The Dark Lords Ascendant, Chapter 16 [R/SM Cross]

This is for posting Fiction and C&C replies ONLY. Note this does not have to be a "fukufic" or even fanfiction. All completed /ready-for0review longform creative writing allowed. No posting of individual scenes; that is what the Outlines and Scenes section is for.Replying posts must give actual commentary, no "GREAT IDEA" or "THIS SUCKS".

The Dark Lords Ascendant, Chapter 16 [R/SM Cross]

Postby claymade » Mon Jan 22, 2018 11:31 pm

Disclaimer: I don't own Ranma 1/2 or Sailor Moon in any way, shape or form. All associated characters, trademarks, etc. are the property of Rumiko Takahashi and Naoko Takeuchi. I'm just telling some stories about them.



Chapter Sixteen: Men and Monsters



His shoulders hunched, his gaze not focused on anything, Nagai shuffled down the street in the direction of the train station.

In truth, there was little left of "Nagai Masuyo" in the body walking that path. For all the preceding night, the nameless being animating Ekim's flesh had spoken directly to Nagai, over and over and over again, hour after hour, until the man's soul had been crushed under the relentless weight of the creature's will. Even now the echoes filled him, prompting each and every move he made.

Tanizaki had not been foolish enough to store the artifacts he had been hiding from Ekim anywhere near the sorcerer. The secret vault where they were kept was a remote one, far to the north of Tokyo. It would take the rest of the day just to get out there, whereupon he could use his clearance to remove the items he had been sent to obtain and bring them back.

It would not be long now. The seal would be broken. The Nameless One would be set free upon this reality once more. And this meaningless and insubstantial planet would be consumed.

And then, perhaps, in the nothingness Nagai would find peace.

Step by step, Nagai walked ever closer toward the train station, ever closer toward the end of the world.


**********


In a different part of Tokyo, others greeted the morning in a much different manner.

Sailor Saturn stood inside the small office building that was their headquarters, along with the other Sailor Senshi and the martial artists. Sailor Chibi-moon was the only one missing; she was back in the Dark Kingdom, using her power to help keep Usagi stable. All other injured and non-combatants had been moved through the portal as well, to keep them safe from the coming battle.

One martial artist that particularly caught her eye was Akane's father, who had donned a large set of samurai armor, and now held a naginata. He clutched it so tight that his knuckles were white, and he kept shifting back and forth nervously, but there was a determination in his eyes all the same. On the other hand, she couldn't see Ranma's father anywhere. Was he running late?

Quite a few of the more powerful monsters had joined them as well, looking eager to get some payback against the ones who had imprisoned and experimented on them. They were also clustered around Ranma and Ryouga in particular, for some reason. Beneda was among their number, carrying a first aid kit with her.

Hesitantly, Sailor Saturn walked toward Ryouga. The monsters around him glanced at her, then back at the lost boy, then made a path for her, their manner oddly deferential. She stood next to him, looking up at him with a shy smile. He returned it with a smile of his own, though there was a barely perceptible sadness to it that she couldn't quite understand.

Before she could say anything, however, Sailor Pluto addressed the assembled group. "The time for battle is almost upon us," she said, her voice composed yet tight. "Soon we will face the attack we have been preparing for."

She gestured toward the huge chamber that occupied the middle of a wide open area, formed by knocking out several nearby walls. They had reinforced the tank to the utmost extent possible, combining the magic and engineering of humans, Senshi and monsters. "Our enemy will try to distract us with his Synths," Sailor Pluto continued. "But the real threat is the Wyrmspawn. At all costs, we must lure it into the sensory deprivation chamber and trap it. Everything else is secondary. If this measure fails, we will have no recourse against it."

Sailor Pluto maintained her usual unflappable demeanor as she gave her warning, but to someone who knew her as well as Sailor Saturn did, it was clear that this monster had unnerved the older Senshi. That's right, Sailor Saturn remembered. She saw the aftermath of its first rampage, all those millennia ago, when it killed Sailor Moon's grandmother. How bad was it, that it still frightens her even now?

Sailor Mercury walked over to the tank and reached underneath the door, sliding it upward along the rails that they had devised, locking it into place. With how enormous the tank was to begin with, they'd also needed to take out a good section of the ceiling just to give the door enough room to fully open. "We'll need to lure it through this entrance," she explained. "Then, once it's inside..." She hit a nearby latch, and the door slammed back down with an ear-splitting clang. Immediately, the tank walls began to pulse with a speckled blue-and-black aura, as the warding magic took effect.

Now Ranma spoke up. "And that's just the start," he said. "Tanizaki's going to have more than just that one card up his sleeve, and the second he realizes we trapped his pet dragon-thing, he's going to focus everything on getting it free again. We've gotta trap it, and then we've gotta keep it trapped, against everything he can throw at us."

"Based on Ryo's visions, our allies in the police and JSDF have helped us evacuate as much of the surrounding city as possible," Sailor Mercury continued. "There shouldn't be anyone else left in this entire ward, so you don't need to worry about collateral damage while you're fighting."

Sailor Saturn nodded, though she felt a touch of worry that she tried not to show. The extent to which Ryo had insisted they move people away had been nigh-on ridiculous. It wasn't that she doubted his precognition. Quite the opposite, in fact.

If that level of evacuation had been necessary to keep the citizens out of danger... then what did that say about what was coming for them?

"Aside from that, though, we've requested that the authorities not involve themselves," said Sailor Mercury. "They're not equipped to fight an army of Synths—let alone the Wyrmspawn—and the last thing we want is a massacre. They've agreed not to engage any of Tanizaki's forces, and to let us handle them."

"The enemy coming to attack us is as deadly as any we have ever faced," Sailor Pluto finished. "But we will stand firm. We will not allow them to harm Usagi. Remember the plan, and be prepared to fight with all your strength. We must defeat our enemy here, or everything is lost."

Everyone nodded in agreement, the atmosphere subdued. They began to disperse, heading outside to their assigned positions. But Sailor Saturn hesitated, looking up at Ryouga. She remembered the resolution she had made the previous day, to tell him that she returned his feelings.

Anxiety twisted in her stomach. It was all very well to decide something like that, but to actually do it... Nevertheless, with all the danger facing them, she had to take this chance now. "Um... Ryouga? Would you like me to lead you to the place you'll be guarding? There's... something I want to talk to you about."

"Oh, of course!" he said, surprised. "Thank you. I would really appreciate that."

And so the two of them walked out of the building, Sailor Saturn guiding the lost boy, her heart hammering in her chest as she thought about what she was going to say when they reached their destination.


**********


In Adachi Ward, on the other side of Tokyo from the Dark Kingdom portal, Murata Rikuto typed on the laptop in front of him. The chubby, glasses-wearing man was accompanied by over a dozen of his fellow scientists at the mobile camp they had set up in the middle of a blocked-off residential street. All of them were engaged in similar work as they awaited the arrival of their employer.

They had set out several tables, with computers and other devices packed along their length, all of them manned. A bank of larger screens stood toward the center of the camp, some of them showing abstract tactical displays with blinking icons indicating the positions of their forces, while others shifted between live images of the target area. They had used Synth scouts to lay down an extensive network of cameras, enabling them to view the situation from any angle.

But it's my work that's the most crucial of all, thought Rikuto. He continued to type, biting his lower lip as the muddled through the configuration parameters for the satellite targeting uplink that he had been working on all night. This wasn't his field of expertise, but the members of his team who should have been setting this up had all abandoned their employer at the urging of a hallucination.

It sickened Rikuto how easily people were falling in line with the Sailor Senshi and their dream horse. Maybe Mr. Tanizaki had done some questionable things, pushed a few boundaries... but what great man hadn't? If it was a choice between an honest, down-to-earth human like him, or one of those frilly, self-righteous "magical girls" from who-knew-where, Rikuto knew who had his support.

Rikuto tried to fight back a yawn, but failed. Thanks to his former subordinates' betrayal, he had barely been able to finish setting this up in time. But he had done it. His sleepless night had not been in vain. The triple-check indicated that the satellite uplink was working flawlessly, with green lights all across the board.

And not a moment too soon. Even as he finished the final check, he heard footsteps behind him. He turned around in his chair, and his eyes widened. "Mr. Tanizaki!" he stammered. "It's an honor to meet you, sir!"

In person, his employer cut an even more commanding figure than Rikuto had expected. His black suit coat was fitted with impeccable exactness, and he carried a large black hard-shell briefcase with eye-catching gold trim along its edges. Even just walking, the man's movements were sharp and precise. From what Rikuto had read in an article once, Tanizaki was actually older than him, but nothing in how he carried himself suggested it, the only hint being some small shocks of grey hair around the temples.

"Ah, Mr. Murata," Tanizaki acknowledged. "I'm told I have you to thank for putting this together."

Rikuto flushed with pride. "Thank you, sir! Though... it isn't as complete as I would like. We're only in the prototype stage, so the effective range isn't much beyond ten kilometers, and I'm still not satisfied with the recharge time... but when I heard you were looking for anything we could use against the Sailor Senshi, I just knew this could help!"

As he spoke, Rikuto gestured to his left, toward the huge machine that sat off to the side of the camp proper. The base was a hemisphere, the flat side lying flush to the ground. It was constructed so that the upper section of the hemisphere could swivel in any direction, and from that part protruded a long barrel. It looked like an enormous turret, but it hummed and pulsed with an energy that seemed to electrify the very air around it. A throbbing blue glow could be seen from its internals, from the magic reactor that provided the weapon's power. The same blue glow built up all along the barrel to the very tip as it charged.

"Excellent," Tanizaki said. "Is it ready to fire?"

"It should be." Then the pudgy scientist hesitated. "By the way, sir... Do you happen to know if the Sailor Senshi will be capable of... well... shooting back at us? We've placed this camp as far away as the cannon's range will allow, but... I mean... I've heard all kinds of wild stories about what they can do. And I don't really know what their maximum range really is. And, well... it's just a prototype, so we haven't exactly given it much in the way of armor yet..."

"As far as I know, they have not demonstrated any ability to target us over such a distance," Tanizaki answered. "Still, I do share your concern. There is no guarantee that they cannot... and more to the point, in previous conflicts they have shown a distressing tendency to manifest new powers based on the needs of the moment. So as an extra precaution, I have arranged a replacement for the armor that it lacks."

Rikuto blinked. "Really? I haven't heard of any research projects like that. Is there really an armor that can stand up to the attacks of the Sailor Senshi?"

Tanizaki smiled. "Oh yes," he said. "Against the Sailor Senshi, this armor will be absolutely impregnable."

He raised his hand and made a small gesture. Rikuto turned, and saw a group of guards approaching. Unlike the Synths patrolling the camp's perimeter, these were human members of Tanizaki's security force. Herded between them were a group of about twenty people, all different ages, all of them frightened. Rikuto realized that they were residents of the surrounding homes.

As he watched, the guards shoved their prisoners over to the cannon, and forced them to kneel in a circle around the huge machine, their hands held behind their head. Some of the younger children were crying, and Rikuto suppressed a wince. If the reactor did explode—or even just the charge accumulating in the barrel chamber—there wouldn't be so much as a skeleton left of anyone that close.

Don't worry about them, he told himself. It's... not like they're going to be hurt. Mr. Tanizaki is right. The Sailor Senshi would never target the weapon in the first place if it would kill all those people. So that means we're not actually putting them in danger. It's just a tactic to ensure that we win.

The pudgy scientist turned away from the sight, focusing on the laptop in front of him while trying his best to block out the sounds he could still hear. He struck a few more keys on his laptop's keyboard, and a map appeared on the screen. "Well, sir, unless there's something else, we can begin whenever you are ready. I just need to enter the coordinates, and the targeting algorithms will do the rest."

"Excellent." Tanizaki walked over to the center of the camp, a safe distance away from the cannon. Then he set his briefcase down and looked up at the nearby monitors, taking in the scenes from the camera network. Studying them.

"The Wyrmspawn and our Synth forces are still a good distance out," he said. "But perhaps we can catch them by surprise while they are still feeling safe..."


**********


After a short walk, which included gently adjusting Ryouga's course several times when he inevitably veered away, Sailor Saturn arrived with him at the spot he'd been assigned to defend, standing on one of the rooftops near their base. "Thank you," Ryouga said with a smile that was grateful, albeit embarrassed. "So... what was it you wanted to talk about?"

And with that, there was no excuse left. "I..." she began, fidgeting as she stood there. "I wanted to tell you something before the battle. That... I really appreciated all the things you've done. The way you've helped us." Mentally, she kicked herself. This wasn't what she wanted to say, it was just dancing around the real issue.

But she tried to press on. "It... it really meant a lot to me, that you would do that. And, I mean... not just that, but... I really enjoyed getting to know you over the past week! Even with... everything else going on."

Ryouga chuckled. "It has been pretty busy, hasn't it?"

Sailor Saturn nodded. "And... I... I want to keep getting to know you after all this is over! You're a really nice person, and I was hoping that... even after things go back to normal, you'll still want to... spend some time with me?" She couldn't meet his eyes as she spoke, focusing instead on her hands held in front of her, twisting back and forth.

"Of course!" Ryouga blurted out. "I mean... I can't promise how often I can visit you, since... you know. I don't know when I'll be able to find my way there. But I'll try! If it'd make you happy, I'll try!"

Sailor Saturn's face lit up with a beaming smile, and she raised her gaze to look at him directly. "Thank you!" she said. "Because... because I... I really, really lov—"

Her confession, however, was interrupted as Ryouga threw himself at her.

The first, confused thought that crossed her jumbled mind was that she wasn't ready for him to respond this affectionately. But it soon became obvious that there was nothing amorous about the flying tackle he hit her with. Especially not once she saw the streak of blue light slicing across the sky. And especially not when it hit the building they had just been standing on.

The entire structure erupted outward in a blast of bluish-white energy, the walls shattering and then disintegrating. The shockwave hit Ryouga in the back, hurling them both forward. They tumbled through the air, the young martial artist twisting so he hit the ground instead of her. They skidded across the concrete until they came to a stop.

Sailor Saturn sprang to her feet, her glaive held at the ready. Ryouga pulled himself back up right after. "It looks like the battle is starting earlier than we thought," he said, his tone grim.

"You're right." Sailor Saturn nodded in agreement, while searching the skies for any sign of another attack. She pushed any thoughts of the preceding conversation from her mind, focusing on her immediate responsibilities. Her distraction had nearly cost them their lives just now, ensuring that she hadn't noticed the attack until it was too late. If it hadn't been for Ryouga's danger sense, they might have both been killed. And now that the fighting had begun, it would be even more irresponsible to indulge her personal desires.

