero were shouting too, but she could barely hear them. She could barely hear herself over the howling of her thoughts: Not Tomoyo-chan! Not Tomoyo-chan, please! I have to save her, I -

Most of Tomoyo was broken down now, turned into specks of light and pulled into the card's surface. Only her head and upper body were left. Somehow, she turned to Sakura and met her eyes. Against all sense, she smiled, that same beautiful Tomoyo smile that she always wore. Her lips moved… her words were clear and unafraid, even as her shape faded.

"Everything will be all right, Sakura-chan. Everything wi-"

Then Tomoyo was gone. The card fell to the ground, now bearing a picture of her face, its edges smoking.

Sakura screamed… an inarticulate wail of loss that echoed through the stillness of the park for a long time before finally petering out.

Tomoyo's card flipped itself upright and sailed into Joker's hand. Floating down from above, he sat atop the King Penguin slide, his smile somehow even more horrible as he held the card up to the moonlight, examining it. "Quelle surprise, I've caught the Tomoyo-chan Card! I suppose this makes me a Cardcaptor too, non?"

There was no answer. Sakura stared at the pavement, paralyzed by grief. Little wet spots appeared on the ground beneath her, one after another. Some part of her recognized that she was crying, though she couldn't feel the tears at all. She couldn't feel anything, she was… hollow… as empty as one of her lost Cards...

"You…" Through sheer force of will, Shaoran climbed to his feet. No other words seemed to be vile enough to complete that sentence, so he merely glared at Joker, glared at him with all the loathing that he could muster. "You…!"

Again with that damned smile, the devil's smile. Joker tilted his head. "Moi?"

"Why…" The word was hoarse, barely audible. Sakura turned to the harlequin, her tormentor, in stunned disbelief. No one could be this cruel without a reason, no one… it just didn't make sense… "You… you k-k-killed Tomoyo-chan… why…?"

"Oh, don't be so dramatic, Mademoiselle," said Joker, lazily waving a hand. "She's not dead, it was just a trick. A jest, if you will. The blood effect wasn't quite as realistic as I'd hoped, but c'est la vie. Your precious Tomoyo-chan is still here…" Whatever was behind the black eyes of the mask he wore began to glow a blazing red and orange, like the fires of Hell. The glow plunged the rest of his face into shadow, until all that could be seen were those nightmarish eyes and his grotesque smile. "Alive, in the same state she was when she was sealed. So, in considerable pain… but alive. Ask your Card friends about it, I'm sure they'll be able to relate."

It was as if a spear of ice pierced through Sakura's belly. The numbness of her grief was replaced by bitter cold… The Cards… I hurt them? No, that can't be… it's not true… and Tomoyo… Tomoyo is alive, but he's hurting her…

He's hurting her, she thought, with sudden, awful clarity, because of me...

"I'll kill you!" The roar sprung from Shaoran like some wild beast escaping from a cage. His chest swelled, and the ropes binding him snapped. Retrieve his jian and gripping it with a shaking hand, he drew another jufu, laid it against the flat of the blade, and bellowed: "KASEI SHOURAI!"

Joker was swallowed by flame. There was no other way to describe it… it was not a stream but a wall of scarlet fire that erupted from the jufu and devoured the harlequin in an inferno the size of a house. Visible inside it only as a faint, writhing shadow, Joker howled in agony…

Shaoran didn't hear him, didn't watch. In an instant, he was by Sakura's side, holding her close. "Sakura…" She quivered in his arms… she felt too small to him, helpless, like a lost baby bird. He had never seen her so… so broken. Even during the shock of the Final Judgment, she had never been like this. "Sakura, we'll get her back."

"Shao-" His name caught in her throat.

"We'll get her back," he repeated. "I promise we'll get her back, and we'll make him pay. Please, don't cry…"

"Shaoran," she breathed, taking strength from his presence, as she always did. She sniffled, wiping the tears from her eyes with the back of her hand, then raised her head and smiled at him. "Thank you…"

Behind them, the flames burned on, casting embers to the sky. Sakura and Shaoran rose hand in hand, then turned to face the fire…

"Well, isn't this a sickening display." Out he came, striding easily from out of the inferno as if it were air, casually flicking away the tongues of smoldering fire that clung to his clothes. "A fine attack that was, Monsieur Li. Quite unexpected. I was almost concerned for, oh, a few seconds." Joker stared at them both, at their clasped hands, the eyes of his mask black and empty once more. "Of course, I'll be in far more danger if you continue spouting your drivel to each other. I've a delicate composition, you see… pointless human affection just makes me ill."

"It's not pointless!" Sakura aimed her staff at him. However he had stolen or copied SHIELD and the other Cards, it didn't much matter. SHIELD's presence alone made nearly all methods of attack pointless, save for SWORD. But if I follow SWORD up with another Card… "You're going to give my friend back, or-"

"Or what?" All the levity and mockery vanished from Joker's voice, and the inexplicable frigid sensation that he triggered inside Sakura worsened, like spiders with feet of ice crawling up and down her spine... "You're not a fighter, Mademoiselle. You're not a killer. You don't rely on your power, you rely on your love and hope and friendship." He spat the words out as a curse. "You're one of the worst of them all. At least the others have some fire to them. Or had."

A few feet away, Kero stirred, rubbing the growing bruise on the back of his head. Only part of that last sentence registered with him, but it gave him pause. Others? What is he talking about?

The hellish flames behind the eyes of Joker's mask lit up again as he advanced. "It doesn't matter. In the end, even your power doesn't matter. The only constant in all the worlds… is that there is no constant." The flames danced, and the awful smile slid off his face, his lips tightening into a grim, hard line that was somehow worse… far, far worse. "No meaning. No consistency. No purpose. I've seen the end, Mademoiselle Sakura, and the end is nothing. Whatever kind of pathetic life you hope to lead, it will all end in nothing."

Cold… He's too cold… Even the warmth of Shaoran's hand was fading. Sakura couldn't move, couldn't speak. Never before had she heard a worldview so heartless… How was it possible? How could anyone or anything exist, thinking that way? Again, she had the bizarre feeling that it wasn't just her being horrified by Joker's words… but that was impossible, wasn't it?

"And while we're on the subject…" As if a switch had been flipped, Joker's smile returned, wider than ever. Another corrupted Card materialized between his thin fingers. "There's an old friend of yours who wants to get reacquainted with you, Mademoiselle Sakura. She's been waiting quite a long time for a rematch, you see..."

Next to him appeared-

"Oh no," whispered Shaoran.

Sakura's hand gripped his like an iron vise as tendrils of pure, icy fear constricted her body, freezing her to her very soul.

Next to Joker was an inky sphere of swirling darkness, and inside it, the figure of a young girl. A young girl with impossibly long tresses of silvery hair, wearing a white dress and an expression of sorrow. Her eyes opened, deep and peaceful blue, and as she gazed at Shaoran and Sakura… her face twisted into an ugly, violent snarl, and her irises shifted to blood red. The NOTHING Card spoke a single word that seethed with hatred, and the dark sphere around her whipped into a frenzy…

"You…!"

END OF CHAPTER 3

Chapter Text

CHAPTER 4: Sakura and the End of Days

-VERTEX TWO: 15.721699-

Tomoeda Park

The park hung in perfect silence, as if the world were holding its breath. Sakura and Shaoran stared in a mixture of terror and bewilderment at NOTHING, an impossible phantom from the past come back to haunt them. NOTHING glowered back, not with the mournful, lonely blue eyes that they remembered from five years ago, but with eyes stained blood-red and clouded by hatred. A deep, primal loathing boiled off of her in waves, barely kept in check, so intense it was almost visible to the naked eye.

No one spoke. No one moved. Even Joker with his ever-present grin seemed the slightest bit cowed by the depth of rage radiating from NOTHING...

Shaoran was the one to finally break the stillness. "Run," he said.

In her shock, Sakura barely heard him. It took a moment to register that he had spoken at all. She turned to him, her eyes wide and frightened. "But-"

"Run!" Shaoran repeated, squeezing her hand for emphasis. "It doesn't matter what Card you use! FLY, DASH, whatever! Run! Go!"

"Shao-"

"I'll be right behind you, just get out of here!" Shaoran let go of her hand, snatched a jufu from his sleeve, and called out: "Fuuka Shourai!"

NOTHING screeched and clawed at the barrier of thick green air forming a sphere around her. Magical energy crackled, and perfect, spherical gaps appeared at random throughout the park's landscape as the brunt of her immense powers were unleashed. As Sakura turned, she heard NOTHING scream, crazed with venom: "I'll get you! I'll make you pay! IT'S YOUR FAULT, IT'S ALL YOUR FAULT…!" And over her voice, Joker laughed his terrible, insane laugh...

"FLY," Sakura whispered. She could barely force the name out, a hard lump of fear and confusion blocked her throat. FLY's feathered wings sprouted from her back, and she took to the air, choosing a direction at random, not daring to look back. If she looked, she would have to see Shaoran put up a hopeless fight against NOTHING, sacrificing himself so she could get away… just like before...

Over the rushing of the wind, she somehow heard Kero's voice as he joined her in her flight, speeding along in her wake. "Sakura!"

"Kero-chan, thank goodness you're okay!" The lump in her throat shrank just a bit. Grateful tears streamed down her cheeks and were stolen by the wind; she rubbed her eyes to clear them. "I don't understand, how is this happening?! NOTHING was supposed to be-"

"I know, I know!" The frustration was evident in the Guardian Beast's tone. "None of this makes any sense! The Cards are yours now, you're the only one who's supposed to be able to use them! And NOTHING was bad news, yeah, but she changed… she let herself be sealed! This Joker guy… it's like he's undoin' everything…"

The Cardcaptor's wings strained to compensate as she made a hard left turn and followed the street, keeping low to the ground. A few of her feathers molted and scattered. Running out of magic. Not much time left… I've got to do something!

Branches rustled to her left; Sakura let out a yelp and rolled to one side, aiming the Clow Staff, fearful that the next - and last - thing she would see would be NOTHING's fearsome gaze…

"It's all right, it's me! I bought us some time," said Shaoran as he stumbled out of a bush. He was red-faced, sweating, and out of breath, but alive.

Sakura stopped just long enough to hug him tight and transfer FLY's wings from her back to her staff, so that he could ride behind her. His arms wrapped around her waist for support, and a rush of nostalgia seized her. It was inappropriate, she had far more important things to concentrate on, but it had been so long since they had flown together…

And Tomoyo-chan and I used to fly like this, too. A dagger's blade pierced her heart, and her eyes watered again, in a way that had nothing to do with the wind streaming into her face. Tomoyo-chan… I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, there was nothing I could do!

"Oh crap," moaned Kero, now huddled in Sakura's jacket pocket. "Heads up, here she comes!"

Banshee howls echoed through the street behind them. A few hundred meters behind and closing fast, NOTHING charged for them like an enraged bull, her wings flared wide. More and more spherical gaps appeared in whatever she passed; trees and telephone poles toppled, their supports gouged out or erased altogether, power lines snapped and came alive like maddened snakes, throwing off sparks. Any obstacles in her way she simply bored through with her sphere, leaving perfect circular tunnels carved in what little remained behind.

Tailing close behind her, a purple and white shape cackled with joy, watching the destruction with childlike glee. Joker's laugh chased them, followed them just as relentlessly as NOTHING did, snapping at their backs. "No need to keep running, mes amis!" they heard him cackle at one point. "There's nothing to be afraid of!" After that, the laughter was back, echoing from every direction…

Sakura banked hard, making a right turn onto Market Street at such a fierce angle that her stomach churned with vertigo. It put them a few more precious seconds ahead of their pursuers, but heaven only knew if NOTHING would continue to follow the street or simply charge through any buildings in her way to get to them…

No sooner had her stomach settled than she began to drop, slowly but steadily losing altitude. Sakura pulled upward, mentally commanding FLY to regain height, but the only answer was a buzz of static, and a brief feeling of regret. "No…"

"What's wrong?" Shaoran's arms squeezed her waist tighter.

"Running out of magic…" Now she felt tiredness creeping up on her, the same kind of irresistible fatigue that she remembered from years ago, when she first began transforming the Cards to their current forms. The toes of her sneakers skimmed the asphalt, friction scuffing the rubber. "Can't keep us up… much longer…"

"Hang on, Sakura, you've got to hang on!"

"Oi, Sakura! Now's not the time to be napping!" shouted Kero from her pocket.

Feathers fell like snow from FLY's wings. They were slowing down now… FLY was trying its best to let them down gently, she knew, endangering its own stability to ensure they touched ground safely. The poor thing… Sakura smiled blearily and reached out to stroke one of the molting wings. It's okay, FLY. You've done well. You can rest soon.

In another few seconds, they came to a stop. The wings vanished from Sakura's staff, melting into light that reshaped itself into FLY's Card form. Shaoran helped Sakura climb down... and the moment she was on solid ground, she sank to her knees in a heap.

"Sakura!" Strong hands grasped her shoulders and shook her. "Come on, we've got to keep going! You have to get up!"

"We're dead," moaned a voice from the shivering lump in her jacket. "We're dead, we're dead, we're dead…"

There was no movement at the corner down the street. None of them were foolish enough to believe that Joker and NOTHING had broken off their pursuit… more likely, they knew their prey was helpless, too exhausted to run. Now was the time for the predators to move in for the kill, savoring their fear…

Shaoran muttered a Cantonese curse and moved in front of Sakura, drawing his jian once more as he faced the corner. "It's going to be okay," he said, trying to sound brave despite the blood screaming in his veins. "I won't let anything hurt you."

"Shaoran…" Unbelievably, Sakura tried to climb to her feet, bracing herself against the ground with her staff. "Shaoran, no, you can't…"

From just around the corner, there came an awful sound: the relentless grinding of something carving a furrow in the street, moving slowly, inch by inch.

Following behind the sound was something worse, something that they could feel long before they could see it: a yawning, pitch-black void somehow squeezed into a man's shape… a living hole in the world, wearing a human form like a skin. All his pretenses were gone now that victory was in sight. Whatever the source of his power, whatever the source of the emptiness that lurked beneath his eternal smile, he saw no more reason to suppress it. Joker was coming. He wanted them to know he was coming, to fully experience how helpless they were.

Fingers of ice played up and down Sakura's spine, freezing her to her core. "We… we can't stop him…" Her throat grew tight, she swallowed to try to loosen it. "Shaoran, we can't stop him, but… but we can at least try to help NOTHING…"

Shaoran nearly dropped his jian. He looked back over his shoulder, gaping in silent disbelief.

"Are you nuts?!" Kero finally poked his head out from Sakura's pocket to goggle at her. "Sakura, that's not the same NOTHING from before! Whatever Joker did to her, he's got her brainwashed, rinsed, and dried! The second she comes around that corner-"

"I know." Sakura swallowed again. "I know. But if there's really nothing else we can do, we can at least try to reason with her, right? She's still a Card, and that means I should should still be able to talk to her..."

"And what if talking to her doesn't work?!"

"I don't know," Sakura admitted. "I haven't really thought that far ahead."

"Oh, great," Kero put his head in his paws. "Bein' erased the first time was bad enough…"

With a sad smile, Sakura reached down, stroking him between the ears with one finger. "It'll be okay, Kero-chan. It'll be okay. If she does erase us, at least Joker won't get the rest of the Cards. And at least wherever we go, we'll all be together."

"Sakura…" Kero looked up at her, his tiny eyes gleaming. She had never seen her little friend look so unsure.

"It'll be okay," said Sakura, meeting his gaze and trying to smile.

Shaoran turned to them both; looking backward was giving him a crick in his neck. "I think it's worth a try. If we can reach her, that's one less Card he can use against us. And if there's anyone that can talk some sense into her, it's you." He nodded and shifted his stance a bit. "Do your best, Sakura. I'll be ri-"

His voice cut off. Sakura's head snapped up…

… just in time to see the black sphere engulf Shaoran and the three feet of concrete he stood on. A crackle of magical energy, a rush of air filling suddenly empty space, and he was gone.

Silence.

Sakura crumbled where she stood, her eyes locked on the curved depression in the sidewalk where Shaoran had been seconds ago. He had been right there, giving her strength as he always did, smiling… the smile that he so rarely showed to anyone but her. She could still smell him… that sandalwood soap he was so fond of, mixed with the polished steel tang of his sword and the lingering scent of Chinese herbs left on his hands from his dinner. She could always tell at school when he had made his favorite spicy lo mein the night before, and it never failed to frustrate him that he couldn't completely be rid of the herbs' scent for days afterward. He turned so red whenever she looked at him, smiled, and said "Lo mein again?", and she would always giggle at the way his face would crinkle up and his cheeks would puff out…

He had been right there, right in front of her, smiling… and now he was gone. The only things left of him were his scent and the three-foot hole in the sidewalk that marked where he disappeared. Gone.

Shaoran was gone. Erased.

"Kouzo…" said Kero's voice from somewhere far away, meek and hesitant, so unlike him. Sakura barely heard him. "Shaoran, he-"

As if in a dream, Sakura looked up, somehow tearing her eyes from the hole, moving as if underwater. At the corner floated NOTHING, still seething with rage, unnatural red eyes boring into her. Sakura knew how her powers worked; she didn't have to lift a finger to use them. The sphere of darkness that took Shaoran from her… she probably created it with just a thought. That was all it took; she wanted Shaoran gone, and she made it happen.

But it wasn't her thought, was it?

During the week of the Sealed Card incident, when NOTHING first was unleashed upon the world, she was many things: terrifying, easily provoked, prone to lashing out, unstoppable… but above it all, lonely. NOTHING had the mind of a scared little girl who was afraid of losing her friends, the other Cards. All the destruction she caused was a desperate effort to get them back. Just like any other Card, she wasn't inherently evil… capable of causing great pain and suffering, yes, certainly, but not malicious.

The NOTHING that stared at Sakura now… wasn't the NOTHING she knew. No matter how angry she was before, justified or not, she would never do something as horrible as she had just done.

Which could only mean that she was being manipulated. Controlled, just as Tomoyo was. A puppet being made to dance by a being that was capable of such an act of heartless malice…

Tears spilled from Sakura's eyes. She wept, bitter, heaving sobs…

Somewhere behind her, the harlequin materialized, sneering at her pain. "Oh, don't be like that. Honestly, you're better off without him, mademoiselle." His lips stretched wide. "If you knew the trouble that you and him and your children and their clones were going to get into… you'd be celebrating right now. I've done you a favor."

Sakura couldn't answer, couldn't move. She wept, for herself, for Tomoyo and Shaoran, for the families and friends who loved them, for all who would miss them when they were gone…

Kero, however, who had been frozen inside her pocket since Shaoran vanished, was more than capable of speaking for her. Spurred into action, he darted from his hiding place, spreading his wings as wide as they would go as he snarled at Joker: "You bastard! How dare you… how dare you come here and-"

Joker's clawed fingertips fluttered against his chest. "Moi?"

"These three kids…" Now Kero shook with the effort of keeping himself from charging for the harlequin's neck. His small body shone with an aura of golden light. "Sakura and Shaoran and Tomoyo… they aren't any threat to you, they never did anything to you…! Why would you… how could you…!"

Again Joker's face darkened, and the eyes of his mask lit with flame. "Why? Mostly because I wanted to, Monsieur Kerberos..."

Sakura wept for the Cards, her precious friends, stolen from her and twisted into shadows of themselves, forced to do such terrible things…

"... but also," Joker continued, "because she's one of the Three. Most of the others I can safely ignore or be rid of altogether, but Mademoiselle Sakura and the other two? Let's just say they have a rather nasty track record of repeatedly doing the impossible." His leer spread impossibly wider, inch by inch. "They're the important ones, the strongest ones, the pillars that support the rest. But if I eat away at the hearts of those pillars… it all comes tummmmbling down..."

That did it. With a roar that belied his size, Kero launched himself at the harlequin like a small golden bullet. Never mind that he was still locked in his temporary form; there was no thought in his mind except to make Joker pay for hurting his master, his friend…


Sakura didn't hear him. She didn't hear anything. She climbed to her feet as if there was an unbearable weight pressing on her shoulders, taking a trembling step, and then another. She slipped and almost fell, but caught herself by bracing her staff against the pavement. There was no one else to catch her anymore, she couldn't let herself fall again. If she fell again, she would never get back up.

NOTHING's eyes grew wild. "Stay back!" she shrieked, opening voids in space to either side of the Cardcaptor. "Don't come near me!"

Sakura drew a single Card, and her lips moved. SHIELD's energy enclosed her in a skin-tight barrier as she took another step.

"STAY BACK!" NOTHING held out her arms, casting more and more of her power… only to watch her spheres slide off of Sakura's body harmlessly. Screaming in frustration, she reached for SHIELD… and found that even with half its power gone, even with its form distorted, it refused to come to her.

Still Sakura trudged forward, giving SHIELD every positive thought she could sum up to keep its power active for a few seconds more… Just a few steps from the edge of NOTHING's sphere, she straightened up, spread her arms…

… and Sakura wept for NOTHING. She looked her straight in the eyes and cried for the lost Card who had just taken away the person that she loved with all her heart.

NOTHING drew back, Something in the Cardcaptor's eyes terrified her, sent shivers through her soul. She was crying… shedding tears not for herself, but for her. Why would she do that? NOTHING shook her head, put her hands out as if to protect herself. "S-stop it… get away from me! Stop looking at me like that!"

"Please," whispered Sakura. "Please… I know you're angry, I know you're hurting. Please, tell me why…"

"It's your fault!" NOTHING howled and strained to reach for SHIELD again, but still it wouldn't come. "I hate you! It's all your fault!"

"That's not true," said Sakura, tears flowing down her cheeks like rain. "You were angry at me before, but we became friends. Try to remember…"

-static-

NOTHING staggered, clawing at her temples. Tatters of memory flickered through her mind like sparks from a candle's flame. "We're not," she said, "we're not…" The tatters coalesced, wove together… but there were two conflicting, threadbare tapestries of memory there…

In one tapestry, NOTHING saw herself sealed beneath the mansion, alone for so long, for hundreds of years. And the man that woke her, the man with the mask and the solid black eyes… he told her that the Cardcaptor, the magician she had been created for, had forgotten her, left her there to rot while the Cardcaptor used her fellow Cards for nothing but her own gain… she was the only one of her brothers and sisters that would be left behind, alone forever. She remembered something inside her twisting, and then rage, terrible rage coursing through her like poison… flames of hatred consuming her from the inside...

In the other tapestry… she saw herself awakening on her own, and feeling the Cards changed from what they were before, in possession of someone new... the Cardcaptor. She remembered being afraid, desperately reclaiming the Cards as she took everything that the Cardcaptor treasured from her. But then-

SHIELD's barrier hissed and crackled as Sakura did the impossible: she embraced the dark sphere that forever enclosed NOTHING. Teardrops fell and sizzled on its surface… if she could have, she would have reached through the sphere and taken the lost Card into her arms. "Remember," she whispered. "remember who you really are…"

-static-

NOTHING's head jerked backward violently, her lips opened in a silent howl of agony...

"This isn't you," said Sakura. "You changed… you're not alone anymore, you're not NOTHING… you're…"

And NOTHING wept. Tears spilled from her haunted eyes, now returned to a peaceful blue, as she shook her head softly. "No… no… what… what have I done…"


As much fun as it was toying with the Guardian Beast, Joker was quickly growing bored. His work here was done, other worlds beckoned, and besides, Kerberos wasn't the real prize. Stubborn little thing, though… no matter how many times Joker swatted him away, he came streaking right back, buzzing all around him in search of a weak spot like an oversized furry hornet. Joker yawned; he barely even heard the Beast's angry words and snarling anymore. Idly he wondered how NOTHING was doing with-

Whoops. A little too careless. Kero anticipated the next motion of his arm, weaved out of the way, and dived for his exposed hand headfirst. Sharp little teeth sank deep into Joker's flesh just below his knuckles, jolting him back to full awareness in a red flash of pain… how exquisite. "Why, Monsieur Kerberos, how positively savage of you!" Joker grinned and brought his hand and its passenger up to eye level. He was really dug in there, hanging on tight. The harlequin cackled. "This is a good look for you, I approve! But now that I think about it…" He tapped his chin with his free hand. "Those wings of yours are quite gauche, monsieur. They really don't go with the rest of you at all." His fingers hovered over the little creature's feathered wings, seeking the quickest and most painful way to pluck them off. "No, please, don't get up! Allow me to make an adjus-"

Something was wrong. The Beast's hot little mouth was growing hotter… much hotter, much too quickly. "Hmmm?" The heat escalated, building and building and building until Joker felt a bizarre sensation, rather like a chill… and that was when he saw the tongues of flame leaking out from the edges of Kero's mouth.

Joker's eyes narrowed in annoyance, and his lips twisted into an ugly scowl. The pain and the injury were nothing, but the impudence… With a swift motion he ripped Kero off his hand and flung the horrible little beast as hard as he could. At that velocity, Kero couldn't right himself in time; when he hit the street ten meters away, he bounced against the asphalt twice and then lay still.

"Tch…" Joker's eyebrow twitched as he inspected the damage. What a horrid little nuisance… his teeth had gouged him almost to the bone, and his skin and muscles were burnt to crispy black ash by the fires of the Beast's breath. "Perhaps it's not just the wings that need to go…" Power swelled in his uninjured hand as he floated toward Kero, to finish the job…

And abruptly, he couldn't feel his hand or the power within it anymore, nor could he feel the pain in his other hand. In fact, everything below his neck was oddly light, weightless. Joker glanced down… "Eh?"

A whirling, solid black sphere had swallowed his midsection and both his arms. The harlequin blinked and raised his eyes to where the Card and Sakura had been…

NOTHING stood before the Cardcaptor, quivering with fury, blue eyes deadlocked on his and wet with tears. Her wings spread wide as she hissed at him, in the same tone she had used when she first caught sight of Sakura earlier: "You…! It was all lies… everything you told me was lies! The one who hurt my friends, who used them, who took them over… it wasn't her… it was YOU…!"

Joker giggled. Then he laughed, and continued laughing as the sphere swallowed him completely. The laugh rang through the street, reverberating off the old stone buildings long after it should have been lost to silence.

That was when NOTHING collapsed, sinking to her hands and knees within her sphere, shaking like a helpless child.

Sakura came to her side and raised her hand, then stopped. It was all right now, NOTHING didn't want to hurt her anymore… but without SHIELD's protection, touching that sphere would still erase her. Such was poor NOTHING's curse… Sakura's fingers flexed as her hand hovered there, useless. "Are… are you okay?"

Faint sobbing could be heard from inside. "I…" NOTHING's voice was husky and strained. "He… I didn't mean to, I couldn't-"

"It's going to be all right," said Sakura. Her invincible spell, the one that never failed. "He's gone now, I promise he can't hurt you now. You..." She swallowed, and her heart hammered in her chest. "... you can bring everyone and everything back now, like you did before…"

Flaxen curls fell over NOTHING's shoulders as she raised her head to look at the Cardcaptor. "That… that wasn't me," she whispered. There was terror in those startling blue eyes, terror and regret… "It was who I'm supposed to be, but I'm not-"

Of course. Sakura understood, and her heart went cold. The NOTHING she knew combined herself with the Nameless Card to become her final Card, the HOPE… and without the Nameless Card… Sakura reached for her again, her voice on the edge of breaking. "We'll get it back," she said… whether to reassure herself or NOTHING or both of them was unclear. "We'll get it back, and fix everything, I promise-"

"Ah," said a drawling voice, "but promises are so easily broken…"

Both of them froze. Both of them looked over their shoulders…

Something black and cold and indistinct hung in mid-air, and formless clouds of ink coalesced around it, hiding it from sight. The ink sharpened and defined itself, becoming limbs, then hands, fingers… and then the smile, the Devil's smile... The head was last, slowly regaining color and shape, forming around the smile, a mockery of the Cheshire Cat. Joker floated before them, restored, not a scratch on him.

"How…" Sakura stared at him in shocked disbelief.

NOTHING couldn't make a sound.

"I'll give you credit," said Joker, wiggling his long fingers. "I wasn't expecting that. These Cards have stronger loyalties to you than I thought, mademoiselle." He turned his gaze on NOTHING, who made a strangled cry… "But loyal or not, they still have to obey the rules. And a Card that breaks the rules is taken out of the game…"

"No!" Too late. NOTHING was already fading, dissolving just as Tomoyo had, returning to her sealed state, her Card tucked between Joker's fingers. Sakura was left gazing at the space where she had been, helpless… another friend gone...

"I may not be able to control her anymore," Joker sneered, dismissing the Card into the ether, "but I can at least keep you from using her. She could be quite inconvenient, that one."

A vise of cold, hard iron constricted Sakura's heart. Trembling, in mortal fear for her life, she stared into the depths of Joker's bottomless black eyes as he approached her, and said the only word she could think of: "Why?"

"'Why?'" Joker stooped, retrieved something from the street… Kero. He tossed her poor little friend at her like a soiled rag… Sakura was barely able to catch him before he hit the asphalt a second time. Holding him to her chest, she mouthed his name, felt his tiny chest rise and fall slowly, erratically…

"'Why?'" repeated Joker, flames glowing in his eyes as he stooped forward, looming over her. "You know… I was just answering Monsieur Kerberos a moment ago. He kept asking me 'why, why', and didn't seem to be at all happy with my responses. However, if you'll forgive me, I do have one other answer for him. I hope you'll pass it on to him once he wakes up…

"Have you ever lost everything?" Joker's tone grew deadly soft, a razor blade wrapped in silk. "Don't mistake me, I don't mean just the people or places or things you care about, but also your purpose… the reason you exist, what you were created for. Imagine knowing, with utter certainty, what you were meant to do with your life, and having that snatched away from you. And dying horribly in the process, but that's another matter."

The harlequin leaned closer, his mouth a thin, pale line. The glow from the eyes in his mask was no longer that of hellish fire… now there were faint lights within them that inexplicably reminded Sakura of dying stars. "That happened to me, mademoiselle. My purpose wasn't merely taken away, it was betrayed… betrayed by the very being that gave me birth. And it happened because of your kind, you and others like you. You made me lose everything. Can you imagine that?"

Then the grin was back, that terrible mad grin… "Oh, wait. Never mind, you don't have to imagine. You're about to live through it. You and everyone, everywhere, everywhen else."

Sakura couldn't move, couldn't speak. She was immobilized by the gleeful hatred of this being, more evil than anyone she could have dreamed of in the darkest of nightmares… His hand reached for her, the blackness within his skin straining to be free, and she could do nothing but watch the hand draw near…

"Oi." Someone tapped Joker on the shoulder.

"Eh?" The harlequin turned in genuine surprise. He hadn't even felt anyone else there...

… and two rock-hard fists smashed into his nose and mouth, one after the other, sending him crumpling to the street.

Sakura's breath caught in her throat…

"You look like you're new, so let me make this clear," said Toya Kinomoto, pressing his fist into his open palm to staunch the flow of blood from his knuckles. His voice was raised no more than usual, but there was unmistakable fury in his dark eyes. "No one picks on my little sister except me."

Next to him, ignoring his own injured hand entirely, was someone whose gentle face bore no anger, only concern. With his usual grace, Yukito Tsukishiro sidestepped the harlequin and came to Sakura's side, moonlight glinting off the lenses of his glasses. "Sakura-chan, are you all right? We came as soon as we felt something… what happened?"

"O-o-onii-chan..." Sakura spoke in a hushed tone, as if they both would disappear if she spoke any louder. "Y-Yukito-san…!"

Strong arms wrapped around her, the arms that she had wished to hold her countless times in days long past... "It's all right, Sakura-chan," Yukito whispered. "We're here. It's all right."

"Yu… ki…" That was all Sakura could get out. Despite the warmth of his embrace, she shook like a leaf in a gale, unable to stop, the sum total of all the events of this terrible night hitting her at once. "H-he… he made T-Tomoyo-chan t-try to k-k-kill Shaoran…" Choking sobs drowned out the next part. She tried again… "... s-stole my Cards… t-took away Tomoyo-chan… and Sh-Shaoran…" What had happened to Shaoran was too awful to speak aloud. Clutching Kero even tighter to her chest, she heaved... "He h-hurt K-Kero-chan… and I…" It all bubbled up from her in a rush as she bawled into her dear friend's shoulder. "I c-couldn't stop him… couldn't do anything…! Yukito-san…!"

"Shhh." Yukito held her tighter. He loved Sakura as if she were his own sister. To see her in this much pain… "I'm so sorry, Sakura-chan… if we had known sooner-"

That was quite enough explanation for Toya. Anyone watching would have sworn they saw lightning flash in his eyes as he delivered a savage kick to the fallen harlequin at his feet. "You. Get up." Another kick, even harder this time… he had never wanted to tear someone apart more. "I said get up."

A weak chuckle. "H-heard you the f-first time, monsieurpardonez-moi..."

Toya found a collar, dug in his fingers, and hauled Joker upright to look him in the face. Without pausing for thought, he let him have it again, damn his bloodied knuckles, damn everything except dealing back every hurt this monster had visited on Sakura ten times over. Something cracked and gave way under the force of his blow, and he felt a fresh, hot flow of blood that was not his own. "Give back what you stole from her. Now." His tone made it deadly clear that there was no room for argument.

Despite his mouthful of blood and broken teeth, Joker still smiled, and the expression was all the more hideous for it. "E-easier said than done, monsieur…" Blood bubbled from his lips as he chuckled again. It was unnaturally dark, thick, shiny, and viscous, with an odd smell…

Ink, thought Toya, though he didn't know how that could be, magic aside. Aloud, he said, "You have thirty seconds. Make it easier."

"Onii-chan…!" Sakura gaped at her brother in shock over Yukito's shoulder. She had seen him angry before, but never like this.

"Don't hurt him too badly, Toya," said Yukito, adjusting his glasses with one hand. In his heart of hearts, he wished for another crack at the harlequin himself, but his rational mind recognized that hurting him more would serve little purpose. "He still has a lot he needs to answer for."

"Ah hah!" Joker cackled, then winced as the action sent ripples of fire through his jaw. "But isn't searching for answers one of life's great joys, messieurs? It would be so rude to deprive you of hllk-"

Abruptly, he was far closer to the elder Kinomoto sibling's face than either of them would have preferred. Toya's eyes narrowed to slits as he took a larger fistful of Joker's collar. "Now you have ten seconds."

Joker coughed and gagged, and ink-blood spattered Toya's face. "Pity, pity," he croaked. "If you insist on being violent, then I'm afraid I must be going..." With a snap of his fingers, the harlequin dissolved into a shower of playing cards, and Toya held nothing but air.

"Sonofa…!" snarled Toya as he whirled on his heel. "Yuki, did you see-"

"He's still here," Yukito and Sakura said in unison. They exchanged awkward, brief glances before scanning the street for any sign of their enemy…

They didn't have to look far. "Up there!" Sakura's finger pointed to a silhouette now perched atop the Tomoeda Elementary clock tower to the north. It stood out against the moon behind it like a scar...

Only the hellish flames of Joker's eyes were visible. The rest of him was black… not obscured by shadow, his entire body was black… no, deeper than black, he was the color of emptiness itself, sucking in the light around him. It should have been impossible for them to hear him from their position, but his voice thundered in their minds. "While I'd love to stay and teach you a lesson for laying hands on me, humans…" That last word he spat out as an obscenity. "... this act is drawing to a close, and it's time to drop the curtain." The shadow laughed long, loud, and crazed as he raised an arm… "Come forth, Time Reaper!"

A second figure appeared next to him in a swirl of a midnight cloak. Its presence was accompanied by a gathering of clouds, clouds that spread out above them with unnatural speed, blocking out the moon and stars. The figure's cloak billowed around it, its inner lining dark, dark red, the color of old blood. Before the ceiling of clouds blocked the moonlight completely, Sakura thought she caught a glimpse behind its hood… a bleached white skull, hollow eye sockets, inert and lifeless…

The cloaked figure drew a long shape from its sleeve, an ornate metal staff. From the red jewel at the staff's crown there came a wicked, curving blade of angry crimson light, warping and distorting, never holding the same shape for more than an instant. Without a sound or the slightest hesitation, the Time Reaper brought its scythe down in a ferocious slash. A dome of the scythe's red light enclosed the town, and there was a tremendous, earth-rending crack...

And below, Sakura, Toya, and Yukito watched in stupefied horror as the sky began to break.

Cracks spread from horizon to horizon, as if the heavens were a pane of glass struck by the hammer of a giant. Every building in Tomoeda shook to its foundations. The shrieks of countless car alarms split the stillness of the night, and the clock tower's bell gonged over them, sounding eerily like an anguished scream. One by one, the windows on Market Street exploded, their shards spinning and dropping to the street in a deadly crystalline rain.

"No." Sakura stared helplessly at the two figures above the clock tower, one laughing, the other silent. Beads of icy sweat ran down her forehead. "No…" The dream. She had seen this happen the night before… it had begun so similarly to her old dream years ago, but the two above the clocktower were unfamiliar… and-

The myriad of cracks above them spread, deepened… and under the stress, the sky shattered. Great fragments broke loose from the whole, enormous enough to crush entire city blocks… and behind where the fragments had been, there was no night, there were no stars, there was simply nothing… It was as if everything outside the dome of red light had ceased to exist...

Yukito watched the falling sky, his eternal calm broken by his shock… and that was somehow more frightening than Joker or his companion, more frightening than the sky's destruction. The red light from above reflected off his glasses. "Sakura-chan," he said softly, somehow audible over the wail of sirens, the crescendo of breaking glass, and the pealing of the clock tower's bell. "Toya… what are we going to do…?"

Toya couldn't speak, and hated himself for it. Yuki and his sister depended on him, and he could do nothing but stand there, struck dumb…

With one arm, Sakura held Kero close to her heart. The other tightened her grip on Yukito. Would that she only had another arm to hold Toya… Is this how it ends? she thought, fear casting a pall over her senses, making her faint. All I worked for, all I struggled to protect my home, my family, my friends… is this how it ends?

This can't be right…

It's all gone wrong…

A sound and a movement, both quiet as a footstep. Sakura and Yukito felt the presence before they saw it, and somehow tore their eyes from the destruction above them. There was a time that Toya would have felt it too, but no more… he noticed nothing until Yukito uttered a confused "Toya…?"

Toya looked down. "Huh?"

There was a girl approaching them. A very, very small girl, likely no more than four years old by the look of her. Though the street split underneath her and glass and debris fell down around her, she walked straight in their direction, tranquil as a still lake, never deviating from her course. Her eyes were locked on Sakura's, unwavering…

The little girl had astonishing blue eyes, the bluest eyes Sakura had ever seen. Her round face was framed by scarlet curls, her hair done up in two heart-shaped buns that sprouted tiny ringlets that might one day be twin pigtails. She wore a simple school uniform, a sailor fuku from a school that none of them recognized.

"Is…" Toya tensed. "Sakura, is this one of your-"

Bewildered, Sakura shook her head. She had never seen her before- but no, that wasn't true. At the very end of her dream last night, for just an instant, she saw those astonishingly blue eyes staring up at her…

The little girl walked right up to them and raised a chubby little hand to Sakura, and once again those eyes looked into hers, expectant.

Moving as if in a dream, Sakura reached for her. Tiny fingers wrapped around one of hers…

"Oh…!" Sakura saw. She didn't know what she saw, exactly, but she saw… the vision was as clear as daylight. A point of light in the darkness, a place hidden away from the chaos engulfing Tomoeda, a brilliant white signal beam lancing out into the void… But the vision was more than just images, it was feelings… warmth and shelter, security, refuge...

The tiny fingers released her, and it was over.

"Sakura, are you all right?" said Yukito, grasping her shoulder.

"She…" Sakura swallowed. "She wants us to come with her."

"Huh?" said Toya again. "Sakura, what's going on?"

"I don't know," she admitted, "but she… she spoke to me. She wants you and me and Yukito-san and Kero-chan to come with her…"

"Come where?!" Toya almost screamed in frustration. "The entire city is falling apart arou-" He stopped, staring.

Before them was a door… a simple wooden door, with peeling white paint and a round, tarnished brass handle, standing by itself with no means of support in the middle of the ruined street.

Sakura looked from the little stranger to the door and back. She thought she saw the girl nod. "She wants us to come with her," she repeated.

"But…" Toya sputtered. "What about Dad, our friends, everybody else?"

"They can't come." Sakura shivered with the finality of it. It broke her heart to even think of leaving anyone behind, but- "There's nothing else we can do."

"It looks like the only way, Toya," said Yukito, heavy with regret. "If we stay here, we'll die…"

"Please, onii-chan." Sakura let go of Yukito and took her brother's hand, squeezed it tight. "I don't know who she is, but… but she knows the way. I know she does."

"The way to where?!"

"Safety," said Sakura. It was the only way she could describe what she had seen.

Turning around, the little girl headed for the door. She strained to reach the handle on tip-toes and swung it open. Inside the frame was a tunnel of multifaceted color and light…

Around them, Market Street's buildings tumbled down into their own footprints. The earth heaved and split, pulled in too many directions at once. Over the howling of the sirens, more sirens than ever now, the bell rang one final time and cracked in two, the sound breaking off into discordant groans, like death rattles…

Sakura swallowed again and gently tucked Kero into her jacket pocket. She took first Toya's hand, then Yukito's, and together they walked to the door. Just before they stepped through, Sakura looked back at her poor little town that she loved so much, the town she was born in and had lived in all her life, where she met Tomoyo and Yukito, Kero, Shaoran and Meilin, where she first learned of the world of magic, where she faced challenge after challenge to become the Master of the Cards, where she found love…

She watched her town in the throes of death, and before she went through the door she whispered to it: "I'm sorry."

They stepped through the frame, and an instant later the door was gone, as if it were never there.

The shattered skies fell down on Tomoeda. When the red dome of light that sealed it off from its surroundings finally faded, the place where the city had been was little but a crater, a hole in the world.

END OF CHAPTER 4

Chapter Text

CHAPTER 5: Burst

-VERTEX FOUR: 8.36679-

Interdimensional Space

TSAB L-Class Inspection Cruiser Arthra

Outside, the multicolored fractals of the interdimensional void churned endlessly. A normal human watching space and time twist and flow into each other would either be driven to violent illness or experience a complete sensory overload, if they didn't simply go mad from trying to comprehend it. Despite the presence of magic and technology far in advance of most variants of Earth, and knowledge of things that Terran scientists could only dream of, there was still no way a human could navigate the gaps between the worlds unassisted, or even survive out there for more than a scant few milliseconds without a barrier. The Time-Space Administration Bureau cruiser Arthra was a metal island amid a raging stream, navigating the space-time waters and keeping those inside her safe from their ravages. She was more than the crew's assigned vessel, she was their protector, their friend, their home.

In a small quarters nestled somewhere within the hundreds of meters of Arthra's alloyed bulkheads, a piercing, strident alarm sounded. It was immediately followed by an almost inaudible groan from the small figure huddled within the sheets of a bed across the room. Hands emerged from the tangle of fabric, felt for a pillow, and pulled it over the figure's head to muffle the noise. It was no use; the alarm continued unabated. In fact, it only grew louder the longer the sleeper ignored it.

Strangely, the alarm came not from a clock or a computer, but from a thick leather-bound book with golden designs embossed on its cover. After thirty seconds of no response from the sleeper, it floated off the desk where it normally sat and hovered over the bed and the miserable figure ensconced in the blankets. The book opened itself, rifled through its pages, and shone the current time in glowing Belkan script that hovered a few inches off the page, pulsing with red light. The alarm's volume scaled up accordingly.

"Nnnngh…" groaned a voice from the blankets. "Go 'way…"

Refusing to be deterred, the Tome of the Night Sky chimed and spoke in a pleasant female voice. ["Es ist Zeit, aufzuwachen, mein Herrin."]

"I know, I know it's time to get up," mumbled the blankets. "Just gimme a couple more minutes…"

["Wenn ich tun, werden Sie wieder einschlafen,"] the book replied patiently. It flashed its glowing script with greater intensity for emphasis.

"Slave-driver. All right, all right, I'm awake." Hayate Yagami yawned, sat up, and rubbed sleep from her eyes. "I bet nobody else is up at this hour. Nanoha-chan and Fate-chan are still asleep, right?"

["Nein."]

"You're kiddin'. They're already at the trainin' site?"

["Ja."]

"Rats," said Hayate. "Figures those two would be all responsible and stuff…"

["Ich nehme an jemand muss,"] said the book, with just a hint of smugness.

Hayate stuck out her tongue at it. "Ha ha. Remind me to disable your sarcasm subroutine later. I dunno what I was thinkin' when I installed that…"

["Jawohl, mein Herrin."]

Hayate yawned and stretched. "Anyway. If Rein and the Knights are awake, tell them to meet me and the others planetside after breakfast. Make sure that-"

-static-

It was as if part of the time-space maelstrom outside had suddenly found itself inside Hayate's skull. Iridescent spots blotted out her vision, a high-pitched, oddly musical whine deafened her, and her quarters whirled around her in maddening circles. "Nnnngh…!" Overwhelmed by pain, she slumped back to the bed, desperately trying not to be sick. No, she thought through the haze, struggling to surface again, this isn't possible! I haven't had an attack in years, not since-

The Tome floated close. ["Herrin?"]

"Ulp… J-just get R-Rein up here, quick..." mumbled Hayate between dry heaves. "Hurry…"

There was a long pause as the book ran through its functions. Then, in an odd, cool voice: ["Fehler: Gerätebezeichnung 'Rein' nicht gefunden."]

Hayate looked up at the Tome, bleary-eyed. "… 'N-not found'…? Th-that's not-" With a trembling hand, she reached for it, her fingertips brushing the familiar cover…


Uninhabited World

TSAB Designation: "Carnaaji"

"Are you sure you want to do this?"

"Mmm-hmm."

"Are you truly sure?"

"I'm positive."

"We don't have to if you don't want to."

"Fate-chan…"

"There's no need to rush, after all."

"Fate-chan."

"The doctors recommended fifteen months of rest before starting physical rehab. It's only been a year. You could still relax for a while longer-"

Nanoha Takamachi laughed as she stroked her partner's cheek with one hand. "Don't be such a mother hen, Fate-chan. You and I both know I won't be able to sit in bed for another three months. I'll be fine, I promise."

Fate Testarossa Harlaown's red eyes glistened with concern. She cradled Nanoha's hand in her own. "And you know I'd never be able to forgive myself if you got hurt again…"

"You're not a Gadget Drone," said Nanoha with a warm smile. "At least, not the last time I checked. So I trust you."

Fate sighed and shook her head. "And I suppose nothing I say will change your mind?"

"Probably not."

With that, Fate reached down and gently lifted Nanoha from her mobility chair. The chair was at this point more for extra support than it was necessary for Nanoha's health, but there was no question of getting rid of it yet. On that point, Fate refused to budge.

One year ago, Fate had come terrifyingly close to losing Nanoha, the person she cared about most in all the worlds. One year ago, on a routine mission, she, Nanoha, and Hayate, the TSAB's "Three Aces", the star Cadets of the Bureau, had encountered something that none of their training or accolades could have prepared them for. A swarm of armored, insectoid machines of ancient design shrieked down on them like demons out of Hell. Deadly, invisible scythe blades for arms, with edges sharpened down to the molecular level. Intelligent, relentless, and armed to the teeth, the Gadget Drones quickly analyzed and adapted to even the strongest of their techniques. It was just after Nanoha called for a full retreat and moved to cover the group's escape that the Drones' true horror presented itself…

Anti-Magilink Fields. Fate still shuddered to think of them… Drones wielding savage mass weapons that tore through flesh as if it were air, those were awful enough. Drones that worked together to construct a field that dampened, eroded, or even cut off their magic completely… Often she wondered what kind of sick mind could have conceived of such a thing. The memories plagued her at night: the transparent scythe blades silently carving through the air, shattering Nanoha's barrier like bricks through a glass plate and plunging into her, the spray of bright red on the snow, and her scream… Unstoppable, indomitable Nanoha, the strongest person Fate had ever known, screaming in mortal agony, losing her grip on Raising Heart, falling…

It was a miracle that she survived at all, the doctors said later. Months of grueling surgeries were needed before she could so much as sit up in bed unassisted, and even with the most advanced medical science and healing magic the TSAB could offer, she would bear terrible scars for the rest of her life. Initially, the doctors claimed that she would never fly again, that even walking on her own was too much to hope for. As for returning to combat? Out of the question, they said, a pipe dream at best.

Nanoha being Nanoha, she swore she would prove them all wrong. And Nanoha being Nanoha, she took all of the blame for the disastrous outcome of the mission upon herself. Never mind the AMFs, that she was still a Cadet, that she had no way of knowing that her team would be ambushed by an enemy none of them were trained to face… she would hear no excuses. Years ago, during the Jewel Seed Incident, she promised herself that she would never lose another battle. Being taken off guard by the Gadget Drones was to her a violation of that promise.

So as soon as she was well enough to remain conscious for a few hours or more, she began her training anew. Mental exercises first: after a few weeks, she grew to be quite skilled at crossword puzzles and sudoku, so skilled that the books Fate brought her needed to be replaced twice every week... even the giant ones that were stuffed full of the hardest puzzles available. Once the doctors permitted it, she advanced to telepathic tactical simulations with Raising Heart, just as she had years ago, only with the difficulty scaled much higher. Naturally, the doctors soon grew concerned, and made Nanoha promise not to overexert herself. When she did, Fate could almost hear their sigh of relief… of course, they were unaware that Nanoha was already well-practiced in running training simulations in her sleep. She indulged in those whenever she could get a spare moment, including during the many mandatory hours of bed rest the doctors prescribed.

Now, after a year, she felt ready to resume active duty. The doctors were understandably horrified… but given a choice between releasing her or fighting Nanoha's infamous stubborn streak, the doctors unanimously chose the former. Rumor circulated that at least one of them checked themselves into their own hospital afterward from the stress of the ordeal… the rumor was plausible, at least.

As if handling a delicate glass sculpture, Fate guided Nanoha to her feet, sticking by her side as she wobbled. She chewed on her bottom lip… maybe this wasn't such a good idea. "Nanoha, I don't think-"

There again was that warm, cheerful smile. "You're so silly, Fate-chan. I may have trouble with walking, but I don't need my legs to fly."

"That's not true, and you know it." Fate's brows knit together. "Maintaining proper guidance with Flier Fin or Axel Fin requires precise control of the superior and inferior extensor retinaculum-"

"Which is why I put on ankle weights whenever you're not looking, and flex my feet inside the chair where no one can see them moving." Nanoha laughed. "Don't make that face, Fate-chan, you'll get wrinkles."

"I'm just worried about you, Nanoha," said Fate with a sigh. "I can't help feeling like you're rushing into this..."

"Fate-chan." Nanoha leaned in close and planted a soft kiss on her partner's cheek. "I've been in bed for a year. I want to fly again, be myself again! I promise, if it gets to be too much, I'll stop, okay? Just let me try. Please? I'll make you that cream stew you like when we get back to the ship..."

Fiery redness colored Fate's face. "... That's playing dirty. You know how much I love your cream stew..."

"And you haven't had it for a year. Way too long." Grinning, Nanoha drew back and clutched the pendant around her neck, a spherical ruby stone. "Raising Heart?"

A series of crystalline chimes sounded, and the stone lit up from within. ["I'm ready, my Master."] Raising Heart's voice was as warm and comforting as an old friend's, even bearing the signature metallic echoes of an AI speech program. ["It's good to have you back."]

"Likewise." Nanoha grinned, giddy with anticipation. "All right, then… Please, Raising Heart!"

["Standby, ready. Set Up."]

Nanoha's Barrier Jacket materialized in her signature pink flash of light, and when that flash faded… even all of Fate's concern for her partner's health couldn't dampen the infectious joy that radiated from Nanoha's body like sunlight. Blast it all, this was how she wanted to see her, happy and in her element once again. Perhaps this would work out after all. Despite herself, Fate smiled.

Nanoha stretched and flexed her muscles, using the movement as an excuse to wipe away a tear before Fate could see it. Already she felt better than she had in a year. This was where she belonged, not wasting away in a hospital bed, being endlessly fussed over and treated like she would break. Deep down, she knew they had a point, she knew it was for her own safety, but surely she wouldn't get any better by staying away, by not being out here, helping those in need and doing the job that she loved… For the first time in a year, her hands closed around Raising Heart's staff, the sleek, hard body of her true form thrumming warm with power and lending her more strength. At last, she felt… complete. It was like a part of herself had been missing for the last year, a jigsaw puzzle without its final piece, and now that piece was back in place at last.

Nanoha couldn't help herself. She flashed a wink at Fate and smirked. "See you in the sky." And before Fate could respond, she cast the mental command she had been dreaming about for months: Up!

A double pair of pink translucent energy wings unfurled from Raising Heart's spearhead, and two smaller pairs sprouted from Nanoha's ankles. They rose… slower than Nanoha would have liked, but she was really doing it, she was flying again! Her heart singing, she bid her Device to take her higher, and higher still…

From below, Fate watched. When Nanoha lifted off without warning like that… she couldn't deny that she felt a momentary flash of annoyance, not typical of her at all. But after just a few moments of watching her soar, looping playfully around the billowing clouds that were a permanent fixture of Carnaaji's sky, laughing and shrieking and generally having a grand old time… all thoughts of being angry with her melted away. Nanoha was normally so mature for her age, already a proper lady at just thirteen, unfailingly polite and reserved when on duty or in front of her superiors. Seeing her cut loose like a little kid, for once using her power not under stress or orders but solely for her own enjoyment… it was all Fate could do not to start laughing herself. All the trauma of the last year became like a bad dream when she heard that laughter… so for quite a long time, Fate forgot about training and rehab and everything else, and took simple pleasure in watching Nanoha be herself again.

True, she wasn't as quick or agile as she once was. Yes, her muscles were weak and atrophied from disuse… using them hurt more than she would admit, and despite all her clandestine exercises, there were dozens of little twinges up and down the back of each leg. Nanoha wouldn't trade the aches and pains for anything in the world, though. The wind was in her face, her arms were spread wide, Raising Heart was at her side, and there was nothing around for miles save for empty skies and the grey, puffy clouds… flying here wasn't like flying on Mid-Childa or on Earth. There was no air car traffic to worry about, and no need to cloak herself to hide from panicky civilians or nosy government satellites that might be watching, waiting to cause a panic. Just miles and miles of free, unspoiled, endless space… bliss.

Nanoha did a few more loops, sighed in contentment, closed her eyes, and let herself fall backward. Carnaaji's surface rushed up at her, a million different shades of brown rock… the roaring in her ears became a scream, her pigtails danced wildly around her, whipped to and fro by the air… it was just like one of those dreams where you fell and fell and fell for hours on end, until finally with a jolt you woke the moment before you hit the ground, drenched in cold sweat. But this was no dream, and if she somehow lost control, there would be no waking up. From this altitude, at this speed, hitting the ground would be instantly fatal.

She wasn't worried in the least. Long before Raising Heart could implement emergency measures, long before the possibility of impacting with Carnaaji's unyielding rocky surface became even a remote concern, a pair of slender arms wrapped around her and cradled her, applying their own magic to slow her to a gentle stop… just as she knew would happen. Chuckling softly, Nanoha opened her eyes and smiled at her partner. "Hi, Fate-chan."

"You're impossible sometimes," said Fate, sighing and shaking her head. "I should have known you would try a dive on the first day, no matter how many warnings the doctors gave you."

"I think you have me pegged."

"You're lucky someone does. Is it pointless to ask if you want to go back to the ship now?"

"Maybe. Maybe not."

"Do you want to go back to the ship now?"

"Not on your life," said Nanoha, sticking out her tongue.

"Impossible," said Fate again, "completely impossible. Fine, but low-power spells only. In your condition, anything other than a light stun could-"

"I know, I know. I promise, Fate-chan, low-power spells only. Pinky swear."

Their little fingers curled around each other, and they shook on it.


Interdimensional Space

Arthra

Admiral Lindy Harlaown raced for the bridge with single-minded purpose, ignoring the pitching and rocking of the deck beneath her and the piercing shrieks of the klaxon. Every light on the Arthra was burning scarlet, half the decks on the starboard side were sealed off… whatever hit them had hit them hard, initiating a full scale Red Alert throughout the ship. All hands were on deck… her loyal crew wasted no time panicking, but went straight for their posts. She could do no less.

The Arthra gave a particularly violent lurch to the right, causing her to stumble as she passed through the doorway to the bridge. Bracing herself against the frame, she called out an order with little of her usual storied calm: "Damage report!"

At her position at the forward operations console, Cadet Amy Limietta's fingers flew over the many stacked layers of holographic keyboards and diagnostic windows that cast cool lights over her face. "Reports still coming in, Admiral! Comm systems sustained heavy damage, we're relying on telepathy and person-to-person contact…"

Lindy made her way to the ops station, teetering as the deck heaved once more. "What could have hit us out here?! We're in interdimensional space, there should be nothing here except our own ships…"

"I don't know, Admiral!" Amy's voice was strained with tension. "There was nothing on our sensors, no warnings from the Bureau… this came out of nowhere…"

"Not just normal turbulence, then." Her attempt at humor, dark as it was, fell flat. "Casualties?"

"At least a dozen people reported missing… including Cadet Yagami and the Wolkenritter..."

Lindy's fingers dug into the back of Amy's chair. "Hayate…"

"Whoever or whatever it was knew exactly where to hit us." Amy bit down on her lip to keep her compose. Her wrist was cramping from waving it to dismiss window after window of error messages, but there was no question of stopping now, not until they were in the clear. "We're more or less flying blind. No weapons, no shields, no sensors, comms are shot… we've got life support, navigation, and propulsion, but that's about it."

How?! Possibilities raced through Lindy's mind, each less likely than the last. Only a scant few mages had the ability to disable an L-Class cruiser. Those that did have that much power should have been picked up by sensors long before they could fire off a shot. Every CO's nightmare… their ship in crisis, their crew in danger, and no idea how to respond.

"Images transferring now, Admiral." Amy's thumb punched a series of confirm buttons in sequence. "We've got an exterior view from what we've been able to extrapolate so far…"

The first image flickered to life. Little more than a mass of pixels at first, the picture slowly sharpened, revealing an outside view of the ship. Lindy couldn't help sucking in a breath… there was a massive, ragged wound in the Arthra's side, five meters wide or more by her guess. Visible through the hole were more than a dozen empty quarters sandwiched atop one another, the singed and blackened inner workings of the decks torn open between them. Each quarters was bare of life, of the crewmembers that should have been living there. Everyone and everything inside them had been sucked out into the merciless void when the hull was breached… Lindy clutched her fist behind her back, an Admiral's prayer. No time to mourn, no possibility of retrieving what was lost. Her fallen crew were lucky… exposure to interdimensional space without shielding or a Barrier Jacket was near-instant death. They had not suffered... at least there was that much.

More images resolved before them: the undamaged Arthra from minutes ago, then a great fireball erupting from her side, then a billow of smoke, debris, and escaping air… and-

"Wait," said Lindy. It wasn't possible, but she thought she had seen- "That last one. Magnify and enhance."

Amy ran her hands over the controls. The image blew up, pixelated again, then cleared to reveal-

Lindy's blood turned to ice. "Oh no."

Next to her, Amy's jaw fell open in abject shock. "A-Admiral…?"

Standing on the ragged edge of one of the ruined decks, exposed to the void, was a human figure, a girl… a mage. One that they knew all too well by the shapes of multiple black wings sprouting from her back, the long curtain of silver hair, the red lines tattooing her body. Her Combat Equipment was of a different design than before, but the book she carried under her arm was unmistakable, as was the bitter, shadowy, red and black aura of obscene power that shielded her from the maelstrom she gazed coldly out upon.

Once, briefly, she had been known as Reinforce.

Before that, she had been spoken of in hushed, fearful tones on a million worlds for a thousand years… the black-winged figure whose appearance meant certain doom and unthinkable destruction.

Once, briefly, she had been known as Reinforce, but she was far better known by her title: the Will of the Book of Darkness.

Against all odds, after so much struggle and sacrifice and escaping death by inches, the Book of Darkness had returned.

"Admiral…?" whispered Amy again.

Lindy couldn't answer. The holo's glow bathed her face, gone ghostly pale, as she stared at the Will... at the embodiment of the Lost Logia that had taken her husband from her. It had finally been over, the Book had been purged of its corrupt program and completely destroyed, wiped from existence… but now, somehow, impossibly, it was back.

Heaven help them all, it was back...

END OF CHAPTER 5

Chapter Text

CHAPTER 6: Break

-VERTEX FOUR: 8.36679-

Interdimensional Space

Arthra

"Amy, do we have comms back yet?"

Amy didn't answer. She was too absorbed in staring at the impossible phantom from the past on screen, her mouth agape.

"Cadet Limietta," said Lindy, firmer this time. "Status report on our comms, please."

Addressing her subordinate in standard-issue protocol was so unlike Lindy that Amy snapped from her trance immediately. Her trembling fingers worked the holographic controls, slower than usual. "I… I think I can give you one short burst, Admiral, but that's all…"

"Do it. That's all I need."

"Yes, sir." Amy swallowed. It was a delicate operation, rerouting power from the Arthra's many damaged systems to the undamaged ones, isolating the good sectors from the bad ones and making sure that no data would be lost during the transmission. It took a few minutes longer than normal to set up, but she did it. "Ready, Admiral. Go ahead."

Lindy steeled herself and took a breath. "Attention, all hands," she spoke, calmly and clearly into the receiver on the console. "This is Admiral Harlaown. We are under shipwide Red Alert. The Book of Darkness, a Class-9 Hazardous Lost Logia, has regenerated and fully manifested. The Arthra has sustained heavy damage from its attack, and it might still be somewhere on board. If you encounter the Book or any of its manifestations, do not engage in combat. I repeat, do not engage. Survival is priority one; gather at the forward decks and await further instructions. Harlaown out." Once the transmission was complete, Lindy sagged backwards, allowing herself a moment of weakness she could only show in front of a trusted few. But only a moment… in seconds, she was straight-backed and staring at the holoscreens again. "Amy, bring up the image of the Will from before, please."

"Yes, sir." That much Amy could do without much trouble. Once more, the picture appeared before them of the Book's Will staring out into the dimensional void through the massive wound in the hull. The two officers fell silent…

"She's different from before," said Lindy after a while. "Her Combat Equipment is a different color and configuration, and so is her hair. It was pure silver last time, and now-"

"Sir, do you think that makes a difference?"

"We have to work with all the information we can find, no matter how insignificant it may seem. Do we have sensors yet?"

"Working, Admiral… there we go. Basic functions only, but it's something."

"Good. Run a whisper scan on her Linker Core. The data should still be there from the last time she manifested. I want to know if there's any-"

The command was carried out before Lindy could even finish her sentence, as expected of Amy. She ran the scan and crossed her fingers… then sucked in a short, sharp breath.

"What is it, Amy? Talk to me."

"Sir, s-s-she's…"

Lindy moved over to see for herself… and froze. It had to be a mistake or a malfunction, it had to be… because the Will's estimated power rating was a figure she had only seen in the TSAB's most advanced theoretical training scenarios. What she was looking at was a number that easily put the Will at SSS+ level… a mage rank that most of the experts said was now impossible for living beings to reach. A rank that was speculated to only have been attained in the ancient age of the Saint Kings, when entire worlds were rent apart by cataclysmic war. Lindy's knuckles turned white as she gripped the headrest of Amy's chair for dear life. "How… how?! She wasn't nearly that strong last time, or in any of the other incidents on record…"

Amy's voice shook nearly as much as her hands as she ran a further analysis. "… S-she's Unisoned," she whispered. "N-not like before when she fought with us against NachtWal. The Will is acting as a Lord, and her D-D-Device is… is Hayate…"

The deck spun beneath Lindy, and her nails punctured the upholstery of the headrest as she sucked in a breath through clenched teeth. The thought of Hayate, the Living Lost Logia, serving as little more than a mana battery for that thing… "I need to know what happened. How it happened. If this is a Unison accident, or…" Other possibilities leapt to mind, but they were too horrible to contemplate. Sweet, gentle Hayate, who didn't consider herself special despite being undisputedly the most powerful mage in all the worlds… there was no way she would ever turn traitor, nothing in her character suggested anything of the sort. There had to be some other explanation. "Can you find out if she's still here?" Lindy asked, as evenly as she could. "Check for discharged mana particles if you have to. Maybe if we can somehow bind her-"

Sniffling, attempting to hold back tears, Amy went to her work. "No, Admiral," she said. "She's gone. No sign of her energy signature at present time, and I'm reading a Dimensional Transfer from near where the damage occurred."

"Track it," said Lindy, dropping into her chair and kneading her brow. "We need to know where she's going. And Amy? The moment interdimensional comms are back online, I want you to send an emergency transmission to Nanoha and Fate. Tell them we're under Red Alert, and recall them immediately."

"Yes, sir." Redoubling her efforts, Amy hunched over the relay controls, praying that they could send word out in time.


Carnaaji

All things considered, the training session went well. Not perfect, but well. As they sat on an outcropping eating breakfast, Fate kept running through the session in her mind, searching for anything irregular, determined to miss nothing. Nanoha's reflexes were slower, obviously, and her many months in bed left her less able to process the huge amounts of mana she could once burn through with little effort. She took a few more hits than Fate would have liked, as well. Other than that, though… her eyes were sharp as ever, and all her simulations she had run with Raising Heart meant that while her movements were sluggish, her targeting skills and tactical prowess were no less accurate. Wincing, Fate rubbed the sore spot on her left shoulder where one particular bolt had landed. It was a good pain, though, the best she could ask for. Even in recovery, Nanoha could still hit like a runaway truck if she wanted to. She found that strangely comforting.

Nanoha, of course, went at her own performance with a harsh and critical eye. She couldn't help but notice every little delay, every shot she could have made a half-second sooner, every time her mana reserves came up short and forced her to rest and recharge for a moment before firing again.

It was foolish, she knew. Wasted half-seconds only mattered to someone on full combat duty, and that was still many weeks or even months away. No matter how hard she pushed herself, nothing but time and practice would restore her to her full potential. But it was so frustrating… after four years of being the Ace of Aces, being reduced to a trainee's level was-

"Humbling?" said Fate next to her, offering a bottle of juice.

That prompted a dry chuckle. Fate had just read her mind and picked the right word without even using telepathy. Nanoha marveled once more at how well she and her partner understood each other. "Exactly," she said after taking a drink. "I know it's silly, but I can't help thinking that way."

"You're allowed to have an ego once in a while, you know." Fate leaned sideways and rested her head on Nanoha's shoulder. "Even if it's bruised."

"Speaking of bruised, is your shoulder all right?"

"Mmm-hmm. That was a good shot. Don't worry about it, I'll be fine."

For a while they sat in silence as they finished their meal, listening to the wind blow over the valley's uneven rocky surfaces. Carnaaji wasn't at all a bad place, really. This particular valley wasn't much to look at, true, but elsewhere on the planet were miles of verdant greenery and warm climates year-round... an entire planet unspoiled, beautiful, and peaceful. Wheels were already turning in Fate's mind. Perhaps she could convince Lindy to allow them a small cabin or something here, a private place where she and Nanoha could take shore leave. She could almost see it already: a tiny garden out front, a sloping roof with a real stone chimney, great big bay windows…

"You're blushing, Fate-chan," said Nanoha with a playful smile.

"Eh?" That made Fate sit up in a hurry. "Was I really?"

"And now you're blushing deeper." Nanoha giggled. "Having embarrassing thoughts, are we?"

Fate puffed out her burning cheeks. "You know I hate it when you tease me…"

"I can't help myself," said Nanoha, seizing her in a hug. "It's so cute when you make that face~."

Sighing, Fate gave up and returned the hug. "You're so strange sometimes."

Another silence fell, broken only by the gentle breeze.

"I've missed this. Being able to hold you like this…"

"I know. I've missed it too."

"Mmmm."

"Nanoha?"

"Yes?"

"I…" Fate squirmed in place and looked away. "I'm sorry if I've been… overly strict about the chair. I know how much you hate it."

"It's okay, Fate-chan. You're just doing what you think is best. You're protecting me." Looking back at where the mobility chair sat abandoned, Nanoha's smile wavered. "Besides, I really shouldn't complain. I've only been stuck in the chair for a few months. Poor Hayate-chan had to be in hers for years. She's stronger than I am…"

Fate put a hand on her shoulder. "You're plenty strong."

"Not as strong as I used to be." Her smile disappeared entirely, and her eyes glistened. "Fate-chan, what if-"

"Don't," said Fate, squeezing her shoulder to stop that train of thought before it could take route. "No 'what-ifs'. That isn't the Nanoha I love."

"But-"

"No 'buts', either. You're still the strongest person I know, Nanoha, and if you think that's not good enough… Hayate and I will help you train until you're satisfied, no matter how long it takes."

"Thank you, Fate-chan." Nanoha nodded. Already she felt leagues better… Fate's words had a way of doing that. "Speaking of Hayate-chan, she's awfully late, isn't she?"

"Now that you mention it…" A holoscreen shone from Fate's Device at her thought, displaying both local and ship time. "It is unusual. You told Hayate we would be having breakfast here, didn't you?"

"I'm sure I did… that should have brought her here by now. Hold on." Hayate-chan, are you there? thought Nanoha into the ether.

Silence. Not even mental "static", the white noise that meant the person on the other end was receiving… just silence. Nanoha frowned. "Raising Heart, please open a direct transmission to Hayate-chan."

Raising Heart chimed. ["Yes, my Master. Attempting transmission."] A pause, and then: ["Caution: transmissions are being blocked. A massive barrier is present over the area."]

"A barrier?" said Nanoha with a sudden, inexplicable chill. "But there's no one here besides us… who could be casting a barrier?"

Fate held up her right hand. "Bardiche, analysis, please."

["Yes, sir. Analyzing…"] The deep, masculine voice of her Device issued from the yellow gem on the back of her hand. ["Identified. Ancient Belkan force-field spell, designation 'Gefängnis der Magie.'"]

Another chill, deeper this time. "Isn't that one of-"

Both devices chimed and spoke at once.

["Caution: incoming magic signatures, three hundred meters and closing."]

["Alert: hostiles inbound. Contact imminent."]

The reaction was immediate.

"Raising Heart, set up!"

"Let's go, Bardiche!"

["Standby, ready. Set Up."]

["Get set."]

Their Barrier Jackets equipped, the two Aces scanned the skies as they silently raised their shields, prepared for anything…

Anything except for the two Wolkenritter, who came screaming out of the clouds like falling stars seconds later, weapons armed.

"Vita-cha-" That was all Nanoha was able to get out before the scarlet Knight's hammer crashed against her shields, shattering the outer layer and spreading cracks through the next layer in. "Vita-chan, what are you doing?!"

Vita didn't answer. Her expression was set, her blue eyes cold. She raised Graf Eisen for a second blow, and its internal mechanisms clicked as it loaded a cartridge…

"Signum!" Fate struggled back and forth with the second, larger Knight, locking her sword with Bardiche's staff to fend off the blade. "Signum, what is it? What's wrong?"

No answer from the Knights' leader, either. Her face betrayed no emotion, stoic as ever… but this wasn't Signum's normal stoicism. The same coldness in Vita's eyes was in hers as well. Freeing Laevatein, she jetted back and made a low thrust at Fate's midsection, attempting to slip the blade under her guard. Metal struck metal, casting glowing sparks to the stone below...


Each blow of the hammer rattled Nanoha's body, and beads of sweat dotted her brow. Battling Vita was hard enough when she was at full strength, but facing the Knight while still recovery was barely an option at all. She pulled back fifty meters, opened a telepathic channel, and thought desperately at her opponent: Vita-chan, stop! Tell me what's wrong, please…!

She thought she saw Vita's eyes widen, just a little. The response that came back was strained and halting, as if each word was a struggle: … you've gotta… run…

Why?! What's happening?

… the Book's… gone bad again…

Those words were such a shock that Nanoha's focus slipped. She paid dearly for that; seconds later, Eisen's Gigantform slammed into her like an oncoming train. Raising Heart sounded an alarm, automatically applying a healing barrier… as she hurtled backward through the air, Nanoha felt fire in her ribs as they shifted in ways they weren't supposed to. A fracture, possibly more than one. Whatever hope she had left that this might be some elaborate training scenario evaporated. Vita wasn't sparring with her, or trying to absorb her Linker Core like when they first met… Vita was trying to kill her.


When Nanoha's warning thoughts reached her, Fate's throat constricted, threatening to choke her. She was faring better against Signum, but only barely. Never before had the Flame Knight attacked her so savagely. Strike after strike battered her shields, slowly but surely wearing them down. This had to stop, before someone got seriously hurt… "Signum," she said through clenched teeth, "I'm sorry, I don't want to do this, but-! Bardiche, Full Drive! Blaze and Zanber!"

["Yes, sir. Get set."] Bardiche's axe head split down the middle into two prongs. Between them erupted a massive golden energy blade, crackling with power. At the same time, Fate's Barrier Jacket shifted forms, reinforcing her armor and bleaching her cape from black to white. ["Blaze Form, set. Zanber Form, set."]

Part of Fate hoped wildly that the sight of Bardiche in Zanber Form would snap Signum back to her senses… no such luck. Laevatein ignited with flames as she made a head-on charge with no intent to dodge.

Signum-san, forgive me! "Plasma Zanber Breaker!" Bolts of lightning struck the blade as Fate brought her immense weapon down in an arc. Bardiche's edge scored a direct hit on the charging Knight, cleaving through her shields as easily as if they were made of paper. Signum shot to the valley's granite floor like a meteor, and collided with the stone hard enough to leave a crater at least a meter deep.

Jets of steam hissed from Bardiche's cooling vents, and his firing cylinder spun, ejecting three spent cartridge shells. Panting hard, Fate clutched the staff tight, knuckles white beneath her gloves, not daring to move. The cloud of dirt and debris kicked up by Signum's impact wouldn't clear for another few seconds. No telling if it was safe to come to her aid until it did…

Or if she's even alive.

Fate swallowed, and fear squeezed her heart as that unwelcome thought intruded upon her. The Knights were human now, more or less. No longer bound to the Book, their new forms didn't have nearly the same resilience or regeneration capabilities as when they were living programs. As one of those programs, it was more likely than not that Signum could survive an attack like that.

But if she was still human… Stop, Fate commanded herself. Stop. There was no other choice, Signum was using lethal force… I couldn't-

The cloud cleared. Far below, Signum lay in a bed of shattered granite, motionless. Her Knight Armor was still intact, but from this distance, it was impossible to tell if she was even breathing.

Signum…

A pained cry came from half a kilo to her right... Nanoha.

Oh no. Nanoha…! As painful as it was, she couldn't dwell on Signum right now. Hang on, I'm coming!


CRASH.

"Vita-chan, you have to stop!"

CRASH.

"Please, fight it…! Let me help you, please…"

CRASH. Again and again the hammer struck, making a sound like the drums of Hell as it fell on Nanoha's failing shields. Those shields were all that was keeping her from death, and it took all her might to maintain them. Countering or fighting back was impossible; Vita had cast an unknown but strong binding spell variant on her limbs, shackling her arms and legs with chains of magical energy. There was a time when snapping her bindings would have been child's play… not now. Now, she could barely summon enough mana to hold her shields, let alone cast a counter-spell. Fire lanced through her chest with every breath… the pain of her partly-healed fracture made her head swim. There was no question of maintaining the healing barrier like this. Everything she had was poured into her shields, but it wasn't enough...

Weak. The word thundered in Nanoha's mind with each crash. Weak.

You were too weak to stop the Gadget Drones.

Now you're too weak to help Vita.

Weak…

Would this be how she died? Chained, helpless, able to do nothing but stare at the little redheaded Knight who had become her dear friend in the years since they had met?

Memories: Vita had been right next to Fate by her bedside when she first woke up in the hospital, her lovely blue eyes red-rimmed and puffy from tears and lack of sleep. Only a reprimand from one of the doctors kept her from throwing herself onto the bed and hugging her tight… her words were so choked with a mixture of guilt and relief that it wasn't until a week later that Nanoha found out she had been trying to apologize for letting her be hurt so badly. Absurd… Vita had done everything right, helping Fate and Hayate retreat with the other Knights. It was her, Nanoha, who needed to apologize for failing them all. For being weak…

CRASH. Fault lines raced through Nanoha's shield.

"Vita-chan…!" Stop this, thought Nanoha desperately. Make it stop… Seeing Vita so silent and devoid of emotion wasn't like her at all, it was monstrously wrong. Even when they were enemies, Vita was always passionate, wild, alive… Somehow it wouldn't be so horrible to die if the little Knight would just bear down on her in anger again. Not like this. Not this way…

The head of Graf Eisen's hammer grew to thrice its size as Vita raised it to strike the blow that would finally break the shield.

A rush of air, a sharp crackle of electricity. Something deadly sharp passed over Vita's head, mere centimeters from her skull. It was enough to make her pause and look up. The motion made her hat slide to the left… the top half slid to the left. The bottom halves, of both the hat and her beloved stuffed bunny that rode on it, those both slid to the right… they had both been cleanly sliced through.

Fate hovered above her, her Barrier Jacket in Sonic Form, Bardiche's blade extended into a wicked plasma scythe. Her eyes were wild with desperate hope.

They could almost see the fire erupt inside Vita. She shook like someone caught in an earthquake, gripping Eisen's handle with all her might, looking much like a small, redheaded bomb seconds from exploding.

Fate-chan, thought Nanoha in shocked relief. You're brilliant…

"Y-you…!" Finally, finally, Vita spoke aloud. She had to force the words out, but she was really talking. More than that, she was angry, and clearly fighting to express it through the mask of indifference that threatened to settle over her once more…

There was no wasting this precious chance. "Lightning Bind!" called Fate. A translucent cube of golden energy swallowed Eisen, holding it in place. She descended, gripped Vita's shoulder tight, and looked directly into her blazing blue eyes. "Vita, I'm sorry, but you have to tell us what's going on! Quickly, while you still can!"

"Rein… force…" gasped Vita. Already she strained to free her weapon, to finish Nanoha off. "... n-no, th-the Will… is back… Hayate-chan… U-Unisoned! Sh-Shamal… Zafira… she s-shut them down-"

"Vita-chan…!" With no more strain on her shields, Nanoha was able to burst her bonds, though not without a swooning sensation that indicated critical mana levels. No time to care; she wrapped her arms around Vita, holding her tight. "D-don't worry, Vita-chan, we'll help you, we'll-"

Tears ran like rivers down Vita's cheeks. "... c-can't... help us...! S-save… Haya-"

"[Terminieren Sie alle Wolkenritter Programme.]"

In a streak of red light, Vita disappeared. Her face was still wet with Vita's tears, but Nanoha now held nothing but air. Horrified, she and Fate looked up at the sound of the voice, familiar, and yet cold and distant…

Two figures descended from the skies, making their way slowly toward them: one a stranger, and the other they knew all too well.

The Will of the Book of Darkness gazed down at them with smoldering vermillion eyes, as if the two Aces were insects. They might as well have been… power boiled off of her in waves, dwarfing them both, radiating like sunlight from her stony face, from her fingertips, from each feather of her coal black wings, from the cursed Book she carried under one arm and the oversized shield buckler strapped to the other. Beneath the buckler, tendrils writhed in an uncontrollable frenzy, like maddened snakes. Her flowing hair blew in Carnaaji's breeze, an odd mixture of gold and silver with an almost copper sheen, and the color of her Combat Equipment was midnight blue over straight black… a physical alteration that along with the changes to her eyes and hair was one of the unmistakable signs of two mages having undergone a Unison.

Next to her, the stranger watched with cold interest, holding a relaxed pose in midair, her legs crossed provocatively. Her strange attire was accented with latticed crystalline designs, rather like magnified pictures of snowflakes. Around her neck she wore a choker marked with a black diamond. Tossing back a lock of snowy hair, the stranger's pale blue eyes scanned Nanoha and Fate… there was no warmth in those eyes, not a spark of emotion or sympathy. Only indifferent, unfeeling logic, as if they were objects, not people… "Hm," she said, in a voice as icy as her eyes. "Nanoha Takamachi and Fate Testarossa Harlaown, correct? Your power signatures do seem to match the data I was given… except for yours, Takamachi-san, I'm reading a significant deficiency."

Trembling, Nanoha held onto Raising Heart for dear life. Her skin crawled with revulsion… no human being should look at another like that, like someone examining a rat in a cage… "Wh-who are you? What have you done to the Knights… and to Hayate-chan?!"

"My name is Viluy," said the stranger. As she spoke, she tapped at a metal gauntlet clamped around her left forearm, pressing integrated keys without looking. "Agent of Labyrinth, Witches 5, Level 202." A pause. "'Hayate-chan'... hm, that is the name of the human mage serving as a Device for my associate, correct?"

The Will said nothing, gave no indication that she recognized them. She only stared, as impassive as her companion.

"How…" Brandishing Bardiche, Fate pushed back a sickening sense of dread as she called up to the new arrival. If Hayate was powering the Book, and not the other way around… "H-how did you revive the Book of Darkness? Why?!"

"For the data," said Viluy, answering as calmly as if she had been asked what day it was. "Even though it existed for millennia, there was still so much to learn about it, so much data unrecovered. A Device like that, with so much invaluable knowledge inside it… it was a tragedy that it was destroyed. My colleagues and I rectified that mistake."

"You…!" Fate sputtered. The back of her throat burned with rising bile. Restoring something so horrible, that had ruined countless lives, just for that…

Next to her, Nanoha took a deep breath. There was a glimpse of the old Nanoha, the caring soul that bore no one malice. "Please," she said, with only a small quiver in her voice, "Viluy-san, you have to stop, you don't know what you're doing! The Book is dangerous, it's killed thousands of-"

"That's of no consequence," Viluy interrupted. "I know perfectly well what I'm doing. More importantly, I know what the Book has done and the number it's killed. The dead are dead, and without bodies to study, they're useless."

That was enough. Fate now knew exactly what kind of person they were dealing with: the kind of person that had created the Gadget Drones. The kind that built engines of destruction without pause, the kind that hurt people like Nanoha without knowing or caring. Rage bubbled up like magma inside her…

Nanoha hovered in place with her mouth open, hardly believing her ears. Surely this person couldn't be serious… "If…" The word came out meek and subdued. She tried again. "I-if you l-love knowledge and research that much, you should give our friends back and h-help us stop the Book. If it gets loose again, so much knowledge will be lost forever! You don't want that, do you?"

One corner of Viluy's mouth turned upward. "If it's worth knowing, it will eventually come to me. Every iota of data that Lord Moebius absorbs, he'll share with me, so long as I continue serving him. And I have no intention of stopping."

No compassion. No compassion, no feelings at all, just that cold smile. Chills ran up and down Nanoha's spine. How could she-

Bardiche chimed from next to her. "[Photon Lancer, Full Autofire.]" A phalanx of crackling energy spheres bloomed around Fate as her magic circle flared beneath her. With a wave of her Device, they rocketed up toward Viluy...

The woman registered surprise, floating backward and clutching her gauntlet. Before she could prepare a counter-attack, though…

"Panzerschild." The Will was before her in a flash, a Belkan magic triangle etching itself in the air before her in lines of violet-black light. All the photon spheres splashed harmlessly against it and fizzled out.

The corner of Viluy's mouth twitched and raised into the coldest smile that either of the Aces had ever seen. "Thank you, but I'm more than capable of defending myself. Don't you have somewhere else to be?"

"Understood." That was all the Will said. Spreading her wings, she ascended back to the ceiling of clouds, vanishing into them.

"Reinforce-san!" On instinct alone, Nanoha rose to follow. If she could only speak to her- "Hayate-chan!"

A hand closed around hers. "Nanoha, don't!" There was no disguising the fury and disgust in Fate's voice as she hauled Nanoha down to her level. "You and I put together don't stand a chance against her if she's really Unisoned with Hayate! It's that woman…" She all but spat the word. "That woman must be controlling her somehow! Stopping her is the only way we can help Hayate and the others!"

Fate was right, as always. Nanoha nodded, squeezing her hand tight. "Fate-chan…"

An ugly, mirthless chuckle escaped Viluy. "The two of you are going to stop me? Absurd. I am a servant of Lord Moebius-"

"Who is this Moebius?" Nanoa shifted Raising Heart to Cannon Mode and trained her barrel on the woman. "What does he want with us, with Hayate-chan…?"

If her smile was cold before, now it was as bleak and bitter as a midwinter's night. "Lord Moebius is everything," she whispered. "Lord Moebius desires everything. All the worlds, united under him. All data everywhere in one place, in perfect order." Her pale eyes gleamed with naked desire. "It will be magnificent, and you two will bear witness to its beginning…"

A violent tremor raced through Nanoha's body and settled at the base of her skull, a focused, constant tingling that made the fine hairs stand up on the back of her neck. Above, the ceiling of clouds turned violet, reflecting the light of an enormous Ancient Belkan spell triangle flaring within them, a runic design more than half a kilometer across. Nanoha recognized this sensation: a Dimensional Transfer was being cast, but she had never imagined one on this scale… it shouldn't be possible, even for the Book of Darkness, it-

"Nanoha!" Fate's scarlet eyes went wild with fear and confusion as she gripped her partner's hand for dear life.

The skies ripped open, and from the swirling time-space void descended something out of a nightmare: an immense, curving, crystalline circuit board etched with countless angular lines of harsh yellow light, lit from within by millions of ghostly diodes winking on and off in flawless unison. From its burnished outer crust sprouted countless cables, some barely thinner than hairs, others the width of tree trunks, tipped with grasping claws and all dancing feverishly in the rising wind. As more and more of the structure emerged, it became apparent that for all its impossible size, its form was one of eerie, unnatural simplicity. One of the most basic shapes known to any world…

A sphere. A perfect, flawless, massive sphere, the size of a moon…

Viluy's voice grew hushed as she spread her arms. "Welcome, my Lord and Master Moebius 90. Please, accept this world and those upon it as your first offering."

END OF CHAPTER 6

Chapter Text

CHAPTER 7: Collapse

-VERTEX FOUR: 8.36679-

Carnaaji

Gale-force winds lashed the rocky canyon as the enormous sphere slid free of its portal, already occupying more than half the sky. Standing out against it was the Will's violet-black spell triangle as she maintained the Dimensional Transfer… the Will herself was a barely visible black dot.

Nanoha and Fate looked upon it in silent horror, their hands clasped in a death grip It's too big... The words screamed through Nanoha's mind, over and over again. It's too big. Not even she should be able to transfer something that size! Oh God, the planet… if that thing stays in the atmosphere for too long, the planet will-!

And Viluy simply watched, with the closest thing to joy her icy face could express. "Lord Moebius," she said to it, somehow managing to be heard over the wind's howling, "is this not to your liking?"

The rounded surface of the sphere rippled. With a low, scraping sound of shifting metal and silicon, hills and canyons appeared upon it, distorting its shape into something new, something familiar. Two vast, circular depressions set above a smaller, more angular one, and below that a series of gleaming steel mountains arranged in a grid…

Nanoha and Fate stared upward, paralyzed.

It was a face. No, not a face, a grinning skull, kilos wide and staring down at them from the heavens. Cold, electronic blue lights like distant stars flared within its empty eye sockets as its monotone rumbled through the canyon, spreading fissures through the ancient rock. "CLASS-M MID-SIZE TERRESTRIAL PLANETOID," boomed the skull, its voice metallic, chilling and fathomless as the bottom of an ocean. "LOCAL DESIGNATION: CARNAAJI. ELEMENTAL COMPOSITION: SILICON. CARBON. IRON. MAGNESIUM. OXYGEN. NITROGEN. SULFUR. NICKEL. TRACE AMOUNTS OF CALCIUM, ALUMINUM, AND TITANIUM. CORE COMPOSED OF MOLTEN NICKEL-IRON, SURROUNDED BY SILICATE INNER MANTLE. CONCLUSION: ACCEPTABLE. COMMENCING CONVERSION."

They descended from the gap between the skull's upper and lower teeth, a writhing tangle of cables of all sizes wound together. Unraveling themselves, they spread out in a hundred different directions, plunging down and piercing through the rock and soil of Carnaaji like needles piercing flesh. Tremors shook the canyon, fracturing more of the walls, dislodging boulders the size of cars…

Nanoha, we have to stop this! cried Fate in her mind. There was no question of speaking aloud now; the awful noise of relentless metal grinding rock to powder drowned out everything else. Try to cut through some of those cables, I'll take out that woman!

Of course she would. Like it or not, Nanoha was in no shape to engage in real combat with another mage yet. Her inner tactician recognized that the plan was sound, but still… Fate-chan, please be careful! We don't know what else she's capable of!

I will. Go! I'll keep her off of you as best I can!