"I let them catch me off-guard," she said softly, tightening her grip on her glaive. "But it won't happen a second time."


**********


Tanizaki's lip twisted in distaste as he watched the video feed from his camera network. He'd hoped to make the most of the element of surprise, and take out two high priority targets in one shot, but it had turned out that the energy cannon's blast had not been fast enough to defeat the reaction time of his opponents. Disappointing.

The low hum filling the air changed in pitch as the cannon's reactor gathered charge for the next shot. Tanizaki glanced around the makeshift command center, his eyes fixing on a display that showed the progress of his Synth army, a mass of small green dots swarming across the map. It would not be long now before they arrived at their destination.

Their formation was spread out, arranged so that they could envelop his opponent's perimeter and attack in many successive waves from every direction. Tanizaki was well aware of the scope of destruction that the Sailor Senshi's largest attacks could unleash, and he was not about to concentrate his forces such that they could be taken out in a few large blows. No, the Synths were only there to prevent them from escaping and to divide their focus, leaving them that much more vulnerable to the true attack.

Shifting his gaze, Tanizaki tracked the progress of the other icon on the map screen. The red triangle that represented his transport vehicle, drawing ever closer to its release point.


**********


"Here they come!"

Even as Ranma shouted the warning the vast Synth forces swarmed toward them, some jumping across the rooftops, others flying through the air. They were still a ways off, but getting closer by the second.

First came the energy beams, crimson bolts shooting out from the single eyes of the large, spider-looking Synths. The air all around Ranma lit up with so much destructive energy that he could practically taste it. Their fire was less than accurate when shooting from such a distance, but the sheer volume of attacks forced him to jump off the rooftop and down to the street below. That was where most of the others had gathered, forming a defensive perimeter around their base.

Ranma's danger sense screamed at him, and he looked up to see another glowing blue projectile streak across the sky, carving a long trail from whatever distant location the damn thing was firing from. Unlike the first time, however, Sailor Saturn was expecting it.

"Silence Wall!" A huge barrier appeared in the projectile's path, manifesting above the rooftops to intercept it before it could reach them. The shot detonated against the wall in another blinding explosion, but Sailor Saturn's defense held without any effort.

We've gotta do something about that weapon! Ranma thought. The question was: what? Tracking the shots back to their source would be simple to do, considering how obvious their path was. But who should go? As far away as it was, anyone who left probably wouldn't make it back in time to help with the main battle. If they sent too many people, it could cost them the fight here. On the other hand, if they didn't send enough, the attack force might end up dead, with the weapon still operational.

Worse, Ranma was pretty sure he could guess who was defending it. If Tanizaki really was planning to release the Wyrmspawn onto the battlefield then he probably wasn't going to join the fight himself and risk attracting his own pawn's attention. No, he would keep his distance. But someone like him wouldn't want to sit the fight out entirely either... which meant he was very likely protecting that weapon, possibly with Zhang as well.

I don't think anyone besides me can handle Tanizaki, Ranma thought. Hell, I'm not even sure if I can, and if Zhang is backing him up it'd be even worse. Out of everyone that's still standing, Konatsu probably has the best chance of countering his assassination techniques. But if the two of us leave, will the others be able to handle the Wyrmspawn while we're gone?

Ranma let out a hiss of breath. No, can't risk it, he finally decided. Saturn's holding off the shots just fine. She'll just have to keep it up until we finish things here. Then we'll see about taking out that weapon.

Further thought was interrupted as the first wave of enemies reached their position. The winged flying Synths swooped down ahead of the others, aiming to disrupt the defenders' formation while the main force closed the distance. The grey creatures dove fearlessly into the storm of monster magic, ki blasts, bandannas, gymnastics batons, spikes of air pressure and any number of other projectiles that those without ranged attacks had brought to throw.

The barrage ripped apart Synths by the score, but some still made it through. The survivors dive-bombed the defenders, claws slashing. A great many of them targeted Sailor Saturn, but Ryouga stood right next to her, lashing out with murderous fury at any Synth that tried to harm her, sometimes literally ripping them limb from limb. Kodachi's gymnastics ribbon snagged others by the neck as they flew past and slammed them headfirst into the concrete, while Ukyo's battle spatula smashed down any that flew near her.

Similar exchanges played out all along the perimeter, and the pandemonium only increased as the first of the ground forces crested the nearby buildings and came into view. The four-armed sword-wielding Synths poured down into the streets from every direction, but thanks to the vigorous defense of the martial artists and the monsters, the aerial attacks had done little to pressure the Sailor Senshi... leaving them free to respond.

Bolts of green light shot out rapid-fire from Sailor Jupiter, sweeping across the oncoming Synths as she unleashed her Jupiter Oak Evolution. Every single one of the countless projectiles hit with a devastating explosion, not only shredding the target but sending any Synths in the vicinity flipping through the air like broken dolls. Sailor Uranus covered another angle, swinging her sword as fast as she could for her Space Sword Buster. Each time she did, it launched a long slash of orange magic from it, carving through wide swaths of the enemy with every slash.

And those were just the ones that Ranma could see himself. But he could hear even more, as the Sailor Senshi stationed all around their defensive line let loose the full extent of their powers, without any concern for collateral damage. It wasn't long before the very closest buildings had been reduced to rubble, giving the defenders a little more open space to work with.

Every so often some of the spider Synths would pop into view, trying to catch their enemies off-guard with a crimson beam. Those monsters never attacked in large groups that could be wiped out in one shot, using their numbers sparingly. But Sailor Neptune and Sailor Pluto dedicated themselves to keeping a lookout for them, and trying to pick off any that appeared before they could do too much damage.

And through it all, Tanizaki's weapon continued to pound against Sailor Saturn's magical barrier. It had yet to do any direct damage to them, but it was causing Sailor Saturn to spend more time watching the skies for the next attack, and less on fighting the Synths herself. Still, Ranma thought. Better safe than sorry. If one of those shots hit someone, it could be really bad. Better she focus on that, and let us handle the other stuff.

The Synths continued to press their attack, heedless of the horrific losses they were taking. Any survivors that made it through the killing field of Senshi magic were quickly dispatched by the martial artists. Looks like we're holding our own for now... Ranma thought, as he drove his fist through the chest of one such Synth. So far, so good...


**********


"It's almost time," Zhang said, looking across the spartan grey cell that was Unit Zero's quarters. The young clone listened carefully to his every word. "The assault should have begun by now, and the Wyrmspawn will be deploying soon. Soon they'll be as distracted as they'll ever be. We should get into position as well."

Unit Zero nodded once, walking over to stand directly in front of him. Not for the first time that day, Zhang examined her bloodshot eyes, her haggard expression. She looks exhausted, like she's barely slept, he thought. Troubling. Though it's a little late to do anything about it now. I just have to hope she holds together well enough to do her part.

She still knew her task, at least. With a flash of light she assumed her Princess form, the flowing white gown replacing her black leotard. Then her brow furrowed as she bent the power of the Silver Crystal to accomplish the command she had been given. A glow shone from the depths of its lotus-flower shape, and then the very space around them distorted as the crystal teleported them both away.

When his view of the physical world returned, Zhang found that they had arrived right on target. For him to slip into the Dark Kingdom he needed a portal. The portal in Juuban would be guarded, and this time they would be on the lookout for him. He doubted he could get near it without one of the martial artists detecting him, let alone Sailor Mercury's computer. Zhang had suggested they use the Arctic portal, but Tanizaki had vetoed that, saying that Ranma would likely have that one under guard as well.

Which was why they had come here.

Looking around, Zhang took in the buildings, recognizing the London architecture. They had materialized outside a large warehouse, inside of which was their objective. The third portal that the Dark Kingdom had tried to open to the human world.

According to the youma Metzger had interrogated years ago, the portal here had been part of an effort to spread their energy-draining efforts around the globe. They had expended immense resources to exploit an existing dimensional weakness, turning it into another stable gateway between the two realms, giving the monsters easy access to another large city's population to prey on.

Then Sailor V had appeared.

The resulting battle had only lasted for a few months, and it had ended with Sailor V and the London police tracking down the portal's location. As the youma had heard it, the warehouse had been completely destroyed in the final clash, Sailor V had been killed, and the police had filled the entire area around the portal with concrete and then put under heavy guard, making it useless for any further covert operations.

Eventually Sailor Moon had destroyed Metalia and sealed off the Dark Kingdom, including this portal, and her reset had restored the original warehouse around it. Even when Ekim had broken the seals open again, Tanizaki hadn't bothered with this one, preferring to use the portal closer to his base of operations. Which meant that this portal—only briefly active, and never used by most of the current defenders—was the back door into the Dark Kingdom most likely to have been overlooked.

It was already evening on that side of the planet, and the streets in this area were empty. A quick kick broke through the lock on the door, and Zhang walked inside, followed by Unit Zero. The assassin glanced back over his shoulder. "This is the place. You know what to do."

The clone nodded, and raised the Silver Crystal again. It blazed to life, its energy reaching out with white, twisting tendrils toward a point in space directly in front of them. A low hum built in the air, and Zhang could feel the power building as the clone matched her strength against the seal that her older sister had set in place years ago.

Light flashed at the point of contact, and Zhang took a few steps back, looking worriedly at Unit Zero. She was struggling, her face contorted in pain and effort as she tried to accomplish the task she had been assigned. Soon she sank to her knees, but still she held the Silver Crystal high, her mouth open in a soundless scream as her entire body trembled. Until finally, with a loud, discordant screech, the portal ripped itself back open. The swirling black hole in space connected that point to the Dark Kingdom once more.

Unit Zero crumpled, lying on the ground in a fetal ball, twitching. This doesn't make sense, Zhang thought. She beat Sailor Moon in a head-on contest! So how could trying to break one small part of one of Sailor Moon's spells from years ago take this much out of her? The Silver Crystal hadn't even attained its current form back then when the original Sailor Moon created that seal! How could the disparity in this be so great?

Trepidation wormed its way through Zhang, but he shook his head and put it aside. It wouldn't matter soon anyway. He knelt next to Unit Zero and spoke. "Good work," he said. "Now rest here, and wait for me to return."

The clone slowly looked up and gave a shaky nod. Satisfied, Zhang turned and stepped through the portal. He felt a brief sensation of vertigo, and then found himself in the rocky tunnels of the Dark Kingdom, with no one else in sight.

Our gamble paid off, the assassin thought. They forgot about this one. And with the battle in our world occupying most of their fighters, it will give me the perfect opportunity to kill Sailor Moon.

Without wasting any further time, Zhang darted through the tunnel system toward the center of the Dark Kingdom, moving as silently as one of the shadows that surrounded him.


**********


"Dead Scream."

The sphere of pale energy tore apart a spider Synth that was just about to take a potshot at Ranma's kendoist friend. Sailor Pluto swung her Garnet Rod around, firing off another Dead Scream at a pack of smaller Synths while scanning the rooftops for more of the spiders. But more than anything else, she was waiting anxiously for the true threat to reveal itself.

And soon enough, it did. The Mercury Computer let out a stringent beeping noise, an alert from one of the constant scans it was running of the area. Sailor Mercury looked at it, then shouted a warning. A few seconds later Sailor Pluto saw a large vehicle approaching them, coming slowly down the street from the north. A chill ran through her, and she ran toward it. This is it, she thought. The monster is almost upon us.

Closer and closer the transport rumbled. Eventually it was near enough that she could see the driver as well as another man sitting next to him in the cab. Her hands clenched tight on her staff, as she waited, wondering how close they intended to drive it before releasing their cargo. Even as she considered the question, she saw the driver say something to the other man, and then reach toward a control on his dashboard.

Sailor Pluto swung her Garnet Rod up, targeting the man... but Konatsu was even faster. The ninja appeared out of nowhere, shooting down from the rooftops with a diving kick that crashed through the windshield and into the driver's chest. The kick tore loose the chair the man was sitting on, embedding it and him into the back wall of the cab. Then Konatsu grabbed the man sitting next to him and threw him headfirst through what remained of the windshield.

A surge of hope filled Sailor Pluto's heart. This was even better than she had dared hope. The trap they had prepared had always been a gamble, but if they took this opportunity they could prevent the Wyrmspawn from being released in the first place. "Protect the transport!" she called out urgently. "Everyone, protect that transport!"

Her nearby allies rushed to comply. A storm of orange slashes from Sailor Uranus' Space Sword Buster carved through the ranks of Synths guarding the vehicle, allowing Kodachi and Sailor Jupiter to jump in to finish off any survivors. The two girls took up positions on either side of the truck, attacking any enemy that came near, while Konatsu stood on the hood and cut down any that got past them.

Sailor Pluto dropped into a slight crouch, preparing to leap down the street and onto the rear of the truck to cover that angle. But before she could make her jump, she felt someone grab her by the arm, holding her in place. She whirled, and saw that it was Ranma who had stopped her. "What are you doing?" she demanded, incredulous.

Ranma looked at her with a worried frown. "Something's wrong," he insisted. "Don't you think this is... too easy?"

"What?" Sailor Pluto asked, pausing in her efforts to break his grasp. "What do you mean?"

"I mean there's gotta be more to it than this!" Ranma said. "There's no way in hell Tanizaki would risk sending the Wyrmspawn's cage this close to us, not without a backup plan for if we took out his men before they could turn it loose! At the very least, he'd add some kind of—"

Ranma broke off, his eyes going wide. Then he swore and whirled away from Sailor Pluto. "Get out of there!" he shouted. "All of you, get away from that—"

The next instant, a wall of force and heat slammed into Sailor Pluto as the transport exploded into an immense fireball, ripping the entire vehicle apart and shattering windows for blocks around. Even as far away as they were, the blast flung Sailor Pluto and Ranma away as though they had been hit by the hand of an invisible giant.

It all happened so fast. Sailor Pluto only put the pieces together in the aftermath, once she had tumbled to a stop and had a moment to regain her senses, as she lay there on the concrete. Then her head snapped up, searching for any sign of the others. At first, all she saw was the thick pillar of black smoke that rose up from the flaming wreckage, but it did not take her long to find Sailor Jupiter.

The brown-haired girl lay bleeding and burned in a pile of debris, her right arm twisted at an unnatural angle, hampering her weak efforts to crawl away. Kodachi had been thrown in the opposite direction, but was in similar condition, if not worse. Konatsu had weathered the blast better; he had struggled back to his feet, though just barely.

The Synths continued to swarm in unabated, spreading the defenders thin. Some who had been fighting on other flanks had to move to fill the holes left by those injured in the blast. Ranma had already dived into the thick of the fray, leaping in to protect the injured Kodachi from a group of Synths that were trying to finish her off. Sailor Pluto pulled herself back to her feet, looking for the best place for her to join the fight.

It was then that the largest pile of wreckage, right near the center of the explosion, began to move.

Sailor Pluto froze. The groan of shifting metal filled the air, cutting through the noise of the raging battle, as something lifted up the twisted remains of a steel enclosure, off of what lay beneath it. It soon toppled to one side, falling to the ground with a resounding clank, revealing the figure that knelt at the heart of the billowing smoke and scattered flame.

Slowly, it stood to its full height. The thing was shaped somewhat like a man, but it was huge, almost three heads taller than Sailor Pluto. Thick black scales covered its body, forming a layer of bulky living armor that extended all the way to the brutal, jagged claws that were its hands and feet. The creature's head was particularly well-armored, covered by a twisted melding of scales and black horns that ran down its face. It kept an immense pair of leathery wings folded at its back, yet more indication of its draconic origin.

The Wyrmspawn looked down at one of its clawed hands, flexing it experimentally, as though to reacquaint itself with movement after its frozen hibernation. Then it looked up, its gaze sweeping across its surroundings, taking in the raging battle without any surprise or concern. It looked from combatant to combatant to combatant... but the person it finally focused on was simply the living thing closest to itself. The fallen Sailor Jupiter.

"No!" shouted Sailor Pluto, leaping forward and swinging her staff around toward the monster. "Dead Scream!" The pale sphere shot from her staff, crackling with power as it raced toward the monster. But when it hit, the Dead Scream didn't detonate like it normally did. Instead, any magic that touched the creature simply vanished, negated from existence, leaving only a few stray wisps around the edges that quickly fizzled out into nothing.

The attack did have one effect, though. The Wyrmspawn blinked, then looked away from Sailor Jupiter and over toward the one who had attacked it. Its orange, reptilian eyes locked onto Sailor Pluto, who swallowed and raised her staff in a defensive position. I can't hurt it, she thought. But I can at least keep its attention away from the wounded. I won't let it kill them!

A deep growl rumbled from within the beast, and Sailor Pluto began to feel a growing heat radiate out from it, like a great furnace that had just received fuel. A hellish flame built deep inside it, the radiance enough that some of the glow spilled out between the Wyrmspawn's jagged teeth. The scent of sulfur came with it, growing ever more pungent with each breath.

The monster advanced toward Sailor Pluto. With each step its movements grew more energetic, as it shook off the torpor from its long sleep. The weight of the huge creature crushed the debris it walked over, as it made its way through the wreckage. Sailor Pluto kept her distance, backing away to match her foe's progress.

Even though she was no martial artist, the killing intent that now swelled from the creature was so palpable that no living thing could ignore it. It pressed against her with such overbearing force that it felt as though she would be crushed by that alone. As it approached, the Wyrmspawn lowered its body into a crouch, coiling itself for a charge.

Here it comes... Sailor Pluto thought, tensing. Nothing we have can hurt it, so our only hope is evasion. I just need to stay out of its range and—

Her thoughts were cut off as the Wyrmspawn launched itself forward, its huge body moving so fast that her eyes could barely even track it. It used a powerful flap of its wings on top of an explosive lunge to cross the distance in the space of a blink, and swung one of its claws around in a slash.

The instant before the strike hit she felt a hand on the back of her head, pushing her down face-first with dizzying speed. Her long green hair was still trailing behind her when the claw ripped through it, slashing a large section of it free. Ranma continued their momentum into a roll, taking her with him as they tumbled past the monster, angling around it. As they came out of the roll, Ranma placed a hand on her midsection, then with a shove sent her flying away while he faced the Wyrmspawn head-on.

At the same time, the beast whirled to track their path. It clenched its claw into a fist, then swung it down from above toward the crouching Ranma. The martial artist sprang back, but getting Sailor Pluto to safety had distracted him, and he only barely got out of the way in time. The Wyrmspawn's downward strike passed within an inch of Ranma's chest, and the near miss shredded his shirt, carving a deep gash into his body that sprayed blood onto the creature's arm.

Ranma grimaced, but did not allow the pain to slow him down. He darted backward in a series of blisteringly fast dodges, weaving left and right as the Wyrmspawn dogged his steps. The monster's claws shredded the air in their merciless assault, each one leading into the next in a ceaseless storm of violence so furious that Sailor Pluto couldn't understand how anyone could avoid it. And yet Ranma was—just barely—managing to stay a half-step ahead.

He is likely the only one of us who could survive against this creature for any length of time, Sailor Pluto thought, as she watched the full extent of their speed. Which means he is the only one who has any chance of leading it into our trap...


**********


Deep in the heart of the Dark Kingdom, past the long winding tunnels and expansive caverns, behind the towering stone walls of Queen Beryl's old palace, Tsukino Ikuko stood among a group of sickened daimons, checking on them.

That room was one of the ones they had taken over to hold the ill and injured, with dozens of hospital gurneys spread across it, scavenged from Metzger's facility. Ami's mother was there as well, but with Beneda and so many others off in the human world, Ikuko had volunteered to do what she could to help care for those lying here. She didn't have the other woman's medical knowledge, but she could make sure they were comfortable, and help administer the latest attempt at a treatment that Professor Tomoe had come up with.

It was, at least, something useful she could do.

Ikuko was currently tending to a yellow-skinned daimon with purple feathers, whose body was covered with the white lesions characteristic of their condition. In all honesty, Ikuko was still conflicted about all these monsters that—from what she'd heard—had been trying to kill her daughter. But the suffering these daimons were undergoing was obvious, and so she tried to put her doubts to the side and do what she could.

And then there were those martial artists... Ikuko glanced over to where Mrs. Mizuno was checking up on the unconscious boy in the white robes. Mousse, they had called him. She knew even less what to make of them. Apparently they had been fighting Usagi too, though even now she wasn't entirely clear as to why. The brief explanation she'd been given had sounded utterly nonsensical. Dressing up as evil warlords from another dimension to fool their enemies? she thought. Can we really trust Usagi's life with people so... unhinged?

Despite her worries, Ikuko continued to work. Then, once she had completed her rounds and done everything she could for the time being, she returned to the next room down the hall. This one was also devoted to the care of the unwell, though in this case, there was only one patient. Her daughter Usagi lay unconscious on the gurney in the middle of the room.

The sight never failed to make Ikuko's heart clench like it was caught in a vise. Her husband Kenji sat next to their daughter, as did Luna, Artemis and Sailor Chibi-moon. The pink-haired girl held both her hands to Usagi's chest, golden magic glowing there, as she did everything she could to keep Usagi stable, to make up for her dangerously diminished connection to something the other Sailor Senshi had called her "Star Seed".

Ikuko didn't understand any of it. She didn't want to understand any of it. She just wanted to wake up from this nightmare. She wanted her daughter back. But reality was not so kind, and all she could do was sit back down next to Kenji and watch as Usagi fought for her life.


**********


Back in the room Ikuko had just left, as Mousse lay motionless on his gurney, he was experiencing something very different in the depths of his consciousness.

His first realization was that he was standing in a small forest clearing. His second realization was that he saw that he was standing in a forest. He was not looking at this place through the blinded eyes of his physical body.

The whole area was shrouded by night, the only illumination coming from the moonlight filtering down through the branches. The glow suffused the mist that hung low over the ground, giving the forest an eerie, spectral air. A muffled, stifling quiet reigned, one that Mousse was hesitant to break. It felt as though doing so would set into motion something that could not be stopped. Instead, he simply studied his surroundings.

But the moment he took a close look at them he felt his heart clench in his chest, a sick feeling growing in his stomach. Because he recognized this place. It had been seven years, but it was burned forever into his memory.

"Hello Mousse."

The quiet voice came from behind him. It was a voice that by all rights should have elicited shock from Mousse. But in that moment, all he felt was inevitability. He turned around and saw the familiar, rounded features, the short-cropped black hair, the faint, gentle smile. Mousse swallowed. "Ying Jie."

"It's been a while, hasn't it?" It had. Seven years, in fact. But while Mousse had grown and aged, Ying Jie still looked exactly as he had that night. Back then, Ying Jie had been if anything the older of the two, but seeing him like this—a twelve-year-old seen through a nineteen-year-old's eyes—it caused guilt to fester inside him in an entirely new way.

Ying Jie walked closer, and as he moved, Mousse noted that his form was wispy, insubstantial, much like the mist surrounding them. Looking down at his own hands, Mousse saw that his body was the same. "Did Zhang kill me too?" Mousse asked. There would be a sort of justice to that, he supposed, even if long overdue. "Is this the spirit world?"

"No, you're not dead," Ying Jie assured him. "As for where this is... that's not what's important right now. Call this a dream, call it a vision, call it a hallucination... it doesn't matter. What matters is what happened between us back then."

Mousse clenched his hands and turned away at the direct reminder, unable to face Ying Jie anymore. "I..." he began, but the words stuck in his throat. What mere words could possibly make up for something like this? What apology wouldn't be hopelessly insufficient? "I... What I did to you..."

He broke off as he felt a hand rest on his arm. Looking down, he saw that Ying Jie had walked over and touched him. "I'm not here to condemn you, Mousse," he said quietly, a sad look in his eyes. "You've already done more than enough of that yourself. You can't keep on hating yourself for what happened here."

"Why not?" Mousse asked.

"Because it's going to kill you," said Ying Jie. "And if that doesn't matter to you, then think about how many more of your friends could die too. The reason you were poisoned in the first place is because Zhang used all that hate you have for yourself to get under your skin. And it wasn't even the first time."

After a long pause, Ying Jie continued. "But aside from any of that... I don't want you to live like this. You need to face what happened here, Mousse. You need to face it... and accept it... and let it go. For your own sake."

Mousse opened his mouth to reply, only to hesitate as new sounds intruded on the edges of his awareness. Still distant, but growing nearer. The sounds of two people crashing through the forest at a breakneck pace.

As though they were being pursued.

Cold dread clenched its icy claws around Mousse's heart. It wasn't just the location that they were reliving. "You... brought me here to watch..."

"It's like I told you, Mousse," Ying Jie said. "This is something you have to face."


**********


Sailor Mercury watched in awe as Ranma and the Wyrmspawn clashed back and forth across the battlefield, blurs of red and black, their paths twisting and intersecting and colliding in ways she could barely even track, let alone anticipate. Ranma was doing no damage at all with any attack he used, but he kept attacking the beast regardless, ensuring its attention was focused on him.

It gave chase with savage fury, its strikes rending apart its surroundings and sending debris everywhere in an attempt to hit the martial artist who was harrying it. Anything in the path of their combat was shredded, including any Synths that tried to intervene. Their battle cut swaths through the enemy as an almost incidental side-effect, with Ranma dodging around the Synths and using them as distractions while the Wyrmspawn tore through them like they weren't even there.

But as breathtaking as it was, it was also clear that Ranma could not keep this up for long. Sailor Mercury could tell it was draining his endurance to constantly fight at this level, while the Wyrmspawn showed no signs of fatigue. And Ranma was taking damage, since even near-misses would inflict significant wounds on him from the sheer power of the monster's strikes. They needed to end this soon.

"Everyone! Just like we planned!" Sailor Mercury called out. She waved her hand in a signal, and the ranks of the defenders split, creating an opening while they continued to unleash suppression fire on the Synths. Sailor Mercury jumped over to land near the building that housed their trap, then raised her hands and called out "Shabon Spray!"

A wave of mist rolled out from her, but she controlled its dimensions so that it did not extend far enough to blind any of their non-Senshi allies, covering only the area immediately around the building. Seeing that she was ready, Ranma tried to lead the Wyrmspawn into the heart of her fog, toward the building.

It wasn't easy. From what Sailor Mercury could tell, Ranma was struggling just to survive, let alone control the course of the monstrous juggernaut. But he did eventually manage to lead it through the gap in their lines and into the mist. As soon as he did so, the effect was obvious. The creature spun left and right, disoriented. It could still sense that Ranma was out there somewhere, but the fog obscured and distorted the surroundings enough that it could not pinpoint his location.

Ranma took immediate advantage, harrying the Wyrmspawn with a series of blindingly-fast hit-and-fades. He would jump in close enough that even he could see the creature, hammer it with a few strikes, and then vanish back into the mist as it chased him deeper in.

But shouldn't the Shabon Spray be hampering Ranma's senses too? Sailor Mercury wondered. Because it certainly didn't seem to be. No matter how far away from the Wyrmspawn he went in his retreats, it didn't even slow his ability to find it again. How is he sensing it so well, even through the mist?

As she studied the furious combat, however, the answer became obvious. He isn't sensing the Wyrmspawn at all, Sailor Mercury realized. He's watching the distortions it makes in the mist! The creature is so big and its movements are so fast and powerful that it creates large eddies in the Shabon Spray, big enough that they're visible even farther out. He's using those to track its path!

She watched the two of them fight, the mist roiling around them as the monster's strikes grew even more intense. Ranma twisted through the storm of violence, step by step, dodge by dodge, guiding the Wyrmspawn closer to the trap they were pinning all their hopes on.


**********


Tanizaki studied the large bank of displays standing at the center of his temporary command center. As he watched, the enemy lines parted to create a gap, while Sailor Mercury summoned a fog around their main base. Tanizaki's gaze turned to Ranma, watching his maneuvers, and he immediately realized that the young man was guiding the Wyrmspawn toward that opening.

Something is wrong, Tanizaki thought, as he analyzed their actions. This response to the Wyrmspawn's appearance... it's too quick. Too organized. No panic, or even surprise. They were expecting this!

The muscles in Tanizaki's jaw worked as he considered the ramifications. Had his ploy truly been anticipated? If so, then his position was not nearly so strong as he had thought. Even though the Wyrmspawn was beyond any of his foes' abilities to harm in straight-up combat... he of all people knew that with enough preparation, it was entirely possible to neutralize it.

"Retarget every Synth in that area!" he barked to the scientists sitting at their long, computer-packed tables. "Send as many as you can to charge that gap in their lines before they close it! Don't waste time fighting the defenders outside the mist. I don't care how many losses the Synths take getting past them, so long as some of them do. Priority targets are Saotome Ranma and Sailor Mercury!"

The scientists exchanged worried glances, but they did not question the order. Tanizaki turned back toward the large displays, an unpleasant feeling of uncertainty twisting through his thoughts. Even after he had gone to these extreme lengths, calling on last resorts he'd never dreamed he would be forced to use... was it possible that they could still come out on top?

A surge of anger ran through him, anger at being placed in such a position of vulnerability. His eyes narrowed as he glared up at the displays. No. He would not allow them to thwart him again.

Whatever they were planning, he would crush it without mercy.