The two Aces split off. Viluy's eyes briefly followed Takamachi's vector for a moment before she lost interest, giving Harlaown her full attention. Takamachi in her prime would have been a subject for extensive study, but now? Now she was a flawed, sad specimen of her former self, not worth her time. Besides, however many cables she managed to sever, it wouldn't be enough to stop Lord Moebius.

Harlaown, on the other hand… now she was a worthy subject. The TSAB's networks were filled with fascinating data about Fate Testarossa Harlaown and the forbidden, secretive project that gave her her name. Viluy smirked as she recalled the blissful rush from absorbing every bit of knowledge she could find about Harlaown, about her mother, and about Jail Scaglietti, the originator of Project Fate. A desperate attempt by a desperate woman to resurrect the dead through the creation of an Artificial Mage, indistinguishable from the deceased… The results were flawed, of course, but evidence of at least partial success was currently rushing up at her, wielding an axe-like Intelligent Device.

"Fate Testarossa Harlaown," she said curtly once the mage was level with her. "I've been looking forward to this for quite some time."

"Stop," said Fate, her grip tightening on Bardiche. "Stop what you're doing. Your activities are in clear violation of TSAB authority concerning treatment of enlisted personnel and-"

Viluy tapped her gauntlet and raised a snow-white eyebrow. "Enforcer protocol? That's hardly an appropriate profession for someone of your talents… and background…"

Those eyes… they were like chips of ice, and they made Fate shiver, as if rats were crawling over her skin. "Who are you? How do you know me?"

"Data," whispered Viluy. "Data is everywhere. Data is everything. You only need to know how to gather it." The gauntlet on her forearm liquified, flowing over her hand in a river of silver before hardening again as a long chrome blade. "I will gather the most extraordinary data from you, Harlaown-san…"


Two hundred meters above them, Nanoha came to a halt and scanned the area. No shortage of targets… there were now cables everywhere, a forest of them, more than she could count. More than I can destroy, she thought bitterly, but I have to try, for the sake of this world! "Raising Heart, prepare a multi-range bombardment! Hit as many cables as you can!"

["Yes, my Master,"] chimed her Device, glowing from her core. Spheres of Nanoha's signature pink magic blossomed one by one around her, numbering in the hundreds… smaller than they should be, like pink fireflies, but they had to be enough. They had to be.

"Axel Shooter!" At her command, the spheres lengthened into lines of light, cascading in all directions. Small though they were, her aim was flawless: each line found its mark on a cable and bored through, snapping the thinner ones altogether.

And then the backlash… Nanoha wobbled in mid-air, clutching a hand to her chest. A little fatigue after casting so many bolts at once was normal, but this was like running a half-dozen marathons in a row. Her consciousness slipped in and out, and tiny lights danced in the darkness on the fringes of her vision. Not yet, I can't be tired now! Come on, Nanoha, pull yourself together!

["Are you all right, Master?"] chimed Raising Heart.

"I'll be fine," she wheezed. "Prepare another volley, just like the last one. We know we can destroy the small cables now, so focus fire on the larger ones."

["Master, your heart rate is elevated-"]

Her fingers dug into her Barrier Jacket, and grasped the spot where poor Vita had hurt her… it was still tender, not completely healed. The pain was enough to give her a new burst of energy. "Please, Raising Heart, don't worry about me! Right now, Carnaaji is what's important!"

Below, the planet shook with increasing violence, fissures racing through the canyon floor like the cracks in ice struck by a hammer. The skull from above loomed ever closer. If someone didn't do something fast, soon only the skull would be left.


Again and again, Bardiche clanged against the gleaming chrome blade, throwing off glowing sparks. The face of the woman wielding it remained unchanged, still wearing that infuriating, icy smile. That smile only made Fate burn hotter, and she directed that heat to fuel her magic. Mad science like hers had to be stopped, before it hurt anyone else, before it tore this planet to pieces...

The blades locked, and Viluy drew close. "Your friends, the Knights? They were quite useful, Harlaown-san. Even with fragmented memories, they had so much information."

"What… did you do…" Fate snarled, straining to break the stalemate, "... to them? To Hayate?"

The smile curled upward at the corners. "With the Time Reaper's assistance, it was simple to restore the Book to its former state. My colleagues succeeded in bringing Yagami-san over to our side... and after that, it was only a matter of reprogramming the Wolkenritter's basic protocols, and instructing them to obey a new user: me."

A primal sound of fury escaped Fate as she hauled her Device free. Dolls. This woman had made her precious friends into nothing but dolls. Bardiche's blade shifted into cannon form, and steam gouted from his vents as she let loose… not even with a proper spell, just a shapeless burst of raw energy. She was grimly satisfied to see Viluy finally show some sign of alarm, throwing up her hands… The golden streak of power washed over her, and pieces of her strange armor ripped to shreds as it tossed her at least two kilos away. Nice work, Bardiche.

["Yes, sir."] He sounded almost satisfied as he ejected casings from his cylinder.


Far below, Viluy climbed slowly, stiffly out of the shallow crater she left in the rock with her impact. The merest tic of annoyance flickered over her face, but in an instant it was gone, replaced once more by her cold smile. This was a minor setback at best, and the pain would soon be worth it. Here she came now, descending from the darkening clouds with her axe blade raised, trailing electricity in her wake… a magnificent specimen indeed. A specimen that would be all hers...


Too many. There's just too many…

Shoulders sagging, Nanoha fought to catch her breath. A dull, persistent burning sensation raced through her bones and muscles, and there was a lead weight on her chest, pressing down on her lungs, denying her enough air…

Too many…

The forest of writhing cables spread no matter how many she shot through. Like a mythical hydra, for every one destroyed, two more took its place. Continuing this way was pointless, a waste of mana… the only way to stop them was to cut off the source. Sorry, Fate-chan. I know it's reckless, but I have to try!

Her wings spread wide as she ascended, wincing at the cold and lashing winds that bit at her even through her shields. Higher and higher, through the ceiling of blackened clouds… Moebius's metallic skull took up her whole field of vision now, but it didn't matter. Her target was not Moebius, but the mage in the process of transferring it.

The familiar frigidness of the Will's seething aura washed over her long before she reached level height with her. So much colder and more intense than before… how in the worlds she could contain that much power without perishing from the strain, Nanoha didn't know. Tightening her grip on Raising Heart, she broke through the lowest layer of clouds and made a beeline for the winged figure in the center of the massive spell triangle…

Half a kilo from her target, Nanoha slammed into an invisible shield as hard and unyielding as a steel wall. Rivers of fire scoured her body with the impact, racing through her limbs and back before settling in a dense, burning knot around her injured rib. Fighting to stay conscious, she put a hand on the shield, which crackled and spat violet flame at her touch. Hayate-chan! she thought at the distant winged figure. Hayate-chan, if you're in there, please answer me!

The Will turned to meet her eyes. She couldn't see it from this far away, but she could feel the Book's embodiment staring at her, those vermillion eyes making her skin prickle and the fine hairs on the back of her neck rise…

My Master will not speak with you, came the reply, cool and calm and devoid of feeling.

You both have to stop! Nanoha pressed her other hand against the shield wall. Her glove hissed in protest, giving off faint wisps of smoke. I know that neither of you wants this! If you bring that thing here-

My desires are of no consequence, said the Will. My purpose is to serve my Master.

Tears welled in the corners of Nanoha's eyes. This wasn't the old Will at all… when she manifested on Earth before, even under NachtWal's influence, she was remorseful for the destruction she caused during each of her awakenings. There was no hint of emotion in her now, no sense of her own mind, her own soul fighting against the Book's corrupted programming. What happened to you?! What has that woman done? This is all wrong…!

-static-

It's all gone wrong.

Sudden, inexplicable terror seized hold of Nanoha's heart, terror she could not explain, flooding her veins with ice. She drifted backward, away from the shield wall, heaving short, sharp breaths one after another. There was someone else inside her, feeling her feelings, looking out from behind her eyes, and their voice repeated the same words over and over in her thoughts: It's all gone wrong. It's all gone wrong. Heaven help us, it's all gone wrong…

Wrong or not, this is what my Master has commanded, said the Will, snapping Nanoha back to reality. I cannot disobey.

"Reinforce-san…" Still light-headed from the rush of foreign feelings, Nanoha pressed herself closer to the wall, forcing herself to focus. It was Hayate that gave the order to bring Moebius here, not the Book or NachtWal. That was what she was saying, wasn't it? But why in the worlds would Hayate-

A crash of thunder and an angry, pained shout floated up from below. Fate… Fate was still fighting that woman. If she was the cause of all this, if she was somehow controlling Hayate, and the Book through her… I'm sorry, Reinforce-san. Just hold on. With that regretful thought and a last look back at the winged figure, Nanoha began her descent back through the clouds.


Shaking off the most recent hit, Fate righted herself and cast another Plasma Lancer volley at her enemy. The woman was fast, fast and maneuverable… but not invincible. Her armor still hadn't regenerated from the damage she took before. Sooner or later, Fate would learn her patterns, and then she would make this Viluy woman pay dearly.


Viluy twisted and weaved through the rain of crackling spheres, blocking what she could not dodge with the flat of her chrome blade. Everything was according to plan. All that was left was to wait for the right moment, and then to harvest the data… She spared a glance down at her gauntlet, the readout confirming what she already knew. Over a quarter of Carnaaji's mass was now converted and prime for absorption. Her Master had already succeeded in his mission; she could do no less. The corner of her mouth twitched upward-

-and a plasma sphere three times the size of the others slammed into her from behind. Electrical current raced through her body and escaped in tiny, bright forks from the tips of each of her fingers. She slumped, falling...


Now!

Bardiche's firing cylinder loaded a fresh round as he shifted to Zanber Form once again. Fate poured on all speed, matching her flight vector with that of Viluy's fall. Her Device's blade lit up hot as she closed the distance, roaring out the name of her signature finishing move: "Plasma-"

Fifteen meters away, Viluy snapped upright, clutched her gauntlet with one hand and spread her fingers with the other, aimed right at Fate, and intoned: "Mosaic Buster." A whirling cyclone of dust spread outward from her hand…

Fate wouldn't stop. Whatever kind of spell this "Mosaic Buster" was, there was no way she would break off now, not when she was so close. She poured all the mana that wasn't channeled into Bardiche into her shields and continued the charge, straight into the cyclone's center. Just a little closer. Nine meters, eight, seven, six, five, four-

["Alert,"] chimed Bardiche. ["System disruption detechhhhhhhhhhhhht-"]

His voice broke off into static, and Fate stopped dead in midair, paralyzed, little more than a body length away from delivering the final blow. Bardiche and her Barrier Jacket both felt off, wrong… She gritted her teeth and strained to move, but her body resisted her. "Wh-wha- B-Bardiche!"

["M-M-M-M-Mmmmal-f-f-f-function-tion,"] Bardiche slurred, his voice warped and distorted. ["Un-un-un-known f-f-f-foreign-eign con-contaminant-nant-nant…"]

"Contaminant? How-" Fate's eyes went wide. The cyclone… but it couldn't be that, her shields and Barrier Jacket should have-

"Nanobots," said Viluy with that damnable smirk, floating close to her, just out of reach. "Microscopic machines, infesting and spreading through your body, your Barrier Jacket, and your Device. They're my specialty. I was chosen for this mission specifically with mages like you in mind, Harlaown-san. Your magic isn't magic, is it? It's highly-advanced technology… and technology, no matter how advanced, can be broken apart and reconfigured if one works small enough."

"You-!" Snarling, Fate pulled hard enough that her muscles screamed in protest, but she still couldn't move… Realization struck her like one of her own thunderbolts. Viluy had let herself get hit on purpose, had feigned being stunned so that she could deliver the nanobots when she was close enough. Fate had fallen for one of the most novice tactics ever conceived, but she had been so angry that she never saw it coming. That anger, too, was part of the trap… Viluy knew exactly which of her buttons to push, which words would infuriate her… how could she have been so stupid…!

Viluy drifted around her in a lazy circle, examining her prey from every angle. "Splendid," she whispered. "Your mother may not have been able to see it, but her work on you was extraordinary. Every part of you looks human…"

Bardiche! Fate screamed internally. Full purge, now!

Her Device's voice sputtered a reply. She could feel him trying to hold himself together, trying to protect her, but it was as if her thoughts were separated from his by one of the dark clouds around them. ["Ye-y-y-y-ye-y-yes, sssssir…"]

The woman's fingers brushed Fate's cheek, her touch as icy as her smile. "Especially your eyes," she continued. "You really do have lovely eyes, Harlaown-san."


She heard the awful scream in her mind, a split-second before her ears picked it up. "Fate-chan!" Nanoha bid Raising Heart to unfurl another set of wings. Her insides burned… she was exceeding maximum safe speed for someone still in recovery, but it didn't matter. Fate was in danger, Fate was hurt…

Clouds broke away before her, and she saw- "FATE-CHAN!"

-saw Fate falling, trailing red, her pigtails fluttering loosely, and the Viluy woman hovering in place with a satisfied smile and fingers painted crimson.

"FATE-CHAN!" Nanoha dived, calculations streaking through her mind, giving a constant stream of orders to Raising Heart to match her velocity with Fate's, to slow her partner's fall, to prepare a healing spell to counter whatever harm the woman had done to her… I'm coming, Fate-chan, I'm coming! Please be all right, please be all right, please be-!

Her timing was impeccable as ever. Fate dropped neatly into her arms… and she nearly lost her grip. Fate was convulsing wildly, clutching at her face, making small, breathless sounds of agony.

She's in shock! Even in a state of panic, Nanoha recognized the signs from her training. Raising Heart, cast an emergency medial barrier!

["Yes, Master!"]

A pink, elliptical field of energy enveloped Fate's body, but still she shook, her skin turning pale…

"Fate-chan! Fate-chan, please, it's going to be all right, it's-" Nanoha's throat closed tight, depriving her of speech. Her hands were warm and wet, and smelled like copper. Fate's thrashing brought the right side of her face into view, half of it was streaked with red… from between her fingers, Nanoha caught a glimpse of something, and the sight filled her veins with ice.

An empty socket. A raw, bloody, empty socket.

High above, Viluy spoke in a drawl as she examined the prize clutched in her stained fingers. "Fascinating. Emotional variation, motor control, even response to pain stimuli… all perfectly reproduced. The late Testarossa-san was truly a genius."

Her words drifted through Nanoha's mind without connecting to anything as she floated downward, clutching Fate tight to try to calm her shaking. "I'm here, Fate-chan. I'm here. I'm here… R-Raising Heart, contact the A-Arthra's sickbay, tell them to standby for immediate t-transfer!"

["Unable to comply,"] her Device said with a muted, discordant chime. ["A barrier spell is still present over the area, blocking all communications."]

"No…" She hugged Fate so tight she thought she might break… her convulsions had petered out, and now she was still, too still. Nanoha's paltry healing barrier could only do so much to keep her stable. Without proper medical attention… "Why...? Why is this happening?"

"'Why?' It's all data, Takamachi-san," came the cold voice from above. "People, animals, plants, technology... it's all data. And data needs to be collected, catalogued, and experimented on."

Nanoha touched down on one of the few remaining shelves of stable rock. Part of her noticed the rock's growing metallic sheen, its thin veins of circuit pathways… but it didn't matter. The barrier, she had to destroy the barrier, or they would both die here. They would die, and that horrible skull would destroy the planet… Setting Fate down, she curled her fallen partner's cape around her to keep her warm, and diverted a mental command to the medical barrier to engage gyroscopic mode to keep her still. With that done, she stood…

"It's for science, Takamachi-san," she heard Viluy say. "Surely a bright young girl like you can understand the need for science?"

Nanoha's fingers curled into a tight fist. Her reply was two words: "Restrict Lock."


Above, Viluy cried out in genuine shock as bands of pink energy clamped around her wrists and ankles, holding her in place. "NanoCuff, counter it!" In her mind's eye, she saw her faithful nanobots spread, analyzing the energy for weak spots, but it would take time… "Impressive, Takamachi-san," she began, searching her mind for any information on Takamachi that she could exploit. Most of her research had been on Harlaown; Nanoha was crippled, she knew, so she wasn't important… not worth studying extensively…


Down below, Nanoha turned around, her eyes shadowed by her bangs. "You… you hurt Fate-chan…" she whispered, standing over her partner, shielding her with herself and brandishing her Device like a spear. "And Hayate-chan… and Reinforce-san, Signum-san, and Vita-chan… I'll make you pay for what you've done to them…"


Viluy sneered. Ridiculous... with her injuries, Takamachi was barely more a threat than a novice mage. Even at full power, the TSAB's lackeys had their weapons restricted to non-lethal power levels only… and pain was a simple enough thing for her to block, all it took was a choice redirection of her nanobots. As soon as she was free, she would-


"Raising Heart?" said Nanoha.

["Yes, my Master?"]

And Nanoha whispered the four words she never imagined she would say to her Device… the words forbidden by every law the TSAB operated under, the deadliest command that a mage could give: "Disengage all safety limiters."

There was a pause. When Raising Heart answered, her voice was tinged with the barest hint of alarm. ["Master, are you sure?"]

"Disengage all safety limiters," Nanoha repeated. Before her Device could ask, she added, "Yes, I grant total authorization, under TSAB emergency protocol Red-Niner-Six-Omega. Go to Exelion Mode, Full Drive."

Another pause, longer this time. Then… ["Yes, my Master. Disengaging limiters… activating Exelion Mode. ACS System, standby ready. Initiating Full Drive."]

Raising Heart transformed. Her jewelled red core became enclosed by the head of the staff, now reconfigured into the shape of a wicked spear blade half a meter long. Two pairs of curved stabilizing fins unfurled from her sides, and discharge vents integrated into the spearhead's structure slid open one by one. With a mighty hum, the angelic wings sprouted… one pair, then another and another, eight in all, formed of incandescent pink light and spreading out at wide angles like those of a biblical seraphim. As Nanoha's magic circle flared back to life, the forward portion of the spearhead split in two, both halves sliding backward. From between them erupted a wicked pike blade of hard light, half as long as Nanoha was tall. Points of pink light shone in the air around her like stars, thousands of them, the remnants of all the mana she had expended since arriving here… they gathered in front of the spear, into the center of a gigantic ring of power.

The grip and firing apparatus rotated smoothly into Nanoha's hand, and her finger found the trigger with long-practiced ease. She braced her other hand farther back along the shaft, wielding her Device almost like a medieval knight hefting an enormous lance for a mortal blow… but she had no intention of impaling Viluy, as much as she might deserve that. Viluy, who sneered at Fate's brutal injuries with no remorse at all… she deserved more than the simple physical pain that impalement would bring. That was why the limiters were now off.

The safety limiters were not mandated by the TSAB for Nanoha's sake, though they did provide her protection against the backblast of her energies.

The safety limiters were in place for the sake of whoever was on the receiving end of those energies.

With none of her usual vigor or bombast, Nanoha softly gave the command: "Maximum power... Starlight Breaker."

The ring of power erupted into a volcanic blast, an enormous, fifty-meter beam of blazing light that tore upwards through the clouds, reflecting in Viluy's widening eyes… She had no chance to scream, or to make any sound at all. All that she was was instantly incinerated in the beam's white-hot fires. Not even dust was left behind.

Gritting her teeth, Nanoha sustained the beam, directing it upward to the looming metal skull, toward the winged figure still casting her transfer spell…

The Will had enough time to blink out of the way, maintaining her original spell while strengthening her personal shields…

… but Nanoha did not direct the beam to follow her. It burned upward, straight and true, slamming against the invisible wall of the massive barrier that enclosed the canyon… and broke through it like a brick through glass. And it kept going, scoring a long mark beneath Moebius's left eye socket, shearing through layers of metal and silicon and carving a swath deep into the skull's structure. Moebius's awful, wrenching, electronic scream shook Carnaaji to its core…

Below, Nanoha fell to her knees, her hands burnt and smoking, and Raising Heart let of blasts of steam as she ejected a full magazine's worth of cartridges. The consequences of using so much mana would keep her bedridden for days once they caught up with her, but it was done, the barrier was gone. Desperately, she sent out a telepathic call: Arthra, please help…!

The plea was barely cast to the ether for a second before she and Fate both disappeared in streaks of white light.


Nanoha materialized on the Arthra's bridge, saw the deck rushing up at her…

A pair of strong, steady arms caught her before she could fall. "Easy, Takamachi. Easy," said a calm, commanding voice, one she knew well.

"Ch-Chrono-kun…?" Nanoha allowed herself one weak smile at the black-haired blur that was Lindy's son and the ships's XO before she pushed against him to right herself, clutching at his sleeve. "Chrono-kun, it's Fate-chan, she-"

"We know," said a blur with Admiral Lindy's voice, heavy with strain. "We ran scans on your location as soon as you broke the barrier. She's in sickbay, and the medics are doing everything they can."

A sigh of relief escaped Nanoha's lips. Turning in the general direction of Lindy's voice, she attempted to assume a proper stance and salute. "Admiral, permission to transport back to the sur-"

"Permission denied," said Lindy before she could finish. "You've done more than enough for today, Nanoha. We'll take it from here."

"Come on, Takamachi." Chrono gently tugged on her shoulder, his voice unusually soft. "At ease. You need to report to sickbay yourself."

Nanoha shook off his hand, blinking her eyes rapidly to restore her vision. "Admiral, the Will and Hayate-chan are still down there! If you let me go, I can-"

The blur that was Lindy sharpened enough that Nanoha could see her turn and look back over her shoulder, her blue eyes hard with pain and regret. "I'm taking care of it."

That was when Nanoha saw… Lindy's face was awash in the glow of a complex holographic lock that hovered before her. On the main viewscreen, there was Carnaaji, with an ominous deep blue sphere shadowing one continent, that had to be Moebius… and between the Arthra's forwardmost bows, a vast ball of iridescent energy danced and spat, waiting to be released.

Amy's voice came from the conn, hushed and shaken. "A-Arc-en-Ciel, b-barrel ready, Admiral."

All the pieces came together. "Admiral, no," said Nanoha in horror. "No, there's got to be another way. You can't do this."

Lindy closed her eyes and turned back to the firing lock, determined not to meet Nanoha's gaze. "Amy, confirm target lock. We only have enough power for one shot."

"Lock c-confirmed. A-awaiting your command."

"We can still save her!" Nanoha pleaded, pulling away from Chrono, who was trying to hold her back. "Hayate-chan's still somewhere inside the Will, I know she is! If I go back down, and you and Chrono-kun come with me-"

"Takamachi, that's enough," said Chrono.

Lindy still wouldn't turn around.

"Lindy-san! That's Hayate-chan down there, you can't-"

"You think I want to do this?!" snapped the Admiral, slamming one hand onto the arm of her command chair. The words came out of her in a rush. "We don't have any other choice! You're hurt and exhausted, you're in nowhere near the same condition you were when you fought the Book before, and she's stronger than she ever was. Your partner, my daughter, is in sickbay, clinging to her life. There's a huge hole in my ship, and at least a dozen of my crew are dead. If we let the Book get off-planet, or if we let that thing finish transferring, they'll do even worse, to more worlds than we can count. What else would you have me do?!"

Nanoha opened her mouth to protest more… but all that came out was a desperate "Please. Please, Lindy-san…!"

Lindy sucked in a breath. She held up a hand in front of the lock system, which broke apart and turned red as it revealed the trigger interface. No one saw that the fingers of her other hand were digging into her palm, hard enough to draw blood. "Arc-en-Ciel," she whispered. "Fire."

In the void of space, the iridescent energy ball made no sound as it condensed itself into a tight, compact star and hurtled into the heart of Carnaaji at nine-tenths the speed of light. Once it struck its target, multicolored planar shockwaves erupted from the planet's core, each one spreading outward like a firework before shrinking back down again. Red, yellow, blue, green… each wave bathed the bridge in a different color as Carnaaji's continental plates crumbled, its oceans drained away, its clouds were pulled like wisps of cotton candy into the void that was now in its center. The massive form of Moebius shrank into the reaction as well, its immense, perfect spherical shape crumpling like paper as the unfathomable energies of warping time and space washed over it. A new sun seemed to take the place of Carnaaji as the reaction expanded, blinding in its radiance… and then, finally, it collapsed in on itself and was gone.

There was nothing left of the planet but empty space.

Nanoha stared… she didn't know when she had started crying. She only noticed when she felt a wet drop on one of her shaking, bloodstained hands.

No one spoke, there were no shouts of victory… only the humming of the instruments. Other than that, the silence on the bridge was the same as the silence of the void outside.

Lindy dropped into her command chair, her face in her hands. "Amy," she said, a bit muffled. "If you can, open a channel to TSAB Headquarters. Tell them everything, and tell them we'll be returning to HQ as soon as we divert enough power for a transfer."

"C-comms are down again, A-Admiral." Amy's voice quivered like a leaf, on the brink of tears.

"Dammit," said Lindy. "Start diverting power as soon as we cool off."

Once more, Chrono grasped Nanoha's shoulder. "Come on, Nanoha," he said. "I'll take you down below to see Fate. Alph's already there."

This time, Nanoha allowed herself to be led. Hayate was gone, gone in the most permanent way possible, and there was nothing she could do. She was almost to the lift when Chrono spoke again, saying something that didn't make sense.

"Admiral? Who is that?"

Lindy's head snapped up. A spell was already on her mind… if one more person or entity endangered her crew today, they were going straight to Hell before they had a chance to explain themselves. Her magic circle appeared at her feet as she stood and faced-

-a girl. A very small girl with long, wavy white hair, done up in two tiny pigtails behind each ear. Her eyes were odd, multicolored rings of red and yellow. She wore a pink polka-dotted dress and a cheerful smile, and she stood near Amy's station as if she belonged there.

Amy shrieked and clapped her hands over her mouth; everyone else stared.

"Nanoha?" said Chrono slowly, his hand edging toward his sealed Device. "Is this another friend of yours?"

In a baffled daze, Nanoha shook her head.

"Who are you?" barked Lindy. "What are you doing on my bridge?"

The girl bowed politely, but didn't say a word.

"Can you speak?"

She held a finger to her lips and breathed: Shhh.

Lindy's brows knit together as she pressed a button on the arm of her chair. "Attention, all available security officers," she said. "Intruder on the bridge, unknown origin. Set Devices to heavy stun, and-"

The white-haired girl moved over to Amy, who shrieked even louder, and gently touched her hand. Amy went as rigid as a board, her teary eyes flying open…

That was enough for Chrono. "Amy! Durandal, Set-"

"Wait!"

Again, everyone stared… except for the little stranger.

It was Amy who had spoken. "She's… she's not here to hurt us," she said, as if she couldn't believe it herself. Like a woman possessed, her hands moved over her console.

"Amy? What are you doing?" said Lindy, who was very close to losing her storied calm. "Did she speak to you?"

"I… I don't think so, I just know," said Amy as her fingers flew. "She… she gave me coordinates."

"Coordinates to where?!"

Panic rose in Amy's voice as she looked down and rattled off a long, complicated string of numbers. "These don't make sense," she said. "They're not in any format I've ever seen, but there's still a destination listed…"

Finally, Nanoha spoke, directly to the stranger. "Where?" She didn't know why, but something was telling her that Amy spoke the truth… she intended no harm. "Where do you want us to go?"

Again, the answer came from Amy. "'The Lighthouse,'" she read from her screen. "That's all it says. No planet classification, no navigation data, just… 'The Lighthouse.'"

The stranger pointed at the screen. At once, the view of the empty space that had minutes ago been Carnaaji was replaced by a field of static. High-pitched hissing and garbled voices washed over the bridge crew.

Lindy locked a death glare on the little stranger. "What did you do?!"

Hesitantly, Chrono moved to Amy's side and checked the console. When he spoke, he sounded as baffled as she was. "She's opened a comm channel. It's the same as before: the data doesn't make sense, but it says it's coming from-"

"- the Lighthouse," said the static with sudden clarity. It was a soft voice, a girl's voice. The field slowly resolved into something resembling humanoid features, though it was still impossible to make out any details. "Arthra" The static whined, and the voice faded in and out. "... TSAB vess… questing assista… immediate trans… ighthou…"

"Can you get a lock on that signal?" said Lindy, sinking back into her chair. At this point, she was almost ready to believe anything. SSS+ level Lost Logia coming back from the dead, holes blown through her ship, and strange, silent children on her bridge giving nonsensical coordinates to places that didn't exist… a comm signal from nowhere was almost plausible.

"W-working," said Amy.

"TSAB vess… thra," said the voice from the static.

The little stranger smiled… directly at Nanoha, who thought she saw her nod.

On screen, the vaguely humanoid features snapped into sharp focus as if someone had flipped a switch. It was another girl, a few years older than Nanoha by the look of her, with short, boyish brown hair and gorgeous green eyes. She leaned over a crystalline control console, lines of worry on her pretty face and faint shadows of exhaustion under her eyes. Next to her…

Nanoha goggled in disbelief.

Next to the girl on the screen was what appeared to be a floating, winged teddy bear, wringing its paws together anxiously. "We gettin' through?" said the teddy. Nanoha's mouth fell open… the teddy spoke in a pronounced Kansai accent.

"I think so," said the girl at the console. "Ohhh, I hope this works… TSAB vessel Arthra, this is Sakura Kinomoto calling from the Lighthouse. Do you read me?"

"We read you, Kinomoto," said Lindy, rising from her chair. "Did… did you send someone here? She gave us your coordinates… and your comm frequency…"

Sakura sighed with relief. "Hoeeee~," she said, "so that's where she went! I was getting worried about her… Um, to whom am I speaking, exactly?"

"Admiral Lindy Harlaown," said Lindy, unable to hide her confusion. "Where is this 'Lighthouse' of yours, Kinomoto? The coordinates your friend gave us don't make sense…"

"I don't know," said Sakura, shaking her head. "Honestly, I don't know where it is. All I know is, she wants you to come… and you'll be safe here."

This time, the little stranger did nod, and everyone saw it.

Chrono looked back over his shoulder at his mother. "Admiral, can we trust them? For that matter, should we trust them?"

"She's telling the truth." Amy was back to staring at the little girl. "They both are."

"Um, excuse me?" said Sakura, shuffling in a nervous manner. "This is going to sound like a strange question, Admiral, but… is there someone named Nanoha Takamachi on board your ship…?"

Swallowing, Nanoha stepped forward and bowed. "I'm Nanoha Takamachi. How do you know my name?"

Those gorgeous green eyes stared into hers from across who knew how many worlds. "I'm not sure," said Sakura, "but I think… I think we're supposed to meet each other…"

END OF CHAPTER 7

Chapter Text

CHAPTER 8: Sisters and Brothers

-VERTEX THREE: 8.333882^1-

Wakabadai

"It's just not fair," moaned Nagisa Misumi between mouthfuls of takoyaki. "It's too cruel, it's just too cruel! I don't believe this!"

With a sympathetic smile, Honoka Yukishiro leaned over the table to pat her hand. "Oh, Nagisa, it'll be all right. I'm sure that Fujimura-kun will come back to visit-"

"How?!" There was a brief shower of crumbs and bonito flakes that accompanied Nagisa's latest outburst. "He's moving to America in three days! America, Honoka! I'm losing him forever, and he'll never know how I feel! My life is over… it's over…" In a state of helpless misery, Nagisa fell forward, her forehead colliding with the surface of the table with an audible thunk. "Just leave me here. Leave me here to die."

Honoka sighed and rubbed her best friend's shoulder. Only someone like Nagisa could weather multiple near-apocalypses with no problems and completely fall to pieces over a boy.

A spirited voice sounded somewhere above them. "Guy troubles, eh?" said Akane Fujita as she took Nagisa's empty tray. "Sounds like you need another batch. Oi, Hikari, Hikaru! Another round!"

"Right away!" The kind, polite voice came from inside the trailer that served as the headquarters for the Tako Cafe, a traveling establishment run by Akane and her two "cousins". Said "cousins", a sister and brother, had a more complicated relationship with Akane than most people knew, including Akane herself… but they were still a family where it counted, blood related or not.

When the famed takoyaki chef was out of earshot, an audible snicker drifted up from somewhere in the vicinity of Nagisa's thigh. "As if Fujipi would have noticed you anyway, ~mepo…" said a squeaky voice from the backpack lying at her side.

This was followed by another, higher-pitched voice from Honoka's shoulder bag. "Mepple! Be nice! Can't you see that Nagisa is troubled, ~mipo?"

More snickering. "She'll be more troubled tonight if she keeps pigging out on all those takoyaki. Even the black hole in Nagisa's stomach can't take it all sometimes, and when it gets backed up- ouch!"

Withdrawing her hand, Nagisa glared down at her pack. "You be quiet! What did I tell you about discussing things like that in front of people?!"

"It's not my fault you eat too much," it grumbled. "That's why Fujipi never noticed you. He doesn't like girls with chipmunk cheeks- ouuuuch! That hurts, ~mepoooo!"

Hard as it was to believe, two schoolgirls talking to and arguing with their bags wasn't that uncommon of an occurrence in Wakabadai… at least not in this part of town. It happened often enough that passers-by simply assumed that the girls were eccentrics… or maybe that they had some new types of hidden earpieces for their cell phones. Either way, it didn't matter. Talking bags were hardly the strangest things to happen to the city, which had more than its share of disasters and unusual incidents…

Or at least, it used to. After the final defeat of the Dark King a month previously, life in Wakabadai settled into safe, predictable normality… strange voices from school bags aside, of course. Dusk Zone and the Zakenna were gone forever, and Cure Black, Cure White, and Shiny Luminous, known together as Precure, were officially retired.

No more reason to worry, apart from Nagisa's long-time crush preparing to move overseas. The Queen of Light gave her blessings for Nagisa and Honoka to live on Earth with her reincarnated will, Hikari; her brother Hikaru, the former will of the Dark King; and their fairy friends Mepple, Mipple, Pollun, and Lulun. For now, all was quiet… and for another week or two at least, there wasn't even schoolwork to worry about. They could spend entire days simply enjoying their youth, basking in the warmth of Wakabadai's spring sunlight as the leaves came out.

Hidden behind a cluster of those newly-budded leaves, blue eyes sparkled with naked greed as they watched the unusual argument happening below. The owner of those eyes had no worries about being seen… no one could see them unless they wanted to be seen, and the time wasn't right yet. Any moment now, though. Any moment now. The new arrival's lips parted into a grin, as they thought of all the others, waiting just as they were waiting, in facets just like this one.

Any moment now…


"Here, Nagisa, this should cheer you up!"

Honoka hardly needed to say anything. Always on the spot when it came to food, Nagisa sprung upright, nostrils flaring. "Is that-"

"Akane-san's special roast beef takoyaki," said Hikari Kujou as she stepped out of the Tako Cafe trailer, bearing a steaming tray full of fresh octopus balls, each cooked to perfection and expertly coated in flaky golden crust. "With extra sauce, your favorite!" As always, close behind the cheerful blonde was her brother Hikaru, eager to help in any way he could. He was of a quieter and more delicate sort than his sister, but just as full of light and curiosity about the human world, with a gentle, ever-present smile just like Hikari's. It was hard to believe that the other selves of these two had been complete opposites and mortal enemies… at times, it was like Hikari and Hikaru had spent a lifetime together instead of just a few weeks.

"Hikari, you're a lifesaver!" Nagisa snatched the tray the moment it was in arm's reach, inhaling the steam with a blissful sigh. "Ohhhh, wow…"

A pink tinge colored Honoka's cheeks. "Um, Nagisa, you've got a little something there…" She patted the corner of her mouth with a handkerchief for emphasis.

"Sorry, sorry!" It took a great deal of willpower for Nagisa to set the tray down long enough to wipe off the thread of drool with the back of her hand.

Yet another small voice emerged from Hikari's pocket. "I don't see how you can possibly be hungry after eating three whole trays, ~popo…"

There was a pregnant pause as the group waited for a fourth voice… but there was no reply.

A pair of round navy eyes lifted the flap of Nagisa's backpack as she tore into the fresh batch of takoyaki. "Eh? Where's Lulun?" said Mepple.

Pollun's voice sighed from Hikari's pocket. "Sleeping, thank goodness. She wanted to play all morning long…"

Giggling softly, Mipple peeked up over the edge of Honoka's bag. "You know she only does that because she loves her big brother."

"I wish she loved me less," moaned the fairy prince. "It's exhausting when someone likes you that much!"

Mipple looked over at Mepple, her eyes sparkling. "Oh, that's not true." Clearly, only the need to stay hidden from civilians prevented her from leaping out for playtime. "Mepple and I love each other a lot, and we never tire each other out!"

"That's right, never ever!" Mepple snorted proudly. "But we're different. As a prince and a brother, you should take responsibility and play with Lulun for as long as she wants!"

"That's easy for you to say. You don't have any responsibilities, ~popo."

"What do you mean?! Looking after Nagisa is a huge responsibility! It's tougher than you can imagine! If I weren't here to keep her on a schedule, she would sit around eating takoyaki all day and getting fat… or fatter than she is alre-yowch, ~mepo!"

"I can hear you, you little traitor!" said Nagisa, aiming a death glare at her backpack. "Wanna keep talking? Go ahead, you've already lost your desserts for the rest of the month."

There was a squeak of horror from within. "A month?! Come on, Nagisa-sama, you know I was just teasing! You're not fat at all… except maybe around your thighs..."

"Now it's two months! And you're the one who needs to lose weight, greedyguts! How many plates of omu-rice did you have for breakfast, a dozen?!"

Honoka and Hikari exchanged bemused looks and shook their heads. Behind his sister, Hikaru blinked in a perplexed fashion as he listened to the back-and-forth.

"Um…" said Honoka with a nervous chuckle as the argument escalated. "Hikari-san, you might want to get another tray or two ready… just put them on the tab."

"I think you're right." Nodding sagely, Hikari smiled, gathered the empty trays, and put her free hand hand on her brother's shoulder. "Come on, Hikaru. I've been meaning to show you how to make patterns with the sauce, anyway. It'll be fun!"

"Fun!" The boy's face broke into a wide smile.

Hand in hand, the siblings walked back toward the trailer.

-static-

Mepple's voice cut off in mid-snark, and Honoka heard a gasp from her shoulder bag.

Paces away, three empty takoyaki trays clattered as they fell to the pavement. Of Hikari and Hikaru Kujou, there was no sign.

In the deafening silence that followed, Wakabadai's passers-by went about their business, no one noticing anything wrong.

Nagisa was first to speak, slowly climbing to her feet and staring at the empty space where her two friends had been walking seconds before. "Hi… Hikari?" Her voice was unnaturally hushed and strained. "Hikaru?"

No answer.

Now Honoka rose, her face pale, her eyes wide with disbelief. "No," she whispered. "No, it can't… be. Not again." An old and painful memory rushed to the forefront of her mind, of an identical feeling of helplessness as someone she cared about vanished into thin air. "N-Nagisa, what… where…"

"Hikari!" Nagisa's voice broke. She rushed to the spot where the two had disappeared, searching for any sign of them… "Hikaru!"... but only the empty trays were left. No. No. No. No… In a blind panic, she stumbled back to where Hikari had been standing, pressing her palm flat against the cement.

There was no warmth. No sign she had ever been there at all.

A friendly face leaned out of the trailer, eyebrows raised. "Nagisa?" said Akane. "What's all the yelling about?"

"A-A-A-Akane-san…" Dark, wet spots fell upon the pavement at Nagisa's feet. "Akane-san, I'm sorry… H-H-Hikari and Hikaru… they…"

She didn't even have to see the tears; the girl's voice alone told Akane that this was something way beyond the usual Nagisa outburst. In a flash, her apron was off, and she was at her young friend's side, taking her into her arms like the big sister she never had. "It's okay, it's gonna be okay… just calm down. Calm down and tell me what's wrong…"

Honoka sank slowly back into her seat. With all of her many biology and science classes, she knew the signs of going into mental shock. Her mind examined her symptoms with cold, clinical precision: numbness of her limbs, a sense of detachment, muteness. Right now, a cocktail of adrenaline and norepinephrine was rushing through her veins. More extreme emotional reactions, like those Nagisa was going through, would come later. And she hated that… she wanted so badly to be the one cradling Nagisa, crying with her and telling her that things would be okay, but she was paralyzed… she was paralyzed, and she hated herself for it…

"Hikari," sobbed Nagisa into Akane's arm. "Hikari, she's… she's gone…"

"Shhh." Akane held her close, smiling and speaking as gently as she could. "Don't worry, it'll be all right. We'll find her. Just calm down and tell me… Who is Hikari? What does she look like?"

Akane's attempt to comfort her froze Nagisa's blood in her veins. Even her tears stopped. Oh God. Oh no…


-VERTEX THREE: 8.333882^5-

Kibougahana

Simultaneously

Two friends walked home from school down a flower-lined street. It was a peaceful spring evening in the little town of Kibougahana, quiet save for the singing of birds returning to their nests and the cheerful low buzzing of bees visiting many flowers. Now and then, a mother's voice would ring out, calling for her children to come in for supper, or a bus's brakes would squeal as it stopped to let off passengers, but those sounds were so regular as to be almost unnoticeable.

"... taking measurements of the new club members, you see," one friend was saying to the other, in a polite, reserved tone. "Just by looking."

The second girl laughed. "That's my sister for you. It's her talent."

"I remember when she took mine." The first girl turned away, the red rays of sunset reflecting off the square lenses of her glasses. It was hard to tell in the fading light, but her pale cheeks were a bit pink. "It was… uncomfortable. She at least had the decency to confirm them with me privately, instead of shouting them out loud…"

More laughter from the second girl. "She really has changed. A year ago, she wouldn't have cared about your privacy at all. Little Erika has grown up, and actually developed tact. Wonders never cease!"

"Indeed." The first's lips curled upward into a smile that was calm and collected, but warm. "We've all grown up in the past year, haven't we, Momoka?"

"Mmm-hmm. I feel… better." Momoka Kurumi put her hands over her heart and closed her eyes. "Stronger. More confident. Like the things that used to worry me so much are… not gone, but less important. They're not mountains anymore, they're… obstacles."

Now it was the other's turn to chuckle. "I think I know what you mean."

"It's a such lovely night, isn't it?" Momoka ran a few steps forward and spun on her heel, inhaling the blended fragrances of the many blooming flowers that lined the street. "Mmm, you could almost curl up on a park bench like a cat and fall asleep."

"I wouldn't recommend it," said Yuri Tsukikage, raising a slim eyebrow. "The police might take exception to that."

"Oh, pooh." Momoka stuck out her tongue, for a moment looking very much like her younger sister. "Shame on you, spoiling my fun."

"It's not fun if you get ticketed for loitering."

"That only happens in America. The police are more trusting here."

"I wouldn't be so sure…"

Calm, and peace, and quiet. Nothing but two best friends sharing an evening walk home from school, flowers and bees and violet-streaked skies overhead. A half moon peeked out from behind a cloud, which cast a peculiar sparkle of light on one of Yuri's lenses as she adjusted her glasses by their bridge.

-static-

It happened so suddenly that Yuri almost didn't notice it. A tingling sensation at the back of her skull, one she hadn't felt in months. It took her a moment to even recognize it, but when she did, she wondered how she could have ever forgotten. Her calm evaporated like morning dew. "Momoka," she said, a hard edge creeping into her voice, "I think I forgot something back at school. I'll catch up with you later." And with that, before Momoka could reply, she was off, sprinting back the way she came, her long violet hair stirring the petals of many flowers as she passed.

Momoka shrugged and continued on down the street. This was just Yuri's way, she realized that by now… nothing much could be done about it.


Where are you?

It can't be.

Where are you?

Those two phrases clashed against each other in Yuri's mind as she ran. Logic and reason told her that she couldn't possibly be feeling what it was she was feeling. It was simply an echo of the past, nothing more. Her heart, however… her heart saw this as no echo. She knew this feeling, this tightness in her chest, the iron weight in her stomach, the prickling of the fine hairs on the nape of her neck. And even though the logical part of her brain dismissed it as a ridiculous action, her heart made her reach underneath her collar, grasp the seed hanging on its chain around her neck, and run her fingers over it, just to be sure.

The seed was whole, just as it should have been.

But the feeling remained.

Where are you?

By now, she had reached the fountain, a short distance from Kaoruko's greenhouse by the riverside. Water fell in sheets from the fountain's peak, making musical sounds… how appropriate that it would be here that this should happen. Just a few meters away from where she was reborn… it was if the heavens had aligned.

Where are you?

A shadow passed in front of the half moon above, a black shape almost like a huge bird of prey, and Yuri felt that shadow come long before she saw it with her own eyes.

Slowly, gracefully, it descended, alighting on the peak of the fountain. Great shapes unfurled from its back, and Yuri's heart lurched… wings. Not just one, but a pair of ebony wings, featherless and webbed like those of a bat, spreading out a meter wide, dwarfing her in their shade.

The shadow opened two eyes that gleamed gold, set within a stark white face, a face horribly familiar… a face that smiled at her. That unnerved Yuri more than the wings, more than the shadow's inexplicable return… she was smiling.

"Good evening, Cure Moonlight." whispered Dark Precure, low and soft as silk. "Good evening, onee-sama."

Yuri's hand shot to the seed around her neck. The other reached into the pocketspace that every Cure could access, drawing forward the Heart Pot and its integrated compact. The seed slammed into its groove as she shouted, "Precure, Open My Heart!"

In a glimmer of silver light, the quiet schoolgirl Yuri Tsukikage disappeared. In her place was a radiant figure in a flowing white dress, her lavender hair blowing in the evening breeze, her hand upon the green heart-shaped emblem on her breast. "A lone flower, gleaming in the light of the moon…" she intoned, cupping her hands together and spreading her fingers before standing straight and proud. "Cure Moonlight!"

"Yes," said Dark Precure. Her lips pulled back in a rictus grin. "Yes, that's right, onee-sama. You know me. You remember."

A violet flash, and Moonlight's signature Tact was in her hand, pointed at the winged dark figure. "You're not real," she hissed. "You're a fake. An illusion. Who are you? Who sent you?"

Dark Precure laughed… the sound was akin to an icy winter wind. "You know me, onee-sama. I'm part of you. I am you. How could I be a fake? I remember it all… how you killed me. How I died in Father's arms, fading away…"

This wasn't fair. It didn't make sense. It was all wrong… Moonlight's feet left the ground. Launching into the air, she hurtled toward her dark counterpart. The two exchanged a flurry of savage blows, faster than human eyes could follow, neither giving quarter. Every motion was perfect, every punch sure, every kick fluid… they matched each other flawlessly, sisters by blood and science if not relation, black versus white, Cain versus Abel.

At the first sign of an opening, Moonlight pulled back her free hand. "Moonlight Silver Impact!" Power gathered in her palm, and she thrust it forward, releasing it all at once in a concussive blast.

The hit connected. Dark Precure was thrown backward half a kilometer, only stopping when she caught the air with a flap of her wings. Still she smiled… "What's wrong, onee-sama? I came back to see you. To bring us together again, as we should be."

"Liar!" Moonlight spat the word in a ferocious snarl. "I defeated you! You're dead! You won't haunt me anymore!"

"At least part of that is right," purred Dark Precure. She vanished in a streak of red light…

The next thing Moonlight felt was a spear of blinding pain, lancing through her back. Searing, agonizing pain, consuming her from the inside out…

Dark Precure grinned wider, twisting the hand now buried deep inside Moonlight's ribs, reaching for her heart. "I won't haunt you anymore, because we're going to be together, onee-sama. It's going to be all right."

No. The word penetrated the red haze fogging Moonlight's mind. This is wrong. It's all wrong… It's all gone wrong…!

"We've been waiting for you," whispered Dark Precure in her ear. Her fingers closed around something… not Moonlight's heart, but something deeper, something she didn't even know was there. Something painful for her to touch, it was so pure and warm and bright… "We'll all be together. Come with me. Join me, and your partner, and Father… in Hell."

END OF CHAPTER 8

Chapter Text

CHAPTER 9: Storms and Tides

-VERTEX THREE: 8.333882^1-

Wakabadai

Simultaneously

"Hikari!" shrieked Nagisa, tears rolling down her crimson cheeks. "Hikari and Hikaru Kujou! Your cousins! They're both good kids, they have blonde hair, they're your family and you love them!"

"Nagisa, you've gotta calm down-" said Akane, drawing back from her. She had seen Nagisa upset before, hell, it was a regular occurrence, but nothing like this...

"Calm down? How can I calm down?!" Now Nagisa stood, taking fistfuls of her orange hair. "It was supposed to be over! Dammit, I don't believe this!" With that, she scooped up her backpack and ran, making a beeline for a certain old forest southwest of Wakabadai.

"Nagisa, wait! Please excuse us, Akane-san!" said Honoka in a rush, bowing quickly and retrieving her shoulder bag, then hurrying after her friend. "Nagisa!"

Staring after them, Akane raised a hand in a feeble manner, then dropped it with a mournful sigh. Whatever was going on, she had to trust the girls to work it out. She could only hope that they found these kids they were looking for...

In the foliage of the trees surrounding the park, another figure grinned and disappeared without a sound.


It's not fair. Pouring on all speed, Nagisa ran with no regard for anyone or anything in her way, charging blindly ahead. It's not fair. Being Precure was always supposed to be a temporary thing, that was the deal. Defend the Garden of Light and fight Dusk Zone, then you can go back to your normal life… eating takoyaki in the park, arguing with Mepple, and pining over Fujipi. It was supposed to be over now. Light and darkness were in balance, the Dark King was dead three times over, everyone had a happy ending. It's not fair!

At least she could still take it out on those responsible. If there was one good thing about becoming Cure Black once again, it was that she could now beat the tar out of whoever or whatever had been stupid enough to yank her back into that world… stupid enough to take Hikari from them again.

If she had been thinking clearly, she would have noticed the absence of the usual squeaky voice from her backpack, chiding her for rushing in without thinking. If she had been thinking clearly, she would have realized that Hikari and Hikaru being taken again made no sense… Hikari's powers as Shiny Luminous aside, they were both just normal children now. Of course, thinking clearly was never Nagisa's strong suit at the best of times, and this was hardly one of those.

"Please, wait! Nagisa!" cried Honoka, threading her way through afternoon crowds as she followed that tangle of orange hair. "Nagisa, I can't run well in these shoes! Nagisa!" Normally the voice of reason, Honoka had no head for logic or planning at the moment… all that was on her mind was Nagisa. If she didn't stop, she would likely get herself hurt, or worse… She too failed to notice the unusual silence of her fairy companion.

The chase continued, and Nagisa didn't stop until she reached the clearing in the forest, sweaty and gasping for breath. The mansion, she thought, clenching her fists so hard that her nails dug into her palms. I'll go into the mansion and whale on whoever took away Hikari and Hikaru until they give them back, and then everything will go back to normal. That's gotta be it, right? Please, God…

Wearily, she raised her head, exhausted, but more than ready to tear that damned mansion down around-

Dusk Zone's mansion was still gone. Not so much as a splinter remained… it was a flat, square, bare patch of soil in the middle of the wilderness, just as she had seen it last time.

Nagisa's mind stopped working then, shorting out her thoughts. What does it mean? The mansion was still gone. No Dusk Zone commanders, no Zakenna, no nothing. They were the only ones with any interest in kidnapping the Kujou siblings (or whatever they had done), as far as Nagisa knew, but there was no mansion and no Dusk Zone. What does it mean?

Now, finally, Honoka caught up with her, woefully out of breath, her shoes clutched together in one hand and her socks a dirty, tattered mess on the verge of unraveling entirely. "Na… gi… sa…" she panted, putting a hand on her friend's shoulder for support as she clutched her aching stomach.

"It's still gone," said Nagisa, staring straight ahead at the empty plot of land. "No Dusk Zone. Nagisa, why aren't they here?"

"I… don't… know," wheezed Honoka. "Ohhh, my feet… m-maybe it's not Dusk Zone?"

Only then did Nagisa turn around. "But it's always Dusk Zone!" she sputtered, stamping her foot. "Whenever something weird happens to us, whenever a Prism Stone or whatever goes missing or a kingdom needs saving, Dusk Zone is always behind it! Honoka, that's what we do! We fight them, we use the Marble Screw, and then we go home! That's how it works!"

"N-Nagisa…" Trembling, Honoka turned her eyes upward. "Th-there's something you need to see." With that, she dug into her shoulder bag and retrieved Mipple…

Nagisa felt something drop in her stomach. It was Mipple, resting in her disguised state which inexplicably resembled a clamshell cell phone… but she hadn't taken on this particular shape in more than a year. Her "upgrade" from the beginning of the second conflict with Dusk Zone was gone, and she had reverted back to the Card Commune form that she had when they first met her.

"M-Mipple…?" Stunned, Nagisa took the little device in her hands and flipped it open. Inside, the fairy's face was ashen, and she appeared exhausted, breathing heavily as if she had spent the day outside in her normal form. But the fairies' disguise forms were to prevent them from getting tired in their world… "Mipple, are you okay?"

Mipple slowly opened her big brown eyes and attempted to smile. "I'll be… fine… in a few minutes..."

"What's wrong with her, is she sick? Why… why did she change back?" Handing her back to Honoka in a hurry, Nagisa ripped open her backpack and plunged a hand inside. "H-hang on, I know I've got Palp's card in here somewhere…" Her fingers flew through old food wrappers, a few issues of various manga, some small toys for Mepple, and-

"N… Nagisa…?" The small voice from inside was meek and subdued.

Forgetting the cards, Nagisa retrieved her Commune, and found it back in its original shape. With a sinking feeling, she opened the device's lid. Just like with his counterpart, the little fairy looked weary and haggard, like he had been drained of some of his color. "M-Mepple!" she said, giving him a gentle shake. "Come on, th-this isn't funny! Snap out of it!"

"Is…" His brow furrowed, as if he had to search for the words before speaking them. "... is… Mipple… okay?"

"I…" Honoka swallowed heavily. "I r-realized Mipple wasn't talking while I was f-following you, Nagisa." Clutching Mipple to her heart, she looked so helpless, so unlike her; Honoka always knew what to do… "I a-already tried using my Palp card. I-it didn't help…"

Everything began to spin, and Nagisa's knees threatened to buckle beneath her. "What does this mean…?"

"D-did you notice?" said Honoka, her lip trembling. "It… it wasn't just Hikari and Hikaru that disappeared when… when it happened. Pollun's gone... and I'm guessing Lulun is too."

"What does this mean?!" Nagisa repeated, staring off into space as if it contained the answers.

From a branch of one of the old pines that surrounded them, someone giggled. A new voice, an amused voice. "It means that this is the end~."

Both girls started and craned their heads backward, looking up.

There was a girl sitting on a high bough, merrily kicking her legs back and forth in the air as she smiled down at them, blue eyes sparkling. A long, dark brown ponytail trailed down over one shoulder, and there was a much smaller tuft, almost like a rabbit's tail, sprouting out from the point where it was tied. "Hi there!" she said, waving a hand.

Nagisa and Honoka stared in astonishment. Whoever this new arrival was, she certainly didn't look like a typical Dusk Zone commander. Or act like one, for that matter… they tended to attack on sight rather than give cheerful greetings.

"Did…" Honoka began, now completely lost. "Did you do all of this?"

"Me?" said the new girl. "Oh, no, it wasn't me."

Some of the tension unwound from Honoka's body. "Then, if you please-"

"But I'm working for the ones who did," the girl continued. "I'm here with a message for Cure Black and Cure White… that's you two, right?"

As quickly as the tension unwound, now it was back tenfold. "I-"

She didn't have a chance to get any further than that. "Spill it! What have you done to our friends?!" roared Nagisa, raising a fist.

"Me? Nothing. It's the Time Reaper you want to be mad at~," said the girl in singsong. "But you are Precure, right? In that case…" She dropped off the branch.

Nagisa went pale, and Honoka clapped her hands over her mouth, stifling a scream.

The strange new girl plummeted toward the forest floor, still wearing that smile… and as she fell, she drew something from her pocket. A white flash enveloped her, her body erupted in flames, and a blazing comet struck the ground a second later with a thunderous sound and a great cloud of black smoke. Dirt, debris, and flaming pine needles rained down on the pair.

"HONOKA!" In between hacking coughs, Nagisa reached blindly through the cloud, searching for her partner's hand. "Honoka, where are you?!"

After a few seconds of rising panic, Honoka's soot-blackened hand closed around hers. "I… I'm here, I'm all right! But that girl-"

A blast of wind blew away the smoke. In the center of a smoldering crater, the girl stood transformed, wearing a ruffled, flowing dress, pure white, like a medieval lady of the court. Above and to one side of her left breast, a strange red jewel seemed to be mounted directly to her skin. Another white flash, and a long, curved, single-edged sword materialized in her hand. A katana, at odds with her European-style costume… the blade rippled visibly, as if being viewed through a heat mirage. Still wearing that smile, the girl stepped forward brandishing her weapon. "I'm Ayase Souju, from Dead End," she said, a fawning giggle in her voice. "I'm here for your jewels… the Prism Stones. Hand them over, and I won't have to kill you~."

"The hell we will!" growled Nagisa, gripping Honoka's hand tight. "Mepple, Mipple, can you two still fight with us?"

Their voices came from the two Communes, weary and slow, but determined.

"You can c-count on us, ~mepo!"

"W-we'll support you, ~mipo!"

"Thanks, guys. I promise, we'll finish this quick, then you can rest." Despite their situation, despite the loss of Hikari, and despite the crazy swordswoman threatening them, Nagisa smirked as she turned to Honoka. "Ready, partner?"

Honoka nodded with a smile of her own. "Always."

The girl, Ayase, wasn't about to wait. Her feet left the ground as she charged, letting out a scream of laughter, her blade igniting with flames…

The two girls raised their free hands to the sky and called out as one. "Dual Aurora Wave…!"

"Shit!" Only instinct saved Ayase Souju's life. She abandoned her charge, just an instant before a massive column of iridescent light descended from the heavens and swallowed the two girls, a light with heat and power that could have melted her blade to slag ten times over. As she watched, the bodies of two were sheathed in something like liquid steel… They touched down gently as the light column faded, dressed in uniforms of opposite colors. With pride, they called out their new names...

"Emissary of Light, Cure Black!" shouted Nagisa, beginning the ritual...

"Emissary of Light, Cure White!" … and Honoka answered in kind.

"The two of us are Precure!"

"Servant of the evil powers…"

"... go back to the darkness you came from!"

"Ooooh, fun~!" There was that unhinged giggle again, as Ayase clapped politely. "You guys looked so cool just now, all pretty and sparky… Now let us show you our special trick!"

There was no column of light, no ritual chant, just a bright flash… and now Ayase Souju stood next to a mirror image of herself, dressed all in red with a white gem, her lips pressed together in a smirk that was as cool as Ayase's grin was manic.

The two Cures stared in silent astonishment. Whatever they had been expecting, this wasn't it.

"Hey, Luca," said Ayase, moving to stand back-to-back with the new arrival. "Isn't this fun? They're almost like us! And they have such pretty jewels…"

"I heard." Luca's voice was calm, reserved… but there was madness trickling just underneath her tone. She was clearly no saner than her twin. "Jewels even brighter than Soul Gems, the rarest in existence. Those jewels contain all the light in this world, the Power of Creation itself… we'll take them."

"I can't wait~!"

Cure Black's gloves creaked as she clenched her fists. "That does it," she spat, "I don't care how many of you there are! You're asking for a pounding!" With ease born of two years of experience, she launched herself at the twins, ready to bury a fist in one of those smiles, she didn't care which one…

And Cure White waited, raising her hands and taking on a defensive stance. Charging ahead and making the first move was Black's style, not hers, and they knew each other well enough by now to let each other fight in their own styles until it was time to move as one.

The Soujus shocked them both by moving in perfect sync, splitting off at angles to avoid Black's forward strike. Luca drew her own sword, a cutlass of some kind, and the two blades flashed with magical power. Even their voices rang out in perfect harmony: "Picchi Gemellati!" A blazing fireball from one Souju, and a glittering ball of ice from the other…

"What the-" Black dug her heels into the ground, halting her advance. Instinctively, she raised both fists to deflect the-

The spells were not aimed at her, but at each other…

"Black, look out!"

They collided with a roar, superheated and supercooled air merging together. The resulting explosion ripped through the forest and tossed Black into a tree like a ragdoll, cratering its bark. Everything went silent, save for a high-pitched whine in her ears…

When she came to, White was by her side, helping her up. "Th-thanks…"

White mouthed something that Black couldn't hear in reply.

Scattered fragments of voices from White and the Soujus broke through the whine. Black shook her head and tried to make them out:

"... are you doing this?!" said White, batting aside a volley of flames.

"... nothing personal…" That was Ayase, clearly amused and barely containing her laughter. She paused her attack just long enough to drag her tongue along the blunt edge of her katana. "... not just you, after all~!"

"...ker is the one wants you, we just want your Prism Stones," said Luca as she drove White back with savage blows of her cutlass. "... not the only ones that are going to suffer… join the other Precure soon enough."

It was debatable before, but now Black was sure both twins were insane. As she reentered the fray, Luca's wording stuck in her mind.

Join the other Precure...? What the hell is she talking about?!


-VERTEX THREE: 8.333882^3-

Cinq Lumières

Simultaneously

As much as she loved fairy tales and fables, Nozomi Yumehara had never much cared for the story of Chicken Little as a child. She understood the point, that one shouldn't believe everything they heard, but the idea of the sky falling was so silly that it could never be scary. The sky stayed up, that was just what it did. There wasn't anything up there to fall in the first place, save for rain or snow, or birds, or occasionally parts from passing planes, or shooting stars on summer nights…

How wrong she was. Now the sky was breaking apart, huge pieces of it plummeting down from the heavens and slicing through buildings like knives through butter. The sky was doing things that were impossible, things that the sky simply should not do, and that filled her with a cold, creeping horror that she rarely felt outside of her most vicious battles as Cure Dream.

The sky was falling, in great, vicious, razor-sharp shards like broken glass. And from the dark, gaping, endless holes that the shards left behind, there came the monsters…

They shrieked down to earth like a rainstorm from hell, creatures unlike any that Nightmare or Eternal ever sent after them. Red, gelatinous figures in vaguely feminine shapes that looked horribly like they were made of blood, figures with piercing, unblinking yellow eyes and sharp teeth. They came down connected to the sky holes far above by impossibly long, wide strands that reminded Dream of stretched taffy… when each hit creature the ground, it snapped from its strand and moved immediately to join the others. There were thousands upon thousands of them, so many that their formless lower bodies merged together in one giant mass that flooded entire city blocks below.

Below… Dream shut her eyes tight. She couldn't bear to think about the people below. As they fled, they saw more than one poor civilian being cornered by the blood creatures and dragged down screaming into the oozing depths. Blasting the creatures to free their hostages did next to nothing; the mass simply regenerated their ranks to replace the ones lost, or moved forward to swallow its victims by itself.

Their families, their schoolmates, their homes… all gone, buried in clinging ooze. With the streets filling up by the second, they took the only option available: they fled to the sky. Now, the Precure 5, Milky Rose, and their companion fairies clung desperately to the floor of the carriage on Syrup's back as the penguin-like fairy flew for the city limits as fast as his wings could carry him, swerving and weaving in a dizzying fashion to stay out of the way of the blood creatures and sky shards raining down from the heavens.

Dream's stomach did another lurch as Syrup rolled onto his side, dodging a cluster of knife-like shards. "H-how much farther…?" Her voice was almost lost to the wind lashing her face, but somehow Syrup heard it.

"I can see the city limits, just hang on, ~ropu!" There was a collective groan as Syrup tucked in his wings and dived out of the reach of another dozen dripping hands from the strand nearest them.

From several places behind Dream came a disgusted scream as a hand stretched far from the undulating ribbon of red slime and made a grab for someone's hair. A flash of purple light accompanying the counterattack confirmed that the screamer was Milky Rose, alias Kurumi Mimino in her human form. "Get away from me! Gah, what are these things?! They're disgusting!"

"Rose, keep down! You'll fall if you keep moving like that!" said Cure Aqua, Karen Minazuki, putting an arm around her teammate's shoulder. Ordinarily, the Cure of Intelligence would have a plan, no matter how dire the situation. There was always a plan… but not this time. This time, it was a struggle just to keep moving, let alone think. Her home, and Sakamoto-san, and almost everyone and everything she treasured… it was all buried down below...

Sparks of light flew from two bright, glowing yellow chains, lashing through the hands reaching out to drag them down. "Dream," panted Cure Lemonade, Urara Kasugano, hauling her chains back for another strike. Sweat glistened on their smallest teammate's brow, and even her twin curled pigtails drooped with exhaustion, a far cry from her usual exuberant spirit. "I don't know… how long I can… keep this up…"

"I've got you!" A hand gripped her shoulder tight. "Natts, help me out!" That was Cure Rouge, Rin Natsuki, burning even hotter than usual at being relegated to a supporting role. There was no way she could position herself for a Fire Strike, not with Syrup weaving and swooping around underneath her. If she broke off from the others and used her wings, the blood creatures would be upon her in seconds. Sharing her power with Lemonade was the only way to make herself useful, and the helplessness of being unable to fight ate away at her from within.

Next to her, Natts gritted his teeth, concentrating all of his limited power into the hand that grasped Lemonade's other shoulder. There had been no warning, no time to prepare, no chance to seek refuge in the Cure Rose Garden… one moment, Cinq Lumières was calm and peaceful, and the next, the whole world went mad. All the havoc around them made keeping his human form a terrible strain, but he would hold on… for Rouge's sake. For everyone's sake.

Cure Mint said nothing. Komachi Akimoto, the calm in every storm, crouched low to the floor of the carriage on Syrup's back, storing every iota of her power. She knew with terrible certainty that they would need her shield at any second now, and when they did, she needed herself at one hundred percent.

Coco, the last of their number, had his arms wrapped securely around Dream's waist. As Natts did with Rouge, so he would do with Dream… he suspected that now, as ever, the Precure were the world's only hope. He felt her shift in his arms, and leaned out of the way of her blowing pink hair to shout a question. "Dream, what is it?"

"I think we're almost to the border!" Finally, the glimmer of hope in Dream's heart began to reignite into its usual warm glow. Almost out… they were almost out. Once they escaped this insanity, they could start working on a way to save everyone. There was still a chance… "Full speed ahead, Syrup!"

"You got it!" Syrup tucked in his wings and shot like a bullet for the city limits. Demonic bodies fell like giant, viscous drops of blood all around them, the sky buckled in its death throes as the last remaining loose pieces broke from the whole, but salvation was in sight. He had to make it, he was almost there… the wind screamed in his ears… just a few more meters, and-

A hard, smooth, inflexible wall of nothing at all stopped him dead. The penguin fairy collided with it with the force of an oncoming train, and the sickening sound of his contact reverberated through his body along with firestorms of pain. It was too much, and he was lost to blackness.

The group had no time to even exchange glances before Syrup reverted to his normal, stuffed toy size, leaving them grasping thin air, plummeting to the flooded streets miles below.

Wings! Dream poured all her energy into forming them, her hair blown every which way, Coco's arms slipping away from her waist as they both fell, seized by the wind. She thought she heard the others screaming, but it might have just been the air rushing past her. Wings! Her stomach lurched as G-forces tore at her, she felt Coco lose his grip entirely, leaving her cold without his touch… Wings! Wings wings wings wings! Come on, please…!

Translucent pink light took shape at her back, forming itself into ornate butterfly wings. Flapping with all her might, she managed to slow her fall just slightly. Her eyes streaming, she searched the empty air for Coco, groping blindly for his hand…

A small, furry paw touched hers. Dream reached out and seized it, pulling Coco's smaller fairy form in close to her heart and wrapping her arms around him. Her wings beat the air like mad, but she was still falling much too fast, they barely slowed her at all. If she hit the ground at this speed, Precure or not, it would all be over-

Around her, she faintly made out the shapes of the others, brightly colored meteors roaring toward earth at terminal velocity. Rouge's wings sprouted, then Aqua's, then Rose's, followed by Lemonade's… but Mint was still- "Mint!" Her voice was stolen, scattered in the frightening speed of her descent. "Mint, your wings! Your-"

Mint had no intention of summoning her wings. They were all counting on her, depending on her shield. This was what she had spent the last twenty minutes preparing herself for. She would be that shield, she would pour her whole being into it, to protect her precious friends… "Precure Emerald Saucer!"

Far below, an immense, concave field of cool green energy stretched itself, sweeping over the abandoned buildings, over the flooded streets, over entire city blocks. It flickered under the stress of maintaining itself at such an enormous size, but it held… They would hit the shield instead of the street or the bloody mass, they were saved. Mint smiled to herself, then back up at her friends, a mile above her and spreading their wings wide to catch more air. "I got it," she whispered. "Don't worry." She closed her eyes and demanded the shield to stay in place no matter what, even if she should lose consciousness. She was the team's shield, she couldn't-

"MINT! KOMACHI…!" Aqua howled, stretching her arm as if she could somehow catch hold of her friend so far below them, little more than a shrinking dark green speck of light amid the sea of lighter green energy she held in place for them.

Mint's gamble worked; when the four Cures, Rose, and the fairies slammed into the shield's surface seconds later, it flexed under their weight, its center coming dangerously close to touching the pulsing red ooze below it… but it snapped back into place as if it were made of rubber, and cushioned their fall enough that the sudden stop was hideously painful, but not fatal. The nine figures on its surface, battered but alive, slid safely into unconsciousness as Mint's shield extended itself, doming over them to keep them safe from the deadly rain.


Dream regained her senses to the sound of livid shrieking, of hundreds of clawed fingers sizzling as they scraped at the dome's edges. The small, warm shape nestled in her arms told her that Coco was still with her... passed out, but still all right, thank heaven. Everything was still blurry, but amid the cacophony of the crazed blood creatures, she made out the clashes and exhalations of her comrades in battle.

A dozen cerulean arrows soared past Dream's ears, plunging through Mint's shield and tearing through the mass of writhing shapes plastered against its protective walls. Aqua fought in grim silence, crouched like a sniper over Mint's bloodied body as she shaped streams of water into her next volley.

Komachi… A strange mix of pride and furious anger churned in Aqua's breast. They were all safe, yes, but Mint exerting herself like that could have easily killed her. The least she could do was to protect Mint while she couldn't protect herself… poor, brave, incredibly stupid Mint…

"Precure Fire Strike!" Now that she was back on solid ground, Rouge rejoined the fray with a vengeance. Her legs were a blur of constant motion, launching fireball after fireball into the hordes of monsters and watching eagerly as each one detonated and took a dozen of the awful monsters with it. Natts sat on her shoulder in fairy form, his presence giving strength to her to fire off another round, and another. "Take that, you slimy creeps! Lemonade, you still okay?"

A bright chain carving a swath through half a block of red ooze gave her an answer. "T-tired and s-still sore, but I'll live!" It wasn't exactly true… fighting with just one arm put even more pressure on her than before. But her other arm held the still-unconscious Syrup, whom she would keep safe until her dying breath. "These things… are everywhere!"

"Guys, we have another problem!" The warning shout came from Rose, saving her one attack allotted per transformation for when it really counted. Since she was not directly involved in the fight at the moment, she was in a unique position to see what was going on outside... "They're trying to collapse the dome!"

More and more of the blood creatures piled onto the shield every second. The ones destroyed by the Cures' attacks regenerated from the main mass in seconds, rushing back into place and pushing on the barrier ever harder. The effect was akin to applying slow pressure to an eggshell; little by little, the dome was succumbing to their weight.

Rose tossed off an entirely unladylike curse and rushed to Mint's side and shook her shoulders. "Mint! Wake up! Come on, Mint, we need you to fight with us! Wake up!"

"She can't!" shouted Aqua, falling back and fixing Rose with a deadly glare. "Mint nearly died pulling that stunt, you can't expect her to-"

"I-" Mint stirred, putting a shaky hand to her pale brow. Her fingertips came away painted red, but there was less blood that she thought. "I'm… all right…"

There was no way she could fight in this state, let alone keep her barrier maintained. Only one other option. Rose gripped her teammate's shoulders hard and fixed her with her gaze. "Mint, drop the shield!"

All traces of weakness fled from Mint as that command brought her fully out of her daze. "Wh-what…? You can't mean-"

"Drop the shield," Rose repeated slowly, her eyes boring into Mint's. "I need you to put everything you have left into clearing a path while I use my attack. We're fifty meters from the edge of the city, you can all make it out with one last big push…"

"Rose, no!" came a horrified shout from behind them. Dream heard the plan, and she would have none of it. They had already sacrificed far too much. "We're not leaving anyone behind!"

"You think Mint can hold this up forever?! She's hurt, the Kings need to be taken to safety, and I will not allow you to stay here where those horrible things can capture them!" Milky Rose drew herself up to her full height, stared Dream in the eye, and drew upon all of her famed stubbornness, daring her to argue further. "If Coco-sama or Natts-sama gets hurt while you're dawdling, I'll never forgive you for it!"

"But-"

"Rose, you-"

"Drop the shield, Mint!"

A pained cry bubbled up from inside the green Cure. Now the monsters' pressure on her shield felt like someone tightening a vise on her skull. In a few more seconds, it would come down whether she wanted it to or not. Her lip trembling, tears welling in her eyes, she let it go…

The shield popped like a soap bubble. Nine bodies plummeted once more, and the mass of ooze below sprouted hundreds of arms to catch them and drag them under…

"Let burst the shining rose, and envelop the evil power!" Rose's mirror appeared at her fingertips with her call, its centerpiece a spinning streak of color and light. "MILKY ROSE METAL BLIZZARD!" When a giant metallic rose blossom formed before the mirror, she pointed it not forward as usual, but straight above her head. The blossom split into a storm of a million whirling petals, petals that disintegrated the blood creatures about to fall upon them like living tidal waves, the mass in the street below, and every drop of red slime within a five block radius. "Go! Go, NOW!"

They had no other choice but to run, and run they did. The five Cures bolted for the street leading out of the city the moment their feet touched clear pavement. Rose's hurricane of petals passed through them harmlessly and held back their tormentors by the sheer force of her will.

Tears streamed freely down Lemonade's cheeks. She knew she was a blubbering mess, and she didn't care. Her insides contorted with guilt… how could they just run away while Rose stayed behind?! It wasn't fair, it didn't make sense. There was only one thing to do: save Rose whether she wanted to be saved or not. Wiping her eyes with the back of her hand, she dropped behind the others and summoned her chain. Lemonade turned on her heel, facing the deserted intersection where Rose stood proud in the center of her dwindling storm. "Rose, hang on! I'm-"

She was the only one to see the entirety of what happened next.

When Rose's storm spent itself entirely, the mass of ooze came surging back with a vengeance, geysering from a hundred broken and open windows and forming a ten meter ring that surrounded her. High-pitched giggling burbled from its depths as three dozen of the blood creatures sprouted, bared their fangs, and pounced.

Defiant, Rose charged to meet them with both fists flying, sinking one arm elbow deep into the nearest blood creature before it had even finished solidifying, exploding it from within. A savage swipe of her heel tore the two closing in behind her in half, then she started work on a fourth… which flattened its body into a sheet, caught her arm, and wrapped itself around it, pinning her in place. The others were upon her in an instant, thinning themselves and constricting tight until Rose was little but a squirming mummy, her shape barely defined underneath endless ribbons of slime. Tendrils of it erupted from the main mass, attached to her bindings, hauled her backward, and slammed her hard into the unyielding steel surface of a transformer box, which dented from the blow. The tendrils anchored both her and themselves to the box, and arcs of crackling lightning raced through their lengths. For a split-second, there was a muffled scream of agony heard from Rose-

And the transformer exploded with a mighty, resounding roar, releasing a titanic gout of fire and flashes of electric current into the empty street.

The other Cures turned back, stopping their flight at the sound, but Lemonade stood motionless, shell-shocked and ghostly pale in the glow of the fire, her chain falling abandoned at her feet and vanishing into yellow sparkles as flaming shrapnel rained down around her. Her eyes were wide as saucers, her pupils shrunken. Aware of nothing but the fading heat of the blast and a ringing, high-pitched hum in her ears, she cradled Syrup's sleeping form to her chest without conscious awareness that she was doing so, just to feel his warmth… just to try to dispel the awful cold numbness seeping through her…

"Urara-chan!"

"Lemonade!"

"Come on, you've got to move! Please!"

A chorus of her teammates' voices called her name, but it was as if their voices fell behind an invisible wall just like the one that they slammed into in the sky, faint and indistinct. Her mind refused to accept the horrific reality of what she had just seen, and her body refused to move altogether. She remained perfectly still as the flood of red ooze regenerated itself, rushed forward to fill the street, and swallowed both her and Syrup whole.

"Lemon-" Rouge's voice cut off in a choked sob as her throat squeezed closed, her fists clenching on their own. This can't be happening, it can't it can't it can't be-

"P-PRECURE EMERALD SAUCER!" Ahead of the rest of the group, Mint's attack cry sounded, tremulous and distorted. The new shield that formed before her pulsed outward into a piercing beam of green light, carving a path through the remaining ooze that had consumed the street leading out of Cinq Lumières. The others passed by as she stayed in place, keeping the beam maintained, giving them a way out… a way out that Rose, Lemonade, and Syrup no longer had… Aqua met her gaze as she ran, those normally peaceful, quiet blue eyes awash in terror, grief, and confusion. She slowed, made as if to turn around-

"No! Karen, no! Not you too!" A nearly hysterical Dream hauled Aqua forward by the crook of her elbow. She hugged Coco tight, passed him into the other Cure's arms, and crossed her arms over her chest… "I'll stop it, I'll get them back! PRECURE…"

Rouge was almost to the city limit when she noticed that none of the others were following. "Guys, come on! You can't-"

And Natts spoke from her shoulder: "Rouge, look out!"

The street descended into chaos as a number of events happened at once.

Six demons leaped from a second tidal wave of ooze, coursing toward them from the left. Rouge put herself at full burn, fire erupting from every inch of her body. She met the monsters that had taken her friends with a scream of rage, Natts screaming along with her, and incinerated the first and second of them before the rest pressed themselves tight to her, smothered her flames, crushed Natts against her shoulder, muffled her cries of warning to her friends, and dragged her into the wake.

"... SHOOTING STAR!" Dream took off, transforming herself into a blazing pink comet. It blew past Mint and into the first wave, the one that had swallowed Urara and Syrup. Her charge was slowed by the viscous fluid, but she plowed through it regardless, releasing a spherical aurora of radiant purification energy into the heart of its being. Slowly at first, then faster and faster, the mass began to dissolve outward from where she hovered, a thousand points of starlight glittering in its depths as the effect spread.

Aqua ran desperately for Mint, taking her hand as the green Cure's beam thinned and faded. She stumbled forward, her consciousness fading in and out, barely able to stand, so Aqua tucked her fairy charge under her arm and hauled her friend onto her back, making for the border. Dream's doing it, she's doing it. She's purifying it, she's the strongest of all of us. We'll get Urara and Rin and Natts and Syrup back, and-

And Kurumi will still be-

Still be-

"Hmmm…" A high-pitched voice washed over them, faintly if politely amused. "A valiant effort against the Daimon, to be sure. I commend you, Precure."

The three remaining Cures froze. That voice… they knew that voice…

Cure Dream strained, pouring her energy into keeping the ripple effect of her attack spreading through the mass. She now stood in a circular clear patch amid the sea of Daimon ooze… a sea that now fought back, resisting her power, slowing its advance. "No… c-can't be…"

From the side of a tilting, ruined building that loomed over one side of the street, a shape emerged from the slime that blanketed it. A human shape, but not one of the gelatinous feminine creatures the voice called "Daimon"... it was the head and upper torso of a man in a business suit, with dark green hair slicked and parted meticulously to one side. His face was angular and sickly pale, his eyes were mere slits, and he wore a sick, smug, reptilian smile. The man jutted perfectly sideways out of the ooze, at odds with both the angle of the tilting building and gravity in general. He adjusted his tie, the picture of oily calm, and looked down upon the Precure, the corners of his mouth sliding upward.

"Kawarino," moaned Dream, her control of her power faltering at the impossible sight of Nightmare's most feared soldier. Her knees buckled in terror, a freezing sensation gripped her spine. "You… it can't be… y-you were-"

"Dead?" One of those slanted eyes opened very slightly, revealing a slitted, lizard-like pupil. "So is your friend Rose, but if you'll pardon my saying so, I at least bothered to come back."

Something snapped inside Aqua. An immense arrow formed itself from water, created purely from her righteous fury without even being invoked as an attack, and with a thought she hurled it up at Kawarino. The arrow plunged straight through his body and out the other side, leaving a gaping hole in his chest…

… which filled itself back in with the Daimon ooze that so horribly resembled blood, leaving him unmarred. Not so much as a thread of his suit was out of place. Adjusting his tie again, he tutted in her direction. "Temper, temper, Cure Aqua. We simply cannot have that. Really, and you called yourself the intelligent one. A misnomer, if I may be so bold..."

"Y-you…" Mint climbed off of Aqua's back and rose unsteadily to her feet. "You will return our precious friends! We'll stop you, and-"

Kawarino's smirk grew more smug than ever. "What an appalling lack of manners." He snapped his fingers-

Cure Mint only had time to gasp as four sheets of Daimon ooze rose up from the cracked pavement beneath her. Like flower petals closing for the night, they snapped shut, sealed themselves tight and seamless, and shrank back down, and she was gone.

Aqua made a sound then, a horrible sound of loss, as she sank down to the street, clawing at the asphalt as if she could peel it away and find her best friend waiting underneath.

"Aqua…!" Her vision blurred with tears, Dream stumbled forward, crossing her arms again. "Aqua, I'm coming… P-Precure…"

As the butterflies on Dream's gauntlets began to glow, the tide of Daimon mass that she had managed to hold back roared back to life. This time it fell upon her in a rush, all at once, enormous pressure bearing down on her from all sides, she couldn't breathe… Visible from the outside, the light of her power flickered and went out as the Daimon claimed her.

Now Aqua was alone, with only small, helpless Coco in her arms, staring up at her team's greatest enemy as the tide crept inexorably closer and closer to her. She stared up at her greatest enemy, weary from shock and unquestionably beaten, but unwilling to give him the satisfaction of her surrender. "Why…? N-Nightmare is gone, wh-why would you-"

"Nightmare is gone," said Kawarino, his voice as calm as the surface of a lake. "However, if you'll pardon the play on words… Dead End is eternal."

The words send a frisson through Aqua that she couldn't explain. "'Dead... End?'"

Both of Kawarino's slitted eyes opened. His stare fixed her to the spot. That horrible smile of his spread into a manic grin that was totally unlike him, and somehow even worse… "No need to worry," he said. "You shall join your friends… minus Rose, of course… on the Merry-Go-Round shortly." He snapped his fingers again.

Hundreds of Daimon burst from every window, every door, every storefront, every surface covered by the mass that had consumed the city. All converged on Aqua, and their greedy, dripping claws were the last things she saw of the world before they dragged her down, down, into endless swirling redness...


-VERTEX THREE: 8.333882^5-

Kibougahana

Simultaneously

Market Square was in shambles. Sand was everywhere, blowing in every direction and scouring every surface with countless minuscule grains. There seemed to be no set source for it all; the sandstorm simply was, a snarling presence that showed no signs of blowing out.

In the center of the storm, three Precure battled valiantly, one pink, one blue, one yellow. Back-to-back-to-back with each other, the blinding onslaught of the storm meant that they were reduced to waiting for their assailants to emerge from the shrieking winds, screeching and clawing for their throats.

Yet another of the dark, spindly creatures did just that, only to meet the heel of a blue and white boot. The first hit cracked what passed for its skull, right above the black, downward-pointing crescent moon mark on its forehead. The second reduced it to a lifeless pile of the sand from which it came, the grains blowing away and becoming lost in the maelstrom. Cure Marine snarled in frustration and rubbed sand out of her eyes yet again, not that it helped much. "This sucks!" shouted Erika Kurumi to no one in particular… she had to raise her voice to be heard over the combined racket of the storm and the howling of the monsters, but raising her voice came almost as naturally as breathing to her. In sharp contrast to the water that was her signature Cure element, Erika was prone to erupting into fits of screaming, blazing passion, whether it be in battle as Cure Marine or at a meeting of her school's beloved Fashion Club. Normally, she relished the chance to get out and bust the heads of a few monsters, but when the monsters kept coming and coming and coming, and with this blasted storm pinning her down… "At least the Sunakiis usually fought fair! What are these damned things, anyway?!"

"Trouble! Isn't that enough?!" Cure Sunshine grunted a kiai and performed an expert judo flip to the next attacker, sending it sailing into the dusty air. Her fist connected with it as it fell back down, disintegrating it and showering the group with yet more sand. Grimacing, Itsuki Myoudouin shook her twin blonde pigtails, settled back into her stance, and spat out a few more grains. "They're not cute like the Sunakiis were, either…"

Marine paused in her search through the whirlwind long enough to goggle at her teammate in bug-eyed disbelief. "You thought those things were cute?!"

"Well, not when they were trying to kill us, but-"

"Incoming!" The shout came from the team leader, Cure Blossom. The next one emerged a meter above them, in what was either an attempt to take them off guard or a suicide attack. Tsubomi Hanasaki intended to make it the latter. Raising her hand, she let out an attack cry: "Blossom Impact…!" Her long pink ponytail blew straight back with recoil as concentrated energy burst from her palm and pierced a hole through the monster, which screeched as its body crumbled to rejoin the storm. "Everyone, we must stay focused! If there's a new enemy controlling these things-"

"Yeah, yeah," Marine growled, slamming another foe into the pavement with an overhead strike. "We find it and kick its sorry butt!"

"What I don't get- hah!" Sunshine's double-palm thrust sent another one backwards into the next one fast approaching behind it. "- is why they're bothering at all! These things fall apart with one good hit, and the storm… it's annoying, but it's not really hurting us! All it's doing is keeping us pinned down…"

"You're the leader, Blossom," said Marine, taking a brief respite to clasp her friend's shoulder. "What's the plan? Wait for Moonlight?"

"We're all tired, and we can't keep doing this all night," said Blossom, shielding her eyes with one hand and searching the area above them. "As for Moonlight, either she can't reach us in here, or something's keeping her from coming... On the count of three, let's all jump as high as we can! We might be able to clear the storm and blow it away from the outside!"

"Roger!"

"Got it!"

"One… two… three! Go!" All three Cures crouched low to the ground. As if they were waiting for this moment, a dozen of the spindly creatures streamed out of the storm, folding their long, thin finger-claws into makeshift fists that rained hammer blows down on them… They fell like dominoes seconds later when the Heartcatch Cures sprung straight up with a force that cracked the pavement they stood on. Up, and up, and up, through the seemingly endless swirling sand, until… Blossom let out a joyous sound of relief. Just for a moment, there was a patch of night sky visible above them. "It's working! We're almost out!"

They burst from the storm in a cloud of fine grains, into blessedly clear night air. Now that she could see properly again, not to mention breathe, Blossom looked back down, blinking rapidly to clear her eyes of the remnants. As she suspected, the storm was hardly natural. It was concentrated in a tight ten-meter radius, and circling the outer rim of the sand cloud was-

Marine stared. "What the heck is that?!"

It was a lean, serpentine shape of solidified sand the thickness of a tree trunk, so long that it could almost catch its own tail with its feverish spinning. Beyond that, it was moving much too fast to make out any clear details. It didn't matter; as the height of her jump leveled off and she began to fall back down, Blossom watched it carefully, tracking its movements and watching it spin in place for a few seconds. When the thicker, pointed end that she surmised was the head next came into her sight, she cupped her hands together… "Blossom Tornado!"

The cloud below was met by a raging whirlwind of cherry petals. The hot, dry air of the sandstorm and the cool wind of her attack collided, resulting in a small but intense localized storm front. With nowhere else to go, the sandstorm tore itself apart, laying the serpent within it bare. Breaking out of its circuit, it let out an oddly human cry and streamed up to meet them, forming a pair of fanged jaws that opened wide enough that it could swallow them all whole.

"Nice tactic, Blossom!" Marine flashed a wink, a smile, and a thumbs-up. She then turned to her teammate in yellow and clasped her hand as they both fell toward the serpent's waiting mouth. "Sunshine, with me!"

"Right!" With that, Sunshine slapped the teal heart in the center of the brooch she wore on her chest. "Shiny Tambourine!" Her unique weapon leaped to her free hand in a golden flash, a sunflower-shaped disc.

Likewise, Marine pressed her palm to her own uniform's heart. "Marine Tact!" Her weapon, a wand-like instrument with a blue crystal tip, materialized with a spray of bubbles and clear water vapor.