**********


Ranma panted for breath, sweat running down his body even in the unnatural chill of the magical mist. His knuckles were a bloody mess from punching the Wyrmspawn so many times, and he was pretty sure he'd broken several of them. But it was working. He was leading it back toward the trap, just as they had planned.

The mist did strange things to all his senses, including his hearing and his ki detection, so it was difficult to pinpoint what was going on beyond his immediate vicinity. But he thought he could hear the volume of the battle increase. What's going on out there? he wondered. Hope they're all doing okay.

Still, he had to focus on his own role. He dove in again, following the currents that the Wyrmspawn's huge form cut through the mist, and soon he got close enough that its looming shadow became visible. He came in low, twisting under a claw swipe at the very last moment, and drove two more punches into its midsection before reversing course and leaping away. He heard a roar of rage from the beast, and it lunged after him in a charge he was barely able to avoid by flinging himself to one side.

Those crazy charges are the really dangerous thing, Ranma thought. When it uses its leg strength and its wings in combination like that, it's insane how fast it can go. Can't let it catch me off-guard with that, or it's all over.

He danced backward, keeping out of the monster's range, using the concealment of the mist to full advantage. But then, just as he was struggling to keep out of the Wyrmspawn's grasp, several Synths leaped out into view, mists swirling around them. Damn! Ranma thought, just barely dodging their sword swings. Then he grabbed one of them and shoved it toward the Wyrmspawn while he fled deeper into the mist. Some of them got through!

He had been able to handle their interference outside, but now the Shabon Spray was working against him. A Synth could appear at any time through blind chance, which meant he could no longer work them into his plan. That could easily mean his death, if one of the grey creatures interfered at the wrong moment.

But even as he tried to think of something he could do in response, the mist lit up with golden radiance. Beams of light sliced through the air, curving around him to strike along different angles. Sailor Venus had followed the enemy into the mist, and she could see the Synths just fine.

"Thanks!" Ranma called out, already darting forward to engage the Wyrmspawn yet again. "Just keep 'em off of me and I'll handle the rest!"

"Sure thing!" came Sailor Venus' exuberant reply, echoing from somewhere in the mist. The irrepressible Sailor Senshi opened fire again, staining the shifting clouds yellow with each volley. Ranma couldn't tell for sure, but it certainly sounded like a massacre—at least from Sailor Venus' slightly-maniacal laughter.

The running battle seemed to go on forever. Ranma's muscles ached from the strain of constantly moving at the upper limits of his phenomenal speed. Back and back he led the monster, until finally he felt his back hit a wall, one he recognized as the wall of their temporary base.

He dove to one side, allowing the draconic monster to crash straight through the wall with its latest lunge. He chased it in, knowing that this would be the most delicate part of all. He could not let the monster damage the cage, even as he directed the battle toward it. Ranma called on all his strategy, all his trickery, all the study he had made of the creature's patterns over the course of the fight.

This would have to be perfect.

He led the Wyrmspawn down the mist-shrouded hallways. He couldn't pinpoint where Sailor Mercury was, but he could hear each time she cast the Shabon Spray again. Her task was to ensure that the entire route was blanketed in fog at all times, preventing the Wyrmspawn from seeing where they were leading it. Ranma counted every step he took, comparing it to his mental map of the building. They were so close, now. It was almost time.

He dodged around the monster's rending slashes, carefully positioning himself to invite the chain of attacks he needed. A horizontal slash—duck!—leading into an upward swing meant to gut him—jump away!—which put him just barely far enough out of range...

...and that was the moment on which everything hung. Ranma launched himself backward, just barely outside the range that he had determined the creature could detect him in the fog. The Wyrmspawn gave chase, just as Ranma predicted. They both shot through the door leading into the tank, Ranma hitting the release for the door as he went through.

The huge metal door began to drop, nearly clipping the Wyrmspawn's head as it hurtled in after Ranma. Then, just as the monster landed, Ranma ricocheted off the back wall of the huge chamber, changing his course in an instant. He came in low, sliding along the tank floor right between the monster's legs in a streak of red. His slide carried him underneath the still-falling door with inches to spare, and it slammed shut behind him with a resounding clang.

A low, pulsating hum began to resonate through the air, as the wards in the chamber walls sprang to life, coating the metal in a flickering, speckled glow. Ranma whirled, holding his breath. The next few moments would determine whether or not their plan had worked.

And, in turn, whether or not any of them would survive.


**********


Inside the tank, the Wyrmspawn spun around, looking in the direction its prey had gone. But it saw only mist. An instant later it heard a clang echo out, and then... nothing. It could no longer sense anything other than itself. Soon even the fog dissipated, but that revealed only blank metal walls, and no sign of anything else.

This was different from before. Previously, even when it had lost track of its prey in the mist, it had still been able to sense that they were out there, somewhere. The fog had muddled and distorted, but it had not been able to block entirely. But this... this was nothingness. The Wyrmspawn could no longer detect the slightest hint of any living thing.

For a long moment it stood there, first looking left, then right, cocking its head as though listening for something. Then, finally, it let out a deep exhale. A sensation almost like relief filled its limited intellect. It could detect nothing else alive. Which meant that everything else was dead. Which meant that its purpose was once again fulfilled.

The monster shifted its towering frame, lowering itself to the ground in a sitting position. Its eyes stared straight ahead with patient focus as it returned to the activity that had comprised so much of its existence.

Waiting.


**********


Mousse stood in the clearing, watching for signs of movement amidst the trees and the mist. He could not see anything yet, but the sounds were growing steadily nearer. And he could now sense a third presence as well, this one stalking the path of the first two. Toying with them, like a cat playing with a mouse.

Memories returned afresh to Mousse's mind, memories of the terror he had felt during that chase. Observing it from the outside felt surreal. The memories of his fear mixed together with the disgust that had supplanted it in the years since. More than anything else, though, he felt the crushing weight of inevitability as he watched the events play out once again.

Soon he did see movement. Seconds later, another Ying Jie burst into the clearing. He looked just like the Ying Jie standing next to Mousse, except unlike the two of them, this Ying Jie looked neither wispy nor phantasmal. He was followed by an equally-solid Mousse, but this Mousse did look different, the twelve-year-old Mousse of seven years ago. Both boys were gasping for breath as they careened blindly forward.

Before they had even reached the center of the clearing the young Mousse's foot slipped from exhaustion, and he crashed to the ground. Ying Jie turned back to help him up, but before he could get there, a black-robed figure landed between the two boys and drove his foot into Ying Jie's chest. The kick lifted the boy off the ground and sent him tumbling away.

A surge of rage burned through Mousse at the sight of the man. He was exactly as Mousse remembered him, though the Zhang from seven years ago was barely older than Mousse was now. He wore an amused smile as he regarded Ying Jie. "Really, how did you think this was going to end?" he asked. "You knew the rules. You knew what happens to students who run. Did you think you were different from any of the others who tried?"

Behind Zhang, the twelve-year-old Mousse got off the ground enough to get one foot underneath himself. Pulling a sword out of his sleeve, he lunged toward Zhang with a wild flurry of slashes, screaming out a terrified battle cry as he swung. Zhang met his charge with a graceful spin, catching Mousse by the wrist and redirecting his momentum.

At the end of the arc, Zhang added some force of his own, flinging Mousse through the air like a pinwheel. The boy's trajectory continued until he slammed into a tree and slid down it. The impact dislodged his glasses, forcing him to frantically search the ground with his hands until he found them.

Ying Jie, meanwhile, rolled back to his feet. "We heard how you were planning to make us fight each other to the death at our graduation!" he shot back. "There's no way we'd go along with that!" A pair of steel hammers shot from his sleeves and into his hands, and he went on the offensive, his weapons swinging in twisting paths around him. Mousse also picked himself back up, pulling out a spear and running in with a series of rapid thrusts. Though he was a little slower on the attack, and his hands were trembling.

The older, ghostly Mousse cringed as he watched the battle. Both because he knew exactly how it would end, and also because watching it again with his current level of skill, he could see all the flaws in his style, all the mistakes and missed opportunities that his twelve-year-old self had been blind to. He was seized by the irrational urge to shout at his past self, to give a warning, a suggestion, a strategy... anything that could avert what he knew was coming.

As if sensing his thoughts, the ghostly Ying Jie looked away from the combat and up at him. "We can't change what happened here," he said quietly. "Not you, not me. That's not why we're seeing this."

Mousse said nothing in reply, his eyes locked on the unfolding battle. Indeed, it was proceeding exactly according to the memories burned into Mousse's mind. Zhang was dominating the fight, even with both of them attacking him at once. He was always two steps ahead of them, twisting around Mousse's thrusts, sidestepping between the swings of Ying Jie's hammers, and mocking them as he did so. "So because you were afraid to get a little blood on your hands, you're both going to die." Zhang shook his head. "You knew what the best course of action was. But you ran away instead, because it was too hard to face. That's weakness. Pathetic weakness."

"No it's not!" shouted Ying Jie, attacking with a series of swings so fierce that Zhang was forced to actually draw a tonfa from his own sleeves and parry a few of them. "Real weakness would have been to try and stay alive by giving in to you and your father!"

Zhang raised an eyebrow. "Really."

"Someone like you wouldn't understand," Ying Jie said, defiance burning in his eyes. "Mousse and I are friends! Even if our escape didn't work... we'd rather die than turn on each other!"

For a moment, silence filled the air. Zhang's lip twisted in annoyance at the impertinent accusation. He looked deep into Ying Jie's eyes, then over at Mousse's, then back to Ying Jie.

And then a cruel smile spread across his face.

"Is that so?" he asked, slowly savoring the words. As he spoke, he reached deep into the sleeve of his black robe, fishing for a particular item. "Well. Perhaps we should put that to the test."

He whipped a short dagger out of his sleeve, and for the first time in that fight he went on the offensive against his exhausted opponents. Within a few seconds he had disarmed Ying Jie of his hammers, then followed that with a shallow slash across the boy's chest. The young Mousse's eyes went wide, and he backpedaled so frantically that he nearly tripped. But Zhang just slashed down straight through the haft of Mousse's spear, cutting it in two and giving Mousse a similar cut to the one he'd given Ying Jie.

Both boys scrambled away. Zhang did not pursue, only watching them, still smiling. "The poison on this dagger is a special one," he told them, holding up the dagger. "Not as strong as my father's secret poison. It probably wouldn't even work on a high-level martial artist. But weaklings like you? I'd give you... ten minutes, at best."

Zhang took a moment to watch the expressions of fear on the boys' faces. "Now, I do have an antidote that could stop the poison," he went on. Reaching into his sleeves again, he drew out a small glass vial. "There is, however, a problem. This is only enough to save one person."

He set the vial down on the ground in front of him. "If you want to live... well, I want to see you fight for it. Of course, I would understand if such good friends as yourselves couldn't bring yourselves to do it..."

As Zhang spoke, the ghostly Mousse walked over to stand behind his younger self. "Don't do it," he whispered. "Please. Don't do it." Not because he thought it would change anything, but because he couldn't do nothing. Because he could remember the raw panic that he could see even now entering the expression of his twelve-year-old self, as the boy looked down at the bleeding, poisoned wound, knowing that he was about to die.

The young Mousse slowly looked up, his eyes fixing on Ying Jie as his trembling hand slowly reached into his sleeve. His friend turned and saw what he was doing, their gazes locking. "Mousse... wait!"

Mousse, however, was beyond waiting. With a cry that was half-scream and half-sob, he wrenched an axe out of the sleeve. Reflexively, the older Mousse's hand shot out in a hopeless attempt to grab his younger self by the shoulder, to stop what came next. But it did nothing. The flesh and blood Mousse went right through, as though the grasping hand were nothing but mist, and threw himself into a wild attack aimed at Ying Jie.


**********


Tanizaki stared up at the monitors, dumbstruck at the sight that met his eyes. The Shabon Spray was dispersing, which implied one of two things. Either Sailor Mercury was dead, or it had served its purpose. And as second after second went by with no sign whatsoever of the uncontrollable destruction that was the Wyrmspawn's hallmark, he realized that it was most likely the latter.

His monster had been neutralized. Just like that.

Ranma and his friends had outmaneuvered him completely. Tanizaki had expected a rout before the Wyrmspawn's unstoppable power, but they had somehow anticipated his exact move, and prepared a countermeasure that had crushed that entire plan almost before it began. Leaving him standing there looking like a fool.

No! he thought, his teeth clenching in fury as he rejected the thought. No, this isn't over. Not yet. Based on where they placed the Shabon Spray, the Wyrmspawn must be trapped inside their base. And if that's the case...

"Bring up every Balor class Synth we still have, and instruct them to target that building with as much saturation fire as they can bring to bear," Tanizaki said, biting each word out. "I want every inch of that building hit."

One of the scientists looked up from his computer station. "Are you... sure, sir?" he asked hesitantly. "Given the scale of attacks the Sailor Senshi are utilizing, if we bring them all forward at the same time, they won't last long."

"The Synths were never going to win this battle for us on their own," said Tanizaki, turning back to the monitor. "But the Wyrmspawn can. We need to get it back into the fight. At any cost."


**********


Sailor Mercury let out a small breath of relief as she looked at the huge metal chamber. She used the Mercury Computer to triple-check the wards, scanning the magic flowing around the outside of the tank to make sure it covered the enclosure completely. Nearby, Sailor Venus let out a giddy laugh, while Ranma simply grinned at their success.

Then the first beam tore through the wall.

It hit at an angle, lancing down to impact harmlessly into the floor. But it was soon followed by another. And another. Coming from different directions, striking different areas... all searching for the Wyrmspawn's prison. And some came dangerously close to hitting it.

Sailor Mercury heard Ranma curse under his breath. Her mind was already analyzing the situation. If Sailor Mars and Sailor Jupiter had been there, they could have created a barrier like they had done while fighting back at Mugen Academy. But with only two of them...

"Shine Aqua Illusion!" Water blasted out from Sailor Mercury's hands to a spot in front of her, then shot up to form a pillar and froze in place. Usually, when she used the freezing mode of this attack, it was to trap an enemy in place. This time, however, she simply created an ice pillar, all on its own, running from floor to ceiling. Nor did she stop there, but continued to cast her magic, throwing up pillar after pillar after pillar in a defensive ring around the tank. As she did, she called out to her friend. "Sailor Venus! Try to fill in the gaps!"

"Right! Venus Love-Me Chain!" Golden, heart-shaped links spun around her, then whipped out to string back and forth, winding between the pillars in an impromptu, criss-crossing mesh. More and more red beams smashed through the walls, some of them hitting the golden net and detonating, sending cracks spreading through the pillars that anchored them as they creaked under the strain.

Another beam scored a direct hit on one of the ice pillars, the explosion shattering it completely. Sailor Mercury ran back and forth, using her Shine Aqua Illusion to replace any sections of their defense that were destroyed. Ranma formed another line of defense, taking a stance by the tank on whatever side the defenses were weakest and using his danger sense to intercept some of the beams with his ki blasts.

Sailor Mercury lowered her visor, scanning through the walls while simultaneously fighting to hold back the barrage. Through the blue-tinted screen, she saw countless wireframe representations of the spider Synths on the surrounding rooftops, with more appearing every moment. But she also saw that they were winking out just as fast, as waves of magical energy crashed over them. "The others outside are taking down the enemy!" she called out. "We just need to hold on until they finish!"

Even so, they could not cover every angle perfectly, and there was no way to know how the next shots would strike. Each close call, each crimson beam that barely missed or was barely blocked, each one drove home that they could not survive playing these odds. Please, everyone! Sailor Mercury thought, as another ice pillar exploded in front of her, filling the air with frozen shrapnel. Please hurry! We can't last for much longer!

The building itself was beginning to fall apart around them, walls crumbling and sections of the ceiling collapsing under the heavy bombardment. With each part of the structure that fell, it meant less cover for the tank's true location, allowing the Synths to concentrate their fire on the areas that were still standing. Still, she could see that the spider readings were also decreasing in number under the Senshi return fire. Soon there were only a few isolated groups remaining.

But it was then that one of the last walls concealing them gave way, revealing the exact location of the large metal tank to the outside. The remaining spider Synths focused their attacks on it, blazing away at the pillars to create an opening even as more of their number were obliterated by a torrent of energy blades from an enormous Space Sword Buster.

That attack slaughtered most of the last surviving spiders... but not in time to stop Sailor Mercury's hodgepodge defense from being torn apart by their concentrated fire. More golden links of Sailor Venus' Chain tumbled to the ground, their supports destroyed. And, with no defense left, the last three beams shot directly toward the tank itself.

Gathering an enormous surge of ki, Ranma fired energy blasts from both his palms at the same time, each one packed with enough force to counter one of the incoming blasts. But while he was occupied stopping those two, the final one streaked unimpeded toward its target.

Then, before the beam could strike the tank, Sailor Mercury leapt directly into its path. She cried out as it slammed into her, an explosion of red filling her vision. The impact felt like she had been hit by an enormous sledgehammer, swung with unimaginable force. It flung her backward, driving the high heels of her Senshi uniform down into the floor as they carved small trenches through it. But she managed to stay upright, bleeding off her momentum before she hit the chamber herself. Only then did she allow herself to crumple to her knees, clutching her chest as residual crimson energy crackled around her.

Despite the throbbing ache in her rib cage, Sailor Mercury looked up again, confirming that the last cluster of spider Synths had been destroyed. A shaky, relieved smile crossed her face. That had been... too close. But now the critical danger was over. They just needed to help the martial artists hold off the remaining melee Synths, deal with the weapon that was shelling them, and the threat would be truly contained.

She glanced over to Ranma, who returned her smile with one of his own. He was breathing hard too; so many high-power ki blasts had evidently taken a toll on him, on top of everything he'd done to trap the Wyrmspawn in the first place. Sailor Mercury then turned to where Sailor Venus stood, on the opposite side of the tank. "We should get out there and help the others," she said, though it was still painful to talk with the hit she had taken. "We still need to—"

But she broke off, her eyes widening as her blood ran cold. Past Sailor Venus, she saw a small chunk of ice, debris from one of her shattered pillars. The explosion that had created it had been powerful enough that it had actually embedded into the wall of the chamber. Not deeply, but even so, its presence caused the magical dampening field to flow around it rather than through the space it occupied. A tiny, coin-sized hole in the wards created to shut out the world.

Seeing Sailor Mercury's sudden terror, Sailor Venus whirled to look in the same direction, and she saw it too. Without hesitation, she threw herself headlong toward the frozen shard, aiming to yank it out. Time seemed to slow to a crawl as Sailor Mercury watched her friend dive forward, arm outstretched, until Sailor Venus' hand was less than an inch from the fragment.

But the fragment was dislodged before she could reach it, as a huge, clawed hand ripped through the wall of the tank and grabbed hold of her outstretched arm. Sailor Venus' bones snapped like dry twigs under the Wyrmspawn's grip, and the monster followed that with a pull, wrenching her with sickening speed toward the jagged metal edges of the hole it had just made.

The scream that tore itself from Sailor Venus' lips as she hit the side of the tank was barely recognizable as human. She left a bloody smear down the dented metal wall as she fell, clutching at the mangled stump that was her shoulder as she continued to scream. A moment later, the Wyrmspawn ripped the entire wall apart with a few claw slashes, like it was made of paper. It stepped through the opening it had made, tossing Sailor Venus' arm away as it emerged.

The monster looked down at Sailor Venus' crumpled form at its feet, malice in its reptilian eyes. Then it raised a clawed foot to finish her off with a stomp. But before it could deliver the final blow, a flash of red swept in and yanked her out of the way. Ranma swung her over his shoulder, but before he even finished the Wyrmspawn lunged in pursuit.

Ranma had avoided the monster's attacks before... but now he was even more exhausted, and encumbered by a second person as well. He managed to avoid the first claw slash by a hair's breadth, but it was obvious it could not last more than a few seconds. Gritting her teeth, Sailor Mercury gathered her power as fast as she could. "Shabon—"

Too late. Before she could complete the magic, the monster's savage attack forced Ranma to make a desperate, twisting flip off one of the remaining walls to carry himself and Sailor Venus over the creature's charge. But with a quick flap of its wings it checked its forward momentum with impossible control, then swung its arm around in a backhand while its targets were still in midair.

Ranma must have seen it coming. Even before the monster's arm had begun to swing, Ranma flung Sailor Venus as far away as he could, trying to at least get the injured Senshi clear. After that, the only thing he had time to do was cross his arms in front of himself while reinforcing himself with his ki, putting everything he had into pure defense.

Then the Wyrmspawn's backhand hit. It broke Ranma's arms instantly, driving his guard back into his chest. His rib cage was the next thing to shatter, the sound of crunching bone audible across the room. His body folded under the impact, as with a further crack his spine snapped. He flew away, crashing through a wall to the street outside.

"—Spray!" Sailor Mercury's heart seized in horror, but she completed her magic all the same, screaming out the final word. If either of her injured friends were to have any chance of survival, she needed to provide them with cover. Thick mist flowed out from her, blanketing the surroundings once again. She darted forward, activating her communicator at the same time. "Someone, please!" she begged. "You need to get either Sailor Saturn or Tuxedo Kamen to wherever Ranma is! He needs healing magic right now!"

An acknowledgement came over the channel, but Sailor Mercury barely heard it. She had reached where Sailor Venus had fallen. The blonde Senshi had somehow pulled herself up to a kneeling position, but she was pale and trembling, her eyes not entirely focused as she clutched her mangled shoulder with her remaining hand. "Come on!" Sailor Mercury urged, not sure how her friend was bearing the pain. "We need to get you away from that thing!"

Without waiting for a reply, Sailor Mercury slipped Sailor Venus' arm around her shoulder and helped her to stand, guiding her away. Glancing back over her shoulder, Sailor Mercury could see the huge figure of the Wyrmspawn looming in the mist. Like before, it could not determine the precise location of anything too far away. It turned left, then right, then left again, growling in rage.

Unlike before, however, there was no longer any Ranma to harry the creature, to continually engage it at close-quarters range and give it something to attack. Instead, after searching the mist for a few seconds, the creature unfurled its wings to their full, imposing span. Then, with a mighty flap, it launched itself skyward. Sailor Mercury moved her body to shield Sailor Venus as the air pressure from the wingbeat broke across them, roiling the mist and flinging loose debris as it went.

The draconic monster crashed through what remained of the building's ceiling, and with repeated wingbeats carried itself higher and higher. Soon it was far beyond the reach of the Shabon Spray, at which point it hovered in the air, looking down at the mist it had emerged from. Searching for the two who had escaped its wrath.

Sailor Mercury watched the beast carefully, expecting it to swoop down at any moment to renew its attack. But instead the creature lowered its jaw. Inside its mouth a locus of flame sprang to life, immense energy and heat compressed into a single point, growing ever more intense as the Wyrmspawn forced more and more power into it. In less than a second, the very air around the monster's mouth was roiling from the heat shimmer, and still it grew hotter.

"Oh no," Sailor Mercury whispered.

A lance of flame blazed down from above, so intense that the afterimage seared itself across Sailor Mercury's vision. It swept across the area covered by her Shabon Spray, boiling the mist away as it went. The ground erupted in its wake, superheated earth and wood and concrete exploding out of the inferno that followed behind it.

Sailor Mercury ran, pulling Sailor Venus along with her, trying to hide within what tattered remnants of her Shabon Spray still lingered. But the dragonfire was too fast. The stream swept past nearby, engulfing them in its fiery wake even as the blast propelled them forward. Sailor Mercury screamed as the flames seared her flesh, and the two burning Senshi crashed back to the ground in an uncontrolled tumble.

Pain wracked every inch of Sailor Mercury's body, but she knew they had only moments left. She lifted her head, and saw the result of the attack. The Wyrmspawn had transformed the building into a burning pyre with contemptuous ease, the flames spreading out to engulf the structure all around them. All traces of her Shabon Spray had been burned into nothingness. Which meant the monster could now see them perfectly.

The stream of dragonfire swung back through the building again, this time aimed right at them. Sailor Mercury tried to get back to her feet, but there was no time. She could only hold Sailor Venus tight to her as the flame raged closer and closer.

Just before it reached them, the sky directly above exploded with sickly green fury as an enormous ki blast slammed into the hovering monster. The attack showed no sign of actually harming it... but it did turn in midair, breaking off its own attack to see who had struck it. As it turned it was hit by another ki blast, then two more, all of them coming from where Ryouga stood on one of the nearby rooftops.

"Hey!" the lost boy shouted, waving his arms. "Hey! Right here! You want to try and fry someone? I'm right here!"

Even as Ryouga gave his challenge, flame gathered in the Wyrmspawn's maw. It unleashed it in another attack, stabbing down right through the space that Ryouga had occupied moments before. The young man flung himself to the left so fast that he seemed to vanish from sight, and the flame instead pierced the building he had been standing on.

The Wyrmspawn swung its attack to follow, carving building after building in half and setting them ablaze. Ryouga, however, managed to stay one step ahead as he ran, anticipating which way the fire would swing and leaping out of the way at the last moment. With a snarl of irritation, the monster abandoned its distant vantage point, swooping in lower to chase after Ryouga at closer range.

Sailor Mercury took the chance to pull herself painfully back to her feet, half-carrying, half-dragging Sailor Venus behind her as she tried to get them both out of the burning building. I... I have to get her wounds treated, or she'll bleed out... she thought, focusing on what she could do, not on the hopelessness of what she couldn't. And we'll die if we stay here.

Pulling her friend as best she could, Sailor Mercury stumbled through the flames, trying to reach the exit on her flagging strength.


*********


Rooftop after rooftop shot past as Ryouga pushed himself to run faster and faster. The Wyrmspawn followed in close pursuit, strafing the buildings, shooting down its fire near-constantly. Ryouga relied on his danger sense to warn him where the flame would swing next, and each time an extra burst of speed at just the right moment put him just outside where the monster expected him to be. Fortunately, the Wyrmspawn's aim while flying was not terribly precise, relying on broad, sweeping attacks that—for all their terrifying power—could still be predicted.

The two of them traced a swath of burning destruction through the area, with close call after close call, until to Ryouga it seemed like the entire world was exploding into fire around him. He raced through the flames, occasionally glancing back at his pursuer. The Wyrmspawn had dropped even lower now. The air pressure from its wingbeats hammered down on the burning rooftops it passed over, kicking up embers into a fiery maelstrom around itself as it flew through the conflagration.

The next time the monster unleashed its fire, it shot out near enough to horizontal that when Ryouga swerved out of its way, it pierced three blocks worth of buildings before finally hitting the ground. The Wyrmspawn swung the stream toward the direction Ryouga had dodged, forcing the lost boy to reverse his course, leaping straight backward into a low, tumbling roll. The dragonfire passed overhead, the heat from the miss blistering even his toughened hide and igniting his shirt. What it did to the city in front of him was far worse. In the space of seconds, the entire arc that the stream cut through was reduced to a sea of flame.

Cut off from going in that direction, Ryouga angled away from the inferno. But as he ran in that direction, he saw a large group of Synths running to intercept him, and more fire behind them. Does this mean I've been running in a circle this whole time? he wondered. But there was no time to ponder it. No time to think. No time to do anything but run.

The distance between Ryouga and the mass of Synths grew closer, and he clenched his fists. This was bad. He was barely hanging on as it was; there was no way he could deal with these things at the same time. He wracked his brain for something he could do as the distance closed, but he could think of nothing.

"Silence Cut!"

One moment a horde of Synths was spread out in front of him. The next, it was replaced by flying, disembodied Synth parts as an enormous slash of raging purple magic hit them from the side, shredding their formation into mincemeat. Sailor Saturn appeared with a flying leap, landing in a crouch on the rooftop up ahead, glaive held at the ready.

As glad as Ryouga was for the rescue, seeing her brought fresh worry to the lost boy. This was not an opponent he'd wanted her anywhere near, considering how deadly it was and how her magic wouldn't even affect it. But she had taken her stand anyway, facing the monster down without a trace of fear. The Wyrmspawn took notice of her as well, gathering a fresh burst of flame and releasing it straight at her.

Sailor Saturn spun her glaive up into a guard position, and the lance of fire hammered into her Silence Wall. The attack broke over her barrier, long streams of fire shooting past around the edges but leaving her untouched. That caused the Wyrmspawn to pause, returning to a hover as it regarded this new interloper.

It gathered another blast, this time charging it longer than any of the previous ones. When it released the attack, Ryouga had to flinch away, raising a hand to shield his eyes against the blinding intensity. But that attempt fared no better than the previous one, crashing over the Silence Wall without even causing it to waver.

With a snarl, the Wyrmspawn dove directly toward Sailor Saturn, its claws drawn back for a slash. And while the Silence Wall had deflected its fire, the creature itself was another matter. The barrier lost cohesion the instant the Wyrmspawn's body came into contact with the magic, as though the parts it touched were simply erased. The monster broke through with no resistance whatsoever, the remnants of the Silence Wall shattering around it.

Fortunately, Sailor Saturn had anticipated that result, and flung herself out of the way just in time. It shot past, the sheer air displacement flinging her even farther than she had intended. The monster made a wide turn, banking through the air to come at her again. This time, however, the monster alighted on the rooftop, then crouched low in preparation to lunge at her.