Two voices harmonized as a mixed golden and blue glow shone from the falling Cures' bodies. "Precure Floral Power Fortissimo!" Together, they formed a heart-shaped meteor of light that dove straight down the throat of the serpent. Its body lit up like a fireworks display from within… and an instant later, it exploded into countless tiny particles.

The heart meteor came to a halt an inch above the pavement, and Marine and Sunshine split apart, touching down easily.

Exhilarated and riding high with the giddiness of victory, Marine offered her teammate an exuberant high-five, and their hands connected with an echoing slap. "That was awesome! Why don't we do that more often?"

"I guess there's not that much call for it these days," said Sunshine, smiling gently. "Um, Marine?"

"I got her, I got her!" She too had noticed the sound: an escalating wail, as someone dropped like a stone from far above them. Marine looked up, took a few steps to the side, and spread her arms… and Blossom fell neatly into her embrace, shaking like a leaf. "Still got that fear of heights, huh? I thought you'd be over that by now," she said, unable to suppress a grin.

"I haven't!" squawked Blossom as she held onto Marine for dear life, her face bright as a cherry… how appropriate. "Marine, you know you can't just leave me up there while you do a finisher! At least give me a little warning next time!"

"Sorry, sorry! Here, it's okay now… oof, you don't have to hug me so hard!"

"Guys?" said Itsuki next to them.

"Ow! Come on, Blossom, save that for later! You're crushing me!"

"Kya! I'm so sorry!"

"Silly, you don't need to bow to me, what are you doing?"

"Sorry!"

"Guys?" said Sunshine, more urgently this time. "Look up…"

They did, and all levity was swiftly forgotten.

The last vestiges of the sandstorm were gathering, coalescing at a particular spot on one of Market Square's rooftops. The swirls were drawn into a simple card, a little taller than the ones used for poker or Old Maid, colored pitch black. And holding onto that card, watching them impassively…

"No," moaned Blossom. Bands of fear gripped her heart like freezing iron, and squeezed...

Standing atop the roof and glaring down at them was Cure Moonlight, their missing teammate. Almost all the color was bleached from her hair, eyes, skin, and uniform, as if she were an old, faded photograph. Her shades of grey and sickly violet looked all the more ghastly in the glow of the half-moon high above… it was as if they were looking at their friend's exhumed corpse. But surely a corpse would lack eyes like hers, eyes alight with freezing, pale, malevolent fire, devoid of warmth or recognition…

Marine's knees buckled under that stare, threatening to give out altogether. Now it was her turn to cling to Blossom. "M-Moonlight…?" she whispered. "Yuri-san…?"

Next to them, Sunshine looked up in appalled silence.

Moonlight turned, dismissing the black card with a wave of her hand. It was only then that they saw the figure standing back-to-back with her… dressed in black and just as pale as her sister, but her eyes shone eerie gold, even in the darkness. Two tattered, bat-like wings extended from her back, shrouding Moonlight in shadow as she spoke.

"Onee-sama cannot hear you," said Dark Precure, "All she can hear now is the voice of Dead End. All Precure in every world shall either help our cause as my sister has… or suffer for eternity."

Four pairs of eyes stared at the two sisters in white and black, a living yin-yang… Three Cures watching in stupefied horror from below in the square, and one little girl on an adjacent rooftop, unseen by all.

The unseen little stranger regarded the scene not with shock or fear, but with deep, weary sadness in her beautiful red eyes. Here, too, as so many other worlds, it was all going wrong… An ominous, unnatural wind blew through the little girl's long curtain of blonde hair, ruffling the twin dark turquoise ribbons tied in it, and swirling the skirt of her simple green dress around her knees. Despite all her power, she had once again arrived too late... Too late to thwart Dead End, too late to save Cure Moonlight, and likely too late to save this place. All that she could do now was take the survivors to the Lighthouse… provided that there were survivors...

There will be, said a strong, guiding voice like a glimmer of steel in the little stranger's mind, refusing to contemplate otherwise. Gather whoever you can, and show them the way. I'm counting on you, little one.

The little stranger nodded. She would do her best… it was all she could do.

END OF CHAPTER 9

Chapter Text

CHAPTER 10: Fall and Rise

-VERTEX THREE: 8.333882^1-

Wakabadai

Simultaneously

Downtown Wakabadai was a warzone. Some minutes ago, the fight between Cure Black and White and the Souju twins spilled out of the old pine forest, despite the Precure's efforts to contain it. Of the few civilians left who had not evacuated the area, many were crouched inside buildings, heads down, too terrified to move… and many were simply unable to flee at all. The Soujus attacked indiscriminately; anyone or anything that got in their way was a target. Many streets were now lined with businessmen, shoppers, mothers and children, all manner of people, trapped and helpless inside bitter cold sheets of ice… perhaps alive, perhaps not. With others, the far less fortunate ones, there was no question: bodies charred black, or lying in pools of blood with holes through them, or in some cases, both… The buildings shuddered around them with the exchange of superpowered blows and bursts of magic. A broken fire hydrant spouted a geyser of water three meters high onto nothing at all, its random spray doing nothing to quench the random flames that licked over storefronts and sidewalks. Deep fissures ran the length of the street, and there were places where the asphalt was torn up enough to see bare, scarred earth underneath.

By this point, it was clear that unlike their battles against Dusk Zone, the Soujus didn't bother creating some strange "otherspace" to fight in without interference. Whether that was because they couldn't, because they simply didn't care, or some combination of both, was anyone's guess.

To Cure Black, it looked increasingly like the second of those options; the concept of a fair fight didn't seem to occur to either Souju. The one in white laughed like mad, flinging fireballs left and right with no regard to where they landed or what damage they did, and from what little she saw of the red one out of the corner of her eye, she was quieter but no less willing to take any cheap advantage she could find.

Black was used to her punches landing like lightning bolts, to the strength of her Cure form overwhelming any enemy so long as she fought long enough and hard enough. Now, though she whaled on Ayase every time she was in reach, it seemed she never hurt, never tired, barely even slowed down.

I don't believe this! thought Black as she skidded backward, a burning volley streaking over her where her head had been mere seconds before. What are these guys?! They're taking everything we throw at them, it's like they don't even care- Interrupting that thought, a shiny red compact car came hurtling through space like a missile, right at her head. "Crap!" Black held out her hands and somehow managed to catch the front bumper. Digging her heels into the smashed concrete, she somehow managed to stop the car's inertia and hold the car aloft above the ground. Her fingers gouged dents the silver chrome… it was too heavy to hold onto for more than a few seconds. Hope this thing's owner has a really, really good insurance policy! Sorry, whoever you are… It was dark humor, but it was all that kept Black from losing herself to blind rage. This time, civilians weren't just in danger, they were being killed… People were being murdered in cold blood by these lunatics for no reason at all, and there was nothing either she or Cure White could do, except try to stop them, try to keep them from hurting anyone else. They had to finish this, and fast...

"Catch~!" called Ayase from a block away. With a shriek of demented laughter, she tossed off another fireball at a low angle.

Doesn't make sense, what's she aiming at? That won't hit anything but- It was then that Black noticed the smell. That heavy, oily, smoky smell… She spared a brief glance around the edge of the fender, and saw a trickle of amber liquid leaking from the car's undercarriage, spreading in a pool beneath it. Oh crap oh crap oh crap!

There was no saving the car. She dropped it as if she had already been burned, felt the reverberations of two tons of metal, rubber, and plastic as they hit the wrecked sidewalk, went into a frantic diving roll to her right…

An instant later, she would have been dead, transformed or not. The resulting fireball reddened the skin on the back of her neck and charred her hair even in Cure form, and the shockwave grasped her like the hand of a god and hurled her into the side of a building clear across the street. A hailstorm of shrapnel riddled her back, pinging off her armor and her hardened skin, and she was once again deafened by the thunderclap of the car's destruction.


"Black…!" Cure White's battle with Luca had taken to the rooftops, but that explosion could have been heard from blocks away. Much as it hurt, there was no time to go down there and come to her aid… all her focus was on the Souju twin slashing away at her with her freezing cutlass.

"Where are you looking?" The curving, razor-sharp edge of Luca's weapon bit relentlessly at White's forearms, held up in an X-shape to protect her face. "Aren't you supposed to be a legendary warrior? Focus on me, on our fight, not theirs!"

"Nnngh…!" This was bad, this was very bad. Thank heaven that her transformation made both her uniform and her skin stronger than steel… White couldn't believe anyone could fight so savagely, with such cruelty. Even the Dusk Zone commanders, even the Dark King himself never acted like this.

Dodging and weaving left and right, White knew that Luca was driving her backward, that the egress structure directly behind them had a high-walled corner, and that if she got cornered there, she was done for. It was so hard to think... images of Hikari and Hikaru, and all those people the Soujus had hurt or killed kept intruding into her mind, disrupting her attempts to focus…

An opening. Luca raised her cutlass high and brought it thundering down, attempting a brutal overhead strike. Inches before it struck her skull, White moved, bringing both hands together to clap against both sides of the blade, stopping it dead. She let out a pained cry; a burning sensation spread from her fingertips down to her palms as ice crystals crawled over them, but she held on, took a wide stance, shifted her weight, and sharply tilted both hands at once.

A furious curse from Luca and a sharp, ringing snap that echoed off the walls of the egress accompanied the breaking of the blade. She let go of the hilt and stepped backward.

That was all White needed. The ice made a musical sound and shattered as she flexed and tossed the shorn end aside. An acrobatic forward flip brought her into a handspring, and she twisted off it into her signature hurricane kick. Crack, crack! Her heels struck Luca in the face, one after the other with a sound that even White, gentle as she normally was, had to admit was a little satisfying.

"You bitch!" Luca staggered backward, spitting out blood and tiny fragments of teeth. Now, visibly angered, with her eyes ablaze with pain and snarling like an animal, she even more resembled her twin. Her ruined cutlass lay abandoned at her feet. Snatching it up, she took another few steps back. "I'll get you for tha-"

One too many steps. White had barely righted herself when she saw Luca tip back and vanish over the edge of the roof with a scream…

No! She acted without thought, without logic. Totally unlike her. Sprinting forward as fast as her feet could take her, she leaned over the ledge and extended her hand, snatching for the other girl.

Another hand grasped hers tight, and there was a wrenching sensation on her arm. "H-hang on… g-grab on with your other hand…!" White groaned, bracing herself against the ledge wall to-

That was when she heard the chuckle.

Luca's weight shifted, there was a brief flash of light, and White heard her speak a single word: "POWER."

Before she knew what was happening, White's feet left the ground. With sudden, monstrous strength, Luca hauled her over the edge one-armed, and sent her sailing off the roof into empty space.


-VERTEX THREE: 8.333882^8-

Oogai

Simultaneously

Dark energy coursed through the blade, less than an inch from Makoto Kenzaki's chest. Her fingertips sizzled from that energy, as if the glowing metal were coated in acid. She had a tight grip on it now, but it was slipping through her fingers, pushing down toward the heart-shaped brooch she wore on her Cure Sword uniform, inch by a fraction of an inch…

The wielder of the blade was someone who could not, should not exist. Yet exist she did… one moment, she, Mana, Rikka, and Regina were leaving school, running to meet little Aguri at the gate, and then-

Then the world twisted out of place around them. When reality snapped back into place, Regina and Aguri were both gone, vanished into thin air. In their place was a ghost from the past, a young woman with a long cascade of wavy pink hair, resplendent in a blue and white gown… a woman who looked, sounded, and even smelled like the Card Kingdom's beloved, departed Princess Marie Ange…

Makoto had stopped dead in her tracks, torn between helpless confusion and joy, joy at seeing her dear princess once again, months after giving up, after moving on, after mourning her memory and putting her to rest… Impossible joy filled her heart to see that face again.

That joy lasted until Marie Ange summoned the Miracle Dragon Glaive to her hand, brandished it… and sank its blade into Mana's chest. Mana had no time to speak, to transform, to do anything. As Makoto and Rikka watched, stupefied, the end of the glave emerged bloodlessly from Mana's back as if she were made from ether, with something painfully bright like a miniature sun balanced on its tip. They had no time to look at it before Marie snatched the bright thing up, retracted her glaive, and let Mana's motionless body fall to the pavement in a heap.

The battle began then, a brutal, vicious clash against a foe that neither of them were prepared to face. Marie Ange was the one who taught Makoto all she knew about fighting; every one of her strikes was blocked or parried, and every magic attack was either deflected harmlessly or simply sliced in half by the glaive's blade. This was the woman who singlehandedly took on an army of Jikochuu during the invasion of her kingdom, and should have won...

As the battle spilled out into the street bordering Oogai Middle School, Alice Yotsuba arrived in a limo driven by her faithful butler, Sebastian… Without even asking what was happening, the young heiress sprung out of its door, drew her Commune, and transformed into Cure Rosetta, casting a shield over them as she always did. Taking charge of the team, she demanded to know who their attacker was, and what she had done to poor Mana…

"You will know soon enough," was all Marie said. Rosetta held on as long as she could, but the glaive was too much for even her shield… She was its next victim, it took one of those bright things from her just as it had Mana. Now she lay blank-eyed and staring up at the evening sky, a broken doll.

Rikka had snapped then. The sight of two of her best friends vanishing before her eyes and two more being… if not killed, then something close to it… pushed her into a frenzy unlike anything Makoto had ever seen. As Cure Diamond, she normally fought with grace and elegance, always composed, always thinking. Against Marie, she fought in a berserker rage of grief and agony… one that made her easy prey, the next to fall.

And now, it was only Makoto and Marie, the Card Kingdom princess and Cure Sword, her sworn protector. The teacher pinned her former student with contemptuous ease, and now closed in for the kill.

"You disappoint me, Sword," said Marie, her lips curling into a smile. She pushed down on the glaive, and it dropped another millimeter. "Remember? We used to spar all the time in the old days, and you never held back."

"P-Princess…" Sword gasped. Her fingers burned… she would have to let go soon, but she couldn't let go… Mana, Rikka, Alice, Aguri, and Regina depended on her. The people of Oogai, those whom she had come to love, depended on her. This land, this country, her adopted homeworld, all depended on her. She couldn't let herself be defeated. She couldn't fail. Not again… "Please, stop!"

"If you had only been faster," whispered Marie, leaning on the blunt end of the weapon, slowly putting more of her weight onto it. "If you had only been strong enough to save me, to save the kingdom… all this would never have happened."

"You…" The word escaped Sword in a pained moan. "You c-can't be- You're not the princess! The real princess, the princess I loved... would never s-say things like that! S-she would never-"

"Perhaps you never knew me as well as you thought, Sword," said Marie coolly.

Cure Sword's heart broke… almost in the same instant that the glaive pierced her brooch and touched bare skin underneath. Something was wrenched out of her, she felt it tear loose, but there was no pain, only sorrow and numbness, as everything went black…


-VERTEX THREE: 8.333882^1-

Wakabadai

Simultaneously

"C'mon, wake up."

Black groaned and blinked as the world slid back into focus. The mocking words somehow broke through that blasted ringing in her ears. There was someone pulling on her hair, hard enough to bring tears to her eyes… She made a weak attempt to swat whoever it was away, but they grasped her by the wrist and twisted her arm behind her back in a submission hold with monstrous strength.

"Nuh-uh, stay right there~! We're not done playing yet."

Something thudded against the broken asphalt a few feet ahead of them. It looked like a black and white blur…

Everything rushed back, a tide of information flooding her brain. "White! HONOKA!"

Her partner lay motionless, her long black hair spread over her like a blanket.

"How dare you-" Black gritted her teeth and strained, flailing with her free arm, stretching it out toward her fallen partner. The second she was free, she would pound these two monsters into the ground-

"Caso Freddo." Luca spoke those words, and Black lost all feeling in her arm, save for a burning, prickling sensation… then numbness. The sensation grew from her shoulder across her chest, down the other arm as Ayase released it, over her belly and raced to her thighs, her legs… She was frozen from the neck down, locked in a kneeling position and covered in ice far too cold to be normal. All the warmth seeped from her body, and the horrid, unnatural chill sunk into her bones. "N-no, s-stop it! H-H-H-Honoka…! W-wake up, please…" Black strained, flexing her muscles and calling on all the strength her tired, beaten body could give, but the ice seemed to sap her strength as well as her warmth. Immobilized, she tossed her head back and forth in denial. This couldn't be happening. If she could just get to Honoka's side and see her open her eyes, everything would be all right…

But it's not, said something in the back of her mind, a voice that didn't sound like hers.

It's not, it said. It's all gone wrong…

"So what do you think?" Ayase said to her twin, coming around to stand at her side. She put a finger to her lips in a childish manner… the sight turned Black's stomach. "First one, then the other, or both at once?"

Luca's voice was cold as the steel of her ruined cutlass as she rubbed her injured cheek. "The white one first. That spin kick hurt…"

"Silly, you know you can fix it with a simple spell."

"The pain isn't the point. The point is that she hit me at all. I even had to use one of those stupid cards to beat her. I owe her for spoiling our fun."

"You mean your fun. I had fun with mine…"

"Stay away from her!" Black bellowed. Her mind raced at a million miles a second. There had to be some way out of this. There always was. Something she hadn't tried, some new attack she hadn't discovered. Maybe if she tried hard enough, she could melt the damned ice with heat vision or something. If she believed in herself, if she tried hard enough-

White stirred. Thank God, she was still alive. Her movements sluggish, she turned herself over and peered at Black through half-lidded eyes. A smile played at her lips as she reached for Black's frozen, outstretched hand. "Na… gisa…"

A surge of hope ignited a flame in Black's chest, so hot that it should have melted the ice that held her in an instant. "Honoka! It's gonna be okay, I'll be right there-"

The Souju twins paid little attention... they were just staring at each other, not even speaking. They thought they had already beaten the Precure, but they didn't know. They didn't know. By some miracle, they didn't know that all it would take to turn the tide was the two of them holding hands.

Their eyes met, and White smiled… she knew exactly what Black had in mind, as she always did. Closer and closer, their fingertips were inches from each other.

Luca frowned.

And with a sigh that sounded almost bored, Ayase turned and sank her fist deep into White's back.

A soft gasp was the only sound Cure White made as her pupils shrank to pinpricks.

In contrast, Black's scream echoed long and loud off the walls of Wakabadai's empty buildings…

"It's what Master Joker wants," Ayase griped, digging around in search of her target. She was oblivious to both Black's cry of despair and the agonized writhing of the body underneath her. "You know he'll be pissed if we don't bring them back…"

"I'll bring this one back," said Luca, stomping forward. "I want to put her on the Merry-Go-Round myself after that stunt of hers. Here, let me do it." She shoved her twin aside, plunged her hand into White's body, and after a moment pulled something out… something so bright it was painful to look at, like a miniature sun...

The moment it left her body, the light faded from White's eyes, and she went limp.

Black went silent, her face turning ashen as tears rolled down her cheeks, hardening into beads like diamonds as they touched her frozen bonds. They killed Honoka.

They… they killed Honoka…

They killed… my best friend…

Luca tossed White's body over her shoulder like a sack of flour, turned around… and with one hand she tore a hole in the air as if it was made of paper. Within that tear, there was nothing but inky darkness. "Don't be long," she said to her twin without looking back. "The others are waiting."

"Be right theeeere~," said Ayase in singsong, waving her goodbye.

"No," said Black, her voice hoarse with grief, shivering from a cold that far deeper than that of the ice. "N-no… b-bring Honoka back… Don't-"

Luca walked through the tear with her prize, and the hole sealed itself shut behind her as if it were never there.

"And now it's just you and me, Nagisa-chan!" Ayase purred, drawing close. In a sick mockery of tenderness, she traced a fingertip down Black's jawline and under her chin. "Luca's no fun, is she? All gloomy, all business. She didn't even take time to play with Honoka-chan before she took her Cosmos Seed." Her face fell into an exaggerated pout, a poor imitation her twin. "I'm Luca, and I'm a great big stick in the mud," she said in a lower tone. "Sometimes having a partner is more trouble than it's worth, am I right?"

The ice cracked, then exploded from Black's body in a hail of freezing shards, propelled by the force of an immense, seething battle aura. Trembling with rage, her eyes shadowed by her bangs, she clenched both fists and whispered a word that dripped with purest hatred. "You…"

"Oh, goody!" said Ayase, leaping backward and clapping her hands. "You wanna play some more after all! How about if we erk-"

A hand closed around her neck and squeezed, cutting her off. "I'm… gonna… make… you… pay…"

Bizarrely, Ayase giggled. Her voice was strained, and very small. "... didn't think… you still had fight in you… Nagisa-cha-"

She was hurled like a fastball from a champion pitcher, sending her face-first into a brick wall with a sickening crunch. It crumbled and collapsed under her weight, pieces of loose brick raining down on her.

Black didn't bother waiting for her to get back up. She charged for the ruined wall, roaring at the top of her lungs...


-VERTEX THREE: 8.333882^4-

Yotsuba

Simultaneously

Cure Peach couldn't bear it.

Not the countless cables extended from the strange wheel-shaped machines, wrapped around herself and her teammates, constricting tighter every second. Not the constant flow of electricity coursing from those cables through her body. Not the strange energy that the wheel machines projected, which made their strongest attacks glance off of them like gentle breezes. And not the knowledge that Berry and Pine, bound alongside her, had already passed out from pain and exhaustion, leaving her alone…

Above all, what she couldn't bear was that the one directing these things, the one that had attacked them… was once her teammate, Setsuna Higashi, Cure Passion. More than just a teammate, Setsuna was Peach's adopted sister… After all the time they had spent apart, all the work she had done to rebuild Labyrinth, her homeworld… to meet again like this…

"S-S-Secchan…" moaned Peach, fighting to hold onto consciousness. The current raged through her, leaving every muscle numb… "P-p-p-please… s-stop…"

The young woman once known as Setsuna Higashi glared at her coldly. Only she wasn't Setsuna, not anymore… she was dressed all in black and red, her hair silver, her crimson eyes empty of feeling. "That's not my name, Love," she said. "I am Eas, denizen of Labyrinth. The 'Setsuna' you thought you knew was a lie."

"... n-n-not t-true…!" Peach strained, and the cables crushed her chest, driving air from her lungs. "Y-y-you're a P-P-Precure… o-o-one of us…! Y-you f-fought with us! S-S-Secchan… you c-can't-"

"You're wrong." Eas turned away from her. "My mission, my purpose, has always been to make Labyrinth strong. In order for that to happen, you and all the others like you…"


-VERTEX THREE: 8.333882^6-

Kanon Town

Simultaneously

"... must be eliminated."

Hibiki Hojo, Cure Melody, couldn't hear her. All she heard was the deafening drone of the Melody of Sorrow, pumped constantly into her skull by the little black stone shells attached over each ear. That sound assaulted her every nerve, bored into her brain and tried to corrupt her from the inside out… but she couldn't give in, not yet… because her friend was-

Yellow eyes glared down at her with no trace of pity. She was once Ellen Kurokawa, Cure Beat… but the silver charm around her neck signified her return to her old form, the shapeshifter called Siren… the form that was supposed to be gone forever.

Melody screamed, and couldn't hear herself. Darkness swirled inside her, creeping in from the edges of her vision in tiny branching tendrils. How, why had this happened…? It was all supposed to be over, Ellen was their friend now, this couldn't be true...

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw little Cure Muse drop to one knee, and fall forward onto the pavement, her long, fiery hair spreading over her like a quilt. Ako! Yet again, she tore at the shells, if she could just take them off long enough to take Rhythm's hand and focus, they could set everything right again... couldn't they?

As that thought struggled through the cacophony, on her other side Rhythm's green eyes went blank. The Melody of Sorrow had claimed her too… she sagged like a puppet with cut strings, all the life and color draining from her face.

Melody was alone… alone and helpless at the feet of someone she had considered a trusted friend and comrade. Why, she mouthed to Siren, clinging to her leg, beseeching her to remember her humanity.

If Siren gave her an answer, she couldn't hear it; all she could hear was that awful noise… the noise that finally breached her last defenses and darkened her heart. She was unconscious before she hit the ground.


-VERTEX THREE: 8.333882^2-

Yuunagi

Simultaneously

Towering flames reflected in Cure Bloom's eyes, wide with disbelief. "No," she whispered. "No..."

The Sky Tree, the great and ancient tree atop the mountain, the one that connected the human world to the Land of Fountains, was burning. Its vast branches, under which she and her best friends shared food, played games, and slept on hot summer days… they withered and blackened consumed by the flames, and the sight tore at Bloom's heart. She could almost hear the tree screaming.

Half an hour ago, she was awakened by the sound of sirens, and the rumbling roar of every fire engine in Yuunagi screaming past her window on their way up the mountain. An inexplicable tightness gripped her stomach as she kicked off her covers, ran to the window, and threw her curtains open…

"Saki-onee-chan," said her little sister Minori, stumbling out of her own bed and scrubbing sleep from her eyes, "what's the matter? What's all the noise abo-"

She saw, just as Saki did: the Sky Tree set ablaze like an enormous torch, giving off great black clouds of smoke that blotted out Yuunagi's clear night sky.

Saki didn't remember what she said to Minori and her parents, what excuse she gave them… it didn't matter. She roused Flappy from sleep, stuffed her fairy partner into the breast pocket of her pajamas, and ran to meet the others.

And of course, on the way up the mountain she ran into Mai Mishou, her partner. They were nearly always in sync, in battle and in civilian life… she had seen the fire as well from her family's observatory, and the first thought that penetrated her terror was a simple one: Get Saki.

They transformed into Cure Bloom and Cure Egret and took to the air… and that was the point when the world went insane. Two heels slammed into the Cures' backs with devastating force, and they crashed like meteors into the mountainside, hundreds of feet below.

One of those heels dug into Bloom's spine now, as its owner leaned close to her ear and spoke words that sent a fresh shiver of ice-cold fear up and down her back:

"There's nothing you can do," said Michiru Kiryuu, once her enemy, once Cure Bright, and now her enemy again, heaven only knew why.

A few feet away, still struggling to pull herself out of her impact crater, Cure Egret pleaded with the tall, severe girl pressing her foot against her neck, tears spilling freely from her violet eyes. "K-Kaoru-san, please!" she gasped, coughing as she inhaled smoke. "Please, wake up… we h-have to save the S-Sky Tree…"

"You won't," said Kaoru Kiryuu calmly. The former Cure Windy's eyes were empty of light… "FIREY's power can't be quenched by the likes of you."

Her sister gripped Bloom by her hair and savagely ground her cheek into the upturned soil. "We know the secret now," she said. "If we destroy the tree, the Fountain of the Sun will lose its power… and this world and all worlds will belong to Dead End."

"M-Michiru…" Straining, Bloom reached for her partner's hand, though her shoulder and biceps screamed in protest. If they could only fight back long enough to snap the Kiryuus out of it, they could stop this madness-

Something cracked, and Bloom howled as Michiru's other heel came down and crushed her outstretched hand. "There's no use trying to fight it, Saki Hyuuga. This is the end."

"Goodbye, Mai Mishou," said Kaoru.

The sisters joined hands, power swelled within them, and the Sky Tree burned on…


-VERTEX THREE: 8.333882^1-

Wakabadai

Simultaneously

Ayase wouldn't stop laughing. Damn her, she wouldn't stop laughing… Cure Black hammered her again and again, her blows falling like rain, her fists painted red, but the girl wouldn't stop laughing

It was a labored, wheezing laugh, a laugh that bubbled at her lips, now a mess of blood, torn flesh, and fragments of teeth. Her face was a wreck, almost unrecognizable, but she didn't seem to feel pain and she still laughed… "... Heh. Heh… You're… p-pretty angry there, N-Nagisa-chan… heh… heh..."

"Shut up!" Black roared, smashing one palm across her swollen cheek and leaving a vicious two-inch gash. "You monster... you murdering BITCH! You killed Honoka… I'll KILL you!"

"K-K-Killed her…?" Ayase blinked, slowly and with difficulty. "Heh… heh… s-shows what you know… heh…"

Black's hand froze. "She…"

"Heh… heh…"

Now Black's hand closed around her neck and lifted her off the cracked pavement. "Talk! Where is she?! Where did the other one take her?!"

"Heh… hehehh… y-you can ge-get her back… heheheheh..."

"Don't screw with me!" said Black, hissing through clenched teeth. Once again her fist raised and pulled back…

The words were choked and feeble. "... j-just… have to j-join our side… hehehe… hah hah… Dead End, hahaha..."

"You stinking…!" Black's fist flew forward…

Somehow, Ayase mustered the strength to move her hand, batting Black's arm aside. The punch went wild, and struck the strange red jewel she wore near her underarm. Something broke…

… and Ayase's eyes turned blank and cold halfway through her last laugh. Her body sagged in Black's grip.

"What…" Someone had just thrown a bucket of ice water on the raging flame inside Black's heart. "What the hell… H-Hey, you! Wake up! Answer me! What's Dead End, where's Honoka?!"

Ayase didn't answer. She stared vacantly at Black, her head lolling to one side, still wearing that horrible bloody grin.

"I-" Black dropped the body, which fell with a grim thud to the street. "No, I… I couldn't have… how…? She… she was taking e-everything I hit her with, h-how could that have-" She felt herself falling, her knees scraping asphalt, bile rising in her stomach.

Next to her, Ayase stared unblinking up at the evening sky…

"No," whispered Black, running her stained fingers through her hair. "God, no. I… I didn't mean to-" Run, she had to run… but her hands, her clothes, all red. She couldn't… she had to drop her-

"N-Nagisa…!" A frail, squeaky voice came from her hip satchel. "Don't do it, ~mepo! Don't change back!"

"M-Mepple?" His voice stung her, churning her insides. She didn't think it was even possible to feel worse than she already did, but hearing him- "Mepple, wh-what…"

"I can still feel Mipple, she's still sharing her power with Honoka!" said Mipple. It was a strain for him to speak, but he had to let Black know. "They're gone, but they're still transformed and they're not dead! But if you change back now-!"

Black almost threw up in her mouth. They were almost always together when they transformed back, they had never done it separately before. She had no idea what would happen, or if it was even possible. But if she did change back, and if for some reason White did too, if their powers were as linked as Black suspected they were…

They had to transform together. So if there was the slightest chance that White was still alive… she couldn't risk leaving her powerless and alone…

Black unhooked her satchel, flipped open the top with shaking fingers, and withdrew her fairy's resting form. "Mepple… where are they? Where did that girl take them?"

Mepple's voice faltered. "I… I don't know. I can barely feel them… but I know they're not-"

Tears cut through the drying blood on Black's cheeks. "Dammit… dammit, I can't-! That girl knew, and I-!"

"Nagisa, you… it's not your fault, you didn't have a choice-"

"She's dead!" Black's insides stormed as she spoke the word. "She was a human! She's dead, and I killed her...! And without her, Honoka-"

"Nagisa…?" said Mepple slowly.

There was someone behind her. Someone small, who wrapped her arms around Black's waist, embracing her…

"Gah!" Her skin crawling, Black struggled out of the hug and scrambled backward. "Who-"

For one wild moment, she thought it was Hikari, miraculously returned. But no, this girl was different, younger… Her long, blonde hair was a few shades darker than Hikari's, and her eyes were clear, a beautiful shade of red, like rubies… She wore a simple turquoise sundress inappropriate for the spring weather, and she smiled at Black with unquestionable sympathy as she held out her hand.

"Who the hell are you?!" sputtered Black. If this was a trap set by the Soujus, so help her-

The little stranger nudged Black with her hand. There was something resting on her palm, a crystalline spire of some kind.

"I don't want it," said Black, pushing it aside. The bile inside her was gone, now she only felt hollow… as empty as Ayase's battered corpse, still lying where it had fallen. "Go away."

The little girl's brows crinkled together, those lovely eyes wounded. She took Black's hand and pressed the crystal into it-

For the second time that day, Black heard a voice in her thoughts, a voice that wasn't hers… Nagisa Misumi, Cure Black. I understand your pain, and you have my deepest sympathy… but you must go with this little one, and follow where she leads you. You're in grave danger. The voice was soft, but at the same time firm and uncompromising, sounding oddly like steel.

"I- What?!" Black said aloud to the little girl. Though it hardly sounded like the voice of someone her age, the voice had to be coming from her… didn't it? "Who are you?! What's going on here?! Why should I-"

"Nagisa, who are you talking to, ~mepo?!"

"Mepple, quiet! It's her, but it's not her, just let me hear-"

You must come to the Lighthouse, you'll be safe there, said the steely voice. Hurry, there isn't much time.

"But-" Black spared a glance at Ayase's body, as if truly seeing it for the first time… then shut her eyes in disgust, regretting the action. "Th-that girl- I can't just-"

Your world's police will be here soon. If you don't get moving, they'll find you, and we won't be able to help you.

The little girl stared as the voice spoke. Her lips weren't moving at all.

"Now hold on one damn second!" said Black, climbing to her feet. She glared at the little girl, for lack of anyone else to glare at. "I can't just go waltzing off to God knows where just because some voice in my head says I should! Who are you?! Where's she taking me?!"

To safety. Please, reinforcements from Dead End will be here for you soon.

That got Black's attention. More people like the Soujus… so many had already been hurt or killed today, and that was just by two of them. She wouldn't, couldn't let this happen to Wakabadai again, not because of her-

A thought set her stomach churning again. Mom. Dad. Ryouta… "I can't go," said Black. "Not yet. If… If I'm gonna trust you and go with you, and I'm not saying I will… th-there's something I gotta do first."

END OF CHAPTER 10

Chapter Text

Chapter 11: Ahead and Behind

-VERTEX THREE: 8.333882^5-

Kibougahana

Simultaneously

Pain… intense, searing pain raced through Cure Blossom's body like rivers of molten lava. The twin slashes of crimson energy from Dark Precure's Tact didn't dissipate when they struck her, as they had when they fought her before. They clung to her, burning like brands, making it impossible to focus, to-

Moonlight was behind her in an instant, delivering a savage kick to her spine followed by a contemptuous chop to the back of her neck. For the second time in as many minutes, her feet left the ground. After a few heart-stopping seconds of uncontrolled flight, she crashed into the side of one of Market Square Pavilion's rolling hills, leaving an impression inches deep in the turf and topsoil. The crimson slashes stuck to her all the while… the impact with the ground hurt, yes, but those were so much worse…

The pain of fighting Moonlight, though, not sparring or mock-battling, but actually fighting for her life against her teammate and trusted friend… that pain was worse than either of them. It's not her fault. The words floated once more through the blaze of agony threatening to consume her thoughts. It's not her fault. This was a spell, or a curse, or brainwashing, or something. There was no way the Yuri she knew was attacking her of her own will. No way…

If Moonlight wasn't in control of herself, there was no reason to hold back. No reason not to fight her with everything she had. Blast it, it was her duty to her friend to stop her, defeat her, and turn her back to normal.

So why couldn't she do it?

Moonlight came to stand over her, ghastly white, her colors muted, her eyes filled with pale fire. In silence, she jabbed the pointed end of her Moon Tact against Blossom's chest, between the burning slashes.

"Moonlight…" Blossom spoke in a desperate whisper, hoping against hope that there was some part of her dear friend listening. "Yuri-san, don't…"

Moonlight said nothing. Light gathered in the jewel at the Tact's end, casting eerie, flickering shadows over her face…

"Hyaaah!" A streak of yellow and orange motion slammed into Moonlight's side with a bone-crushing impact, forcing her to withdraw. Sunshine cringed from the recoil, but she held her ground, standing over Blossom as a human shield. A muscle complained in her upper arm; a shoulder check like that was hardly an orthodox judo technique, more appropriate for an American football field. Now she knew why they wore all that padding. Her grandfather most likely would not have approved, but at least it worked...

"Marine Shoot!" Cool water cascaded over Blossom, finally extinguishing Dark Precure's energy. A hand grasped hers, pulling her upright. "You okay?" said Marine, battered but still alive. The battle was draining even Marine's nigh-limitless stores of energy. Fighting Dark Precure before had been grueling enough, but now it was more akin to fighting a steel wall. A steel wall that fought back, and that somehow recruited another wall that looked just like her teammate, but was every bit as ruthless and deadly as her old foe.

"N-no," said Blossom. She took a second to lean on her friend for support, just a second to-

"Heads up! Sunflower Aegis!" The call came from Sunshine. A golden dome enclosed the three as she raised her weapon, an instant before a huge violet orb of sizzling energy crashed into it like a meteor.

Blossom and Marine ran to help, putting their hands on Sunshine's shoulders to share their power… The strain was shared as well; all three felt sweat break out on their brows and muscles cramp as the sphere bore down, and the shield dipped inward, threatening to collapse. Sunshine gritted her teeth, dug in her heels, and pushed back. This just didn't make sense, Precure attacks only worked on monsters and bad guys, not people… Marine had once been hit by one of Blossom's finishers during a fight with a Desertarian, and she said it felt downright pleasant, so how could-

The violet orb was joined by a second from another direction, this one an angry crimson color. Two full-powered attacks at once was more than Sunshine's shield could bear; it flexed, it cracked, it broke… and the resulting explosion scattered the three Cures like leaves.

A storm of glowing embers swirled around them where they had fallen, the remnants of burning spring grass. Tsubomi lifted her head with a groan. Her Cure Blossom transformation was broken, and she lay within the folds of a long, pink, diaphanous dress, glowing faintly with what remained of her power. As her blurry world resolved itself into more solid shapes, she saw the nightmare vision of Dark Precure and Moonlight approaching her together, striding through the tongues of fire licking over scorched and blackened earth.

She's going to kill us. Yuri-san is going to kill us. They would die at the hands of their dear friend and her twisted mirror image, and no one would know. Mama. Papa. Grandma. Futaba... Her limbs were leaden, numb from pain and refusing to move. If she could have, she would have raised her hand to the grim specter of Moonlight now looming over her as she made one final plea: "Y-Yuri-san, you have to stop! This isn't you, y-you're a Precure… we f-fought together… to p-protect the Great H-Heart Tree! Please, remember…"

A few meters away, Erika lay face-down and motionless, her Heart Perfume within reach of her limp fingers.

Moonlight's hand paused on its way to Tsubomi's chest, and finally, she spoke. "I do remember," she said, in a horrible, hollow monotone that didn't sound like her at all. "I remember that being a Precure cost me more than you can imagine. For years, I risked my life over and over again to protect the Heart Tree, to protect this world… and it cost me my childhood, my partner, my sister, and my father. What did the Tree ever do to bring them back?"

Frigid fingers curled around Tsubomi's heart and squeezed it tight. Her pupils shrank to pinpricks. "Yuri-san, you don't r-really mean that-" Cold, she was so cold...

Behind the crook of Moonlight's arm, Dark Precure hauled someone upright by her short brown hair… Itsuki. Her eyelids fluttered, but she made no move to resist.

"I wanted so badly for all the sacrifice to be worth it," whispered Moonlight. "Perhaps yours will be."

Silent tears ran down Tsubomi's cheeks. Any words of comfort she could have offered her friend seemed feeble, compared to just how much Moonlight had lost. It was more painful than being attacked, more painful than fighting her, more painful, in this case, than existing… but maybe, she thought, maybe… Maybe this really is Yuri-san talking. If she's always felt this way and never told us... No! No, that can't be true! Yuri-san would never say things like that! This is all wrong!

Another voice, a foreign voice, drifted through Tsubomi's mind. It's all gone wrong. Heaven help us, it's all gone wrong…

Tsubomi couldn't think, couldn't speak, couldn't do anything but watch Moonlight's hand come closer, burning with the same horrible pale fire that danced in her eyes.

And then, a blizzard of cherry blossoms blew through the pavilion, blanketing everything in sight, and Moonlight and everything else was lost to view in a blizzard of pink, fragrant petals.

Dark Precure paused, her golden eyes scanning for the source of the storm. The distraction was all Itsuki needed. Wrenching herself free of her tormentor's grip, the daughter of the Myoudouin Dojo slipped under Dark Precure's arm, countered her weight against her own, and with a sharp kiai slammed her into the ground at her feet. No time to waste making sure she stayed down; a move like that would only catch her off guard once, and trying to fight her in civilian form was suicide. Itsuki dived for her Perfume, scraping her right shoulder raw as she came back down at a bad angle and plowed a furrow in the soil. It didn't matter, the Perfume was in her hand, her Precure Seed at her fingertips. "Precure, Open My Heart!" Light and warmth enveloped her as she assumed the form of Cure Sunshine once more and immediately took a stance, ready for anything…

Anything except the shape that fell from the storm and into her arms, then grabbed onto her brooch as if trying to tear it off. Sunshine's response was automatic: she snatched the thing up and reared back her fist... and then it spoke. "Itsuki, I'm here!" squealed the tiny bundle of orange and white fur. "It's gonna be okay, ~desu!"

"Potpourri," she breathed, hugging her fairy close. "Don't scare me like that, I could have taken your head off!" Violent shudders passed through her body, threatening to make her throw up. She was so on edge from the fight that she almost did something unthinkable to her partner, her baby… This madness had to stop, and fast. "Get behind me, Dark Precure's going to wake up any second now!"

Tsubomi stared upward, hardly daring to believe. Perched atop a street lamp, there stood a handsome, dark-haired man, dressed in old-style Japanese casual clothes and a long crimson scarf, commanding the storm of petals with one upraised hand. He made not a sound, and when Moonlight whipped out her Tact and fired a glowing shot at the stranger, he didn't even move… he simply blinked out of sight, reappearing behind her like her shadow. With a puff of smoke, he disappeared. In his place was an enormous, shaggy green creature, three meters tall to the peak of its single crooked horn, built somewhere along the lines of a great ape. Moonlight turned on her heel a second too late; one long arm swatted her aside as if she were a troublesome gnat, and she flew half a kilometer before she touched ground again.

"Coupe!" Running to the giant fairy, Tsubomi spoke his name with relief and buried her face in his furry chest. As his arms embraced her, she found herself trembling, helpless to stop. "Coupe…" Blast it, she couldn't take this… it all came rushing out of her: the pain, the fear, the confusion. Tsubomi cried as she had not done in years, clutching her grandmother's fairy partner as a castaway would clutch a raft on a turbulent sea. Great heaving sobs tore out of her, drawn from a well somewhere deep in her heart. Or even deeper than that…

"Wh-wha-" Too shocked to cry anymore, Tsubomi stopped, holding very still save for her fingers curling tight in Coupe's fur. For an instant, she had the strangest feeling, as if someone else were crying along with her. Then a prickling sensation on the back of her neck, a strange tingling in her skin…

"Tsubomi!" The high-pitched voice came from somewhere in the heart shape on Coupe's chest, breaking the spell. A small face with round brown eyes emerged from the heart, followed by a pair of huge, fan-like ears. "Tsubomi, what's the matter, ~desu?" said Chypre, Tsubomi's fairy partner.

And then another face, near-identical to the first save for his blue-accented fur. This one spoke in a more masculine voice: "Come on, you and Erika and Itsuki need get up and fight back so you can save Cure Moonlight!" Coffret waved a tiny paw. "We need the Precure, ~desu!"

Sniffling, Tsubomi took off her glasses, wiped her eyes, and nodded. "Y-you're right. You're right. This has got to stop…" She fumbled for her Perfume, slid her Precure Seed into its groove, and shouted: "Precure, Open My Heart!" Reborn in a flash as Cure Blossom, she turned around to plunge into the petal storm and find Erika… "Huh?"

… only to find Erika already rising to her feet, helped by a young girl that Tsubomi had never seen before: a girl with long golden hair and beautiful scarlet eyes, wearing a simple turquoise sundress. Once Erika was steady, the little stranger turned to Tsubomi and smiled a wistful little smile.

"Friend of yours?" Erika teetered back and forth a bit, wishing the world would stop spinning around her. Whoever this kid was, she wasn't about to question the help, but it felt like she had just appeared out of thin air between one eyeblink and the next…

"I've never seen her before," said Blossom, with total honesty. "Who are you? We should get you home before-"

"Enough." The booming voice was accompanied by a pulse, a shockwave of dark energy that swept away the remnants of Coupe's petal storm. Dark Precure stood, both golden eyes burning with power, her wings spread wide. Those eyes landed on the little stranger, and narrowed.

"Oh no you don't," Erika growled, gritting her teeth and stepping in front of her. "Listen, I dunno who or what dragged you out of Hell, but you're gonna go right back if I have anything to say about it! Precure, Open My Heart!" A blue flash, and she was back in Cure form, itching to fight. "No more cheap moves! My heart may be as vast as- eh?! What gives?"

The little stranger tugged at one of the petals of Marine's skirt, shaking her head.

Blossom, Marine, and the three fairies stared at her.

"You… you don't want us to fight?" said Marine. "But-"

Before she could finish, Dark Precure moved. Drawing her Tact, she shot forward at unbelievable speed, tucking her wings in close… and pointing the jeweled end of her weapon straight at the little girl. No time to react, no time to-

Crack. Her Tact struck a triple layer of shining barriers: one from Coupe, one from little Potpourri, and one from Sunshine, all taking position before them. Even Dark Precure's hideous strength was stymied for the moment by their combined energies… but only for the moment. Glowing red cracks advanced through the barriers, weakening their structures…

Once more, Sunshine dug in her heels, pouring her energy into holding her shield a little longer. "Nnngh…" The sound of her effort escaped through her teeth. "Blossom, Marine, get her out of here! We need to set up a Shining Fortissimo now, before Moonlight comes back!"

The little stranger stepped forward and grasped Blossom's hand… and the pink Cure turned white as a sheet, foreign images flashing through her mind, a high-speed slideshow of burning cities, spreading darkness, screaming faces… and a signal beam, a line of light lancing out into the void…

"Blossom? Blossom!" Snarling, Marine yanked herself out of the child's grip and raised a fist. "What are you doing to her, you-"

"Wait!" The shout came from Blossom, pale and shaken. "She… she wants us to come with her!"

"Buh?!" Marine's eyes nearly popped out of their sockets. "Are you mental?! We don't even know who she is, let alone where she's taking us! And how do you know what she wants?!"

"She… she told me, I can't explain… but we have to go, now"

"Go where?! Blossom, you're not-" And Marine stopped, completely speechless for what had to be the first time in years, for there was now a door, a perfectly ordinary white wooden door, standing by itself behind them. The little stranger practically dragged Blossom to it, and motioned Marine and the fairies to follow. "H-hey… oi! Wait up!"

At the front line, Potpourri moaned softly and shut his eyes, wobbling dangerously in midair. His shield flickered, then faded...

"No! No..."Sunshine caught him and cradled him with one hand, and strained the other behind her tambourine, redoubling her effort. "Potpourri…" She spared a glance over her shoulder to see what was going on. "Guys, what-" Words failed her as Blossom disappeared through a doorway right in the middle of the pavilion, vanishing from sight… Chypre emerged from Coupe's shaggy fur and flew through after her, with Coffret close behind. Marine went through, after some hesitation… and the instant they passed through the frame, they were simply gone. Now there was only the little blond girl, frantically waving for Sunshine and Coupe, beckoning them to hurry...

Sunshine turned back to the enormous fairy. "C-Coupe… I-I think we have to..."

Coupe stood still and silent as ever, arms raised, showing no sign of effort at all at keeping the shield maintained. But there was something in his beady eyes as they peered down to fix Sunshine with his eternal stare… acceptance, and understanding. He was giving her his blessing to go.

Sunshine swallowed, cradling Potpourri's small body to her chest. "I'm sorry," she whispered to Coupe. She turned and ran for the door, letting her shield fall. Behind her, fault lines raced through the sole remaining barrier… and Coupe stood behind it, glowing faintly, buying time so that she could get away. A trail of glistening teardrops followed Sunshine as she ran for the mysterious door, scooping up the little stranger and throwing herself through the frame… The instant before she passed through it, she heard the thunderous crack of Coupe's shield shattering echoing off the pavilion's rolling hills. Coupe…!

And-

And beyond the doorway was a swirling tunnel of incomprehensible light in all different colors… Reds, greens, blues, and yellows, flowing and swirling and bleeding into each other like river rapids, and a few colors Sunshine had never seen before... a dizzying, ever-shifting kaleidoscope stretching to infinity. Ahead were the shapes of Blossom, Marine, and their fairies, streaking through the tunnel at dizzying speeds, living comets…

Hyperspace, thought Sunshine, reminded of all those sci-fi movies. She held Potpourri's sleeping form tighter as the tunnel's current caught her, she couldn't go back if she wanted now… "Blossom! Marine!" Her words echoed, distorted, sounded strange to her, as if the sound of her voice were both delayed and… and somehow emerging from her mouth before she spoke the words.

They heard her; somehow they turned and shouted her name, and Blossom visibly sobbed with relief.

The little stranger squirmed from her grip, and swam, or floated, or flew up to her teammates and their fairies, pointing a small finger ahead, to - to what? There was nothing ahead that Sunshine could see except the tunnel's endless expanse. At a gesture from the girl, she rose up to join them…

A hand grasped her ankle, and pulled hard. Sunshine shrieked and looked down...

Dark Precure was below her, livid with rage, her pallor more ghastly than ever in the tunnel's ever-shifting light. And just behind her was Moonlight, gaining fast…

All of Sunshine's training, all her skill fled her mind. On solid ground, by herself, it would have been child's play to wrench herself free and counterattack. But floating in the stream like this, with Potpourri in her arms, helpless… "Let go!" she screamed, lashing out at Dark Precure with her heel. "Let GO!"

Moonlight's hand caught her other leg, and their weight slowed her, dragging her back. Frantic, Sunshine howled up at her teammates… "BLOSSOM, MARINE! HELP ME!"

They turned, flailing their arms and legs, trying to swim, or float, or fly to her aid, reaching for her hand. The little stranger turned as well… and Sunshine saw something like mortal terror flash in those beautiful scarlet eyes. She spread her arms and legs wide, as if to offer herself, and the energies of the tunnel of light coalesced around her. The tunnel, her friends, their fairies, and the little stranger shrank away from her, drew down into a pinpoint of multicolored light… and vanished.

Silence.

An icy surge of pure, primal fear raced through Sunshine's veins. No… There was nothing left but a void that surpassed blackness. Herself, her poor little fairy, her adversary, and her friend-turned-enemy, hanging in empty, dark, endless space, alone…

Before she could even finish contemplating the horror of it all, before she could let out the scream building up inside her, two hands closed around her neck. Another plunged into her chest with impossible ease, and she knew no more.


-VERTEX THREE: 8.333882^9-

Pikarigaoka

Simultaneously

Two streaks of light arced through the crumbling sky, crashing and battering against each other, throwing off fat sparks whenever they touched. Inside one of those streaks of light was Iona Hikawa, Cure Fortune. During the struggle against the Phantom Empire, back in the days when she worked alone, the appearance of the feared warrior in violet heralded a shift in the battle. Fortune was used to being intimidating, even after all this time. She was used to her very presence sending the forces of evil into consternation, if not outright panic. She was the star of hope, the pillar of strength where others faltered. Cure Fortune didn't get scared, or worried, or intimidated.

Now the world was upside down, falling apart, the sky above her breaking into pieces as if someone had hurled a rock through a giant window pane… and Fortune was stricken with fear, her mind howling in confusion and her body on autopilot. Again she met her opponent with a thunderous crash... the one opponent in all her many battles that terrified her to her core, that made her pillar of strength shatter to pieces, just like what was happening to the sky… the one opponent she never thought she would face again.

Her sister, Maria Hikawa, Cure Tender.

The kind face of the older sister she loved was now distorted into a grotesque leer, her eyes burned red. She wore a blackened, high-collared mockery of her Cure uniform, accented with enormous butterfly wings. Her hands grasped Fortune's with impossible strength as the two pushed back and forth, their combined energies crackling and spitting, tearing at each other like wild animals in a frenzy…

Fortune had lost her sister to darkness once before, had once had to battle her corrupted form alongside her friends and comrades as part of Happiness Charge Precure in order to win her back. To lose her again, in a way that should have been impossible... The wrongness of it unnerved her more than she had words for.

And this time, fighting alone, an unshakeable fear gnawed at the pit of Fortune's stomach. For as strong and feared as she was, Tender was always stronger. Whatever she was, Tender was twice that. And when it came down to the two sisters fighting each other one-on-one, whether in their family dojo during a sparring match or here in the skies as Precure… Tender always won. Always.

Her hands creaked in protest as Tender crushed them in a merciless grip. "Onee-sama," she groaned, staring into her sister's crimson eyes, desperate to find something of Tender's real self there. "Wake up! You have to stop this!"

Tender smiled, drew her close. That smile was like Maria's, but wrong… "It won't hurt much longer, Iona-chan," she said, and her voice contained echoes of the sister Fortune knew.

Then, from that vantage point, she slammed her knee into Fortune's gut with brutal force.

All the breath left Fortune at once. She heaved a choking gasp and gazed at Tender in pained disbelief… just before her sister released her and let her plummet back to the ground far, far below...


"Fortune!" Cure Lovely, Megumi Aino, saw the violet streak of light plunge from above, heard her teammate's impact with the street from blocks away in Pikarigaoka Park. This just wasn't right, it wasn't fair… These old nightmares were supposed to be gone, dead and buried. But someone or something brought them all back, tearing her city apart… Lovely dashed backward, trying to lose the pale, flaxen-haired young woman in black who was her opponent.

"Weak," spat Queen Mirage in disgust, charging forward to close the distance. "I don't remember you being this weak, Cure Lovely. Are you giving up so soon?"

Lovely had no answer, except to pound away with her fists at any opening she could reach. Her fists and Mirage's were a blur of motion, blows exchanging faster than human eyes could follow. Each time one hand met the other, another shockwave ripped through the park, felling trees and further cracking the ruined cobblestone pavement.

Half a mile away, what was left of the Pikarigaoka Bridge floated half-submerged in the Shikuji River, a wreck of twisted steel and concrete that barely resembled the beloved landmark it had been an hour before. Being hurled through it didn't hurt Lovely that much, thanks to her Precure form's heightened endurance. When she got a good look at the bridge's mangled remains, though, the bridge that she had crossed with her beloved friends so many times… Whoever was responsible was going to pay dearly for that.

Whoever was responsible, it wasn't Mirage. Mirage couldn't be acting of her own will. She had to be under a spell again, just like Cure Tender, but who was pulling the strings this time? Red was reformed, she had seen to that, and there was no one else she knew of with the power or motive to turn them evil again. Her only hope was to end this quickly and find her way back to Princess, Honey, and Fortune... only together did they have a chance of making things right again.

Mirage's staff leapt to her hand, and a savage downward swing brought it crashing down against Lovely's crossed arms. The blow reverberated through the pink Cure's body, forcing her down to one knee. She fought just like the old Queen Mirage, but with the addition of some bottomless well of new strength. Again and again the staff fell... her guard was breaking, she couldn't stand it much longer… Lovely drew her limbs in as close as the dared, huddling into a ball and gathering her power. Before the staff could come down on her neck, she shouted her attack: "Lovely Explosion Bomber!"

A sphere of pink energy and intense concussive force erupted from Lovely's body, blowing a crater inches deep in the stone pathway at her feet and ripping the staff from Mirage's hand. The blast wave swept her off her feet and hurled headfirst across the park, her flight only stopped by a street lamp in her path, which bent over double as she slammed into it.

In her crater, Lovely shuddered, hugging herself tight. Too close. That was way, way too close. Please let her stay down, please…!

No such luck; Mirage didn't stay down. Staggering to her feet, her adversary glared at her with madness burning in her crimson eyes. "I'm going to make you pay for that, Cure Lovely," she hissed, purple lips splitting into a hideous grin. "Just like I made that fool of a kami pay!"

A dagger stung Lovely's heart. "Blue…" No, no, it couldn't be. She couldn't have. Not after they finally made amends, she couldn't have, it was too cruel… "What did you do to Blue?!"

Cold laughter bubbled up from somewhere inside Mirage. "I trapped the fool inside one of his own mirrors… it's only fair." She swayed back and forth, clutching at her forehead and peering at Lovely through splayed fingers, the grin stretching wider. "He imprisoned me in the Axia Box for all those years… it's only fair…"

The scream that tore from Lovely's mouth then was terrible to hear. It was a sound of deepest shock, of betrayal, of a hurt scabbed over but never completely healed… and before she knew what she was doing, she was off the ground, her wings extending from the back of her uniform, hurling herself into Mirage like a blazing pink comet. "Blue loved you!" Each blow of her fists landed with a resounding thunderclap, echoing off the park's hills. "He loved you! He trusted you! How could you… How could you?!"

One punch struck Mirage's cheek with a sickening crack. She reeled off balance, her neck snapping backward… no sooner was she recovered from the recoil than she saw Lovely as a whirl of motion, a heavy iron disc clutched tight in both hands, sparkling tears falling down her cheeks…

She saw no more than that, as Lovely connected with the manhole cover she had ripped from the ground. There was a sound like a church bell heard through a foot of concrete as she hurtled backward, a living missile, red stars exploding in her vision… and then, the crystal tinkling of countless panes of breaking glass as she crashed through the House of Mirrors on the border of the park's festival grounds. Shards were everywhere, glittering like diamonds...

Appalled with herself, Lovely dropped the cover, which struck the cobblestone at her feet with a heavy, ringing clang. She stared at her hands as if they belonged to a stranger. That… Good God, I could have killed her with that move, what's wrong with me?!

Part of her knew, of course. Part of her knew all too well. It was that part that needed to be pushed back into her deepest recesses, now that Mirage was finally down for the count-

-and incredibly, as she thought that, Queen Mirage picked herself up from the wreckage of the House of Mirrors. Battered and bloodied, shedding pieces of glass, she stood fixed Lovely with those mad eyes and summoned her staff. Shadowy power gathered at its crown, bathing the park in hellish light, a light that when unleashed would wipe this place clean from the earth-

No time to think. Lovely had to stop her, with the only attack that managed to pierce through her weariness, her terror: "Lovely Beam!" Twin lasers erupted from her eyes, lancing in straight lines across the park… They bathed Mirage and the falling glass shards in pink light…

… and the many shards reflected that light, amplifying Lovely's attack tenfold. Mirage howled as she was consumed in a barrage of power coming from every direction at once. Though the darkness inside her demanded that she fight on, it was too much for her body to bear. Her eyes rolled backward… she was unconscious long before she hit the ground.

With a low sob, Lovely stumbled backward.. It's over, right? It has to be over… A blanket of numbness settled over her, and it took a concentrated effort just to remain on her feet. I beat her. Now I gotta help the others, then help Blue… Fighting as Cure Lovely was usually such a rush, it always left her exhilarated, feeling like she could do anything. But this… this was a different kind of fight, a fight that drained her soul instead of igniting it. So tired… Come on, Megumi, she thought, giving her cheeks a hard slap. 'Shiawase Happiness', remember? No time for self-pity. No time for crying. What would the others think? I've gotta help… like I always do. She rubbed her eyes, forced herself to put on a smile, and turned to leave the park-

"Natto Orb," said someone above her.

A round shape dropped down on Lovely, visible out of the corner of her eye. She raised a fist and threw it at the shape without stopping to think… and the shape exploded, blanketing her with something wet, slimy, and incredibly sticky. Countless stubborn, clinging strands rooted her to the spot, like some poor bug caught in fly paper. All her fabled strength was of no use; the more she struggled, the more mired she became. "No…!"

"Geez," said the voice, "you two were really going at it! Guess you and Mirage must have some issues, huh?!"

Lovely looked up. The source of the voice was a girl dressed in extremely revealing performer's clothes, little more than a bikini top and a transparent skirt and tights that were the same fiery shade of red as her hair and eyes. She sat atop a huge red ball, floating in mid-air with no visible means of support like a helium balloon. Curious, bright eyes looked down at Lovely, and a smirk spread across the girl's face that seemed to reach beyond the confines of her lips. "Yeah," she said, "now I get why Joker wants you."

"Who?" Lovely stopped fighting with the glue-like substance long enough to stare at the girl, totally confused. "Who are you?"

The smirk widened. "Name's VesVes, of Dead End's Amazoness Quartet. We were hiding out over there in the House of Mirrors… until you smashed it. Good job, by the way, that was so cool! Maybe you could do that again as part of our act, huh?"

"'Act?'" Calm, she had to stay calm. If she could summon her cards and PreChanMirror without this girl noticing…

"Yup," said VesVes, leaning back on her ball and crossing her arms behind her head. "Dead End's putting on the best show the worlds have ever seen, and you're gonna be one of our star attractions."

The Cherry Flamenco PreCard materialized at Lovely's fingertips. The sticky mass was thickening around her by the second, making it ever more difficult to move, but all she had to do was reach the compact on her hip. Stall her just a little longer! "What do you mean?" There, she had the compact's pouch open…

VesVes's smirk escalated into a cruel, savage smile. "What do you mean, 'What do you mean?' A strong girl like you? You can beat the crap out of anyone who gets in our way!"

It took a few fumbles to do it, but the card slid into the compact. Perfect. All she had to do now was- "Precure, Kururin Mirror Change! Che-"

"Nuh uh," said a new voice from directly behind her, high-pitched and childish with a barely-repressed giggle in it. "PallaPalla doesn't like that costume. Try this one on instead~!"

Lovely never had a chance to see the new attacker, or what it was she pressed over her face. All she saw was the thing's underside, filled with what looked like crude oil. The other side was an eerie, grinning mask with yellow eyes and an ornate red mark on its forehead, but all Lovely saw was oozing blackness... It pressed against her face, poured into her mouth, into her eyes, into her brain… The strands holding her down snapped as she reached up to claw at it, but its blackness seeped over the mask's edges, seizing hold of her cheeks, cementing itself to her skin… Lovely couldn't scream. Couldn't blink. Couldn't breathe…

The two Amazons watched her as she thrashed, VesVes frowning at her sister in blue as she came to stand by her side. "Cutting it a little close, don't you think?"

PallaPalla giggled again and stuck out her tongue. For an older sister, she sure didn't act like it, VesVes thought. "PallaPalla just wanted to make it more fun!"


 

No.

No.

I have to get it off, have to help the others…

But why? The voice that answered was eerily familiar. You're exhausted. You've been fighting so hard for them. Don't you deserve to rest, just for a minute?

She knew that voice, it was like cold iron pressed against the back of her neck… No! You're not real, you're not real! You're just a fake that-

I'm as real as you are, Megumi. I'm your shadow. Come on, be selfish, just this once. After all you've done for other people, you deserve it. Close your eyes and rest, just for a few seconds…


A jungle had overtaken Pikarigaoka's shopping district. Enormous vines the thickness of tree trunks erupted from the streets, and their offshoots climbed up walls, snaked into windows four stories off the ground, and smothered entire buildings in greenery. And where there weren't vines, there were mirrors: hundreds of the same coffin-shaped mirrors crisscrossed with red ribbons that were a regular sight back during the Phantom Empire's invasion, each holding a motionless human figure inside. Three such mirrors stood at odd angles in front of the famed Omori Gohan restaurant: a mother, a father, and an older daughter… the Omori family, minus one.

The missing daughter, Yuko Omori, alias Cure Honey, stood before those mirrors, projecting a golden, heart-shaped energy shield. For her family, her friends, and her home, she would hold the line here… not one more person would suffer while she still drew breath if she had anything to say about it.

Pounding away at her shield was another Amazon, more burly than her sisters, her green hair arranged in a tripartite style that defied both belief and physics. Growling in annoyance, she laid out at the barrier, calling to the yellow Cure behind it in a rough, boyish voice. "Oi! C'mon, fight back already, will ya? Geez, I thought you Precure were s'posed to be tough!"

Honey cringed; she felt every punch that the Amazon threw, vibrating deep into her bones. This is looking worse and worse. I have to fight back, but- But the moment she moved, her family and her home would be defenseless, and these girls had already proven how little regard they had for mercy… Lovely, Fortune, where are you?!

Above them, the fourth Amazon sat with her legs crossed atop one of the gigantic vines overgrowing the city, dressed in pink and yellow hues. "Don't get ahead of yourself, JunJun," said CereCere in a chiding tone, idly turning the Card over and over in her fingers. What a strange but wondrous bit of magic the Cards were… The WOOD, as the name emblazoned on it read, amplified her powers over plants more than she could have imagined. Using her Seeds of Despair by herself, she could barely take over one building. With The WOOD, though, the whole district was hers with hardly any effort. It was almost disappointing; now she had little to do but watch and wait while JunJun had her fun. Her opponent was already dealt with.

Buried somewhere deep within the forest of vines, a Precure clad in blue squirmed in the grip of hundreds of creepers, all coiling around her endlessly like snakes. Cure Princess, Hime Shirayuki, had no idea who the weirdo sisters with the tacky clothes were, what they wanted, or how they even got here without Ribbon or Glasan or someone feeling their presence… but it didn't matter. They brought back Queen Mirage and Dark Tender somehow, they had to be stopped… but these blasted vines! Princess clawed at them, yanking away one that threatened to wrap around her neck. "You… stupid... jerks!" she gasped in the general direction she had last seen the Amazons, flailing her arms to keep them free of the morass. "W-when I get... my hands on you…! Princess Cutter!"She tossed her head back and forth; twin blades flew from each of her two giant pigtails and carved through dozens of the encroaching creepers. But they just kept growing… "Princess Cutter! Princess Cutter...!" Blade after blade tore through the greenery, until at last she saw a patch of clouds and broken sky. Now she just had to reach it…!

Princess shrieked as creepers seized her by the shoulders, trying to drag her back into the forest's embrace. "Nnngh! No… no way… let go!" She was so close, one more push, one more push! "Princess… ROCKET!" The attack name burst out of her as her attack names usually did, in a fit of random inspiration in the heat of the moment. It wasn't exactly elegant, but it worked; she blasted forward as if she had been shot from a cannon, tearing free of the vines and emerging into open air, to a squawk of surprise from CereCere, who nearly fell from her perch.

"Princess!" Honey's voice sang with relief. Now the tide could turn… filled with new energy, she expanded her shield and slammed JunJun into a tangle of roots, then ran to Princess's side as she touched down. "Are you hurt? Do you need me to heal you?"

"I'll be fine," Princess moaned and spit out a stray leaf. "Bleh, but I'm not eating salad for a month..."

Honey couldn't help but beam at her. "More room for rice, then!"

That was Honey… a one-track mind. "C'mon," said Princess, grabbing her arm. "We gotta find the others!"

"Oh no ya don't!" Plant fibers exploded from JunJun's body as she tore herself free, a bright green tornado of motion. "CereCere, get down here! We ain't finished yet!"

A cradle of interwoven vines lowered her sister to her side. "Assuredly not. Which Cards do you have?"

"Just POWER, SHOT, and FIGHT," said JunJun, summoning them to her hand.

CereCere raised a pink eyebrow. "Typical… you have such a limited imagination, JunJun. Still…" Taking The SHOT between two fingers, she turned to the Cures and smirked, an expression at odds with her delicate appearance. "I think this one should do ni-"

The two Amazons vanished in a blast of gold and violet light and searing heat, a beam of densely packed shooting stars. JunJun roared and leapt in front of her sister, thrusting her hands out in front of herself to hold off the beam… and her heels made gouges in solid concrete as the stars pushed back with even more force. It only took one flinch for the beam to overwhelm them both, plowing them backward into CereCere's own vines.

Princess's heart surged in her chest. She knew that move… "Fortune!"

Their teammate leaned against a vendor box behind them, her Fortune Tambourine steaming as it cooled down. She looked as if she might collapse at any moment, her uniform tattered and a trickle of dried blood marring one temple. "Barely lost… onee-sama," she said, clutching one side and breathing heavily. "Only a matter of time before… she catches up. Gotta find… Lovely…"

Honey was drawn to her side as if by a magnet. "Easy there, don't move. I'll fix you up." She raised her baton high, opened her mouth for the invocation…

...and Fortune and Princess saw Honey silhouetted against a bright crimson flash as something struck her from behind. Her body crumpled, her scream cut off abruptly… and in the fading light of the flash, a new coffin-shaped mirror appeared in her place, smoke rising from its edges. Honey was inside the pane of glass, arms crossed over her chest, eyes closed, motionless…

Outrage permeated the veneer of Princess's shock. "Honey…" she whispered, reaching plaintively for the glass "H-Honey! Why you-" She clenched her fists and glared daggers at the attacker… and as soon as it had bubbled up inside her, all her anger faded away, replaced by helpless dread.

Strolling casually down the avenue to the north and grinning like the devil was an impossible sight: someone who was Lovely and yet not Lovely. She was a dark mirror of their comrade, wearing a red and black longcoat, her hair darkened to blood red, her eyes the color of ice and twice as cold. "Hey," she said, so casually that it made Princess's skin crawl. "Hime-chan, Iona-chan, c'mere… I've got something for you~."

"Phantom!" Fortune's reaction was automatic, never mind her injuries or exhaustion. Her every nerve pulled taut with tension. This was one of the forms of the person who had taken her sister away from her... with the impossible already happening at least twice today, it only made sense that her nemesis would return too. She dropped into a zenkutsu stance, her features twisting into a snarl…

A hand grasped the crook of her arm and squeezed, hard. "F-F-Fortune…" Princess stammered, her color draining and her eyes wide as dinner plates. "Th-that's not Phantom…!"

"What? What do you-"

Princess swallowed. "Ph-Phantom was in the r-restaurant when… when they showed up… they sealed him in a mirror, I s-s-saw it happen…!"

"Then who is that?!"

Princess couldn't answer. Somehow, she knew. She didn't need to see Queen Mirage and Dark Tender emerge from streaks of black light at either side of UnLovely, she didn't need to see the triumphant leers from the other two Amazon sisters now following close behind. One look at her, and she knew

It's all gone wrong…

Fortune looked back and forth, from the resurrected Phantom/UnLovely to Princess's stricken face. Realization dawned, and a leaded weight crashed down inside her. "No. Oh no. That can't be. It can't be Megumi, she would never-"

UnLovely giggled; the sound was crazed, unhinged... "We're gonna ge~et a~all of the Pre~cure," she said in sing-song. "Lock them a~all up on the Merry-Go-Round~!"

A thousand battle plans whirled through Fortune's mind. A thousand different ways that she and Princess could beat the four Amazons, Mirage, and Tender, save Honey from the mirror, and get the real Lovely back… each plan more improbable than the last. Seven against two, and only Princess was fighting at anywhere near full strength, so more like seven against one-and-a-half. You didn't have to study tactics to know how good those odds were. Only one option, though she hated to even think of it. "Princess," she said, low and even. "We have to retreat."

"But…" Princess gaped at her, unsure if she heard correctly. Cure Fortune didn't run, Cure Fortune kicked butt and took names until she won, no matter how bad the situation was. "But… but Megumi! And Yuko! And your sister, and Mirage! We can't just leave them here!"

Fortune smiled, sadly and bitterly. How times changed… there was a time not too long ago when Princess would have run away without a second thought from just a single Saiark. Fortune had hated her back then, thought of her as a coward and a disgrace to both her kingdom and her Cure uniform. Now here she was, wanting to stay and fight a battle that seemed increasingly hopeless. "Don't be stupid," she said, taking a few steps back, still crouched in the zenkutsu. "We need to regroup, get help from the other Precure teams-"

One of the Amazons overheard her, the blue one with the cutesy manner. "Silly, there are no other teams!" She laughed a jolly laugh, but there was malevolence in those wide blue eyes… "We took care of them all ahead of time. PallaPalla has a really neat collection of Precure dollies now~!"

"She's lying, there's no way," said Princess, backing up along with Fortune. "There's hundreds of us, all around the world… No way they could have taken them all… not without us knowing!"

"Come here, Iona-chan," Tender cooed, beckoning to Fortune. "You don't have to fight anymore."

"It will only be worse for you if you resist," said Mirage. Her staff appeared in her hand, gathering dark power… power that the Cures could feel from over a block away…

Again, UnLovely giggled. "Don't be silly, Hime-chan. If you don't want to ride the Merry-Go-Round, there's still another way…" She raised a finger, the tip ignited into blue flame… and the flame resolved itself into a mask, a mask with glowing yellow eyes and a red slash for a smile… "Just relax. Let's have fun together~."

Princess froze. Her eyes wandered from the mask to UnLovely's face, desperately searching the darkened visage for any sign of her best friend…

It's all gone wrong…

"PRINCESS TORNADO!" A twister burst from Princess's hands, kicking up dust and debris in a blinding storm. She didn't stop to think… she merely grabbed Fortune's hand and ran, ran for her life, tears trailing behind her…


They finally stopped in a filthy, deserted little alley near Pikarigaoka Station, twenty blocks away. Panting, Fortune fell to her knees, her muscles burning, a jackhammer pounding away in her skull, tiny flickering lights dancing at the edges of her vision. "Did we… lose them?"

Princess waited at the alley entrance. A year ago, running away like that would have been the most natural thing in the world for her. Now? Now it made her sick to her stomach. "Not sure. I don't see them, but… but they could be following us from the air… keep out of sight."

"That girl…" Fortune leaned against a brick wall, closing her eyes. "The blue Amazon. She had to be bluffing. Someone capturing all the Precure in the world… even Phantom couldn't manage that."

Princess said nothing.

After a few deep breaths, Fortune felt a little steadier, the pounding in her head abating a bit. "Just give me a few minutes," she said. "I'll be fine, just-" Something stopped her in mid-sentence. They were not alone in the alley anymore.

She stared at Fortune with beautiful ruby eyes, a young girl with long golden blonde hair, most likely no more than five or six years old. She wore a simple green dress, and dark turquoise ribbons in her hair. And she just stared at Fortune, without saying a word…

"No, you stay there and rest, don't try to get up," Princess was saying, scanning the street for any sign of movement. "If they catch up to us-" Only then did she notice her teammate's silence. "Fortune?" She turned, and saw Fortune and the little stranger looking at each other… "Who is that?"

"I… I don't know." Fortune said, baffled. "Are you lost?"

The girl cocked her head and blinked, then tilted her hand from side-to-side.

"Do you know where your mother is?" Fortune tried again.

She shook her head.

"Where did you last see her?"

Shake, shake.

"No…?" Something about this odd, silent girl gave Fortune the creeps. "Wh-what about your father, is he-"

Shake, shake.

"You're all alone?"

And again, she shook her head. Then she pointed, first to Fortune, then to Princess, then to herself, and finally… to an ordinary wooden door, standing by itself at the end of the alley where there had been nothing but a brick wall seconds before. Just a door, connected to nothing, standing up with no visible means of support…

The little stranger pointed again, with a bit more urgency: to Fortune, to Princess, to herself, and then the door. She reached out and took Fortune's hand…

"Oh," whispered Fortune, overcome with the vision flashing before her eyes. "Oh my."

"Fortune!" That was quite enough for Princess. "What do you think you're doing, kid?!" Raising a threatening fist, she hurried over to them.

A small hand reached out to touch her leg in mid-charge, and… and she saw what Fortune saw, knew what Fortune knew, though she didn't know quite how… Darkness converging, worlds in danger, skies falling, and a ray of light lancing out into the darkness, a signal beam… shelter, safety...

The little stranger let go, and the spell was broken. Somehow, the intent was crystal clear to both of them.

"This…" Fortune swallowed, staggering to her feet. "This door… Princess, I think we have to go through it. We have to follow her."

"I-I know, but-"

An explosion, somewhere not far away… the blast echoes rumbled through the ground at their feet. Another piece of the sky fell nearby, red lightning crackled over the rooftops…

"Princess, we have to hurry." Fortune rose to her feet, feeling a muscle sting in her back. Must have fallen harder than I thought… "Come on."

Princess said nothing.

Another explosion and more rumbling, much closer this time… mixed with the sound of a familiar laugh, twisted into something dark and terrifying.

The little stranger tugged on Fortune's hand. In the blink of an eye, the door moved from the back of the alley to a foot in front of Fortune, and swung open… a churning tunnel through spacetime lay beyond, a mesmerizing whirl of impossible colors…

Finally, Princess spoke. "You go," she said, turning to face the street again. "You're all beat up, you can barely stand, and…" Her words grew husky. "... and if they get me too… it won't matter as much. I know you're strong enough to save all of us."

"Don't be stupid!" Fortune snapped, feeling some of her old temper rising in her breast. "She wants us both to go, what's the point of staying behind and throwing yourself away?! Hime, come on!"

"I can't."

"Please, Hime, don't do this-"

"I gotta stay. I gotta try… for Megumi and Yuko." Her shoulders shook, and her voice teetered on the edge of breaking. A few drops spattered the pavement at her feet. "I gotta prove to them, and to whoever's behind this, and to you… that I'm not cowardly, scaredy-cat Hime anymore..."

"That's ridiculous," said Fortune, reaching for her shoulder. "You know I don't think of you like that! Come with me, we can both-"

"I'm really sorry, Iona-chan." And with a strength that caught Fortune completely off guard, Princess turned, reared back, and shoved both her and the little stranger through the door. The maelstrom of spacetime snatched them up, spiraling them away from the alley, from Pikarigaoka, and from Hime's final, sad smile…


-VERTEX THREE: 8.333882^1-

Wakabadai

Simultaneously

"... have no leads so far as to the identities of the attackers," said the anchorwoman on the television screen. "All citizens are instructed to stay inside with their doors locked until the Defense Ministry determines that the danger has passed. Once again, our top story: tragedy struck Wakabadai this afternoon, leaving dozens dead and hundreds injured in an attack of some kind. Eyewitness reports say that four young girls in strange costumes went on a rampage through the downtown area, leaving bodies and millions of yen in damage in their wake…"

A family of three sat watching the report in the dark, white-faced, the images casting their features in a pale glow. The news had been repeating variations of those same words for the last two hours, but still they watched, desperate that the next cycle would bring the news they prayed for, not the news they dreaded…

A heavy knock on the apartment door nearly caused heart attacks in the three of them. The youngest, a dark-haired little boy of elementary school age, howled in terror and dove under a chair, curling into a miserable, shivering ball. "It's the maniacs!" he shrieked over and over. "The maniacs have come to get us!"

The boy's father stood up, the television's glow throwing the first shallow wrinkles on his face into sharp relief. While his wife attempted to console their boy, Takeshi Misumi gripped one of his missing daughter's spare lacrosse sticks and crossed to the door. He was scared out of his wits, and armed only with a pitiful makeshift weapon, but he would lay down his life before he let one of the madmen responsible for destroying downtown lay a hand on his family.

"Shhh, Ryouta, shhh!" whispered his wife, Rie. "They'll hear you!"

"Too late now," Takeshi said, his voice hollow. "If it's them, they must know we're here."

"I'm sorry," Ryouta sobbed from under his chair, clasping his hands over his mouth to try to muffle himself. "I'm sorry, Mom, Dad, I'm sorry!"

"It'll be all right, Ryouta, it's not your fault, darling-"

"Who's there?!" Takeshi shouted, gripping the crosse so hard his knuckles whitened. "I warn you, I'm armed!"

A pause. Then, a familiar voice from the other side of the door… "... Dad? Dad, it's me…"

"Nagisa!" For a middle-aged man, Takeshi Misumi moved like the wind, a blur of motion as he opened the locks and flung open the door to haul his oldest child into an embrace. "Nagisa, thank God, we thought… th-the whole downtown has been destroyed, and you and Honoka were-" His voice cracked, he couldn't force the word past the lump in his throat.

Instantly, Rie was at his side, joining in the embrace. Her daughter, her precious daughter, she was really alive… "Nagisa! Nagisa…" Tears rolled down her cheeks, she couldn't stop them if she tried.

"Onee-chan!" And now little Ryouta rushed over, and clung to his sister's leg like an overgrown limpet.

Nagisa just stood there, letting them all cry it out. The next few minutes would be hard enough for them without all these other emotions getting in the way… She wanted to cry along with them, but the reality of the last few hours had drained her of feeling anything but tired… she was so tired. They had stopped by Honoka's grandmother's house on the way back to the apartment. Somehow, Sanae Yukishiro already knew of Precure, and of Nagisa and Honoka's secret identities… that made it a little easier to tell her the truth. Still, the haunting grief and loss that flashed through the old woman's eyes when Nagisa told her what had happened to her granddaughter… seeing that drained whatever was left of Nagisa's energy out of her. And now this, which promised to be even worse...

It seemed to take an age for her father to pull back and look her in the eye. "Young lady, if you ever scare us like that again-!"

"Where were you, why didn't you call, we were scared to death-"

"Onee-chan, you're really okay, onee-chan…"

"Mom, Dad, Ryouta," said Nagisa, trying to talk over them. "Please, there's something I've gotta tell you…"

They continued unabated, all three family members babbling at her, their words blending together in a tide of noise. The cacophony ratcheted up the headache that Nagisa felt coming on, igniting just a bit of the spark of her normal self… "HEY!" she shouted, stamping her foot.

There immediately followed a loud crack, and if Nagisa's shout didn't stop them, that noise certainly did. Stunned into silence, Takeshi looked down… and saw that his daughter now stood half-in and half-out of a very small crater in his floor. For the first time, he looked, really looked at his daughter, at the strange black and pink outfit she wore that seemed vaguely familiar…

"Nagisa…?" said Rie slowly. "Wh… what…"

Ryouta being Ryouta, he blurted out the first thing that came into his head. "What's with the weird clothes? Are you cosplaying?!"

Nagisa (or at the moment, Cure Black) felt a vein bulge in her forehead. Forget Dusk Zone, this was going to be the fight of her life. "No, I am not cosplaying, dummy! I've been trying to tell you all- Look, we need to talk. You'd better sit down."


Nagisa sat on one side of the living room table, and her mother, father, and little brother all crowded together on the other side. She supposed she couldn't blame them. Their whole perception of the world and how it worked had just been shattered.

"So?" she said, bracing herself for the storm.

"I-" Her mother was the first to speak. "This just doesn't make sense. Fairies, monsters, super powers, creatures from another world… Nagisa, how can you expect us to believe-"

"Look at the floor, Rie," said her father, his eyes once again wandering to that little crater by the door. "Look at the floor. There's no way a normal girl could do that, that's half a meter of cement…"

Ryouta seemed perturbed for entirely different reasons. "I can't believe it! You, a superhero? My sister?! What kind of monsters could you ever fight, a giant takoyaki?!"

"Oi!" Nagisa shot him a death glare. Someone really deserved a Cobra Twist for that one… but, she reminded herself yet again, she would probably break both his arms doing that while still transformed. Not that he wouldn't deserve it after all those cracks from earlier about her weight, specifically bursting out of her Cure uniform from overeating…

"Anyway," she said, trying to steer the conversation back to the matter at hand. "Like I said, I don't know what's going on this time, but Honoka…" Here she cringed, clutching her hands in her lap. "I've gotta go after her. That's why I'm still transformed. If I change back, and she changes back at the same time, wherever they took her… Those Dead End bas- guys- could hurt her, and then neither of us could fight, do you see?"

Takeshi frowned and crossed his arms. "It doesn't seem very practical to me, even if it is real. Why would they give you powers that you can't use by yourselves? What happens if one of you gets sick, for example?"

That was actually a good question. Nagisa scratched her head. "Well, uh…"

"And why do you have to hold hands?" Ryouta chimed in. "Can't you just share your powers with each other with a laser beam or something? That's how Taiyouman does it!"

"Taiyouman is from a TV show. This is real."

"I mean," said her father, deep in thought. "I can understand how it's appropriate, you know, as a theme. White and black, light and dark, day and night, that sort of thing. But it just seems like having your powers tied to both of you being together would create more problems than it's worth. Why can't you use something else to transform? Like a belt, for example-"

"I didn't make the rules, Dad!" said Nagisa. This situation was getting seriously out of hand. "Don't ask me how or why it works that way, it just does! Now please, let me finish so I can-"

"I knew it," said Rie, speaking up again. "I knew there was something strange going on with you two, the way you were always sneaking off, and spending so much time together… but I just assumed you were… well..." Flushing pink, she turned away.

"Oh God." moaned Nagisa, putting her face in her hands. "No, Mom, just… no! It's not like that! Please, try to focus, this is important!"

"- or a watch, that would be less conspicuous. Or even a regular cell phone…"

"But… but the way you're always whispering to each other! And holding hands-"

"Hey, now I remember…! That big guy at the aquarium last year, the one who looked like a gorilla! Are you telling me he was one of those Dust Zone guys? Did you-"

"QUIET!" roared Nagisa. She brought her fist down without thinking about it… and with a resounding snap that echoed in the sudden silence, the table between them fell in two. "Crap," she groaned, hanging her head in defeat. "I don't believe this! This is a nightmare, a nightmare…"

"Nagisa?" said a small, tired voice from the pouch on her hip. "If you like, I could talk to them, ~mepo…"

Rie's eyes nearly bulged out of her head. "What was that?!"

"I told you, Mom, he's my fairy partner. His name's Mepple. Mepple, are you sure you're strong enough?"

"Strong enough… for this. Just open the pouch so I can see, ~mepo…"

"Weird," said Ryouta, crawling over the broken table for a closer look as Nagisa unbuckled her pouch and flipped up the lid of Mepple's resting form. "Is that really him in there? A real fairy? Can I see?"

"Don't touch him, Ryouta, I might change back if you take him out!"

Ryouta withdrew his hand in a hurry. "So you're the one onee-chan was always yelling at," he said, his eyes wide. "We all just thought she was crazy!"

"OI!"

"Sorry about that, ~mepo…"

"Do you really have to say 'mepo' all the time? Doesn't that get annoying?"

"What… what do you mean, ~mepo?"

"Stop bothering him, Ryouta! He's... he's sick or something, he doesn't have time for stupid questions!"

"Nagisa! Don't talk to your brother that way!"

"Sorry, Mom… sorry, Ryouta."

"Everyone," said Mepple. Nagisa wondered how it was that he sounded so strong… it was a different timber altogether than the squeaky voice she was used to. "I've fought alongside Nagisa and Honoka for a long time. We've faced danger like you can't imagine, but this… These Dead End people are on a whole other level. I know you're scared… so are we. But we need to go stop them, and we don't have much time. I promise… on my honor as the Chosen Guardian of the Garden of Light… I'll keep Nagisa safe, and I'll bring her back to you. When I do… we'll explain everything." A small, weary sigh, and he fell silent again.

A pall fell over the room. The Misumi family's eyes moved as one back to Nagisa. "Um," she said, feeling uncomfortable. "Pretty much what he said. I wish we had more time to tell you what's going on, but… well."

Takeshi and Rie exchanged wordless glances.

It was Ryouta who spoke next. "You said… you said those guys took Honoka-san, right?"

Nagisa's chest grew tight. "Yeah."

"So you're going to go and kick their butts and get her back, right?"

"That's the plan."

"Then what are you waiting for?!" Ryouta flashed a thumbs-up. "Go get 'em, onee-chan!"

"Ryouta…" An overwhelming urge to hug him seized Nagisa… but again, not a wise idea while still transformed. Instead, she returned the thumbs-up with a grin as confident as she could manage. "Thanks."

Takeshi sighed. "I know you, Nagisa. If you set your mind on doing something, nothing can stop you. I want to say no, but-"

"- but I think we've seen that we can't really stop you." Rie tried to smile, but it was a wounded, bitter expression. Worry lines gathered at the corners of her mouth. "Try… try to be careful, okay?"

"I will, Mom. Thanks, Dad." Nagisa stood and turned her back to her family. No sense in letting them see how scared she really was… if she looked them in the eyes, she would lose her nerve. "Don't worry, I promise I'm coming back," she lied, her chest tighter than ever. "And Honoka's coming with me. Now where's-"

She was barely finished thinking of her when the little stranger stepped out from behind a corner and nodded, to shrieks of surprise from her mother and father. Nagisa had warned them, of course, but seeing a stranger just appear inside their home… that was something that would rattle anybody. Hand in hand, they walked to the front door… which wasn't their front door anymore, but an old wooden door with peeling weatherbeaten white paint and a tarnished brass knob. The little stranger stood on tiptoes and turned the handle… and what lay beyond was-

"I don't believe it," whispered Nagisa, mesmerized by the churning maelstrom of space beyond the door frame. Squeezing the little crystal spire in her free hand, she said aloud to… to whoever it was who had spoken to her earlier… "Are you sure this is safe?!"

After a moment's pause, the strange steely voice answered. As safe as we can manage. Come… the others are waiting. Now Nagisa was almost positive that it wasn't the little stranger speaking to her, the voice felt… too mature. That was the only way she could describe it.

"Nagisa?" said her mother's voice behind her. "Nagisa, we love you."

"Love you too, Mom, Dad, Ryouta." She couldn't look back, it would kill her to look back… so instead she stepped through the door with the little stranger, praying that she knew where she was going.

Hang on, Honoka. I'm coming.

END OF CHAPTER 11

Chapter Text

Chapter 12: Found and Lost

-VERTEX THREE: 8.333882^10-

Noble Academy, Yumegahama

Simultaneously

The sky was not broken, it was black.