Avoiding a headlong, telegraphed dive was one thing, but Ryouga had seen that thing fight Ranma. He knew that they had no chance of surviving a close-quarters battle. Even as the Wyrmspawn landed, he jumped between it and Sailor Saturn, his finger stabbing down into the rooftop. "Bakusai Tenketsu!"

The entire rooftop in front of them exploded, reduced to splinters in a precisely controlled arc by Ryouga's mastery of the ancient technique. The Wyrmspawn's footing was blasted out from underneath it without any warning, before it could make its intended charge. It tumbled out of sight, arms flailing, with a roar of surprise and outrage.

Of course, it reappeared mere moments later, rising back out of the hole propelled by the beat of its immense wings, backlit by the burning buildings all around them as it hovered there. But at least for now, the experience seemed to have caused the beast to mistrust the rooftops as footing, relying instead on its less-maneuverable wings.

Ryouga stepped back into a stance and raised his fists, while next to him Sailor Saturn moved her glaive into a defensive position. He still didn't have any idea how they were going to stop this thing. But he trusted the smart people like Ranma and Sailor Mercury to do what they always did, figure out some clever idea or crazy plan that he never would have thought of in a million years. Some way to do the impossible yet again.

He just had to keep the monster busy until they could come up with it.


**********


Rikuto watched the monitors in Tanizaki's makeshift command center, a grin spreading across his face at what he saw. Up until now that Saturn girl had been blocking every shot his cannon had fired. But now, according to the cameras, she had gone to help one of her allies against the Wyrmspawn.

He could see the blue glow coursing up and down the barrel of the cannon, the barely-restrained power building until he could practically taste it in the air. The scientist looked down at the laptop computer in front of him that he used to control the weapon. According to the status readouts it had nearly charged up enough for another shot. His finger hovered over the key that would fire it, his eyes glued to the screen as the status bar inched toward completion. The instant it was ready he stabbed his finger down.

With a burst of light and an earthshaking impact that caused the hostages around it to cower, the cannon fired. The energy projectile shot across the city, leaving a glowing trail behind it as it went. He turned back to the camera feeds... but his face fell in dismay. Sailor Saturn had broken off her clash with the Wyrmspawn, leaving her compatriot to occupy its attention while she ran to intercept the attack. "No!" he said, as he watched yet another shot explode harmlessly against her shield. "Damn it, how did she know it was coming?"

"She has your timing," came Tanizaki's voice from behind him. Rikuto looked back to see his employer standing there, also watching the monitors. "Even while she was fighting the Wyrmspawn, she was keeping track of how long it had been since your last shot, and comparing that to the delay between shots from before. Not to mention that the Hibiki boy's danger sense can detect the incoming shots as well. Did you notice how he moved to draw the creature's attention just before she broke away?"

Rikuto slammed his fist into the table. "They can't keep it up forever," he said. "If we keep on pressuring them, then—"

"No," Tanizaki interrupted. "Continuing a predictable pattern is foolish. Finesse will be the more efficient course here. Do not fire again until I give the signal."

He looked over to the other screen this one showing the street where the remaining defenders had gathered, forming a protective ring around their growing numbers of wounded to defend against the relentless onslaught of grey monsters. "Also, divert a group of Synths from the main assault. Not too many; their priority is stealth. Have them hide behind... that building, there. Make sure to move them along a path such that Sailor Saturn does not see their approach. They should prove useful soon."

With that, Tanizaki turned back to the monitor showing the Wyrmspawn's battle against its two foes. He studied it, his eyes constantly tracking every attack, every dodge, every maneuver. Watching for the right moment.


**********


Beneda knelt over the broken, bleeding body of Sailor Jupiter, using her bandages to treat the girl's wounds as best she could. She blinked sweat out of her eyes as she worked, blasted by the heat from the burning buildings all around them. The cacophony of battle raged, as countless sword-wielding Synths attacked from every direction, the entire scene stained orange by the light from the flames.

Around her, the remaining defenders fought to hold the enemy back. Shampoo and Akane fought side by side, their years of fighting together—as enemies, as rivals, as training partners—on full display. They moved in perfect sync, covering any openings the other left, setting each other up to land devastating attacks, all without any need for communication beyond their body language.

Elsewhere, Sailor Pluto spun her staff in twisting circles, deflecting sword swings and retaliating with crushing strikes, while Sailor Mars stood a step behind her, firing burning arrows from her bow of flame. Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune were also fighting together, the Space Sword flashing back and forth as Sailor Uranus fended off a rain of strikes while Sailor Neptune kept firing pale green beams from her Deep Aqua Mirror.

It was much the same all along their formation. But the Synth offensive showed no sign of weakening, and the number of wounded was only growing. Ranma, Konatsu, Kodachi, Sailor Jupiter, Sailor Venus, Sailor Mercury, along with several of the monsters fighting alongside them. And even the ones still fighting were weary from the constant battle, while the Synths showed no sign of fatigue.

Tuxedo Kamen knelt next to her, his face furrowed with strain, golden healing magic glowing around his hands. He held one hand against what remained of Sailor Venus' right shoulder, trying to knit the flesh closed and stop the bleeding. His other hand he held to Ranma's chest, doing much the same there. But his healing was slow; it would probably be at least an hour before Ranma was out of danger.

Assuming any of them lived that long.

And with Tuxedo Kamen focused on the most grievously injured, that still left those who were in slightly better shape to be treated by conventional means. Beneda worked as quickly as she could, performing triage, moving from one patient to the next... all the while wondering how they could possibly pull through this time.


**********


Sailor Saturn and Ryogua jumped from one burning building to the next, running over unsteady, bisected rooftops that might collapse at any moment, leaping through the flames as the two of them battled the hovering Wyrmspawn. Ryouga took the lead for most of it, keeping up a sustained attack that intermixed ki blasts, thrown bandannas and vicious kicks, none of them having any effect.

The young Senshi kept herself ready to create a Silence Wall at a moment's notice, whether to block the flame from the Wyrmspawn or the next long-range bombardment. But while she'd protected Ryouga from the monster's fire several times now, the expected time interval for the next shot from Tanizaki's weapon had long since passed. They had decided to stop being predictable, and it set her on edge, not knowing when the next deadly blast might come hurtling across the city.

Worse, they were no closer to dealing with the Wyrmspawn than before. Her thoughts raced, trying to come up with a solution... and eventually, one possibility did come to mind.

She looked down at her ancient weapon, held in a sweat-slicked grasp from the oppressive heat. Apart from its role as a conduit for her magic, the Silence Glaive was—even in purely physical terms—a blade whose craftsmanship was entirely unapproachable by any mortal means. Its cutting edge was impossibly sharp, and in her hands it was already an unspeakably deadly weapon.

But in the hands of someone with more raw, physical strength than anyone she had ever met...

Without her glaive it would be slightly more difficult to use her Silence Wall, but still within her capabilities. She looked over to where the lost boy was fighting, and made her decision. "Ryouga!" she called out, then hurled the weapon in an arc toward him, feeling like she was throwing a part of her very soul into his hands. He caught it easily, and she saw understanding flash through his eyes.

He threw himself sideways, barely dodging a vicious downstroke of the Wyrmspawn's claw, and then Ryouga went on the offensive with a battle cry of his own. He brought the Silence Glaive around in a wide arc, slashing diagonally along the Wyrmspawn's body from hip to shoulder with all his might. A line of sparks traced the path of the blade... and after the strike completed Sailor Saturn saw that it had left a long, shallow scratch in the monster's armor.

It wasn't much, barely even a superficial nick. Sailor Saturn tried to wrap her mind around how tough those black scales must be. The Silence Glaive was sharp enough to cut through steel like butter, even wielded by someone with the strength of a child. For the monster's scales to resist it, while being swung by Ryouga... she couldn't even begin to comprehend what dark methods the ancient dragons must have used to create such an armor for their living weapon.

But while it hadn't accomplished much, it had at least shown that the beast was not completely invulnerable. It gave them some small measure of hope that victory might be possible. Even this monster had limits. And the two of them fought on, determined to push those limits as far as they could. Ryouga hacked away at it every chance he got, sending more showers of sparks flying, even though it was doubtful that the monster even felt any of it.

The combat raged on, Sailor Saturn and Ryouga darting back and forth as the Wyrmspawn flew after them. The dodges and strikes blurred together, as the fire around them spread and grew, weakening the rooftops even further. No matter how hard they struggled, it was not something that could last.

Eventually, Sailor Saturn made a nimble leap back to keep out of the monster's reach... and her right foot landed on a section of the roof that could not support even her petite frame. It gave way, her leg sinking deep into the roof, leaving her stuck and off-balance for just a moment.


**********


Back in the impromptu command center, Tanizaki jabbed his finger at the monitor showing the feed from the array of cameras. "Now!" he barked out. "Fire!"

Rikuto obeyed without hesitation, pressing the key on his laptop keyboard. The cannon let out another blast, sending another burst of blue energy streaking across the sky, aimed at the group clustered around the wounded Ranma.


**********


"Incoming!"

Ryouga's shout made Sailor Saturn's blood run cold. She knew instantly what he meant. She couldn't see the blast yet, especially not with all the thick black smoke rising into the air from all the fires, but she trusted his danger sense. And it could not have come at a worse time. Not only had the fight drifted away from the weapon's line of fire, but she lost precious fractions of a second extracting her leg from the hole in the roof. Trying to make up for lost time, she threw herself into an all-out dash, shooting along the rooftops in a blur of purple and white.

Behind her, she could hear Ryouga fighting with everything he had to keep the Wyrmspawn's attention on him. But the beast was not the only danger. Ahead of her, about a dozen Synths leaped into view from behind one of the nearby buildings. It's a trap! she thought. They were waiting for me!

Ordinarily, a dozen Synths would prove no threat to her. But right now she had no time to deal with them. Already, a patch of the smoke that choked the sky was glowing blue, a sign that the energy projectile was about to appear. She had less than a second left. If she failed, her friends were going to die. She threw herself forward, stretching out her arms, screaming "Silence Wall!"

She made the magic barrier as long as she could, stretching its dimensions to their utmost reach. It was just barely enough. As the blue projectile ripped a hole through the curtains of smoke and came into view, it clipped the very corner of her Silence Wall and detonated. Sailor Saturn had time for a small, relieved smile as she saw the explosion going off high in the air, harmlessly.

Then a Synth sword stabbed through her chest.

It was the first Synth to reach her, lunging forward with one sword stretched out to its utmost reach, focusing all its might and momentum into a single piercing strike. It hit her from behind while she was still in midair, piercing between her ribs and through her left lung. She stared down in shock at the bloodstained blade, but her trajectory carried her onward, tumbling to the ground. The Synth ripped its sword back out as she fell, then brought all four blades up, preparing to rain down slashes on her fallen form.

Sailor Saturn tried to roll away, but her body wasn't responding the way she wanted it to. Her movements were slow, clumsy, like she had lead weights attached to her. More Synths had closed the distance as well, moving to surround her as the first one swung its swords down.

"Hotaru!"

The howl was equal parts rage and anguish. An instant later, the Synths nearest to her were cut limb from limb by spinning bandannas wreathed in ki. The strips of cloth had been hurled with such velocity that Sailor Saturn barely even saw them at all, only their aftereffects. Ryouga himself was right behind, moving faster than Sailor Saturn had ever seen him move.

Behind him, the Wyrmspawn blinked, caught off-guard by Ryouga suddenly abandoning his attack and running in the opposite direction. But it quickly adjusted, flying after Ryouga in pursuit, picking up speed as it went.

More Synths ran up to replace the dismembered ones, but Ryouga reached her before they could attack. He grabbed her up into his arms, then swerved into an abrupt, sideways dive. From her position clutched tight to Ryouga's chest, Sailor Saturn felt rather than saw the Wyrmspawn fly through the space they had just occupied, and she heard its claws shredding the rest of the Synths. Unlike Ryouga, they had not been fast enough to get out of the way.

Sailor Saturn stared down at the red stain spreading across the white fabric of her leotard. Her chest heaved as she tried to draw in air, but her breathing was wet and she began coughing up blood. She raised a trembling hand to the wound and called on her healing magic. A purple glow appeared... but it was weak and flickering. Even if she could eventually heal herself like this, it would take time. More time than they had. More time than the Wyrmspawn would give them.

The draconic monster was already coming about, soaring high into the smoke-covered sky as it made its turn. It clearly aimed to try a diving attack again. And now she would be encumbering their attempts to dodge. "Ryouga..." she choked out, barely audible. "What should we do?"

She was in no condition to block another shot from Tanizaki's weapon. When it fired next, it would have a clear shot at everyone. They could try and warn their friends to flee... but she could barely move, and even with her trying to give him directions, she doubted the lost boy could find them in time.

The Wyrmspawn made its next pass, interrupting her jumbled thoughts. This time it came in so fast that Ryouga barely got them out of the way in time, and the flying leap required to do so was so desperate and headlong that they landed in a tumble. The monster shot past, battering them with the air pressure, then soared back up into the air, even higher than before. If the altitude it was diving from this time was any indication, its next attack would have enough raw speed and power to put all the previous ones to shame.

Ryouga looked up at the Wyrmspawn, then down at her, then spoke. "Hotaru... just concentrate on healing yourself as fast as you can," he said, setting her down on the rooftop. "I'll try to slow it down a little."

It was probably their only chance. Sailor Saturn covered her wound with both hands, forcing all her will into her healing magic. The purple light was a little stronger this time, and she could feel some of the pain subside. But she also knew how long it had been since the last shot from Tanizaki's weapon. And with a sickening twist in her stomach, she realized that her healing was not fast enough.

She wasn't going to make it in time.

Across the rooftop, Ryouga backed up step by step, his eyes still locked on the monster. It soon began its dive, plummeting earthward at a terrifying speed, its wings flapping to accelerate it even beyond that. At first, Sailor Saturn thought that Ryouga was going to evade again. But then she saw the firm set to his stance, the tightness with which he gripped her glaive, and the anger with which he glared up at his foe.

He isn't backing up to dodge, she realized, her eyes widening. He's backing up for a running start!

Ryouga burst into motion, running straight toward the oncoming monster. His battle aura burned around him as he shot across the rooftop, both him and his foe reaching staggering speeds as they raced toward each other on their all-out collision course. Sailor Saturn held her breath, her heart giving out a wordless prayer as Ryouga leapt into the air to meet the monster. No matter how much force was behind his attack, it still didn't seem possible for him to pierce those impossibly-tough scales.

Except this time he didn't aim for the scales at all. This time, when he swung, he targeted one of the Wyrmspawn's leathery, bat-like wings.