Solid black, from one horizon to the other, without a single point of light. No sun, no moon, no stars, only darkness. Every few minutes, frightened eyes looked out of the windows of the boarding school, scanning the ominous sky for any changes and finding none before turning away.

Most of the students and staff of Noble Academy were well used to strange occurrences by now: giant monsters, aggressive strangers in weird costumes, people suddenly falling asleep and waking up in strange places with no idea how they got there. They were the kinds of things everyone experienced sooner or later, but no one talked about. What would they say? That a selection of bizarre figures had been seen in and around Yumegahama for months, demanding to see people's dreams? That there were a disproportionate number of seven-meter-tall monsters, random explosions, and strange flashes of sparkling light on campus? That the school's Groundskeeping Committee was kept in a constant, wearying state of struggle against mysterious patches of torn-up sod on the lawns, not to mention the pockmarks, burn marks, small craters, broken windows, and cracked walls that accumulated on the outsides of school buildings every week or so? There was simply no explanation for these things, so better to just ignore them.

The sky turning pitch black, however… that could hardly be ignored. Most of Noble Academy's students huddled inside their dorms, frightened and confused, while the faculty convened and spoke together in urgent, hushed tones.

However, there were five girls that looked out at the darkness and saw it not as some strange, terrifying unknown, but as a challenge to be overcome. They had faced crises like this many times before, after all...

"Is it DysDark, do you think?" said one girl, staring out at the darkness with ocean blue eyes. Even when uncertain, she had a calmness about her, which in turn inspired calmness in others.

"Who else could it be?" said the second, far more casual. She tilted back in her chair, crossing her arms behind her long brown pigtails. Star-shaped earrings jingled as she moved. "Sorta fits with their MO, doesn't it?"

"I'm not sure," said the redhead closest to the window, the smallest of the group. She twitched with more than her usual nervous energy, anxious to get out and stop whatever this was. "Something doesn't feel quite right. When it's DysDark, it's usually… loud, you know. And obvious."

"Regardless of who it is, we must stop it." The fourth girl spoke in overly formal, courtly speech as she rose and smoothed out her skirt. Her apricot-colored curls were carefully arranged to hide a distinctive pair of pointed, elfin ears. "Yui," she said to the fifth, "you know what to do. Please ensure the other students stay inside."

"Got it," said Yui Nanase, nodding and adjusting her thick glasses. As always, she couldn't join the fight with the others, but her own duties were no less important. "Good luck, everyone… I'll be watching and rooting for you!"

Moment later, the school's main doors swung open, revealing Minami Kaidou, Kirara Amanogawa, Haruka Haruno, and Towa Akagi, the defenders of dreams, the girls chosen as the four Princess Precure. As one, they drew their enchanted keys, placed them into the Princess Perfumes, and called out:

"Precure, Princess Engage!"

Light blossomed on the school's doorstep as the transformation took hold, energy resolving into colorful dresses. The Precure took their signature poses and began the ritual:

"The Princess of the Blooming Flowers… Cure Flora!" said Haruka, the leader in pink, her boundless courage radiant enough to drive the darkness back.

"The Princess of the Clear Seas… Cure Mermaid!" said Minami, elegant and serene in blue, the picture of a lady.

"The Princess of the Sparkling Stars… Cure Twinkle!" said Kirara, dressed in bright, cheery yellow and always aglow with youth and spirit.

"The Princess of the Crimson Flames… Cure Scarlet!" Finally, there was Towa, the fiery red princess of another world, who had adopted Earth as her second home.

"Strength!"

"Grace!"

"Beauty!"

"Go!"

And all together: "PRINCESS PRECURE!"

In the darkness that surrounded the school, something moved. A low, menacing voice intoned a single word: "One."

Before the Precure could move, before they could process the voice, before they could even react… four slabs like coffin lids erupted from the pavement directly behind each of them.

"Wh-" Flora sputtered.

"Two," said the voice.

Steel manacles sprung from the surface of each slab, closing around the Cures' wrists and ankles and pinning them in place. This was all wrong, there was no way someone could-

"Three," said the voice, and…

… and Flora screamed as something wrenched itself out of her chest from deep inside her, shining with bright light… Her teammates' voices accompanied hers, it was happening to all of them, what was it-

"Princesses..." said the voice, seething with hatred and scorn. It was somehow familiar… "False princesses. You think you are worthy of calling yourselves royalty? You think you possess 'Strength, grace, and beauty?' That your dreams are enough to empower you? Appalling." Out of the field of blackness she came… not the dark presence they expected, but someone new. A stunningly beautiful woman in a dark, flowing dress, ivory-skinned and raven-haired, with elfin features rather like Towa's. Her face, though… even through the haze of pain, Flora could see the cruelty behind that gorgeous face, hiding underneath her skin like a cancer waiting to erupt. The woman drew close to them, her eyes chips of ice, slitted with golden pupils. The way she spoke… it was an archaic dialect, cultured and refined, one that left no illusion as to how far above them all she saw herself. "We are true royalty," she said, laying a pale hand against her chest. "We possess the strength, grace, and beauty of which mere children can only dream. And we shall have those dreams of yours… you shall surrender them to Queen Nehelenia."

"Nehelenia…?" The name was unfamiliar, but her presence quelled even the blazing heat of Cure Scarlet's power. Dyspear was horrible enough, a monstrous creature that had stolen her childhood and her kingdom from her, held her in thrall for years, brainwashed her into something like this woman: a cold, unfeeling, arrogant monster. This woman named Nehelenia, though… she could feel her power on her skin, washing over her in waves, chilling her to her core. Scarlet recognized Nehelenia's kind of evil... for she had been that kind of evil.

Flora pulled at her manacles, staring right into the so-called Queen's icy eyes. Whatever it was that Nehelenia had torn out of her, she was still awake, which meant she could still fight… she just had to stall for time until she could get loose. "Who are you? What do you want with us?"

Nehelenia looked down at her as if she were an insect. "We were told of you," she said. "The one who desires to be a princess with all her heart. That dream..." She spread her clawed fingers, drew her hand back - "... we shall see if it is pure enough for us."

"Flora!" Mermaid couldn't see what the woman did, but Flora's pained howl a second later left little to the imagination. "FLORA!" This woman was hurting her, torturing her… Mermaid strained and arched her back, to no avail. The manacles were only steel, they should have broken easily under her enhanced strength, but that power… Nehelenia's power didn't just dwarf her own, it suppressed it… "Leave her alone!"

"Silence." Queen Nehelenia didn't even look at her; she sneered and dug her claws deeper into the Dream Mirror, the solidified form of all the false princess's hopes and desires. "Cure Flora," she whispered over the girl's screams. "Your dream is indeed pure, but pointless." She hissed the words, and twisted her claws. "Your strength, grace, and beauty will all depart you with time. Such is true even for us. The only way to keep those virtues that you treasure... is to stop time altogether..."

"S-stop…" Flora's insides burned… Nehelenia was inside her heart of hearts, darkening her innermost thoughts... "Stop it…!"

"We almost pity you," said Nehelenia. "Almost."

From behind her: "Precure Mermaid Ri-"

Without looking, Nehelenia waved her free hand, and the Lemures came to her beckon call. Formless, inky black creatures made of teeth and despair, a swarm of them appeared at her fingertips and screeched with joy, descending on the blue Cure's exposed Dream Mirror.

Now it was Mermaid's turn to howl. The living nightmares streamed into the mirror that hovered in front of her… and countless tiny, needle-sharp teeth tore ragged edges in her, eating away at the warmth and power that sustained her as a Precure. They gathered on the edges of her vision, whispered mockeries of her dreams into her ears, and danced in the corners of her eyes...

"NO!" Twinkle and Scarlet shouted in chorus, watching horrified as Mermaid's voice petered out and her head lolled to one side. This was wrong, it was all wrong…

It was a pure dream, it truly was. Even Nehelenia had to admit it. However pure, though, it was beneath her, as so many other things were. It was not worth consuming. Besides, the one that sent her here had other plans for it. Withdrawing her hand from the pink Cure's Dream Mirror, she turned to the next target. Behind her, another horde of Lemures rushed into the glass, and the false princess screamed…

"You," she said to the one called Cure Scarlet. "We were told of you."

"I-" Scarlet trembled under her gaze. A voice inside her screamed to fight back, to do something, but the awful, familiar evil she sensed inside Nehelenia held her frozen. "I will not," she said, determined at least to defy her to the last. "I will not surrender my dream to the likes of you!"

Next to her, Twinkle shouted something that blistered her ears, but meant essentially the same thing in spirit.

It was as if Nehelenia didn't even have to reach into the floating mirror. Her eyes read every inch of Scarlet, laying her secrets bare. "Yes, we see. You were once a fine figure of a true princess. Sublime, noble, and beautiful… you brought awe and terror to all around you with your presence, did you not?"

Scarlet's eyes grew wide. The shadow buried deep inside her heard those words…

Next to her, Twinkle roared, and her manacles creaked: "Get away from her, you-"

"Princess Twilight," said Nehelenia, ignoring the other's feeble cries. Until now, all her words had been arrogant, or cold, or steeped with anger… now, she sounded oddly reverent. "Your fall from grace was pitiable."

"My name is not-"

Her words cut off. Nehelenia's hand dove into her Dream Mirror, into her heart, seeking the brilliant light at its core. "Do not despair. We shall give you one more chance," she said, reaching deeper. Her fingers closed on the Seed, so impossibly bright that it burned her skin… all it would take was turning it just a little… "You, Princess Twilight, are worthy of-"

The air sizzled. Something hot and glowing streaked across Nehelenia's vision: a small golden star… a star alight with intense heat and sacred power. Whirling so fast that its points blurred together, it lanced clean through her forearm…

And Nehelenia howled as her arm emerged from Scarlet's mirror, but her hand did not.

A soft moan left Scarlet's lips. Her Dream Mirror faded back into her chest, and her transformation broke as she went limp.

"Keep... your hands... off of her."Breathing hard, her eyes gleaming, Cure Twinkle glared white-hot daggers at the monster that dared hurt her friends. She had nearly dislocated her right hand to free it from its manacle... a wisp of smoke rose from her shaking index finger, still pointed at the Queen.

Lovely, pale features twisted into an ugly snarl as Nehelenia clutched her bleeding stump to her chest. "How dare you… how dare you…!"

"You're gonna undo whatever you did to Towa-chi and all my friends," said Twinkle, quaking with rage, "and then-"

Black lightning erupted from Nehelenia's remaining hand. Taking savage glee in the yellow Cure's cries of pain, she struck again, and again, and again… She was besmirched, she was ruined, all because of this commoner, this worm who called herself a princess. A murderous crimson glow shone from the Queen's eyes. She would make this one pay, she would make this one suffer enough for a thousand lifetimes before she granted her the mercy of death, she would-

Another pain, a much smaller, almost insignificant pain, registered from Nehelenia's cheek. A rock. Someone had thrown a rock at her. Her blazing eyes left the yellow Cure as she turned…

A few steps away was a girl, just an ordinary human without a trace of power, already stooping for another rock, twin dark blue braids falling over her shoulders. Behind the thick lenses of her glasses, her eyes were wet, but she did not cry... she trembled, but she did not back down.

For the first time that she could remember, Nehelenia was baffled. All four Precure were hers, so who was this?

Yui Nanase stood up straight. "Let them go."

"You… you would oppose us…?" Nehelenia's mouth fell open in abject astonishment.

"You're darn right," said Yui, clenching her fist. "Let them all go, or else."

It made no sense. Nehelenia felt the world spin out from underneath her… why in all the worlds would a mere, powerless human be insane enough to-

Yui hurled the rock, and scored a second cut on her cheek.

And that was enough to send Nehelenia into a frenzy… forget the Precure, she would first take this impudent wretch's dream, then tear her apart while her precious friends watched. "One! Two! Three!" The slab appeared behind her, the manacles locked into place, and-

And Yui Nanase didn't scream as her Dream Mirror was extracted. The only sound she made was a small yelp of shock as it emerged from her chest… but she bit down on her lip and held the rest in. Her teary eyes never left Nehelenia's for a moment.

"Yuiyui, no…" Twinkle could barely speak. Her body still sizzled with leftover sparks from Nehelenia's brutal attack, she smelled something burning… but damned if she was going to let this witch hurt anyone else. "T-Towa-chi… Minamin..." Though every small motion hurt, she pulled at the remaining manacles holding her to her slab. "Haruharu…" Her muscles cried out in agony, but the manacles wouldn't budge. She tried again.

This time, to her surprise, she fell forward onto the steps. Stunned by the impact, she blacked out for a few seconds…

When she came to, there was a lovely pair of ruby eyes staring at her with concern, set in a small face Twinkle had never seen before…


Nehelenia hovered over her prey, blazing with fury. Blood trickled down her cheek from the shallow cuts the rocks had made, cooling in the night breeze. "You hurt us," she said, cold and merciless as death. "You disfigured our face…"

Yui gritted her teeth. "The P-Precure will do worse to you."

"For your transgression," hissed the Queen, "we shall not consume your dream. Rather, we think…" Here, she took hold of Yui's Dream Mirror. "We think you deserve to watch us as we shatter your dream into pieces, bit by bit. Our Lemures shall then inhabit the withered husk that is left of you… and you shall watch from within it, helpless, as they drive you to commit every atrocity known to your kind. You shall suffer as no human has ever suffered-"

"Precure Meteor Humming!"

A flurry of golden shooting stars threw the Queen into silhouette, riddling her back and streaking under her outstretched arms to tear through Yui's slab. Yui began to fall… but before she could, she snatched her Dream Mirror back from Nehelenia's hand…

And the Queen watched in disbelief as the ordinary, unimportant human girl shoved her own Dream Mirror back inside herself, then didn't so much as stagger as she ran to her friends at the top of the stairs.

There Twinkle stood, pointing her Crystal Rod at her, half-dead but still on her feet. She held an unconscious Towa with her other arm… and next to her was a very small girl in a turquoise sundress, with long blonde hair and clear eyes like rubies. One look at her, and Nehelenia could tell that this one, at least, was no ordinary human…

The Queen rose to her full height. It didn't matter if one or two of them were free. The other two belonged to her Lemures now, and should the yellow one try to free them…

She moved to do so, but the little stranger stopped her, placing a small hand on her leg. Twinkle's face tensed in shock, as she looked past Nehelenia at something that wasn't there, something far away… Nehelenia heard the human girl called Yui ask if she was all right before the little stranger touched her too, and the same stricken expression crossed her face.

Whatever was happening, it stopped now. Nehelenia floated inches off the ground, swelling with power, and she threw a cascade of lightning at her adversaries…

It struck nothing but air. With impossible speed, the little stranger pushed the two Cures and their human into an ordinary wooden door that appeared out of nowhere between Flora and Mermaid's slabs, standing by itself… Once they were through, the door simply ceased to be.

Nehelenia was alone. In some respects, she had failed… but she had two more for the Merry-Go-Round, at least, and her Lemures would ensure they would march themselves onto it without a problem. A partial success was still a success. Tracing the threads of blood from her injured cheek, she vowed then and there to make it a complete one, someday.

Cure Twinkle. Yui. The both of you shall suffer for this...


-VERTEX THREE: 8.333882^7-

Nanairogaoka

Simultaneously

Frigid winds lashed the little town to the bone, keening through the streets and over silent houses. Those winds were the some of the only things in Nanairogaoka that still moved; almost everything else was still, frozen over in sheets of ice half a meter thick. That included the townspeople: workers, shoppers, salarymen, mothers and their children, even animals… all captured in the second that the inexplicable storm had hit them, wearing the exact same smiles they had a half an hour ago. It was more than inexplicable, it was impossible… blizzards couldn't freeze over entire towns in an instant, especially not in the middle of July…

In the center of the vast, monochrome wasteland of ice and snow, there were six colorful figures: five teenage girls known as Smile Precure and their fairy companion, trying to find the storm's center.

"It doesn't make any sense!" That was Cure March, Nao Midorikawa. In battle, March was tough and strong, and possessed blinding speed, but her greatest asset was her unfailing kindness and loyalty to her friends and family. Every group of friends had a "team mother", and March fit that description better than most. Her voluminous green ponytail and the two smaller sidetails that framed her face were blown straight back by the freezing wind. "Pierrot was destroyed, so this can't be a Bad End Space, can it?"

"It doesn't feel like one,"said the fairy that rode on her shoulder, a tiny, lamblike creature with long, fluffy ears tucked into spiral-shaped buns. "And it doesn't look like one, either… nobody's giving off Bad Energy, ~kuru!" Candy shivered and huddled tighter against March's neck, trying to take shelter within her poofy hair.

Miyuki Hoshizora, Cure Happy, rubbed her arms, which were studded with goosebumps. "L-l-let's just h-hurry and s-stop whatever it is," she said, her teeth chattering. Even the leader's boundless energy and optimism were dampened by this weather. That was a bad sign indeed… there was a noticeable droop to her enormous pink pigtails, and she moved far slower than her usual breakneck pace.

"Here, stand next to me and ya won't be as cold." Akane Hino, Cure Sunny, put an arm around her friend and hugged her close. If anyone should have been unaffected by the blizzard, it was Sunny, as hot-blooded and passionate as her name, powers, and orange uniform implied. "Feelin' any better?" At least her smile was as warm as ever, and there was something about her feisty Osakan accent that could lift even the darkest of spirits.

"Yeah," Happy smiled in return and huddled close. "Thanks."

Forging ahead at the front of the group was Reika Aoki, Cure Beauty. She was less bothered by the cold than any of the others; ice was her element, after all. However, even Beauty felt her strength being sapped from exposure… another sign that the storm wasn't natural, as if they needed one. The blue Cure lifted a hand to her brow and peered into the whorls of snowflakes, trying to make out their location. "It's hard to tell, but I think we must be close to the fountain at the center of town," she called back to the others, calm and unflappable. "Perhaps the storm is concentrated there?"

As if in reply, the yellow Cure bringing up the rear let out a loud, echoing sneeze. "S-sorry," said Yayoi Kise, Cure Peace, rubbing her nose and sniffling. "I'm w-with H-Happy," she said. "W-we need to hurry and s-stop this…!" Peace was smaller and more timid than the rest of her teammates, still prone to bursting into tears on occasion whenever she got too emotional. The love and support of the others kept her going, even in miserable situations like this one.

On they trudged, their footprints in the snow rapidly filling in behind them. In seconds, there was no sign they had ever been there at all.


At last, a shape loomed before them out of the white void… the town fountain, but it had changed. The entire structure lay trapped within ice crystals, a cluster of great frozen spikes that jutted out at threatening angles. The Cures squinted as they looked up into that cluster… then stared in disbelief. Sitting atop the ice was an enormous flower blossom, its petals closed tightly together, colored so deep violet they were almost black,

"Huh?" Sunny blinked. "What the heck's a flower doin' out in the middle of all this?!"

"I have a bad feeling about this, ~kuru," said Candy.

Fascinated, Beauty peered closer. "It doesn't look like any species I know of. It's much too large, and any normal flower would have withered in this weather… which means it must not be normal at all."

"S-s-so wh-what should we do?" said Peace over a fresh attack of shivers. "Sh-should we attack it?"

"Your call, Happy." March nodded at her friend.

Happy looked to each of her friends and Candy in turn. She nodded, and opened her mouth to speak…

At that precise moment, the storm died out all at once as if someone had flipped a switch. There was no more biting wind, and the only snow that fell drifted down on them in gentle flakes. Everything fell silent… too silent.

Happy clenched her fists. "Girls, get ready!"

Atop the frozen fountain, the bizarre flower's petals swirled open… and from inside-

"Oh, you gotta be kiddin' me..." said Sunny.

-from inside the blossom there came a shower of confetti, the sound of noisemakers, a burst of off-key calliope music sounding as if it were being played over a very old speaker, and…

"No…" Happy's insides seized up with cold that had nothing to do with the weather.

Joker. Their old enemy rose from the center of the blossom with his arms spread wide, a slasher's grin across his face, the black eyes of his mask wide and wild with glee. The harlequin spun in place, dancing in the colorful confetti scraps that fluttered down on him. "Surprise, mes amis!" he cackled. "The star of the show has returned for an encore performance! Please, please, hold your applause!"

On March's shoulder, their fairy companion began to shudder uncontrollably. "Y-you…" said Candy, gripping March's sidetail for dear life. "I-i-it's impossible… Y-y-y-you aren't supposed to be here! You d-d-d… destroyed yourself, and w-we d-destroyed P-P-Pierrot…"

March put a hand on her little friend's head to steady her. "Candy's right!" she said. "We defeated Pierrot, your Worst Ending, and your Bad End Kingdom-"

"Bad End Kingdom?" Joker blew air through his lips. "Please, mon cherie, that's so passé. I've set my sights on bigger and better things. Bad End is out…" His grin stretched so wide that it threatened to tear his face apart. "Dead End is in."

"'Dead End?'" Beauty took a cautious step back and raised an eyebrow.

"Yes, dear, emphasis on dead," said Joker. His eyes widened to the size of dinner plates, hellish red lights burning in their centers. "As in, no more. Ceased to be. Expired, gone to meet its maker. A stiff, bereft of life, it rests in peace-"

"Oi!" Sunny raised a fist, which burst into flame. "Can the comedy act already! Whaddya want?!"

"Tsk." Joker waved a dismissive finger at her. "What a philistine, no appreciation for the classics. My dear Akane, if I wasted time telling you want I want, well, that would be less time to watch the show. I've something extra special prepared for all of you…" His gaze shifted onto Candy, who moaned and hugged March even tighter. "All six of you. I've had quite a lot of time to think about my mistakes, and this time… it's your Dead End, and I'm going to watch and savor every second of it."

Immediately, the Precure took ready stances, prepared for anything. Even Candy, terrified as she was, attempted to swallow her fear and hopped down from March's shoulder, raising her tiny arms.

"Candy?" said Peace, looking down at her.

Abruptly, Candy wasn't down anymore… a puff of white smoke, and a girl even smaller than Peace stood next to her, dressed all in white, with big blue eyes and twin hair buns that resembled Candy's ears. "I-I'm f-fighting alongside you this time, ~kuru," she said, her voice trembling but determined. "I never got a chance to pay Joker back for Mama before…"

"'Attagirl, Candy! That's the spirit!" Beaming with pride, Happy clapped her on the shoulder, seeming much more like her old self. "If the six of us are together, there's no way Joker can beat us!"

Sunny grinned. "Yeah, none of us got to give the bastard the poundin' he deserved… Count me in."

"And I as well," said Beauty.

"I'm going too!" Peace swallowed and took a ready stance.

"And me," finished March. "Happy, what's the plan?"

"Hit him with everything we've got until he stops moving!"

Sunny had to blink at that one. "... that's a plan?"

"It'll do! Let's go!"

From above, Joker watched them, barely containing laughter. "Oh, this is simply marvelous. I knew I made the right decision not telling you… you have no idea what's coming, do you?" He snapped his fingers…

In the distance, across the icy plain, a figure appeared out of thin air without a sound. Happy expected some kind of monster or demon… but that was not at all what it was. It was a figure shrouded in a black cloak, carrying some kind of ornate metal staff with a jewel at its crown… and from that jewel sprung a wicked, curving blade of blood red light. The cloaked figure rode atop a horse out of someone's nightmare: a sickly, skeletal thing with milky, blind eyes and an odd, off-white coat…

Happy heard Peace draw in a sharp breath next to her. "Peace? Yayoi-chan, what is it?"

Peace couldn't answer, her throat was too tight. She and her mother went to church. Not often, not since her father passed away, but often enough that she knew the verse: I saw a rider on a pale horse…

"Time Reaper," said Joker. "If you please…"

With a clatter of hooves, the horse took off at full gallop. Its rider held out the scythe to one side as it led its steed on, barreling straight for them…

"Everyone, dodge!" Happy tucked and rolled, and heard the others do the same. She heard and felt the air hiss as the scythe blade passed over her head, missing her by inches… Then, a crackle of energy, a pulse of power she could feel on her skin even through the frigid cold, and…

"Ghhh-"

-static-

The rider had extended its scythe's energy blade as it passed. It had curved outward and down in a wide arc… and buried itself in Candy's chest. She stood still, pale with shock and staring at nothing… the rider galloped on with its staff, but the burning scythe blade remained, having run her through…

Before the Cures could even call out her name, Candy's body faded to shades of grey and crumbled into dust.


Oh, how sweet it was. The screaming, the crying, the expressions of stupefied disbelief. Joker carved every sound and every one of their stricken faces into his memory. That damned fairy brat was at fault for everything. She saved the Precure from Pierrot's clutches when he had them dead to rights, she helped them unlock new power and turn the tide of countless battles… why, her presence was the reason these girls even became Precure in the first place. And now she was gone, deader than dead, and all that was left was to finish springing the trap and enjoy.

"Spectacular work, Reaper," he said to the cloaked figure that was now back at his side. The horse (which was an absolutely splendid touch, Joker thought), had disappeared into ether the moment the Reaper dismounted it.

The Time Reaper nodded and said nothing.

"Now, shall we proceed to the second act?"

The Time Reaper nodded and said nothing.

Joker smiled. "I like the way you think, mon ami!" He snapped his fingers…


Underneath the Cures' feet, the ice rumbled and heaved. Still sick with grief, they stumbled and lost their footing as five towering spires of ice crystals erupted from the frosty ground, all in a row behind Joker and the cloaked rider. Flowers blossomed from the tip of each spire, their petals parting to reveal five feminine, oddly beautiful figures, all of different colors. They almost looked like fairies out of one of Miyuki's beloved picture books, with dragonfly wings and feathery, moth-like antennae on their foreheads, but their eyes… there was something wrong about their eyes, all flat colors, vaguely insectoid...

"Precure," said Joker, spreading his arms, "please allow me to introduce the rest of the evening's entertainment. These fine ladies you see behind me are a group of very special Youma, who call themselves the DD Girls..."

Oh God, no. Not them... Heaven help them, it's all gone wrong...

"Mesdames," continued Joker to his troops, "these are the Precure: Happy, Sunny, Peace, March, and the one in blue is Beauty. There was one more, but she had to leave the show early. Rather rude of her, don't you think?"

"You…" Hot tears streamed down March's cheeks, tears she couldn't feel. Her shoulder was still warm. Candy had just been standing there a minute ago, but her warmth was already fading… "You murderer! How dare you-" She took a crouch, pulled her leg back, sprung into the air, and bellowed, "PRECURE MARCH SHOOT!" A whirling ball of condensed wind spun to life at the toe of her boot. With all her strength, she slammed her foot into it, sending it streaking right toward Joker's grinning face…

… and Joker wasn't there anymore, he was a meter to the right along with the cloaked rider. "Très impoli, Mademoiselle Nao… should you really be focusing on me? Haven't you more important people to worry about?"

"What do you-"

Then she heard a voice that stopped her cold. "Nao-onee-tan!"

Everything else dropped away. March fell back to the ice, looked past the fountain, and saw something that dropped an iron weight of cold dread in her stomach. Her youngest brother, Kouta, barely even three… He was tied to a post twenty meters away, red-faced, sobbing, scared out of his wits. "Nao-onee-tan," he cried, those big brown eyes pleading. "Nao-onee-tan…!"

March didn't think. She didn't hear the words of her teammates. Taking off at top speed, she ran for Kouta, her thoughts on an endless loop: Please be all right, please be all right, please be all right, please be all right…!

Less than a dozen steps from him, Kouta looked up at March, and smiled.

That wasn't Kouta's smile.

That wasn't Kouta's smile...

"K-Kouta…?" March skidded to a stop, and a heartbeat later, Kouta's chest exploded. A flurry of thick green vines shot from his small body, and there were more of them at her feet, erupting from beneath the ice. "No!" They wrapped tight around her before she could run, pinning her arms and squeezing her with horrible strength. She felt herself lifting off the ground… It was Joker's troops, the DD Girls, all five of them bursting up from below. The vines were their arms, carrying her into the sky…

Down below, the others screamed her name. Happy and Sunny grabbed their Smile Pacts from their hip pouches, gathered their energy…

"Precure Happy Shower..."

"Precure Sunny Fire..."

Moving as one, the Youma pulled close, surrounding March in a tight circle.

"Wait!" called Beauty, throwing out an arm. "You can't, you'll hit March too!"

"But-"

"D-don't…!" March groaned down at them, struggling in the Youmas' grip. Their vines crushed her bit by bit, she could hardly breathe… "S-save your energy, I can h-handle these things… M-my fault… nnngh… I got caught… Sh-should have known it… was a trap…! Get… Joker… for Candy…!" A crackling sound, and… and then agony, electric bolts racing through the DD Girls' vines and into her body…

"March!"

"NAO-CHAN!"

Pain, so much pain, sending her into spasms, lighting up every nerve with fire. But… whoever these monsters called Youma were, they had made a critical error. March smirked… "You've got s-some n-nerve… g-g-getting this close…"

Panic flashed through two of their faces. One of them spoke, the purple one, perhaps aware that something was amiss: "What…?" The others bore down, squeezing March harder, pouring more electricity into her…

Darkness infringed on March's vision, a growing numbness spread through her limbs, but she could still move one leg… and she had just enough power to- "PRECURE MARCH SHOOT… IMPACT!" And March became a living tornado, pirouetting in place at blinding speed. Three of the DD Girls let go and peeled off… the two others weren't so lucky. March spun, wrapping their vines around herself like a spool of yarn being threaded, pulling the two Youma in even closer. March's leg lashed out, shredded through them both like they were made of paper, and-

And the creatures exploded with a titanic roar. A shockwave, a tide of loose snow, and a blast of searing heat washed over the four Cures down below, a geyser of melted ice water sprung up from the point of impact, and there was an oddly musical sound as the water immediately hardened again…

Happy picked herself up, blinking snow out of her eyes, her ears ringing. "M-March…?"

Silence. Another frozen spire now stood where March had been, enormous spikes of ice jutting at random from its sides, their edges sharp and deadly. What little remained of the two DD Girls was trapped inside… and higher above them…

Something constricted Beauty's heart, as if it were caught in a vise. "March!"

They ran, all calling her name, rushing to the base of the spire. Happy clambered onto one of the ice spikes, slipped and nearly fell, then regained her grip. "March, hold on!"

March was half-frozen, suspended upside-down inside the tallest spike. One look at her battered body confirmed that something was wrong, very wrong. Her eyelids fluttered… "E-everyone…"

"MARCH!"

"NAO-CHAN!"

"Happy, stay back, you'll cut yourself wide open on those things!"

"I don't care! Nao-chan, we're coming!"

March chuckled, a sad, weak sound. "S-sorry… th-that was dumb… D-don't think… I'll be coming… with you... "

"Don't say that!" Peace gripped Sunny's shoulder so hard she almost broke it, her tears throwing off sparks. "Sunny, you can melt the ice, right? Sunny!"

Sunny was lost for words, unable to move. This couldn't be happening, couldn't be real. "Nao-chan…?"

Somehow, Happy had found a grip on a few of the jutting spikes, and was now mere feet away from March. "Nao-chan, just hold on, please hold on, don't-"

Beauty reached for her to pull her back. "Happy-"

"Get… Joker…" whispered March with a gentle smile. "Give him... one for me… and one for Candy. Keep f-fighting… and don't..."

Then silence, save for musical cracking of the ice…

"Nao..."

"NAO!"

"Nao-chan!"

"NAO-CHAAAAAN!"

The freezing wind began to blow once more, moaning a dirge.


It took everything Sunny and Beauty had to keep their teammates from running back to the spire. Desperate, not thinking straight, they kept fighting, trying to return to Nao, when it-

No, thought Beauty. It's not too late. It can't be. Her mouth was a thin, hard line. A strange, terrible calm had descended on her, not at all like the usual kind. This calm was as cold as the bitter air, a feeling of detachment from herself. Detachment, but also perfect clarity: This can't be for nothing. I will not let it be for nothing. Keeping an arm around poor Happy for support, she strode forward, her fine senses on high alert. Where are you?

No matter how far they walked, they never seemed to reach the edge of the fountain square. That didn't make sense; the square wasn't big enough to get lost in, even when buried under a meter of ice. Which led Beauty to one conclusion: they were being fooled. The endless wasteland was an illusion, perhaps the same kind of illusion that fooled March.

Where are you?

"Beauty?" said Sunny, who had a tight grip on a despondent Peace's wrist. "What's up?" She sounded so tired, not like her at all.

"I'm trying to find a way out," said Beauty. "I think there may be-"

She didn't see it, but she felt it: they were close. They were waiting.

"Sunny?" Her voice was even. "Stay here with Happy and Peace for a moment, please."

"What are you gonna-"

"No!" Before Sunny could finish, Happy whirled on her, her eyes red-rimmed from crying. Her fingers dug in as she seized Beauty's shoulders. "Reika-chan, y-y-you can't, we've got to s-stick together!"

"I know." Beauty laid a gentle hand on her cheek. "I know. But if someone doesn't cut off the source of the illusions, we'll never get out of here..."

"No." Happy shook her head so fast that her pigtails made a half-circle behind her. "No, no, no, no, no…"

Peace sobbed once, too tired for a full-on cry. There were now soft, intermittent sizzle-pop sounds from her direction… her tears were losing their charges.

"I'm with Happy." Sunny crossed her arms and gave a fierce glare. "There's no way we're lettin' you go alone."

"Please understand," Beauty's tone stayed even. "We are all very tired, and two of you are in no condition to battle right now. Sunny, if you come with me, there will be no one to protect the others if Joker's troops try to attack."

"Then I'll go by myself."

"No," said Beauty. "You won't know what to look for. I have an idea, but-"

"Then screw it!" At that, Sunny stamped her foot… a cloud of steam sprung up from beneath her as flames licked over the ice. "We all leave together, and come back when we're stronger!"

"Sunny-"

"I ain't gonna stand here and-"

Smack.

Happy and Peace looked up in total astonishment at the sharp sound of flesh striking flesh, even forgetting to cry for a moment.

Beauty, of all people, had lost her temper. Cool, serene, eternally patient Reika Aoki had just left a glowing handprint on Sunny's cheek. The entire world seemed to tilt out of balance…

"I'm sorry," said Beauty. "I'm sorry, Akane-chan." A warm smile, that good old Reika smile. "When I destroy the source of the illusions, the rest of you should be back in the square. That's when we'll need your power to melt the ice in town, and save as many people as we can. I will follow right behind you as soon as I finish."

The two teammates' eyes met, an entire conversation happening between them without words…

Finally, Sunny spoke, her voice husky. "Yeah, I got ya. Hot-blooded power, right? Ya'd all be outta luck without me." She reached out and gave Beauty a gentle punch to the shoulder. "Go. Don't ya dare be late."

"R-Reika-chan…"

"Please, don't-"

"Miyuki-chan, Yayoi-chan, don't worry. I will be right behind you, I promise." She gave each of them that warm smile, then turned and ran… but not before she caught one more glimpse of Sunny's eyes.

Sunny's eyes said something to her clear as day, something that the orange Cure didn't dare say aloud in front of the others: Liar.


In only a few steps, she lost all sign of the others. That was enough confirmation for her illusion theory. Now she simply had to wait…

It wasn't long until she made out the shape of a human body in the mist before her. Before it had even finished resolving, she knew who it would be… Junnosuke, her beloved older brother. His body hung from a chain, still and unmoving.

"Onii-sama," Beauty whispered. Her heart stung, but she wouldn't be fooled. She knew this game. The picture of calm, she took a deep breath, channeling her energy before she intoned: "Precure… Beauty Blizzard Arrow."

At her command, the bow and shaft materialized, forming from ice crystals facet by facet. Beauty wasn't about to walk right into their trap… she would let them come to her. With practiced skill, she gripped the end of the shaft and pulled back on the bowstring, and let fly…

The false Junnosuke looked up at the whistling sound. His eyes flashed a foreign red color, Beauty heard "him" cry out in an unfamiliar voice before the arrow buried itself in his forehead. A sharp crack accompanied his scream… and in a blink, he wasn't Junnosuke anymore, he was the lead DD Girl, the blue one with the crown…

"You bitch…!" The Youma's language was perfectly audible even from a hundred paces away as she clawed away the frozen shaft. "I'll kill you, you filthy sow!"

Beauty's nose wrinkled. "How distasteful. You should remember your manners." Dismissing the bow, she took a balletic flying leap forward… and icy blades formed on each of her boots before she touched back down to the frozen ground. Arcs of powder and frost sluiced to either side of her as she sped forward, another weapon forming in her hand…

The blue Youma's… teammates? Siblings?… split off from behind her and took to the sky, but the leader had no intention of fleeing. Splitting her arm into vines, she shrieked and cast them at the oncoming Cure, she would skewer her like a pig…

It was like trying to hit a shadow. Beauty ducked and weaved out of the way of each vine with the grace of a champion, shooting past the Youma and circling around for another pass. More vines, fireballs, and bolts of electricity rained down from the two in the air… their shots were wild, haphazard, but growing closer. Blue's vines ripped through the ice close behind her, denying her the smooth surface she needed, but it didn't matter; she wouldn't need another pass. The weapon was complete, a rough, crystalline, frozen sword… Beauty crouched low and poured on all speed, launching herself like one of her own arrows, directly at Blue… Vines shot by on all sides, drawing blood even with grazing hits, tearing through her Cure uniform, but she was so close, couldn't back off now… only one chance… Blue roared, there was no fear in those blank eyes, and-

"GYAAAAA…!" The roar became a scream, which petered out into silence. The blue DD Girl slumped to her knees, the blade embedded inches deep in her skull, having plunged straight through her crown. Before she hit the ground, her body swelled, her teammates scattered…

… and Beauty was thrown off her blades by the explosion that followed, crashing painfully to the ice. The pain was worth it, it worked… Cringing, she pushed herself upright. No time to rest, no time to lick her wounds. There was a promise she intended to keep. With a considerable amount of effort, she rose to her feet, and took a few unsteady steps back in the direction she came-

Something thin and cold and hard plunged into her back, through her body and out of her chest. Beauty's pupils shrank to pinpricks. "What-"

"Well, that didn't go at all as planned," groused a sardonic voice behind her. "Exciting, yes, but far off script. I don't take kindly to performers improvising, Mademoiselle Reika."

"Jo… ker…" There was a rapier blade running her through, but there was no blood. The pain and shock now began reach her brain, yet there wasn't any blood, why wasn't there blood…?

Dimly, she felt the harlequin's hand run through her hair and brush over the curve of her ear. "Really, you're supposed to be the smart one, yet you didn't see that coming? Perhaps it would have helped to have a pair of high-tech goggles, or a fancy little computer, non?"

"What… do you want?" Beauty groaned. Every iota of her willpower, she poured into resisting the urge to go limp and let the dark claim her.

"The end, in the long term," hissed Joker. "But for now… well, let's just say that you in particular have humiliated me once too often, Mademoiselle. And now you've derailed this production enough that I'm personally stepping in to cut your scene short~."

"N-" A hideous tearing sensation, and something bright appeared at the point of Joker's blade. Something so impossibly bright, it hurt to look at it… Beauty was about to reach out and touch it when the rapier pulled out, and she fell. She fell for what felt like years, without ever touching the cold, frozen ground...


Moaning, Peace sank to the ice, her legs splayed awkwardly underneath her. "C-can't," she sobbed. "Can't… run… anymore…"

"Whaddya mean, ya can't?" Sunny whirled on her, eyes blazing. "Come on, you ran that baton race in school, didn't ya? This is nothin'!"

Happy came to Peace's side put a hand on her shaking shoulder. Out of stubbornness more than anything else, she attempted to smile, because her strength was what the others needed right now… but there was no disguising that the spirited twinkle in the pink Cure's eyes was all but gone. "Come on, it won't be much farther. Any minute now, Beauty's going to find whatever's causing the illusions and destroy it."

"B-but C-Candy… and Nao-chan… th-they're already-"

"We'll get them back, I swear." A hollow promise, one that she had no idea how to keep, or even if it could be kept, but if it got them out of this… Ahead, she saw Sunny open her mouth to argue, but a pleading look stopped her.

Far in the distance, the three Cures heard an inhuman scream, one that made Peace cringe and cover her ears. As the sound faded, the endless flat wasteland of ice shimmered like a heat mirage and faded into the familiar surroundings of Nanairogaoka… still frozen over, but it was really their home. Which meant only one thing…

"You see?" The first genuine smile in what felt like hours spread across Happy's face. "Look, Peace, we're back in town! Beauty did it! She did it!"

Daring to hope, Peace lifted her head. "R… Reika-chan?"

Even Sunny seemed to regain her passion. "Awright, that's what I'm talkin' about! Way ta go, Beauty! Sorry I doubted ya, Happy, you were right!"

Happy nodded, sniffled, and rubbed her eyes with the back of her hand. "It's okay. All we have to do now is wait for Beauty to come back. It sounds like she took out another one of those Youma things, so-"

"So now it's four on two," Sunny finished, pounding a fist into her palm. "Great. I gotta score to settle with them."

"It's… it's gonna be okay," said Peace in a quiet voice, looking off in the direction Beauty had gone. "When Reika-chan comes back, it's gonna be okay…"

They waited. And waited. And waited.

No Beauty.

"She…" There was a growing blankness to Peace's expression, an indication that she teetered on the edge of a full breakdown… "M-m-maybe she's hurt. That must be it, right? She's hurt. We should go h-help her…"

Sunny bit the inside of her cheek hard enough to draw blood even in her Cure form.

"I mean…" Peace turned back to look at them, pale and trembling. "Th-that's the only reason she w-wouldn't be here, r-right? She won. She should be here. Why isn't she?"

How could Happy respond? How could she say anything, knowing the likely answer to that question, and how close Peace was to her limit? She shook in place, her fists clenched tight, willing herself not to cry anymore. "Peace…"

"No," said Peace. Everything about her seemed to… to deflate, even her huge, fan-shaped ponytail. She stared listlessly at the ice beneath her, too numb to move. "No. Not Reika-chan too, no. No…"

That was when Happy saw it: a glowing, spreading light in the ice, in a perfect circle directly beneath where Peace knelt. Red at first, then orange, then yellow, then white…

She didn't think. Happy hurled herself at Peace, shoving her out of the way… an instant before the vines melted through the street and the ice covering it. The breath was forced from her lungs as they seized her, hot iron bands constricted her waist…

Sunny was up at once, hurling handfuls of fire at the base of the vines. A moment later and Peace followed, throwing lightning with everything she had left, screaming for them to leave her alone. Pride for her teammates swelled in Happy's heart, briefly dulling the pain shooting up and down her spine… they could do it, all they needed was-

The vines yanked downward all at once, and Cure Happy vanished into the gaping, melted hole in the street.


"DAMMIT! Dammit, dammit, dammit, dammit!" Switching from individual volleys to a constant stream, Sunny scoured the tunnel with flames. The rocky walls glowed cherry red down into the dark... it had to work, they couldn't lose Happy too…

They heard her screaming moments later. From deep down came flashes of burning light...

That was when Peace collapsed, wailing in helpless despair, her hands pressed to her ears and her eyes screwed shut in a desperate attempt to block out reality.

"Dammit…" It was all Sunny could do to keep from joining her in her misery. Her fist slammed the ice, spreading a network of cracks through it. "This… this isn't fair…"

More flashes, more screaming. A yell of surprise from one of the Youma. Happy's voice welled up from somewhere in the tunnel: "H-HAPPY SHOWER... SH-SHINING…!"

The tunnel walls lit up brighter than ever with a blinding pink glow, and one of the Youma managed a howl that was quickly silenced. The thoom of a faraway explosion rumbled through the ground beneath them… then nothing. No more light, no more voices.

Happy was gone. Only the wind was with them now, blowing that mournful dirge…

"Yayoi-chan," said Sunny after a long time. "I'm sorry. I'm really sorry."

Peace had no answer, save for a dry sob. There wasn't even a flicker of voltage to her tears now… she was all out. Spent. Useless.

"This… this shouldn't have happened." Sunny beat the ice again, cratering it. "Things like this… they just don't happen. It's not-"

"Yes they do." She spoke in barely a whisper.

"Peace?"

The yellow Cure stared off into space, old memories resurfacing. Sad memories… but with all the grief and misery she had already felt today, sad memories hardly hurt as much. "I've seen this before," she said. "I've seen it before."

Sunny blinked. "Seen what?"

"This." Slowly, Peace took in the frozen fountain square, as if seeing it for the first time. "All of this. The ice. The Youma… the DD Girls. I've seen them before… I've seen this happen…"

Part of Sunny felt a horrible suspicion that Peace had finally snapped from the strain. Yet she sounded so sure of herself… She knelt next to Peace and put her hands on her shoulders. "Where? Where did you see it?"

"You…" Peace frowned, and it was so like that silly little Yayoi pout that Sunny felt the inexplicable urge to laugh. "You wouldn't believe me if I told you. But I saw this when I was little… with Papa. I remember being so scared… it was scarier than anything I'd ever seen, but he told me it would be all right in the end…"

"Well, was it? Did it turn out? C'mon, if ya know what's happening, gimme details!"

Peace turned her stare on Sunny. Fear lurched in her belly, gnawing at her insides… "Oh no."

"Whaddya mean?" said Sunny through gritted teeth. "Spill, already!"

"It's…" Now Peace began trembling again. It should have been impossible to be more frightened than she was already, but… "It's almost the same, but n-not quite… they… they took Candy first, th-that didn't happen… but th-then it was March, who got tricked by an illusion. Th-then Beauty, she went off b-by herself, then… then H-Happy p-pushed me out of the way, b-but… but I should have pushed her… I'm not the l-leader, I'm Venus, it sh-should have been me, n-not Happy!"

"Peace, you're not makin' any sense!" Sunny shook her, but gently. "Please, ya gotta hold it together!"

".. b-but if y-you're Mars…" Peace's hands gripped Sunny's tight. "... th-that means… you're next…"

That, at least, registered to Sunny. She stood, and turned around…

Ten meters away, the last remaining Youma hovered, charred, singed, and smoking, but alive. Waiting for her.

It's all gone wrong…

"Peace," she said quietly. "I dunno what's goin' on, but-"

"No. Sunny, no, you can't! I'm not the leader, I'm not strong enough to-"

"'Course you are. You're a crybaby, but you're plenty strong. You took out Akaoni all by yourself that one time, remember?" Sunny's eyes fell into shadow. "It's all wrong. It's all messed up. But you're sayin' you know what's happening, and that it's gonna be all right in the end… so I believe ya."

"Please, Sunny, let's just run! We'll get help… w-we'll get help from Märchenland or somewhere…"

"Yeah, ya will. I know ya can. Go to Märchenland and get help from anybody ya find there. I'll cover ya."

"Sunny, no, please don't leave me alone!"

"Hey." Sunny wrapped her arms around Peace and tousled her hair. "Don't worry. I'll be back before ya know it. 'The brilliant sun, hot-blooded power', remember? That's me. This bitch don't stand a chance."

Peace tried to cry, but more tears simply wouldn't come. It was as if she had already lost Sunny. "A-A-A-Akane-chan…"

Releasing her, Sunny lightly punched her in the shoulder. Her eyes were still hidden, but Peace saw a glistening trail run down one cheek. "See ya around, crybaby."

"Akane-" Peace couldn't move. All her strength had left her.

So she watched as Sunny rotated her arm, cracked her knuckles, and approached the final DD Girl, solemn and silent, not at all her usual boisterous self…

She watched as the Youma dove into the ground in a blur of motion…

She watched as the ice rose up and split open like the mouth of a giant beneath Sunny's feet, swallowed her whole, and slammed shut, collapsing into a shapeless tomb…

And she watched, numb to all feeling, knowing what would happen next, as the tomb lit from within with fire, one long stream bursting from its side before subsiding. There was that horrible Youma scream again, and what sounded like Sunny's laugh…

A muffled explosion, and silence.

Peace was alone… completely alone… "Miyuki-chan," she whispered. "Akane-chan. Nao-chan. Reika-chan. Candy…" She was about to break… she was about to break, and she couldn't stop it…

Someone tugged on her skirt.

At any other time, Peace would have shrieked and let off a few hundred volts. Now, all she could do was look down, perplexed…

Next to her stood a very small girl, no more than five years old, with long blonde hair and eyes like rubies. The little stranger looked up at Peace with an expression of deep sorrow and shared grief, and reached for her hand.

"Who-" Peace started, then shook her head. It didn't really matter. Whoever this was, however she got here, it didn't matter. If the poor thing wanted to hold hands, let her.

Tiny fingers closed around hers, and Peace saw… a dizzying whirl of images, sounds, and feelings, a sorrow that surpassed her own… and a light, a single light lancing out into infinite darkness. Overwhelmed, she stumbled back and fell on her rump. "Who are you?" she asked the little stranger, looking right into those beautiful ruby eyes…

"Aha, it's about time," said a voice that made Peace's skin crawl. "I was wondering when you'd bother to show up, petit."

No strength, no power, no help. Peace did the only thing she could: she gathered the little stranger into her arms to shield her from Joker with her body. Closing her eyes tight, she whispered to her as she awaited the killing blow. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. It'll be over soon, I'm sorry…"

"Over?" said Joker, floating down and taking a seat on Sunny's tomb. "Why, Mademoiselle Yayoi, you of all people should know… it's never over." The harlequin's tone rang with surprising bitterness. "It just goes on and on and on and on, never stopping… don't you get sick of it?"

She wouldn't answer. She wouldn't give him the satisfaction.

"Really, you should be thanking me. It's high time someone had to vision to bring it all to a close," said Joker. "I hope you enjoyed the effort I put into this scene, by the way. I did make it especially for you, as I knew you'd appreciate the reference~."

"You-" Only now did Peace turn around, staring into the pitiless black eyes in Joker's mask with as much venom as she could muster. She had seen all this before, and Joker had… had deliberately recreated it, as some kind of sick game… "You k-k-killed my friends…!"

"'Killed?'" Joker's mouth fell open in mock shock. "Moi? Mademoiselle, you wound me. Why would I kill such valuable talent? Well, yes, I did have the Time Reaper kill the fairy brat, but the rest…"

All of Peace's muscles seized at once. It was a lie, it had to be…

"Didn't you know, Mademoiselle? Precure are hardy little things, very tough to kill." He examined his claws. "I should know, for all the times I've tried."

Conflicting emotions spun through Peace's mind, just as the images and sounds and feelings had at the little stranger's touch. If there was even a chance that Joker was telling the truth… She stood up and faced her enemy, clenching her fists. "My friends," she said, her voice quivering. "Where are they? What did you do to them?"

"Hmm? Oh, they're right here," Joker drawled, spreading his fingers. On the tip of each one, there hovered a tiny, impossibly bright light, so intense that they hurt to look at…

Peace's eyes watered as she stared at the lights without comprehension. "What-"

"Here's Nao," said Joker, and the light on his index finger glowed green. "And here's Reika…" A blue light from the next one. "Then Miyuki, and last is Akane." The final two shone pink and orange, respectively. "They're all here. I took their Seeds, what makes them them, do you understand?"

It wasn't possible. It couldn't be possible. But as Peace stared at those lights… she felt something from each one: the comfort of Nao's loyalty, Reika's elegant grace, Miyuki's shining, unconquerable optimism, and Akane's fiery passion… "Put them back," she whispered. Then, louder: "Put them back! Give me back my friends!"

Joker titled forward, cocking his head. "Are you sure you want that, Mademoiselle?"

Hot, boiling rage spilled over in Peace's heart. "I said, put them BACK!"

"You need only ask~!" With his free hand, Joker snapped his fingers.

Each of the four lights… changed. They dimmed, sputtered, went out… and turned deeper and darker than anything should be. Four pieces of… of nothing, of cold and darkness and void, drawing in all light around them. Like black shooting stars, they rocketed to the tomb, the tunnel, and in opposite directions to the horizon… Peace heard four claps of muffled thunder, and-

And four streaks of violet light painted the air at Joker's sides. Out of them walked Happy, Sunny, March, and Beauty… but wrong. Twisted mirrors of their true selves, they wore form-fitting bodysuits, jet black save for skirts and diamond patterns in their respective colors. On each one's head was a jewel that sprouted black bat wings, like a perverse crown.

Happy opened her eyes... blank, with no light, no pupils… She stared at Peace and giggled, the sound high and shrill, tinged with cruelty. "Hey look," she said, "It's Yayoi-chan! Hi~!"

No. Peace's blood turned cold as the ice that surrounded her. No, it's got to be a trick.

The little stranger tugged on her skirt again, but she couldn't move.

Sunny's hands lit with violet flames. "Can I burn her? I kinda wanna burn her."

"Such an ugly thing," said Beauty, her lips curling into a sneer. "She would hardly look worse burnt, I think."

"Someone so weak deserves more," March turned her head in disgust. "That's too quick for her. We'll make her end slow, and you can burn her corpse later if you want."

There was that shrill giggle again. "Hear that, Yayoi-chan? Sounds like killing you would make all of us ultra-happy~!" Happy's face split into a terrifying smile, almost like Joker's…

"What did you do?" Pale with shock, Peace took a step back, then another. "What… what did you do to them? Those aren't-"

"They are," said Joker, pulling Happy close and chucking her chin, prompting another giggle. "New and improved, better than ever! I gave your friends' parts a few rewrites, you see, because some people keep trying to revise the script without my permission." His cheerful manner slipped only for a moment as he shot a withering glare at the little stranger. "It wasn't really fair, last time… My Bad End Precure had so much potential, and you just poof!" He waved a hand. "Did away with them, just like that. A brilliant idea that was shot down in its prime. But a new cast and some editing have done wonders, n'est pas?"

Peace was beyond speech, beyond thought. Until now, nothing could have ever convinced her that Joker could get any worse, any more cruel… but this

The little stranger's hand seized hers. She tugged on her arm, dragging her backwards… to a single door, an ordinary door, standing by itself in the middle of the square… Peace followed, too horrified to put up any resistance. Miyuki-chan. Akane-chan. Nao-chan. Reika-chan. And Candy… they're all… gone...

Joker spoke… not to Peace, but to the little stranger. All the twisted humor left his voice, and the lights in his eyes burned red and dark as the fires of hell. "Consider this a warning, petit, to you and to whoever sent you… I know they were watching this part of the show. Keep sticking your noses into my production, and the next time you cross me… all the suffering I've caused to this girl will look like La Cage Aux Folles compared to what I do next. Comprendez vous?"

There was no answer. The little stranger pushed Peace through the door, and they were gone…

Joker sighed. "Très impoli. Girls, if you could finish tidying up here, please," he said to his new pets. "I need to check up on a few things backstage."

The new Bad End Precure bowed to him, and he vanished in a streak of violet.


Elsewhere

Cure White, Honoka Yukishiro, drew in a long, shuddering breath. It felt as if she hadn't taken one in ages...

There was something pressed tight over her eyes, something warm, wet and unpleasant. She moved to peel it away, but her limbs were locked in place. Flexing accomplished nothing… her arms and legs wouldn't budge, even when she applied all her strength.

"Careful now, Mademoiselle," said a sardonic voice. "If you do that, you could tear something."

"Who-?" Honoka searched for the direction of the voice. "Wh-where am I? Where's Nagisa? What have you done with-"

A dismissive noise. "Doubtless, she's off galavanting around space and time with the worlds' most annoying bit player, but you'll meet up with her again soon enough, I think."

Anger rose in Honoka's breast as she struggled. "Mipple… Mipple, are you there? Speak to me!"

No answer.

"Oh, that thing," said the voice. "She's right where you left her, but I don't expect her to wake up anytime soon. Merciful, that. Doesn't that voice of hers grate on you after a while, Mademoiselle?"

"You…!" Honoka lurched, straining her arms harder than ever… and then howled in agony. It was like someone had torn off a section of her skin, and poured vinegar on the wound…

"I did warn you," said the voice. "Mon dieu, you'd think that somewhere among all the dozens of you Precure, there would be a good listener..."

It took a moment for the pain to recede enough for those words to register. "D… Dozens…? You're… you're wrong, there's only me and Black… and Luminous…" She shivered. Would she ever see poor Hikari again?

"At first, yes." The voice grew bitter. "I was actually interested to meet you, Cure White… you being one of the ones that started this whole Precure… thing. I suppose that makes this somewhat your fault, doesn't it?"

"Started…" Honoka wrinkled her brow. "I don't understand."

The voice sighed, and peeled the warm, wet thing away. When Honoka's eyes adjusted to the light, she found herself in… in some kind of luxurious palace, vaguely Greek-inspired, judging by all the columns, but at the same time unlike anything she had ever seen on Earth or in the various fairy worlds. The marble pillars had an otherworldly shimmer to them…

"I suppose I should introduce myself," said the colorful masked harlequin standing before her, holding some strange device attached to a wire. "I am Joker, the commander of Dead End. Enchanté."

Dead End… Joker… the words sparked Honoka's memory. "You sent those girls!"

"The Souju twins? Yes," said Joker, tossing the device away. "They were supposed to bring both of you, but… ah well. The other one's learning her lesson."

"What do you-"

"Do stop interrupting me with questions, would you? Thank you. As I was saying: you and Mademoiselle Black were the first, and from there sprouted an endless string of other worlds, all filled with different Precure..."

-static-

There was something… familiar. Something true to the harlequin's words. Fragments of memories raced through Honoka's mind, unconnected to anything. She… she knew of other Precure, but she couldn't quite remember… how was that possible?

"Yes," Joker continued, sounding bored, "so now there's dozens of you people in a staggering number of different worlds, and quite frankly it's getting out of hand. So I'm doing my best to rectify the situation and, ah, trim the cast a bit. Hence… the Merry-Go-Round."

Something made Honoka look up.

The sight froze her breath within her. Above her and around her, a tower, stretching upwards and out of her sight… a monstrous tower, made of metal and flesh so closely intertwined that it was impossible to tell where one ended and the other began. Glowing wires and cables mingled with pulsing arteries and veins, metal plating joined seamlessly with bone. And entombed throughout its structure were people… dozens if not hundreds of young girls in colorful costumes, vaguely familiar… Each of them didn't seem to be shackled to the tower so much as grafted to it, networks of wires and sinews threading through their limbs to keep them in place. Each one had some kind of horrible spidery thing attached over their eyes, a thick cable/vein sprouting out the back of it… and to Honoka's disgust, each girl was alive, moving, moaning quietly… She even made out Luca Souju among the bodies. Joker had put one of his own people in this thing...

"What…" she whispered. "What… have you done… what is this?!"

A wistful sigh came from Joker as he looked upon the abomination with sick reverence. "My Merry-Go-Round. A towering achievement, if you'll excuse the awful pun. It's not turned on at the moment… I still need the Will to regenerate before we can do that… but when it's working… well. This whole farce will finally end in a way that's to my liking."

Appalled, Honoka stared him right in the black, empty eyes. "You're insane," she said. "You're insane, and you'll never win. Nagisa won't stop until she finds me, and-"

"Yes, yes," Joker waved a dismissive claw at her. "Mon dieu. You all even talk the same. I'm well aware that Mademoiselle Black will come looking for you… in fact, I'm counting on it. You and I are going to welcome her when she gets here."

"I'll never-"

And Joker's hand plunged into her, digging around inside her body… Honoka moaned, but with all her will she denied him, she fought against him... she wouldn't give him the satisfaction of screaming.

"You are a stubborn one, aren't you, Mademoiselle White?" said Joker, giving the girl's Cosmos Seed a slow, agonizing twist. "How about we make this more interesting, non?"

Beads of sweat broke out on Honoka's brow as she gritted her teeth. She wouldn't scream, she wouldn't-

"Take a look at this," said Joker. With his free hand, he reached up to the white mask that covered the upper half of his face, and peeled it off to show the girl his real eyes behind it…

What Honoka Yukishiro saw tore a scream from deep inside her. She screamed in endless terror, for hours and hours on end…

END OF CHAPTER 12

NEXT:

THE RETURN

Chapter Text

Chapter 13: The Return

-VERTEX ONE: 15.556984-

Azabu-Juuban

"Chibi-Usa! Chibi-Usa, it's time to get up!"

"Nnngh." The younger Usagi Tsukino, also known as Usagi Small Lady Serenity, also known as "Chibi-Usa", Princess of Crystal Tokyo and future ruler of mankind, stuffed a pillow over her ears and rolled over, trying to ignore the voice and fall back to sleep.

It was no use. Ikuko-mama was well-practiced with this routine by now, having had many years to perfect it. "Chibi-Usa! You're going to be late!"

A tiny paw pressed against the pillow. "Small Lady, are you unwell?" said a concerned voice.

"I'm fine, Diana, I'm fine." With great reluctance, Chibi-Usa sat up, yawned, and rubbed sleep from her eyes. "Mmmf… g'morning…"

"Good morning!" piped the little grey kitten with the crescent moon forehead mark as she hopped down to the floor. "I would suggest you hurry, Small Lady. You mustn't be late! Besides, I smell that Ikuko-mama made sausages for you..."

Chibi-Usa's stomach growled. Blast it, she could smell them too. Now there was no choice but to get up. "I'm coming, I'm coming. Just let me wash my face."

In truth, "Chibi-Usa" wasn't quite so "Chibi" anymore… she was virtually a mirror of her mother at age fourteen, save for her pink hair and scarlet eyes. It was an issue that caused her some concern, knowing that she was fast growing out of the familiar nickname she had used for years. Some nights she lay awake thinking of possible alternatives, but each one sounded worse than the last. "Usagi-nisei"? "Usa-ni?" Just "Usa"? Blech. It wasn't as if she could call herself "Small Lady" in this time period either, save for around a select few people.

Downstairs, someone rang the doorbell. There was a rush of heavy footsteps and an "I'll get it!" from Shingo, followed by a very quiet voice, too soft to make out distinct words. A second or two of extremely awkward silence, and… "Chibi-Usa! Hotaru's here!"

"Oh, crap!" Neo-Queen Serenity would surely have scolded her for that one, but Neo-Queen Serenity wasn't here, was she? "Diana, how late is it?!"

Diana had moved to the fluffy cat bed in the corner of her room. She opened one eye, not bothering to get up. She didn't have school today. "Ten minutes until eight o'clock, Small Lady."

"Kyaaaaa! How did- My alarm… my alarm broke again, I can't believe it! Auugh, and I have a math test first period! I'm dead, I'm dead, I'm so dead…!"

A passing black cat with a crescent moon mark on her forehead identical to the kitten's briefly stuck her head in through the open bedroom door and watched the pink tornado inside as she tore through her dresser in a panic. "It's uncanny," muttered Luna, raising an eyebrow. "Deja vu…"


Azabu

Usagi Tsukino, twenty-one years old. Former schoolgirl, current housewife (well, house-fiancée, if that was a thing), and secret savior of the world many times over. A little less clumsy, but still very much a crybaby... and that was about it.

At last, Sailor Moon had hung up her fuku, returning to a normal, relatively peaceful, somewhat ordinary life. The mysterious prophesied disaster that was to befall Earth and lead to her ascension as Neo-Queen Serenity and the birth of Crystal Tokyo… it simply failed to happen. Five years after the final, vicious battle with Galaxia, it seemed as if it never would at all. Destiny, just this once, had gotten it wrong. Life went on… weirder than it was in the old pre-Senshi days, of course, with the addition of talking cats, a child from the future, and the assorted hang-ups and minor crises of high school, but she made it. Usagi graduated (somehow, Rei still wasn't sure how), and fell into the waiting arms of her beloved Mamoru Chiba.

It was the same Mamoru Chiba who now watched her at his side, sprawled across half of the mattress, fast asleep and snoring like a runaway chainsaw. Morning sunlight streamed through the windows of their apartment, warm and golden on them both. It would have been almost pastoral… if it weren't for Usagi's distinct lack of feminine behavior in her sleep. As if to prove the point, the golden rays glinted off the thread of drool hanging precariously at the edge of one lip, which shook violently with each snore.

Mamoru shook his head and chuckled. Same old Usako, he thought as he kissed her forehead and slid out from under the covers. He did so quietly, despite knowing from experience that his wife-to-be could sleep like the dead and would only wake up once she smelled breakfast.

Which she did, naturally. A perky kiss good morning, followed by Usagi's usual four bowls of rice, a shower for them both, then another kiss goodbye, and the day was on.

"It's my turn for dinner tonight, Mamo-chan!" said Usagi, standing at the door with her shopping bags. "Is there anything special you want me to make? I'm going out to the market today to buy ingredients, so just name it!"

Already seated in front of his laptop, Mamoru paused. Usagi was better at cooking than she used to be, but… well, to be honest, "better than she used to be" wasn't exactly hard, all things considered. "Beef curry and rice would be fine. Thanks, Usako."

"You always ask for beef curry and rice when I cook!" Usagi blushed and giggled. "I don't want my Mamo-chan getting spoiled…"

There was more to it than that, of course. Beef curry was one of the few dishes Usagi could make with some degree of success and a minimum of disasters in the kitchen… most of the time. "Don't worry," said Mamoru, smiling up at her behind his glasses. "You can't spoil someone who's already been spoiled."

"Awwww, Mamo-chan!"

"You'd better get going. There's a special on soba noodles today, and you don't want them to run out before you get there."

"Oooh, right! Thanks, Mamo-chan! Byeeee~..."

"Bye, Usako. I love you."

"Love youuu~!"

"Take care."

"I will!"

"Tell Sonoda-san that I said hello."

"Roger! Byeeee~! Love you!"

Mamoru shook his head with a smile and a good-natured sigh. If he didn't break this holding pattern now, their goodbye could drag on until noon, or longer. "Usako."

"Oh, right!" Usagi rapped herself on the forehead, right between her trademark twin odango. "Silly me… I'll get going! Usagi Tsukino, heading out!"

The door slammed, and there was a storm of rapid footsteps receding down the hall outside. As usual, Mamoru waited another minute more, just in case those footsteps should come back… but this time, Usagi seemed to have remembered her keys, and her purse, and her train pass, and her shoes. Four for four… very impressive. Now he could get to work.


"My Prince."

He didn't know how much later it was when he first heard the voices, or how long they had been there. Writing a quantum physics dissertation was absorbing work, and it was entirely possible that he could have missed it the first time it spoke. This time, though…

"My Prince."

There were precious few people who addressed him by that title. Mamoru Chiba looked up over the lid of his laptop, his senses on high alert…

… and saw an extra four people and a horse standing in the middle of his apartment.

The sight was all the more bizarre because nothing remotely like it had happened in the past five years. The world was safe, Galaxia and Chaos were defeated. Things like this just weren't part of his life anymore.

Or was that wishful thinking? Mamoru put his glasses aside and stood facing them all. Trying to maintain his calm, he spoke to them: "You called?"

The four translucent human figures shimmered as they knelt before him, hands on their hearts. All wore similar uniforms, iron grey with colored piping, but there their similarities ended. One was relatively young, with fair hair, striking ice blue eyes, and a smile that suggested amusement with the world. Next to him, an older man, far more serious, his hair long and wavy brown. Beside them, a very handsome blonde man with feminine, delicate features, who looked barely old enough to be in their company… and in hand with him, as always, was the one who was clearly their leader, young despite his white back-length tresses, his uniform accented with a flowing cape.

"Prince Endymion," said the phantom Kunzite, raising his head only when Mamoru motioned him to do so. "We, your trusted Four Heavenly Kings, bring you urgent warning."

"Kunzite?" said Mamoru, trying and failing to hide his surprise. Long ago, in another life, these four had been his most trusted friends and advisors. In this life, they were his mortal enemies before regaining their true selves after death. For their spirits to appear again, after all this time... "What is it, what's wrong?"

Now it was the horse's turn to speak… or more accurately, the pegasus. He was a beautiful pure white stallion with a golden horn, faint and insubstantial like the Kings, the span of his translucent feathered wings wide enough that they could touch both walls of the small space if spread. "Strange portents have been read in Elysion, my Prince," said Helios, his tone soft and sorrowful. "Your kingdom is in need of you, and your planet may be as well."

"Now?" Mamoru blinked. "Why now? Chaos was-"

"Defeated, but not destroyed." Nephrite's usual stern expression was far more grave than usual. "Still, this is far too soon for it to regenerate. The Princess's sacrifice should have dissipated it for another thousand years, at least."

"We fear this may be something new," said Zoisite, clutching Kunzite's hand tighter. "Something, or someone, is here that shouldn't be… an outsider."

Hairs prickled on the back of Mamoru's neck. Dark powers resurging was terrible news enough, but this… He nodded. "I'll come with you. Just let me leave a note for Usako."

"Please do," Jadeite's spirit rose and clasped his hands behind his back. "There is a chance that whoever or whatever this force is, it means no harm… but frankly, that chance seems slim. If it does mean us harm, then the Princess is in danger as well…"


Minato-ku Deca Supermarket

Hours later, Usagi was bent over two packages of diced beef, comparing prices when her cell phone rang sharply. "Uwaaah~!" The sound startled her enough to make her jump… and slam her head into the top of the freezer. The burst of pain made her lose her already precarious balance, and she fell like a ton of bricks to the market floor, knocked half-senseless, with ice shards in her hair and a half-dozen packages of cold diced beef sprawled over her.

"Tsukino-san!" said Sonoda the butcher, coming out from behind his counter. Tsukino falling over wasn't exactly a rare occurrence, but this stumble looked a good deal more painful than the usual ones. "Tsukino-san, are you all right? Let me help you up…"

"... c-can't eat any more sundaes, I'll throw up…" mumbled Usagi, stars dancing before her eyes. Mr. Sonoda's voice floated through the haze, and she shook her head, her blonde twintails whipping back and forth. "Th-thanks, Sonoda-san," she said, taking his offered hand. Next to her, her cell phone blared, sliding across the tiled floor as it vibrated. "Oh, whoever that is is going to get it!" Snatching it up, she checked the ID: Hikawa Shrine. Without pausing, she hit the answer button and hollered into the receiver. "Rei-chan, you idiot! You almost gave me a concussion! What are you calling for so early in the mor-"

Surprisingly, Rei was already hollering back, "Get to the shrine! Right now!" Something crashed in the background, and she shrieked. "There's someone here! Someone-"

"Who is it, Rei-chan? Is it a pervert? Did Yuuichiro peep on you?"

"No, stupid! It's-" Another crash, another shriek, and: "I-it's an attack! Someone is trying to-"

That was all Usagi needed to hear. Her blood ran cold… five years without so much as a peep from the forces of darkness, and now it was all happening again. The rest of what Rei said missed her completely… an attack. Now, after all this time. "Sonoda-san, I'm sorry," she said to the flummoxed butcher. "C-could you wrap up my things and hold them for me, please? It's an emergency…"

"Of course, Tsukino-san, but-"

"Thanksgottagobye!"


Hikawa Shrine, Sendai Hill

One cross-town bus trip and a long flight of stairs later, and Usagi Tsukino burst into the center of Hikawa Shrine, having followed the racket from within. Violently she slid aside the door to the fire reading room, already preparing a speech and the pocketspace where she kept her transformation compact. Whatever it was, if it had hurt Rei, it was going to pay. "Hold it! Stop right-"

Usagi blinked, at once at a loss for words. The speech she had been preparing flew from her mind, replaced by total confusion. "What the…"

Rei Hino was there in front of the roaring flames, a classic Japanese beauty as ever, resplendent in red and white shrine maiden robes, her long raven hair frazzled and her violet eyes wild. "Usagi!"

And Rei Hino was there in front of the roaring flames, a classic Japanese beauty as ever, resplendent in red and white shrine maiden robes, her long raven hair frazzled and her violet eyes wild. "Usagi!"

Usagi stared. There were two Reis in the room. Two absolutely identical copies of Rei Hino, both looking at her for help with the exact same expression. "Rei… chan?"

In stereo, both Reis cried out and pointed at each other. "It's a trick! She says she's me, but it's a trick! Don't believe her!"

For all the weird and inexplicable things Usagi had experienced in her life, up to and including meeting with her future daughter and her future self, this was one of the weirdest. Her head spun, and the world tilted out from underneath her. "I don't get it. How can there be two Reis?"

"Does it matter?!" shrieked the Rei on the right, stamping her foot in a display of her signature temper. "She's a fake, Usagi! Don't just stand there gawking, we've gotta do something!"

"I am not a fake!" said the Rei on the left… but far from an angry, passionate rebuttal, her response was cold, offended… she was dignified despite her terror and confusion. "Usagi, it's me, you know I'm the one that's real!"

Usagi stared back and forth from one to the other. "I-"

-static-

… and she swallowed, struck by the sudden, sure realization that they were both right…


"... so you gave me the Moon Stick, just to be sure you wouldn't be tempted to surrender the Silver Crystal to save Mamoru-san, remember?" said the Rei on the right, whom Usagi had started thinking of as "Rei 1". They now sat together in Rei's bedroom… one of the Reis' bedrooms, anyway. After few cups of very strong tea, they were all calmed down enough to talk things over peacefully.

Usagi nodded, her arms crossed and her brow furrowed. "Mmm-hmm. I remember that. All right, Rei 2, it's your turn."

The Rei on the left closed her eyes. Her hands were folded calmly in her lap. "I don't remember any of that," she said. "But I do remember when I fought Cooan of the Ayakashi Sisters-"

"Cooan?" said Rei 1. "Yeah, that's right, she and her sisters run a perfume shop in town now."

Her counterpart raised an eyebrow. "You didn't destroy her?"

Rei 1 gaped back at her in horror. "Destroy her?! No! She and the others were good people being used by the Black Moon Clan, why would we destroy her?! Usagi used the Silver Crystal to heal them all!"

"The Cooan I fought was hardly a 'good person,'" said Rei 2, her voice cool. "She murdered several people at my school in cold blood. I had no choice but to destroy her."

"Mmm-hmm," Usagi nodded. "I remember that."

Fuming, Rei 1's foot beat an angry rhythm against her bedroom floor. "This isn't getting us anywhere! We fought all of the same enemies, but how we fought them is always different!"

"Except for our first battle," said Rei 2. "During the incident with the disappearing people on the bus…"

"Yeah, the Youma bus driver. That was mostly the same for both of us. Why is that?"

"Mmm-hmm," Usagi nodded. "I remember that, too."

"Well then, if you remember, come on!" Rei 1 turned a furious glare on her friend. "Which one of us do you think is real?"

A pause. Usagi tilted her head to one side, and her brows knit together. "I don't know."

There followed a brief but furious scuffle as Rei 2 seized hold of Rei 1, attempting to keep her twin from wrapping her hands around Usagi's neck. For her part, Usagi cowered in a corner, wailing in fear and curled into a ball.

At Rei 2's insistence, another round of tea followed… after which Usagi's stomach made a sound resembling that of a disgruntled bear, so there were another few minutes of peace while Rei 1 fetched a box of rice crackers for her.

"Look," said Rei 2, raising her voice to be heard over the sound of noisy chewing from Usagi's direction. "Even if we are different people, we both have the same mission: to protect the Princess. Don't we?"

"Right." Rei 1 drummed her fingers on the table between them. "Whatever's going on, that's gotta be our first priority."

"Indeed. So we should assemble the other Senshi…"

Rei 1 cringed. "That… might be a problem. Ami's in Kyoto working on her doctorate, Makoto's running her cake shop, Minako's on tour, Chibi-Usa and Hotaru are in school… and none of us hear much from Haruka, Michiru, and Setsuna these days."

"Wait," said Rei 2, frowning. "What year is this?" When Rei 1 told her, she looked aghast. "That isn't possible! Crystal Tokyo was supposed to-"

"We don't get it either." Rei 1 kneaded her brow, feeling a headache coming on. "Whatever it was should have happened by now, but… it never did."

"Mmmph…" Usagi swallowed a mouthful. "Yeah, we just figured we must have changed our future or something."

"But if Crystal Tokyo never formed, why would Chibi-Usa still be here? Why would she exist at all?"

Usagi shrugged. "Time travel stuff? Maybe we should talk to Setsuna. She'd know better than we would, right?"

At that moment, the three heard a sound they hadn't heard in years. It had been so long that it took them all a moment to place it… it was an alarm from the dusty communicator watch on Rei's shelf.

Usagi made a move for it and promptly fell over the table with a crash and a spray of cracker crumbs. It was Rei 1 who snatched the watch up, flipping open the lid. "What is it, what's wrong?"

The small, black-furred face on the screen was lined with concern. "Trouble in the shopping district, I've never seen anything like this!" said Luna. "Is Usagi with you? Someone needs to go there right away!"

Climbing awkwardly to her feet, Usagi made a fist. "I'm on it, Luna!" With her free hand, she reached into her pocketspace and called out: "Silver Moon Crystal Power, Make Up!"

There was a resounding silence.

"Eh…?" Usagi wiggled her fingers. She couldn't feel the shape of the compact, but it should have been right there at her command…

Rei 1 looked up from the communicator, frowning. "What was that?! Don't tell me you've forgotten the right words!"

"It sounded right to me. Perhaps…" Rei 2 swallowed, her composure beginning to crack. "Perhaps you should try another command?"

"R-right! Um, Moon Crisis, Make Up!"

Again, nothing happened.

Both Reis stared as Usagi proceeded to go through every transformation call she ever had in reverse order… and it was only on the last one when a brilliant flash of light filled the room:

"Moon Prism Power, MAKE UP!"


Juuban Municipal Junior High School

"I'm gonna die, Hotaru-chan."

"Chibi-usa-chan, no…"

"There's nothing I can do, it's all gone wrong! I'm never gonna grow up to be Queen… It's the end…"

Hotaru Tomoe patted her friend's shoulder. "I'm sure your mother won't be that mad."

"Are you kidding?!" Chibi-Usa raised the crumpled test paper, which bore dozens of marks in red ink, including a huge 30 scrawled across the top in what appeared to have been a fit of rage by the teacher. "Ikuko-mama's gonna have my head for this! You don't understand… back when I was little, she got so mad at Usagi for flunking tests that she needed blood pressure pills! I'm supposed to be the responsible one!"

"It'll be all right." Hotaru's lips curled into a sympathetic smile. "It's one bad test, she'll understand."

"Maybe if it was one, but what about the last seven?"

"... Oh dear." Sighing, Hotaru leaned back against the chain link fence on the school roof. She was still rather pale and a bit sickly, still shy, soft-spoken and unassuming, and still dressed mostly in black, concealing clothes when not in her school uniform… but Hotaru Tomoe's lonely social outcast status was a thing of the past. She was only beginning to grow into an extraordinary beauty, whose friendship with Chibi-Usa encouraged her to come out of her shell over the years. Now, it was a rare week when she didn't get any love letters in her locker or requests for dates… she politely declined them all, of course, but there seemed to be no hard feelings among the boys and girls who tried.

"How do you do it, Hotaru-chan?" said Chibi-Usa, looking up from her bento box with a glum expression and a piece of fried shrimp dangling dejectedly from her mouth. "How do you get to be smart, pretty, and popular?"

"I wouldn't say I'm all of that." Hotaru giggled, a low, musical sound, and her cheeks flushed faintly pink. "Perhaps it's because I don't have many distractions?"

"Mnnngh," moaned Chibi-Usa in semi-agreement. "Is the Literature Club still bugging you to join?"

"And the Computer Club, and the Tabletop Gaming Club," said Hotaru. "I admit, I was interested in that last one…"

The shrimp fell into Chibi-Usa's dipping sauce with a soft plop. "Those guys?! You can't be serious!"

"Have you seen the games they play? They're fascinating!" Hotaru's violet eyes shone. "They play with all these neat little miniature knights and monsters, and they use detailed charts and maps and graphs… and they're so intense when they play!"

Chirp. The sound came from Chibi-Usa's left wrist. Puzzled, she brought what appeared to be an ordinary wristwatch up to her eye level… this was Luna-P's default form these days, being less conspicuous than a floating ball with a cartoon cat face. She flipped up the lid and spoke to the screen underneath. "Hello…?"

A kind face with calm, sea green eyes and wavy turquoise hair answered. "Good evening, Chibi-Usa-chan. I hope this isn't a bad time."

"Michiru-san! No, of course not! Hotaru-chan, come here!"

Hotaru was already on the way to her side, hurriedly wrapping up her lunch box. "Michiru-mama, what is it?"

"I'm glad Hotaru is with you," said Michiru Kaioh, with audible relief. The fact that eternally serene Michiru sounded worried at all was a bad sign indeed. "Have either of you heard anything from Setsuna in the past hour?"

"Puu?" Chibi-Usa blinked. "No, I haven't heard anything, why?"

Michiru's image looked off to one side at something the girls couldn't see. An unreadable emotion flickered behind her eyes. "Stay close together. There may-"

Her image dissolved into snow and white noise, and there was nothing more.

"Michiru-san?" Something was definitely wrong; Chibi-Usa could feel a peculiar sensation, a prickling feeling like being watched… "Michiru-san, are you there?"

-static-

The hiss of sound came not from the communicator screen, but from all around them. That prickling escalated, and now Chibi-Usa could feel the hair rising on the nape of her neck. She felt the arrival of the newcomer seconds before they appeared, and…

"Ah-!" A brief, plaintive cry came from Hotaru's lips as she was seized by a violet aura that lifted her inches off the ground. Her back was ramrod straight, her eyes opened wide…

"Hotaru-chan! Hota-" Chibi-Usa stopped, struck dumb as she saw it:

The glyph of Saturn, shining bright on Hotaru's forehead.

Oh no.

Hotaru's transformation happened with no magic words, no flashes or sparkles, no posing, none of the usual hallmarks. It only took an instant for Hotaru to fade, and for Sailor Saturn to appear in her place… the true Sailor Saturn, at full strength once more.

One look at her face was enough to confirm which aspect of her was now in control. When Hotaru transformed normally, it was still her wearing the fuku: Hotaru's face, Hotaru's eyes, Hotaru's small, friendly smile. The true Sailor Saturn was as separate from Hotaru Tomoe as night was from day. There was no warmth in her eyes or in her smile, only cold, clear, distinct purpose. Her only purpose.

The Senshi of Ruin, the forbidden one, the harbinger of destruction, was awake once more. She took hold of the Silence Glaive as it materialized, and pointed its wicked, curved blade at the new arrival standing across the roof...

Chibi-Usa's blood froze in her veins. The figure wore a ragged black cloak, and in the shadows of its hood lurked the vague shape of a grinning skull. One bony hand carried a twisted metal staff with a jeweled crown. A specter of death… but for Chibi-Usa, its form was horribly reminiscent of a monstrous being that still haunted her nightmares. No, that's not possible! The terrified thought raced through her brain. We destroyed him, he can't be back-!

"Small Lady," said Saturn. It sounded like Hotaru speaking, but… but for one thing, Hotaru never called her "Small Lady". That was hardly any comfort. "Do not fear. That is not the creature that you think it is."

"S-" she mumbled. Her mouth wouldn't work right. "S-Saturn?"

"Stay behind me." She turned an icy stare on the specter. "You know who I am. My awakening means that a great calamity has befallen this world. It is my duty to end it, whatever the cost."

The specter made no sound. It raised its twisted staff, and a burning red scythe blade erupted from the jewel in its crown. The folds of its cloak billowed around it as it charged...

A tempest swept the rooftop as the scythe blade crashed against the Glaive's with a thunderous roar. Saturn held her ground, staring right into the darkness beneath the specter's hood without fear, without hesitation as she intoned: "Silence Buster." At point blank range, a spiral of bright energy tore into the specter, blowing it back across the roof and slamming it into a concrete wall with bone-crushing force.

Behind her, Chibi-Usa watched, paralyzed in awe and terror. Now she fully understood why Saturn's true awakening was such cause for dread, why she never fought alongside the rest of the Senshi in normal circumstances. This kind of power was not only a threat to the forces of evil, but to Saturn herself and everyone around her...

There was an expression almost like pity in her eyes as she trained the Silence Glaive on the specter. "If you can hear me, do not move." Odd, it was almost like she was addressing someone familiar. "I will bring an end to your suffering." Once more she raised her blade…

"Wait!"

Saturn froze, and Chibi-Usa stared. The voice came from Saturn's lips… but it wasn't Saturn's voice, it was Hotaru's…

"Please, you have to stop!" Her cold expression lit up, and panic flashed across her face. "We need to call the Princess, she can-"

And Saturn answered, low with regret: "This is beyond even the Princess's ability to help, little one. Far too much damage has been done already, and more will suffer if I do not act."

Back and forth, Saturn and Hotaru argued… her two aspects had never been in conflict like this before. It was all the distraction the specter needed; it picked itself up, the red lights beneath its hood glowing-

-static-

- and Saturn/Hotaru howled and dropped to her knees, clutching at her temples as if her head were about to burst.

"Saturn!" Chibi-Usa came to her side, clutching her shoulders. "Saturn, what's-" Her eyes grew wide with terror.

Two symbols flickered back and forth on her best friend's forehead, battling for dominance: the violet glyph of Saturn, and the black star emblem of the Death Busters…

-static-

Now Chibi-Usa screamed as well, her skull splitting in two, and though she couldn't see it, she knew exactly what was happening: her crescent moon, her birthmark, was fading in and out, alternating with an inverted black crescent. Something was tearing her apart, unearthing the long-buried essence of Black Lady… doing the same to Hotaru, trying to uncover the Daimon beast called Mistress 9…

This can't be happening…!

It's all gone wrong…!

The specter approached them, a burning red blade extending from the jewel atop its twisted staff. It raised its scythe high, and brought it down…

… where it clashed against a green shield of energy that repelled its fall, throwing off flaming sparks.

Whatever it was their rescuer had done, it worked: Chibi-Usa felt her true self reform with an audible snap, and next to her, Saturn/Hotaru slumped to the surface of the roof, her glyph asserting dominance over the black star. Weakly, she crawled to her friend, wrapped her arms around her, and felt a heartbeat, thank heaven. "H-Hotaru-chan…?"

Her friend's hand squeezed hers. "Chibi… Usa…" Hotaru. Not Saturn, Hotaru. Her pulse was racing like a bird's, but she was all right. "Who is…?"

Chibi-Usa looked up, blinking her bleary eyes, and for the first time, she beheld their rescuer. The first thing she made out was long blonde pigtails streaming behind the girl as she shielded them with her power. Warmth and relief flooded her, and she opened her mouth to call Sailor Moon's name…

The name never made it past her lips, for it wasn't Sailor Moon at all. A much younger girl, she was dressed in white, in a costume with bows, ribbons, lots of frills, and a wide tiered skirt. As more details became clear, Chibi-Usa saw that the white costume was accented with pale pink, yellow, and green colors, almost pastel… she was dressed like springtime. The blonde pigtails that she had mistaken for Usagi's were curled, ending in spirals… and instead of Usagi's trademark twin odango, she wore two pink hair ribbons, which fluttered as she poured more energy into her shield.

Again and again, the specter brought its blazing scythe down on the girl's shield. The stranger in white winced but held her ground, her golden eyes set and determined. Inch for inch, she pushed back against it, visibly straining until she finally made out an opening. With a concentrated blast, she sent the specter sailing over the chain link fence and off the roof. It made no sound as it fell.

Chibi-Usa's mouth hung open. "That was… how… who are you?"

The stranger in white didn't answer. She seized first Chibi-Usa's hand, then Hotaru's, and ran with them both, dragging them with supernatural strength toward-

- toward an ordinary white wooden door that now stood by itself on the school roof.

"W-wait," gasped Hotaru, stumbling to keep up with her. "Where are you taking-"

The stranger in white shook her head, the door flew open, and they were gone.


The Juuban shopping district was like a scene from a horror movie. The sun was setting on a mob scene, a crowd of bizarre and monstrous creatures, hundreds of them, all clustered together. They roared, cried, and howled in a demonic cacophony, all clawing or pounding or scratching at the steel security shutters that blocked their access to the jewelry store on the corner.

In the front of the mob was a withered form with skin gnarled like an ancient tree and a red mark resembling a vicious scar on her forehead. Her fists battered at the weaker steel covering the store's front door… it was already denting, in another few minutes it would give way. "You can't hide in there forever!" she cackled to the humans she knew were inside. "Soon you'll be ours! Soon you'll belong to Dead End!"

Inside the store, a young man huddled behind one of the display cases, taking great fistfuls of his spiky brown hair. "This is a nightmare!" he wailed to the woman next to him. "Where the heck are the police?!"

"The police aren't coming," said his wife. Her eyes were shaded beneath her red bangs.

"What about the JSDF, then?! There's gotta be someone who-"

"You saw those things outside, you know they're not human! Do you really think that any army in the world is going to be able to stop them?" She rose, cradling her only weapon and crossing the floor.

The man stared at her in disbelief from behind a pair of thick round glasses. "Have you gone crazy? What are you doing?!"

Before his wife could answer, a muffled explosion thundered against the door… which finally gave way, falling off its hinges. The mob's leader grinned madly as she stepped over it, yellow pupils aglow in her black sclera… "All of you," she called to the other monsters, "bring any humans you find here to m-"

Something crashed against her skull, and her body crumpled to the floor. Moaning, the Youma called Morga clutched her wound and looked up at the fool that dared to harm her… and her unearthly eyes widened in recognition. "You…!"

Naru Umino, neé Osaka, stood over her, wielding a metal baseball bat now stained with blue-green blood, her stance strong despite the heavy pregnant swell of her belly. Oh, she remembered this particular monster well… she couldn't forget that ugly face if she tried. "I'm only giving you one chance," she said, raising the bat for another strike. "Get out of my store."

An enraged scream tore from the Youma's throat. Her arms stretched grotesquely, curving in half circles to seize Naru by the neck. "It's all your fault!" hissed Morga, bringing the young woman close to her fanged maw. "If it hadn't been for you…"

Naru pounded at the gnarled arms, her vision flickering as the monster raised her off the floor. She could hardly breathe, Gurio was screaming in terror behind her, but… "You'll…" she choked, forcing the words out and trying to smile, "... y-you'll be s-sorry…"

"Oh, really?" Withered lips spread into a cruel grin. "I think not, little Naru-chan. You're coming with us."

Clawed hands tore the bat from her grip as Morga dragged Naru out into the street, into the very center of the crowd of monsters, cheering and hollering for joy… they smelled the coming slaughter, they could almost taste the young human's fresh blood and pure, youthful energy. Yet she still pulled herself to her feet, staring them all down, unafraid. Putting her hands on her round belly, Naru drew herself up to her full height, facing her end without blinking. At the edge of the mob, she heard Gurio, now shouting bloody murder and trying to fight his way to her with his bare hands. Her heart grew warm with pride for her husband… when it counted, he came through, as he always did.

The sky above turned rapidly from violet to black, and the stars gleamed as they came out, their light winking down from between a scattering of clouds…

Inch by inch, the mob grew closer. Naru recognized quite a few of them, the nightmares that plagued her all those years ago, returned once more. After all the strange incidents during her school years, she never really believed that these things would stop happening to her, even after five years of peace... That was why she always kept the bat close at hand, just in case.

"Naru!" Gurio had broken through, or more accurately, the demonic creatures had shoved him through. Blood trickled from his lip, his glasses were cracked, and his shirt was torn to pieces, but he was all right. He was alive. "I'm sorry, Naru, I tried to get the bat back, but-"

"Gurio." Softly, Naru took her husband's hand in hers. "It's okay. You were wonderful."

Despite the warmth of her hand, he shuddered. "Is… is this it? Is this how it ends?"

Naru said nothing. She put her other hand on the swell of her belly.

Now Morga came forward through the crowd, her claws extending inches past her wrinkled fingertips. "I have a score to settle with you, human!"

"N-Naru?" said Gurio, drawing close to her.

"Shhh."

Step by step, Morga approached the couple, and when she was within striking distance of the young woman's stomach, she raised her arm…

"Hold it!" The voice rang out strong and clear from the top of a nearby lamppost.

A ripple effect spread through the crowd at once: the joyful racket ceased, replaced by frightening murmuring.

At the same time, a brilliant smile spread across Naru's face as she squeezed her husband's hand tight. "I knew it. See? It's gonna be all right, Gurio. Just watch."

As one, the entire crowd, human and monster, looked up to the top of the lamppost. Overhead, the clouds broke to reveal a pale crescent moon, its light shining down upon the feminine figure perched atop it, arms crossed and pigtails blowing in the evening breeze…

Now the murmuring stopped, and at least a quarter of the mob emitted horrified gasps.

"Trying to deny a young couple their right to raise a family is unforgivable, I won't allow it!" she shouted, blue eyes aglow with righteous fury. She raised one gloved hand, silhouetting it against the moon above as she began the speech she knew by heart… "For love and justice…"

"No," whispered Morga, shaking her head and shrinking back in disbelief. "No, not again…! It can't be!"

"... the pretty Senshi in a sailor suit…"

Tears welled in Naru's eyes. She mouthed the next words along with her rescuer, her heroine, the person without whom she would be dead or worse so many times over, without whom she wouldn't be here, holding her beloved husband's hand and cradling the child growing within her…

"... I am Sailor Moon!"

Half of the mob screamed in mortal terror.

Atop the lamppost, she crossed her arms in the classic pose, and finished: "In the name of the moon… I shall punish you!"

Sailor Moon had returned.

END OF CHAPTER 13

Chapter Text

Chapter 14: Gather Together

-VERTEX ONE: 15.556984-

Hikawa Shrine, Sendai Hill

Since Usagi transformed and left for the shopping district, there had been a magnificently awkward silence between the two Reis. Neither knew what to say to the other, though Rei 2 seemed far more comfortable with extended silence than Rei 1 did.

Even worse, they were now fresh out of tea...

Rei 1 fidgeted in place. Dammit, this was embarrassing. Why was talking to someone who was essentially herself so difficult? Perhaps because her duplicate was somehow her total opposite… however that worked. "Um," she said, the question popping into her head before she could stop herself. "So… did you and Yuuichiro ever think about-"

Rei 2's stare was as frosty as it was uncomprehending. "Who is Yuuichiro?"

"You're kidding. Yuuichiro Kamada!" said Rei 1, goggling in disbelief. "You know, tall guy, scruffy hair, stubble, Grandpa's apprentice? We dated him once or twice?"

The stare turned from frosty to frigid in a hurry. "I don't know any such person. Grandfather never took an apprentice, and I wouldn't date him even if he did. I have no interest in men."

That was enough to make Rei 1 doubt that Rei 2 was her duplicate at all, frankly. "You're kidding," she repeated. The room spun around her in dizzying circles. "You've never dated? Or thought about dating? Ever?"

"No."

"Not the Star Lights? I mean, before you knew they were-"

"Absolutely not."

"What about Mamoru-san?"

An angry, offended sniff. "Please. Mamoru-san is Usagi's destined lover. I would never attempt to come between them."

"I don't believe it." Rei 1 slumped backward, staring at the surface of the table in shock. "Never. Not once. And I thought I had it bad… Haven't you ever wanted to be close? To anyone?"

It took a moment for Rei 1's brain to register what she was seeing: Rei 2 was actually blushing. It was the first indication that her duplicate had moods other than solemn, tranquil, annoyed, or any combination of the three. "I-" she said, averting her eyes. "There's only one person I've ever been close to in that way. But it's improper to talk about it."

"Oh, come on!" Her interest piqued, Rei 1 leaned forward across the table. "We're both Rei Hino, right? You can tell me, who is it? I promise I won't laugh…"

The blush grew darker, and Rei 2 mumbled words too soft to make out.

"Sorry, come again? I couldn't hear you."

Mumble, mumble.

"Still didn't catch that. If you don't want to tell me, it's-"

"Minako," said Rei 2 with a bit too much volume, clutching her hands tight in her lap, her back rigid. "If you must know, it's Minako. There, I said it."

There are a few times in everyone's life when one's brain undergoes a total, catastrophic shutdown. For Rei 1, this was one of those times.


Juuban Shopping District

Half the mob was still shaking, immobilized with terror at the sight of her. It made sense; she had killed the vast majority of these monsters, of course they would be afraid. Good… the longer the monsters were too frightened to move, the safer Naru and Umino would be.

The other half, however… Too many of them were over the shock, and were now hissing, snarling, or growling with rage. A few began to shout: "Kill Sailor Moon!" "Kill her!" "Take revenge!" "KILL HER!"

Sailor Moon suppressed a shudder. Whoever was responsible for resurrecting her old enemies, they were thorough. Looking down at the mob, she could see not only Youma, but also Droids, Daimon, Lemures, Phages, even a dozen-odd Cardians… and those were just the ones she recognized. There were others on the fringes, huge, hulking creatures, flanked by crowds of much smaller grunts, all identical: little sandbags with arms and legs and monkey faces, and humanoid inkblots in colored sunglasses…

It was the one with the wild hair, black sclera, and gnarled skin that they all seemed to answer to, though. Morga. Of course it was Morga; who else would lead the attack on this place of all places but the first monster that Sailor Moon ever fought? One bony finger pointed up at her perch atop the lamppost as she screeched at her fellow monsters. "Don't just stand there! We have her outnumbered, there's hundreds of us! Tear it down, and tear her apa-"

Crunch. The center of her withered face crumpled as the heels of Sailor Moon's red boots came down hard, using her as a springboard to vault into the center of the mob where the civilians were surrounded. Morga fell with a gurgling scream, spouting blood and curses.

"Sailor Moon!"

"You're back, you're really back, I can't believe it-"

Despite the precarious situation, Sailor Moon couldn't help but smile at her friends' cries of joy. "Both of you, get behind me!" Naru and Umino nodded and complied as she spread out her arms, shielding them both with herself. "Okay, now slowly move back to the store, you'll be safer in there…"

Naru blinked. "Can't you, you know, use your 'Moon Elimination' or whatever? Wipe them all out at once?"

"Um…" That was a good question, actually. She was back in her first form, after all.

The mob advanced as they inched backward, the same thought occurring to the monsters. Already there were fanged smiles spreading through the crowd as the realization dawned. "She's weak…" "She's alone!" "Not so high and mighty now, are you, Sailor Moon?"

At least she was distracting them from the civilians. "Just keep moving," she said to Naru and Umino, trying to suppress the quiver in her voice. How was this going to work, exactly? "Just keep moving, don't stop…"

"I'll make you pay for killing me, moon brat!" "- drain you dry-" "-scratch out those pretty blue eyes-"

Bad to worse. Less than a meter from the door frame now, she had to do something… "You two, run!"

Not the worst plan. Not the best one, either. Plans were never her strong suit, that was always Ami's thing… but Naru and Umino ran, batting aside grasping claws and vanishing inside the shop. Many voices howled for blood, and a few of the monsters on the frontlines pounced. Sailor Moon recognized the closest one, the crimson-skinned, axe-handed Youma from her first battle alongside Ami… Its jaws slavered, its wicked blade gleamed with reflected moonlight as it-

Reflected moonlight. The thought sparked a memory, and Sailor Moon's hand leapt to her tiara. "Moon Twilight Flash!"

A searing golden glow lit the street. Cries of pain rippled through the mob as dozens of monsters fell to their knees, clutching at their blinded eyes. The axe-handed Youma wasn't so lucky, nor were the six monsters closest behind it… the light dissolved them to glittering dust.

Once more, the crowd of monsters stood in stupefied shock, watching the seven piles of dust blow away in the evening breeze. Seven down in an instant… but still hundreds left.

"What are you idiots doing?!" said Morga, staggering upright and clutching her bleeding, caved-in face. "Stop dawdling and kill her!"

At that point, Sailor Moon decided that discretion was the better part of valor (a favorite quote of Mamoru's, one that seemed to her like a really complicated to say 'It's okay to run away sometimes,' which was much easier to remember)... so she booked it for the jewelry store's door, screaming and hoping that its occupants heard her. "Block the door! Block the door! Wait for me, but block the door!"

The heavy, dented security door slammed into place as she stumbled through the frame. Of course, the tip of her boot caught on the edge of the carpet... with a squawk, Sailor Moon tripped and fell flat on her face.

The next sound she heard was unexpected: a peal of laughter. "It really is you!" said Naru, bracing herself against a counter as she leaned down and offered a hand. "After all this time… Thank you, Sailor Moon, and welcome back."

"Th-thanks…" Sailor Moon took it, and rubbed the back of her head in embarrassment as she rose. "I wish I didn't have to come back to, you know, this. Are you all right, Na-er, Ma'am?"

"'Ma'am?!'" Naru raised an eyebrow. On the sly, she checked to see that Umino was still moving furniture to block the door before she next spoke. "That reminds me. When you next see my friend, Usagi… tell her she'd better brush up on how to change diapers." Grinning, she patted her plump belly. "We're going to need a regular sitter."

The implications of that last statement flew over Sailor Moon's twin odango for the moment as she stared at Naru in open-mouthed astonishment. "You… you knew?!" Keeping her voice down was difficult for her under the best of circumstances, but she managed this time… no reason to give Umino something else to panic over.

"Not at first." Naru winked at her. "But after the twelfth or thirteenth time I got attacked by a monster, I started to notice that Usagi was somehow never around whenever it happened… and then after a while, I noticed the hair… nobody wears odango like you do."

Sailor Moon sputtered, for once at a loss for words. "But… but the disguise field! Luna always said that unless I transform in front of somebody while they're watching, I shouldn't- You knew all this time and didn't tell me?!"

"I figured you must have some reason. Superhero secret identity stuff." After another check to see that Umino wasn't watching, Naru embraced her friend and whispered in her ear. "Don't worry about it, Usagi-chan. I'm not mad. As long as you're around to babysit…"

For the first time since that morning, Sailor Moon smiled genuinely. "Thank you, Naru-chan. I will be, and I can't wait. Do you know if it's-"

"Mmm-mmm," said Naru, shaking her red curls back and forth. "But if it's a girl, we were thinking of naming her 'Mori', and if it's a boy…" Her face changed, her eyes glimmered… an old and bittersweet memory resurfaced as she cradled the child sleeping within her. "'Masato.'"

It took a moment for Sailor Moon to remember that name, but when she did, she nearly burst into tears herself. "Oh God. Naru-chan..."

Nodding, Naru wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. "I know, I know. I'm okay, honest… I just thought it would be nice to thank him for-"

BOOM. She stumbled, nearly fell as an earsplitting crack of noise shook the store to its foundations. Only Sailor Moon's intervention kept her from dropping to the floor… how strange to have Usagi keeping her from falling.

As he braced the makeshift barricade with his weight, Umino groaned. "What now?! Are they bombing us?"

More screams and howls filtered through the steel shutters… and Sailor Moon felt something. A welcome presence, a huge presence, warm and inviting, but tough and sturdy as a block of iron. And that smell… a faint aroma of potpourri made with rose petals… Her face split into a wide grin. "Don't worry, that wasn't a bomb! Help is on the way!"

All three scrambled to one of the small air holes in the shutters, Naru with considerable difficulty. The holes were tiny, but they were enough to see through to the outside…

"You've interrupted the peaceful lives of the people of this city!" The voice came from a towering beauty standing on the edge of a building across the street, cracking her knuckles inside her white gloves. Dressed in a sailor fuku in shades of pink and green, one corner of her mouth lifted in a cocky smirk as she raised her arms in a fighting stance… A fork of lightning struck the antenna raised from the jewel in her tiara, and another clap of thunder split the night an instant later. "The Senshi of Love and Protection! I, Sailor Jupiter, will not allow it! In the name of Jupiter... I'll leave you numb with regret!" With grace that belied her size, she sprung from the roof…

Somewhere in the mob, Morga screeched a primal sound that might have been an attempt to rally her troops, and might have been a cry for help.

The next few minutes were a welcome sight for the three trapped in the store, and a living nightmare for the monsters outside of it. Sailor Jupiter tore into their ranks like a living typhoon, sending bodies flying left and right. One single blow of her fists or heels hit with the strength of ten… and the few that survived those were charred to a crisp by bolts of lightning before they could recover enough to fight back. Jupiter was a one-woman army, superhumanly strong and tough in both civilian and Senshi guises, and five years without fighting hadn't dulled her skills one bit. In fact, if anything, she seemed stronger than ever, her power boosted by her elation from going into battle once more…


Morga worked her way to the fringes of the mob, shoving aside any who stood in her way. There was one soldier she was looking for, one particular face somewhere in the crowd… there she was. "You!" Morga snarled and snatched the shoulder of a frightful, white-skinned Daimon who crouched shivering behind the thick steel security door welded to her left forearm. "Your new assignment is to serve as my personal defense!"

"B-But…" stammered Doorknobdar, who was quite uneasy about this sudden change of plans. In truth, Doorknobdar wasn't even entirely sure what she was doing here; she told Lady Viluy that she lacked proficiency in combat, and wasn't much good for anything but sealing places off from other places… Her defensive capabilities were slightly higher than that of other Daimon, that was true, and she was quite proficient at picking locks, thanks to the enormous multi-tool gadget that occupied her opposite arm. Other than that, though… "But Master Joker said-"

"I don't care what Master Joker said!" roared Morga, raising her hand and extending her claws. With the imprints of Sailor Moon's boots marring her face, she looked more frightful than ever. "You will protect me with your life, is that clear?!"

"Y-Yes, Ma'am!" Cowed into submission, the Daimon stood and attempted a salute, but the multi-tool on one arm and the door on the other made that an unlikely prospect. "I'll do my best, Ma'am!"

"See that you do!" With that, Morga took her place behind Doorknobdar, and grabbed the next two monsters she saw, hauling them forward. "You and you, back her up!" Then she swore, loudly.

By an unfortunate stroke of luck that bordered on sadistic, the two monsters she had selected out of the hundreds in the crowd were both Lemures. Not the formless blobs of living nightmares that that awful Nehelenia woman produced, but the other, lesser kind of Lemures that shared nothing in common with them except the connection to the Dead Moon Circus and, inexplicably, the name. It wasn't long into this operation that these lesser Lemures developed a reputation among the Dead End ranks for being… in a word, useless. Perhaps one in five had a somewhat useful combat ability. The rest were borderline harmless, generally possessing a single trick or gimmick apiece, and usually themed after circus or carnival acts. Jugglers, cat's cradlers, see-sawers, trapeze artists, balance beamers… they made good cannon fodder, and that was about it.

One of these two particular lesser Lemures had a hollow body made of some type of colorful and shiny transparent material... a balloon. Her rubbery body squeaked in time with her high-pitched voice as she took position next to Doorknobdar… on her left side, as far away from the blades of her multi-tool as Morga would allow. "Ohhh, I don't like this," muttered Puko to herself. "I don't like this one bit…"

The other Lemures, by contrast, seemed thrilled for a chance to prove herself, snapping into a salute that rustled the leaves growing out of her head in lieu of hair. An odd, pink-skinned creature, this one's arms sprouted out of a rosebush on her chest… or perhaps the bush was her chest, it was difficult to tell. Her lower torso was little but a thorny stem growing out of a flower pot that served as her hips. "Don't worry, Ma'am," said TogeToge Jou, "I've been waiting for this, and I'll make you proud! I'll crush those nuisances with my special attack, just you watch!"

Morga wasn't listening. She dragged the hapless Daimon along with her as she moved further to the back of the mob, the two Lemures following her as best they could. At the back, out of necessity, were the giant monsters native to Master Joker's universe and its neighboring facets: Zakenna, Desertarians, Zetsuborgs, and Metaria only knew what else. The only thing they all had in common was their massive size and their general inability to speak more than a few words or syllables apiece.

The withered Youma rushed to the side of the sturdiest-looking giant she could find, a four-meter creature encased head-to-foot in plate armor, with a pair of dark, pointed sunglasses serving as a visor. A dozen or so of the little inkblot and sandbag grunts milled around its feet, babbling unintelligibly at each other in nervous, high-pitched voices. "You!" Morga called up at it.

"Sai-arrrrk?" said the armored giant, tilting its helmet to one side.

"Yes, you!" She jabbed a clawed finger. "Whatever orders you have, ignore them! Your new assignment is to keep me safe from the Senshi at all costs! And deploy your troops while you're at it, don't just keep them standing around!"

The giant nodded. "Sai-ark!" Taking a purposeful stance, it pointed in Jupiter's direction and bellowed. At once, the inkblot grunts sprung into action, dozens of dark bodies piling onto the giant girl in green who was cleaving through the ranks, while the sandbags bludgeoned her with their fists…

It almost worked. Or, conceivably, it could have worked. For a few seconds, it looked as if the sheer force of the Choiarks' numbers would force Jupiter to the ground… and then she smirked.

High-pitched squeals rang out as she stood, the immense force of her battle aura scattering Choiarks and Sunakiis like ninepins. Jupiter caught two by the necks as they fell back down, and - Morga swallowed heavily - used them to pummel the armored Saiark senseless until it toppled to the street with an earth-shaking crash and lay still.

"Oh, come on!" laughed Jupiter as she scaled the fallen giant in a single bound. "There's tons of you and only one of me, is that really the best you've got?"

The crowd of monsters took that as a challenge. Many howled in outrage, and a platoon of mixed Youma and Droids sprung free of their ranks, hands and claws and blades and tendrils grasping for her neck…

Perfect.

True, she was back to her original transformation for whatever reason. But her original transformation still had power to spare, and it had a certain technique that she had been itching to use ever since Luna called her with news of the mob's attack…

Once more, the antenna extended from her tiara. Jupiter smirked, crossed her arms in an X-shape, and shouted the invocation to the heavens: "Supreme Thunder Dragon…!"

This time, the bright flash and clap of thunder was accompanied by a grating electric screech… Jupiter's lightning bolts spiraled together, gathered, and reformed into a massive serpentine shape. Its fanged jaws opened wide as if in joy as it roared, charging to meet the attacking monsters head on. Each body it touched convulsed with the force of thousands of volts coursing through it, and the monsters burst into dust one by one as the dragon made a complete circle around Jupiter, keeping the rest of the mob held back until it fizzled out.


Pandemonium reigned. Despite all of Morga's shouting and threatening of bodily harm, the mob broke apart as the Dead End soldiers panicked and fled for their miserable lives. Only the brave, lucky, or suicidally stupid remained… or in Morga's case, Doorknobdar and TogeToge Jou stayed by her side thanks to her death grips on their arms.

"L-Lady M-Morga," began Puko, trailing behind them. The balloon Lemures was jostled back and forth by the monsters streaming past her, her hollow body too light to hold her ground against them. "W-w-w-we should-"

Pow. That was all she could get out before a fearsome spiked Desertarian ran past. All it took was a light brush of its razor-sharp body against her… Morga watched in fascinated horror as tiny, brightly-colored strips of rubbery Lemures drifted down in the bladed Desertarian's wake, and were trampled under the feet of the next fleeing soldier.

To her credit, TogeToge Jou stepped forward, clenching her fists. "Stay behind me, Lady Morga!" she said. "I'll protect you! I've been waiting so long for this…"

Jupiter had her back to them, occupied with an Uzaina that dared try to use an electric attack against her. The Uzaina was about to pay for that mistake with its life, but as long as the Senshi was distracted…

Finally, now's my chance! TogeToge Jou smiled and took a deep breath for her attack invocation, gathering all her power. "Pr-"

A roar, a wave of heat, and a gout of flame blew past Morga's shoulder. It consumed the rosebush Lemures before she could utter another syllable and reduced her to ashes.

No! Morga turned on her heel, blood running cold. Not another one! No no no no no…

"Even for monsters, what you're doing is despicable!" Embers swirled around the raven-haired beauty in red, her image rippling with a heat mirage… Morga blinked and stared. No, it wasn't a mere heat mirage. Next to one red Senshi stood another, identical one, back-to-back with her… how…?

The duplicate spoke in the same voice, but calmer, more controlled: "Attacking innocent people... there is no forgiveness for you."

And together, their voices in concert as they pointed accusing fingers: "The Senshi of Love and Passion… Sailor Mars! In the name of Mars, we'll chastise you!"

That did it. Morga abandoned Doorknobdar and fled for her life.


Jupiter grinned ear to ear and rushed forward, tossing a squealing white-skinned Daimon armed with a steel door out of her way. "Good to see you again, Mars! Thanks for the save, that was-"

She stopped, stupefied. "Huh...?" There were two of Sailor Mars, lashing out at monsters and cracking heads left and right. They would have been mirror images of each other, were it not for one of them fighting with noticeably more exuberance than the other… That other one paused for a moment and raised an eyebrow as she slapped an ofuda on a monster's forehead. "Don't ask. We're not sure what's going on ourselves…"

"Fire Soul!" The first Mars cried, clasping her hands together. The unfortunate Cardian trying to strangle her burnt away to cinders in the ensuing blast. "Yeah, just try to focus on not getting killed! We'll try to figure it out later!"

Completely lost, Jupiter stared back and forth. For whatever reason, both of them sounded familiar to her… but Mars 2 was right, of course. Back into the fray.


Away. Morga had to get away. It didn't matter that Master Joker would have her head for desertion; even that was probably better than being electrocuted or roasted to death. Around her, the ranks grew thinner as she neared the fringes of the mob. If she could only make it out, call for help, get a transport back to-

Something was wrong. She knew that the number of soldiers left was dwindling, but now she couldn't see any of them, nor could she hear the sounds of the fight behind her. "What-" Everything except the two square meters of asphalt beneath her feet seemed to have faded away, swallowed up by clouds of white fog.

Fog. Damn it all! "Come out and show yourself!" she screamed into the void, flailing with her claws. "Come on, Sailor brat, I know you're there! I'll tear you limb from… from… from..." Each swipe came slower than the last, as if she were trying to swim through thick mud… mud that grew colder and colder by the second. Even her thoughts seemed to slow… Ice crystals spread across her skin, which should have been painful, should have terrified her, but there was a rising numbness that dulled both pain and fear, preventing them from reaching her brain. "I'll…" she mumbled, unable to raise her voice any higher. "I...ll…"

"Shame on you," said a soft, gentle voice from the fog bank, a voice with just a hint of a refined Kyoto accent. "A leader attempting to abandon her troops to save herself? How disgraceful." She stepped from the nearest cloud, her fuku all in shades of blue that complemented her cerulean eyes and hair. Pressing on one earring disabled the transparent visor she wore, which melted into sparkles as she walked past the Youma commander, now frozen solid. "Stay there and repent for what you've done," said Sailor Mercury, shaking her head. Tradition or no tradition, there was no real point in giving the rest of the speech if the Youma couldn't hear it… so she passed on by, a ghost in the fog on the way to meet her friends.


"Mercury!" Jupiter knew that silhouette anywhere. Before Mercury could fully emerge from the familiar fog bank, she seized her in an enthusiastic hug that bordered on painful. "What are you doing here, I thought you were in Kyoto…?"

Mercury smiled and suppressed a wince. "I-it's lovely to see you all again. I was at the university, but Luna called me, she said it was an emergency…"

A friendly hand clapped her on the shoulder. "That's our Ami-chan, always reliable!" said Mars. "It's great to have you back."

"Welcome back, Mercury," said Mars from a few feet away, sinking into a polite bow.

"Thank you, I-" The rest of the sentence trailed off as Mercury noticed something very wrong with this picture. Her jaw dropped open. "... beg your pardon?"

"Yeah, we're still working on that one," said Jupiter, sighing and releasing her teammate. "But at least we can all work on it together, right? All four, er, five of us…"

Through a supreme show of effort, Mercury resisted the urge for at least ten seconds before the visor came out again. A flash, and a tiny, ocean blue palmtop computer materialized at her fingertips. The computer's readout confirmed what she already knew: the two Sailor Mars (Marses?) were both identical and, even more confusing, both authentic. "Fascinating," she whispered as she went to work.


Widow didn't know how it was that she escaped. Well, she knew the method by which she escaped, but how she was fortunate enough not to be hit by a stray Senshi attack on the way out of the war zone, she had no idea.

All-out assaults weren't her forte, anyway. Widow was a spider Youma, and spiders were far more suited for laying in wait in the darkness, springing traps only when the time was right. Sticking to such a strategy likely wouldn't make Master Joker happy, but as long as she was able to take out at least one Senshi, he should have no reason to complain… she hoped.

Her many feet padded against the brick wall of the alley as she scuttled up it, in search of high ground. Thank Metaria that none of the Senshi could fly… none that she knew of, anyway. There seemed to be a small army of them, all of whom had the nasty habit of developing new and varied ways to kill monsters when one least expected it. Damn them all.

With one last burst of effort, Widow hauled her bulbous arachnid abdomen past the overhang and collapsed onto the hard cement rooftop, trying to catch her breath. Now, perhaps she could lay a trap and hope that one of the accursed Senshi stumbled into-

Widow's eight eyes widened. She was not alone on the roof. She found herself staring at what were, all things considered, a gorgeous pair of human legs. Being a spider Youma, she could appreciate nice legs better than most bipeds, but as her many eyes scanned up the legs, past where they met the orange pleated skirt, past where the curtain of immaculate, waist-length blonde hair began, past the leotard with its cobalt bow, and up to the human's big, baby-blue eyes, her appreciation gave way to terror. Of all the luck. Of all the cursed luck, she had to run into another Sailor Senshi in her prospective hiding spot.

It was difficult to tell which one of them was more surprised, or which one started screaming first. Whoever it was, the next few seconds were a confused tangle of raised voices and flailing limbs…

"Kyaaaaa! Get away! I hate spiders! Get away from me, you-" CRACK.

"GAAH, my face! By the pit, I'll make you pay, Sailor brat!"

"Gross-" CRACK. "- gross-" CRACK. "- gross-" CRACK. "- GROSS!"

"Stop that!" A wide stream of sticky, pale yellow thread from Widow's mouth caught the girl's arm before it could strike her again. Seizing her chance, Widow pounced while the Senshi was still reeling with disgust, trying to shake the webbing off. Her forward and middle legs worked in a frenzy, pulling more silk from her spinnerets and drawing it tight around her opponent's thrashing limbs. Soon, she had the Senshi wrapped up in a serviceable cocoon… hastily made, but good enough. Widow stepped back to admire her work, rubbing her stinging cheek. "There…! Much better. You're mine now, Sailor Senshi! No one has ever escaped my web!" Well, that wasn't entirely true, but her prey didn't need to know that. Smiling and bearing her curved fangs, Widow lowered herself over the girl to savor her terror. "Oh, I'm going to enjoy feasting on your life energy, my pretty little fly…"

"Mmmfhnt hmmm," said Sailor Venus, squirming back and forth. There was an uneven patch of silk plastered over the lower half of her face, muffling her words. The spider Youma's had pinned her arms to her sides with its webbing, but in its rush to bind her, it missed covering a few fingers. Those fingers worked furiously to expose more of her hand...

The opportunity was too perfect; Widow couldn't resist taunting her a bit more. She leaned closer and cocked one ear. "Hmmm? Didn't quite catch that…"

"CRMMFNT BMMM!" Venus repeated, louder this time. There; one hand hand was free, and one hand was all she needed. Her fingertip shone bright, and a straight golden beam lanced out, neatly carving through the Youma's extra legs on its left side. It toppled off of her with a squeal of pain, and Venus crooked her finger to direct the Crescent Beam at herself, slicing through the threads. It was short work to tear out of the rest of her bindings, but the horrible stuff clung tenaciously to her skin and uniform, it made a tangled mess of her hair… her poor, prized hair! And God, she could taste it in her mouth… Revolted and flushing hot, she tore the silk from her face and let the Youma have it the moment she stopped gagging. "You!" she said, keeping a finger trained on it. "Not only did you muck up my clothes and hair with your disgusting spider spit, but you spoiled my big entrance! I won't stand for it!"

Widow hissed at her, cradling the stumps of her severed legs. "You aren't-"

Venus wasn't listening; she was well into her speech by now, and too furious to stop. "The Senshi of Love and Beauty, I am Sailor Venus! In the name of Venus, I'll throw down your punishment of love from heaven!" She raised her finger to the sky and bellowed: "Venus Love Megaton SHOWER!"

A line of light shot straight up… and split into thousands more, raining down on the unfortunate Youma before it could get another word in edgewise. Riddled full of holes by the storm of light, it shuddered for a moment before collapsing into dust.

That wasn't enough; Venus slammed her heel into the dust pile over and over, scattering it to the winds. "Stupid… slimy… disgusting… bug…!" she snarled through gritted teeth, punctuating each word with another stomp. "How… dare… you…!"

"Um, Mina?" A furry white feline snout peeked hesitantly around a corner. "I think you got it..."

"... going to take… forever… to comb this stuff out…!"

Artemis closed his eyes and sighed, his whiskers drooping. He and Minako were less removed from the old days than he thought… but at least she won the fight.

"Venus?" A soft voice called from the street below, managing to be heard over the sounds of battle. "Is that you up there? Are you all right?"

In an instant, the sorry state of her appearance was forgotten. Radiant happiness shone from Venus's face as she shot to the edge of the roof and leaped over… Artemis followed, and was just in time to see her seize all of her fellow Senshi in a warm, if sticky, embrace.

"Guys! Everyone!"

"Venus!"

"I can't believe it, we're back together again…"

"I can't believe you started the party without me! What were you-" A pause. "Um, Mars, why are there two of-"

A chorus of voices answered, two of them identical: "Don't ask."

As joyous as the reunion was, there was still work to do, still a fight to finish. In that regard, it was as if no time had passed at all. Over the years, the Four Guardian Senshi had learned to function as a flawless unit, unrivaled in strength. Artemis didn't know how many other teams of Senshi there were outside of the Sol System, but he was confident that none of them fought together quite like this. His heart swelled with pride; not for nothing were Mercury, Mars, Venus, and Jupiter known and feared throughout the galaxy as the greatest warriors of their time. And now that there were inexplicably two of Sailor Mars… well.

His smile grew wider as he felt the presence of his counterpart, long before he laid eyes on her. "It's been a long time…"

The black cat sat next to him and chuckled as she nuzzled him. "It doesn't feel like long at all," said Luna. "Like just yesterday, Usagi was here for her first battle, shattering windows with her crying…"

Artemis scanned the battlefield. "Where is Usagi, anyway?"

At that, Luna had to roll her eyes. "If I had to guess…"


At Osa-P's storefront, a dented security door was finally wrenched out of the way with a metallic groan, after many minutes of the people inside straining to dislodge it. It was hardly a second later when a red, white, and blue blur trailing foot-long blonde pigtails rushed out of the door, bawling up a storm… and if the reunion between the others had been joyous, this one was ecstatic. Even the remaining monsters seemed reluctant to interrupt as the core Sailor Senshi came back together for the first time in five years… though perhaps several of them hesitated because they remembered the more adverse effects of Sailor Moon's crying fits.

Again, it was as if no time had passed at all… her faithful guardians took their positions around her, as they always did.

"We saved some for you," said Jupiter, grinning. "A few of the Youma and all the Phages."

Mercury's fingers flew over her computer's keys. "I'm not sure if they're all transformed humans like they were before, but we held back just in case."

Sailor Moon rubbed the back of her neck. "I hope I can still do it. I don't know what's going on, with us all back to our original forms… and, you know, with the Marses..."

"I was gonna ask why we seem to be going retro," said Venus, "but yeah, two of Mars is weird, even for us."

Mars 2 scoffed, having little patience for small talk. "There will be plenty of time to discuss it later. Sailor Moon, finish it!"

"Right. Here goes…" Sailor Moon raised her hand, concentrated, and felt for a weapon, any weapon, in pocketspace… She had it. A pink stick topped with a crescent moon, warm and familiar to the touch… She hadn't held it for years, but the motions came back to her as easily as breathing. "Moon Healing Escalation!"

Rays of brilliant holy light swept the street… where they touched the remaining Dead End soldiers, their monstrous features melted like bad dreams. Youma, Phages, Saiarks, Desertarians, and all the rest fell to Sailor Moon's power… the power of the greatest Senshi of all.

Oh yes, Sailor Moon remembered the words and the motions. What she didn't remember was the backlash… the moment her attack finished, the Moon Stick clattered to the pavement at her side as she fell to her knees, as tired as if she had run the flights of stairs to hers and Mamoru's apartment five times in a row.

"Sailor Moon!" A flurry of voices called her name, and half a dozen hands extended to help her up…

"I'm fine, I'm fine," she said, climbing unsteadily to her feet and grasping two of the hands. "I guess I'm out of… practice…" What she saw now made a little tiredness far less of a problem.

The Silver Crystal was gone.

It didn't make sense. In her first form, the Silver Crystal was mounted safely on the Moon Stick from the moment she acquired it to her final battle with Metaria. Later transformations moved it to her brooch or to somewhere in her pocketspace, or even inside her heart on occasion, but as far as she knew, it should always appear when she needed it. Now, the inner curve of the wand's crescent moon was smooth and blank, as it had been when Luna first gave it to her. No one could have taken the Silver Crystal without her knowledge, so how-

"Lost something, lapin?"

Six heads snapped up at the sound of an unfamiliar voice. Drawling and sardonic, it came from the colorful harlequin resting atop an awning across the street, his arms crossed behind his head. There was no outward sign of his appearance, but the moment the Marses sensed his presence…

It's all gone wrong.

… both felt the unmistakable, bitter tingling in the back of their minds that meant impending doom…

It's all gone wrong.

… and both drew closer together in front of Sailor Moon, making the exact same warding gesture. It would have been comical, in other circumstances…

Heaven help us, it's all gone wrong…

"I must say," said Joker without looking at her, "it's a pleasure to meet you in the flesh at last, Sailor Moon, Sailor Senshi. You're every bit the legends that your reputation makes you out to be. It's an honor, truly." He rose up off the awning, the tips of his pointed boots leaving the fabric as he floated in midair without support, and drew down into an exaggerated bow. "Enchanté, Mademoiselles. I am Joker."

Joker. The name sent a deep, inexplicable spike of dread through Sailor Moon's body. It was hard to even breathe… "Did-" Her voice came out as a dry croak. "Did you bring back all of the-"

"Oh yes, indeed." Rather than rise from his bow, Joker did a forward flip until he turned upright again. "A pleasant warm-up, was it not? Are we all feeling refreshed? I do apologize if my troops weren't much of a challenge for you, but they served their purpose. After all, you're all back together again… one big happy color-coded family."

Summoning all her courage, Sailor Moon drew herself up. "You… how dare you endanger people just for-"

Joker blew air through his lips and waved a hand. "Yes, yes, lapin, we know. You've already done the speech once tonight. If you must talk, please, answer me this…" The empty black eyes of his mask stared down at her. "When exactly was the last time you used that Moon Stick of yours, hmmm?"

Sailor Moon opened her mouth to answer.

-static-

She stood at the end of the world, Metaria's grotesque, shadowy form filling the sky like a sea of swirling ink. Endymion stood at her side, facing the darkness with her, sharing his power with her.

-static-

She stood on a high pillar of ice in the bitter cold, alone save for the ghostly images of her guardians around her, pouring everything she had into holding off the thing that Beryl and Metaria had become for a little longer.

-static-

Two sets of memories, neither of which she could ever forget. Both of them real. Both of them real…

From somewhere far away, Joker laughed that awful laugh. "Memories a bit discombobulated, are they? Why, you'd think something strange was going on…"

Sailor Moon collapsed, her eyes staring at nothing, her head feeling like it would split open at the seams...

"Sailor Moon! Hold on!" Mercury once again summoned her visor, and linked its output to her computer. The readings that now flashed across the visor's holographic display were- "Everyone," she whispered, her eyes like dinner plates. "He…"

"Huh?" Jupiter leaned over and tried to make out figures from the tiny screen. None of them made sense to her, and they flashed by much too fast to read besides. "What's the matter?"

"H-he's not..." Mercury's words trembled with impossible terror. For all that her experiences as a Senshi bent the laws of physics, there were at least recognizable principles involved, a certain set of rules that all things followed, if not always to the letter. Her scan of Joker indicated that this being not only broke those rules… but in his case, the rulebook had been shredded to pieces, and the pieces rearranged into something monstrous, something beyond even her ability to comprehend. "He's not from this universe. He shouldn't be in our world at all, just his being here is… is…" She couldn't finish, for there simply weren't words to describe what the data was telling her.

Above them, Joker applauded and laughed, a sound as frigid and sharp as a midwinter's night. "Oh, Mademoiselle Mercury, you are clever! Tres bien, tres bien indeed! I should have known that you would pick up what the others couldn't."

"Mercury," said Mars 1, her temper shorter than usual. That tingling in the back of her mind was driving her mad… "What is it? What's he doing?!"

"Oh, it's not all me."

The harlequin moved, and something emerged from his shadow: a tattered black cloak, with a skull's grin barely visible in the darkness beneath its hood… So much like Wiseman, their old enemy, and yet different, stranger. A twisted metal staff appeared in the figure's hand, a wicked crimson slash of energy sprouting from the jewel at its crown…

"Time Reaper," said Joker to the cloaked figure, "I'm afraid this next act will require a bit more effort than usual. Please, if it's too much for you, say something… I'll lend you whatever assistance you need."

The hood of the cloak nodded.

Below, the Senshi drew tighter together around Sailor Moon.

What happened next made no sense. The Reaper began to… distort, flickering into multiple images of itself, random parts of its form wavering and skimming in and out as if it couldn't quite decide to stay fully solid, to stay fully real or not. They saw it(them) move, and it(they) brought its(their) scythe(s) down, ripping a wide gash(es) in the air… there was a horrible, wrenching sound…

-static-

… and the street, the city, the world tore itself apart.

Before the uncomprehending eyes of the six Senshi, long ribbons of the sky curled in on themselves, the starlight expanding into floating lace doilies. The buildings on either side of them twisted out of shape, melting like wax candles and snapping back again, sprouting grotesque flowers from their windows and doors that bloomed, withered, and bloomed once more in the space of seconds, their petals resembling human fingers. Streetlights bent into pretzel shapes, the plastic casings of their electric lanterns leaking wine. The pavement bubbled and pitched beneath them like a raging sea…

"What is this?!" Venus screamed. The world didn't behave like this, it was like some kind of bizarre fever dream, she was going to throw up… "What's he doing?!"

And from the gash(es) in the air, the creatures emerged.

There was no rhyme, reason, or common pattern to their appearance. The most clearly defined was some kind of enormous, polka-dotted worm with a white cartoon face, ringed eyes in many different colors, and a mouthful of razor sharp teeth… but the next one was a shapeless blob with the head of a melting bouquet of roses and giant butterfly wings extending from its back. One was little but an angular, spiky mass of writhing darkness. Another was a floating box, with something of a vaguely human shape crouched over it. Behind it, a child's doll with dead eyes, grown to gargantuan size. More of the things streamed through after them... crawling, slithering, nonsensical things, too alien to understand, things that didn't act or sound or move like any living being should...

Their mad voices split the air as they gathered: screaming, cackling, gibbering, sobbing, babbling frenzied gibberish to each other, underscored by the giggling of children. A thousand smaller creatures, none of them any less bizarre, swarmed at their feet, or tendrils, or voids, or undersides, not daring to make a move until their overlings moved first.

Joker's voice rang out from somewhere, everywhere: "Now, this will be a worthy challenge for the indomitable Sailor Senshi! No more bush leagues for you, my dears… Now, the night of Witches begins…"

END OF CHAPTER 14

Chapter Text

Chapter 15: Detours

-VERTEX ONE: 15.556984-

Underneath Game Center Crown

In other, more normal circumstances, the sight would have been comical: two adult cats, one black and one white, pressing frantically at strange keyboard interfaces as they shouted complex streams of information back and forth at each other in perfect Japanese. A much smaller grey kitten dashed across the room, to and fro between them, attempting to assist in any way she could.

The circumstances, however, were far from normal: according to their sensors, all of the Sailor Senshi and Tuxedo Mask had vanished off the face of the earth.

"- sectors four through nineteen, no readings. That covers all of Shibuya," said Artemis, his furry face bathed in the cool blue glow of the monitors. "I'm moving onto Shinjuku!"

"Don't bother, Shinjuku's readings are negative," said Luna, tapping away on the opposite end of the console. "Scanning Chiyoda, coordinates-" Luna rattled off a string of numbers.

"Damn!" Artemis whacked a control crystal with his paw in frustration. It chirped petulantly at him in response. "All right, Shinagawa district, quadrant one, sector one through five, scanning…"

The kitten stopped in the middle of the control room, lost. "Mother, Father, what can I do?"

"Just stay where you are. Chiyoda, sectors three through nine clear. No sign of them."

"But I want to help-"

"What about our allies? We should call the Sisters, Helios, even the Star Lights if we have to… are any of them responding? Any signatures at all?"

"Comm frequencies are blank. They're all blank…"

"Mother!"

"What is it, Diana?" Luna rubbed her eyes. Staring at the constantly shifting cluster of holo-readouts was tiring under the best of conditions, but this-

"Mother, someone's coming!" said Diana, pointing to the top of a staircase that appeared to be made of glass. Vague shadows moved on the outside of the command center's starry domed ceiling.

"Stay behind us." The older cats' hackles rose as they abandoned their keyboards and drew close together. The identical crescent moon marks on their foreheads shone… and Diana had to crane her neck far upwards, for her mother and father weren't cats any longer. Luna was a stunningly beautiful young woman with wavy black locks and a yellow sundress, and Artemis was a strong, confident man dressed in light grey, his ivory hair flowing halfway down his back.

At the top of the stairs, the hidden doorway slid open. Luna and Artemis took each other's hands…

"You're kidding," said a familiar voice with an Osakan accent, in stupefied disbelief. "This was where their base was all along?! Underneath the... Oh no, stairs-"

"Careful, Naru!" The young man with thick glasses took hold of her hands. "One step at a time-"

"Naru…?" Baffled, Luna gaped at them. "Umino? What are you doing here?! How did you even get in?"

"We led them here, it was an emergency!" Squeezing past the couple making their way slowly down the stairs came two identical twin girls dressed in leotards of sorts, one in red and one in violet, their long black hair giving the impression of feathered wings as it rippled in their wake. It was the red-clad one who spoke, in a harsh, almost abrasive tone. "I know, I know, 'No civilians in the control room,' but they were in the area when the Senshi disappeared, and that field was swallowing up the whole-"

Now it was Artemis's turn to gape. "Phobos?" he said, looking from one to the other. "Deimos?"

The twins nodded in unison.

"I suppose you've never actually seen us in humanoid form in person before," said Deimos, the twin in violet, just as sharp as the other. Even their voices sounded the same. "We changed because we couldn't feel Princess Mars's energy anymore-"

"- and we felt it when those things were unleashed-"

"- but now there's nothing, no sign of Princess Mars or any of the others, so-"

"Um," said the heavily pregnant redhead from the corner. "Th-thanks for getting us out of there, but who are all of you people? Are you all Usagi's friends...?"

This, at least, Diana could help with. She smiled up at Naru and Umino as cordially as she could as she introduced herself, her tail swishing with nervous excitement. "Greetings! I humbly apologize for the confusion. My name is Diana, these are my parents, Luna and Artemis…" She indicated the transformed cats with her paw. "... and these other two ladies are Phobos-san and Deimos-san, the guardian crows of Sailor Mars."

Umino adjusted his glasses. That didn't help; he still saw it. He adjusted them again. "Naru," he said, trying desperately to keep calm, "I think that kitten is talking to us."

"Luna and Artemis? Wait." Naru's head spun, and she had to lean back against a pillar for support. "You… you guys are Usagi and Minako's cats?!"

"Yes, exactly! And I belong to Princess Usagi Small Lady Serenity, whom you know in this time period as Chibi-Usa. We both come from the 30th century city of Crystal Tokyo," said Diana from the floor. Her crescent mark also began to glow, and with a soft pop, she stood up… and up, and up. Now she was a little girl in a frilly skirt, her clothes and hair the same color as the kitten's fur. With the same cordial smile, she bowed to them. "Please excuse my rudeness, I beg your pardon." Diana turned and left them to support her parents… the baffled couple saw that she still had a cat's tail for some reason, one that poked out of the back of her dress and twitched faster than ever, in a way that indicated that it was indeed a real tail, and not a decorative addition to her costume.

"Naru," said Umino. "Pinch me."

She did. It still didn't help.

"I don't understand this at all." The young man took off his glasses and scrubbed his eyes. "A hundred monsters attacked our store and tried to kill us. Usagi, our Usagi, is Sailor Moon." Out of necessity, Naru had let him in on that secret once the twins came to lead them to safety… he was taking it well, under the circumstances. "Her friends are all Sailor Senshi, and their cats can talk and turn into people. There's a secret base under the Sailor V game at the arcade. Chibi-Usa is a princess from the future. And those two girls are crows… this is a dream, right? Tell me this is a dream…"

"I don't think so," said Naru, shaking her head. "Unless I'm having the same dream you are."

"Sailor Moon. Usagi is Sailor Moon." Umino had been coming back to variations on that sentence for the last half-hour. "I was in her fan club back in school, I had posters and everything! And she was right there in our class all along! Clumsy, scatterbrained, Bun-Head Usagi Tsukino, the girl I was in love wi-" Umino's mouth clamped shut like someone slamming a door. His face burned scarlet. "Um. Never mind."

Soft lips pressed against his cheek. "Was in love with." Naru giggled. "That's all that's important."

Somehow, Umino turned even redder. "Naru…"

They watched as confusion reigned… now five people darted around the control room, manning panels on the computer consoles, shouting coordinates to each other. Now that they had time to get a good look, the room was hardly what either of them imagined the Sailor Senshi's headquarters to be… It looked a bit like a piece taken out of an ancient Greek temple, a floating circular stone platform with marble pillars lining its edges, pillars that stood connected to nothing, reaching into an artificial night sky. The bank of consoles itself also looked to be carved out of marble, or some kind of stone at any rate… but the appearance of Greekness was defied by crystal keys set in the surfaces, the curved monitors inlaid in the stone, and the holographic screens that floated over and around its user interfaces. The floor was inlaid with irregular patterns that reminded Naru of tiny streams flowing between smooth stones in a dry riverbed… but instead of water, glowing lights raced through the "streams". Umino was the computer guy, not her, but if she had to guess, it was some kind of circuitry. Pretty, though… it had already given her an idea for a new line of jewelry.

A storm of chatter, very little of which made sense to the couple:

"Deimos, if you would begin checking the outer districts for energy signatures, please."

"Yes, ma'am. Scanning now..."

"Excuse me, how does this control work?"

"Press the blue diamond to bring up the screen-"

"Ah, understood."

"Mother, you look tired. Do you need anything? Water, or tea perhaps?"

"No thank you, Diana. I'll be fine."

"Nerima and Adachi districts, both clear."

"Now checking quadrant two of Arakawa…"

Naru and Umino exchanged worried looks. Whatever was going on, it sounded bad. Very bad.

Diana's tail stiffened in alarm. "Mother, Father!" she called from her console. "I've detected a nearby teleportation… Incoming energy signature, closing fast!"

"Is it the enemy?"

"No, it's-"

Once more, the doorway at the top of the stairs slid open. A tall shape staggered down the first few steps… then fell the rest of the way, to the accompaniment of Diana's horrified scream. Artemis and Deimos rushed to help. Who it was, Naru couldn't quite make out… the details of her face and form were blurred, as if looking at her through clouded glass. She knew a Sailor Senshi when she saw one, though, there was no mistaking that aura surrounding her. A mysterious power surged from within her body, a serene grace, a gentle calm… and a particular cool, salty scent that reminded her of her family vacations to the beach at Atami.

"Blessed Queen Serenity," Luna whispered, extending a hand and sucking in a breath. "Neptune…!"

Sailor Neptune. So that was who she was. Naru was only personally familiar with Sailor Moon and her four guardians, but there were a whole lot of other planets… she supposed that each one had its own Senshi, or something like that. The tone of Luna's voice, though… Again, Naru couldn't make out any clear details about Neptune's appearance, but the panic in the transformed cat's words was impossible to miss. She was hurt, and it sounded bad…

"No time." The words were hissed through Neptune's clenched teeth, her features were twisted with pain. Luna saw that one arm hung limp at her side, and rivulets of blood trickled down her arm from an unseen wound covered by her fuku's shoulder pad. "Where is Sailor Moon?"

"Not a clue," said Artemis. "As of right now, you're the only Senshi still on Earth, as far as we know. Moon and the four… five Inner Senshi went to take care of the monsters in front of Osa-P, there was some kind of interference, and-"

"And they were gone," finished Neptune. "It's happening to us, too. We need to find the Prince and Princess immediately, they can't-"

Deimos shifted her arm, securing it around the wounded Senshi as she guided her to lie with her back against the computer console. "You're badly hurt, you need to rest!"

A dry, bitter chuckle. "I would if I could, little one, but-"

"Oh, Serenity…" The twin in violet gasped and withdrew her arm. Her hand was painted red and dripping. "Sailor Neptune, who did this to you?!"

Neptune didn't answer. A flash of aqua light, and she changed…

Her face jumped into clear focus as her Senshi fuku disappeared. Naru couldn't help goggling; apparently, Sailor Neptune was none other than Michiru Kaioh, the world-famous concert violinist… she knew those noble features from seeing them on countless album covers.

"I'm sorry," said Michiru, leaning back against the console. "We were careless. Caught off guard."

"Michiru…" Luna knelt at her side, her face pale. "Where's Haruka? What happened to her?"

Michiru shut her eyes tight. Her fingers gripped her wounded arm so hard that the flow of blood from her shoulder began again in earnest.

That expression sent a dreadful, icy chill through all three of the cats. Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune, Haruka and Michiru, were the inseparable pair of the Outer Senshi. They were partners and lovers from almost the first moment they awakened their powers and began their fight against the powers of darkness. Everyone knew that neither of them would abandon the other if there were even the slightest chance of saving them. The fact that Michiru was here and Haruka wasn't meant that the unthinkable had happened…

"S-stay here," said Luna. Her voice was hoarse, and her lip trembled. "Just get some rest and focus on healing. We'll… we'll find out what's going on. Artemis?"

"Right. Resuming scan." Artemis hunched over one of the monitors. "This just doesn't make sense. If they were anywhere on the planet, or anywhere in the Solar System for that matter, we should be able to track them!"

Michiru raised her head. A fine sheen of sweat glistened on her brow. "It's no coincidence. Whoever is behind this is somehow jamming the planetary sensor systems."

"How, though? This is Silver Millennium technology, nothing on Earth should be able to do that!"

"They're not from Earth." Those lovely features hardened. "They're not even from our universe. This enemy… they should never have been able to come here. The damage they're doing is catastrophic..."

Luna's eyes moved over one of the monitors, showing footage of the mob of their former enemies. She opened her mouth to speak-

"No," said Michiru, shaking her head. "Not just the monsters reviving, though their presence is bad enough. There's something wrong with the world, haven't you felt it?" Sea green eyes bored into the cat's…

In the back, Naru and Umino took each other's hands.

At the console, the twins did the same, and Diana moved to clutch at Artemis's trouser leg.

None of them understood how, but they sensed the truth in Michiru's words. All around them, permeating the very air, was the feeling that something was… off, and now that they were aware of it, it was unmistakable. Something was wrong with them, with the control room, with the city, with everything. They felt it, as certainly as they would feel someone staring at them from behind, raising the fine hairs on the back of their necks...

"Just before we were attacked…" Michiru drew an oval shape in the air as she whispered, her voice husky with grief. An ornate hand mirror materialized for her, bearing the glyph of Neptune on its back. "Haruka and I both sensed it. Something wrong, monstrously wrong. Setsuna felt it as well… an anomaly in space-time, on an unprecedented scale. She left to investigate at the Door, and she never came back…" Tilting the mirror showed the others the turbulent waves reflecting in the glass. "An omen of disaster. I contacted Chibi-Usa and Hotaru and managed to warn them, but-"

Clutching the edge of his console, Artemis winced. "We lost contact with them as well, just before we picked up the readings from the shopping district."

"Mars," Luna gasped. Her hand flew to her lips. "There were two of Sailor Mars, remember, Artemis? We saw them both during the fight, but we didn't... Why didn't we notice anything strange about that?!"

"It's not only you." Shakily, Michiru tried to pull herself upright. "All of us are missing something, something on a far larger scale. We-"

She stopped. Despite her injury, despite her heartbreak, Michiru Kaioh rose to her feet and turned on one heel… and in that moment, Naru understood. She believed. Even before Michiru transformed, she looked every inch the Sailor Senshi.

"Neptune Planet Power, Make Up!"

A column of water surrounded her in an instant, and fell back just as quickly. Now, for the first time, Naru beheld Sailor Neptune without the distortion of whatever energy had blurred her features before. She stood tall and proud in shades of blue and teal and green and aqua, a noble and beautiful warrior, determined to let no harm befall anyone else. The mirror's face pointed at-

Everyone stared: three cat-people from Mau, two crow-girls from Coronis, a Sailor Senshi, and two human civilians. There should have been only eight people in the control room.

Now there was a ninth.

The stranger bore a slight resemblance to Sailor Moon… it was her long blonde pigtails that did it. More than a passing glance confirmed that she was someone quite different: younger, dressed primarily in white, in a frilly uniform accented with pale, pastel springtime colors. There were two pink ribbons in her hair in lieu of Sailor Moon's odango. And she wore such a sad, quiet smile, like someone in mourning… there was a haunted look in her honey brown eyes…

"Who are you?" said Neptune, unmoved. "How did you get in here?"

The stranger in white stepped to one side… to reveal a door. Not a sliding panel like the one in the arcade above them, but an ordinary wooden door, with a dented brass knob and peeling white paint. It stood by itself, connected to nothing at the edge of the platform.

Neptune's fingers tightened around her mirror's handle. "I will not ask you again. Who are you? What is your purpose here?"

The stranger shook her head sadly, pointed to each of them in turn, then gestured to the door.

"N-Neptune, I-" said Phobos, moving to hold her twin. "I don't think she can speak…"

"Then it seems I'm left with no choice but to reveal the truth myself." Bringing the mirror to her breast, Neptune's voice echoed with an invocation: "Submarine Reflection."

Light filled the mirror's glass and bathed the stranger in an aqua glow. Neptune expected her to draw back, cry out in pain, try to shield herself from it… but no, she stood there and waited, smiling that sad smile at her. Even Neptune, the picture of calm and unflappable, was unnerved by that expression. She looked down to see the images playing across the mirror, and- Her eyes went wide with shock. "Oh my."

"Neptune?" Deimos stepped forward. "Neptune, what is it? What do you see?"

An alarm chimed on the console. Luna and Artemis's heads turned toward it.

A sound from above, a terrible wrenching sound of tortured metal, snapping wires, and breaking glass. It came from the top of the stairwell as the hidden door panel exploded inward in an eruption of smoke, dust, flame, and debris… There was a cry from Naru as she fell into Umino. Something sizzled as it blew past her, hot and deadly, brimming with power, shaking her to the bone and missing her by inches. It skidded across the strange tiled floor, scoring a deep, angry mark in it before it rose again and slammed into Deimos.

The crow-girl jerked backward, her limbs at odd angles. She made no sound, but her twin's scream was enough for both of them. Deimos fell apart, her body scattering into glittering dust. Only a small crystal was left behind where her heart had been seconds before, a transparent violet octahedron that enclosed a tiny, intensely bright light…

"Deimos!" Phobos's wail echoed in the small space as she rushed for that crystal, reached desperately for it… "DEIMOS, NO! D-"

With little warning but a rush of air, a second sphere followed the first. This one swallowed Phobos in radiance and heat. Her twin's name was still on her lips as she fell… but she never hit the floor. Like her twin, she dissolved into stardust, leaving behind a second crystal that was deep red to match the violet of Deimos's.

No time to grieve. No time for shock. No time for anything but action. A bolt of pain from her injured shoulder lanced through the length of Neptune's arm as she gripped the mirror with both hands. A barrier, she had to put up a barrier, and buy just a few precious minutes…

Two voices screamed in concert, most likely Naru's and Diana's.

The stranger in white threw open the disconnected wooden door, revealing a tunnel of swirling, eye-crossing light and color. Without waiting for an invitation, she seized Naru and Umino by the hands and pulled them through. The tunnel swallowed them, shrunk them down to pinpricks…

Now there was only one voice screaming. "Mother!" It was Diana, separated from her parents by the smoke filling the control room. "Father!"

Raw panic choked Luna's words. "Diana, run! RUN!"

"But I can't-"

A third sphere, even larger than the first two, crashed against Neptune's barrier with the force of an oncoming train. An agonized moan slipped from her lips, but she held the wall firm, kept it from buckling with all her remaining power. Through haze and redness, she saw the silhouette of someone descending the glass staircase, one slow step at a time. "No." said Neptune, her vision swimming. "No..."

"DIANA!"

"Father! Mother!"

"Wait! Who are you, where are you taking her?! Get your hands off of-"

So the stranger in white was back… or at least, Neptune desperately hoped that was her. She heard scuffling as whoever it was scooped up a struggling Diana in her arms and dragged the cat-girl backwards through the wooden door, then silence.

Wherever the stranger was going, Neptune knew that by the time she came back a third time for the rest of them, if she came back at all… it would be too late. One more hit, and her barrier would crumple. They would die, like poor Phobos and Deimos. They would die without ever knowing what was happening to their world, why everything was going wrong… Only one thing left to try. One more person who might be able to help.

The smoke shrouding the attacker thinned. Artemis lost his breath in shock.

"O Deep Aqua Mirror, Talisman of my guardian star," pleaded Neptune, calling on her last reserves of strength. "Please, I beg you, take us to safety! Take us to Sailor Moon!"

Fragrant mist and sea spray swept the control room… when they cleared, the attacker was alone, apart from the two crystals that held the essences of Phobos and Deimos. Soon, they vanished in streaks of black light, the attacker following close behind.


The Merged Labyrinth

All of existence seemed to be coming apart. The skies and the landscape heaved, rippled, tore and rearranged themselves in ways that made no sense. A patchwork of surreal landscapes unfolded before their eyes, landscapes that made no sense… landscapes that made even less sense with their borders and edges bleeding into one another, fighting for dominance. Nothing was stable, nothing stayed the same… except for the gash(es) the Time Reaper tore in the empty air with its scythe, which stayed fixed in place and were all the more frightening for it.

Though the others had no way of knowing it, the turmoil that surrounded the Senshi was a perfect visual metaphor, a physical manifestation of the havoc being wreaked on Sailor Moon's mind.

-static-

She couldn't tell if she was screaming. If she was, she couldn't hear herself. The agony of two sets of conflicting memories of her life deafened her, blotting out all else. No, not just two differing sets of memories, not just memories of her present existence as Usagi Tsukino, as Sailor Moon, but two more of her past life as Princess Serenity… both pairs of lives similar in many respects, but fundamentally incompatible with each other in so many others…

As Princess Serenity, she remembered the wave of sorrow consuming her as her beloved Prince Endymion was swept up by Metaria's power, drifting away from her in a hurricane of darkness. She ran after him, throwing herself from the palace's crumbling balcony and reaching for his outstretched hand. Above, Metaria's clawed hand opened… and bolts of pure malice ripped through both of them. A shock, a shudder, and life bled from her body as she floated.

-static-

As Princess Serenity, she stood helpless behind her beloved Prince Endymion's back as he held off the invaders from Earth, the invaders led by the sorceress named Beryl. She and all her followers were driven mad by Metaria's influence, attacking the Silver Millennium in a frenzy. Already they had overwhelmed her four guardians, the Sailor Senshi, by the force of sheer numbers. They lay dead on the palace steps, cold and still. As she watched, Beryl herself struck a savage blow to Endymion with a sword. Her cry of denial went unheard as he fell into her arms, the final tremors of his dying body moving through her. Reason left her, all those things her mother said about her destiny to inherit the throne left her… it all drained away until she was empty of everything but loss, as empty as the shell of her beloved. Perhaps it was madness that drove her to take the sword from his limp grasp… perhaps a similar kind of madness that had claimed Beryl. The sorceress's eyes widened in disbelief. Clearly, she expected the Princess to try to fight her… but no. The blade bit into her heart and cleaved through, redness clouded her vision, and her final tears fell as she departed that life to join Endymion in death.

-static-

As Sailor Moon, she raised the Moon Stick high, extended into a scepter, the light of the Silver Crystal mounted on its diamond crescent sweeping Metaria from existence forever. That light was fueled by her own power, by her own life energy, willingly given to save the world she loved. The dark vapor of Metaria's massive form dissipated, she felt her body go limp, and the last thing she saw was the brilliance of the full moon shining once more in the night sky.

-static-

As Sailor Moon, but wearing the form of Princess Serenity, she stood in the freezing wind at the bottom of the world, the spirits of her four guardian Senshi lending her strength. The Moon Stick jumped in her hands… from the Silver Crystal mounted on the wand's golden crescent, an enormous pink sphere of light erupted, cutting through the Beryl-Metaria fusion's power like a knife. It slammed into the distorted creature, reducing her to dust. The light, the light was incredible, sweeping over everything… the light fueled by her own life energy, willingly given to save the world. She remained upright long enough to see it finished, to see the last of Beryl-Metaria vanish into that light… and then she was back to Sailor Moon, the Moon Stick falling from her hand, her life ebbing away. With her dying breath, her dying thought, she wished for everything to return to normal, return to the way it was before… before the fighting, before the death, before the destruction. The last thing she saw was the Silver Crystal gleaming as it tumbled out of sight atop the Moon Stick, becoming lost among the endless white wasteland…

-static-

She was Usagi Tsukino. She was Sailor Moon. She had been Princess Serenity. She would one day be Neo Queen Serenity. Mercury, Mars, Jupiter, and Venus protected her and stood by her side as her sisters-in-arms and her dearest friends. Those were constants, but everything else…

Everything else was static…

Crack. An open hand delivered a stinging slap to her cheek, dragging her back to reality by force. "Sailor Moon! Usagi!" The voice was Mars's, but which Mars it was, for the moment she couldn't tell. Her voice was shrill, wild with worry. "Come on, dammit, we need you! Snap out of it!" Ah. That had to be Mars 1, the one with the hot temper and short fuse.

"Rei-chan…" Sailor Moon blinked, shook her head, and pressed her hand to her reddening cheek. "Wh-where are we? What's happening?"

"Not a clue!" Mars 1 grimaced and looked up to Mercury for help. "Mercury, any answers?"

Mercury stood as part of a protective circle around with Mars 2, Jupiter, and Venus, barely keeping their footing as the ground beneath them flowed like water. Holographic figures raced across her visor as she hammered the keys of her palmtop computer. "I-it's-" Her voice shook with uncharacteristic dread. "We're stuck inside of some sort of pocket dimension," she said, trying to simplify it as much as possible. "Or multiple pocket dimensions, all trying to overlap…"

Venus kept a wary eye on the creatures floating, crawling, shuffling, or swimming around them. The most coherent of them seemed to be assembled from pieces of photo collage book gone berserk… others were cartoons come to life, inanimate objects with moving faces, distorted collections of body parts… and those were just the ones she could describe. "What are these things? Are they causing all of this?"

"It's unclear!"

"I'm sensing enormous hostility," said Mars 2. She could sense that even without concentrating, an aggression so fierce it was almost physical, weighing down on her. "They don't feel intelligent, but they most likely see us as enemies. I suggest we-"

"Hyah!" Jupiter didn't need to be told. Her heel lashed out at the first thing that got too close, a cotton puffball with a handlebar moustache that tottered forward on a spread-winged butterfly, clutching a pair of scissors in stubby little twig arms. When she struck it, the cottonball went one way, the moustache another, and the butterfly drifted away and was lost amid the swirling madness. "Whatever we're gonna do, we'd better do it fast! If they're scared of us, I don't think they will be much longer!"

"Can we Sailor Teleport out of here?" Mars 1 rose to her feet, pulling Sailor Moon up… and wobbled when she let go of her hand, as the ground beneath her softened to a consistency like taffy before solidifying again.

"I don't think so," said Mercury, shaking her head. "We're definitely not anywhere near Earth or local space. Even if we were, charging the Teleport would take too long, it would just make us a… look out! Incoming!"

One of the creatures had grown tired of waiting. With a roar, the melting rosebush hurled what appeared to be a love seat at them, a love seat sized for a giant. There was a crash of breaking timber as it hit the ever-shifting floor, and the Senshi scattered… Their flight took them in different directions, into different sections of the patchwork landscape, where-


"Mars, wait! Wait! Put me down! The others-" Sailor Moon pounded on the arm that Mars 1 held tight around her as she bounded across the rolling hills. Hills… this section of the labyrinth was gently rolling mounds of candy and sweets piled high, studded with colorful discarded packaging and pill bottles the size of tree trunks. Wrapped candies with stick-figure feet, mouse ears, and tiny nurses' caps squeaked in alarm and scuttled out of the way of her footsteps.

"What about them?" Mars 1 couldn't stop, wouldn't stop until Sailor Moon was safely out of this nightmare. It didn't matter what happened to her, Sailor Moon was more important… as long as she was all right, she could fix everything...

"They're gone, I can't see them!" Sailor Moon's voice took on that shrill tone that suggested a crying fit was about to come on.

Ice water trickled down Mars 1's spine. That was enough to make her stop. "What?! Usagi, don't talk nonsense, they were just-"

"I know, I know, they were right there, but after the sofa hit, they just-" She waved her arms in helpless panic. "Poof! They just disappeared!"

"Dammit!" One of Mars 1's fire-engine red heels came down, narrowly missing the tail of a scurrying candy-mouse. "What was it Mercury was saying? Something about pocket dimensions overlapping…"

"I don't know, I barely understood it." Her big blue eyes swam with more than the usual Usagi tears that she could shed at the drop of a hat. This was genuine worry and fear, as she hadn't felt in a long time. "Mars, I don't like this, I don't like this at all. What that Joker person said… Rei-chan, I can remember two different things happening… and I can feel something wrong, can't you…?"

"I'm not sure what you mean," said Mars 1, searching the rolling candy hills for anything that resembled an exit. "I've been feeling something nonstop, ever since the other Rei showed up…"

"It's more than that, it's like… kyaaa!" A shriek, and Sailor Moon's hand flew to her tiara. "Moon Tiara Action!" She flung the whirling golden disc past Mars 1's shoulder, millimeters from her teammate's neck… and it sliced through the stick-like, candy-headed nurse figure that had crept up behind her and raised an oversized hypodermic needle over her skull. The nurse crinkled and collapsed in a pile of gangly limbs, her needle dissolving into powdered sugar.

It was only then that Mars 1 let out her breath, the breath she didn't even remember taking in. Too close, that was far too close. There was a constant low level buzz from her ESP, a prickling sensation she'd been dealing with ever since that afternoon, since the arrival of her duplicate. Now it was apparent that that buzz was like a damper on her senses, muffling the usual warning prickles that indicated when danger was near. In normal circumstances, no monster should have ever gotten that close without her noticing. Mars 1 stared at the broken fragments of the nurse, her throat dry and tight. If Sailor Moon hadn't seen it… I'd have been-

"Uh, M-Mars?" Usagi bumped into her from behind, fumbled for her hand and gripped it tight.

"What, what is it?" Mars turned away from the nurse…

There was a face looming over them. An enormous cartoon face, like something out of Disney or a child's storybook, attached to a sinuous black body the width of a subway car and speckled with red polka dots. It was kind of cute… its wide eyes were ringed in multiple colors, there was a pointy nose like a party hat in the center of its clownish face and sunny yellow spots on its cheeks, and it wore a big, happy smile…

That smile split open into a mouth at least five meters wide, revealing rows upon rows of gleaming, razor sharp teeth.


"Mercury Aqua Mist!"

The doll-like monsters chasing Sailor Mercury halted their pursuit, making confused noises. The blue Senshi seemed to have vanished into a cloud that sprung up out of nowhere… a cloud that was unusually cold…

Mercury kept running through the fog, feeding all the information she could to her visor. No question of using her palmtop now; she needed both hands free to attack whatever came her way. One of those dolls had grabbed hold of her wrist… and until she froze it off, she felt herself become almost weightless, helpless in its grip as it pulled her along. Where it intended to take her, she didn't know, and she never wanted to find out.

At least the visor was helping, if only a little. Analysis of these monsters and their bizarre spaces took much longer than usual, but there were now a few hundred megabytes and counting of data about them. Her guess about pocket dimensions seemed right on the money… based on her findings, each of the larger creatures Joker had called "Witches" were the source of both their personal dimensions and the smaller servant creatures that inhabited each one. If she weren't so terrified for her life, she would find it fascinating. They had never fought anything remotely like these creatures in all their many battles as Sailor Senshi… no matter what kind of monster it was, it was almost always at least humanoid in its appearance (and almost always female, though heaven only knew why that was). These Witches, though… each one was a different animal from all the others at the cellular level. What connected them all, she had no idea.

Her fog thinned, but the monsters failed to come back out of it. Relieved, Mercury stopped to catch her breath and check her surroundings… This section of the labyrinth whirled and tilted around her in a rough globular shape, the borders of the "sky" ringed by fanciful designs of carousel horses. Each horse bore an old CRT monitor displaying multicolored test pattern bars. Something made her glad that that was all they were displaying.

Chirp. Her visor's alarm wouldn't be so startling on a normal day, but her nerves were on such high alert that Mercury could have jumped out of her skin. Trembling, she reached for her earring control…

The visor told her that a localized space-time anomaly had just sprung up two meters ahead of her. That alone was enough cause for alarm… space-time anomalies popping out of nowhere were an indication of something seriously wrong with the universe on a fundamental level. Mercury braced herself, all her muscles tensing. If she was going to survive the next few seconds, she needed to be ready to dive out of the way of the rift once it-

Something was wrong. According to her visor, the anomaly was stabilizing into a humanoid shape. That shouldn't be possible… what readings she gathered from Joker notwithstanding. This one, though, was apparently a stable human-shaped anomaly.

It waved at her.

Baffled, Mercury touched her earring, dismissing her visor. "Hello…?"

The anomaly, a stranger in a frilly white and pastel dress, bowed politely, her curly blonde pigtails spilling over her shoulders to touch the glass floor.


"Here it comes again, get ready!"

A horrible droning roar and more clouds of filthy black exhaust burst from the Witch's pipes as yet again it crouched its tarnished mechanical body low to the ground. Tires squealed an angry racket... it charged, leaving long, molten skid marks on the cracked asphalt.

Venus, Jupiter, and Mars 2 flung themselves out of its way. Engaging it bullfight-style was tiring, but at least it wasn't smart enough to catch on to what they were doing. An angry blast came from its pipes as it careened out of control into a concrete divider… but by now they knew that crashing wouldn't hinder it for long, it would simply reassemble itself and come after them again.

Wincing, Venus picked herself up and brushed gravel from her scraped knees. "We can't keep this up, so how do we stop this thing?"

"Until we know exactly what it is, I have no idea," said Mars 2. "Venus, are you all right?"

"Nothing I can't handle. Jupiter?"

"Still here." A dangerous growl came from the green Senshi's direction as she rose. "That clown is gonna get it next time I see him…"

"Okay, okay, let's think…" said Venus. In times of peril when Sailor Moon wasn't around, it was her duty to take over as leader of the Senshi. Not usually a problem, but it was Mercury who was the tactician, and with her still missing… "It's… some kind of giant motorcycle. It's big, it's loud, it's dumb, and it's tough. What stops motorcycles?"

Across from them, Jupiter raised an eyebrow. "Traffic jams?"

"Not an option! Oh geez, here come more of the little ones…" How was one supposed to think when fighting monsters like this? The big one made enough of a deafening racket, but now more of its spawn were gathering, collections of random engine parts shrouded by black oily, puffs of smoke, their pipes blasting bass droning noises that Venus could feel rumbling in her bones. "Crescent Beam!" She couldn't hear her own invocation over the din, but the line of light from her fingertip did its work all the same, boring through three of the spawn.

Jupiter took a more direct approach in order to save her power for the big one. The spawn she hammered with her fists, denting metal and shattering pipes. They were small, but they were hard, and she could feel bruises forming underneath her gloves, worsening with each hit.

As for Mars 2, the assault of noise, odor, and smoke threatened to make her light-headed. She was one for nature, calm, and quiet, not these dirty, ugly, loud creatures derived from the worst parts of the modern world. The fireballs she threw were tight, small and focused as she could make them… concentrated flame would only exacerbate the effects of their noxious fumes. And there was the warning buzz in the back of her mind, her ESP in overdrive, a constant distraction from a battle she knew in her heart of hearts was not going well.

A telltale shiver emerged from the buzzing. An incoming presence… "Jupiter, Venus!" she shouted. "Someone's coming!"

Someone did an instant later, in a burst of fragrant spray. Three someones, in fact… Sailor Neptune, Luna, and Artemis dropped out of the smoggy air between the trio, who moved to defend them while they recovered from the rough landing. The cats seemed quite shaken but otherwise fine, but Neptune looked bedraggled, in rougher shape than they had ever seen her.

"Neptune…?" Jupiter looked back over her shoulder. "What happened? How did you guys get here?"

"My Talisman," gasped Neptune, clutching at her shoulder. Her face was pale and slick with sweat. "Quickly, we must get out of here… find the Princess..."

Venus gritted her teeth and swept another Crescent Beam through five more spawn. "We're trying, but we got split up somehow!"

Below, Luna padded over to Neptune, once again in her cat form. Her paw pressed against the Outer Senshi's ankle. "Neptune, d-did you see-" Her words were cut off by a brief coughing fit. "Ugh, the air here is filthy…"

Artemis bounded to her side. "Easy, Luna, easy."

"What happened to you three?" said Jupiter after crashing two spawn together.

"We were attacked at the control room." Artemis's voice was hollow of his usual spirit. "Someone found us there, and took Naru, Umino, and Diana-" He choked on his daughter's name.

Somehow, Neptune managed to smile. "Don't worry about them, my friend. If that person is who and what I suspect she is, then Diana is far safer than we are at the moment."

A sharp intake of breath from Mars 2. "Neptune, my God, your arm!"

"I know. It's broken, but I'll survive. Sailor Mars…" Sea green eyes locked onto her. "Phobos and Deimos… they came to the control room trying to help, but they-"

"So this is where you went with your little parlor trick!" A sardonic voice chortled from above. "Truly out of the frying pan and into the fire, non?"

Six pairs of eyes turned upward to the harlequin floating two meters above the street, with his ghastly cloaked Reaper in tow.

"You," Neptune hissed. She knew. She could sense it just by seeing him, sense this creature's evil disrupting the calm ocean of her heart like a typhoon…

"Everyone, draw in!" said Venus. The Senshi and the cats complied, forming a tight little knot. "Don't make any reckless-"

"Deep Submerge." Incredibly, it was Neptune of all Senshi who disobeyed, raising both her healthy and broken arms to launch a sphere of high-pressure water directly at the harlequin's toothy grin.

The Time Reaper moved like the wind, shielding Joker with its body. Its crackling red scythe blade came down on the water sphere, slicing it into halves that sped past it to either side.

Joker laughed a grating laugh, his lips spreading wide to show even more of his pointed teeth. "Sacre bleu, that was a close one! Thank you, Reaper. Now, let's see… I need to stop and take count, since there's just so many of you. Un, deux, trois, quatre…" he said, counting on his fingers. "Two Senshi playing with Charlotte makes six. One by herself, that's sept. The two little ones that got away thanks to la petite nuisance, that makes neuf. By process of elimination, that means-"

"That means you talk to yourself too much! Shabon Spray Freezing…!"

A storm of bubbles swallowed both the harlequin and his Reaper from behind, coating the two of them in a thin sheet of ice. They hung frozen in midair, however that worked...

"Mercury!" There was a joyful shout from the cats and three of the assembled Senshi, and a pained but grateful whisper from Neptune. They were all glad to see their teammate alive…

… but aside from Neptune, they had no idea what to think of the unfamiliar girl in white and pastel that she ran hand-in-hand with…


Mars 1 acted without thinking, without reason. As the Witch's horrible toothy mouth opened wide, wide enough to swallow them both in two bites, as Sailor Moon shrieked next to her, she did the first thing that came to mind.

An ofuda printed with ink kanji was at her fingertips with a thought. Her hand lashed out to stick the paper charm right above the monster's ridiculous party hat nose as she cried out: "Akuryo Taisan!"

The ofuda glowed with sacred power and sealed itself down flat, and the Witch's colorful eyes went wider than ever.

Both Senshi held their breath.

The Witch trembled in place. Its ringed eyes crossed as it attempted to look at what was stuck above its nose.

Sailor Moon swallowed. "Do… do you think it's working?"

They got their answer an instant later, when the cartoon face twisted with fury and lost all semblance of cuteness. Its mouth opened wider than ever to show even more teeth, and it bellowed so loud that it shook the candy walls of its lair…

"Run!" Mars 1 screamed, grabbing Sailor Moon by the crook of her elbow. "RUN, JUST RUN!"

They ran. The Witch charged after them, smashing through prescription bottle pillars and mountains of sweets as if they were made of paper. It resembled nothing more than some kind of monstrous, demonic bullet train, hellbent on catching and devouring the two intruders.

After thirty meters, Sailor Moon's breathing grew strained and shallow. "Mars, s-stop…!" she said, stumbling to keep up. "C-can't run… much longer…!"

"You have to, do you want to get eaten?!"

"Gotta… try… something else!" Fanged jaws snapped at her heels as she reached into pocketspace for the Moon Stick. She had never done this while moving before, she prayed that it would work… Putting on an extra burst of speed, she widened the distance between them by just a meter or two, that had to be enough. She aimed the wand behind her, took a labored breath, and shouted out loud: "Moon Healing Escalation!"

Rays of holy light shone from the Moon Stick's crescent, bathing the Witch in a golden glow. Its snakelike body skidded to a stop, and its multicolored eyes shrank to mere dots, then disappeared into vacant whiteness.

Sailor Moon fell to her knees, sinking slightly into a mound of cake frosting at her feet. Her knuckles turned white within her gloves as she poured her energy into the Moon Stick. Even without the Silver Crystal, this had to work, it had to… Please, let this work!

Next to her, Mars stopped to catch her breath. Words of encouragement were on her lips when-

The Witch's maw fell open. A bright blue tongue lolled from its mouth, the vacant eyes stared…

Something on the end of its tongue stirred. A rough shape, struggling within the strange blue flesh, trying to push out of it. As the light washed over it, the shape grew more defined, clearer and clearer…

"Oh God," whispered Mars 1.

Emerging from the Witch's tongue was the head and upper body of a small human girl, no more than eight years old by the look of it. Her ashen, sunken, dessicated face was framed by the thinning remains of long white hair, and her eyes… it was difficult to tell at first, given the milky film that clouded them, but there were rings of color in her irises, red and yellow, rather like the eyes of the Witch.

"Fuar öh." Her voice was an anguished moan, so wounded and primal that words could hardly be made out from it. "Trzemhc sse… trzemch sse…!"

The Moon Stick's light faded as it fell from Sailor Moon's numb hands and melted into bright sparkles. "It…"

The girl began to scream, her wasted arms clawing wildly at her skull. At the same time, the Witch's body thrashed back and forth, pulverizing its own lair. Its tongue drew back into its mouth, taking the specter of the little girl with it. It began to scream, a hideous, high-pitched scream unlike the bellowing roars it let out before… a scream that they now recognized as the little girl's voice.

Sailor Moon didn't move, couldn't move, transfixed by what she had just seen. Her skin crawled as if a thousand rats were running over her. "Rei-chan," she said, her voice far away. "Rei-chan, that thing… it was a person. It was a little kid…"

Mars 1 had no answer. She had seen it too… Tears welled in her eyes as she moved to lay a hand on her friend's shoulder.

The Witch rolled through the trappings of its lair, gnashing its terrible jaws at nothing, blinded by pain. Its throes brought it in their direction, its blank eyes rolled sickeningly in their sockets…

Once more, Mars 1 acted without thinking. She stepped forward and pushed.

"Rei-cha-"

The creature's writhing propelled it forward. Its jaws snapped.

"REI-CHAN!"

Its teeth came away stained red. The Witch screamed and reared itself to its full height in its agonized throes… and one tufted ear brushed against one of the gash(es) the Reaper left in the air above, the only constant fixtures of this hellish space.

And though the gash was far, far smaller than the body of the Witch that had touched it, it nevertheless appeared to swallow the crazed beast whole… or perhaps it was pulled violently into it by an irresistible force, or perhaps both those things happened... or first one, then the other.

Anyone watching would have only seen the Witch's massive snakelike body crumple and vanish into the gash without a trace.

-static-

In an instant, the candy mountains and bottle pillars winked out of existence with the faintest hiss of white noise. Sailor Moon and Mars 1 thudded against hard asphalt…


"Sailor Moon!"

"Usagi!"

"Sailor Moon, what-"

All the Senshi who were able ran to her. They could tell right away that something was wrong, dreadfully wrong… that wasn't the normal way Usagi cried. She sobbed hysterically, her arms tight around-

Mars 2 came to a dead halt, her heart seizing in her chest.

Her duplicate lay face down in Sailor Moon's arms, her long raven hair dripping wet and a raw, ragged, fifteen-centimeter hole taken out of her back, just to the left of her spine.

None of them saw the stranger in white stop as well, clutching at her temples, her lips opening in a soundless cry. Her image wavered like the picture on a magnetized computer screen.

-static-

Above them, the ice holding Joker and the Reaper began to crack.


Six frantic voices overlapped.

"Usagi! Usagi, speak to me, what happened?!"

"Mars, please wake up… Oh God, it's everywhere…"

"The W-W-Witch… I t-tried to heal it… d-didn't work… there was a little girl inside it, it hu-hurt her… w-went berserk, and Rei-chan…"

"We have to leave, now!"

"She's lost too much blood, Neptune, if we move her-"

"There's no other choice! If those things come back…!"

"Sailor Moon, listen! You need to calm down and hold it together! You can still use Healing Escalation to-"

"I c-can't, I can't…! The Cr-crystal's gone, it d-doesn't work…!"

The only ones in silence were the two Reis… one unconscious, wavering on the edge of death, and the other staring in appalled shock at the bizarre sight of herself bleeding out.


With a musical noise like breaking glass, Joker and the Time Reaper tore free of Mercury's ice.

"Mon dieu, what a fuss," said Joker to no one in particular, shaking himself and flicking frost crystals from one eye of his mask. "They've still got one Sailor Mars left, what's the problem?"

The Reaper said nothing.

Joker sighed and threw up his hands. "Humans and their attachments. The sooner they're rid of them all, the better."

Below, the Witches began to gather. Pain, grief, despair, and rage… the emotions drew them in like moths to a flame.

Sailor Venus stood up.

"Mina?" Artemis began. "What are you-" He stopped, for the look in her eyes was answer enough.

Venus stared at Joker with fists clenched and eyes filled with righteous fury, a storm about to be unleashed. She stared right into those pitiless black eyes without blinking, without flinching, absorbing his hateful, heartless words and using them to fuel that storm… "O Holy Blade that protects the Princess," she intoned, "Come to my hand!"

A line of light appeared at her fingertips, resolving into an ancient sword… a long, straight blade inscribed with the crescent moon marks of the Silver Millennium. Once, it had been reduced to a husk of poisonous stone by Metaria's power, but in Venus's hands it shone with all its luster.

Joker sneered at it, unimpressed. "Is that supposed to-"

He had to admit astonishment at how quickly she moved. Like a golden firework, she sprung up from the Labyrinth's floor and- and now it was his turn to scream, because the blade carved across his forehead through his mask and across each eye, once, twice, leaving a glowing X-shaped mark, and it burned… it seared him down to the very center of his being, a pain he had not known since Pierrot's fall, a pain he couldn't imagine he was still capable of feeling.

Joker felt the Reaper's alarm, felt it rush to defend him… "Stay BACK!" he bellowed at it, a hellish glow burning in the depths of the mask's eye sockets.

Venus lifted the blade for a third strike-

- and the claws of Joker's right hand closed tight on her neck, digging into deep her flesh. With his other hand, he knocked the sword away. "Merde," he spat, the word dripping with venom. Trails of blood-ink poured down his face, making him look more ghoulish than ever. "You foul little sow…"

"Venus!"

"Let her go!"

More rabble from below. That the Reaper could help with… Freezing bubbles and thunderbolts crashed against its scythe blade.

"This is going to last at least until the next time I regenerate, I just know it," hissed Joker, applying more pressure, crushing her windpipe ounce by ounce. "Do you have any idea how annoying that's going to be?"

Venus choked and flailed against his grip, but there was still that fury in her eyes…

"I ought to tear apart your pretty little face and see how you like it…" The harlequin drew her close. "But instead, I think-"

She spit in his eye.

"Oh, that's it."


All they saw from below was Venus struggling in Joker's grip… and soon they were obscured by the bodies of the Witches circling around them, all eager to be the first to feed.

Luna felt the situation spiraling wildly out of control… Sailor Moon was near-incoherent, one Mars was critically injured if not already dead, the other Mars frozen in shock, Neptune's arm was broken, Chibi-Moon, Saturn, Uranus, Pluto, and Tuxedo Mask were missing… and now Venus at the mercy of a madman. That left only Mercury and Jupiter at anywhere near full strength against these horrible things, and they couldn't hold out much longer on their own. "Sailor Moon!" Desperate, she turned to her, perhaps the only way out of this nightmare. "Sailor Moon, you've got to listen!"

Sailor Moon didn't answer. She crouched over the fallen Mars, holding her hand tight and demanding her heart to keep beating by sheer force of will. "Rei-chan," she whispered over and over. "Rei-chan, please…"

"Usagi," said Luna, fighting to keep her voice even. "If you don't stand up, Rei and everyone else will die here! We need you! We need Sailor Moon!"

The other Mars moved toward them as if in a dream.