Ryouga roared as he swung her weapon with every ounce of strength he could bring to bear. All the accumulated momentum of his charge, all the accumulated momentum of the Wyrmspawn's own nigh-unstoppable dive... all of it focused into a single slash with the most deadly cutting weapon in the history of the solar system.

The lost boy aimed the Silence Glaive for one of the joints in the creature's wing, right where the bones were the weakest. There was a jarring impact... and it cut straight through, slicing into muscle and sinew once it reached the other side. The Wyrmspawn let out an ear-shattering howl, its flight turning into an uncontrolled spin through the air as it fought to right itself.

That spin hurled Ryouga away, flinging him off on a corkscrew path. The monster, for its part, crashed into the street, carving out a long trench until it plowed deep into another burning building, where it finally came to a stop.

Even then, its path must have taken out enough support beams that the structure—already weakened by the fire—collapsed in on itself completely, burying the Wyrmspawn in a rain of flaming debris.


**********


Tanizaki's jaw dropped slightly, as he looked at the monitors, watching the Wyrmspawn fall, wounded. To his right, Rikuto's response betrayed even more shock. "He... he hurt it!" the scientist exclaimed, disbelief written across his features. "He actually hurt it!"

Licking his lips, Tanizaki erased any hint of concern from his expression. "It doesn't matter," he reassured Rikuto. "We've already won. Sailor Saturn is down, and that means our next shot will wipe out the entire group protecting the wounded. Once they are dead, we can pick off Sailor Saturn and Ryouga at our leisure."

Rikuto nodded. "Yes sir. Of course, sir."

Tanizaki looked down at the charge indicator on the computer in front of Rikuto. Ninety-three percent. Then ninety-four percent. He turned back to the monitors, checking for any new developments. At last, his eyes came to rest on the monitor showing the embattled defenders clustered around Ranma's prone body.

Goodbye, Ranma, he thought. You were a worthy opponent, and I would have preferred to settle matters with you in a conclusive duel. But with so much at stake, I cannot afford to indulge myself. This will be where our conflict ends.

As he watched the monitor, Rikuto began to call out the status of the cannon's charge. "Ninety-seven percent... Ninety-eight percent... Ninety-nine percent... Sir, we're almost ready to—"

But a loud crash cut off the scientist's words.

Tanizaki whirled, only to see that Rikuto's head had been slammed forward into his own computer so hard that it had smashed not just the laptop, but also the table it had been resting on. This caused the rest of the computers on either side to slide down the sudden incline, thudding into Rikuto's head where it was embedded deep into the street.

Even as Tanizaki tried to process what had just happened, he heard the sound of rapid-fire blows coming from behind him. He spun around again, in time to see one of his guards flying through the air, body twisting as though he had taken a flurry of punches to the back. Except there was no sign of anyone who could have delivered those punches. Tanizaki couldn't see anyone, couldn't sense anyone. It was like they were being attacked by a ghost.

Pandemonium reigned as the scientists began to panic. The guards spun left and right with guns at the ready, but no target presented itself. Some of the hostages by the cannon started screaming as well, not knowing what was going on. Behind him—again—Tanizaki heard a long series of crashes, and turning around he saw that one of the scientists had been hurled down the length of the other table, his sliding, tumbling body sending all the computers on that table crashing to the ground.

Tanizaki clenched his fists. He turned, not toward the sound this time, but orienting himself so that his field of vision covered both the cannon and what was left of his scientists at the same time. "Everyone move to where I can see you!" he shouted, his voice filled with a commanding authority that cut through the chaos.

From the handful of attacks so far, Tanizaki had observed two things. First, their enemy was only attacking in Tanizaki's blind spot. No matter how potent the stealth technique—even if it were to grant total invisibility—if Tanizaki could see the impact of the strikes as they landed he could extrapolate the position of the striker. Which in turn led to the second observation. Whoever this attacker was, they had no interest in fighting Tanizaki directly.

All the guards that had been behind him ran around to get in front. Two didn't make it; the attacker grabbed them before they could enter Tanizaki's field of view and sent their broken bodies flying away, one through a wall into a nearby home, the other headfirst through one of the big monitors, which in turn toppled the entire bank of monitors to the ground in explosions of sparks.

Tanizaki, however, did not take his eyes off his remaining people. He extended two fingers on his left hand, index and middle, and channeled his ki to their tips. A bright spark of energy flashed into view there, an extremely focused ki blast. It took a few seconds to charge, but soon it was ready to fire.

Hushed silence fell over the remaining people, except for the quiet whimpering of some of the younger prisoners. The guards holding them at gunpoint looked agitated, and the scientists were even more distraught, many of them were realizing for the first time that their own lives might be at risk. Tanizaki's eyes shifted left and right, trying to think of a way to reverse this sudden, out-of-nowhere disruption of his plans. Damnation! he thought. What just happened? Who could be doing this?


**********


Peeking around the corner of a nearby house, Genma watched the aftermath of his attack from a safe distance, making sure not to let his Umisenken presence concealment slip even for an instant.

When he'd first seen the glowing blue artillery fire streak across the city sky, he had been pacing back and forth in the empty streets of the evacuated area. The parting words of both his son and his oldest friend had refused to leave him alone, gnawing away at him. He could not bring himself to fully flee, and yet he could not quite bring himself to return and face them either.

But the flashes of blue light had brought with them inspiration, a way out of the dilemma. He was, after all, in a perfect position to go after the distant target, as someone already well clear of the Synth forces. He could follow the shots to their source, break whatever was doing the shooting, and then run away, secure in the knowledge that he'd done his part after all. Accordingly, he had set out across the rooftops, racing toward his destination with superhuman speed.

Except nothing had gone according to plan. Instead of the ordinary guards he'd been expecting, the cannon had been guarded by a man who could only be Tanizaki himself. Genma's danger sense had gone ballistic just looking at the man, a martial artist who could go toe to toe with Ranma. Whereas Genma knew full well that he was not on that level. His son had surpassed him years ago.

He had considered trying to hit the cannon with a long-range attack, but after looking at the terrified crowd of prisoners clustered around the weapon, he couldn't bring himself to do it. He was pretty sure they'd end up dead if he tried something like that.

So he hid there, frozen in indecision, watching the battle unfold on the big monitors... right up until he realized that Ranma was about to die. No uncertainty left for excuses. No room left for a glib assumption that the boy would work it out somehow. He knew, right then and there, that unless he did something, these men were going to kill his son.

And he knew that for him, there was only one tactic with a prayer of working against Tanizaki. If he wanted to save Ranma without killing all those people, the only remaining choice was a forbidden style that he had promised himself he would never use again.

So that was what he had done. To save Ranma. And as far as he could see, it had worked. Now that Tanizaki was watching everyone he couldn't attack like he had before, but the damage had been done. With all their computers wrecked, they probably wouldn't even be able to issue any new orders to their grey army, let alone fire their precious cannon.

But then Tanizaki spoke. "Listen carefully, all of you. Do any of you know a way to fire this weapon manually?"

Genma tensed. However, the first scientist to answer shook his head. "The attached computer was the only control system we made for the prototype," he told his employer. "There aren't any hardware controls on the cannon itself."

"I'm not talking about controls!" Tanizaki snapped. Anger filtered into his voice, but he was keeping it in check. "Open up the internals! Rewire it! Take whatever system causes it to fire and set it off directly! Surely someone here understands how it works well enough! The weapon is already targeted! Sailor Saturn is down! We just need one more shot!"

A murmur ran through the scientists, and they looked from one to another. Most seemed skeptical, but eventually one stepped forward. "I... think I could manage that, sir," he said. "But it might take me a few minutes."

"Do it." At Tanizaki's order, the scientist began to walk over toward the cannon. His steps were nervous, as though he half-expected an invisible monster to rip him apart at any moment. But Tanizaki was watching the scientist like a hawk, ki blast blazing at his fingertips and ready to fire at the first sign of trouble. There was no way Genma could sneak up to the scientist and attack like he had been, not without Tanizaki killing him.

Thinking fast, Genma ripped a brick out of the nearby wall. Well, who says I need to get close to take him out? he thought, as he wound up for a throw. Then he hurled his improvised weapon, sending it straight toward the scientist's head with as much force as he could muster.

But the instant the brick entered Tanizaki's peripheral vision he grabbed the scientist pushed the man out of its path. At the same time, he spun around with his other hand and released the ki blast he'd charged in the direction the brick had come from. Genma flung himself to one side as the beam tore through the wall he'd been hiding behind.

He scrambled away, clamping down with all his might on his fear, so that the extreme emotion did not disrupt his Umisenken technique. By the time he found a new vantage and regained his composure, the scientist had reached the cannon and taken cover there, hidden from view by hostages on either side, with Tanizaki standing behind him. They weren't taking any chances.

I didn't expect him to react that fast... Genma thought. His skills are incredible. There's no way I can match him in straight-up combat. Right now, the Umisenken is the only thing keeping me alive...


**********


Ryouga groaned as he rolled unsteadily back to his hands and knees, his vision swimming. Pain shot through his body with every movement, and he clutched at his right shoulder. The force of his attack on the Wyrmspawn's wing had dislocated it.

Gritting his teeth, he used his knee to brace his arm against the street onto which he had fallen, then with a wrench he popped his shoulder back into its socket. He ignored the throbbing pain and got back to his feet. I need to find that monster again! he thought. I have to keep it away from Hotaru so she can finish healing.

Looking around, he saw the Silence Glaive lying farther down the street, near a long trench. Apparently, it had torn free from the Wyrmspawn's wing as it had crashed to earth. Ryouga raced over and picked it back up. Then his eyes followed the trench to where it ended, in a flaming pile of rubble that had once been a building. Stepping back into a stance, Ryouga held the glaive in a ready position and waited.

The rubble exploded outward, raining down in all directions as the Wyrmspawn clawed its way out of the wreckage. Ryouga noticed that its movements were more clumsy than before, its sense of balance thrown off by the damaged, spasming wing hanging askew to one side.

Still, it did not take it long for the creature to emerge out onto the street, where it found more solid footing. There the beast deliberately flexed its wings, as though trying to take to the air again. But the injured wing didn't move in proper sync, but only in uncontrollable spasms, and almost immediately the Wyrmspawn stopped and clutched at the cut. Its breath grew heavier, more raspy, its claws trembling as it held the wound.

And Ryogua realized that this was perhaps the very first time in all the Wyrmspawn's untold millennia of existence that the creature had ever experienced pain.

At first the monster hunched over, its claws opening and closing in erratic twitches. But then it threw back its head, letting loose an enraged roar of such violent fury that Ryouga flinched back from the force of it. It continued and continued, every second filled with the beast's hate toward those that had done this.

Then, when at last it had finished, it began to sweep its gaze across its surroundings, searching once again for its prey. It did not take long before it noticed Ryouga, and the lost boy saw recognition enter those reptilian eyes as it looked at him. He swallowed, but did not back down, maintaining his stance. "Well come on," he called out, gripping the Silence Glaive tight. "I don't have all day."

But for once, the Wyrmspawn did not immediately leap to rip him apart. Instead, it drove the claws of its feet deep into the concrete, bracing itself. Then, drawing in a deep breath, it opened its maw and began once again to gather fire within it.

Ryouga dropped into a crouch, preparing to dodge another stream of fire. But instead of firing after only a second or two of charging, this time the fire continued to build. And build. And build. More and more power, all of it compressed into a sphere little larger than a golf ball. Second after second went by, without any sign that the monster was slowing down, and Ryouga realized that this next attack would be on an entirely different level from anything that had come before it.

Injuring its wing didn't make it less dangerous! Ryouga realized in dismay. The pain just pushed it to go beyond its limits! Something this big... it's not going to be a question of "dodging". Me, Hotaru, everyone else... It's trying to incinerate everything in one shot!

The air surrounding the Wyrmspawn warped from the heat waves, forming an aura that extended several meters around it. The radiance from the charging projectile was so great that Ryouga could only see the barest outlines of the creature's face. The lost boy tried to think of something, anything he could do, but he could sense the scale of the coming attack, and it was already utterly beyond him. It was absurd to even think about blocking or countering it. Damn it! he thought. Damn it, damn it, damn it! What can I do? Everyone is going to die if that blast hits... anywhere!

It was then, as he wracked his brain for some way to save his friends, that he had an idea. He dropped into a crouch and gathered his ki, bracing himself against the waves of hot air pouring out from the monster. His battle aura flared to life around him, its strength utterly pitiful in the face of the power about to be unleashed. But it was all he had. He closed his eyes, trying to sense the beast's killing intent, trying to gauge the exact moment when it was about to fire.

Then, pouring all his accumulated ki into raw speed, he launched himself at the Wyrmspawn.

It felt like he was charging into a blast furnace. He covered the distance in the blink of an eye, and even his toughened hide was burned just from being close to the charging projectile. But he made it. The Wyrmspawn's concentration was so focused on its new attack that it didn't even register the sudden charge until it was too late.

Ryouga shot past, then snagged one of its horns with his free hand to swing himself up onto the monster's back. The horn itself was so hot that it burned Ryouga's hand, fusing it to the place he had touched as smoke rose up from it, but Ryouga pushed past the pain. Roaring out a battle cry, he used his other hand to raise the Silence Glaive high. Then he jammed the weapon's tip deep into the Wyrmspawn's eye socket and pulled back with all his might, using the glaive as a huge lever to twist the monster's head toward the sky.

The sudden and intense pain of its ruined eye prevented the Wyrmspawn from offering effective resistance against Ryouga's straining for that one crucial instant. Indeed, it instinctively tried to go along with the pull, in an attempt to ease the pressure on its eye and somehow stop the pain. It let loose a howl of utter agony, and in doing so lost control of the attack it had been just about to fire. The sphere of flame shot straight upward.

The force of the projectile's ascension blasted Ryouga off the creature's back as it went past him, tearing his hand free of the horn and ripping away a good bit of his flesh in the process. Above them, the glowing sphere shot higher and higher. In the blink of an eye it vanished into the thick clouds of smoke from the burning buildings that hung over the area, though for a moment its presence could still be detected in how it stained the smoke with angry orange. But then even that faded, as the attack flew higher and higher.

One heartbeat passed. Then another.

With a deafening roar that sounded like every thunderclap Ryouga had ever heard in his life combined into one, the sky above erupted into flame. The explosion was so high up that the fires themselves did not come near the ground, but the enormous shockwave did. It hammered Ryouga into the concrete below and smashed every building in an enormous radius, many of their structures already compromised by the inferno. The impact obliterated them, sending embers flying everywhere as they were crushed into smoldering ruins.