Mercury's latest attack froze one Witch solid, and Jupiter's follow-up shattered it to pieces. But there were so many more…

"No," said Sailor Moon. Whether herself or to the others was unclear. "No, no, no, this can't be happening, not again, it can't-"

Now Neptune stood to join the fight, half-crippled though she was, pushing back her pain to launch another Deep Submerge at a Witch that resembled a stone arch. Seawater blasted away its facade, but its stopping power was negligible… until one of Jupiter's thunderbolts hit it seconds after. Lightning arced over the thing's body, it let out a high-pitched screech before it exploded in a rain of very un-stone-like blood…

Horrified, Jupiter gaped at its smoking corpse. "That… what the hell…?! These things are-"

"You can't," said Sailor Moon, trembling. "Don't kill them, please-"

"Jupiter!"

There was another swooping over her. Something like a jellyfish, its bulbous head stuffed with small, lumpy, twisted growths that resembled diseased fruits, its tendrils long, impossibly thin filaments that dragged behind it like a bridal train. It was about to sweep those filaments over Jupiter…

Mercury rushed to save her friend, threw out her hands.

The Witch's filaments passed over her instead… she had time to cry out for a second, maybe two… before she shrank, and shrank, and shrank, her body compacting, squeezing down, smaller and smaller…

"Mercury! MERCURY! What did you do to-" Sparks flew from Jupiter's hands. A primal cry of rage escaped her as she leaped atop the bulbous head, ready to tear it apart.

It shuddered, letting out a plaintive wailing sound as Jupiter's blows tore into it. One of the strange growths inside its mass floated to its surface behind her, and was ejected from it at high speed. The growth, something like a withered nut, pierced the Senshi's back and plunged into her body...

"Gaaah…!" A sharp, stabbing pain coursed through her. Then came a pulse… of what, she couldn't identify, but it radiated outward from the wound to the tips of each of her fingers and toes. Jupiter's senses fell away… and something inside her broke.


His revenge done, Joker let Venus's limp form fall. He didn't particularly care where she landed… he trusted she knew better now than to cross him, and if she didn't, he could always put her on the Merry-Go-Round later, once this was all over. Wiping blood-ink out of his eyes, he was pleased to see that the Senshi were now down to just one able-bodied fighter, and that one was preoccupied with her dying duplicate.

Better and better, it seemed that Marie Annette had caught the blue one with her unique powers… now that could be useful later. And judging by the twisted aura surrounding Jupiter, the way her limbs were elongating and bulging grotesquely, and how her remaining comrades below were screaming her name in horrified tones… well, it seemed Marie Annette had hit her with an Evil Nut. Not as good a result as a true Witch would be, but still an unexpected bonus. What ambition she had, trying to turn a Sailor Senshi by herself! Pleasing indeed.

However, he was far less pleased to see that damned wooden door again, and the stranger in white dragging Venus toward it, apparently having caught her fall.

"Reaper?" he said. "I'm growing quite sick of that one. Could you dispose of her for me, please?"

The Reaper said nothing, but it needed no second bidding. As the stranger's back was turned, as she pushed Venus's body past the doorway, it swooped down on her like a hawk and cut a gaping slash across her back with its scythe.

The stranger didn't scream, for she had no voice to scream with. But-

-static-

- but her form flickered, distorted, changed…

She became a girl of perhaps five years old, with long blonde hair and gorgeous ruby eyes, wearing a simple sundress…

-static-

She became another girl, this one around eight by the look of it, dressed in pink and polka dots. Wavy white tresses framed her cute round face and her unusual eyes with red and yellow rings…

-static-

She became the older girl in the frilly white and pastel outfit again, the one who had taken Naru, Umino, Diana, and now Venus through that strange door...

-static-

And she became someone that everyone who could still see recognized, someone they never thought they would see again: a toddler in a miniature school uniform, with red hair in heart-shaped odango and blue eyes, the bluest eyes…

"That… you can't be…" said Artemis, roused from the horror of the Senshi falling or being taken one by one. Of all the unbelievable things he had seen tonight, this was the most baffling of all. "Chibi-Chibi...?"

The stranger flashed from one form to the other, faster and faster, too fast to follow… the only constant between them being the wound across her back. She (they?) fell to her (their?) hands and knees, in obvious pain…

-static-

… but with an audible snap, she resumed the form of the older girl in the white and pastel dress, threw up her hands, and mouthed a silent invocation with the last of her strength. A small, brilliant ball of light flew straight up from her palms, hovered over them, and burst…

The small ball of light became a blossoming cascade of light, spreading from horizon to horizon. Wherever the light touched, reality reasserted itself, the Witches' labyrinths melting away like bad dreams. Laid bare to the real world, the remaining Witches ran for any shadows or dark corners they could reach… The thing that Jupiter was becoming lurched after them, running on all fours, on limbs that were still changing shape. The last any saw of her was the talons at the tip of a reptilian, three-toed foot, vanishing into a secluded alleyway.

The stranger's honey-brown eyes rolled upward, and she collapsed in the street in front of the Osa-P jewelers' store. Her image flickered one final time as she shrank into Chibi-Chibi's form, then lay still.

END OF CHAPTER 15

Chapter Text

Chapter 16: The Departure

Elsewhere

Simultaneously

Far away, the keeper of the Lighthouse stood up.

There was no sound, but there was an echo of the stranger's pain as she was struck by the Reaper's scythe. The echo traveled far beyond time, beyond space, beyond every boundary known to mankind… it was a ripple through the waters of the multiverse, a ripple that expanded out and out and out at the speed of thought, until the keeper felt her agony just as fresh and raw as the stranger herself did.

No…! The keeper's eyes searched across the worlds for the glow of the stranger's life, saw it waver from an unfathomable distance.

No, not you too…! Please… please, you have to get up!

There was no answer. The stranger's glow dimmed.

Two hands slammed the crystalline interface set in the console in front of the keeper's chair. When they withdrew, the gleaming surface was marred by indentations in the shape of those hands, as if it were nothing more than soft dough. The Lighthouse responded to its keeper's outburst in an instant… a substance like liquid diamonds filled the indentations and solidified, leaving the console smooth as glass once more.

The keeper's hands could once reach across galaxies in mere heartbeats. They could once reshape the tempero-spatial dimensions like clay, build life from mere atoms, unleash the fury of God… but now, with the stranger's life in jeopardy, the keeper's hands could do nothing but break the interface in helpless frustration. Even that was undone in seconds. It was futile, pointless.

As pointless as continuing the struggle would be, should the stranger die or be taken. As pointless as their struggle was in general, really… against an unkillable madman with one of the fundamental forces of nature on his side, what good would fighting possibly do? Even if the Three could be gathered safely here, even with the Three and all the greatest champions of the light on their side, how could the war ever be won?

There was a simple answer to that: it couldn't.

The current war was an extension of a conflict older than time: day versus night. Hope versus despair. Light versus dark. In a thousand eternities of battle, the light was always supposed to win in the end, every time…

Not this time.

This time, the dark would win, because it had all gone wrong.

It's all gone wrong. Heaven help us, thought the keeper. It's all gone wrong…

The hands that once rivaled God's clasped together in prayer. It was an act that many might consider hypocritical, even blasphemous: the keeper of the Lighthouse seeking help from a higher power when there were no powers higher than the keeper… or at least, that was the way it used to be.

But the keeper had not always been stationed at the Lighthouse. The keeper had not always called the Lighthouse home...

Long, long ago, once upon a time, the keeper's hands had been nothing more than human. And once upon a time, long, long ago, the keeper believed in something greater, something higher… Perhaps not the same idea of "God" that many humans favored, but something close enough.

It was to that entity, to that higher power, whoever or whatever He, She, It, or They were, that the keeper prayed… if He, or She, or It, or They, were even there. It was a desperate plea, a tiny message in a bottle tossed into the fathomless oceans of the multiverse.

Please, thought the keeper. Hear my prayer. Bring her home... I can't lose her too, I'm not strong enough.

Let her live. Bring her home. Bring her home.

Bring her home...


-VERTEX ONE: 15.556984-

Juuban Shopping District

Outside of Osa-P

Everyone still awake and aware was lapsed into shocked silence, even Joker.

Whatever Chibi-Chibi … no, the stranger... had done, her magic had banished the nightmarish labyrinth entirely. All the dense fog that clouded the block funnelled away, and one by one the gash(es) that the Witches crawled through shrank and sealed themselves. The Senshi were right back where they started, in front of the Osa-P jewelry store… those few of them that were left.

With the Witches no longer concentrated in a small area, each fled from the real world it despised, back into its own personal labyrinth to wait for more victims. The one Pseudo-Witch, however, had no labyrinth of her own, no place to hide. The wretched creature that had been Sailor Jupiter flailed in the dark in the tatters of her Senshi fuku, terrified and confused. Her body and mind twisted and deformed as they warred…

Part of her, the part that was still Makoto Kino, still Jupiter, demanded her body to stand and return to the fight. To stand proud in the moonlight, to help her friends, protect her Princess, avenge what was done to Mercury. That part raged and strained, refusing to surrender, fighting tooth and claw for control of a self that was no longer entirely her own.

The other part, the part that stemmed from the Evil Nut embedded in her flesh… she was laid bare by the moonlight, driven close to madness by fear of it. All that mattered was getting away, but only the darkest shadows provided any refuge from that light. Everywhere else was too bright, too sharp, too painful… The light was all around her, blistering her skin, seeping into her bones, there was no escape…

Sailor Jupiter roared with frustration. The moonlight could never harm her, it was her strength. She had to go back, it could fix her if she could only bathe in its glow! She had to protect the moonlight, that was her purpose-

The Witch moaned in terror. The moonlight was pain, exposing herself to more of it only meant agony and certain death. No going back, no returning to the fray… she had to run away, into the deepest darkness she could find, to lick her wounds and heal… only once she healed could she return to the hunt. Hunt, kill, eat, that was her purpose-

Two opposing natures clashed against each other, trapped in the same wildly distorting form. Both Jupiter and the Witch attempted to scream, but the sound that emerged from their mouth was an amalgam, a nightmarish blend of a human voice and an animal's strangled howl…


Gone. They were gone. In a matter of minutes, Mercury, Jupiter, and Venus had been taken from her… just like what happened at D Point. Only the two Marses, Neptune, and the stranger left, and the Mars in her lap was barely clinging to life…

"Sailor Moon!" said Neptune through gritted teeth as she grasped her shoulder with her bad arm, squeezing tight. "Princess, you have to get up!"

Sailor Moon stared right through her. "Not again," she whispered, clutching Mars 1's hand tight. "Please, not again. I can't-"


Everyone always thought they had her figured out. They thought of her as simple-minded, and perhaps in some ways she was. The crybaby Usagi, who never met a problem that couldn't be forgotten about after a good bawl.

How wrong they were. So many battles, so much pain, so many terrible things she had seen… things that still woke her up in the night, drenched in cold sweat with a scream on her lips.

Those terrible things usually stayed deep in her subconscious, underneath the layers of happy, cheerful, simple-minded Usagi, and were further buried by the five years of peace. What was happening now was enough to unearth those memories… and few memories were more traumatic than the horrible battle at D Point in the Arctic, the bloodbath that claimed the lives of her friends and loved ones one by one…

Sailor Moon's mind flew back in time, to herself as a terrified fourteen-year-old shivering in the frigid wind of the Arctic Circle. That bitter wind bit at her skin as if it were happening all over again…

No-

Jupiter smiling, suspended in a frozen tomb, her words trailing off as her head lolled to one side.

No-

The stinging pain on her cheek as Mercury ran to her fate, and the terrible blasting heat moments later that dispelled even the chill of the Arctic's cold.

No-

Venus vanishing into a molten hole in the ice, pulled down by the DD Girls' vines, and the hideous screams that followed as Mars dragged her away.

No-

Mars, bloodied and broken minutes later, using the last of her strength to incinerate the Youma leader, and departing with a whisper of regret.

No-

And her precious Endymion cradled in her lap, telling her to leave all this behind with his last breath.

No!

Ami. Rei. Makoto. Minako. Mamoru. Chibi-Usa. She had seen them all die… more than once, thanks to this strange, endless, timeless cycle of violence, death, and rebirth that was her existence. Going through it so many times should have dulled her to the pain, to the loss...

It should have, but it never hurt any less.

Now it was all happening again… after she thought she had finally, finally escaped it for good, it was happening again...


"Sailor Moon!" said Neptune, shaking her harder. "Sailor Moon! Damn it…" No response, no bringing her out of it. Only one other option… Neptune turned to the motionless Mars 2, grasped her chin, and pierced her with her gaze. "Protect them," she said, willing the words to reach her. She didn't know if this other Mars was a dream, a clone, an illusion, or something else, but it hardly mattered. If any part of her was really Rei Hino, or really Sailor Mars… she would listen, and fight to the last.

Just as Neptune knew she had to do. She stood up, raised the Deep Aqua Mirror above her head, and cast a new barrier over all the survivors with everything she had left. A bone shifted in her broken arm, it swelled with liquid fire…

Protect them. Still in a daze, Mars 2 reached out to take her duplicate's other hand. It was growing cold.

Protect them...


Luna and Artemis peeked out from behind a hydrant, their eyes on the unmoving body of the little stranger, still in Chibi-Chibi's form. For all the mayhem and tragedy of the last few minutes, it was the stranger that now held their full attention. There was something bright and swirling leaking from the scythe wound across her back. Not blood or any sort of liquid, it was too ethereal for that. Almost like watery light from within her body, but light didn't behave like that… Whatever it was transfixed the two, it was impossible to look away.

"You…" Luna began, struggling to find words. Her mouth felt… thick. "You see her too, right, Artemis…?"

Artemis nodded, transfixed. "She looks... like Chibi-Chibi, but she can't be. Usagi told us after the final battle, Chibi-Chibi was-"

Both finished the sentence in different ways, their words overlapping.

"- Galaxia's lost Star Seed-"

"- a Sailor Senshi from the far future-"

They stopped, dumbfounded, for they were both quite sure that neither answer was wrong.

"We…" said Luna, her fur standing on end. "W-we should take her somewhere safe, out of the line of fire…"

"Back through that door of hers, maybe?" said Artemis, inclining his head toward the wooden door that still stood there by itself in the street. Worry turned his stomach... Venus was somewhere beyond that door right now, presumably with Naru, Umino, and Diana, but who knew if any of them were safe? The stranger wasn't talking… Who knew if poor Venus was even alive, after whatever Joker had done to her?

"I suppose that's the best option we have…"

The cats shifted to their humanoid forms, and Artemis gathered the little stranger's body into his arms, holding her tight. With Luna at his side, they moved back behind the three remaining Senshi. Luna turned the dented brass knob and opened the door…

Artemis felt the little stranger stir. "Don't worry," he said. "We'll take it from-"

Her eyes opened a crack, bleary with pain. Tiny fingers squeezed Artemis's hand-

His body tensed, and it was all he could do to keep from dropping her. A whirlwind of images spun through his mind: blood, death, encroaching darkness, a light shining out into the void… Somehow, she was speaking to him, not in words but in memories, though he didn't have the faintest idea what she was trying to tell him. Whatever she was saying, the feeling of the stranger's thoughts, the essence of her as her mind touched his, led him to one inescapable conclusion…

This isn't Chibi-Chibi.

Whoever Chibi-Chibi really was, a refugee from the far future or Galaxia's Star Seed (or a mix of both? Artemis wasn't sure anymore), the girl in his arms had Chibi-Chibi's face, her eyes, and her shape… but her essence underneath was something completely other from that of the mysterious little Senshi who appeared five years ago during the war against Galaxia's forces. Her essence was… the only word he could think of to describe her was... stranger. Wearing a familiar face and form, but stranger still...

"Artemis?" Luna's hand moved to his arm. "Artemis, what's wrong?"

"I couldn't explain it if I tried," he admitted. "We have to get her out of here, now… leave the door open, and hope that our Senshi can follow us through..."


"Putain..." Joker glared daggers at the little stranger and the cats, now vanishing through the open door. His fists clenched so tight that his claws drew blood-ink from his flesh. "Putain, merde, fils de pute!" The glowing X-shaped wound carved into his face sent sick tremors through him, he wobbled in mid-air… Fuming, he concentrated his energy on regenerating from the damage, but the only effect was the X-shaped tear in his mask extending tiny tendrils to knit itself back together. Another tremor, worse than the last, made his vision swim. Fresh trickles of blood-ink oozed from the wound. Fie on that Sailor Senshi and her damned Holy Blade, she never should have gotten that close... As much bile as he had for Venus, though, his outrage over the stranger's actions trumped it. All the Witches that it took so much effort to summon, gone in one attack, and now he couldn't even make her finish paying for it. Interfering with his revenge on the Smile Cures was infuriating enough, but this? "Is there nothing that will remove that chatte from my production for good?!"

The Time Reaper appeared confused, but it sensed what its master wanted. Resummoning its scythe, it floated to the edge of Neptune's barrier and raised the blade.

"No," Joker spat at it. "Save your strength for when you find and butcher her later. Madame Neptune is on her last legs, let's have her finished off in a properly poetic fashion." He snapped his fingers and put out the mental summons to the servant who broke Neptune's arm in the first place, the servant who gathered the Seeds of the Marses' familiars and demolished the Senshi's control room. A useful one, that one.


"World Shaking."

The familiar deep voice brought Sailor Moon out of her stupor. "Uranus…?" Against all odds, her spirits lifted. If Uranus was here, maybe they could still-

Something was wrong. The golden comet was aimed in the wrong direction. Instead of flying at Joker, it plowed a furrow in the street as it hurtled for the barrier… The comet broke through it like a brick through glass and kept going, slamming into Neptune with an ominous rumble-crack.

An awful scream echoed through the street, a scream not only of pain, but of heartbreak… Neptune crumpled, her strained, overtaxed body yielding to unrelenting force.

And Sailor Uranus, her partner, her lover, now moved to stand over her, her steely eyes frosted over like marbles, raising her fist to finish the job. The cold, blank expression she wore was so unlike her… devoid of spirit, devoid of feeling.

Crackles of residual energy danced over Neptune's body. "Haruka..." If only she could touch her one more time, she could wake her up from this nightmare. This wasn't her Haruka. The real Haruka had to be listening, she had to be. "Please…"

Uranus said nothing. Her fist pulled back.

"NOOOO!" The wild cry came from Sailor Moon. Stumbling forward, her gloves stained with Mars 1's blood, she wrapped her arms around Uranus's body… "Uranus, stop it! I know you would never hurt Neptune, no matter what! Please, Haruka-san, you have to stop!"

Neptune's vision fogged. Tears, or death overtaking her? There was no way to be sure which it was. "Princess, run…" The plea was all she could do before darkness claimed her consciousness.

Blonde pigtails shook back and forth. "I won't! I won't run or let anyone else get hurt!" Clutching Uranus's fuku for dear life, Sailor Moon squeezed her eyes shut. "Haruka-san may hurt me, but she won't hurt you! Nothing could ever make her do that!" Uranus writhed in her embrace, but she held on…

And incredibly, her motions slowed, her fist wavered. A glimmer of feeling flitted across Uranus's face as shadows gathered on her brow. In a husky voice, she spoke… "Bun… head…?"

Sailor Moon's head snapped up. That silly old nickname… Haruka was in there! "Uranus!"

Her features contorted in pain. Each word was halting, a struggle to force out. "Bun-head… I'm sorry... Take… care… of Michi-"

Sailor Moon was left clutching thin air as Uranus dissolved in a streak of black.

Joker now stood before her, his eyes aflame with hellish light. There was no trace of mirth, sadistic or otherwise, to be found in his expression now… only livid, murderous rage. "I knew I should have wiped her mind more thoroughly," he snarled. "Mental note: forcing one of the Sapphic Senshi to kill the other apparently requires nothing less than a complete erasure of the personality. I should probably do it at least twice next time, just to be sure."

"You-" Sailor Moon began.

Black claws bit into her stomach, his open palm slammed her with a savage blow that sent shockwaves through her body and drove all the air from her lungs. She dropped to the street like a stone.

"But what do you expect from the First of the Three?" said Joker, his tone deadly soft, a razor wrapped in silk. "Even without your Silver Crystal, you always manage to cheat your way to victory, undoing everyone's hard work. It's really quite unfair."

Gasping, on the verge of throwing up, Sailor Moon dragged herself forward by her fingertips, inch by inch until she lay across Neptune's body. At least she could still protect her…

"I knew your world would be a challenge, but…" The heel of one of his boots came down like a bolt of lightning on the Senshi's spine. "I never imagined you and your Senshi would put me through this much trouble." Another stomp. "Injuring my face, breaking my control of one of Dead End's best soldiers… your little stranger friend even drove off the Witches. Your reputation is well-deserved, lapin, you're a main character through and through. Clearly, no mere servant can finish you, no matter how talented. This requires a personal touch... Reaper, your scythe, s'il vous plaît."


Mars 2 watched in stupefied horror.

Her duplicate hovered on the edge of death. The other Senshi were gone… and Sailor Uranus, one of her allies, one of her friends, had stood ready to kill Sailor Neptune, her lover, in cold blood. Now Sailor Moon lay helpless before their enemy, barely able to breathe.

Nothing made sense.

It's all gone wrong…

No, thought Mars 2. This can't be the end. I won't let it be the end. I am Sailor Mars, dammit, and I will not just sit here while they die! I will…

Protect them!

By reflex, her hand squeezed Mars 1's limp one. A spark ignited inside her… and that spark traveled the length of her duplicate's arm, propelled by her faint, slowing pulse, and raced into her heart… Mars 1's hand squeezed back…

Protect them...

-static-

Pillars of fire erupted from the street, dancing and whirling with unnatural motion, moving so fluidly that it was as if they were alive. The figure that now stood bordered by those towering flames appeared to shimmer with heat haze. It was Sailor Mars… one of them, but it wasn't clear which. The long black hair was Mars's, as was the red Senshi fuku, and the cherry red heels, but both of them had those. This one seemed somehow sharper, clearer, more defined than either of them from seconds ago, and the wings… neither Mars ever had those before...

They sprouted from the glowing, fiery red strands now striping her hair: crackling, ever-shifting flames loosely molded into the shape of a great pair of burning wings… phoenix wings.

Mars raised her index fingers, pointing one at Joker, and one at the Reaper that floated close behind him, extending the scythe for its master. Her invocation was not a shout, but a whisper: "Holy Inferno."


The eyes of Joker's mask widened. "Oh, mer-"

That was all he was able to get out. Twin fiery cyclones erupted from the red Senshi's fingertips, swallowing both him and the Reaper, and casting the scythe to the winds. The harlequin was tossed about like a rag doll, whirled in superheated flames that scoured him from every direction. It was as if the cyclone was some great beast shaking its head back and forth, trying to break the neck of the prey held in its teeth. Out of the corner of one eye, he saw the Reaper ejected from the second firestorm at high velocity… it was quickly lost against the backdrop of the starry sky.

Seconds later, Joker joined it in a similar manner. It was five blocks before he touched solid matter again.


Smoke drifted from Mars's fingertips as her flames petered out. Puzzled, she stared at the wisps as they thinned. "Never done that one before," she said. Her voice sounded… funny. On one hand, it didn't sound like her own. On the other… it was somehow too much like her own.

"Rei-chan…?" Sailor Moon's voice drifted up from the street, faint and feeble. "M-Mars, you're…"

Mars winked and gave her cheeriest smile. "Yeah, I'm fine. Sorry for the long nap." Then she stared, for Sailor Moon was looking up at her with an expression of total bafflement. Lots of things surprised Usagi, but the ones that left her speechless? Those were rare. "What's the matter? Too flashy?"

No answer, Sailor Moon just goggled.

Mars's nose wrinkled. "I wish you would stop gawking, I dislike being stared at," she said in a huff. "What is it?"

The Deep Aqua Mirror lay discarded a few feet from Neptune's hand. Mars leaned over and peered into it… and all the color drained from her face.

Her first indication that something was very wrong wasn't just the fiery wings, or the many red streaks in her hair, from which the wings apparently sprouted. When you were a Sailor Senshi, strange things tended to happen to you, especially when new powers manifested themselves. Her eyes, however… something was especially wrong with her eyes. Her pupils were red, and her violet irises were now streaked with color as well. No, not just red, but shifting from orange to yellow and back… and upon closer inspection, the streaks in her hair were phasing through the same colors.

Mars 1 reached for Mars 2's hand for support. "R-Rei…? What just-"

Mars 2 caught it, clasped it tight. "I… have no idea…"

It was only after a few seconds that she realized she was clinging to her own hand… The two separate Rei Hinos had merged into one inexplicable new whole.

Her knees buckled beneath her, and a few drops of smoking scarlet blood trickled from her nose, running down her upper lip.


"Conneries," Joker hissed. He lay in sprawled in a tangle of limbs, half-buried in a heap of rubble inside a shallow crater, both stemming from when his flight was interrupted by an inconvenient building. Most of his body was charred, blackened and smoking… he swatted himself to extinguish the lingering tongues of fire on his person. "C'est vraiment de conneries! Fine," he said. The wound from the Holy Blade throbbed. "If I must be the one to remove all these distractions…" A giant playing card materialized beneath him, and pivoted until he stood parallel to the street. Joker crouched and summoned his rapier, ready to slice this new(?) interloper into ribbons. The card flexed beneath him and rebounded, launching him like a living bullet toward his target, the red speck in the distance with the glowing wings…

… and he couldn't have been more than ten meters from skewering her before something fell streaking from the heavens, something that should have been much too small and delicate to do what it did: it struck the rapier's blade, tore it from his grasp, and fell with it to the asphalt.

Joker's charge came to a screeching halt. His rapier was now pinned to the street, the steel pierced through by, of all things, the stem of a single red rose. The eyes of his mask narrowed. Now how did that-

The light dawned. "No," Joker moaned, putting his face in his hands. "Viens m'enculer, not now…!"


A shadow stood atop the jewelry store, hidden in the folds of a long black cape. When the shadow turned into full sight of those below, the cape blew back and fluttered in the evening air, its underside bright with a scarlet silk lining. Beneath it stood a dashing man in classic evening dress: a black coat and top hat with a white tie and shirt, his eyes hidden by a pointed domino mask. His voice rang out strong and clear as a church bell: "Hold it! As guardian of the Earth, I will not allow you to harm this planet or her people any longer!"

And as they always did, his words reached into Sailor Moon's heart and gave her new strength. "Tuxedo Mask," she sobbed, looking up with grateful tears spilling from her eyes. "Thank God, you're alive… You're here…!"

"Always at your service, Princess," said Tuxedo Mask, giving her a smile and a quick tilt of his hat before he turned his gaze back to Joker. "Now, villain, Tuxedo Mask has arrived, and-"

"Gah, you people and your speeches!" Wrenching his sword from the ground with a savage growl, Joker raised the point and trained it on the masked man. Seething hatred dripped from his voice like acid as he ripped the rose from his blade and crushed it in his fist, ink-blood welling from between his fingers. "No one likes a stage hog, Monsieur Mask… and the audience is supposed to throw the roses after the performance!"

The masked man swooped down from on high, pulling a cane from his jacket. His heels had barely touched the ground before Joker lunged at him. In blurs of motion, the cane and rapier clashed together, sparks flew… Tuxedo Mask fought with all the elegance of a fencer, wielding the cane as his foil, parrying and deflecting the harlequin's frenzied thrusts. "You duel well enough, I'll give you that," he said with a grin that brought Joker's blood to a boil. "But I suppose even scum like you can learn a thing or two, with enough training!"

"Nique ta mere," snarled Joker in reply. "When I'm finished with you, I'll pin down your leading lady over there and-"

Another rose appeared at Tuxedo Mask's fingertips. A rush of red-

This time Joker was ready; he caught it by the stem, a millimeter from his eye socket. He smirked. "Repeating the same trick twice? How gauche. I'm disapp-"

Grinning wider, Tuxedo Mask jumped back and snapped his fingers.

And Joker's angry screech grated the ears as the rose went off like a bomb in his face, blanketing him in soot and black smoke…


"Mamo-chan!" Sailor Moon ran to her beloved and took his hand. "Mamo-chan, I thought-"

"Don't worry," he said, leaning down to briefly press her hand to his lips. A gentleman to the last. "It takes more than the likes of him to keep me away from you. What happened here?"

The words tumbled from her mouth in a rush. "I don't know what to do, the Silver Crystal's gone and he summoned these things that hurt Mars and took the others, h-he made Uranus try to kill Neptune-"

"We'll get them back." When he said it like that, no matter how dire the situation was, she believed him. "Whatever it takes, we'll get them back."

"And…" A fresh attack of the shivers ran through her. "And Neptune and Mars are-"

Tuxedo Mask saw. Mars was still mesmerized by her image in the mirror, her face drained of color… as he watched, she wavered like an image on a screen before snapping back into solid form. Her great phoenix wings shed a rain of glowing embers…

Neptune only now began to stir, grimacing as she made a hopeless attempt to sit up. "Ha," she moaned. "H-Haruka…?"

Tuxedo Mask grasped Sailor Moon's shoulder. "Usako, listen. I'll protect Mars and Neptune… You need to finish this fight."

"But my Crystal-"

"Crystal or no Crystal, you can do it, Usako." Deep blue eyes met hers through the domino mask. "I believe in you."

How many times? How many times had his mere presence bolstered her, had his words found strength in her that even she didn't know was there? When he looked into her eyes and told her of his faith in her… it made her believe that even impossible odds could be overcome. "Mamo-chan…"

He was already gathering Neptune carefully into his arms. "Hurry, start charging! The clown won't be distracted for long!" As he did so, her hand took hold of his lapel. Her grip was weak…

Next to them, Mars roused herself and rose shaking to her feet, keeping a tight hold on the mirror. The shock of… of whatever had happened to her would have to wait. "N-Neptune," she said. "Is she-"

"She's badly hurt, and whatever happened to you, you're in no condition to fight," said Tuxedo Mask. "Stay behind me, I'll keep you safe."

"No…" Neptune's whisper was faint, agonized. "Nowhere on Earth... is safe… the L-Lighthouse…"

"Lighthouse?"

"What-"

Both followed her eyes to the wooden door, standing open in the middle of the street, the frame filled with swirling, iridescent light...


Putting his face back together was hardly a problem… except for the Holy Blade scar, which still refused to heal. It was the gall of it that infuriated Joker, the insolence of anyone pulling such an amateurish trick on him, the trickster of all tricksters. His claws raked the smoke cloud in a bloody, steaming rage… if he managed to disembowel someone in the process, so much the better.

Something caught his eye as the smoke cloud began to clear. A shape made of blue and white cloth, lying a few inches from the curled tip of his boot. His claws snatched it up… and he smiled as he recognized what it was.

A simple hand puppet, with bead eyes and a black yarn smile, fashioned to look like Sailor Mercury. Marie Annette's special technique had worked after all… no wonder they all lost track of her in the heat of battle. Just to be sure the Witch's magic had indeed taken effect, Joker knelt and slipped his hand inside the puppet. "Can you hear me, Sailor Mercury?"

A small voice with a slight Kyoto accent spoke from the inert cloth face: "I can hear you." A pause, then, far more agitated: "J-Joker…! What… what happened?! How did you-"

Joker's smile split his face. "Non, non, cherie. I'll be asking you the questions from now on. And you'll be only too pleased to answer, isn't that right?"

The puppet answered calmly. "Yes, of course." Then, more afraid than ever: "What have you done to me?! Sailor Moon! USAGI!"

Joker withdrew his hand, and the Mercury puppet fell silent and lifeless once more. He rose with his prize, still grinning as he imagined the expression on Sailor Moon's face when he showed her his new toy…

The first thing he saw was the glowing horns of the crescent moon atop the Moon Stick, pointed directly at his face.

"Moon Healing..."

Cornered. Still wounded. Not enough time to teleport or move out of the way. Precious few options… a Card would have to do, the first one he could think of. It appeared as he called its name: "SHADOW!"

"... ESCALATION!"

Dark folds enveloped him, blanketed him in the split-second before the rays of light burst forth from the crescent moon… but even the tiniest shafts of that light leaking between SHADOW's folds bubbled his skin, scorching it like acid... that light was far hotter than Mars's flames, more painful than the steely kiss of the Holy Blade… By the darkest pits, if he hadn't thought to ensure she didn't have the Silver Crystal, the light would have dissolved him where he stood…

The light disappeared. Through the cracks in the folds covering his eyes, he saw the reason why: the Time Reaper had thrown itself in the path of Sailor Moon's attack, taking the brunt on itself. Its cloak spread wide, the light illuminated the faint shape of the bleached white skull underneath its hood… the skull that now began to crack.


Sailor Moon held it as long as she could. Even if the Healing Escalation couldn't be rid of Joker, it could at least purify his awful Time Reaper… Her muscles howled in protest as the Moon Stick drew yet more power from her exhausted body for the third time that night. Radiant white beams swept the Reaper, one after another after another…

Something cracked.

And Sailor Moon dropped her wand in shock as the Time Reaper let out a hideous, mournful scream.

Joker emerged like a wraith from the dark shape that had shielded him, parts of his body pitted and glowing white hot.

Bracing herself for another attack, Sailor Moon's hand flew to her tiara…

To her further shock, Joker turned his back on her and wrapped his arms around the Reaper. The cloaked figure wept brokenly, clawing at itself… Sailor Moon was sure she saw tears fall from the empty eye sockets of the skull underneath its hood.

"Shh, shh," muttered the harlequin with astonishing tenderness, leaning over the hood. "Ne pleure pas, mon précieux. Je vais réparer vos chaînes, et vous aurez jamais besoin de blesser à nouveau…"

Sailor Moon stared, at a complete loss.

A dark and noxious flame lit in the eyes of Joker's mask as he slowly, slowly turned his gaze to her, withering and deadly, and she felt a pure, icy terror that trumped every other horrible thing she had seen tonight… There was no trace of his smile, his mouth was a thin, hard, livid line, somehow even worse. "Remember this, lapin," he said, every word frigid as night in midwinter. The X-shaped scar on his face burned with sizzling light. "This was a draw, not a victory. I shall return… and I will carve a bloody swath in your world that you'll see even from your palace on the moon, just to remind you of this moment, remind you of what it cost you…"

In a violet flash, both Joker and the Reaper vanished.


It was some time before Sailor Moon felt the hand on her shoulder. "Usako?" said Tuxedo Mask. "Are you all right? Are you hurt?"

"I'll…" She swallowed. Her throat was dry. "I'll… be fine. Mars and Neptune, are they-"

"Through there." He nodded toward the door, still open to its vista of swirling light. "In some place called the Lighthouse. Venus, the cats, and our mysterious little friend should be through there too… I saw them in Neptune's mirror, and it's never been wrong before."

She swallowed again. "We have to go, then. To the Lighthouse." Tugging at his hand, she moved for the door…

Tuxedo Mask shook his head. "I can't."

"What…?"

"I can't go with you, Usako. You heard Joker… you made him angry, and he intends to come back worse than before. I may not have the Golden Crystal... he took it somehow, just like he took yours… but if I stay in Elysion and focus my power with Helios and the Shittenou, I can still keep him off the planet."

"Th-then I'll stay with you, we'll fight him together-"

"Usako." His eyes bored into her, rooting her to the spot. "I don't know where or what this 'Lighthouse' is, but it's somewhere safe. Somewhere where Joker and Dead End can't find you. You saw how dangerous he is. He was able to bring back all the monsters you ever fought, summon those Witch things that hurt Mars, Mercury, and Jupiter and nearly killed you, turn Uranus against us… If he's able to control you, or worse, there's no hope for any of us."

"But Mamo-chan! If he controls you-"

There was that smile, the smile she loved so much. "You can save me. You've done it enough times before."

More tears welled up in her eyes. God, every time she thought she couldn't cry, couldn't hurt any more… Trembling, she wrapped her arms around him. "I'm scared, Mamo-chan," she whispered. "Really scared. It's all gone wrong…"

His cape curled around them as he embraced her. "You can make it right. You're the strongest of all of us, Usagi. You're Sailor Moon, the champion of justice… I believe in you."

When he said those words, it was impossible not to believe him. "Promise me," she said, setting her lip and giving him her most stubborn, defiant stare. "Promise you'll come back to me, no matter what happens!"

Gentle hands cupped her chin, and the moonlight shone down, two silhouettes joining into one as their lips met.

When the kiss broke, Tuxedo Mask smiled and patted her head, right between her twin odango. "You know I always do."

"... I love you, Mamo-chan."

"I love you, Usako."

She knew she had to say goodbye, but the words got stuck in her throat and wouldn't budge. So as she approached the door, she turned one last time and waved…

In true Tuxedo Mask style, her beloved swept his cape forward and bowed like a knight of old, seeing her off.

Usagi Tsukino took a breath and stepped through the door frame…

… and into a swirling tunnel of incomprehensible light in all different colors… Reds, greens, blues, and yellows, flowing and swirling and bleeding into each other like river rapids, and a few colors she had never seen before... a dizzying, ever-shifting kaleidoscope stretching to infinity. The current caught her, hurled her forward… she screamed, but her voice was miles away…

… and then, with a snap and a short cry of surprise, she fell forward onto a smooth glass floor, flat on her face.

No, not glass. The floor was clear and smooth like glass, but it had a sort of rainbow shimmer to it, like a soap bubble… and so did the walls, and the ceiling, and the long, long hallway that stretched out before her, ending in a bright, faraway light…

She stared in awe as the glass-soap bubble structure around her rearranged itself, moving in ways that no substance on Earth or anywhere else could move. Like liquid being poured into an impossibly complex mold, it spread out into the shape of a street, a house, a driveway in the front, even a nameplate with the correct kanji on it…

In seconds, she was looking at a flawless, transparent, glass-soap bubble replica of the Tsukino family home, the home where she had spent her entire childhood and most of her teenage years. It branched off of the long hallway as if it had been grown there, as if it had always been there instead of forming just seconds before. She stood right in the spot where she once bawled hysterically as she said goodbye to her mother, suitcases in hand, preparing to move in with Mamoru…

Stunned, she reached out to touch the nameplate with its familiar etchings. It felt just like the nameplate back home, but she had just seen more than enough evidence that it wasn't made of anywhere near the same stuff… so how…?

"Usagi!"

"Usagi-san!"

Two familiar voices cried out from the light at the end of the long hallway. Shadows ran toward her… After everything she had seen tonight, she tensed, expecting another fight…

Two pairs of arms seized her in a hug. One belonged to a teenager with pointed odango like a rabbit's ears, and pink pigtails that were only started to grow straight instead of big and poofy. The other pair belonged to a girl the same age, raven-haired and pale-skinned, dressed all in black…

"Ch-Chibi-Usa…?" said Sailor Moon, trying to extricate herself. "Hotaru-chan? How did you two-"

"We came through the door, the same way you did," said Hotaru, wiping away a grateful tear. "Thank goodness you're here, Usagi-san, when the others came through without you, we were worried that the Reaper had caught you…"

"Where's Mamo-chan?" As was typical, Chibi-Usa looked over Sailor Moon's shoulder… easier now than it used to be when she was pint-sized. "Isn't… isn't he coming…?" All the joy and relief drained from her face at once. "Wh… what happened to him, why isn't he here? Is he…?"

A dagger tore at Sailor Moon's heart. "Mamo-chan had to stay behind…" The words tasted like vinegar as she spoke them. "In Elysion. To protect the world from Joker…"

To Chibi-Usa's credit, she suppressed the urge to blame Usagi for leaving without him… she wasn't always able to do that. "I…" Her throat was tight. "I understand. That monster already hurt so many people…"

"Mars," said Sailor Moon, gripping Chibi-Usa's shoulders. "Neptune, Venus! Are they here, are they all right?"

Hotaru looked back toward the white light at the end of the hallway. "Minako-san and Michiru-san are in the infirmary, with… well, her. The one that brought us here. Neither of them are awake right now. Rei-san doesn't seem to be injured, but she's still in shock… Luna and Artemis are trying to help her. And Naru-san and Umino-san-"

"Wait, they're here?!"

"- the last I saw them, they were with Diana, trying to get information from Fantine…"

Sailor Moon blinked. "Fantine? Who's Fantine?"

The voice that answered was calm, soft, but with unmistakable steel behind it, answering from everywhere… and yet from nowhere, from within every glass-soap bubble surface and from inside their own minds…

"Welcome, Usagi Tsukino, Sailor Moon, Princess Serenity," it said. "We are all in your debt for your courage in the fight against Joker and Dead End… your actions tonight have bought the multiverse more time, and every second is precious…"

Sailor Moon wasn't sure which way to look. "Wh-who are you…? What are you…?"

The voice chuckled softly, a sound like waves on the sand. "In many ways, I am the Lighthouse. This place is an extension of my self, a sanctuary for all who are lost in time and space."

Something made Sailor Moon draw Chibi-Usa and Hotaru closer to her. "Are you… are you the girl who helped us? The one who showed us the door?"

"No, the Stranger is more like a little sister, and a very dear friend," said the voice of the Lighthouse. "In simplest terms, she is the embodiment of those who have vanished from the normal flow of time… but I digress. For simplicity's sake, you may call me 'Fantine.'"

END OF CHAPTER 16

NEXT:

MADOKA

Chapter Text

CHAPTER 17: Knock, Knock, Knockin' On...

Elsewhere

The Milky Way galaxy is of such baffling, unthinkable size that most human minds find it difficult, if not impossible, to visualize.

For a human standing on the surface of the planet Earth, it is impossible to be more than roughly 16,000 miles or 25,700 kilometers from the place of their birth. In other words, halfway around the world. A considerable distance for a human, of course, but on a larger scale...

From the surface of Earth to the moon (or Luna) is 238,000 miles or 384,000 kilometers, a journey that took the Apollo 11 astronauts close to 52 hours.

The distance from the Earth to the Sun (or Sol) is commonly called one astronomical unit, or AU, which is equal to 93 million miles or 150 million kilometers, such a distance that even Sol's rays take eight minutes to reach Earth at the speed of light.

Mars, the nearest planet to Earth, is approximately 225 million kilometers away at the closest point of its orbit, or slightly under 2.5 AU.

The nearest star system to Sol, Alpha Centauri, is approximately 1.34 parsecs away, which equals over 206,000 AU.

And there are hundreds of billions of star systems in the Milky Way, across a range of an estimated 31,000 to 55,000 parsecs, large enough for hundreds times hundreds of billions of planets.

Most humans don't like to think about such incredible distances. If they do, they try not to dwell on it. Thinking of one's relative size in comparison to the universe tends to make people feel uncomfortable. The whole of known creation is simply so vast that humans are mere cells in a cosmic body.

If the reader feels frighteningly small when reading this, they may rest assured; such a feeling is entirely normal, an indication of a healthy sense of scale and perspective.

Such is the point of this diversion: to impart that sense of perspective… to give some idea as to just how far from Earth we are about to travel.

Nearly 8000 parsecs from Earth, somewhere within the constellation we call Sagittarius, there is a bright, compact radio source that has never been directly observed by human astronomers, due to being shrouded in clouds of cosmic dust. Current scientific theory posits that this radio source is a supermassive black hole that serves as the rotational center, and possibly the creation point, of the entire Milky Way galaxy. The phenomenon is called Sagittarius A* (pronounced "A-star").

It will likely take millennia of technological development before human eyes can see Sagittarius A* without the aid of telescopes and satellites… that is, if such a thing is even possible. When and if humans ever make the journey there, they may find more than just the theorized black hole, hidden within clouds of cosmic dust large enough to cover a million Earths.

Somewhere in the dark unknown of Sagittarius A*, precariously hovering just above the event horizon of that black hole… there is a palace.

Known to precious few, the palace resembled an enormous, elaborate cathedral in space, the size of a city block. How it stayed in stable orbit without plunging into the black hole's depths, no one could say. Its great towers and spires, seemingly delicate, were constructed of a material far stronger than any diamond... a substance like nothing ever seen on present-day Earth. Venture close enough, and one could see that the palace's strangeness was not limited to just its materials: half of its mass appeared sharp and solid, real, while the rest faded into intangible shadows of itself, in apparent defiance of every natural law.

It was that strange, half-solid palace, in the very heart of the galaxy, that served as the vantage point for the forces of Dead End.


La Fin de Toute

In his private chambers, Joker sulked deep in his favorite chair. Once more, he winced and traced the lines of the X-shaped scar in his mask with his fingertip. It was a tempting idea to kill this flawed body and generate a new one, but that was a waste of energy, and shouldn't be done except when necessary. But the scar bothered him, it marred his otherwise immaculate features… and it itched. Damn it all, it was difficult to think when it itched.

Joker's chambers were sparse and dimly-lit, decorated with little save for a floor-length mirror, the chair, simple and high-backed, and the usual circus trappings that he favored, plus a few scattered toys for when he entertained himself with the Bad End Cures. Other than those, he had no need for material possessions, so what else would he fill it with? There wasn't much reason to keep his chambers private, in truth… but doing so kept the troops on edge, thinking that he had some dark and terrifying secret to hide from them. That was reason enough.

The scar itched.

Something to take his mind off of it, that was what Joker needed. His claws drummed the arm of his chair as he considered his options. He could call for Bad End Happy and the others and play with them for a while… that would leave such an awful mess, though. The Merry-Go-Round wasn't any more ready than it was the last time he checked, so there was no point in going down there again, except to watch the captives squirm and moan in agony. That would be entertaining, but he didn't feel in the proper mood to enjoy it at the moment.

The scar itched.

A dangerous growl built in his throat as he ran through the rest of his choices: monitor the Will regenerating herself, which would be a long, dull, slow process. Supervise Dark Precure and her troops, who were being deployed to secure the abandoned worlds across the multiverse, which wouldn't be fun unless he could participate directly. Perhaps he could interrogate Mercury's puppet again? Already she had divulged so many treasure troves of fascinating information about herself, her friends, their many battles, and the Silver Millennium, but there was always more to ask of her. After all, it wasn't as if she could refuse to answer him.

Something pulled at him, deep inside his being, and his foul mood dissipated at once. A summons, at last! He began the teleport before he was even fully out of his chair.

His body materialized within the blackness that surpassed blackness, in the metaphysical realm that Chaos (or part of Chaos, or an aspect of it, Joker wasn't sure) called its home.

Joker. The void resounded with Chaos's voice, its sepulchral tones echoing both around him and within him.

"My Master," said the harlequin, bowing low. "Everything is-"

I am aware. You must prepare yourself for the next phase.

"Of course, Master. Where exactly am I going?"

The final Vertex.

That gave the harlequin a bit of surprise. "Really?" he said, raising a brow. "You think we're ready to seize the Third?"

There is no 'we', Joker. You will go alone.

"I'm not entirely certain I follow you," said Joker, tilting his head to one side.

Alone. Without the Time Reaper, without your forces. The Reaper is still strong enough to open the door, but only you may safely pass through it. The entity that rules the final Vertex is one whom you cannot afford to cross. If you show the slightest sign of aggression, the Third will be lost to us forever.

"Ahhh." Joker grinned. "A bit unstable, non?"

Do not make light of this, Joker, the void rumbled. Listen, and listen carefully. As you are, you, with all your power and cunning, are less than dust to this entity. Start a war, and it will end in the space of a heartbeat. Identify yourself as a threat, and you risk annihilation so complete that even I may be unable to restore you.

Joker tapped his chin. In truth, he felt… rather thrilled. An entity that could potentially bring him to such a permanent end that even Chaos could not help him? That was an enticing sort of danger. Certainly more of a challenge than any of the other Vertices had been. "Are you asking me for subtlety, Master?"

I ask you for whatever is necessary to seize the Third.

"Hmm. If I may be so bold…" Joker paused, choosing his words carefully. "What exactly is the nature of the final Vertex? You've told me very little about it, and aside from the Soujus and the Witches that the Time Reaper pulled through, we have very little in the way of allies or resources that originate from there… why is that?"

Chaos told him.

As he listened, Joker felt chills scamper up and down his spine, and his scar tingled...


-VERTEX FIVE: 10.194412-

Mitakihara

All was well.

There were no more Witches. No more Wraiths. No more deadly battles inside hidden barriers, where the corpses of the losers would disappear forever. No more Incubators preying on the vulnerable and naive… as they were now, the Incubators were barely more sentient than the primitive pre-humans they found when they first came to Earth, untold millions of years ago. Through the guidance of unseen hands, history had proceeded just as most people thought it did… this time, without secret manipulation by the Incubators' minds, incapable of emotion and bereft of human morality.

There were no more Puellae Magi. No more Soul Gems… save one, though with all that it had changed, it wasn't accurate to call it that anymore.

No more Puellae Magi, which meant no more needless suffering. No more despair. No more wishes, selfless or otherwise, for good or ill, to tempt young girls into lifetimes of ceaseless pain and tragedy.

Of the five who fought so hard for so long, those five who had a larger part in changing the laws of the universe than any other Puellae Magi to ever live… four were now nothing more than normal human girls, living ordinary lives, having no knowledge of the horror lurking just out of their sight.

The fifth… the fifth was that horror, the one controlling it all. The only law of the universe now was her bidding, and so long as the universe she maintained kept the one person she cared about safe and happy… it was all worth it.

All was well.


"-with Kamijo-kun, but he has a recital, so we had to cancel."

Four girls walked down a cobblestone street together on a bright spring afternoon. Fragrant pink petals from cherry trees in bloom littered their path. It had been unseasonably warm lately, so the trees were blooming earlier than normal… not that anyone minded.

"Sorry, Hitomi. There'll be another time, right?"

"I'm certain there will, but it frustrates me sometimes…"

"Oh! Next time he has one, we should all go there to cheer him on! We can invite Mami-san and Kyoko-chan..."

"Kyoko, at a violin recital?! You're out of your mind. She wouldn't set foot in there unless there was free food involved."

"Aww."

"It's a good idea, but I just can't see her going for it. Mami-san, yeah, but not Kyoko."

"What about you, Homura-chan? Would you like to go with us?" The speaker turned to the pale, quiet girl with the long raven hair, who walked a step behind them.

Homura Akemi smiled. There were plenty who thought that smile was unsettling, but she didn't care. It wasn't as if she smiled for anyone but the girl facing her. She was all that mattered. "Whatever you want to do is fine with me, Madoka."

"All right!" said Madoka Kaname, clapping her hands and bouncing on her heels in delight. Her twin pink pigtails bounced along with her, tied with red ribbons. "I'll meet with Mami-san after class… and I'll ask Kyoko-chan, just in case."

With a shrug, Sayaka Miki crossed her arms behind her head. "You're wasting your time, if you ask me." True, the blue-haired tomboy knew Kyoko better than any of them did, with the possible exception of Mami… but one never knew. Kyoko could surprise them.

"I would like to get to know Sakura-san better," said Hitomi Shizuki, prim and proper and elegant as always, the perfect figure of an upper-class girl. "And Tomoe-san too, of course."

Sayaka pivoted so that now she walked backwards while keeping in step with them. "Mami-san could use some cheering up lately. Seems to me like she's been bothered about something…"

"Ah?" Hitomi put a delicate hand to her lips. "Did she say anything to you?"

"Uh-uh," said Sayaka, shaking her head. "But I can tell. She just seems… down."

"Poor Mami-san…" Madoka turned back and looked over her shoulder. Empathetic as ever. "Maybe we should pay her a visit after school."

Homura listened, as she always did. Personally, she didn't care one jot about whatever it was that was troubling Mami Tomoe, but if her emotional state threatened Madoka's happiness… something would have to be done.

Following behind the group, unseen by the other three, were a selection of bizarre figures: a collection of more than a dozen animated porcelain dolls, all dressed in black funeral clothes, with wide, unblinking blue eyes and eerie painted smiles… Every few steps, three or four of the dolls would lag behind, giggling and whispering to each other in high-pitched voices, before running back to rejoin the rest. What they whispered, and what they giggled at, was always the same, without fail: "Gott ist tot. Gott ist tot. Gott ist tot. Gott ist tot..."

Homura Akemi never lost a step. Keeping stride with the others, she sent a mental command to the dolls, a pointed instruction mixed with a threat: Deliver Mami Tomoe a cake tonight. Something expensive, from the finest bakery in the city. If you can't find one, make the patissier bake one for her, but be subtle about it. Don't be seen. And do it right… If you put anything in the cake that shouldn't be there, I'll know… and I'll twist your foul little heads off one by one.

Five of the Clara dolls shrieked in terror and scuttled off to do their mistress's bidding. They were simple-minded things, usually obedient, but with a mischievous streak that Homura couldn't seem to eliminate, no matter how many times she destroyed and recreated them. Every once in a while, a few of them would grow too bold and attempt to pull a childish prank: tacks in Sayaka's shoes, hiding Kyoko's secret stashes of candy from her, and once, yes, wasabi paste snuck into Mami's cake batter. True, Homura found that last one moderately amusing, but not enough to abate her anger at the dolls… a stunt like that could have upset Madoka. Hundreds of the Claras were punished that night, which put a stop to their antics for a month. That was a record, considering their limited memory.

Limited memory or not, though, they never attempted to pull anything of the sort on Madoka directly. They were simple-minded, but not completely stupid. None of them dared risk it.

Lagging behind the remaining dolls was another being, something like a cat and something like a rabbit. Once, not too long ago, it would have been considered cute by the girls, but now… now they couldn't see it. If they could, they might have been horrified by its sorry state: its ragged white fur, its round, glassy red eyes, the pathetic droop of its long ears and fluffy tail, the way it trembled constantly as if it were afraid of someone striking it. Even the frozen smile that it always wore seemed forced.

It was one of millions of identical creatures, all slinking about the world, undetectable to mortals. The once-mighty Incubators were reduced to a drooling, lobotomized servant race. Homura rendered them all just coherent enough to be in constant terror of her… though none of them had the mental faculties left to comprehend why they felt so. Whenever she grew bored, she would pick one at random and tear it apart molecule by molecule over a period of hours (or days, if she felt like it), just to strike a little more fear into the others. As they were now, they would never cause suffering to befall anyone ever again.

Incubator technology had its uses, even if the Incubators themselves no longer did. A species advanced enough to combat the principle of entropy directly was more than capable of making sure the universe ran itself as it should, Homura thought, so she used what they had built to keep her domain functioning smoothly and quietly; there was no point in personally managing the menial, day-to-day details when she could devote her full attention to other things.

To Madoka.

This world, this farcical puppet show of a universe, was all for Madoka, created and maintained for the sole purpose of keeping her happy and safe in an eternal paradise. Before, the universe had been random, meaningless, pointless in its cruelty, appalling in its apathy. "Gott ist tot," the Clara dolls constantly chanted, but Homura knew that wasn't true… God couldn't be dead if there was never a God in the first place.

The closest thing this universe had ever to the idea of "God" was now a normal, happy, contented teenage girl, as she was before… as she always should have been. The unfathomable power she once wielded to reshape the universe, to become Hope itself?

Now it was Homura's, and she was hardly God.

Just the opposite, in fact.

She saw what she had made, and it was good... or at least, good enough.


Before he even finished materializing in the final Vertex, Joker felt it… a sensation that made his black heart sing with twisted joy. Traipse about the multiverse for long enough, and you could sense disruptions in space-time, like feeling the change on your skin when a cloud passed over the sun. With the kind of disruptions he felt here, he didn't need the Reaper to interpret what had happened: space-time in this universe had been torn apart and rearranged over and over again, in ways that even he and the Reaper combined would have difficulty managing. The fabric of time here was a frayed patchwork, hastily stitched back together into some semblance of what it once was.

Glorious, thought Joker. Magnifique…

Oh, he felt her power, and what power it was! If anything, Chaos had understated what he risked by setting foot in this world. A raw, angry, violent storm of cosmic energy, barely contained within the facsimile of a human body… and fragmented remains of that same energy inside another, always at her side.

Recruit both of them, and he could quite literally end the war with the light before it even began. Temptation gnawed at his stomach, a feeling of longing mixed with naked greed… but no. Chaos was right, of course. An all-out assault would be worse than pointless. This required skill.

Clutching the "marbles" in his pocket, Joker grinned and cloaked himself in shadow, lying in wait for his prey.

It didn't take long.

"Bon appetit," he chuckled to himself before he pounced.


Just the two of them. No Mami or Sayaka or Kyoko or Hitomi to get in the way. These were Homura's favorite moments with Madoka.

Sometimes, she entertained the thought of tearing it all down, blasting the whole of wretched creation to dust so that the two of them could float alone in the ashes forever. It was tempting, and well within her abilities. Once it was set in motion, she could put herself and Madoka in a happy, endless sleep, and they could dream together for the rest of time…

Tempting, and the universe did deserve it, after all it had done. But she decided long ago that she would only do so as a last resort, once she grew bored with maintaining the façade. That wouldn't be for a long time yet.

Madoka yawned and sighed, resting her cheek against Homura's shoulder as they walked across the Uegawa Bridge, the rays of the sunset warming their backs.

"Are you tired, Madoka?" said Homura, nuzzling her.

"A little bit," said Madoka with a sleepy giggle. "Mmm. You're warm."

"Mmm."

"And your hair smells nice. Like lilacs."

"I know. I still use that shampoo that you bought me."

"Still? After all this time?"

"I refuse to use anything else," she said, mock serious.

"You're so silly." Madoka's arms wrapped around her waist. "You don't have to use it all the time just because I bought it."

"Of course I do. What kind of friend would I be otherwise?"

Kind eyes the color of roses looked up at her, and her lower lip jutted forward in the tiniest pout. "Don't you know? No matter what you use, you'll still be my best friend, Homura-chan."

Their foreheads bumped softly together. "I know," said Homura.

It was right here on this bridge, long ago, on an evening like this, that Homura's current existence began… the evening that she followed a voice murmuring dark thoughts in her ear, and stepped from the cool paving stones of the bridge into a twisted realm of smeared oil paint and grotesque figures. Her first Witch labyrinth, where she was saved for the first of so many countless times… by Madoka.

How long ago was that now?

Homura didn't remember. After repeating the hell of that terrible month over and over and over, she didn't bother to keep count. She knew that when the cycle finally broke and everything started over, it was only a scant few months before the Incubators snatched her and plunged her back into a hell somehow even worse… There was no telling how long that had lasted. When she finally emerged from that hell as the Devil triumphant, everything started over once again.

And how long ago was that?

She didn't know. Time had no more meaning, unless she desired it. Whenever the school year ended, she would simply restart it in the previous spring, with things exactly as they were before. She would let events play out, with only the occasional nudging and coercing of her puppets necessary to keep Madoka immersed in bliss. No partings, no aging, no sorrow or tears… her beloved was trapped in an eternal cycle.

If Homura saw the irony there, she chose to ignore it.

Whether she had done this for months or eons, it didn't matter. Time had no more meaning, unless she desired it.

It could have continued this way forever.


A chill wind broke the moment. That was wrong… chills didn't happen on evenings like this, not anymore. Homura snapped to full alert in an instant, as she did something she hadn't done in ages… she brought time to a halt, and the world faded to muted colors. There was no more need for a clockwork shield.

There was someone in the time-stop with her, someone behind her and Madoka on the bridge… a gaudy harlequin dressed in purple and white, with a swirl of red-yellow-blue-violet hair resembling a jester's cap, the upper half of his fade covered by a white mask with empty black eyes, marred by the dark lines of an X-shaped scar on the forehead. The harlequin waved at her.

That wasn't possible.

That wasn't possible.

A wide smile spread across his face as he approached her, wading through the frozen time as easily as air. He lowered himself in a sweeping bow, a black rose clutched between his middle and index fingers. "Enchanté, Madame Diable," he said in silky tones. "It is an honor and privilege to meet you at last."

Homura stared, too stunned to react. "Who are you? How did you get here?"

Rising from his bow, he brought the rose before her face. "Por vous. I am Joker, a visitor to your world, here to pay my respects to the highest of demons."

In disgust, she swatted the rose aside. Once it lost contact with her hand, it hung suspended in midair. "My world has no visitors. Leave. Now."

"But madame," said Joker, "you haven't even heard my proposition yet-"

"I don't care." Her voice was icy as a midwinter's night. "Leave."

"Pardonez…" Joker shrugged and began to circle around them. "I merely wanted to suggest a way to spend even more time with your beloved. Is that so wrong?"

Ice trickled down the back of Homura's neck. It was a sensation she had all but forgotten. "What do you mean?"

"I have a way for you to make a deeper bond." Retrieving his rose, Joker turned his back to her, a brazen show of confidence. "A bond beyond physical or emotional. You would never be separated again."

"We already have that."

"Do you, though?" One eye of the mask widened. "Correct me if I'm wrong, but doesn't she tend to rattle the bars of that gilded cage you've built for her on occasion?"

Her skin crawled... This Joker was speaking of things he couldn't possibly know. "Who are you?" Homura asked again.

"A jester wandering the worlds, and a representative of Dead End." Joker made another of those sweeping bows. "We're amassing quite a cast for a show a few universes over from yours. It would be lovely if you and Mademoiselle Madoka could attend-"

"I'm not interested in anything you have to offer." The words escaped in an angry hiss from between Homura's clenched teeth.

"You should be. There's no better way to keep her safe for eternity than what I have in mind. You two are close, but are you inseperable? At least consider it-"

Homura's eyes narrowed to slits. "If you truly know who I am, you know I'm not inclined to trust strange creatures with offers of granting my heart's desire," she said, colder than ever.

"Mmm, yes," chuckled Joker. "Given your history, I can understand that. But Madame Diable, I don't think you quite grasp the scope of what I'm offering." He spread his hands. "When I say you can be together with your Madoka for all eternity… I mean that quite literally." Suddenly, he was inches from Homura's face, the pitiless black eyes of his mask staring into her cold violet ones. The awful grin split his face. "Imagine it, madame: with my assistance, you two together can tear every universe apart at the seams, destroy everything not just here but everywhere. All possible obstacles between you, gone for good. When it's over, you'll finally be alone. Just you and your Madoka as one, forever… that's what you want, isn't it? You've thought about it, haven't you?"

It was as if he had given voice to her deepest temptation, as if he had reached into her thoughts and pulled out her plan for if she ever grew tired of it all… but she didn't trust him for a moment. Never again would she trust someone making offers like this. There was always a catch, always a price, a sinister caveat lurking behind the promise of a miracle.

Homura looked into those endless black eyes, into whatever remained of Joker's soul, and saw the barest glimpse of what he had in mind should she accept...

And the Devil was horrified. The thing that Joker pictured… it was an abomination to put herself and all Witches combined to shame. A tortured, twisted amalgamation of shifting light and shadow, at war with itself, at war with reality... It was as he said, it was herself and Madoka as one being, entwined so tightly that seeing where one began and one ended was impossible… but both would suffer, every second of their combined existence a thousand times worse than sum total of the lifetimes they had already lived through…

"No," she whispered. She shook her head and said it again, louder: "No. I will never… ever… allow that to happen." Trembling with fury, she stood, and stood, and stood… Homura loomed over Joker, a thousand miles tall, barren wings erupting from her back as she assumed her true form. Her eyes blazed with magenta fire as she lifted the harlequin up with her will alone. "I said it before," she intoned, her voice echoing throughout her universe like the bells of the damned. "This is my world, and you are not welcome here. Leave." She blinked…

… and Joker rocketed out of the city, out of the world, a meteor screaming toward the borders of the Devil's universe at a speed that outpaced light, outpaced thought… He howled with laughter, calling back to her as friction ignited his body, burning him to cinders: "Don't think I've taken 'no' for an answer, Madame Diable! This is only-"

And he was gone.

Silence.

Homura shrank back down and sagged against the edge of the bridge. Madoka and the world remained frozen around her, waiting for her command, but she wasn't ready to resume the normal flow of time yet… because for the first time in a long, long time… she was trembling. Afraid.

How? she thought in disbelief. How could there be something out there…

... that's worse than me…?


Miles away in Mitakihara's industrial district, a single Incubator crept along in the shadows, its mind an unending stream of concepts it couldn't understand. Or rather, it could almost understand them… but not quite. The spark that would light the fires of true intelligence and sentience was long since missing.

Γ is a linear, common direction of a body and one is the kinetic energy by the formation, it thought, its unblinking red eyes staring straight ahead, glazed like marbles. The work done in the communication in common direction in this way, the resultant acceleration can be X in presence of the other senders.

The Incubator twitched. It stopped in mid-step, one paw hovering over the pavement.

V is through ΓB. The receiver know which sendently of classical message (i, j) was transmit any state, where are the channel?

Something was wrong. It had no way to determine what, but something was very wrong.

A typical system always has connection technique can be employed to the reflection, it thought. For a given incoming plane wave, the whole infinite non-Hermitian Hamiltonian in the scattering tight-binding state of a PT symmetric non-Hermitian has constructed whether following wave, the input leads.

Pain. Pain, it understood. The Incubators once formed their bodies with only enough internal systems to imitate certain Terran mammals, finding over the course of much experimentation that the adolescent human females most suitable for contracting had a psychological inclination toward certain mammals in particular, specifically juvenile ones that engaged a protective, pseudo-maternal instinct. They combined elements of the species most favored by female adolescents, resulting in biological constructs with a blend of feline and lepine traits, mixed in with traces of several other species. The result was the "Kyubey" construct, which was judged a tremendous success. However, these creatures only needed to resemble the Terran mammals on a surface level… inefficient systems such as pain receptors were not required, so long at the "Kyubey" constructs could mimic the functions of such systems well enough to appeal to the adolescents and trigger the proper responses.

The corresponding plane wave, the eigenstate of its non-Hermitian reduced to ansatz method… error… Method plane Hermitian error...

Homura had changed all that. One of the first things she changed about them, in fact, was giving all the Kyubeys fully functional nervous systems, studded so many billions of nerve endings and pain receptors that even the slightest injury caused them unbearable agony.

This was not a slight injury. The Kyubey had no way of knowing or understanding it, but it was being torn apart and rearranged from the inside out. All of its meticulously crafted systems had gone berserk, its brain screamed even as it was rewritten cell by cell…

Warning, problem malfunction error, it thought, fragmented impulses racing through its deforming body. Local function error constant overstimulation critical. Stimulus response overeffective, catastrophic threshold limit function leading to imminent primary burnout error. Polynodal nociceptors stimulating simultaneous visceral, deep somatic, and super somatic, simultaneous sensory-discriminative, effective-motivational, and cognitive-evaluative... Recovery processes inactive… Unit override malfunction…

Malfunction…

Mal-

The wretched creature reared onto its hind legs, synthetic bones making nauseating cracking and snapping sounds that went unheard by Mitakihara's few late-night factory workers… thanks to Homura, the Kyubeys were invisible, inaudible, intangible, less than nothing. Until she had need of them, they were beneath her notice.

As it happened, that was exactly what the unwanted visitor had counted on.

Its limbs and toes elongated, its tail contracted back into its spine, its vertebrae shifted and ground together as they rotated into a new position. The long ears shrank into smaller pointed ones, the white fur pulled back into its follicles and left bare flesh behind. Pointed teeth tore through the soft tissue inside its mouth, violently ejecting the rudimentary canines and molars. Only the eyes stayed relatively the same, still red, still unblinking… but now fires lit within them, the fires of sentience, of intelligence… of Hell.

Reborn from the pitiful, shed remains of the Incubator, Joker stood and stretched in a languid motion, naked save for the crimson blood that coated every inch of him. He rather liked the look, but it was impractical to say the least... not to mention wet. Before he materialized the usual clothes for himself, though… he waited. This was a dangerous gamble indeed, but if he could pull it off…

Silence. No response from the Devil, no terrible, wrathful figure swooping down on him to eject him from her world again.

Perfect.

The harlequin's jaw creaked. Still tender and raw, his new lips split open, and fresh blood oozed from them, turning from red to black as pitch as he grinned.

"All right, madame," he said to the empty air. "Scene two, commencer."

END OF CHAPTER 17

Chapter Text

CHAPTER 18: Purgatory

-VERTEX FIVE: 10.194412-

Mitakihara

Madoka Kaname was happy.

What reason was there not to be? She had everything a teenage girl could ask for: a loving family, a happy home, dear friends, a wonderful school. Life had its little upsets and minor crises, but somehow, things always worked out. On the rare occasions that there was some problem that Mama and Papa and Tatsuya couldn't help her solve… well, that was where her friends stepped in.

Every day that she could spend with those friends was a gift to be cherished. With Sayaka, she could truly be herself, and share any worry no matter how small. Whenever she did so, Sayaka would not rest until she either made it better or helped Madoka to do so herself. Sayaka was loud, impulsive, and straightforward, always charging at her problems head-on, and usually causing trouble on the way, but Madoka loved her for that. She helped Sayaka in return, lending a shoulder whenever life's problems overwhelmed her, and comforting her until she inevitably bounced back.

With Hitomi, she enjoyed a firsthand look at young love, as the debutante and her boyfriend, the violin prodigy Kyosuke Kamijo, strengthened their relationship. Not a perfect one, because no relationship was… at times, Hitomi confided in Madoka that she thought Kyosuke had more feelings for his violin than he did for her. That always set Sayaka fuming, resolving to track the boy down and beat him until he showed more gratitude for his girlfriend's presence… but those incidents never lasted long. Within a day or two at most, Kyosuke would repent for his mistakes in a manner that was always spectacular: a bouquet of white roses attached to Hitomi's locker, enormous boxes of chocolates, impromptu private concerts, or something else equally showy. It seemed he was a hopeless romantic underneath it all, and for all the times he messed up, he always knew the way to make things right.

With Mami, Madoka had the older sister of her dreams… a great teacher as well as a great friend, always willing to listen or lend a guiding hand. Afternoon tea parties at Mami's apartment were the stuff of legend; every time she held one, she had a new recipe for some extravagant new dessert. Stuffed crepes, chocolate tortes, hot cinnamon scones, and of course, her famous peach pie. Poor Mami often seemed lonely… who wouldn't be, living in that big apartment all by herself? There was a constant glimmer of sadness in her amber eyes, and Madoka sometimes saw her staring wistfully off into space when she thought no one was looking… but Mami knew she was always welcome at the Kaname household at any time of day or night, so it always worked out in the end.

With Kyoko, Madoka could indulge her wilder and, honestly, her more rebellious instincts. The redhead's father, a Christian minister in Kazamino, normally kept his daughter under a watchful eye and a tight leash… which was probably why whenever she and Sayaka spent time together, some sort of mischief invariably ensued. The two of them were quite a pair, getting into fights just as often as they laughed and shared each other's company. It wasn't hard to see why: both of them were stubborn as mules, not to mention quick to anger and slow to forgive. They were more alike than either would ever dare admit, and being with them was always an adventure… though quite frequently a somewhat dangerous adventure.

Then there was Homura. Cool, quiet Homura, whom Madoka felt closer to than anyone else, even Sayaka. Homura, who always knew what she needed and when she needed it. Homura, who was indifferent to everyone at school, but who never failed to break into a warm smile whenever she saw Madoka's face. Homura, who swooped in like a guardian angel on the rare occasions trouble threatened Madoka's idyllic life, who could always be counted on to resolve it in short order. Homura, with whom she shared secrets she wouldn't dare breathe to anyone else. Homura, who always listened.

Truly, there could be nothing better than this.


Sayaka Miki was happy.

She was happy, despite lingering traces of bitterness. After carrying a torch for Kyosuke for so long, seeing him with Hitomi, one of her best friends… it hurt sometimes. In the deep recesses of her mind, she sometimes resented Hitomi for it. It could have been me… That thought plagued her when she lay awake at night in the dark, but she always pushed it back down. I'll be okay. I'll get over it, she told herself whenever this happened. Why should I pine over him? He's happy with Hitomi, Hitomi and I are still friends, and I've got everything I could ask for. I've got her, and Madoka, and Mami-san…

And Kyoko. Thinking of Kyoko always lightened her spirits. There was something about her… true, she drove Sayaka crazy on a semi-weekly basis, but she couldn't imagine being without her. There was a spark of connection between them, something deeper than she had words to express. If it were anyone else, Sayaka might suspect herself of harboring a crush… but on Kyoko? That couldn't be. True, Kyoko showed up in her dreams with alarming frequency, and true, when she did, she tended to do things that would make the real Kyoko threaten to bludgeon her to death if she ever found out… and true, sometimes those kinds of dreams about Kyoko slipped into her waking hours as daydreams or idle fantasies. But the two of them? In the real world? Together? Ridiculous. Sayaka much preferred to stay rooted in reality, where life was good and she was mostly satisfied.

Yes, life was good.

And yet.

On those long, dark nights when Sayaka searched her soul, she often had an odd, nagging feeling she couldn't identify. A feeling that despite living in contentment, there was something more… something she should be doing. Something she had forgotten. It frustrated her to think about it, and she tended to be short with people for a day or two whenever it came to mind.

Then there was that girl, the quiet one with the long black hair who almost never smiled, and who always hung around Madoka like her shadow. Homura Akemi. She was hardly a friend, but they tolerated each other for Madoka's sake. Even so, every so often, Sayaka would look at Homura… and feel a spike of white-hot rage that she couldn't explain. The instant she became aware of it, that spike would vanish into ether, but still.

Despite all of that, Sayaka was happy.


Kyoko Sakura was happy.

For her, life was about enjoying the finer things, like junk food, video games, and the company of one's friends. Sure, her father preached about the temptations of earthly desires and all of that, but Kyoko didn't see anything wrong with indulging herself, so long as she was always grateful for the chance. Doubtless, Father Sakura might have been horrified to know of the trouble his eldest daughter frequently got into in pursuit of those pleasures… if he knew, he would likely rail at her for being a bad influence on her little sister, Momoko, and go on and on about how her actions were turning her mother's hair gray. Then again, Father Sakura tended to wax tragic whenever his morning toast got burned… he was the poetic, overdramatic type. Kind of a pain sometimes, but Kyoko loved him anyway.

As it happened, that was also a remarkably accurate description of how she felt about Sayaka. Not that Sayaka would ever find out about that… she'd die before she ever admitted it. If the tomboy ever got wind that Kyoko contemplated being more than friends on occasion… she'd be laughed into the next country, most likely. Besides, Kyoko knew she was still nursing wounds over losing Kyosuke to Hitomi, no matter how much she might deny it. The last thing she needed was to learn that one of her best friends felt that way about her. Maybe in the future, things could be different, but for now, Kyoko was content to love her from a distance.

Of course, there was Mami too. Kyoko loved her like a big sister, like part of the family. It hurt to see that sad look in her eyes, the one she always masked behind a gentle smile. More than once, Kyoko tried to get her to open up and tell her what was wrong these days… but Mami would never tell. Kyoko supposed she would talk when she was ready.

Until then, Kyoko intended to enjoy life and friendship to the fullest, taking whatever came at her with a smile.


Mami Tomoe was happy… or so she claimed.

She didn't quite understand it. After the accident that orphaned her, her life rebuilt itself with remarkable speed, as if the fates were compensating her for her loss. Not just with the insurance and her parents' trust fund, but with the generous donations of the families who knew the Tomoes… Sayaka's and Kyoko's families in particular gave everything they could to make sure she was safe, comfortable, and surrounded by friends. Once she grew close with Madoka, the new transfer student, the Kanames likewise provided their help with whatever she needed.

Life was routine, but hardly boring. How could it be, with people like her friends around? On the rare occasions she wasn't out and about with them after school, she was at home, indulging in her passion for cooking. What was once a passing hobby was now a way of life. She found that she truly came alive in her kitchen, alive in ways she hadn't felt since the accident. Already there were offers from a half-dozen exclusive cooking schools, offering full scholarships for when she graduated. Once she grew up, she would be free to share her talent with the world. And not just cooking schools, either… There was more than one talent scout who frequently called with offers to get her a foothold in the modeling or idol industry, should she choose to do so.

Out of the ashes of tragedy, she had been reborn, like a phoenix. She had every opportunity a girl her age could have, and then some.

So why did she often feel so lost?

It was more than just missing her parents. She would always miss them, of course, but after an extended grieving period, she was able to put their loss behind her. It was something deeper than that… a hole in her heart, one that refused to be filled even in the company of her friends and adopted families. There was something lost. Something missing.

It bothered her, even moreso because she had no idea why she felt this way, or how she could miss something without knowing what it was. Madoka, Sayaka, and Kyoko noticed her periods of melancholy, and often asked her to tell them what was wrong… but how could she, if she didn't know herself? There was no way to give voice to the problem without sounding silly, or worse, crazy.

Something was lost. Something was missing. But every time she concentrated and tried to place what that something was, it escaped her like the wisps of a half-remembered dream.

Something… or perhaps someone.


Nagisa Momoe was not happy. Nor was she sad, or angry, or lonely, or anything, for that matter.

Nagisa Momoe no longer existed. In fact, she had never existed at all.


Homura Akemi was happy. That went without saying.


Mitakihara Middle School

Late. Madoka was late.

Homura drummed her fingers on her desk as she deliberated. It was probably nothing; perhaps her family needed her for chores, or little Tatsuya was being stubborn, or some small delay like that. Still, there was a nagging worry in the back of her mind… the same worry that was always there in the rare times when she and Madoka were apart.

Of course, it would be easy to check on her, or to instantly solve whatever problem was keeping her from school. If she wanted, she could follow Madoka every hour of every day without her notice, lending an invisible hand to provide her with anything she might need. All it would take was proper manipulation of the strings. Sometimes, the thought was tempting.

But no. Homura had done what she had done in order to give Madoka a normal, happy life. Putting her under constant surveillance with no privacy, and using her powers to fulfill her every whim… that was hardly normal. That would make Madoka into little more than a doll, and Homura refused to sink to that level. She might be damned, irredeemably so, but even the Devil had her standards. As long as Homura had a say in it, Madoka's life would be as normal as possible, given the circumstances.

At least, that was how Homura justified it.

Still. Madoka was late, and that was troubling. Where was she?

Just one little peek. Just to make sure she was all right. Part of Homura remained calmly in her seat, and part of her rose from her desk. Invisible, intangible, her other self brushed back her long black hair, a blink away from willing herself to Madoka's location…

… and that was when Madoka came through the classroom door, wearing her usual perfect smile and a red flower in one of her pigtails.

Homura's selves merged back together as she rose to greet her. "Good morning, Madoka."

"Good morning, Homura-chan!"

"That's a lovely flower. Is it from your father's garden?"

She blushed and giggled, reaching up to stroke the thin red hanging petals. "No, the jester outside the school gave it to me. Isn't it pretty?"

That gave the Devil pause. "Jester?"

Madoka nodded. "I think that's what he was. He was waiting at the gate. He had strange hair like a jester's hat, and a mask with a big dark X through it, it was kind of scary… but he said that he only gives flowers to the prettiest girls." Her cheeks flushed as she leaned close, presenting the flower for Homura's closer inspection. "Look, it's a red spider lily. He told me he chose it especially for me, because you'd like it."

A masked jester, with a red spider lily. Homura's blood froze in her veins. How? It couldn't be the same one. It couldn't be, she killed him. "Did…" she said, as smoothly as she could, "... did this jester say anything else?"

"Um, no, I don't think so. Are you all right, Homura-chan? You look pale-"

The world stopped and turned to grayscale. Homura's barren wings unfurled from her back, and with a thought she swooped through the wall of the classroom and down to the school courtyard to the gate-

It was him. Impossibly, it was him. Joker stood there, brazen and bizarre in broad daylight, holding a bouquet of red spider lilies as if he were waiting for a date, perfectly intact save for that strange scar in his mask.

How? Homura thought. She had burned the harlequin to a crisp, she was sure of it. How could he have-

The harlequin moved. Within Homura's frozen time, he somehow moved. Again. "Bonjour, madame," he said with a courtly bow."Would the lady like a flower? They're your favorites-"

Homura split him in half. Pitch black blood spewed from the pieces, but the droplets never touched the ground… the blood and the halves froze, and then vanished in a roar of violet flame.

Furious, Homura rewound time, watching students file backwards around her in sped-up motion… The halves reformed and reconnected, and soon she saw Madoka walk backwards through the school doors, across the campus, and through the gate, all smiles. Far from freezing, now Homura's blood boiled, and her stomach churned as she saw the harlequin smile at her, gently removing the spider lily's stem from her hair with long, clawed, spider-like fingers and placing it back in the bouquet… He laughed about something, spoke to her for a moment, and waved her over, then Madoka raced back down the street and out of sight...

This time she quartered him, and burned his body and the damned flowers until not even ashes were left. A blink, and all the Clara dolls in the area assembled before her. Their shrieking and giggling died off as they were cowed into silence by Homura's livid expression.
"Listen, all of you," she said. "If you see, hear, or sense anyone who looks or sounds like this…" Here she sent the concept of Joker to them, branded it into their minds. "... inform me immediately. This person is an intruder. He does not belong here. Do you understand?"

Dozens of grinning heads nodded in nervous unison. "Gott ist tot!"

"You had best hope you do."

Another blink, and the Claras were back at their former positions. A third, and she was back in the classroom with Madoka, whose pink pigtails were just as they always were. Time resumed its course. Madoka never noticed the absence of the flower… how could she, when the harlequin never gave it to her in the first place?

"- pale," she was saying. "Should we go to the nurse's office?"

"No," said Homura, laying a hand on her shoulder. "I'm all right, I'm just a bit tired. You had better take your seat, class will start soon."

"Okay! See you at break, Homura-chan!"

"Yes, you will." And before then, and after. If it was for Madoka's safety and happiness, Homura would bend her self-imposed rules. Twice now, the same being had intruded upon her world, without her notice, and demonstrated an ability to not only resist her power over time, but return from certain death. Worse still, this Joker knew intimate details about her, and about Madoka… That was enough justification for keeping closer watch, she thought. It wouldn't even expend that much power. Just a simple magical orb, a "mind's eye", connected to her own sight and hovering silently around Madoka at all times. She would never know.


It didn't take long to grow used to the new routine. Every few minutes without fail, Homura would check her mind's eye and scan everything around Madoka for any signs of the harlequin. Once satisfied, she would return to her normal sight, the whole process taking no more than a fraction of a second. No trouble at all. In fact, it was… sort of fun, in an odd way. Comforting. Now she was more like Madoka's guardian angel than ever.

As she walked back across the bridge to her apartment after school, Homura found herself enjoying the ability to simultaneously watch Madoka as she stopped by a local carnival with Sayaka and Hitomi. She was rather cool toward those two, the former in particular, but with this new system in place, she didn't need to worry about accompanying them. For the moment, they could be trusted to assist in keeping Madoka safe.

In the meantime, Homura could focus on scouring the city for the harlequin's presence, rooting him out of wherever he was hiding. Already there were ideas forming for how she would deal with him if he dared show his face again. Some of her favorites of those ideas involved extensive usage of chainsaws.

Watching: there was Madoka, stopping by a colorful booth to buy some cotton candy. Pink, of course. She bit into the spun sugar and made a sound of delight, then offered a piece to Sayaka. Homura felt a twinge of annoyance at that, but she suppressed it. It would be easy enough to arrange for Sayaka to pay for it later by getting a rock stuck in her shoe, or something to that effect.

Warm air blew through her hair as Homura made a turn onto her street. She could just blink herself back home, of course, but why waste the power? It was a lovely spring evening. Perhaps she would stop by the carnival in a bit, as a surprise for Madoka. It could be amusing.

Watching: Madoka took Hitomi's hand and pulled her toward another booth, laughing. This one was some kind of puppet show. Too juvenile for Homura's tastes, but harmless.

The holo-keypad next to the front door of her apartment building flickered to life as Homura waved her hand before it. One by one she pressed in the digits of her security code: 1-9-9-7-1-0-0-3. Madoka's birthday, of course. She wouldn't dare program the code to be anything else.

Watching: the show was a simple affair. A hand puppet with a blue bob haircut wearing a blue sailor fuku and a tiara spoke in a pleasant female voice, telling the audience a story of a clumsy schoolgirl who became a superhero to fight for love and justice. Other puppets battled behind her as she spoke, one side in similar fukus of varying colors, the other composed of shadowy creatures. Sayaka listened to the tale with rapt attention. Just like her. How pathetic.

The lock disengaged with a satisfying click, and the doors slid aside to allow Homura through. She turned a corner and began the climb up the stairs to the sixth floor.

Watching: now the puppet in blue had moved on to another story. "Once upon a time, there was another hero, much like Usagi-chan, who started as nothing more than an ordinary schoolgirl. This schoolgirl gained great power, and used it to bring hope to the universe…"

Homura paused with her hand on her doorknob.

Watching: "But as the price for this power," continued the puppet, "the girl had to leave the universe, only coming back to lead the dying to Heaven. This made a lowly newt very, very sad, for she loved the schoolgirl and didn't want her to leave. So one day, when the newt lay dying and the schoolgirl came to claim her… in an act of selfish cowardice, the newt reached up and tore the schoolgirl's power from her, taking it for herself…"

Blink. Homura sizzled with rage as she appeared behind the booth at the carnival in an instant, ten seconds before the puppet began its second story, time hanging in wait for her to resume its course. With her will alone, she ripped the booth apart… but she dragged the harlequin inside out of the wreckage with her bare hands.

Joker flashed an obsequious grin, dismissing his puppet back to the palace with a click of his fingers. No use putting her in the crossfire; his personal safeguards weren't in place for her, and she was too valuable to risk. "What's wrong, mon petit deville?" he said to Homura. "Is the show not to our liking?"

Homura's hands closed around his neck with the force of an industrial steel press. A single squeeze was all it took. A fearsome snap echoed in the silence of frozen time. Joker's head lolled sickeningly to to one side, that maddening grin still leering at her in rictus…

She sent his corpse a thousand miles underground, to a place deep within the earth's crust. Once it materialized there, she took savage pleasure in watching the planet's gravitational forces crumple it down to a tiny speck, as if it were a ball of paper. Only then did she allow the intense heat do away with the rest.

Blink. She was back to Madoka's side at the end of the school day, walking with her as they left the gates. "Madoka," she said smoothly, "let's go to my house tonight. I need your help with my English homework."

"But-" Sayaka sputtered. Another spike of inexplicable anger flared within her, then dissipated. "But we were supposed to go to the carnival tonight! Akemi-san, you can't just-"

"Don't be ridiculous," said Homura as she tweaked the strings. "Kamijo-kun is giving a concert in the park tonight. Surely you don't want to miss that for a silly little carnival?"

"Oh my," said Hitomi, putting a hand to her lips. "I had completely forgotten. That's right, Kyosuke wanted us both to be there…"

"Dammit." Sayaka stomped her foot and crossed her arms. Now she remembered too. "Oh well. Tomorrow's Sunday, and the carnival should still be there, right? We'll all go then."

"I'm afraid that the carnival may be closing early," said Homura, making it so without missing a beat. "They must have run into some difficulty. I'm sorry, Miki-san. Perhaps another time."

"Yeah, yeah." Sayaka knew she couldn't be much help with English homework, so there was nothing for it but to let Madoka go. Why did that bother her so much, though? "You two have fun. C'mon, Hitomi-chan."

Madoka waved to them both as they parted ways. "Bye, Sayaka-chan. Bye, Hitomi-chan. Enjoy the concert!"

"We will, thank you, Madoka-chan. Good bye, Akemi-san."

"Bye."

Once the other two were gone, Homura gently pulled Madoka aside. "Actually, Madoka, I have something important that I must discuss with you..."


"... and the landlord says there's nothing he can do," said Madoka to her mother. "So please, can Homura-chan stay with us, just for a while?"

Junko Kaname exchanged a worried glance with her husband, Tomohisa. "I don't understand it. What kind of miserly bastard would throw a fourteen-year-old out on the street? Doesn't he know you live by yourself?"

"Yes, he does." Homura made an effort to look as pathetic as possible. It was easy to do so; she simply thought back to how she always was before she met Madoka. Pathetic, timid, weak, and worthless. A poor, miserable, sickly orphan, downtrodden and overlooked by everyone. It came back easier than she expected, to be honest. "But he says the rules are the rules. I apologize for the inconvenience, Kaname-okaa-san…"

That made Junko back off in a hurry. "No, no, no, it's no inconvenience at all! It's just… this is so sudden…"

Tomohisa nodded and frowned. "I agree. You know you can always come to us if you're in trouble, Homura. Why didn't you tell us about this sooner?"

"It…" Homura willed tears to her eyes and choked out a quiet fake sob. "It all happened so quickly, and I didn't know where to turn… I th-thought about staying with Tomoe-san, but I was afraid she would turn me down…"

"Homura-chan, no!" said Madoka, putting a comforting hand on her shoulder. "Mami-san would never!"

"B-but…" Homura continued with a louder sob. "... but Tomoe-san has so many troubles already, I d-didn't want to be a b-burden to her. I-I'm sorry..."

"Homura-chan, please don't cry! It'll be all right somehow-"

"I just don't know." Junko crossed her arms and frowned. "Maybe I should have a talk with social services. Surely they could do something to-"

It was time to drop the big one, take the one action that would force the Kanames' hands. Homura nudged the strings, just enough…

Tatsuya Kaname tugged at one of her black stockings. His pudgy toddler face crinkled as he looked up at his mother and father, and the beginnings of tears swam in his eyes. "Mama, Papa," he said, "can Homura-onee-chan stay? Please?"

That did it. The last of Junko's resistance faded. "Of course she can, Tatsuya," she said with a warm smile. "Homura, you're welcome at our home for as long as you like."

"Th-thank you…" For the finishing touch, Homura ran to Junko and wrapped her arms around her waist. Junko returned the hug, held her as she would hold her own children… as Homura's own mother, whoever or wherever she was, had never done.

Homura felt no warmth from that embrace. Of course, that was because she would only accept a hug like this from Madoka, and Junko wasn't Madoka. That was the only reason that made sense.

But stranger still, when Madoka seized her in a joyful, relieved hug from behind seconds later, crying happy tears into her shoulder… she felt no warmth from her beloved either.

It had to be a quirk of her powers. Nothing to worry about. Just a minor aberration, not worth fretting over… so she didn't.


"Here, Homura-chan," said Madoka, steering her toward a door on the right of the hall. "You take a bath first."

"Don't be silly, Madoka," said Homura. She placed a hand on the crook of her beloved's arm. "There's no reason we can't take one together."

"Mmm-mmm. I mean, I'd like to, but-" Her cheeks turned almost as pink as her hair. "You've had a really tough time lately, haven't you? You deserve some quiet time by yourself."

"But-"

"No buts." Madoka gave her a firm but gentle shove to the small of the back, pushing her through the bathroom door. "Take as long as you need. I'll wait until you're finished."

This wasn't going exactly as Homura planned. Another nagging temptation: it would be so easy to change Madoka's mind with her powers, but- No, she thought. Absolutely not. "All right," Homura said aloud. "I promise I won't take too long."

"Don't worry about it! And you can borrow my shampoo and stuff if you want, it's right on the edge of the tub."

"Thank you, but I have my own. I wouldn't dream of using yours."

"If you say so! See you in a little while…" Here Madoka broke into giggles. "... roommate!"

How Homura loved that sound. "Roommate," she repeated, smiling as wide as she dared. "I'll be right back."

Once the door clicked shut, Homura sighed and began to undress. How long had it been since her last real bath? They weren't necessary anymore, so she couldn't remember. After today, though, a bit of indulgence could be just what she needed. Madoka was right, as she usually was. Steaming water bubbled and lapped at the edges of the tub as it filled. With deliberate care, Homura emptied a bucket of it over herself. It really was heavenly; she forgot how good it felt to wash everything away in one big, warm cascade… and rubbing herself down with soap was quite relaxing in its mundanity, as was working the lilac-scented shampoo that Madoka liked so much into her long black hair, working out the tangles with her fingers, massaging the cool fluid deep into her scalp, and finally dousing herself once more to rinse off all the lather. Bliss. Maybe she would take a while to just soak, pause the world for an hour or two and-

"Need a towel, madame?"

The voice brought Homura crashing back to reality. He was here, in Madoka's house… lounging in her bathtub, wearing only the scarred mask and the smile she was growing to despise. How on earth had Joker managed to get so close without her knowing?

Homura stood, her eyes ablaze. She was more infuriated by his brazenness than his apparent nudity… her own, of course, was a non-issue. As she summoned her power to grasp him by his very aura and rip him-

Her mouth fell open in shock, and her pupils shrank.

He didn't have an aura.

He didn't have an aura.

It wasn't that she couldn't grasp it, it was that it wasn't there at all. That simply wasn't possible. Everything had an aura: people, animals, plants, rocks, everything made of solid matter. Except him, apparently. Confounded, Homura granted herself senses far beyond the human range, of every kind she could think of... physical, mental, mystical, all of them.

According to every sense except her vision and hearing, there was simply no one there. She opened her mouth to demand him to explain himself, but all that emerged was, "How?!"

Crossing his arms behind his head, Joker leaned back into the water. "Who knows? Perhaps I'm not really here, and you're simply losing your mind, madame. I mean, with all you've been through, it had to happen sooner or later, n'est pas?"

A foreboding chill crawled down Homura's spine. That possibility had occurred to her, more than once. During the many years she spent reliving that same month, and during the time she spent trapped with the others in the false Mitakihara formed from her own Witch labyrinth, it was sometimes easier to suspect that she was going mad than to accept the merciless cruelty of her reality.

Not this time, though. This had to be a trick. It had to be. "What do you want?" she hissed from between clenched teeth. The words came out sounding more desperate than she intended; the sound made her feel ill.

"I think you already know," said Joker. "I want both you and the little rose-haired twit to join me in Dead End."

Something snapped. "Don't you dare talk about her that way-!"

Unimpressed, the harlequin yawned, showing a mouthful of sharp teeth. "As much fun as this is, madame, it's almost becoming routine at this point. I appear, you kill me, we start over. We don't want the audience to get bored of the gag. So…" Now he leaned over the rim of the tub, gripping the edge with pale, clawed fingertips. The black eyes of the mask opened wide. "I'm prepared to make you an offer. A challenge, actually… a game."

The world trembled with Homura's fury. "I will not reduce myself to a plaything for your amusement-"

"Really? Ah well, then I suppose I'll just have to come back…" Joker's claws clicked the tiles. "Again and again, however long it takes… A month? A year, perhaps? Two? Ten? How long do you think you can protect your precious Madoka?"

She bristled. "From you? For as long as I have to."

The harlequin waved a hand, appallingly unconcerned. "Yes, yes, dear. But don't you see how much harder I've made your job in just one day? How far you've bent your own rules in just a few hours?"

A yawning hole opened in the pit of Homura's stomach. "I-"

"I've no doubt you can keep her safe from me," said Joker, "but I can't see how you could do it for long while still maintaining this gilded cage of yours. You see? You've already had to make so many compromises, after just one day. What will you have to do tomorrow? Or next week?"

The hole widened into a chasm. "Shut up."

"Hence, the nature of my game," Joker continued. "It's simple: if I win, we'll both go back to the routine and that will be that. But if you win, I'll acknowledge your superiority and leave dear, sweet Madoka alone."

Another flare raged through her body… how could he think she was so stupid? Did he think she couldn't tell what kind of creature he was by now? "Liar," she spat. "Even if I do win, you won't keep your promise."

"Won't I?" The harlequin shrugged and flicked water at her… it evaporated into steam long before it touched her skin. "If you beat me, really beat me, what reason would I have to come back?"

Damn it all, he had a point. The temptation to atomize this fool still gnawed at her, but she suppressed it. "Talk. What's your game?"

There was that grin again. "Eight hours." He held up eight spindly fingers for emphasis. "One night. I'll focus on you, and only on you. No one else will see, hear, or sense me. If you can make it through the night without Madoka noticing, without trying to kill me again, and without using any magic to block me out, send me away, or otherwise cheat your way out of it… you win. All you have to do is not react. Simple, non?"

Eight hours. Homura took a moment to ponder. It was a sadistic game; she expected as much from the likes of him. For anyone else, it would be torture.

However, for as much as he seemed to know about her, he apparently didn't know one crucial fact: there was nothing he could say, nothing he could do, no abuse he could imagine that could match the loathing she already felt for herself.

Not that anyone would ever know that, not even Madoka. It was only deep within her heart of hearts that she would ever acknowledge those feelings, and she tried never to do so: that this entire façade was constructed not just for Madoka's false happiness, but her own. Granting true happiness and peace of mind to herself was beyond even the powers of a God. Homura Akemi despised herself, saw herself as the lowest of the low: a vile, treacherous creature that had taken the one good, pure thing in all the universe and ripped it apart for the sake of her own selfishness and obsession.

What could Joker possibly say that she had not thought on her own at one point or another? She could do this. She could manage it. For Madoka's sake, she could endure anything.

"Swear to me," she said to Joker, her voice low. "If I agree to this, swear by whatever power you believe in… if I win, you'll leave her alone. You will never approach her again."

Joker placed one hand on his heart and raised the other in a solemn gesture. For once, that infernal smile disappeared. "I, Joker, Commander of Dead End, swear by the name, life, and honor of my creator, the Emperor of Evil, my great master Pierrot, that should I lose this game, I will never personally attempt to recruit Madoka Kaname into Dead End ever again, in any way, shape, or form. This I do solemnly swear, by Emperor Pierrot and the Dark Paint that birthed me."

Throughout this speech, Homura studied him, probing with all of her expanded senses for any hint of treachery. It was no good; whatever he had done to remove his aura shielded him from telepathy as well. His voice and body language gave nothing away. No way to tell if he was sincere in his pledge or not.

Of course, Homura was no fool. She didn't trust him to honor his word for a moment. She had more than enough experience to recognize the careful phrasing of someone not expressly lying, but concealing the truth nonetheless. For that matter, his terms should he win the game were too easy, too vague… Why go through all this effort without a clear benefit for himself?

Perhaps he was simply insane, or rather, more insane than she thought at first. More reason than ever to keep him away from Madoka. If doing so meant enduring an entire night of his foolishness…

For Madoka, she could endure it.

"Very well," she said. "I accept."

Joker's grin returned wider than ever, his skin stretching like rubber until the smile was too large for the face that held it. "Excellent! Then we shall begin immediately. Starting now," he said with a snap of his fingers, "only you will know I'm here, madame. Eight hours to go."

Raven hair cast glittering droplets to the bathroom tiles as Homura turned on her heel, snatching her towel from the floor. She made for the door-

"What's wrong, madame?" Joker purred. "Aren't you going to finish your bath?"

Twitch. "I have no need to do so."

"Except that you put on that show of wanting one for dear little Madoka, and she'll be ever so confused if you don't go through with it… you might as well, non?"

Homura scowled at the door. "Fine. Leave."

Water rushed behind her as Joker stood up from the tub. "Ah, ah, ah… the deal was that I focus entirely on you for eight hours. All of eight hours… every second of them."

Bile rose in Homura's throat. Intruding on her in the bathroom, that she could tolerate, but this? Surely he didn't intend to-

Wet footsteps padded across the tiles. His breath hissed over her bare shoulder. "In case you're worried, I'll have you know that I consider myself a gentleman. I have absolutely no intention of touching you, or doing anything untoward… Frankly, for someone who calls herself the Devil, I don't find you anywhere near interesting enough to attempt anything of the sort. No, madame, I will be quite content just to watch."

Homura didn't move.

"I'll even make it easy for you. I won't say anything at all. Go ahead, pretend I'm not even here. That's what you're supposed to be doing anyway, isn't it? Ignoring me? Or are you giving up the game already…?"

Sick to her core, Homura made another sharp turn and stormed back to the tub to get it over with. Eight hours. It's for Madoka. I can endure this for eight hours…

And Joker watched. He never made a sound, nor did his eyes leave her for even a fraction of a second. His grotesque smile remained in place the entire time.


10:30 PM

"Homura-chan!" Madoka rose from her desk with a smile. "How was your bath? Do you feel better?"

"Much better," Homura lied, smooth as the surface of a lake. Joker lingered right behind her, half a step away. She could hear him breathing; a deliberate choice to her detriment, she assumed. "It's your turn."

"Thanks. I'll be right back."

"Take your time."

She waved fondly as she passed… and walked right through the harlequin. At least he was honest about that much.

There was already a futon set up on the opposite side of the room from Madoka's bed, complete with a pillow and sleeping bag, all neat and clean and arranged just for her. So kind…

As she sat and folded her school uniform, Joker strolled around the room, taking it all in. "She likes stuffed animals, I see. I never quite saw the appeal."

Homura ignored him.

A half-hour later, Madoka opened the door in a cloud of sweet-smelling steam, already in her nightclothes, her rose-colored hair hanging loose. "Ahhh, that's better. Homura-chan, are you going to bed already?"

Homura forced a weak smile. "I'm afraid so. It's been a long day, and I'm very tired."

Her face fell. "Aww. I was kinda hoping we could stay up and talk for a while, but- I guess you need your rest."

As she spoke, Joker leaned down to her ear, his eyes on Madoka. "What darling pajamas those are! They look wonderful on her, don't you think, madame?" His voice dropped to a slithering whisper. "Of course, you probably think they'd look even better on her floor…"

Homura's hands seized the blankets tight. "I'm sorry, Madoka. We'll talk more in the morning."

"I guess so. You do look kind of tired… Oh well. Sleep tight, Homura-chan."

"Sleep well."

Madoka climbed under her covers and dimmed the lights. It didn't take long for her breathing to slow.

Homura lay awake in her sleeping bag, staring at the ceiling. It would be best to try to get some sleep herself. The less of this she had to stay awake for, the better. She closed her eyes-

"Now, now," said the harlequin's voice. "You don't think you're getting out of it that easily, do you? Now that she's asleep, the real fun can begin… How about we start with counting how many times you killed your other friends? Just as a warm up..."

Staring resolutely at the ceiling, Homura bit the inside of her lip, as discreetly as possible. She wouldn't crack. She wouldn't. Madoka's safety depended on it.


1:00 AM

For the last hour, the harlequin had paced around and around her sleeping bag in circles as he spoke. He had not stopped talking since Madoka went to sleep.

"... and of course, you being too cowardly to kill yourself and do the universe a favor, well. That goes without saying," said Joker. His words were like the roots of some small, toxic weed, probing for weaknesses in the wall of her resistance, trying to burrow into the foundations. "Just a persistent cancer in the grand cosmic body, aren't we? Too stubborn to die off and stop poisoning all around you."

Madoka's ceiling blurred. Homura blinked her eyes rapidly to bring it back into focus.

"In fact, in the cosmic scheme of things, it's downright unfair," Joker continued. "Someone as small and insignificant as you shouldn't have had such a devastating impact on your universe. Think about it: if you had done what you were supposed to do and thrown yourself off that bridge so long ago… Madoka would have died saving your city, and that would have been the end of it. But noooo, you had to go and foul it all up… and now look where you are. The top of the heap! Time and space in tatters, all your former friends as your mindless puppets, and the concept of hope imprisoned in your dream world. You must be so proud of yourself! You've set rather a high bar for people like me… excusez moi, like us. How are we supposed to compete with what you've done?"


4:15 AM

Some time ago, he chose to hover inches over her, the pitiless black eyes of his mask staring straight into hers, unblinking. She stared back at him, letting her silence speak her defiance.

And still he talked, unceasing… "You still feel. I know you do. Deep down underneath your stolen powers and that fearsome exterior you put up, you're still the same as before: a wretched, weak, sickly little girl crying out for someone to love her. And she did. That's the most delicious part… she did love you, but that wasn't enough, was it? You had to have more. Look what it's gotten you… Look at her over there. Sleeping without a care in the world."

The blankets covering Madoka rose and fell in her slumber. Homura forced herself not to look.

"You know you've thought about it," hissed Joker. "You know you've fantasized about it. It would be so easy: just stop time, right now while she's asleep, and take what you really want from her. She would never know, she would never remember. No one would know… except for you and me. After you've fallen this far… what's one more sin? Do it. Do it."


6:00 AM

With a flourish, Joker produced an antique pocket watch, flipped open its brass lid, and checked the time. "Aaaaaand… that's it! Well done, Madame Diable! Honestly, I didn't think you'd make it, but you've won. The game is over. How do you feel?"

Sagging in her sleeping bag, Homura let out a breath she didn't know she had been holding in. She was drained, empty, exhausted… hours upon hours of Joker's nonstop words had hollowed her insides out. She thought there was nothing he could say that could be worse than the venom of her own self-hatred swirling inside her… she was wrong, so very, very wrong. All she wanted now was sleep, blessed, dreamless sleep… every second she remained awake was another piece of herself chipped away. "Leave," she said to Joker, shutting her eyes, embracing the dark. "Just leave."

"Of course," said the harlequin's voice. "Good day, madame." A rush of air, and he was gone.

Homura lay there, deathly tired but unable to sleep.

It felt like only seconds later when Madoka's alarm buzzed, and she yawned and sat up scrubbing her eyes. "'Morning, Homura-chan," she yawned. "Did you have a good night?"

"Yes," she lied. She used to hate telling lies, but lying was so easy now…

"Hang on," said Madoka, fumbling with her covers. "I have to go wake Mama up. I'll be right back, then we can start on breakfast." Soft footsteps padded across the room. That face Homura loved so much leaned over her… and seeing her brow crinkle in concern was like a knife thrust into her belly. "Are you sure you're okay? Your eyes are really puffy… do you feel sick?"

"I'll be fine," said Homura, with a smile that stopped at her lips. "I just need a few minutes."


Midnight

The Previous Night

Miki Residence

Water. For no reason she could understand, Sayaka Miki often dreamed of water. Swirling dark currents, surrounding her and pulling her down with irresistible force, her breath escaping her lips in a rush of bubbles. It wasn't exactly accurate to call these dreams nightmares, because more often than not, they would end with someone reaching down into the depths…

… taking her hand…

… wrapping their arms around her, as if to tell her everything was going to be all right…

… and then she would wake in her bed, puzzle over what it meant for a few moments, then go back to sleep.

Tonight, though, she woke from the water to a beautiful sound… a haunting violin melody, mournful and mysterious. What is that? she thought, sitting up in bed with a frown. It's the middle of the night, who would be dumb enough to- Wait a minute. She listened a moment more before she recognized the tune. Zemlinsky. That's one of Zemlinsky's pieces. What the hell…?

The music came from outside her window. Muttering darkly to herself, Sayaka pulled on her nightgown and stomped over to the curtains. Kyosuke, if that's you out there waking me up at this hour, I'm gonna belt you one! She threw the curtains wide, opened the window, and stuck her head out, ready to give Kyosuke a piece of her mind… "Huh?"

It wasn't Kyosuke. A bizarre figure stood in a patch of moonlight on her lawn, bowing a violin with great skill and precision, the music ebbing and flowing around him like the tide… He was dressed as some kind of jester, with a multicolored shock of hair styled like a bell cap, and a white mask with an X through it covering the upper half of his face. Slowly he gazed up at Sayaka… the eyes of his mask were empty black. "Bonsoir, Mademoiselle."

Sayaka was sorely tempted to slam the window shut and go back to sleep, but something kept her looking into those black eyes. "Who… who are you? What are you doing here?"

Joker lifted the bow from the strings, and the music stopped abruptly. "Why, I'm here to assist you, of course. I want to help you get back what you lost. Or rather… what was taken from you."

END OF CHAPTER 18

NEXT: … IN A HANDBASKET

Chapter Text

CHAPTER 19: … In a Handbasket

-VERTEX FIVE: 10.194412-

Mitakihara

Miki Residence

Was this really happening? Was Sayaka really talking to a gaudy, French-speaking clown in her bedroom at midnight? By any measure, it was an absurd situation, completely insane.

What was more insane, though? That this was apparently real, or that much of what the clown was saying made a horrifying sort of sense?

"... so you see, Mademoiselle Miki," said Joker, "All of this, the world all around you… it's little more than a cage, designed to keep you trapped in it for eternity. And because your memories were taken… you don't even know you're imprisoned."

"Now hold on," said Sayaka. She pinched herself. It hurt; this was no dream, whatever it was. "Even if what you're saying is true, why would somebody do something like that?"

The clown - harlequin, she reminded herself, he insisted on that - tapped his chin with one long, clawed finger. "I thought you might ask that. Alas, but that question is beyond my ability to answer. You really must find that one out for yourself."

Sayaka blinked and clutched at her blankets. "How?"

"Un moment, s'il vous plait." Joker turned from her, cast his thoughts across the worlds back to the palace at Sagittarius A*, and searched for one particular Dead End soldier with his mind… there she was. A small, quiet, timid presence. Rather useless for fighting, but her other talents made it well worth the considerable effort it took to track her down. We're ready for you now, cherie.

The mental voice that answered trembled. He could almost feel her cringing. Delightful. No, she said. I can't do it, it's too cruel! Don't make me-

The corner of Joker's lip twitched. Need I remind you, cherie, of our little arrangement? That sister of yours-

A terrified mental sob. Please, no. Please.

Please what, cherie? I think you're forgetting something…

Please… A lengthy pause, during which disgust built up in her, tasting like bile. Master. Don't hurt her. I'm coming.

Excellent.

Sayaka goggled as the young woman stepped from a dark portal a moment later. There were worlds of difference between her and the harlequin… while Joker was proud and confident, this one shook like a leaf; a stiff breeze could knock her over. She wore a simple rosey one piece dress with a short pleated skirt over her thin frame, a dress that matched her long, thin, curled twintails and her wide, sorrowful eyes on the brink of tears. There was a neckpiece rather like the collar of a sailor uniform covering her shoulders, but it was almost smothered by a heavy metal collar clamped around her neck and inscribed with glowing, angry red lines. From both earlobes dangled odd earrings, thin jet-black crystal spires in a gold setting. When she spoke, her voice was so soft that Sayaka had to strain to hear her. "I-I'm here… Master."

Joker nodded. "Good. You know what to do."

"Wait a minute!" Sayaka looked back and forth between them, indignant. One stranger in her room in the middle of the night was bad enough. "Who's this?!"

"Ah, how rude of me, pardonez." Joker swept a hand in the newcomer's direction. "Mademoiselle Miki, this is my associate, Sailor Mnemosyne."

"Sailor… Mnem…" Sayaka stumbled over the bizarre name. "What?!"

"Yes, yes, I know," said Joker, checking his claws. "I think 'Nemo' is far less of a mouthful, but she doesn't seem to be too keen on that name yet. Do you, Nemo?"

The way that Mnemosyne shrank back at his words reminded Sayaka of an abused animal. "I'm sorry, Master."

"Well, then, hurry up!" The harlequin clapped his hands sharply. "We've got more business to attend to before the night is over. Best get going, non?"

"Y-yes, Master," said Mnemosyne. Misery emanated from her like dense fog as she came to Sayaka's bedside, holding something cupped in her hands…

Sayaka liked this less and less. "What is this? What's she doing? Why is she so-"

"Really, mademoiselle, I've already told you…" Joker's tone dripped with impatience. "Your memories were stolen, and Nemo here is the key to getting them back. Isn't that what you want?"

"Well, yes, but-!"

"Then stop talking and take a drink."

"What?!"

"It's that simple. Take a drink."

Mnemosyne brought her hands forward. Patterns of pale light played over Sayaka's face as she leaned in to look. Whatever the substance the girl held was, it moved like water, and shimmered on the surface like water, and was clear like water, but… water didn't have shadows moving through it like that, almost like the ghosts of images on a screen after it was turned off. These shadows were sharp and vivid, and the longer Sayaka stared, the more she thought she could make out their shapes if she just looked for a few more minutes… Fascinated, she leaned closer and closer, the tip of her nose coming within millimeters of breaking the liquid's surface.

Mnemosyne said three words in barely a whisper, but Sayaka didn't hear them: "I'm so sorry."


Sakura Church

Kazamino

Normally, no one woke Kyoko up from sleep without dire consequences. For a priest's daughter, she had a hell of a temper… often her mother wondered where she could have inherited it from, and fretted that little Momo would follow suit one day. Waking Kyoko up was asking to be subjected to an extraordinarily foul mood for the duration of the day, at minimum, so very few people ever tried twice. Word spread fast.

Kyoko's fiery red hair was tousled and tangled, and her lips were turned down in a scowl that threatened to become a permanent fixture. Through puffy eyes, she glared at the idiot in the scarred mask and jester outfit who insisted on talking to her. Somebody was asking for a good old-fashioned face-punching, Kyoko style.

"While I imagine this is quite difficult for you to grasp, mademoiselle," he was saying, "I assure you, it's quite true. All of it. And I, being the obsequious expeditionist of the macrocosms that I am, have taken it upon myself to see your stolen memories returned to you. What say you to that?"

"Fuck off," said Kyoko. Father Sakura would have chastised her for that; good thing he was still sound asleep… though Kyoko didn't know how, with all of this fool's dancing and prancing and spouting of big flowery words.

Joker twitched. Just a little. "Well, then." Usually, they were less direct about it.

Kyoko fell back to bed with an angry snort, drawing the blankets around herself.

"Listen, mademoiselle-"

"Fuck. Off," came the voice from the blankets, more emphatic than ever.

Pressing his fingers against the scarred forehead of his mask, Joker sighed. "If you truly don't wish to listen, Mademoiselle Sakura, I suppose I won't force you."

"Good," Kyoko mumbled. "Leave the crazy talk for the morning. Or never."

"I only hope you won't regret it later. You see, your friend Mademoiselle Miki-"

That dispelled Kyoko's desire to sleep in a hurry. She sat upright, fire in her eyes. "What about Sayaka?" If this crackpot was threatening her somehow...

A smirk that made her want to punch him all the more spread across his face. "I thought you wanted to sleep?"

"Save it. Start talking."

"Well…" Joker drew out the pause until it seemed ready to snap. "You see, you're both in the same boat. As are Mademoiselles Kaname and Tomoe, in fact. All of you were victims of a most atrocious theft. Your very lives were overwritten by your captor. Everything that you were, everything you experienced..." Another pause. "... the relationships you formed… all gone, replaced with someone else's script."

A strange chill raced down Kyoko's spine. "Wait. Back up. Are you saying… that before this happened, Sayaka and I were-"

"I wasn't there personally, so I can't say for sure, but-" The harlequin shrugged. "From what I gathered, you two did seem a bit closer to each other, just before everything changed."

Now there was a whirlwind in Kyoko's mind… What Joker said was crazy, it made no sense at all. Who could be powerful enough to snatch everyone up and… and make puppets out of them? Moreover, who could be that twisted? It didn't make sense; there had to be a reason behind it.

And Sayaka. According to him, she and Sayaka used to be… She had to know. He might well be lying, but she had to know for sure.

"Fine," she said. Her hands crumpled the blankets as she balled her fists. "If you've got a way to bring back my memories, I'll take it."

"Trés bien. Nemo?" he said to thin air. "This one's made the right choice. You know what to do."

Kyoko barely suppressed a cry of shock as someone in a pink dress and a heavy collar stepped out of a dark hole hovering right in front of her bed...


Mami Tomoe's Apartment

Mitakihara

Mami couldn't sleep.

More often than not on nights like this, she lay awake in bed, the inexplicable emptiness in her heart threatening to consume her like a sinkhole. She would stare at the ceiling and think about it to the point of strain: what was missing? Why did she feel this way? It just didn't make sense. How could she miss something she never had?

So on such nights, she made herself a cup of black tea and sat in her favorite armchair until she felt tired enough to try to sleep again. Sometimes she would read a book while she waited, or catch up on homework, or listen to music. A few times she even indulged in making a cake or some new kind of pastry… not to eat, but just for practice. She would save them in the freezer for when company came over.

And sometimes, she would simply sit, nurse her tea, and watch Mitakihara through her window. It was a gorgeous city, especially at night, when all the towering skyscrapers lit up with blinking lights like giant steel Christmas trees. Fragrant steam from her tea cup wreathed her face as she raised it to her lips, lost in melancholy…

"Lovely, isn't it?" said a voice behind her.

The cup slipped from Mami's fingers in shock, plummeting to the floor… but a hand with long, pale fingers tipped with black claws caught it inches from the hardwood. She stood, her heart hammering a beat against her ribs. An intruder. Someone had broken into her home. Her index finger twitched, she had to-

-to do what? Mami didn't know, but the motion came to her as naturally as breathing. Another piece missing.

The intruder held her cup, examining the china and taking a long, indulgent sniff of the steam. "Mmm. Ceylon," he said with an approving nod. "You have a refined palate, mademoiselle."

Mami stared, eyes wide. The intruder was… some sort of clown, dressed in white and violet hues, wearing a mask with an X through it. If he was a burglar, then he was like no burglar she had ever seen. "Who are you?!"

He set the cup down and made a sweeping bow. "I am Joker, your savior," he said, in a voice as smooth as rich cream. "I have come from beyond to give you back your purpose."

"My… purpose?" No. It couldn't be.

The mask's empty black eyes transfixed her. "Don't you feel lost? Directionless? Like a part of yourself is missing…?"

It was as if he could see into her innermost thoughts. Mami's skin crawled. "How did-"

"Please, mademoiselle, I don't need magic to see what's troubling you. You happen to be speaking to someone who knows all too well what it feels like to lose your reason for living."

Stumbling backward, the girl clutched at her heart. This had to be a dream. It didn't make sense. Someone coming into her home and speaking of her darkest secrets like an old friend… This was wrong.

It's all wrong.

It's all gone wrong…

And yet… his words rang too true.

The clown extended a hand to help her up. "We have little time, and much to do, Mademoiselle Tomoe. If you wish to regain your purpose…"

A tiny shriek left Mami's lips. There was someone else standing behind him, a young woman all in pink, a collar clamped around her neck, deep sadness in her eyes, her hands cupped and filled with… with something bright and moving…

Her purpose. Her missing piece. It was an impossible offer, it had to be. People didn't just appear out of nowhere and offer the solutions to life's problems. The world simply didn't work that way.

And yet…

"It only takes one drink." Joker's tone was soft, filled with understanding. "One drink, and you can be whole again."

The strange young woman came forward with her handful of… water? Mami couldn't tell. This was all wrong, it couldn't possibly be this easy, and yet…

Yet if she declined this chance, she knew she would regret it for the rest of her life.

So Mami Tomoe closed her eyes, knelt down before the young woman, and drank… Its taste was a paradox, dry and quenching at the same time, first scouring her throat like sandpaper and then soothing it back to normal… Her eyes snapped open, her pupils constricted-

And she saw.

She remembered.

Herself, in a life much like this one, but… but strong. Powerful. Wielding abilities beyond normal humans, just like in the stories she loved when she was younger. Battling the darkness, saving the innocent. A hero.

Mami looked up at Joker from the floor, wondering how she had fallen without realizing it. A surging tide of memories flooded her mind and danced in her vision, new ones resurfacing every second… A hero. She had been a hero.

And yet.

Yet even in this mysterious former life, the loneliness, the emptiness, was still there. So many pieces filled in, but still not enough to be whole. Mami opened her mouth to speak, to ask this Joker who had done this to her, who had taken her power, her self away…

… and she saw.

She remembered.

"Akemi," she whispered. "Homura Akemi. No. Oh no…"

The strange, pale, quiet girl who never smiled for anyone but Madoka Kaname. The girl who rarely spoke. The girl whom she now knew hid a loneliness and sorrow that surpassed her own. She did it. They won the battle with her Witch form, and the Law of Cycles descended from on high in all her splendor to take her away, and-

Joker's voice cut a furrow through the tide. "Yes, my dear. It was her fault. She trapped you here, stole your power and your purpose. All for her, for her own selfish desire."

"No." No, that wasn't true. She knew Homura Akemi, she fought alongside her once upon a time. Homura was cold and antisocial, yes, but not evil. For her to do such a terrible thing, to fall so far… there had to be a reason. There had to be.

Joker's voice again: "Come with me, Mami Tomoe. Come with me, and we'll set things right. We'll fight her, and force her to give it all back. Will you accept?" A clawed hand reached through the tide… it would be so simple to take it, to gain back all that she lost…

And yet…

"I-" Her words felt thick, numbly spilling from her lips. "I c-can't…"

Piercing crimson lights shone from the empty eyes of the mask. "Excuse me?"

"I can't…" Tears spilled from Mami's amber eyes. "Akemi-san… i-isn't a bad person. I w-want my old life back, but… but she gave us all of this…" Her throat was tight. "She didn't have to, but she did! Wh-what she's doing is wrong, but-"

"But?" The harlequin's tone grew cold as the vacuum of space.

"-but I can't fight her. Not until I understand why…"

"I see." It was as if the temperature in Mami's apartment dropped ten degrees with his every syllable. "What I was looking for was a simple 'yes' or 'no', but suppose I should consider this an abstention, non?"

Sobbing, Mami curled into a ball, hugging herself tight to stop the chill. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry… please, stop…" Somehow, she could see, feel those horrible lights from his eyes gazing down at her.

A soft, timid voice. "M-Master, if she can't make the choice-"

"Relax, Nemo. I planned for something like this."

Something cold and hard pierced Mami Tomoe's back and plunged into her heart, stealing her breath away.


Sakura Church

Kazamino

On her hands and knees, Kyoko heaved, staring down at the spreading puddle of foul-smelling bile beneath her. Any moment now, she might be sick again. Chills wracked her body, her skin wanted to crawl off and hide in a corner somewhere…

"Easy, my dear." The harlequin's voice drifted over her. "You've been through quite a shock."

"You-" Her hiss of breath was cut off by another gag, and more bitter taste at the back of her throat.

She saw.

She remembered.

Yes, she had indeed been closer to Sayaka in the other world, in the other life. That much was true. But what came with it...

Wishes. Contracts. Puellae Magi. She had been one of them, fighting the Wraiths that threatened to consume humanity. It was an easy choice, she remembered. If she could do some good in the world, and get people to listen to her father, why not?

Then, pain. Tragedy. Disaster. The memories that came after that were what made her vomit on the floor. A life spent trying and failing to atone for her sin, making up excuses to justify what she had to do to survive.

Oh, she remembered Homura, and her role in all this. Kyoko remembered, and she was angry as hell, but-

Joker again. "I know how you must be feeling, mademoiselle, but if you wish to use that anger in a constructive manner-"

It took all her remaining strength, but Kyoko stared him right in the empty black eyes and snarled. "Fuck… you."

The harlequin seemed taken aback.

"No," said Kyoko, pale and trembling like a leaf but determined to stand her ground. "No. Not now, not ever. I don't care if she's evil. Maybe she had a good reason, maybe she didn't, I don't care. I'm never going back to that world. Never. E-even if all this is just a dream… an illusion..." Those memories flashed before her eyes, and just the recollection of that horrible sight and smell turned her stomach in knots. "... i-it's a hell of a lot better than it was before."

The girl in pink, the one Joker called "Nemo", spoke from the corner. "That's enough, Master, she's refused. We have to-"

Crack. One blow of Joker's hand crumpled her like paper. "Rather mouthy tonight, aren't we? It's not your place to decide, cherie. I thought you would realize that by now. Or does Lethe need another reminder in your stead? As for you…" He turned his eyes to Kyoko, and the empty black holes lit with hellfire. "I think you may reconsider my offer once you get a glimpse of the alternative."

"No. Stay back-"


Mitakihara

Miki Residence

"So now that you remember," said Joker, "if you wish to reclaim what-"

Sayaka's hand grasped Joker by the lapels and hauled him down until they were face to face. In the shadows made by her bangs, her eyes burned white-hot with livid rage as she breathed five words: "Let me at the bitch."

Joker's black heart sang with as close to pure joy as he could feel. His lips spread into the devil's smile. "Oh, excellent."


Mitakihara Middle School

The Next Morning

Homura had almost forgotten what true exhaustion felt like.

During the many years she spent trying and failing to save Madoka from her fate, repeating the cycle over and over again, exhaustion became second nature. Back then, there were so many times she was tempted to lie down, close her eyes, and rest for just a few moments… but she knew that doing so, lowering her guard for even an instant, would mean disaster, and her unwavering determination to avert that disaster pushed the tiredness away.

As the Devil, it was different. She had no more need for sleep, but more importantly, there was no more reason to devote every second to Madoka's safety. When one was at the top of the metaphorical ladder, what was there to worry about? With nothing in the universe able to challenge her, life became something almost foreign to Homura: pleasant. Enjoyable.

Until Joker.

Now, Homura felt the stirrings of her old self attempting to surface. The worry. The paranoia. The guilt. The hatred. And with them, the exhaustion.

She needed sleep. Oh, how she needed sleep. The fact that sleep was no longer a biological necessity didn't matter a bit. After Joker's night of nonstop abuse, every waking second was torture. Just an hour or two of peaceful, dreamless oblivion, to quiet the storm of self-loathing churning inside her, reborn and stronger than ever.

But sleep was impossible. Homura couldn't afford it, not for a second. Not even during a time stop would she risk relaxing her defenses… Joker had already demonstrated a way to resist their effects, and she was certain his promise to leave Madoka alone was as empty as air. One instant off guard and he would come again, the snake in her Eden trying to tempt her beloved away.

She knew this, for in Joker she saw a twisted reflection of her former self: he would not stop. He would not give up. Ever.

It was a war of attrition. Homura could not slip, could not falter. Any sign of weakness, and all was lost. This was her reality now; there could be nothing else.

She was so tired. So very tired.

"... covered with her own cake mix!" Madoka burst into giggles next to her, covering her mouth with her hand. "I really shouldn't laugh, but Kyoko looked so funny, standing there dripping like that Poor Mami must have scrubbed her floor for hours!"

"I'm sure," said Homura with another thin smile. They walked toward the school entrance, a study in contrasts: one without a care in the world, and the other with every sense on high alert, searching each corner a few seconds ahead in the future, connecting her sight with that of the dozens of Clara dolls on guard inside the school and around the campus parameter. She swept the premises six times before the next tick of the clock.

All was clear, but she couldn't relax. Couldn't rest, not for an instant.

Joker was here. Somewhere, he was waiting. Sitting undetectable in the darkness, grinning his foul grin, waiting for a chance to swoop in and take Madoka away. She knew. She could tell. Even if she couldn't sense him, she knew.

The Claras reported that the locker room was safe, as were the stairs leading up to Class K. Homura nodded and smiled politely along with Madoka as they removed their shoes, stored them away, and began the climb up to their floor, hardly hearing a word she said. She was too busy listening for other things.

Class K was reported all clear. Homura opened the door and scanned the room before allowing Madoka to enter, just in case. Everything seemed normal, but Homura knew better.

"That's strange." Madoka's face fell as she noticed two desks retracted into the floor, their holo-IDs both reading ABSENT. "Sayaka and Kyoko aren't here yet."

In the midst of a third sweep, Homura found time for one very small moment of levity. "If they're both out at the same time, you have every reason to be worried."

The frown disappeared. "I'm sure it's nothing," said Madoka. "They probably ran into each other on the way to school and stopped for snacks or something."

"Yes," said Homura. "Knowing them, that seems likely." The vents, she almost forgot to check the school's air vents. Careless. With expanded sight, she soared through each one at the speed of thought, then repeated the circuit three more times, just to be sure. Nothing.

"Are you sure you're all right, Homura-chan? You sound a little stressed out."

Damn, was it showing? Madoka was so caring and considerate, of course she would notice her best friend on edge. "I'll be fine," she said with a false smile. "We should take our seats before the bell rings."

There was a thunderous sound of footsteps outside the classroom door as the stragglers rushed to get to their homerooms before attendance was taken. No one wanted to be counted tardy. Discipline at Mitakihara Middle was quite strict.

One pair of footsteps belonged to Sayaka Miki, who slammed open the door to Class K one-handed. Something long and heavy was slung over her shoulder, shrouded in a canvas equipment bag. A quick scan confirmed that it was a baseball bat; Sayaka was always a bit of a jock. Homura continued her sweep as the tomboy waded through the chairs and milling students on her way to her desk.

"Sayaka-chan!" Madoka ran to greet her friend, arms wide. "I was just wondering where-"

Sayaka pushed past her without a word.

"Miki." Homura paused just long enough to shoot a withering glare over her shoulder as Sayaka ducked behind her, unhitching the bag and drawing the zipper. "That was rude, even by your standards. Madoka was worried about you."

"It's okay, Homura-chan, Sayaka probably-" Madoka stopped. She blinked, uncomprehending, her mouth falling open.

Homura stared. "Madoka, your blouse..." There was something red and wet spattered all over it that hadn't been there a second before. Not just her blouse, but her ribbon and her skirt, the whole uniform. How did that happen?

It took her a moment to gather herself enough to look down.

The tip of a single-edged cutlass blade protruded from the center her chest. A much larger, darker red stain seeped through the fabric of her own uniform, slowly growing in size.

A voice dripping with pitch-black rage and hatred hissed a single word behind her: "You."

It wasn't pain that made Homura initiate the time stop. Pain was for lesser beings, not necessary for her. What made her stop time was the shock… the shock of being attacked from a completely unexpected vantage point. Of course, she understood instantly what had happened, that Sayaka Miki had somehow regained her powers as a Puella Magi and transformed the bat into one of her favored swords, but how? How was it possible at all, let alone without her knowing?

It didn't matter. By resetting time to a few seconds before, Homura would prevent this from ever happening. Before Sayaka could react, she would render her powers and memories dormant once more, and Madoka would never-

"Didn't I tell you once before?" Sayaka's voice was low and ominous in the monochrome silence of the time stop. "You rely on that power too much, transfer student." The old title dripped with scorn.

Reeling, Homura turned to look back at her, lost for words. Not possible. Not possible at all. How-

Sayaka smiled a grim, bitter smile, cold as winter. "Should've known this wouldn't be enough to kill you," she said, twisting the blade inside Homura's chest. "Any heart you had in there died a long time ago."

She was moving. Moving, and speaking, in the time stop. Just like Joker. Homura blinked herself off of the sword, threw her arms wide in front of the frozen Madoka, to shield her…

Sayaka's eyes blazed. In a blue flash of magic runes resembling quarter notes, her school uniform shifted into her battle costume, the hem of her white satin cape swirling around her ankles. "I'm only going to tell you once: get away from Madoka. You've lost any right you ever had to protect her."

"You-" A curious mix of rage and creeping dread swirled in Homura's belly. This couldn't be happening. Couldn't be happening. In desperation, arms of phantom power extended from her back, reaching for Sayaka's neck with taloned fingers-

- and they slid off of the knight as if she were coated in glass.

"Didn't you hear me? It's not going to work," said Sayaka, bringing the bloodied sword to bear on her. Her expression was calm, but raw fury stewed just below the surface of her demeanor, ready to explode. "No more running, no more tricks. I won't-"

Homura brought the ceiling down on her.

No time. No time to think, no time to plan. Something had gone horribly, disastrously wrong, and the only chance of restoring things to order was to do what she had always done: save Madoka.

She seized Madoka's hand, restoring her color and bringing her out of the time stop. The scream that had been building in her throat at the moment of the freeze emerged as a choked squeak. "H-Homura-chan! Wh-what… you… S-Sayaka-chan!"

"No time," said Homura. "We have to leave. Now."

"But Homura-chan, you're bleeding! Oh God, it's everywhere-"

The rubble of the collapsed ceiling shifted.

"I'll be fine," said Homura, wondering if that was a lie or not. With the kind of power Sayaka exhibited now, could she even harm her Devil form? She would have to worry about it later. "She'll do worse when she gets free. Please, Madoka!"

Madoka's pigtails shook back and forth. Her breath came in short, sharp gasps as she attempted to wrench her hand free of Homura's grip. "No. No, this c-can't be real. How… why would Sayaka-chan-"

"Madoka." Homura held tight, pulled her close, took her chin in her free hand, and met her eyes. Having her this close again… No. Her stomach heaved with the memory of Joker's words last night. Not now. "I need you to trust me."

Rose-colored eyes scanned Homura's face, her pupils dilated. Madoka wanted to. Some part of her felt that trusting Homura was only natural. Another part screamed that she should run, run and never look back, but… "Homura-chan," she said, soft and frightened, "what's going on?"

The wounded concern and betrayal in her voice ripped a hole in Homura's insides that none of Sayaka's swords could hope to match. "I'll tell you on the way, I promise."

Madoka bit her lip and nodded.

They ran for the classroom door, through the throngs of motionless students. Homura threw the door open-

There was something in the hallway that shouldn't exist.

With her expanded senses still active, Homura felt what it was, knew what it was, before she could lay eyes on it. A humanoid form in a bright turquoise tea dress with a wide tiered skirt, the fabric decorated with a half-dozen other eye-searing colors, accented with lace and frills. It wore striped stockings, and its head was framed by a huge sunny yellow bonnet. That much resembled the Witch Homura encountered in many timelines.

Someone had taken the appearance and concept of that Witch and combined it with Mami Tomoe.

Her face was ghastly white, dwarfed by the size of the bonnet, her head lolling on her shoulders like a broken doll, her amber eyes milky and blind. Her limbs were thin… too thin, almost like paper streamers, tapering down to nothing. Golden ribbons spiraled down both arms and sprouted off at angles like the roots of a tree, gently waving back and forth in the frozen air. She turned to face them both with those horrible, unseeing eyes… the ribbons writhed like angry snakes…

"M…" Madoka froze. "Mami-san…?"

The ribbons cascaded toward both of them...

"Madoka!" They caught hold of Homura's free arm and both legs as she moved in front of her, constricted tight, and pulled with terrible strength. Only her death grip on Madoka's hand kept her from tumbling into the Mami-Witch's grasp.

"Homura-chan!" Digging in her heels, Madoka held on, clasping Homura's hand with both of hers, fighting back against the pull. "Mami-san, let go! MAMI-SAN…!"

The Mami-Witch's lips parted, as if she wanted to speak. The only sound that came out was a low, inhuman moan that fell apart into an animal's growl, then a death rattle…

Ribbons coiled around Homura's neck and constricted, exerting slow pressure. One arm bound, and she couldn't free the other without releasing Madoka's hand, which would trap her in the time stop once more. Helpless. Her thoughts screaming denial, Homura brought her body to a burn, roaring violet flames sprouting and attacking the ribbons… and yet again, it did nothing. The Mami-Witch was protected from her magic, just like Sayaka. How-

Her grip on Madoka's hand began to slip. The only chance she had was to blink them both out of here, but she couldn't concentrate enough to cast the spell. Though she was far from human, her human instincts remained, and her instincts demanded air… She needed to breathe…

"No!"

A flash of brilliant white light, and the ribbons' hold slackened. Homura swiveled upright, ripped them free, and fell roughly to the floor in a heap. Something had just pushed the Mami-Witch away from her with incredible force, hurling it down a stairwell and out of sight. Choking for breath, Homura's vision swam as she looked up through the dark, splayed curtain of her hair…

Oh no.

The brilliant light came from Madoka's body, from her skin, from her fingertips, from her pigtails, from every inch of her. Her eyes were wide, shining golden, staring… and the hand Homura still held so tight grew warm, then blazing hot…

No! Homura rose to her feet in an instant. Not again, not now! Flinging her arms around her beloved, she concentrated all of her stolen power on the unthinkable cosmic energy radiating from Madoka's body. Countering the infinite with the infinite, she pushed it back down, down into her human form. The gem housed in Homura's black earring pulsed with anger and excitement. Perhaps it somehow sensed that the true master of the powers it contained was nearby, stirring…

No. Homura's indomitable will surged back against that power. I will not let this happen. Not again. Not ever. With everything she had left, she willed it to buckle under, to succumb...

Slowly, the light faded. Madoka's eyes returned to rose color, her temperature dropped to normal. She staggered, blinking in confusion. "H… Homura-chan? What… what was that…?"

"Please," Homura whispered, clinging to the blood-spattered fabric of her blouse to keep herself upright. "Just hold on a little longer. I'll protect you, I promise."

"Th-that thing, it looked like Mami-san…"

"I know."

"Is… is she all right?"

"She will be." Not exactly a lie, but not exactly the truth either. "Come with me, I'll get us out of here."

"You think it'll be that easy?" Sayaka's voice came from the doorway, where she stood bruised and battered, but very much alive, a dozen cutlasses floating at her sides and trained on Homura. "Come on. You're not stupid. It's getting harder every time, isn't it?"

Once more, Homura moved in front of Madoka. If nothing else, she would shield her. "Shut up."

"What is she talking about?!" Hopelessly lost, Madoka's eyes darted back and forth between her two friends.

Sayaka chuckled, low and ominous. "Every time she tries to break out of her cage, it gets harder for you to push her back in. It doesn't take a genius to see that."

"Shut up."

"And it would have been so easy to prevent all this, you know? If you had just given up and faded when you were supposed to, when she came for you… none of this would have happened."

"You know nothing." Homura hissed air through her teeth. "I did what I had to, to keep her safe from-"

Something clicked. Everything clicked.

Of course. How could she have been so blind, so stupid? How could she have forgotten? An enemy that reappeared no matter how many times she killed it, knowing things it wasn't supposed to know, invisible and intangible to anyone but those it chose to communicate with. Something that could block or nullify even the powers of a God. The methods were different, but still-

Pulling a stunned Madoka close behind her, Homura smirked at the knight. "Perhaps you have a point after all, Miki. Consider me impressed."

Sayaka brought her swords to bear. She smelled a rat. "What are you up to? Look, I don't want to make this harder on Madoka than necessary."

"But consider this," Homura continued. "Once again, you're underestimating the depths I'm willing to sink to. However it is I'm not able to touch you, Miki… this is my world. I don't have to."

Realization dawned in Sayaka's eyes, a second too late. "Don't you dare-"

The next sequence of events made little sense on a linear time scale. All of them appeared to happen within nanoseconds of each other, if not simultaneously. In short order, the time stop ended, Homura and Madoka disappeared, and Sayaka Miki found herself surrounded by a mob of her teachers and classmates.

"Sonofa-!" Sayaka's swords clattered to the floor and dematerialized. "Everyone, wake up! You're-" That was all she was able to get out before Hitomi Shizuki tackled her to the ground.

Homura was not an unkind ruler, but as she said, there was no depth deep enough that she would not plumb it to keep Madoka safe. If that meant planting a thought into the minds of each and every person in Class K, that thought being that Sayaka Miki was a dangerous lunatic who needed to be stopped and held down at all costs…

Sayaka's moral code would never allow her to harm civilians, let alone her teachers and friends.

That was a weakness that she and Homura did not share. Not in this case. After all, it was for Madoka's sake.

Buried under a dogpile of bodies and held down by dozens of hands, Sayaka cursed Homura's existence, long and loud.


Why?

The question repeated itself at intervals in Madoka's mind as she and Homura raced down the corridor… a different section of corridor than the one outside of Class K, one on the opposite end of campus. They somehow moved there in an instant. Homura refused to stop, even for a moment, and now they ran from the corridor across an enclosed, glass-lined skywalk connecting one wing of the school to another. Even when Madoka begged to rest, she wouldn't stop.

Why?

Nothing made sense. Sayaka made swords, dressed in fancy costumes, had some kind of vendetta against Homura and tried to kill her, and survived a ceiling collapsing on her.

There was a monster at the school, a monster that looked like some horrible mockery of Mami, and when she tried to hurt Homura… something happened, Madoka still wasn't sure what.

And Homura. Homura kept doing things that were impossible. Homura seemed exhausted to the point of collapse but wouldn't admit it, not even to her best friend. Homura seemed to know what was going on, but kept it all secret. Homura ran away… the strongest person Madoka had ever known was running away.

Nothing made sense.

Worst of all was the vague feeling that all of this violence and havoc that had invaded her peaceful life was somehow… familiar. Terrifying, but as long as she had that feeling to hang on to, scary as it was, she could stay sane enough to keep running.

Then her fragile sanity shuddered and cracked when she saw the thing galloping down the corridor at the other end of the skywalk.

It was only like a horse and rider in the vaguest of terms. Telling where the horse ended and the rider began was an exercise in futility; they were too finely blended together to make out separate details. The more equine-looking parts were of a weird, dull grey, almost mechanical texture, in contrast to the burst of color that was the rider. Wrapped in long, crimson, floral-patterned robes, the rider was just humanoid enough to make Madoka's skin crawl, and it carried a wicked sharp lance that seemed to be merged with its arm. As it galloped closer, sparks flying from its hooves and scattering across the tile floor, Madoka saw something that dealt a further blow to her reason: what she had at first taken for an oversized match flame sitting on its shoulders was in fact someone's hair caught ablaze. That someone's pallid, ash-streaked face twisted in anguish as it (or the horse) charged, bellowing a frenzied cry and reaching for them with its lance arm…

Kyoko.

The muscles in Madoka's legs locked up and refused to move. Homura's frantic cries for her to move fell on deaf ears; she barely registered the hard pulling on her arm as her friend tried and failed to haul her out of the way.

The rider swung its lance in a wide arc, shattering the glass walls and ceiling of the enclosure into a hundred thousand glittering shards… as if the sky were falling.

Only then did Madoka feel Homura throwing her arms around her. Only then did she collect herself enough to scream, as Homura tossed them both off the edge of the skywalk, out of the way of the lance and into open air, three stories up. The world turned in dizzying circles around Madoka, the sky and the earth switched places, then did it again, and again…

Something happened, and then they were on the lawn in front of the school, back on solid ground, a spot that Madoka knew for a fact was at least two hundred meters from the skywalk.

Moaning, her lips moved to ask Homura again, aloud this time: Why? The word refused to form.


No one noticed the two girls sprinting across campus, one dragging the other along behind her with single-minded purpose, the other pale and disheveled from both emotional upheaval and from having been violently sick from blinking from the broken skywalk to the school entrance. Homura waited as long as she dared while Madoka got it out of her system; she rubbed her back and tried to reassure her that everything would be all right, but there came a point when she was willing to wait no longer. It was now clear that freezing time would be ineffective against what they faced, so the only option was to get as far away as possible.

To that end, the cloak. Not a physical object made of cloth, but a spell woven to ensure they went unseen and unheard. An actual invisibility spell would have been an option, certainly, but far less efficient than one that harnessed an ingrained human trait: for one to ignore what does not directly concern them. When covered by the cloak's effects, they were effectively invisible for a fraction of the magic that rendering them so would otherwise cost.

It was a variant of the spell that she cast on them as punishment. Once again, if she noticed the irony, she chose to ignore it. Doubly ironic was the fact that now that she actually needed one of them to confirm her suspicion, they were scarce to be found.

Strained panting and wheezing from behind her made her slow her pace. "Homura-chan," said Madoka, wiping sweat from her brow. "I'm so tired, I need to stop…"

"We will. Soon."

She could feel Madoka trembling through the hand she held. "I can't take this anymore… Mami-san and Kyoko-chan turned into monsters, and Sayaka-chan… Sayaka-chan tried to kill you…"

"She did. Don't worry, I'm not so easily killed."

"But why?! We're all supposed to be friends…!"

Inside, Homura cringed as if struck. That hadn't been true for a long, long time. "Things have changed," she said without looking back. "All that's important right now is that you're in danger, and I have to get you to-" She stopped. There it was, an unmistakable energy signature, a few meters away. "Wait." Unwilling to let go of Madoka's hand, even for a second, Homura reached out with her power, grasped it, and hauled it out of the shadows…

The Incubator blinked its glassy red eyes and stared at her, its fluffy tail twitching.

"Homura-chan, what is-" Despite her fear and confusion, despite everything, Madoka couldn't help but find the creature cute. It was tempting to reach out and try to pet it, if only for a bit of comfort...

"Don't touch it. I'll be just a moment." Homura stared into its eyes and asked it a question, one that it should have been wholly incapable of answering. Nevertheless, if all was as it should be, it should have no choice but to answer to the best of its limited ability. "What have you done?"

The Incubator smiled. Not its typical frozen smile, but a wide, beaming grin, showing a mouthful of sharp teeth that Incubators didn't have. Its eyes gleamed with a spark of life that it lacked only seconds before. Hello, Homura Akemi, it said. There was something off about its telepathic voice… Are you in need of assistance?

With her free hand, Homura seized it by the neck. "I am not in the mood for games," she growled. "What have you done?"

The Incubator made a sound that none of its kind had ever made: it burst into laughter.

The sound was so foreign, so wrong coming from one of them, that Homura dropped it by reflex, her skin erupting in goosebumps…

If you want our help, it cackled, you know what it costs. But since you've already sold your soul, the usual price doesn't quite apply to you, does it… madame?

"Madoka, cover your eyes and ears!"

"But-"

"Don't look, don't listen to it! Get back…!" Homura saw what was coming, but Madoka didn't have that luxury. Madoka could still be protected from the horror of what was about to happen…

With a fearsome snapping of bone and tearing of flesh, the Incubator changed. New features bloomed from beneath its skin like tumors bursting into prominence, its seemingly harmless outer facade shredding to pieces to reveal the shape growing underneath…

Homura saw. She saw with an awareness unmatched by any other living thing in her universe, so only she was able to fully comprehend the monstrosity before her. Not just this Incubator, but all of them... all were altered by a foreign presence at a molecular level: Joker's presence. Like a virulent mental cancer, the harlequin had infected their hive mind, spreading his influence to the entire species. Billions and billions of bodies were now potential copies of himself, with more ready and waiting to instantly replace any one, or hundred, or thousand that were slain.

It was her fault, her arrogance. Thinking herself invincible, and the Incubators defeated, beneath her notice, beneath any suspicion. Now, because of that hubris, it was all falling apart.

Screaming with rage, she lashed out at the fetal harlequin with every deadly force she could think of. If she could kill it before it fully formed… Brick and steel melted into slag around it, and the pavement grew white hot with the discharge, but her blows had as little effect on it as a gentle breeze. It stretched into its humanoid shape, forming features, hair, clothes, and that damned smile…

"Tsk," said Joker, rubbing at the X-mark on his mask as he stepped out of the pool of gore that was once an Incubator. "I hoped that this time, this blasted scar would be gone. Ah well. Bonjour encore, madame. Look at your face! How frightened hypocrisy hastens to defend itself!"

"You," said Homura, wild-eyed. "How are you doing this?!"

Cackling, Joker spread his fingers. There was a tiny metallic sphere in between each one, four in all. Marbles. "I borrowed a few of the Incubators' toys. These Isolation Fields they came up with are quite astounding. Those, plus the Anti Magilink Field generators from a few Gadget Drones, a little of help from the LITTLE to make them portable, a few touches of Doctor Mizuno's and some of my own, and voila! Technology to stymie even a God. Viluy would get along fabulously with them, they're just like her… cold, analytical, stoic." A triumphant sneer as he dismissed the marbles, vanishing them with a flick of his hand. "Or they were. Their toys are delightful, but they have no sense of fun at all… I've seen fit to remedy that. I gave them a sense of humor."

Homura backed away and bumped into the shuddering Madoka, crouched low against the ground. She seethed with rage and frustration. Of course. She had been such a fool…! "You restored Miki's powers. You turned Tomoe and Sakura into those-"

"Witch-Hybrids, I call them," said the harlequin. "Not as strong as true Witches, but easier to get hold of, and far more controllable. Did you like the warm-up act? It was such a pleasant surprise to have Mademoiselle Miki join the cast without much coercing… I could use more actresses like her."

The asphalt beneath Joker's feet rose up around him and stretched like taffy to enclose him in a cocoon. Homura's eyes shone red as she grasped the construct and squeezed, and squeezed…

A gasp behind her. "Homura-chan!"

Homura looked, and her blood ran cold.

Incubators. A crowd of Incubators surrounded them, all staring with unblinking red eyes and copies of Joker's smile. "You'd think someone as smart as you would realize by now that it's futile," they said in chorus. "Really, madame, you should have accepted my offer when you had the chance. We're more alike than you'll admit… we both know what we want, and we'll stop at nothing to get it. We've both defied all the heavens, and even death itself… The only difference is… you don't try hard enough."

Madoka backed up against her, quaking in fear. "Homura-chan-"

"So enough of the warm-up act," said the Incubators. "It's time to bring the house down."

"What are they-"

Homura didn't hear her. She stared up at the sky, aghast and lost for words.

Again, her expanded awareness sensed something wrong with her world before it was apparent to anyone else. She knew the Incubators were advanced; any species that could combat the principle of entropy on a universal scale had to be. But the Incubators were pragmatic, ruthlessly so. They pursued their goals, and only their goals, in the most efficient manner possible.

Now, with Joker's consciousness guiding them, being them, she understood what they were truly capable of, what they could do if their natures didn't prohibit it.

Homura understood immediately what they, what Joker, had just done, but it wouldn't become apparent to the rest of Earth for at most another eight minutes.

"Homura-chan…?" said Madoka.

"The sun," Homura whispered. "He put out the sun."

Madoka's heart seized in her chest. "Th-that… that's not possible…" She went numb with terror… no one, no one could do that...

Already Homura felt it. A slow, inexorable chill settling over her, life and warmth draining away, plants and trees crying out in voiceless agony. The sun was dead. Joker was willing to kill the sun to get to her, to have Madoka for himself.

Away. They had to get away. As far from the madman as possible. Only one way to escape, one option left. It wouldn't affect Joker or his Incubator puppets, nor would it work against Sayaka or the Witch-Hybrids, but if it could possibly save Earth and the people Madoka loved from the horror about to befall them… it had to be done...

Homura stopped time.

Not just for the area. Not even just for the city.

Her world, her Earth, her universe came to a sudden halt, frozen in grayscale.

"Madoka!" No time to second-guess. Homura threw her arms around her beloved, concentrated…

They vanished in what would have been the blink of an eye.

The only reaction was ringing laughter. In all corners of the frozen world, the same laugh echoed through silent streets…


Elsewhere

Floating.

Alone in each other's arms, drifting endlessly, with only a pink, shimmering bubble separating them from oblivion.

There were no stars here. There was no light, no solid ground, no air, no anything.

This was the place that Homura blinked them to: the void between the worlds. The only place she thought might be safe from Joker's rampage.

Madoka cried, of course. She cried for her fallen friends, for the loss of her peaceful life, for the people of her world, trapped in the moments before destruction.

Homura said nothing; there was nothing to say. She held her beloved and let her cry until she could cry no more.

It took a long time.

Inside the bubble, they drifted, going nowhere… there was nowhere to go.

"Homura-chan," said Madoka. There was no telling how long it had been since she made a sound. "What happened? To you, to us?"

Homura swallowed. It would be so easy to lie again, but what was the point? "We…" She stopped, trying to find words. "We used to be friends. Closer than we are now. We fought together."

"Fought?"

"We fought monsters."

"Like the kind that M-Mami and Kyoko…" Madoka shivered.

"Yes."

"What happened?"

Homura's heart began to break. Strange, she thought that nothing could do that anymore. The words of Sayaka Miki came to the forefront of her thoughts, and refused to fade back into memory: "Any heart you had in there died a long time ago."

Homura swallowed again. "You had to go away. And I was so lonely without you… I couldn't bear it. The Incubators took me, tried to use me to get to you, and when you came back to save me…" Her throat closed tight. No. She couldn't. Madoka was all she had left now, and Madoka would hate her for what she had done. She could never know.

"They got us both," said Madoka.

"Yes." One more lie. One more lie couldn't hurt.

"And that man, Joker…"

"He wants us on his side. He's… he's not like the other monsters we fought before."

Silence.

"I'm scared, Homura-chan…" She huddled into Homura's bloodstained chest, her cheeks wet.

Whatever was left of Homura Akemi's cold, accursed heart ached with bittersweet memory. Once upon a time, they floated like this, and she cried at Madoka's breast while Madoka comforted her…

For the first time since her fall, tears brimmed in Homura's eyes. "I'm scared too. I'm sorry, Madoka. For everything."

Floating.

Silence.

There was no telling how long they drifted.

Until…

The void was dispelled by a bright light. Joker! He must have found them. Homura embraced her beloved and turned her back to it, shielding her to the last. If she could only protect her, one last time-

A voice spoke from the light, undertoned with electronic feedback. "You there! Hang on, don't move. Now initiating transfer."

Homura felt herself dissolve… she cried out for Madoka, but she didn't seem to have a mouth anymore…

… and she crashed to a floor, a hard steel bulkhead. Scrambling, she felt for her beloved's hand as spots burst in her eyes, found it, clutched it tight…

The same voice spoke to them, closer this time. "I'll be damned. She was right after all. You two are lucky we found you when we did, that barrier of yours would have shattered if you stayed in Interdimensional Space for too long."

"B… Barrier…?" said Madoka, wearily raising her head. "Who… who are you? Where are we?"

The voice sighed. "I'm Admiral Lindy Harlaown of the Time-Space Administration Bureau. Or at least I was" That last part had a distinct bitterness to it. "I've sort of gone AWOL at the moment. This is my ship, the Arthra… welcome aboard."

A ship. Homura's vision slowly resolved. They were in some sort of metallic cargo hold, like a set out of one of those hokey science fiction movies. Crates everywhere, marked with writing in a language she didn't recognize. Each wall flickered with a faint energy barrier…

"I'm sorry I can't give you better accommodations," said Lindy's voice, "but Fantine told us that we can't interact with people outside of our home realities yet. Something about being 'out of alignment'. She'll tell you more once we get back to the Lighthouse."

For once, it was Homura who was totally lost. "Fantine…?"

"For lack of a better description, she's like the spirit of the Lighthouse. She led us out here, told us roughly where you'd be… however she knew, she was right."

Madoka stared; first at Homura, then at the grated part of the wall which she assumed was the speaker system Lindy spoke from. "I thought we were in space or something. What would a lighthouse be doing out here?"

"It's… not exactly a normal lighthouse. Hold on, let me reroute power and I'll give you a look."

A holoscreen flickered to life before them, its images wavering at the edges. It bore a picture of…

"Oh, wow…" said Madoka.

It was a great white crystal spire, hundreds of meters tall, standing out from a cluster of others like it on a floating chunk of rock in the sea of interdimensional space. The crystal was too smooth, too iridescent to be anything natural… from the look of it, it was paradoxically both strong as diamond and fragile as a snowflake. Its upper facets formed a pyramid-like peak, from which a brilliant beam of light shone out into the abyss, cutting a path through the dark and strangeness of the space between the worlds…

"We're on approach now," said Lindy. "Take a good, long look… odds are, you won't be leaving here for a while."

As the Arthra coasted over it, their view of the Lighthouse shifted. It was only when looking at it from directly above that the shape of the lower facets and the rock they stood on became clear. It was a perfect five-pointed star, with the spire at its center and the point of each vertex plunging into a different part of the void. At the point where vertex and void met, liquid images swirled around in mesmerizing patterns, forming glimpses of other places, other times… it was hard to look away.

The ship lowered herself toward the lower rightmost vertex, and it swelled until it filled the entirety of the screen. A deep shudder thrummed through the decks as something gripped the hull and brought it to a stop.

"This is where you get off," said Lindy. "Fantine said we have to go in through the upper left point for the time being. Maybe once things change, we'll meet again later…"

"Wait," said Homura. "Where-"

A series of locks on the back wall slid apart, and the wall split into two cargo bay doors, retracting back and out of sight. Mystefied, Homura and Madoka walked forward, into the shining light that now filled the bay. Their feet left the bulkheads, and stepped onto…

… a field of flowers.

Homura stared; this was the very riverside field where she made her decision to take the fall and save Madoka, whether or not she wanted to be saved. The same carpet of dandelions where they last embraced each other. The same feeling of grass under her feet, the same stars in the night sky, the same sweet scent… but the look of it was wrong. Everything, from the waters of the river to the bridge in the distance to the smallest seed in every puffy dandelion blossom, was made from a substance like molten glass and soap bubbles mixed together.

Madoka's hand tightened on Homura's. "What is this place?"

A new voice rang out, with no clear source… feminine, soft like ocean water, but with an undercurrent of steel. "This is the Lighthouse, a place of sanctuary for all those displaced in time. Madoka Kaname, Homura Akemi, I welcome you here, and I pray that you will think of this place as home. You may call me Fantine..."

Homura bristled. She had had quite enough of places being recreated from memories. "Whoever you are, you need to explain yourself. How do you know us, and how did you know where we-"

"From here, I see everything," said Fantine's voice. "I reach out and help when I can, and provide shelter to those who need it. And you do need it, considering what's coming…"

Madoka looked around at the field of dandelions, at the starry sky, and finally at Homura. "What is coming?"

"War," said the voice. "A war unlike any the worlds have ever known. I'll explain what I can later, but for now, come… there are others here who have survived the onslaught of Chaos. It's past time for you to meet them."

END OF ACT I

NEXT:

ACT II: UNITING

Chapter Text

"The time is out of joint — O cursed spite,

That ever I was born to set it right!

Nay, come, let's go together."

- Hamlet, Act I, Scene V, 188-190

SHATTERED SKIES: THE MORNING LIGHTS

By BHS

ACT II: UNITING

Chapter 20: Meeting at the Crossroads

The Lighthouse, Vertex Point Five

Homura Akemi and Madoka Kaname sat across from each other in the cavernous room, neither saying a word, both too lost in their own thoughts to attempt to speak to one another.

For her part, Homura didn't trust this "Fantine" person, not one bit. To be honest, she didn't trust anyone other than Madoka, but she was particularly disinclined to take this Fantine at her word.

True, she was responsible for saving them from the void. Allegedly.

Yes, she provided a safe place to hide from Joker's rampage.

Indeed, she taught them how to use the Immaterial to make this place, a facsimile of Homura's old apartment from before her fall, before Madoka's ascension. Sculpting the smooth, rainbow-shimmering glass-diamond-soap bubble substance into any desired shape was trivial for someone used to manipulating time and reality, but Madoka was slower to get the hang of it. Homura suggested she might be more comfortable in a recreation of her own home… but Madoka shot that one down in a hurry. The Immaterial could replicate almost anything from itself, down to the finest detail… anything except for life. Even if Madoka did master it enough to recreate her room, her house, her neighborhood, it would be empty of what made those places home.

In addition, everything made from the Immaterial, no matter how faithfully crafted, lacked the true color and substance of real matter. Objects made of it felt, sounded, and even smelled right, but they would forever have that distinctive rainbow sheen and be just slightly faint and transparent, as if not quite real… as if crafted from dreams or memories. The effect was unsettling; Immaterial objects were so close to perfect, but not quite.

Then there was the matter of the food. Fantine told them both that time inside the Lighthouse didn't work the way that it did elsewhere, so not only hunger but all biological needs, food and sleep included, were rendered moot as long as they stayed in its bounds. However, Fantine explained that if they really felt like eating, as long as it wasn't made from living creatures, they could use the Immaterial to make food for themselves... as a comfort more than a necessity. It invariably had the same appearance as everything else made from it, and the taste was always bland beyond bland, but the smell and texture would be right, and at least that counted for something. She didn't need to eat, of course, but she understood Madoka's need to do so, just to feel normal.

For now, they sat there, in the faux-apartment from so long ago: cavernous white circular room with an enormous decorative clock set into the floor, all the furniture curved to follow its shape, and dozens of holographic screens floating overhead. Neither had spoken or moved for a long time.

It occurred to Homura that there was nothing stopping her from using her own powers to make real food. Madoka might appreciate that. Cakes… she was fond of cakes especially, she remembered. Cakes were easy to make; she merely had to arrange the right molecules in the right combinations to make sugar, flour, milk, eggs-

A voice cut through her thoughts, stemming from the Immaterial crystal at her side. The lack of echo in the room indicated that the speaker was communicating to her alone, and Madoka couldn't hear. Please, don't, said Fantine's voice.

Homura's brows knit together. This telepathy, or whatever it was, was far too similar to the Incubators' kind for her liking. Being spied on was even worse. And why shouldn't I? What's stopping me? You?

If I have to, yes, said Fantine. Part of the reason I brought you here was to hide you both from Joker. Overusing your powers could lead him to us, and I can't allow that.

And why is that? thought Homura.

You know that I can't tell you.

Of course, she thought back, crossing her arms. It was a familiar answer by this point. I don't know how you expect us to trust you when you won't even reveal yourself. All we know of you is your voice. How can we tell if you're on Joker's side or not? Or someone even worse?

Fantine's voice grew grave. As things stand right now, there are very few beings in existence worse than Joker, on that you have my word. As for me, I'm someone trying to keep you safe, and that's all you need to know at the moment.

Thank you very much for that, Homura thought with the bitterest sarcasm she could project.

You don't have to like it, Miss Akemi, but you have to accept it. There's more at stake here than even you can comprehend.

If so much is at stake, why not be honest with us? What is there to lose?

The voice fell silent.

Are you there? thought Homura. Fantine?

Silence.

Well, thought Homura. Fine, then.

"Homura-chan," said Madoka, rousing her from her stewing. "About before…"

Instantly, Homura put up her guard.

Madoka's expression was troubled, her gaze far away. "I'm sorry. I know I shouldn't ask, but… it's just so confusing. How did we-"

"I think it may at last be time for some explanations," said Fantine's voice aloud, from both the comm crystals and the walls of the faux-apartment. "I'm sorry for making you wait, I had to be sure everything was aligned."

"Aligned?" Madoka blinked in confusion at the comm crystal, for lack of anything else to blink at.

"It's not important. Your guide will be there in a moment."

Rising from her seat, Homura tossed back her long black hair. "Finally. I hope these others are worth meeting, after all this time."

"Not you," said Fantine. "Not yet. Only Madoka, at least for now."

"Me?" Perplexed, Madoka looked back and forth from the comm crystal to her friend. "Why just me?"

"I'm sorry, it'll be clearer once you're all together."

A growl built in Homura's throat as she snatched up the comm crystal. "Wherever Madoka goes, I go. Anything you have to say to her, you can say to me."

"Homura-chan, that's not-"

"Miss Akemi, please." Fantine's voice was soft, cool... dangerous. "Don't test my patience. As I told you, you may not like your situation, but you have to accept it." And privately, to Homura's thoughts, she added: You won't like the consequences if you don't. As hard as it may be for you to grasp, this is bigger than you and Madoka. I am not an enemy… don't make me one.

Homura squeezed the comm. Is that a threat?

It was supposed to be a warning, but fine. If you won't listen to that, listen to this, said Fantine, with all the warmth of a steel plate. It's for your sake that I've decided not to reveal the truth to that poor girl, yet. Even I don't know how she'll react if she learns that you were the one who betrayed and imprisoned her… Miss Devil. There was an edge on those two words that could have cut through stone. You could be a very useful ally in the fight that's coming, but you're a wild card, Homura Akemi. I don't know if I can trust you to do the right thing, but I also don't know if the Lighthouse could even survive Madoka regaining her powers from you; the presence of a Goddess in this place could rip all realities apart at the seams. So until I'm sure whether or not it's the right course of action, I've decided not to end your sad little charade.

However, she said, her voice tipping into a deadly serious tenor. I can't say the same for the others I've gathered here. Some of them are pretty volatile, Miss Akemi, the kind that won't take kindly to learning that the Devil is in their midst. There are people here that have faced crises and beaten monsters you've never dreamed of. Even with all your power. do you really want to risk antagonizing them?

Homura froze, the blood pumping through her black heart turning to ice. It was a bluff, it had to be. No one who knew her secrets like Fantine apparently did would be so callous as to reveal them to Madoka, directly or indirectly.

But Joker knew, and he had almost done so.

These others Fantine mentioned… odds were that none of them could stand against her at full power, but how could she be sure? And what would unleashing that much power do to Madoka? Or to Fantine's sanctuary?

For the second time in days, Homura found herself backed into a corner. No way out, not without causing her beloved more harm.

There's a passage from a famous poem by Milton that you might be familiar with, said Fantine. There was a certain smugness in her voice now, the smugness of someone who knew they had struck a killing blow.'Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.' I think it's quite applicable to you, don't you? It's almost eerie. But there's another passage from the same poem that's less well known: 'Abashed the devil stood, and felt how awful Goodness is, and saw Virtue in her shape how lovely, saw, and pined his loss…'

In short, you have no idea how much worse this situation could be for you. Have I made my point, or shall I go on?

Damn. Homura fumed in silence, forced to accept defeat but unwilling to admit it.

Their mental conversation took less than a second, so all Madoka saw was her friend's features twisting into a barely perceptible grimace. It was always tricky to read Homura's moods, but she was better at it than most anyone, having learned to read the telltale signs. "Homura-chan? Don't be angry, it's all right." She smiled and laid a hand on Homura's shoulder. "I trust Fantine-san, I'll be fine."

"Madoka." Homura took her hand, held it tight. "If anything happens, call out for me. I'll be right there."

"I know."

The door to the faux-entrance hall slid open, and a very small figure stepped through…

"Oh," said Madoka.

Homura's eyes widened. Madoka only saw the being's outer shell, the form of a red-haired toddler with astonishingly blue eyes. To the Devil's eyes, however, the being that stood in the doorway was a whirling storm of temporal energy compressed into a humanoid shape, elements of multiple timescapes fused together… a walking paradox, but an impossibly stable one. Was this a projection of their mysterious benefactor, or a byproduct of her power? Either way, Homura found it that much easier to believe Fantine really could do what she claimed…

Fascinated, Madoka bowed to the toddler. "Um, hello there," she said. "Nice to meet you."

The tiny girl bowed in return and beamed an angelic smile up at her.

"Are you…" Madoka's voice trembled. "Are you… Fantine-san?"

Laughter echoed through the room, a sound like ocean waves. "No, she's not me," said Fantine's voice. "You're not the first one to think that... she's my little Stranger, my friend. It's difficult to explain, but she's… I suppose you could say she's what remains of those who were erased from the normal flow of time. Bits and pieces of people."

"Remains? E-erased?" Madoka stepped back in a hurry.

"It's all right," said Fantine. "She won't hurt you, and you can trust her, I promise. In fact, part of her is a friend of yours..."

-static-

And as she spoke, the Stranger changed in the space of an eyeblink. Now she was an older girl, roughly eight or nine years by the look of her, with long snowy hair and unusual eyes, ringed in many colors…

Madoka's lips parted, but her words were stolen by a flood of returning memories. It was as if several missing pieces of a puzzle clicked into place; suddenly, she understood. Not only had someone been missing from her idyllic life, but that that someone's absence explained all those wounded, sad smiles that Mami wore when she thought no one was looking… of course. Somehow, some way, Mami felt the loss of her best friend, despite having no memory of her…

And Homura remembered as well, all in a rush: her first clue that something was wrong in the false Mitakihara, the weird little doll-creature that Mami Tomoe carried around that so resembled a Witch she fought many times before. Mami called it "Bebe", but it soon revealed itself as another Puella Magi, sent back to earth and into the Incubators' trap by Madoka herself… When Homura took the fall and rewrote the universe to her own whims, that girl was caught in the wake of the change just like all the others. Unlike Sayaka, who was determined to be a nuisance, this one accepted the new reality and was never any trouble… except for the trouble her disappearance from history caused Mami...

"Nagisa-chan," said Madoka in a hushed tone.

The Nagisa-Stranger grinned, and it was that same mischievous Nagisa grin that Madoka now remembered. Her colorful eyes brightened with excitement.

"Nagisa-chan!" Madoka stumbled over a footstool in her rush to embrace the girl, who returned the hug in earnest. "I c-can't believe it, how…?!"

Homura relaxed just a bit. The other Puellae Magi would have been cause for worry, but Nagisa, or rather an image of Nagisa, she could deal with. Nagisa she could tolerate. And so long as she didn't go spilling secrets…

The tearful reunion was interrupted by a gentle reminder from Fantine. "It's time, Madoka."

She nodded in a vague direction. "I'm ready. Just… just let me talk to Homura-chan for a minute more, please."

A pause. "All right."

Madoka turned and took a deep breath to steady herself. "Homura-chan," she said. "Whatever it was that happened before, the parts I can't remember…"

All of Homura's muscles tensed.

"You said we used to fight monsters like Joker, and like those things that he turned Mami and Kyoko into…"

"Yes," said Homura.

"I can't even imagine that. Was I really a…" She paused, for the words seemed too silly to speak aloud. "A magical girl? Was I good at it?"

Pain. Pain squeezed Homura's heart in a vise of freezing iron. There were times she wished she had done away with the very concept of magical girls, erased even the idea of them from her universe. Too late now. Despite how much it killed her to say it, there was only one answer she could give: the truthful one. "You were the best. Of all of us."

There was that smile, that wonderful smile. Her arms wrapped around Homura, her cheek rested against her shoulder, warm and soft. "Thank you, Homura-chan. If they need me to be one again… well, knowing that you believe in me is enough."

Homura's heart broke.


The Lighthouse, Vertex Point One

Usagi Tsukino stood on an endless flat plain that strange substance that was like glass, diamond, and the surface of a soap bubble all at once. Immaterial, the voice that referred to herself (itself?) as Fantine called it. She frowned down at the… floor? Ground? … and crossed her arms. Her brows knit together. "I still don't get it."

Next to her, Chibi-Usa Tsukino sighed. "It's really not that hard, Usagi. You just have to think of something or somewhere that you remember, and the Lighthouse makes a sort of copy of it for you. Here, watch me again." Chibi-Usa closed her eyes and concentrated…

The reaction from the Immaterial was immediate. It rippled like water, gathered itself up, and stretched in a thousand directions at once. Gigantic spires burst from the liquid mass, jutting out straight and proud, the tallest of all in the center.

Opening her eyes once more, Chibi-Usa smiled at Usagi with just a hint of smugness. "See? Easy."

Usagi couldn't answer. She stared open-mouthed at the Immaterial duplicate of the Crystal Palace now standing right in front of her nose. It was a near-perfect recreation of the place she remembered from her travels to the 30th century, just as impossibly huge and just as intimidating as it was back then… or would be, or whatever tense it was. Only the Immaterial's distinctive prismatic shimmer marked it as a construct of the Lighthouse. "H-How…" Usagi sputtered. "You just- you just made your whole castle, and I can't even-"

Chibi-Usa shrugged. No longer needed, the castle melted back into the plain. "I've had more practice. Hotaru-chan and I have been here longer."

"Only a couple hours longer!"

"Not like that means a lot here. Come on, Usagi, you're making this harder than it has to be. All you have to do is think of something, anything. You did it before without even trying."

"But that was- never mind, I'll try one more time. If you can do it, I can too!" With that, Usagi screwed her eyes shut and clenched her fists, puffing out her cheeks. She thought long and hard of what she wanted, focusing on every happy memory she had of it… its distinctive smell, its sounds, its feel…

At her feet, the Immaterial rippled.

"That's it, it's working!" Chibi-Usa clapped her hands. The sooner Usagi got the hang of this, the better. "It's-"

"Nnnngh… h-hang on…"

"... Usagi, what is that?"

Usagi cracked an eye open. Her face split into a radiant grin. "Hey, it worked! Look at that, I did it!"

"It's…" Chibi-Usa rubbed her eyes, unsure if she was seeing correctly. "It's a ramen cart."

So it was. A perfectly ordinary ramen cart made of Immaterial stood before them. There were thousands like them all over Tokyo, pushed around on big red wooden wheels by vendors looking to make a quick hundred yen or so. Most of them didn't even sell good ramen… they bought hundreds of packets of the cheap instant stuff wholesale, cooked it up, claimed that it was homemade, and charged triple the price for it.

"It's a ramen cart," said Chibi-Usa again, in disbelief.

"Of course it is!" There was no disguising the pride in Usagi's voice. She lunged for the cart and snatched up a plate and a packet of chopsticks.

"Usagi…" Chibi-Usa's eyebrow twitched.

"What?" There followed a loud, prolonged slurp as Usagi funneled ramen into her mouth. Living with Mamoru clearly hadn't done much to imbibe her with feminine grace and manners. She sucked in a few stray strands and made to dive back for more… but she paused, a puzzled expression flitting across her face. "... The flavor's not right."

"Really? I always thought you ate too fast for your taste buds to register anything."

"Har har. No, the flavor's not right. Here, try some."

Reluctantly, Chibi-Usa did. Usagi was many things, but she knew her food, and she was right. The noodles were perfectly hot and steaming, they had the right texture, not too done and not too soggy… but the flavor wasn't there. Not bland or muted, it simply wasn't. Sort of like chewing unflavored tofu, but tofu at least tasted like tofu. The ramen tasted like… nothing. Hot, steaming nothing. Hardly pleasant. Chibi-Usa grimaced as she swallowed. "Ugh. I see what you mean. Are you really going to eat the rest of-"

"Gimmphh uh brek," said Usagi, already well into her second helping. "'M hnngry!" Gulp. "I haven't eaten since I got here."

The younger Tsukino pressed her face into her palms. "God. It's a wonder you haven't eaten Mamo-chan out of house and-" She froze, horrified with herself. "Oh no. Usagi, I'm so sorry-"

Usagi was stopped in mid-slurp, a lone noodle dangling forgotten from the corner of her mouth. As the cart melted back to the floor behind her, her eyes watered and began to fill with tears.

"Usagi, I didn't mean it!" said Chibi-Usa. Stupid, stupid, stupid! sang her inner thoughts in a gleeful cackle. The last thing Usagi needed right now was to be reminded of Mamoru, how she was forced by circumstance to leave him on Earth. True, he stayed behind for the good of the planet, but he only had Helios and the spirits of the departed Kings to support him. Otherwise, he was all alone… and the Witches and that thing that Joker had turned Makoto into were still out there somewhere, trapped inside the planetary shield with him. Chibi-Usa knew that the anxiety of not knowing if he was all right or not was slowly killing Usagi, no matter how laid-back and goofy she acted on the outside. "It just slipped out, I swear… Come here. I'm sorry."

Softly, Usagi put her arms around her future daughter and wept into her shoulder. This wasn't a normal, everyday Usagi crying fit, one of the hideously noisy ones that started and ended at the drop of a hat… now Usagi wept in silence.

Poor Usagi. This isn't fair, thought fought so hard for so long, sacrificed so much, and now, after they finally thought it was over for good… some new evil jerk had to come along and ruin everything. This isn't fair. Usagi's suffered more than all of us, she deserves to be happy. And now… Now her beloved Mamoru's status was unknown, with no way to contact him. Ami was missing, presumed dead. Rei had become two Reis, who were now somehow merged into a strange new whole and still trying to come to grips with what that meant. Makoto had turned into a monster. Minako was in the infirmary, still sleeping off whatever Joker did to her. Michiru was injured by a corrupted Haruka's hands, and Setsuna… Chibi-Usa shivered. No one seemed to know where Setsuna was. Just herself and Hotaru and Usagi left alive, present, and healthy. The Sailor Senshi had come back together at last, only to be torn apart again.

A meter or so away, the Immaterial rippled, forming a simple doorway. Once it solidified, the Stranger stepped through… not in her transformed state as the girl in white and pastel, but as a teenager wearing a simple denim overshirt and a skirt, curly brown pigtails swaying half a step behind her. Chibi-Usa and Hotaru had seen her around on occasion as she recovered from her injuries; perhaps she dropped her transformation to conserve her energy. She smiled and bowed politely.

"Usagi," said Chibi-Usa, patting her on the back. "Someone's here."

Sniffling, Usagi pulled away and wiped her eyes, then put on a smile and bowed back to the Stranger. "Oh. Hi."

A voice rang out through the room, steely, with a hint of ocean waves. Fantine. "Hello, Usagi. I'm sorry to keep you waiting so long."

"N-No sweat," said Usagi. She hoped Fantine didn't notice her crying, but the odds of that were slim. Fantine seemed to see everything. "Do you need me for something?"

"Yes, please. Follow the Stranger, she'll show you the way."

"Um." Usagi lingered, casting a wary eye on the girl, hesitating for reasons she couldn't explain.

After a moment, Chibi-Usa tugged at her arm. "Usagi, it's okay. She saved us, remember?"

A sigh from Fantine. "If you'd feel more at ease, she can change into someone you're more familiar with. If you please, little one."

-static-

For the first time since coming to the Lighthouse, Usagi smiled, really smiled. It didn't matter that the Stranger wasn't really the tiny girl who helped to guide her through that last terrible battle five years ago. Her presence, her warmth, was the same. It made sense; in half of Usagi's memory, she was sent from the far future as a comfort, someone who would stay with her when everyone else was worse than gone… Just looking at that precious little smile let her know it would be all right.

"Okay," said Usagi. "Lead the way."


The Lighthouse, Vertex Point Three

Nagisa Misumi, Cure Black, hit the punching bag once again. It didn't help any more than the last time she hit it. At least she wasn't punching them across the field anymore, for however much that mattered.

The shimmery stuff that Fantine called "Immaterial" was presently arranged in the shape of the Verone Academy lacrosse field. Maybe an indoor gym would have been more appropriate for boxing, but the field was where Black felt most relaxed, aside from the park where Akane usually set up her takoyaki cart. Recreating that place hurt too much, so the lacrosse field was the next best thing.

As per her specifications, the field was set to a bright spring afternoon, the grass fragrant and freshly-cut, the sky sunny and cloudless. This room really was amazing, she had to admit. Sort of like one of those holodeck things in Star Trek…

She winced as her fist struck the bag again. Not because the impact hurt, but because Star Trek was science fiction, and the thought of science naturally led to thinking about Honoka. Where was she now? Was she even still alive? Or was she simply gone, erased as Pollun, Lulun, Hikari and her brother had been? How long had it even been since she stepped through the door with the little stranger? There was no way to tell; time in the Lighthouse didn't work like it did outside.

Since her arrival, Black had cooled her heels here, playing around with the Immaterial to create stuff she could use to take out her anger on. At first she tried recreating her ball and crosse, but after scoring a few dozen goals unimpeded, the idea of catching up on lacrosse practice lost its appeal. The Immaterial couldn't create life, after all. Even if she went through the trouble of recreating the right number of players as "dummies" (for lack of a better term), they would only move how she directed them to move, not on their own. No challenge at all.

Then came the punching bags. It took a few tries to get them right. In her Cure form, normal, sand-filled punching bags tended to burst after one or two hits. Through much experimentation, she came up with the idea of filling them with powdered cement and forming the bag itself from carbon fiber, the stuff that Honoka claimed could stop bullets. It was the strongest stuff Black could think of, and it seemed to work. The bags still broke their chains and went sailing across the field after too much abuse, as the piles of spent ones stacked near the opposing goal would attest, but they worked for a while.

Whenever she grew bored of hitting things, she sat and talked to Mepple. Mepple rarely talked back, of course. Being transformed for so long depleted what little energy he had left. When he could answer, it was almost always in short, halting sentences, punctuated by labored breathing. It made Black's heart hurt. Mepple was such a motormouth normally, and to have him reduced to this… It reminded her of the months after the first battle with the Dark King, when he and Mipple went into hibernation to recover their strength. Except that it was even lonelier than it was back then, for now there was no Honoka to talk to.

Honoka. Where are you?

A particularly vicious blow made the punching bag spin a full circle on its chain.

So Black talked to Mepple about whatever was on her mind. Lacrosse games, Fujipi, her favorite foods and TV shows… and missing Honoka, naturally. That subject came up a lot. She didn't even know if he could hear her most of the time, but it felt good to talk to him anyway.

Cure Black, said the voice in her mind.

Black started. Sometimes she forgot all about the comm crystal the Stranger gave her, tucked into one of her gauntlets. "Uh, hi!" she stammered. "What's up?"

I'm sorry to keep you waiting, said Fantine's voice. Everything is aligning now, so it's time for you to meet the others.

"Other magical girls, huh…" Black wiped the sweat from her brow. It was a good thing time was so weird here; she couldn't exactly take full showers when transformed. If she were sweating like normal, her costume would stink to high heaven by now. That made her stop to ponder: could she even take her Cure uniform off without turning back to civilian form? Or take it off at all? What if she discarded everything else and just held on to Mepple, would she be Cure Black or plain old Nagisa? Her brows knit together. If Mepple saw her undressed (which would NOT happen if she had anything to say about it), he would probably make some wisecrack about her weight or figure. If he were feeling himself, that is.

So occupied was she with her own thoughts that she almost missed Fantine's next one. Not just regular magical girls… other Precure, too.

"Whoa whoa whoa," said Black, staring down at the crystal. "One of the psycho twins said something like that, too. What do you mean, 'other Precure?'"

You and Cure White were the first, said Fantine, but there have been many others after you.

"How does that work?"

You'll remember. You've met them before, after all.

Black blinked. "... Hang on. Even if there were other Precure, how could I meet them and not remember them?"

A strange quirk of your universe's vertex. There have been many times when your facets align and all of you gather together… and afterwards, when you go your separate ways and return to your facets, you always forget until the next time you're needed. Even I don't know exactly how or why it works.

"Facets?"

Not the best term for them, I admit, but it'll have to do. The facets are sort of the… branches of your vertex. Offshoots. Every so often, a new one is formed and new Precure appear.

"I don't believe this… how many of them- of us- are there?"

It fluctuates. There's almost always at least two Cures, but depending on the particular facet, there could be hundreds.

"Holy…" whispered Black. Right now, she couldn't even picture ten Precures, let alone hundreds. "With that many, why can't we stomp those Dead End guys into the ground?"

Most of them have been captured, or worse.

"Like Honoka."

A sad reply. Yes, like Honoka. But there's one Precure that I don't think even Dead End knows about… because she only appears when all of you are together. For some reason, she both is and isn't one of you, one who connects your worlds but is forever apart from them. That's part of why she ended up here...

"Who do you-"

A doorway appeared from the Immaterial, and the Stranger stepped through. Those beautiful ruby eyes sparkled as she bowed to Black, her golden hair spilling over her shoulders.

"Oh," said Black. "It's you. Hey the-"

-static-

And Cure Black began to remember. Just the sight of the Stranger changing into an older girl in white and pastel colors was enough to stir up what was buried: yes, there were many other Cures. She had fought alongside them. And there was one who was special, one with powers none of them quite understood… an anomaly, an illusion, a phantom, an…

"Echo," said Black in a hushed tone. "You're Cure Echo. Ayumi…"

The Echo-Stranger smiled. Though she couldn't speak, her kind golden eyes said it all: Nice to see you again.


TSAB L-Class Inspection Cruiser Arthra

Infirmary, Intensive Care Unit

"She's waking up! Oh, thank the Saint King…"

"Fate-chan!"

"Nnnh." That small, pained moan was the first sound Fate Testarossa Harlaown made in days. Her lips and throat were dry and parched. "Wha-"

"Lie still, Fate-chan. Just take it easy."

"Fate…" An orange blur stood at her side, fidgeting with anxiety, and only just restraining herself from seizing Fate in a hug.

There was only one person that could be. "H-Hello, Alph," she said, trying to smile. The effort hurt. "Are you... okay?"

Her trusted familiar sobbed. Strange, that wasn't like Alph at all. "Don't start with that! Asking me if I'm okay..." she said, strain evident in her voice. "I'm just glad you're finally awake."

A hand grasped hers, and a second patted it. There was something odd about its texture. "Don't try to move too much just yet. Do you need anything?" said Nanoha's voice.

Fate licked her lips. "Water, please."

At once, the orange blur leapt across the room. Mere seconds later, a glass was pressed to her dry lips. Fate drank; the cool liquid soothed her scratchy throat. "Mmm."

Bit by bit, her vision began to clear. She made out Alph's furry wolf ears first, then her white-tipped tail swishing back and forth, then her eyes, reddened and puffy. On the other side of what she assumed was a hospital bed, Nanoha sat in a chair… a normal one, not the mobility chair. Her eyes were tired, but her smile was radiant. "Welcome back," she said, giving Fate's hand another pat.

The strange, rough feeling of Nanoha's hand made Fate look down. "Nanoha, what-" She stopped, her breath seizing in terror.

Both of Nanoha's hands were swaddled from the wrists up in thick bandages. The tips of her fingers were shiny, crimson, and unnaturally smooth… evidence of deep burns that hadn't fully healed.

It wasn't hard to follow her gaze. "I'll be all right," said Nanoha, as if suggesting otherwise was out of the question. "Don't worry about me, a few more healing barriers and I should be just fine. Compared to the Gadget Drones, this was nothing."

That did little to reassure her. "Nanoha, how-"

Another voice from the doorway, where someone leaned against the bulkhead. "I think that should wait until you've had more time to recover, Fate." Admiral Lindy seemed more tired than Nanoha and Alph put together; deep lines and bags of exhaustion gathered beneath both of her eyes.

Fate blinked. Though she knew that Lindy stood at the door a few meters from the bed, for some reason she didn't seem as far away as she should. As if the distances were wrong. No, more than that, she seemed oddly flat. As if-

Fate drew in a short, sharp breath. She remembered. Or she remembered most of it. Carnaaji, the Wolkenritter attacking, the resurrected Will of the Book of Darkness, the abomination called Moebius 90, and that horrid woman…

"Where is she?" said Fate, trying to sit up. "What happened to Viluy?"

Alph pushed her back into the pillows that surrounded her, and she felt Nanoha's hands tremble and clutch hers tighter.

Lindy moved from the door, holding something to her chest. "Fate, there's… there's something you need to see. During the fight on Carnaaji, that woman…" Her voice hardened, then trailed off as she brought the object forward. A mirror. "I'm so sorry."

Fate heard Nanoha choke back a sob.

With dawning comprehension, Fate gazed at her reflection, at the black fabric patch that now covered her right eye. "She-" whispered Fate. Every instinct told her to reach up to touch the patch and examine the wound, while her mind threatened to shut itself down if her fingers confirmed what her eyes - her eye - was now telling her. Numb. She felt numb…

Next to her, Nanoha sucked in a breath. "This was… this was the best we could do for you right now, Fate-chan." The tremble in her voice shuddered down through her bandaged hands to the tips of Fate's unfeeling fingers. "If we could go back to Mid-Childa, we could get you a c-cybernetic implant, o-or replace it with c-cloned tissue, but-"

"But right now we can't go back." Lindy's words hardened again, shocking Fate with their bitterness. "Fantine has forbidden us from contacting the TSAB. Not only can they not send us support, they apparently can't even know where we are."

Fate blinked, then shivered. The sensation was bizarre; she didn't care for it one bit. "Where exactly are we, Lindy-san?"

Nanoha again. "We're docked at someplace called the Lighthouse. Fantine-san described it as 'a place between the worlds', but…" Words tumbled out of her in a rush. "It doesn't look or feel like interdimensional space, and Amy-san can't map our coordinates, and we're-"

"Stuck here," Lindy finished. "For how long, she won't say. Every time I try to talk to her, she brushes me off. All I want is some information, but-"

"Oh," said Nanoha.

There was someone new at the infirmary door. A little girl Fate had never seen before, with concentric rings in her eyes of red and yellow, and white wavy hair done up in two tiny pigtails. She couldn't have been more than seven or eight years old. Clutching her blankets, she asked: "Nanoha? Who is that?"

"We're… not sure." Nanoha chewed on her bottom lip. "Fantine-san… she's the voice or the AI of the Lighthouse, we think… Fantine-san calls her 'the Stranger.' She lead us here…" To the girl: "Is something wrong?"

The Stranger beckoned with one finger. The message was clear: Follow me.

There was a mass shuffling of bodies and chairs in the tiny, cramped infirmary as Nanoha, Lindy, and Alph all rose to comply. Fate tried to do so as well, captivated by this girl for no reason she could understand… but Alph pushed her back down.

"Lie still," said her familiar. "You need your rest."

"It's okay, Fate-chan, Lindy-san and I will-"

The Stranger shook her head at Lindy… then pointed to Nanoha, and beckoned again.

"Look." Lindy rubbed her eyes. The stress of these crises was beginning to weigh on her. "I'm sure Fantine has good reasons for all this secrecy, but Cadet Takamachi is my officer. I'm her CO, and this is unfamiliar territory. For her safety, I have to insist that you-"

Again the Stranger shook her head.

Something in Lindy snapped. "This is ridiculous, how are we supposed to even trust you, or this Fantine?!"

-static-

The Stranger flickered… and shifted. Between one instant and the next, her entire appearance changed.

Alph's ears stood up straight, and her tail fur puffed up in alarm.

Lindy dropped the mirror, which shattered to pieces on the metal floor.

Nanoha stared in bewildered silence.

And Fate let out a small, strangled scream.

Where there once had been an unfamiliar little girl standing in the doorway, there was now a different, younger girl, about five years old, with long, blonde tresses and beautiful ruby eyes that were a mirror of Fate's.

The Stranger had turned into Alicia. Alicia, her lost, late sister that Fate had never known, outside of a fantasy world in the Book of Darkness. Alicia, the template body that was used for the project that created Fate and gave her her name...

The Alicia-Stranger looked at them all with those eyes that were just like Fate's and an expression of sympathy… as if she could understand how shocking, how upsetting, how impossible this was, and could do nothing but apologize for it. She bowed politely, her hands clasped in front of her. When she rose, she beckoned to Nanoha once more: Follow me.


The Lighthouse, Vertex Point Two

"Okay," said Kero. "Let's see what we've got."

"Mmm-hmm." Sakura Kinomoto nodded and stared down at the Cards spread before her. Working carefully, she sorted them one by one into three piles while Kero hovered over her, watching.

"WINDY is still normal," she said once she was done. "So are FLOWER, FLOAT, SONG, SWEET, ARROW, TWIN, BIG, CLOUD, RAIN…"

"JUMP," Kero continued, "DASH, BUBBLES, WAVE, FLY, GLOW, MOVE, THROUGH, LIBRA, and DREAM. That makes twenty Cards Joker couldn't change… or wouldn't. Mostly the gentle ones."

Sakura chewed on her bottom lip and reached for the second pile, the Cards that shifted from Sakura to Clow form depending on how she looked at them. "And over here are SHADOW, ILLUSION, LIGHT, WOOD, SHIELD, MIRROR, FIREY, DARK, WATERY, SLEEP, THUNDER, SWORD, and EARTHY."

Kero nodded and crossed his tiny arms. "We saw him use SHIELD, SWORD, and ILLUSION, and you were both usin' SWORD at the same time. So it's safe to assume that these thirteen Cards are shared between the two of you. However that works."

"And over here…" said Sakura, reaching for the third and final pile. These nineteen cards were all hazy and transparent, barely substantial. She tested each and every one of these, and none of them worked for her, no matter how much power she put into them. "MIST. STORM. FIGHT. SHOT. FREEZE. POWER. LOOP…"

"CHANGE," said Kero, his voice grave. "VOICE, LOCK, SILENT, TIME, ERASE, RETURN, CREATE, SAND, MAZE, SNOW, LITTLE…"

"... and then there's NOTHING." Sakura shuddered. "At least she turned back to herself before-"

"But she shouldn't be NOTHING anymore," said Kero. "She should be HOPE, 'cause she fused with the Nameless Card when you sealed her back then."

"I know. It doesn't make sense."

"So if my hunch is right, NOTHING and those nineteen gho-" Kero stopped himself and reconsidered his choice of words. "Er, let's call them spirit Cards… they're all under his full control. Looks like he nabbed most of the aggressive or attack-type Cards. Not good."

"Not good at all. Kero-chan, what are we going to do?" said Sakura, gathering the Cards back into one pile. So many of her friends taken from her… and Tomoyo, and Shaoran, and her father, and all of Tomoeda…

It wasn't hard in and of itself to recreate her house from the pretty rainbow glass that Fantine called "Immaterial". What was hard was recreating it with the knowledge that the real thing was… gone. Destroyed, like the rest of her town, by Joker's cruel whim. It was only with Toya and Yukito's support that she managed it… the house was just as beloved to the both of them, too.

In this facsimile of her bedroom, Sakura's bed was here, as was her desk with Kero's tiny bed in one of its drawers, her favorite pink desk lamp, Kero's miniature TV and favorite game console… but without her father, without Tomoyo there to cheer her on at every step, without Shaoran close by, it didn't feel like home.

A knock at the door interrupted these melancholy thoughts. For a moment, Kero froze, pretending to be a stuffed animal… old habit.

"Hey," said the gruff, stoic voice on the other side. "You busy?"

"Nope. Coming." Sakura rose to her feet and opened the door for Toya, trying to smile. "Hi, onii-chan. Is everything all right?"

Toya shrugged. "Could be better, but at least Yuki's here and no one's trying to kill us. I just wanted to tell you… you have a visitor. Downstairs."

"Hoe~?" Sakura blinked. "I didn't hear the doorbell. Is the Stranger back from-"

"Nope," said Toya. "Someone else. I don't know how to explain, just come and see." Catching sight of her perplexed expression, he smirked. "It's not often I'm more confused than you are."

"Onii-chan!"

"Come on," he said, jabbing a thumb over his shoulder. "Downstairs."


The moment Sakura dismounted the last stair and turned the corner, a red and black blur leapt over the living room couch and rushed in her direction. Her thoughts raced with sudden panic… she grasped for her key, the invocation on her lips, when-

"You…!" said the blur, seizing her by the shoulders with great force. "You… how dare you let Shaoran be… be…! I'll never, ever forgive you, Sakura Kinomoto!"

"Hoeeeee~!" Sakura squealed. The blur resolved itself into one of the last people she ever expected to see… "M… Meilin-chan?!"

The face that Sakura knew so well held an expression so familiar and nostalgic that she almost laughed: crimson eyes narrowed and glaring, pink, puffed-out cheeks, pursed lips. It was the same expression that so terrified her in the early days. But then it melted into a gentle if fiesty smile, as the Hong Kongese girl in the fiery red cheongsam pulled back and embraced her as a friend. "Sorry," said Meilin Li. "I had to get it out of my system. Don't worry, I know it wasn't your fault."

"Meilin-chan…" said Sakura, still baffled. She was a welcome sight, of course, but how could it be that Meilin was here, of all places? "I don't understand…"

Leaning over the stairway banister, Toya rubbed the back of his head. Meilin was never exactly his favorite of Sakura's circle of friends, but considering the circumstances… "That makes two of us."

Finally releasing Sakura, Meilin put her hands on her hips and glared over her shoulder. "Well, of course I had to come! Shaoran's in danger, isn't he? And so is Tomoyo! You need my help to get them back!"

This was too much. Sakura moved to the couch and sat down, her head spinning. "I can't believe it. This is so weird…"

Meilin sat next to her with a sigh, putting her hand on her shoulder. "Trust me, I can hardly believe it either."

"How did you even get here?! Weren't you at home in Hong Kong?"

Flustered, Meilin looked away, her cheeks reddening. "Well," she said, twirling a finger in one of her black pigtails. "I… I heard about what happened to Tomoeda on the news, a-and I got worried for Shaoran, of course. I knew I had to go, so… so I convinced Mother and Lady Yelan to send me back to Japan by telling them the Cards were probably in danger."

Toya stared. He knew that Meilin was still a bit obsessive when it came to her cousin, a blind, deaf, and dumb person could tell that… but to outright lie to the Li family about her intentions? "Kid…"

"Well, I had to, didn't I?!" Meilin huffed. "You all were gone, so that Eriol guy and Mizuki-sensei and I were the only ones left who had experience with them!" Now her eyes wandered to her feet as she shuffled them, avoiding Sakura's gaze. "S-so I w-went to… you know… where the city…" She swallowed. "Wh-where it vanished, and I couldn't find anything. I was so worried, I didn't know what to do or where to go…"

"Meilin-chan…" Now it was Sakura's turn to lay a comforting hand on the other girl's shoulder.

"I started looking around for anyone who could help me, and ended up in Tokyo," said Meilin, "and I found this tiny little old-fashioned shop in between two big buildings. There was a lady inside, a witch, who knew who I was, and she told me she knew where you'd gone… and she'd send me there to find you and help you if I-" And Meilin stopped, falling unusually quiet.

"If you what…?" Sakura leaned closer.

"It's not important right now, really." Meilin's eyes disappeared beneath her straight black bangs. "The important thing is helping you get Shaoran and the Cards and everyone back where they should be."

Clearly Meilin hadn't changed much at all. She was still stubborn as a whole petting zoo full of mules, and nothing and no one could drag more out of her until she was ready to talk. Now Sakura did laugh, wrapping her arms around her old friend and embracing her. "Thank you, Meilin-chan. It's so good to see you."

A voice resonated from the comm crystal in Sakura's pocket. "I'm happy she's here too, though I don't really approve of people coming here without my invitation..." Fantine sounded more than a bit put off.

Meilin blinked. "Kinomoto-san, your pocket is talking…"

"That's Fantine-san," said Sakura, withdrawing the small spire. "She's the spirit of this place, I think. Fantine-san," she said into the crystal, "do you know the witch that sent Meilin-chan here? Can she help us?"

"I know of her," said Fantine. "I'm not a fan of her methods… or the way she conducts her business." The sentence was followed by what sounded an awful lot like an offended sniff. "As long as she doesn't bring Dead End to our door, we won't have a problem. As for helping… she can, but she won't. So that's that."

"Where exactly are we, anyway?" said Meilin, looking around at the living room, perfectly replicated down to the photos on the mantlepiece. "This looks like your house, but it's all… shimmery."

"It's a long, long story," said Sakura. "I don't know very much myself."

"I think it's time you learned more," said Fantine. "Sakura, I'm sending the Stranger to you. It's time to meet the others."

Sakura nodded. All these cryptic mentions of "the others"... there was Takamachi and Admiral Lindy, but she had only spoken to them over the comm system. I wonder how many more there are?

On the stairwell, Toya moved to leave. "I'll go get the little monster, then."

"No," said Fantine, "for now, just Sakura, please."

"I…" Sakura felt a chill. "I have to go alone?"

"Just until all the doors are fully opened. You only need to be patient a little longer."

"A-all right."

Now the doorbell rang, the chimes echoing through the house. Toya grumbled, descended the rest of the stairs, and threw open the front door. Outside of the front porch, the Immaterial facsimile of the Kinomoto house faded into a flat, featureless plain, broken only by a simple doorway. At Toya's feet, reaching barely higher than his knee, a toddler with baby blue eyes and her red hair in heart-shaped buns smiled an angelic smile up at him.

Toya averted his gaze and fought hard to keep from blushing. He had an image to maintain. "Sakura. She's here."

"Okay. I'll be back soon, I think." Sakura rose from the couch, smoothed the wrinkles out her dress, and took a deep breath. "Meilin-chan, stay here with Kero-chan and the others. If you need anything, just ask onii-chan or Yukito-san, okay?"

Meilin waved a hand. "Go on, I'll be fine. They're waiting for you. Whoever 'they' are."

Toya watched his little sister cross the room and duck under his outstretched arm to join the Stranger. There was an uncomfortable sensation at the back of his throat, the kind he always had whenever Sakura headed off into an uncertain situation… it was much worse this time. All her Cardcaptor stuff, that he could handle, that was at least safe most of the time. This, though? There was a psychopath somewhere out there willing to destroy entire towns. When he thought about how Joker made Sakura cry, how he laughed as he tore Tomoeda apart… His fingers gripped the Immaterial door frame so hard that it let out an ominous creak. To Sakura, he simply said, "Take care, monster. Don't stomp on anyone on the way."

"Onii-chan…" Sakura made a face, then gave him a quick hug before turning to follow the Stranger's tiny footsteps.


It was hard not to stare. Walking a few steps behind the Nagisa-Stranger through a crystalline hallway, Madoka couldn't help but notice the slash across her back, an angled line from one shoulder to the lowest rib on her opposite side, oozing with white light that moved like water beneath the curtain of her hair. As far as Madoka could tell, it wasn't a wound, or a rip in her clothing… it was a rip in the Stranger herself, or rather the image of Nagisa that she wore. What happened to you? Madoka wondered. At least she didn't seem to be in pain.

The Nagisa-Stranger stopped at the foot of a set of glass-crystal stairs, leading through another tunnel in a lazy upward spiral. One small hand gestured to the first stair.

"You… you want me to go first?"

The Nagisa-Stranger shook her head.

"Alone?"

She nodded.

"But… how will I know where to-"

"I'll help you," said Fantine from her comm crystal. "Just follow the sound of my voice."

Madoka was about to speak again, before she heard the notes from the stairwell: a bittersweet, wistful melody in a language she couldn't understand.

"Des yeux qui font baisser les miens

Un rire qui se perd sur sa bouche

Voilà le portrait sans retouche

De l'homme auquel j'appartiens…"

Mystified, Madoka followed the sound, up and up and up…


Usagi had to stop and listen halfway up the stairs. She felt nervous leaving the Chibi-Stranger behind, especially now that she had seen that glowing slash on her back… but Fantine assured her she would catch up soon. For now, the sound of Fantine's singing guided her on. She had a beautiful voice, soft and lilting, almost mourning. The words were beyond Usagi, but the melody sounded vaguely familiar…

"Quand il me prend dans ses bras

Il me parle tout bas

Je vois la vie en rose…"

Rose. She understood that much, and her heart ached for Mamoru. It made her pause again, a hand on her chest, something inside tightening, squeezing…

And then, as if from far away, she heard what he would say if he were here: You can do it. I believe in you, Usako.

"Mamo-chan. Thank you." Usagi nodded and climbed higher.


Cure Black took the stairs at a jog. Fantine's voice was pretty, sure, but she needed answers. Questions about Echo and the other Cures swirled in her mind like a dervish, one after another: How many of us are there? How many are left? Will they remember me, or…

"Il me dit des mots d'amour

Des mots de tous les jours

Et ça me fait quelque chose…"

Hang on, Honoka, Black thought. I'm coming as fast as I can, and I'm bringing friends. Wherever you are, just hang on.


Nanoha shivered. In truth, she was a bit glad to leave the Alicia-Stranger behind. The last time Nanoha saw the real Alicia Testarossa was as a lifeless body sealed inside a stasis container, tumbling into the endless abyss of imaginary space with Fate's poor, maddened mother. Fate had seen her again after that, in the Book of Darkness's illusion, but… Fate rarely spoke about that experience, which told Nanoha all she needed to know how painful it must have been.

Of course, it was hardly the Stranger's fault that she took that form. From what little Nanoha understood, the Stranger was an amalgam of lost people just like Alicia… others who had fallen through the gaps in time and space.

"Il est entré dans mon cœur

Une part de bonheur

Dont je connais la cause…"

There was something comforting about Fantine's singing, though, mournful as it was. Not for the first time, Nanoha wondered who she really was.

"C'est lui pour moi, moi pour lui dans la vie

Il me l'a dit, l'a juré pour la vie…"

And that strange wound the Stranger had on her back, just visible beneath her Alicia form's long hair. Not an ordinary wound, but like a tear in a screen, with something bright and moving behind it...

"Et dès que je l'aperçois

Alors je sens en moi

Mon cœur qui bat…"

So many questions. Too many questions. All Nanoha could do was follow the notes, follow the stairs…

"Des nuits d'amour à ne plus en finir

Un grand bonheur qui prend sa place

Des ennuis, des chagrins, s'effacent

Heureux, heureux à en mourir…"


A tear ran down Sakura's cheek as the music washed over her. Whoever this Fantine was, her voice was just as lovely as Tomoyo's… Thinking of her precious friend's life in Joker's hands made her increase her pace, climbing the staircase two steps at a time.

"Quand il me prend dans ses bras

Il me parle tout bas,

Je vois la vie en rose…"

She wondered if Fantine, too, had lost someone dear to her. To be able to sing a song like that, with a voice thick with regret, as if her heart was breaking…

"Il me dit des mots d'amour,

Des mots de tous les jours,

Et ça me fait quelque chose…"

Up ahead, the top of the stairs at last, and at the peak was another doorway, streaming with white light… a warm, comforting light, like the embrace of an old friend. The song came from there, beautiful and haunting…

"Il est entré dans mon cœur

Une part de bonheur

Dont je connais la cause…"

Everything will be all right somehow. Sakura thought her invincible spell to herself as she stepped into the light. It was too bright to see anything, but there was solid floor beneath her feet. She walked on. After a few steps, she felt something faint pushing back against her. Not enough to stop her progress, just a bit of resistance, but it was like trying to walk through a thin screen. Sakura pushed, and pushed, felt the screen or whatever it was break, and stepped into the room...

"C'est toi pour moi, moi pour toi dans la vie,

Il me l'a dit, l'a juré pour la vie…"

And before her eyes could fully take it in, she knew, beyond doubt, that this had to be the Lighthouse's center. Five faceted walls loomed far over her head, upward and out of sight, forming the inside of an enormous, translucent tower. Through the walls she could see the Lighthouse's namesake, an immense beam of surging white light that swept through the void outside in circles, over and over… Its rhythm was in perfect time with the song's final lines:

"Et dès que je t'aperçois

Alors je sens dans moi

Mon cœur qui bat…"

The turning of the beam was so captivating that at first Sakura didn't notice the other four doorways, identical to the one she just stepped through, one in each of the other walls. Figures emerged from the glow that poured out of each one, silhouettes casting long shadows that met in the center of the room…

"Oh," said someone… someone timid, shy, unsure of what else to say. "Um, hello… n-nice to meet all of you."

Then a voice Sakura recognized from when they briefly spoke across the void: "Kinomoto-san. It's good to finally meet in person." That could only be Nanoha.

Sakura bowed in that direction. "Likewise, Takamachi-san…"

"Please, 'Nanoha-chan' is fine. You're my sempai, after all."

"Nanoha-chan." Sakura couldn't help smiling. For someone so young, she sounded so polite, so mature. "Okay. Then I'm Sakura-chan."

The oldest among them, a young woman with twin blonde odango and long pigtails like rabbit ears, began to count heads. "So, Sakura-chan, Nanoha-chan, and…"

"Madoka," said the teenager with pink hair. That was the timid voice from moments before. She fussed with her school uniform, which still had traces of blood on it despite her attempt to wash it clean. "Madoka Kaname."

"Madoka-chan," said the young woman, with a big, goofy grin that made Sakura want to wear one too. "I'm Usagi. Usagi Tsukino."

One of them had not spoken yet, the one with the boyish build and messy orange hair, wearing a black and pink costume that looked like parts of it were armored. She lingered in her doorway and stared at Usagi in utter shock, her jaw agape. "No. No. No way. I can't believe this! You can't be-"

"Eh?" Usagi glanced in her direction. "I can't be what?"

"U-Usagi Tsukino!" sputtered the armored girl. "You're… you're Sailor Moon!"

"Um," said Usagi, feeling sheepish. Generally, she wasn't fond of people she didn't know blurting that out. "Yeah, that's about it."

"That's not possible." Cure Black leaned against the doorframe for support, putting a gloved hand to her brow. "No way. You're… you're an anime character! I watched you on TV when I was little!"

Sakura, Nanoha, and Madoka exchanged bewildered looks. Someone stifled a giggle, it wasn't clear who.

Usagi seemed no less confused. "An… an anime? About me?! Not Sailor V?" Something about that was both exciting and disturbing, and it tipped back and forth from one to the other faster than she could keep track of which was which. Now that she thought about it, she never did ask Minako about what her thoughts on the old Sailor V anime were.

"No! Well, Sailor V was a character in Sailor Moon, but-" Black's mouth opened and closed a few times, with no sound coming out. "You're real. I don't believe this, you're real…"

"I… guess?"

Only now did Black come forward. To the accompaniment of more muffled giggles, she sank into a deep bow. "Um. I'm Nagisa Misumi-"

"Oh," said Madoka before she could stop herself, "That's the same name-"

"- Cure Black," she finished. "I-I don't know what's going on, but… but it's an honor to meet you, Tsukino-san!"

"Just call me Usagi, please! About this anime-"

Before Usagi could ask more, something descended from above, coming from the origin point of the great beam of light. Only when it floated down to their level could the shape be made out: a disembodied pair of transparent blue-feathered wings, with a tiny spark in between them. Fantine's voice rang out from that spark, stronger and clearer than ever before: "Usagi Tsukino, Sailor Moon. Sakura Kinomoto, the Cardcaptor. Nagisa Misumi, Cure Black. Nanoha Takamachi. Madoka Kaname. I welcome you all to the heart of the Lighthouse, your sanctuary… This is the Crossroads, where worlds meet."

"Fantine?" said Usagi, reaching for it. "Is… is that you?"

"An avatar," said the winged spark. "Easier to converse with directly. Everyone, I've gathered all of you here for a purpose…"

A grin spread across Black's face as she pounded a fist into her palm. "Well, with Sailor Moon on our side, we're sure to win the fight. That's what you want, right? That's why we're here..."

"No," said Fantine, tinged with sadness.

"Wh-what?" Madoka drew back, stunned. "But… but you said war was coming…"

"It is," said Fantine. "Already, Dead End has swept through the multiverse, doing incalculable damage to space and time. Joker is-"

Usagi stood up. All her seeming immaturity was gone in an instant. "Joker. He's leading them?"

"Joker leads them on the physical plane, yes, but the force behind him, the one that's allowing him to exist past his natural end… You've faced it in its purest form, Usagi. You know what it is."

All the color drained from Usagi's face at once. "No. No, it can't be. It's too soon. I thought-"

"What?" said Sakura. "What is it?"

"Chaos." Fantine's voice was hard and grave. "Not just your final enemy, Usagi, but everyone's. All of you have faced it in one way or another. Chaos is a part of the natural order, the cycle of the universe, and it's been convinced to disrupt that cycle, to try to end it altogether."

"Well then," said Black. "We gotta stop it, don't we? White and I have beaten stuff like that before… right?"

"You don't understand," said Fantine. "This isn't something you can win against, not permanently. It's not a physical being you can harm or kill, or a spiritual one you can contain. It's… void. Nothingness. The shadow of creation itself. If it's out of balance, then…" There was no masking the shudder in her voice.

"Fantine…?" Nanoha's voice shook. This was too much, too horrible to comprehend.

"I didn't bring you all here to fight a war against Chaos," said Fantine. "I brought you here to survive the war that's coming, so that your worlds might have a chance at being rebuilt after it's all over. This place, the Lighthouse… it's not a fortress. It's a fallout shelter."

END OF CHAPTER 20

Chapter Text

Chapter 21: Recovery and Recuperation, Part I

The Lighthouse, Vertex Point Three

"Oi, Tsubomi!"

Tsubomi Hanasaki didn't look up. In fact, she leaned further into the privet bush, guiding a stray twig between the blades of her pruning shears.

"Tsubomi?" In the doorway, Erika Kurumi's nose wrinkled. "What are you doing?"

"Gardening." Her reply was listless. The shears snipped together, and the twig dropped into the soil, severed neatly from the branch.

"Um. Well." Erika folded her arms and leaned against the door frame. "That's… nice, I guess." Gardening was Tsubomi's thing, after all. In normal circumstances, Erika wouldn't bat an eye at her spending time buried in a bush. Now, however… "You do know those plants aren't real, right?"

Tsubomi cringed, and her concentration wavered. The Immaterial privet bush shuddered, taking on a prismatic sheen and wobbling out of shape. "Yes," said Tsubomi, as patiently as she could. She screwed her eyes shut, trying to focus… Within a few seconds, the bush solidified again. "It's helping me to relax."

The Immaterial in her room was currently simulating Tsubomi's favorite place in the world: her grandmother Kaoruko's greenhouse. True to form, every plant in the place was a near-flawless replica of the real thing: the neatly sculpted hedges, the rows of flower beds, the abundance of lavender. All the plants looked and smelled so much like the real things… but that was only because Tsubomi desired it. Life was the one thing beyond the Immaterial's ability to create… so all the plants were fake, and there was no Kaoruko there to greet her with a smile when she came in, no Coupe standing eternally calm and silent under the shade of the willow in the corner.

"Yeah, but what's the point?" said Erika. "They don't need trimming, or watering, or sunlight… What difference does it make if you do it or not? They'll stay the same as long as you want them to."

"Erika, please." Snip, went the shears again.

"C'mon, you should come see this. Me and Chypre and Coffret went looking around, and you're not gonna believe what we saw. A spaceship! There's a real spaceship here, Tsubomi, like something out of Star Wars! It's parked…" Erika stopped, tilting her head to one side. "Hmm. Do you say 'parked' or 'docked' for a spaceship? You're the space girl. You'd know, right?"

"'Docked,'" said Tsubomi.

"Right, docked. It's docked above Vertex Four, you gotta see it!"

"Not right now."

"What, you think those things will wilt if you're not here? You can take five minutes."

"Later."

That did it. Fuming, Erika stomped over to the privet bush and grasped Tsubomi's shoulder. "Tsubomi, what's the matter with you? All you've done since we got here is sit in here moping."

Tsubomi wrenched herself away and dove further into the privet bush. "I'm not moping, I'm gardening."

"Coulda fooled me, it sure looks like moping."

The bush shuddered as Tsubomi selected another twig for pruning. "I'd rather stay here, thank you."

"Tsubomiiiiiiiiii!" Her name came out as a shrill, prolonged screech. "Come on, we're in space! Just like you've wanted ever since back then! And this place is fantastic! You can make anything you want, you don't have to sleep or shower or go to the bathroom if you don't want to… I mean, we've been here like four weeks by my count, and I haven't had one cramp in my lady parts-"

Privet leaves rustled violently as Tsubomi dropped the shears in what appeared to be a sudden coughing fit. "E-Erika!" wailed the bush once Tsubomi regained control of herself. "Now look what you made me do! I cut off one of poor Privet-san's branches…!"

"Who the hell cares?! It's not real, Tsubomi!"

"Do you think I don't know that?!"

The response was so loud, so unlike Tsubomi, that Erika actually took a few steps back.

Tsubomi emerged shaking from the bush, little fake Immaterial leaves sticking in her scarlet pigtails, her face flushed and her eyes wet. Her hands were balled tight into fists at her sides. "We left them behind," she said. Now her voice was quiet, but bitter as vinegar. "We left everybody behind. Mother. Father. Futaba-chan. Grandma. Coupe. Potpourri. Your parents, and Momoka-san. Even Itsuki and Yuri-san... Everyone and everything I love and care about. Everything's gone. This place is the only thing I have left, and it's not even real, just dreams and memories..." A heaving sob. False sunlight reflected off the round lenses of her glasses as she raised them to scrub her eyes. "What else am I supposed to do, Erika?! I can't do anything else! I'm useless, I can't-"

Smack. Erika's palm connected with her cheek so hard that the sound of the impact echoed off the greenhouse's Immaterial-glass walls. There was fire in Erika's cerulean eyes as she gripped Tsubomi by the shoulders with trembling hands. "Stop that!" she said, barking the words like an order. "Don't you ever talk like that, Tsubomi! You are not useless, you hear me?! If you ever say something like that again, I'll never forgive you! You saved me, and Itsuki, and Yuri-san, and the city, and the whole stinking planet so many times that I can't count them all! The problem's bigger this time, but who cares?!"

"Erika-"

"Shut up and let me finish!" Erika roared, making Tsubomi flinch back. "You're a Precure, and the Precure fight! We need you now more than ever! I need you! You think I'd be able to handle all of this without you?!"

"You're the strong one, you don't-"

"Bullcrap!" Erika all but spit on the ground. "Without you, I'd still be stomping around as a Desertarian! Without you, we wouldn't have beaten Dark Precure, or stopped Dune, or saved the Great Heart Tree… Hell, how many times did you keep me from rushing in to fight and getting myself killed? How many times, Tsubomi?"

That gave her pause. "I… I can't remember-"

"Neither can I!" Her hands squeezed Tsubomi's shoulders tight, and her eyes blazed. "Listen, you! You're Tsubomi Hanasaki, you're Cure Fucking Blossom, you're a badass legendary warrior, and you're amazing. No matter how many times I saw you trip and fall on your face, you always got back up. No matter how scared you were, you never quit. That's what you do." Erika paused for a deep breath, then launched back in. "And you know what? You were even badass before you were Cure Blossom, so don't try to tell me otherwise! You stood up to Sasorina when she got my Heart Flower, with no powers, no weapons, no cool costume, no nothing. If that doesn't prove you're not useless, I don't know what does! Now stop whining, come with me, and look at the spaceship already before I beat the crap out of you!"

Silence fell on the faux-greenhouse. A long, uncomfortable silence.

"Geez," said Erika, what felt like an eternity later. Her cheeks puffed out, making her look somewhat like an oversized blue-haired chipmunk. "Now look what you did. You made me lose my temper."

And Tsubomi chuckled… a soft, weak chuckle, but it was the first sound of happiness she made since they arrived at the Lighthouse. "In other words," she said, sniffling and pushing up her tear-stained glasses, "'Your bag of tolerance has snapped?'"

Erika broke into a triumphant grin, a big, goofy Erika smile. "'My heart may be as vast as the sea, but I'm at my limit!'" she said, speaking her battle cry with the same vigor that she always did. "You know whenever we break out the catchphrases, that's when the bad guys start to panic, right?"

"Right," said Tsubomi. "Thank you, Erika. I'm sorry."

"Hey," said Erika. "C'mere."

The two dear friends embraced each other. Tsubomi and Erika, Cure Blossom and Cure Marine. An invincible pair, in Cure forms or not.

Right now, one half of that invincible pair was laugh-crying into her partner's shoulder, hiccuping with the effort of trying to stop. "E-E-Erika," she choked, making a mess of Erika's favorite sky-blue blouse. "I'm s-sorry, I'm… I'm ruining it, I c-can't stop… h-hah hah ha..."

"Pffft." Erika blew air through her lips and patted her on the back. "Go ahead, I'll just make another one. You should see all the stuff I've been sewing in my room. I don't have to worry about running out of fabric anymore, so it's like Boutique Monthly in there."

"Ha ha… r-really?" Sniff.

"Yup." Erika's grin turned sheepish. "I, uh. I actually don't know why I made the wedding dresses… I just felt like it, ya know. So when you see them, don't you dare laugh."

"Oh, Erika." Tsubomi blinked. "Wait, wedding dresses? Plural?"


"Didn't I say this place was great? C'mon, I'll show you. And we'll set up a window in my room so you can see the ship from there." Erika didn't even wait for her friend to catch her breath… grasping her by the elbow, she dragged Tsubomi to the door before she could protest more.


Out of the night that covers me,

Black as the pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance

I have not winced nor cried aloud.

Under the bludgeoning of chance

My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears

Looms but the Horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years

Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul.

"Invictus", by William Ernest Henley

END OF CHAPTER 21

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 22: Recovery and Recuperation, Part II

The Lighthouse, Vertex Point One

As the bright, hazy lights above her began to resolve into distinct shapes, Minako Aino felt a moment of confusion. This wasn't her bedroom, or her trailer… but the furry weight sitting curled on her belly could only be Artemis, and the noise like a runaway chainsaw from one corner had to be Usagi. No one else could snore like that.

A hospital? From what little she could tell, the room was too clean and orderly to be any of hers, or Usagi's. Overwork, maybe? That last concert in Berlin was a killer. Minako stirred and tried to sit up.

"Lie still, Minako." A voice as gentle as the ocean waves, and a hand resting on her shoulder. "Don't worry, you're safe."

Michiru-san, said Minako. Now she remembered; the battle with Joker and those Witch things outside of Osa-P. Bizarre monsters, chaos, the world melting around her... What happened? Where is everybody?

It took an unusually long time for Michiru to answer. "It's just me, Usagi, Chibi-Usa, Hotaru, and the Reis… along with Luna, Artemis, Diana, and Naru and Gurio Umino." A painful pause as she looked down at her opposite arm, swaddled in a cast and hanging from a cloth sling. "No one else made it here."

Cold swirled in Minako's belly. At least there were survivors, but if all the others were gone… Wait, where's here?

Michiru wasn't listening. She leaned over and gave Usagi's leg a hard pinch…

"Uwaaah!" The chair Usagi was sitting in fell to the tile floor with a crash, Usagi herself following an instant later. "Sakurada-sensei, I wasn't sleeping, honest!" she squealed out of habit. "I- Oh! Michiru-san, what was-" Then she stopped, her jaw hanging open. "Minako-chan! You're awake, thank God!"

Minako laughed as Usagi dove over the bed to embrace her, narrowly missing Artemis, who awoke from his nap with an angry hiss.

"Minako-chan… I was so worried…!"

It's okay, Usagi-chan. I'm here, I'm all right.

"Yeah, I could tell you were. Warn me next time," said a cranky voice from below.

"Sorry, Artemis! Are you okay?"

The white cat hopped back up onto the bed. "I am now. Welcome back, Mina, you gave us quite a scare there."

It takes more than some badly-dressed clown to get rid of me. Minako reached over and scritched him behind the ears, in the good place.

"Mina…?" Something was wrong. Artemis put a paw on her knee, his whiskers drooping. "What's the matter?"

What do you mean, what's the matter?! said Minako, indignant. What are you looking at me like that for? Is there something on my face, or what?

Usagi interrupted her. "Minako-chan? Minako-chan, please, say something-"

I am saying something! Can't you hear me talking to-

Dawning realization broke across all of their faces at once. It was as if the temperature in the room dropped ten degrees in an instant.

No. Oh no. Minako felt herself mouthing the words, but the only sound she heard was from her own thoughts. With a trembling hand, she reached up to touch her throat, still bearing faint marks from where the clown tried to strangle her… No, she remembered. Not strangling. He held her there and drew some kind of weird black card, and then-

He took my voice.

He took… my voice...


The flames cast flurries of dancing shadows on the walls of the dark room, a recreation of the Hikawa Shrine's inner sanctum. The fire crackled and hissed and spat merry glowing embers, but the figure seated in front of it paid no attention. She watched not the flames, but the spaces between them, searching within them for guidance as she chanted mantras in a low voice.

Rei Hino. She was still Rei Hino, Sailor Mars. That much was certain, at least. However, now that two very different Rei Hinos had become one inexplicable being, it became that much harder to calm her mind and focus properly on the fire reading.

Half of her advised patience, rational thinking, and careful planning. That half recognized that until they had some more effective way of fighting back, taking on the forces of Dead End would be suicidal.

It wasn't easy to listen to that half, when the other half demanded to rush out and make Joker pay for every person he hurt and for every monstrous thing he had done to them or to anyone else. In that half, a fire roared hotter than any she could produce as Sailor Mars, enraged by the injustices done and burning with an all-consuming need to do something about it, dammit.

She was Rei Hino, Sailor Mars. Both of them were, and yet somehow she/they were more than the sum of her/their parts. And yet, the fusion was unstable… she didn't have to fully understand the situation to understand that. Rei occasionally caught sight of glowing embers falling from the red streaks in her hair, or a tongue of flame visible for an instant in the pupil of her eye when she looked in the mirror, or parts of her body glitching out of being like images on a corrupted computer screen before snapping back into solid form. Rei tried every meditation method she knew to keep herself together, but she couldn't shake the fear that if her self-control slipped, even for a moment… she would split apart at the seams.

The visions weren't helping. Rei was used to reading ominous signs in the flames. They happened often enough that she usually wasn't bothered by them. Even after Galaxia, there were portents of impending doom roughly once a month… though they were far less specific and direct threats than they were in her Senshi days.

Now, though, whether it was the fusion, the new locale, or something else, the images she saw in the flames were uniformly grim and bloody: cities burning. Entire worlds destroyed. Unthinkable suffering. Rivers of innocent blood. Friends and allies corrupted into enemies. Space and time crumbling. And behind it all, a madman in a mask, laughing at her, always laughing…

Worse, though, than the visions, than the confusion of her new state of being, than the destruction of her peaceful life, was what Usagi told them all when she came back from that first meeting at the Crossroads. Rei's eyebrows knit together in a hard line as she stumbled over the recitation of her mantra. No matter how hard she tried to keep focused, whenever she thought about Fantine's true purpose in bringing them all here, how she intended to keep them there, even after explaining what Joker had done… the flames inside her burned hotter than stars...


The Crossroads of the Lighthouse

Before

"Bullshit!" shouted Cure Black.

Fiery redness colored Madoka's cheeks as she clapped her hands over her mouth in shock.

As if to ensure that her feelings on the matter were clear, Black stomped her foot and said it again. "Bullshit!" she spat to the winged spark. "You bring us here, you go through the trouble of getting us all together, and now you expect us not to fight?! I don't believe this!"

"I have to agree with Misumi-san," said Nanoha, her brows creasing. "Though I wouldn't exactly put it that way."

"I understand that you're upset-" Fantine began.

"Damn right I am! Our homes, our friends, our loved ones, our worlds are all dying or worse… we can't just sit back and do nothing!"

"Cure Black," said Fantine. Her voice sounded older than it had a moment ago. "You don't know what it is you're suggesting. The powers you're up against aren't like the villains you've fought before."

"So what?! If we all combine our strength-"

"You'll all die that much faster," said Fantine flatly. "Once Joker finishes massing Dead End's forces, he'll wage war on reality, on the concept of creation itself. He's made sure that none of you are at your full strength, and with the weapons he has already, fighting him is worse than pointless. Sakura," she said, her avatar's wings fluttering in the Cardcaptor's direction. "How many of your Cards have been affected?"

"A-around two-thirds of them." Sakura chewed on her bottom lip.

"And I'm assuming Joker has control of most of the dangerous ones?"

"Yes."

"What about the ones that are shifting from one form to another? Do you know why it's happening to those Cards in particular?"

"No, why-"

"I suspect it's because they've been fused with counterpart Cards from another of your universe's timelines."

Sakura's lips moved, but no sound came out. Another timeline… other Cards… did that mean there was another Sakura? Another Shaoran? Another Tomoyo? It was too much. Sakura swayed on her feet. "Hoeeee~..."

The winged spark turned to Usagi. "Usagi," she said, "you've noticed too, haven't you? Something seriously wrong with your world."

Chills ran up and down Usagi's spine. "I-"

"Two sets of conflicting memories. Inconsistencies. A general sense that something's off," said Fantine. "And what's happened to Sailor Mars…"

"A-are you saying… that Joker was behind-"

"Two of your universe's primary timelines have been merged together by force." The spark dimmed. "I don't know if Joker was personally responsible, but he had a hand in it, I can promise you that. The Space-Time Door is unguarded, and by extension, the doors to all worlds, all times, are now wide open. Do you know what that means?"

Now Usagi went deathly pale. "Pluto," she whispered. "Setsuna-san… she'd never let that happen to it."

"Which means that someone has killed or captured the Guardian of Time. That's horrifying enough, but with your Silver Crystal gone..."

"Wait," said Nanoha, holding up a hand. "If it's like you say, and Joker really is causing multidimensional tempero-spatial anomalies…

"Multi… what?" Madoka's head spun with the effort of keeping track of the barrage of information.

"... then the TSAB should-"

"No," said the spark. "I know you mean well, Nanoha, but I can't have an organization like that knowing that this place exists. The ships the TSAB would send would lead Joker right to us. Do you understand? He cannot find me, or the Lighthouse."


The Lighthouse, Vertex Point Five

Something inside Homura nagged at her. It was annoying.

She knew that the most logical course of action for them both was to stay here in Fantine's sanctuary, as far away from Joker as possible. To wash their hands of the whole affair and forget about returning to their Earth until the danger was safely past them… if that could ever happen. Homura doubted it.

However, some part of her mind needled her, a buried part of herself insisted that she could do more.

To silence it, if nothing else, Homura went digging into pocketspace.

"Pocketspace", named as such by Kyoko in one of the timelines where they were allies, was the boundless, empty dimension where Homura stored her arsenal in the years of time loops before Madoka's ascension. In those days, it was accessed through her old clockwork shield. Now, much like with stopping time, there was no more need for the shield to do so. Browsing the space was as easy as willing it.

Most of her arsenal was gone, discarded when she fell. Guns and bombs were for lesser beings than herself. What she was looking for was not a weapon… at least, not a conventional weapon. It was buried deep, tucked away in the dark where she hoped she might one day forget it. It deserved as much.

Her fingers of power found it, wrapped around it, and pulled… It emerged from pocketspace into normal space an instant later, wrapped in an ever-shifting tesseract of light. For a moment, Homura hoped it would not respond to her. Wouldn't that be wonderful?

No such luck. It blinked its round, red eyes and stirred inside its cage, its face still frozen in that eternal eerie smile. Homura Akemi, it said via telepathy.

"Incubator," she replied by way of greeting, her voice cool.

One single Incubator, unaltered from its original state… perhaps the last such Incubator in all existence. When Homura rewrote the universe during her fall, all of them were rendered servile, her lobotomized slaves… all except one. She decided that the thought of leaving one Incubator able to comprehend what she had done to them and helpless to do anything about it was too delicious to resist. Choosing the one most responsible for trapping her in the false Mitakihara, the one she had thought of as something of a partner until it betrayed and imprisoned her? That made it all the sweeter. In a cruel stroke of irony, she trapped it inside an Isolation Field, the same technology they used against her, against Madoka.

However appropriate and satisfying it was, Homura had to admit that perhaps the effort had been wasted. By nature, Incubators had no emotions… those that developed them were considered defective, and were purged from the hive mind and destroyed. She gave them all the capacity to fear her, of course, but the lone unaltered one had no fear. It could not feel disgust over what she had done to its kind, nor would it rage impotently against its captor, no matter how much she might want it to. Changing its nature to allow it to feel these things would mean fundamentally altering what it was… and though she loathed them all to the depths of her being, for some reason she hesitated over the thought of changing this last one too. Perhaps she thought it might be useful later, or perhaps part of her was still too soft, too weak, too human. Whatever the reason, she stored it and its cage away in pocketspace, and that was that.

Now, she thought, the Incubator might finally prove useful. If it was willing to cooperate.

I must confess, it said, I didn't expect you to let me out.

"Things change," said Homura. "I require something of you. You will assist me, Incubator." Her wording made it clear that interpreting that statement as "I need your help" would be the last thing it ever did.

Kyubey peered through the angles of the cage, his curiosity spiking. The Isolation Field could block all sensory input to the prisoner inside it if its operator so wished. He noted that Homura had chosen to allow him to receive visual and stimuli. There was a telepathic connection as well, but the channel was strictly unidirectional; he could broadcast thoughts, but not intercept them. Those means of gathering data were more than enough to perceive that his present location was not at all what it appeared to be, however. This is not Earth, he said.

Incubators had a remarkable talent for stating the obvious, Homura thought. "Correct."

The visual configuration of this room resembles your home, said Kyubey, but the materials that compose it are… odd. Unlike anything we've seen before. How is that possible?

"All in due time. As I said, I require something of you."

Given that you've placed me in an Isolation Field, I see little way I could assist you at present, said Kyubey. Perhaps if you were to release me-

"No," said Homura with her deadliest, coldest glare. The temperature of the room dropped twenty degrees as she spoke the word. She expected as much from one of a race that thought of themselves as so damned superior to all other beings, but she promised herself long ago that these creatures would never fool her again. Its feeble attempt at trickery would have been amusing in other circumstances, but Homura was not in the mood to laugh. "You will stay in there until I decide otherwise. What I need from you, I can acquire through conversation alone."

Interesting, said Kyubey. He sat down on his haunches and folded his front paws together. Please, continue.

Homura shifted in her seat, choosing her words carefully. Lying was beneath these horrid little beasts (or so they claimed), but they were very skilled at half-truths and deceptions. To get the information she required from this one without destroying its brain or altering its nature, she would need to tread carefully. "I need to know," she said, "how to safely counteract an Isolation Field."

Why would you need to know that?

Again, Homura spoke carefully. "A being has appeared, a dangerous adversary, that has used your kind's technology and hybridized it with others to construct magic-nullifying devices. My power is…" She paused. Best not to show any signs of weakness to it. "They require far too much power to destroy in normal circumstances."

Kyubey tilted his head. It's an efficiency problem?

"Of sorts."

Hmm.

"Well?"

I'll need to consult with my others on this matter. Where are they?

"Gone."

That isn't possible.

"Believe what you want. Do you have an answer for me or not?"

At present, no, said Kyubey. When you say 'gone'...

Homura glowered at it. "What I mean is that that field is as much for your protection as it is for mine and Madoka's. Your kind have been corrupted, and the only way I can ensure that the same corruption doesn't claim you is to shield you from all outside influences."

That's remarkably noble of you, Homura Akemi.

"Don't misunderstand me, Incubator," she sneered. "If it weren't potentially a danger to Madoka, I'd gladly throw you out there to be corrupted with the rest of them."

But where is 'there'? And for that matter, where is here?

"Somewhere between," said Homura. "We're guests of an entity that I'm not certain I like or trust, and the feeling is mutual."

"You know I can hear both of you." Fantine's voice was flat and unamused as it came not from the comm crystal, but from the walls of the room itself.

Kyubey's long ears perked. Fascinating, he said.

"That," said Homura between clenched teeth, "is Fantine, our hostess." For lack of anything else to glare at, she glared at the ceiling as she tossed her hair back. "Do you make a habit of spying on your guests?"

"It's not as if I can help it, Miss Akemi. Especially not when one of them is bending dimensional space and communicating with a potential threat. Your powers don't lend themselves to subtlety very well."

Excuse me, said Kyubey, casting his eyes around for the voice's source. Fantine, is it? I'm very interested to know more details of the situation, but Homura is not being forthcoming.

"And she's quite smart for that," said Fantine. "We may not agree on much, but neither of us trust you."

Ah. Kyubey nodded. Under the circumstances, that's logical, I admit.

"Miss Akemi," she said to Homura, "while I recognize that we may have a need for this creature, that doesn't mean I approve of it being here. However, in the interest of pragmatism, I'll allow the Incubator to stay… on one condition."


The Crossroads of the Lighthouse

Before

"Um," said Madoka, raising a hand. "Excuse me…"

"Uwah~! Sorry, Madoka-chan, sorry!" Something about the girl brought out Usagi's protective instinct. Maybe it was the pink pigtails. "I guess we were kinda talking over you."

"Th-that's all right, Usagi-san, but-" Madoka frowned and wrung her hands together. "With all this talk about fighting and dimensions and stuff, I… I guess you're all magical girls like Homura-chan, right? But from different worlds..."

"That's right," said Fantine. When speaking to Madoka, her tone became gentle, warmer than before.

"And Homura-chan said I was one too… before."

"I guess you've gotta be," said Cure Black. "I mean, if you're here with Usagi-san and me and these other two."

"Then…" said Madoka, "what happened? Why… why did I stop being one?"

Silence all around.

The winged spark fluttered a bit slower. "... Your powers were stolen from you. Sealed away, along with some of your memories," said Fantine. "As you were before, you were a threat to Joker and all of Dead End just by yourself. In fact, you, Sakura, and Usagi are meant to become the Three-"

"The Three?" Usagi interrupted. "Three what?"

"The Three are magical girls that transcend all others, with the ability to restore everything to what it should be. Right now, none of you have the strength that that requires, so as things stand, there's no hope of winning against Dead End. If you can reawaken your true powers, though…"


The Lighthouse, Vertex Point Five

"No," said Homura. After dismissing Kyubey back to pocketspace for privacy, she listened to Fantine give her proposal. Her response was prompt: "Absolutely not."

"I don't see that you have much of a choice, frankly," said Fantine. "She's asking questions about what happened to her. There's only so long that the truth can stay hidden."

"I swore I would never let her fight again."

"You won't be. I'm negotiating with the others, trying to convince them that the war is a lost cause. Getting them to see reason is… difficult, but if we do this…"

"I said no," Homura hissed.

"Miss Akemi." There was that steel in Fantine's voice again, harder and colder than before. "I've told them that if we can all survive long enough to use the powers of the Three to rebuild afterward… there's a chance. I won't lie to you: it's slim, almost nonexistent, but it's a chance. Even if it's not much, if she can give them a reason to stay here instead of throwing away their lives, if she can give them just a little bit of hope..."

Hope. The word tore at Homura's black heart. It was at once the kindest and cruelest thing that anyone could give, capable of causing as much sadness as it could joy. It was within her power to give a tiny fragment of hope back to Madoka, and for Madoka in turn to spread it to the others.

Doing so would likely mean opening Pandora's box. There was a real and terrifying possibility that if she did what Fantine was proposing, Homura would lose everything all over again, and this time, there would be no way to go back and start again.

Isn't that already the case, though? said that buried part of herself.

With trembling hands, Homura reached for the earring, stored away in pocketspace so that nothing could reach it and nothing could happen to it. As she touched it, her lips formed words that she prayed Fantine couldn't see: I'm sorry.


The Crossroads of the Lighthouse

Before

"But most of my Cards are gone," said Sakura, gazing down at the floor.

"And so is the Silver Crystal," Usagi added.

"I know." Fantine's voice was heavy, weary. "As I said, without any of the Three, there's no hope of winning. If we could awaken just one of you-"

An idea struck Madoka. It was a most peculiar idea, as if it came from someone else's mind and found its way into her head. She spoke the words as if possessed: "I could make a wish."

Four pairs of eyes and one winged spark all stared at her.

"That's how it works, isn't it?" said Madoka. "In the stories, I mean. Magical girls can make wishes come true. If I wish hard enough to become one again…"

"It shouldn't be possible," said Fantine, sounding skeptical. "But I suppose it couldn't hurt to try. Just don't be disappointed if it doesn't work… it's a long shot."

"I'm sure you can do it, Madoka-chan." Sakura came to her side and put a hand on her shoulder. Strange, how she already felt like the younger girl was a close friend.

"Sakura-chan's right, we're right here with you," said Usagi, doing likewise. There was that warm, goofy smile again.

"I dunno about all this Three stuff," said Black, "but if Sailor Moon is behind you, so am I." She flashed a grin and a thumbs-up.

"As am I," Nanoha nodded. "Just do your best."

Do your best. The words stirred something in Madoka's heart that she couldn't explain. There was so much that was confusing about all of this. These four should still be strangers to her, but… but she had the most bizarre, unshakeable feeling that she could trust all of them. That she knew all of them, perhaps from a dream.

Blushing slightly, Madoka folded her hands over her heart and closed her eyes. Digging deep into herself, she thought the words with all her might: I wish… I wish I could be a magical girl again...

And something responded. There was a pulse, like a heartbeat.

"Oh," she whispered… and light blossomed from her, bathing her in radiance. Something pushed out from inside her, hard and solid but warm to the touch, glowing from within with soft light. A pink jewel in a gold setting, almost like a Fabergé egg. Her jewel. No, she remembered now what it was called, and she knew what to say...

"Soul Gem," shouted Madoka, "transform me!"

And in a vivid pink flash, Madoka was dressed in a frilly, tiered skirt, cherry colored Mary Janes, white lace gloves… the very image that came to mind when she pictured "magical girl". The Soul Gem reformed itself into a teardrop shape and attached to her choker, then bonded to her skin… She felt so warm, so light, she was floating… power surged through her body, vast and untapped, gathering at her fingertips…

And the others drew back in awe, not understanding what they were seeing, but somehow knowing deep inside themselves that they had just witnessed a miracle. The light that shone from within her shone from inside their hearts as well, a light that spoke of possibility, of overcoming the odds… of hope.

For the first time, the voice that came from the winged spark was hushed with surprise. Fortunately, none of the others heard it. "Well, I'll be damned," said Fantine. "She really came through."

Madoka Kaname opened her eyes. The heels of her Mary Janes touched gently back down on the floor of the Crossroads, and happy tears fell from her lashes as she smiled. "I did it… I'm back."


TSAB L-Class Inspection Cruiser Arthra

Recovery Ward

"Up," said Fate. "Down, up, right, left."

The nurse smiled. "Very good, Cadet. A perfect 20/20, I think… maybe even higher." With a wave of his hand, the nurse deactivated the vision test holo with its rows of differently sized arrows pointing in the four cardinal directions. Technically, Nurse Balzac Yugo was supposed to be Private Balzac Yugo… but he was the only one of Arthra's surviving crew with any medical training beyond the basics, so he had to do. No one else was coming.

By her count, it was a full ship's day since Nanoha left with… with her. An involuntary shudder passed through Fate's body, her hands balling and clutching the sheets. That girl, the Stranger. No matter how open-minded Fate tried to be, no matter how she tried to convince herself that it wasn't the Stranger's fault she looked like her dead sister, she couldn't think of her as Alicia, not ever. She looked like the Alicia she remembered from inside the Book of Darkness, and like the body in the stasis tank that her mother-

No, that was too painful to think about, even years removed from that terrible day.

So instead, Fate tried to think about Nanoha, as she often did when she needed comfort. Ever since she awakened in the infirmary, however, thinking of Nanoha led back to the memory of her smooth, shiny, reddened fingertips, her hands swaddled in bandages. A sick feeling of unease swirled in her stomach whenever that memory came to mind. It had to have been that woman, Viluy. While I was incapacitated, she must have hurt Nanoha… I wasn't there for her. I raced right into that horrible woman's trap, and because of that, I couldn't-

Tiny clear droplets rolled down one of her cheeks. The eyepatch's fabric soaked up the tears on the opposite side, and Fate grimaced at the sensation. Most likely she would have to give her ‒ it still made her dizzy to think of the word ‒ her socket another saline rinse. There were things no one told you about losing an eye, things most people lucky enough to still have both of theirs never thought about. Cleaning and maintenance were two of them.

Surprising how normal having only one eye was starting to feel, though. Surprising, and disturbing. Of course she cried once the initial shock wore off; she wept into Alph's shoulder for an hour, maybe two. That was followed by her introductory lesson in hygiene and personal care. Leaving tears to gather there was neither comfortable nor healthy. For the most part, though, she felt she was transitioning well. Only a few panic attacks upon waking up and seeing half the world dark before she remembered. Less and less temptation to rub the spot, or to blink with that eyelid. Now she had just passed her vision test with flying colors.

As Nanoha said, once they returned to Mid-Childa, there would be a number of options for replacing her lost eye. Some of the cybernetic implants available there were all but indistinguishable from the real things, and came with useful integrated features to boot. Fate wasn't sure she liked some of them; the thought of having incoming text messages displayed directly on her retina, for one, made her skin crawl. If cloning another eye was impossible, though, she supposed she would be happy with a cybernetic. Given time, she would get used to it.

All of that depended on being able to return to Mid-Childa in the first place. None of the crew said anything, but after spending weeks docked at the Lighthouse, the prospect of going home seemed less and less likely. Cut off from their families and friends, with no way of telling if they were still all right, or even alive… no wonder everyone was so restless.

A pneumatic hiss, and the doors slid open. Fate's head snapped up; it was too early for Nurse Yugo to come back, Alph was sleeping, and Lindy was supervising repairs to the ship, so it could only be… "Nanoha!"

"Fate-chan." She smiled, but her eyes were more exhausted than Fate could ever remember. Even during her year of healing and rehab, there was always a spark of life and energy in Nanoha's eyes, but now that spark was dimmed… dimmed, Fate noted, but still there.

It didn't take telepathy to tell that she needed rest. "Come, sit down," said Fate, sliding over and patting the edge of the mattress. It was an order, not a request. "Tell me what happened."

Nanoha tried hard not to wobble as she crossed the room. Too much time on her feet over the past few days, and all those stairs up to the Crossroads, then back down again… she would probably be stuck in the accursed mobility chair for a week from the overexertion. Sitting down gratefully at Fate's side, she tucked her head into her friend's shoulder. With Fate, and Fate alone, she could drop the armor. "I met the others," she began. "From the other worlds. We all talked with Fantine-san, and…"

"And?"

Something inside Nanoha pulled painfully tight. Not now, not yet. Poor Fate had enough on her mind without knowing that they couldn't go home. "There's…" A long pause. She swallowed, and the sound seemed to echo off the walls of the room. "There's something I need to tell you about first. About back on Carnaaji."

"I'm listening." Fate took Nanoha's bandaged hand and laid hers atop it.

"When… when Viluy hurt you…" A prickling sensation in her eyes. Nanoha willed herself to ignore it.

"Nanoha." Fate paused, searching for the right words. "Whatever it is, you know you can tell me. You know I won't think any less of you for it. I love you, nothing will change that."

"I killed her." There, it was finally out, hanging in the air between them, festering in the silence. "I released all of Raising Heart's limiters, all of them, and I used Starlight Breaker."

To Fate, it made a horrifying amount of sense. From the moment she saw Nanoha's hands swaddled in bandages, the shiny red skin of her fingertips, she wanted to believe that it was from something Viluy had done to her… but she knew better. The consequences of turning off one's Device limiters were drilled into every TSAB officer's head over and over, almost from day one. They had all seen the pictures. Given Nanoha's level of power, even after her accident, it was a miracle that she still had hands at all. Fate remembered too well what it was like to be hit with the first Starlight Breaker, and that was in Raising Heart's basic state, before any upgrades: an enormous pink battering ram of brilliant heat and unthinkable power that blasted through every layer of her shielding and protection and knocked her unconscious in an instant. That was with the limiters on. When she woke up after that, it was like she had been hit by every car of a linear rail freight train at once. A full-powered Starlight Breaker sans limiters? Little wonder there was nothing left of Viluy to take into custody.

Once the shock wore off, Fate's first thought was that she was hardly sorry. The Viluy woman was a sociopathic monster, a dangerous lunatic who would have done far, far worse given the opportunity. TSAB regulations stated that lethal force was to be authorized only in the event of a catastrophic emergency, beyond any hope of control. Viluy was responsible for the resurrection of the Book of Darkness, possibly the most dangerous Lost Logia in the history of any world. More than that, she took control of Hayate, and by extension the Book and the Wolkenritter, and heartlessly shut down the latter once they were no longer of use to her, rendering them effectively dead until she desired otherwise. She used the reborn Will's power to summon that horrible creature she called Master Moebius 90 to feast on a defenseless planet. She sneered at their pain, attacked them both without mercy, stole Fate's eye.

Was Viluy beyond redemption? Did the havoc she wreaked constitute the kind of emergency that could only be contained by use of lethal action? Absolutely, without question, Fate thought. But no matter how cruel Viluy was, no matter how many people she had hurt or killed… Nanoha, being Nanoha, would see being forced to kill her as a failure on her part.

Nanoha was sweet. Nanoha was kind. Nanoha honestly tried to see the best in everyone, and succeeded more often than should be possible. She made more dear friends out of mortal enemies than most people did in a lifetime. Now she had blood on her hands, and the horrible burns caused by unleashing her first-ever lethal Starlight Breaker were nothing compared to the pain she must be feeling now… it was destroying her from the inside out.

"Nanoha," said Fate, pulling her close. "It's not your fault."

A choked sob. "It is my fault, Fate-chan! If I hadn't been too weak to-"

"Shhh." Fate placed a gentle kiss on her forehead. "I know. I know how terrible it is, to be forced to do awful things."

"Fate-chan…" she said in a hushed tone. Of course she did, Nanoha remembered. If anything, what Fate had gone through was even worse: being controlled not by magic or by some evil force, but by someone she loved. Years ago, the grief-maddened Precia Testarossa pushed poor Fate to the brink of death in order to collect the volatile Lost Logia called Jewel Seeds and realize her impossible dream, the dream that she might see her dead daughter again in the mythical world of Al Hazard. That dream came close to ripping entire dimensions apart, shattered Fate's perception of herself, and ended with both Precia and the late Alicia's body lost forever.

At least, Precia was lost, that much was certain. Her health was fading fast when they last saw her tumbling into imaginary space along with Alicia's pod… but now, someone claiming to be Alicia, or part of her, was walking around the ship and the Lighthouse. I'm being selfish, thought Nanoha, clutching her hands in her lap. The bandages crinkled. Fate-chan must be suffering so much worse than I am. Not just losing her eye, but having to see the Stranger looking like her… "I'm sorry, Fate-chan."

"Don't be." Fate squeezed her bandaged hands. "You have nothing to be sorry for. I know you. We'll get through this, all of us, together."

All of us, together. Those were intended to be words of comfort, but instead they brought to Nanoha's mind the missing part of their group… A knife bit into her heart. "Fate-chan. Hayate-chan was-"

Fate's eye closed in sorrow. "I know. I read the report. Lindy-san didn't want to show me, but I insisted."

"I just…" Nanoha bowed her head. "I can't imagine how this all could have happened. The Book of Darkness was supposed to be gone. Now it's back and worse than ever. If we still had Hayate-chan, we might be able to stop it like we did last time, but… but she's gone. Worse than gone. The Arc-en-Ciel-"

"You're forgetting," said Fate. "If it has the same programming as before… there might still be a chance to save her."

"Fate-chan?" said Nanoha, not daring to hope.

"Remember?" She was actually smiling, though the smile was bitter. "It took the original Reinforce sacrificing herself to destroy the book for good. Not even the Arc-en-Ciel could stop it from regenerating. If Hayate was Unisoned with her at the time of the blast… then when she regenerates…"

Nanoha drew in a long, sharp breath. She had forgotten. Fate was right: there was a chance. A slim chance, possibly even microscopic, but there was a chance. And she had aleady seen one miracle today… "All right," she said after a long pause, gripping Fate's hands tighter. "All right. We'll do it, somehow. Thank you, Fate-chan."

The smile that Nanoha so loved spread across Fate's face. "That's more like it. Being sad doesn't suit you, Nanoha. You're my invincible ace, and you won't lose to anyone."

"Right."

"So what else did you learn?"

Just like that, Fate was all business again. She was itching to resume her duties, lost eye or no lost eye, Nanoha could tell. "Fantine-san told us why she brought us here. It's not what we thought, but… but we may be able to change things for the better."


Outside the Crossroads

Before

"So it's your job?" Sakura goggled as the two walked down the corridor leading out of the Crossroads. Now that the first meeting was done, Fantine assured them that they could all come and go between the Vertices as they pleased. Sakura, for one, was happy to get to know Nanoha better in particular. "And your family and your friends all know about it?"

"They have for a while now," said Nanoha. "It was kind of a shock to them at first, but they adjusted."

"I can't imagine that. Going to school like normal, and then just going poof to another world after class…!"

"Eh heh…" Nanoha rubbed the back of her head. "It did take some getting used to. To be honest, I can't imagine the kinds of things you've done. Being chosen as the successor for your world's greatest mage…!"

"Hoeee~, you heard that?!" Sakura stopped dead in the crystalline corridor, flushing bright red. "I-it's not a big deal, r-really! Oh-!"

"Hmmm? Is something wrong?"

"Nanoha-chan, your hands!" Sakura had just noticed the bandages as the other girl put her hand back down. "Was this from-"

Shadows gathered on Nanoha's face. "Dead End, yes. Don't worry, they'll heal. That reminds me, Sakura-chan, I should go check on a friend back on the Arthra. If you want to talk later, though…"

"Of course! Just call for me, and I'll be there as soon as I can."

"Thank you, Sakura-chan." Nanoha smiled. "You know, we're technically the only two of the main five who do magical girl stuff as work. We should stick together, do you think?"

Sakura had to laugh at that. "I never thought of it that way. We really should."


The Lighthouse, Vertex Point Three

Little by little, it was coming back to her. Nagisa Misumi, Cure Black, hunched over an Immaterial notepad with an Immaterial pen (strengthened and fortified; Precure super strength was too much for normal pens. She quickly learned that they tended to explode when she tightened her grip. It was a good thing Immaterial ink, by its very nature, couldn't stain.) Every few seconds, she would glance up to confirm that the Echo-Stranger was still leading her down the corridor, then her eyes would travel back down to her notes.

"Okay, so Honoka and I are the first Cures," she muttered to herself. "Hikari joined us later. Then there's Precure Splash Star, two of them… or four, sort of. Then Fresh Precure… no, wait, Precure 5 and Rose first, then Fresh… then Heartcatch, Suite, Smile, Happiness Charge, and Princess… crap, am I forgetting one?"

"Doki Doki," said Fantine's voice from her comm crystal.

"Ah, right!" said Black. "Yeah, Cure Heart. Mana and her team. Thanks, Fantine-san. Wow, there sure are a lot of us…"

The Echo-Stranger smiled faintly.

"I sure hope I can remember all these names without my notes," said Black. "Like, I'm remembering bits and pieces…" Her eyes screwed shut. "There was a big blobby thing that we all fought... twice. It-" She hesitated as the threads of memory wove back together. "It wanted to absorb all our powers, and the second time was when Echo first appeared. Then there was something huge that came out of the sea. And a black hole… holy crap, we fought a black hole. And a shadow that stole our transformation items and tried to freeze us all in crystals, and a dream monster… and for some reason, I remember us all singing on stage at a big concert. What was that one about?!"

There was a mental equivalent of a shrug from Fantine. "The multiverse works in mysterious ways."

Black was still a bit miffed with Fantine for what she said earlier, but she was trying to let it go. After all, she had just seen something that pretty much disproved all this "there's no hope" nonsense of hers. Whether she liked it or not, Black intended to use the emotional boost she got from witnessing Madoka's transformation to its fullest advantage. Enough sulking, enough brooding. It was time for action.

"However it works, I'm just glad to have the company," said Black. "I mean, with ten different teams from ten multi-whatevers, we've gotta be like a small army by now, right?"

Fantine said nothing.

Ahead, a doorway appeared before the Echo-Stranger, who beckoned Black through. Something gleamed in her eyes for a brief instant.

Black, for her part, was too preoccupied by the thought of leading dozens of fellow Cures to notice. "Because by my count, there's at least fifty of us-" She stopped in the doorway. She stared.

There were three people in the meeting room.

Just three.

"No," said Black, hushed. "No way. I don't believe this."

One of the three stood up from the gently curving couches pushed up against the walls. Rather thin, with large glasses, the kind eyes behind the circular lenses matching her long scarlet twintails, which were tied with fluffy yellow scrunchies. "Oh," said Tsubomi Hanasaki. She sank into a hasty bow, then pushed her glasses back up the bridge of her nose before they could fall. "You're… Misumi-sempai. Nagisa. Cure Black…"

"Hey, yeah!" Next to her, a shorter girl with a cute round face bounced to her feet as if there were springs on her heels, her long waves of navy hair bouncing a half-second behind her. "I remember now! Cure Black and Cure White!" said Erika Kurumi, Cure Marine, beaming bright. "You guys were the original Precure, right?!"

The third rose with far more poise and dignity. Stern and mature for her age, with an athlete's build… no, Black remembered. Martial artist, though that naturally extended to athletic ability as well. "Misumi-sempai," said Iona Hikawa, Cure Fortune. "Welcome. It's an honor to fight alongside you again."

Black's nervous excitement from moments before ebbed away and spiraled down a drain. Aghast, she leaned against the doorframe for support. "But… but there were so many of us. You… you three are all who made it? Dead End took… everyone else…?"

Iona's serious façade cracked with strain. "Six, actually. Kirara and Towa… that is, Cure Twinkle and Cure Scarlet… they're in the infirmary. Scarlet isn't... doing well, and Twinkle won't leave her side."

"And…" said Tsubomi, downcast. She looked away, unable to meet Black's gaze. "And then there's Yayoi. She's… she's probably not coming."

Seven Precures. Seven, out of dozens, or even hundreds. Black had been expecting to lead an army. Instead, there were seven… two of whom couldn't or wouldn't fight. She tried to speak, but any words she thought of seemed feeble in light of the monstrous things that Joker and Dead End had done to them.

In any other circumstance, Black would have fallen to pieces then. Now, though? She had just witnessed a miracle. She had just seen living proof that despite Fantine's cynicism, there were things even she didn't know and couldn't predict.

"Okay," said Black, taking a deep, steadying breath. "Okay. It's gonna be fine. Let's just start at the beginning."


The quiet scratching of a pencil on paper was the only sound in Yayoi Kise's room. There had been tears, of course. A small mountain of crumpled tissues in her wastebasket could attest to that. Not for some time, though. For the moment, Yayoi was all cried out.

So instead of crying, she drew. And drew. And drew. Not her usual manga panels, robots, and superheroes… those were too painful to think about right now. Almost every sheet was filled with dark scribbles, formless doodles. Quite a lot of them were colored-in black from top to bottom.

It was nice, she supposed, to have infinite supplies, thanks to the Immaterial. No matter how much she scribbled, pencils would never grow dull, pens would never run out of ink, and if she needed a new piece of paper, she could just scrunch up and concentrate and there it was. With the way time worked here, she never got cramps or needed to rest her drawing hand either.

Once upon a time, an arrangement like that would have made her ecstatically happy. All the time and art supplies she could ever want, with no distractions? It should have been bliss. It was anything but. Without her best friends, without Candy… she was empty, formless as the scribbles she was drawing. What good were drawings with no one to see them?

A droplet spattered on the paper, smudging a few of the lines. So she had a few tears left after all. Yayoi sniffled and wiped her eyes on the sleeve of her old yellow cardigan. It still smelled like home. That only made it worse.

Thinking of home led to thinking of her mother. If her mother managed to escape the sheet of ice that froze Nanairogaoka, would she be out there right now, wondering where Yayoi was? For that matter, could she escape? Maybe she could hide out in Märchenland with Pop...

Pop. Yayoi always had a special place in her heart for the manly little lion-fox fairy. He was supposed to be in Märchenland, watching over the Royale Palace in Candy's stead. Did Joker get him too?

Candy. Candy was… gone.

Miyuki, Akane, Nao, and Reika. They were worse than gone… Joker twisted them into monsters like himself. Cruel, evil things, hideous parodies of who they were supposed to be. His puppets.

Yayoi shuddered in her seat and hugged herself tight. She felt it welling up, the tight, sick feeling in her belly, the urge to start crying again, but she was so tired of crying…

There was a soft knock at the door. "Yayoi-chan?" said a voice on the other side.

"Come in." Her response was listless. She didn't really feel like having company, but she didn't not feel like it, either. It didn't matter.

Yui Nanase bit her lip as she entered the facsimile of Yayoi's bedroom. More black scribbles. Not a good sign. "Yayoi-chan, there's a meeting a few doors away with the other Cures."

"I know," said Yayoi without looking up. "I'm staying here, thank you."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes. They don't need me."

Yui cringed as if slapped. "Don't say that, Yayoi-chan. You're just as much a Cure as the rest of them."

"Then how come I couldn't do anything?" Yayoi's shoulders shook as she hunched over the drawing board. "All I could do was cry, while Joker took everything away from me…"

"I know how you feel." Slowly, carefully, Yui crossed the room to put a hand on Yayoi's shoulder. "When Haruka and the others became Precure and I couldn't… I felt pretty helpless, too, you know. It's terrible, feeling like you can't do anything."

Shying away from her touch, Yayoi huddled down into her seat. "But I'm supposed to be a Precure, and I'm just… just… a crybaby. A useless crybaby." The hated insult came out with a choking sob. "And I hate it. I hate it."

They had only known each other for a short time. The other Cures were nice people, but Yui didn't feel like she knew them yet. Yayoi, though… there was something about her. Something special, Yui thought. Underneath the trauma of everything that had happened to her was an exceptional talent. A fellow artist. Both of them geeky, a bit shy, and a bit eccentric, with some noted self-esteem problems. When Yui saw how much Yayoi was suffering… well, she saw herself in her. And because she wasn't a Precure, couldn't fight alongside the others… she could at least try to help a kindred spirit.

"You know," said Yui gently. "Tsubomi-san thought about herself like that when she first started."

One eye peeked out from the shadows of Yayoi's golden curls. "Huh?"

"I talked with her. She said that her own fairy called her 'the weakest Precure in history' after her first fight."

Yayoi blinked. That was difficult to picture. "... Tsubomi-sempai? Cure Blossom? Really? Chypre said that?"

"Chypre admitted it," Yui chuckled. "She apologized later. But I talked to someone else I think you might know. Someone who thought she was a useless crybaby, but she was stronger than even she knew. She was kind of famous for it, actually."

Only now did Yayoi look her in the eyes. She blinked in confusion. "Who?"

Yui turned to the open door. Time for the secret weapon. "Okay," she said. "You can come in now."

Yayoi looked… and her mouth fell open in abject shock. A choked gasp slipped out from between her fingers as she moved to cover it.

"You're Yayoi-chan, right?" said the young woman at the door. She wore her hair in a distinctive set of twin odango, with long blonde pigtails like a rabbit's ears… and though Yayoi had never met her in person before, though she looked a little older than she imagined, there was no doubt whatsoever who she was. "I'm Usagi," she said with a warm and goofy grin. "Usagi Tsukino. I've heard a lot about you."

A million emotions crossed Yayoi's face in that moment… but the one she settled on was the pure joy of an impossible childhood dream fulfilled, a radiant smile that lit the dark little room like sunshine. At the same time, she burst into noisy tears and rushed to embrace the young woman, stumbling and almost falling over her chair as she tossed it aside…

"It's okay," said Usagi, holding her close and whispering to her. A few tears of her own rolled down her cheeks. "It's all gonna be okay. Hey, Yui-chan told me you draw manga really well… If it's all right with you, I'd love to see some of it."

END OF CHAPTER 22

Chapter Text

Chapter 23: Offensive Statement

-VERTEX FOUR: 8.36679-

TSAB Headquarters

Interdimensional Space

Five words sent the entire Time Space Administration Bureau into high alert.

It was mostly unheard of for all levels of an organization as large and widespread as the TSAB to consolidate all of its branches, but those five words and the manner in which they were delivered, on top of everything else going wrong… the top brass wouldn't admit it, but they were terrified. Standard dimensional disturbances were bad enough; with the return of one of the deadliest Lost Logia in existence, the unauthorized firing of an Arc-en-Ciel on a planet capable of supporting life, and the inexplicable disappearance of a state-of-the-art L-Class flagship with all hands including two of the Three Aces, all within the same 48-hour span… those five words were enough to put the entire Bureau, from the Legendary Admirals down to the non-commissioned deckhands, on a crisis footing.

The five words themselves were simple: "Evacuate. Dead End is coming."

What was cause for alarm was that those words appeared simultaneously on thousands of worlds, on every communication system and frequency the TSAB had, even the most private encrypted channels. The sender was anonymous, the point of origin so thoroughly scrambled that it would take decades to decipher, the message delivered via a massive, coordinated burst that bypassed all existing security measures and ensured that the Bureau couldn't help but sit up and take notice. Even hundreds of history's most gifted hackers working together couldn't manage a feat like that.

All for just five words: "Evacuate. Dead End is coming."

Calls to defend the heart of the TSAB went out far and wide, to officers on ships of every kind, stationed in every dimension the Bureau had jurisdiction over. And the fleets answered: vessels of all classes now hovered around the station, at least ten ships for each of the six primary spires of the massive alloy structure that hung suspended in interdimensional space. Looking at it now from the outside, Headquarters resembled a model of an atom scaled to enormous size, with the countless ships its orbiting molecules: swarms of tiny single-pilot fighters covered the blind spots of thirteen enormous R-Class dreadnoughts, each half a kilometer long save for the largest and heaviest, the behemoth flagships Takuri, Kunisue, and Eltreum, which dwarfed the others at four kilos from bow to stern. There were well over two dozen L-Class cruisers, the missing Arthra's type, the most versatile the TSAB had. Half were jury-rigged with hastily-constructed Arc-En-Ciel cannons, just to be safe. Supporting them were scores of frigates bristling with advanced weaponry, quick and nimble recon flyers in tight formations, multitudes of autonomous repair ships guided by AI and equipped with hundreds of spindly arms ending in a variety of tools, floating artillery platforms and defense shield generators… and on the outer edges of Headquarters territory, a vast, networked proximity mine field, composed of several thousand chrome spheres in a spherical grid pattern. The Dimensional Navy was out in full force.

The higher-ranking officers of the Ground Forces on Cranagan scoffed at this entire operation, as was typical of them. Lt. General Regius Gaiz, in particular, railed publicly at the thought of expending so much manpower and so many resources over one cryptic message with an unknown source. Many Ground Forces personnel agreed with him, though unlike Gaiz, they prefered to keep their opinions off the public record.

Response from the Navy's commanding officers was swift. It came not in the form of arguments via comms or formal rebuttals, but in the form of the last automatic logs transmitted by the Arthra before the total disappearance of the ship and her crew. These logs struck cold fear into the hearts of everyone who saw them, even Gaiz, who silenced his complaints immediately.

The Athra's final logs revealed the following:

That the Book of Darkness had returned from utter annihilation with its Will fully manifested, and with possibly the most powerful mage in all worlds serving as her Unison Device, which raised her threat level from "catastrophic" to "exponentially apocalyptic". That latter phrase had to be coined in an emergency meeting of a half-dozen experts from the Threat Countermeasures Department, who were convened to assess the situation. The shaken TCD experts concluded that there were no official threat levels on the books sufficient to properly describe the magnitude of damage the Will could do with Cadet Yagami powering her, so one had to be invented and implemented for the occasion.

That a woman who didn't exist in any of the TSAB's databases had managed to incapacitate and critically injure one of the most gifted young Enforcer cadets in generations, one of the legendary Three Aces, with nothing more than her bare hands and a weapon composed of a swarm of foreign nanobots. Ordinary nanobots were children's toys at best compared to the technologies that the TSAB outfitted Enforcers with, but these were clearly not ordinary nanobots. They broke down and froze Cadet Harlaown's Device and Barrier Jacket systems with scornful ease, which suggested that the woman called Viluy had either developed a breed of microscopic machines of an advanced level never seen before by the Bureau, or that she somehow had intimate knowledge of exactly how to disable modern TSAB technology. The possibility that both of those explanations were true was too frightening to contemplate.

That the resurrected Will had completed a partial dimensional transfer of a moon-sized organism that seemed to defy all conventional explanation. It was "half hostile cybernetic / technological AI construct, half unknown, uncatalogued parasitic transdimensional / extradimensional entity", again according to the mystified TCD experts, and both halves were seamlessly integrated with each other down to the molecular level. Even half-transferred, the technorganic entity proved itself able to assimilate eighty percent of a mid-sized M-Class planet in less than an hour. That was the crisis which presumably led the decorated Admiral Lindy Harlaown of the Arthra to ignore all proper emergency protocol and fire her ship's Arc-En-Ciel at the planet, in a desperate attempt to contain the situation. The technorganic entity, the Book of Darkness, the Will, Cadet Yagami, and the planet Carnaaji were now erased from space-time as a result… or so the TCD desperately hoped.

And all three of these unthinkable nightmares were allegedly the work of the same organization: the one named Dead End.

"Evacuate. Dead End is coming."

The words sent the Bureau's researcher departments into a frenzy, scouring all available resources for any mention of Dead End, its structure, its leaders, or its goals. Nothing could be found. It was as if the hand of a God had reached into the countless repositories of knowledge gathered by the TSAB and neatly wiped out any and all mention of Dead End and anyone or anything relating to it. Impossible, the TCD experts said, no organization with that much power could erase all proof of its own existence from the TSAB. Even attempting such a thing would set off a system-wide alert, and bring scores of the Bureau's best down upon the perpetrators' heads.

And yet, that appeared to be the case. The TCD experts had no explanations. One in particular, throwing his hands up in frustration, said this on record: "Considering the three impossible things that have already happened this week, I'm willing to believe in a fourth."

So the entire Dimensional Navy gathered. Gathered, and waited, with the fleets prowling around Headquarters and scanning every possible angle of attack.

When that attack finally came, all their careful preparation was for naught.


Once again, a message was broadcast simultaneously over every means of communication the TSAB possessed