Ryouga's world spun, everything a blur of vertigo and pain, especially from his burned left hand. He tried to stand, and got most of the way up, only to stumble back down to his hands and knees. He couldn't hear anything except for a muted ringing in his ears, not even his own voice. And his sense of balance—so vital to a martial artist—was failing him.

Get up! he told himself. Get up, damn you! This isn't over. You have to get up!


**********


Genma's mind raced as he stared from his hiding place at the cannon and the people gathered around it. Tanizaki's battle aura was blazing around him, and he already had another one of those deadly ki blasts charged to his fingertips, ready to fire at a moment's notice. He had no angle on the scientist at all, but he could see the cluster of hostages where he was.

How do I stop them? Genma thought. I barely dodged that ki blast, even from this far away! If move close enough to attack the scientist, he'll definitely get me.

Then, staring at Tanizaki's back, Genma felt a flash of anger shoot through him. Look at how open he is. Not even trying to take any precautions. Is he that confident I'm too scared to attack him directly?

That had, admittedly, been the case. But really... why shouldn't I go for it? Genma told himself. No matter how good he is, the Umisenken will let me land the first hit. I just need to hurt him enough to give me a clean shot at the scientist, and then I'll run away.

Still, even with the pep talk, he could not entirely dispel the anxiety he felt making a direct attack on that man. He focused his eyes on his target, hesitated a few more seconds... then mentally cursing himself for a fool he darted forward.

He approached in Tanizaki's blind spot, his forbidden style cloaking him from detection. Beyond that, he moved so quickly that the untrained eye would have been unable to track his movement just from speed alone. Certainly none of the ordinary guards or scientists had a prayer of observing him. Wasting no time, he rushed within striking distance and began the multi-punch volley of the Haku Dato Shin Sho.

But then, just as the first of the strikes was about to land, just as it entered the space occupied by its target's blazing battle aura, Tanizaki spun and drove his elbow into Genma's face.

It was an exchange of blows; even though he used his spin to roll with the strike, Tanizaki could not avoid Genma's punch completely. But he was able to turn it into a glancing blow, while his own elbow hit was much more solid. Even so, it did not land dead-on either, as though Tanizaki hadn't known exactly where he was.

Still, it was enough to send him reeling back, leaving him open as Tanizaki completed his spin, bringing his other hand around to fire the ki blast he'd charged. With all the desperate adrenaline of a born survivor staring death in the face, Genma twisted to try and avoid the attack. But this time he was in too close. He could not avoid it completely. The beam carved a deep gash along his stocky chest that ran to his shoulder, spraying blood everywhere.

By now even the guards were able to react, raising their guns and aiming them. Genma hit the ground in a roll, reactivating the Umisenken and diving back toward the cover of the surrounding buildings as the spot he'd just been standing was shredded by heavy-caliber weapons fire. Tanizaki did not attempt to chase Genma as he vanished, instead holding his position next to the cannon where he could protect the scientist.

Once he had reached a new hiding spot, Genma practically collapsed against the wall, pressing his hands to his chest in an attempt to slow the bleeding. What just happened? he thought. How did he break my technique?

Even as he tried to understand what had happened, he heard Tanizaki's voice. "Ah, so that's who you are," he said. "Saotome Genma. Unfortunately, you're not the first opponent to try a stealth technique against me. I came up with my own countermeasure years ago. Though if nothing else, I congratulate you on being slippery enough to escape the trap anyway."

Genma peeked back around the corner, and he drew in a quick breath at what he saw. Now that the cat was out of the bag, Tanizaki was manipulating his battle aura, making it more diffuse but increasing its size, until it permeated the entire area around the cannon and beyond. That's how he did it! Genma realized. He didn't need to sense my presence. The whole time he was standing there, he was studying his own battle aura, watching it for even the smallest disturbance. He could sense how it shifted when my fist went through it, and that extra split-second of warning was all he needed to do this to me. That level of perceptiveness and ki control... I've never seen anything like it!

He looked at the new dimensions that Tanizaki's battle aura filled, now that he was no longer trying to lure Genma into a trap, and his stomach sank. If I go anywhere near that cannon, he'll know exactly where I am, Umisenken or no, he thought. He'll just sense the person-sized hole in the flow of his own ki!

And any second now, the scientist might finish his work. There was nothing Genma could do, and no time to think. Looking down at his bleeding chest and his trembling hands, Genma shook his head in dismay. What am I even doing here? he thought. I can't handle this. This kind of situation... it's something for a real hero, like Ranma. Not for a useless old man who's entirely out of his league...


**********


Even as she had watched the injured Wyrmspawn plummet earthward, Sailor Saturn had continued to heal herself as fast as she could, hoping against hope that she could make it in time to stop the next shot. To her surprise, even after the usual interval had passed, no energy blast came shooting over the rooftops. She didn't understand why, but she did not waste it, continuing to heal herself.

As the wound in her lung slowly closed and her breathing returned to a more normal state, she began to recover strength as well—which in turn helped her to heal faster. Soon she was able to stand again, albeit unsteadily. Then she heard a murderous roar from the streets below, that could only have come from the Wyrmspawn.

Part of her desperately wanted to go to Ryouga's aid again. But she also knew that in her wounded state, if she left this position now, there was no way she could get back in time if there was another shot. Her eyes searched the skies, trying to make sense out of the sudden pause and what it meant. Did they run out of power? Is it over? Or are they just trying to lull us into a false sense of security? Is it safe to go help?

But before she could come to a conclusion, an attack did come into view. Though not the one she had been expecting.

The small, orange-red projectile shot straight up from somewhere out of her direct line of sight. She whirled, tracking its ascent until it vanished into the smoke. Then, a few moments later, it detonated. Fire filled the sky, and the immense shockwave slammed into her and destroyed the building she was standing on.

She fell amidst the burning, broken remains of the structure, nearly knocked unconscious by the blast. As a result, when the shockwave finally drove her into the ground below, she landed badly. A sharp burst of pain exploded in her leg, along with a matching pain from her not-entirely-healed chest wound.

It took several seconds for her thoughts to reform into a coherent state, and even then she was unsteady. But she knew she could not keep lying there. She clawed her way forward through the burning wreckage, then back to her feet, healing all the while. The healing also helped deal with her vertigo, as the magic repaired the damage to her inner ear. She kept on limping forward, and eventually reached the street.

A scene of devastation greeted her. Buildings everywhere had been crushed, giving her an unobstructed view of the area over their smoking ruins. She could now see where the rest of the defenders had gathered to hold off the Synths, and the blast had hurt friend and foe alike. Sailor Senshi, martial artists, monsters and Synths, all of them lay strewn across the area, though like Sailor Saturn, some of them were already fighting back to their feet. The Synths, in particular, seemed to have no concept of pain, dragging themselves mindlessly forward regardless of any damage.

Looking in the other direction, she saw where the destructive attack had come from. Ryouga was crawling forward, burns covering his body. Behind him, the Wyrmspawn had dropped to its knees, nearly doubled over as it clutched at its eye with both hands. As she watched, it let out another agonized howl, rocking back and forth as it tried to deal with a sensation it had no context for, pain on a level that made even the damage to its wing seem minor.

For a moment she froze, unsure of which threat she should assist with. Focus on guarding against the artillery bombardment? Help fight the Synths? Or help Ryouga against the Wyrmspawn? She was needed everywhere, making it an impossible choice with no right answer. Any of the threats could be fatal if ignored.

Except... Tanizaki's weapon hadn't fired for a while now, even when given multiple perfect openings where she couldn't possibly have blocked it. It would be a gamble to leave her position in the state she was in... but so was everything else. And while the Synths were still a danger, some of her friends were still fighting. It was possible they could hold their own. But Ryouga was practically down for the count, and if they couldn't find a way to deal with the Wyrmspawn they were all dead no matter what.

Turning, Sailor Saturn broke into a hobbling half-run, limping as fast as she could down the street toward the lost boy, healing herself as she went. She soon reached him and knelt at his side, causing him to stop his crawl and look up at her. "Ryouga!" she called out. "Hold on, let me heal—"

But before she could finish the sentence, she saw something move out of the corner of her eye. The Wyrmspawn had lurched back to its feet. It stumbled a little, unsteady, its hands still clutching at its eye. But its other eye was focused directly on them.

Then the draconic monster opened its mouth, flame gathering and concentrating inside it. Oh no, Sailor Saturn thought. It's going to use that attack again!

Even just a miss had nearly wiped them out just now. The blast had detonated so high above them that they had only been hit by the weakest, outermost edges of the explosion, and even that they had only barely withstood. She wasn't even sure that a Silence Wall could stop a direct hit from an attack like that, not in the weakened condition she was in.

And even if it could, what about the next one? Or the one after that? The beast's injuries had driven it into a frenzy, lashing out with its most powerful attack over and over in a crazed attempt to eradicate all of them.

And unless they found a way to stop it, it was going to succeed.


**********


Mousse stood in the spectral forest, watching in numb dismay as the younger version of himself played out in front of him the battle he had fought all those years ago. The ghostly version of Ying Jie stood next to him in silence, watching along with him as their past counterparts clashed again and again.

The younger Mousse was on the offensive, drawing, using and discarding weapons at a ferocious pace, with little regard for strategy. As though if he fought hard enough he could block out the truth of what he was doing. Ying Jie's past self kept mostly on the defensive, fending off the furious rain of blows, but giving ground as he did.

Behind them, Zhang watched the boys fight with a smug, self-satisfied smile. But eventually, as the battle wore on, he turned and walked away, his interest already dwindling. He had no need to see who actually won. He'd proven his point. The rest was irrelevant.

Mousse barely noticed him go, his eyes fixed on the fight. Before long, he saw his younger self draw a heavy warhammer from his sleeves, whirling it around himself as he attacked. He flinched, remembering what that weapon signified for the battle.

Walking forward, the older Mousse stood next to the dueling children, looking down as the warhammer smashed into Ying Jie's guard with bone-jarring force, making it harder for him to keep up his defensive battle. The ghostly Mousse said nothing as he watched it play out. At this point, there were no words left to say. He had made his choice, made it years ago, and this was what he had chosen.

With each flailing blow, the young Mousse drove Ying Jie to retreat, until his friend's back was against a tree. Mousse swung the warhammer around in a wide arc, but Ying Jie managed to roll beneath it and get behind Mousse, while the weapon embedded into the tree. "Mousse! Listen to—"

But Mousse wasn't listening. With a scream, he ripped the warhammer straight out of the tree in an explosion of splinters as he lunged toward Ying Jie. But instead of attacking with the weapon immediately, Mousse dove into close quarters, hitting the other boy with his shoulder to off-balance him first. It caught Ying Jie by surprise, allowing Mousse to follow it up by driving the haft of the warhammer straight into Ying Jie's stomach with all his might, knocking the wind out of him.

Only then, as Ying Jie stumbled away, trying to draw in breath, did Mousse swing the warhammer around. Ying Jie tried to dodge, but it still clipped him in the side of the head, sending him spinning away to land in a crumpled, unconscious heap.

The warhammer tumbled from Mousse's shaking hands as he stared down at what he had done. He took an unsteady step back, then another. Then, clenching his eyes shut, he spun away and ran toward the vial of antidote, dropping to his knees to scoop it up for himself.

As he reached it, however, he saw the second thing that Zhang had left behind next to the vial. A sword, covered in a white sheathe, with the Chinese symbol for the number "four" engraved into the hilt. The style of sword he would have received upon his graduation, upon completing the ceremony that they had fled to avoid.

The message could not have been more clear. You went through with it after all. You're one of us, in the end.

And Mousse could not deny it. With shaking hands, blinking tears out of his eyes, he picked up the accusing blade and accepted it, sliding it deep into his sleeve.


**********


Using all his stealth, Zhang crept from shadow to shadow through the twisting corridors of Beryl's old castle. He had given the monster encampment outside a cursory search, but he had sensed few groups of human ki there, and none had been his target.

This place, however, was much more promising.

Room after room he had checked, working his way up the towering stone edifice, slipping past the occasional guard, until at last he reached the upper floors. There were not too many places left to look, meaning that if Sailor Moon was here, he would find her soon.

Eventually he came to a corridor with several doors. Behind one in particular Zhang could sense several humans... and something more. It was more difficult to pin down than ki, but he was certain that someone in that room was using large amounts of magic.

This is it, thought the assassin, as he moved down the hallway. I'm sure of it. Tanizaki's victory is right on the other side of that door.


**********


Mousse stood in the silence of the forest, looking down at his younger self from behind. That Mousse held the vial of antidote clutched in his hands, though he had not quite brought himself to drink it yet. Mousse could remember exactly what it had been like to kneel there, the adrenaline just starting to fade and the guilt and shame over what he had done beginning to grow. His younger self almost looked back over his shoulder to where Ying Jie lay, but stopped.

Coward, Mousse thought, holding back angry tears. Looking might shake your resolve, so you just avert your eyes. You damned coward!

"You see?" he finally said, his voice rough. Guilt and grief constricted his throat, but he forced the words out anyway. They needed to be said. "You asked me not to hate myself, but how can you say something like this doesn't deserve it? Everything you said to Zhang about friendship... when he put us to the test, I—"

Mousse's voice broke, and it was several seconds before he could barely continue. "I spat on all of it. I attacked my best friend and left him to die to save my own life. That's not something that can be forgiven!"

From behind him, Mousse heard a laugh. "It isn't? Shouldn't that be more my decision than yours?" Ying Jie asked, gentle humor in his voice. "After all, I was the one who died. If I decide I want to forgive you, shouldn't you honor that?" He paused, then continued in a softer voice. "If I decided, back then, that I wanted you to live... shouldn't you honor that?"

The words were almost incomprehensible to Mousse. "What do you mean?" he demanded, turning around to look at Ying Jie. "I was the one who—"

But his voice broke off. His mouth tried to form words, but what he saw destroyed the last tattered remnants of composure to which he had been clinging. Looking back, he could see Ying Jie's ghostly form. And beyond it, the place where the unconscious body of Ying Jie's past self had landed.

Except Ying Jie was no longer unconscious. In his panicked haste, his younger self had rushed over to the antidote before really confirming the extent of the damage he had inflicted. And Ying Jie had recovered. He was hurt, the breath still knocked out of him by Mousse's attack. But he was awake. And he still held the sword he had been using to defend himself.

With Mousse's younger self agonizing over the vial, it would have been child's play to come up behind him and strike. Mousse could see the emotions warring in Ying Jie's eyes, hurt and betrayal and fear not unlike Mousse's. For a moment, Ying Jie's hand tightened on the hilt of his weapon.

But then he closed his eyes, and a small, sad smile crossed his face. When he opened his eyes again, the struggle within him was decided. He released his grip on his sword, letting it rest on the ground.

Mousse crumpled to his knees, burying his head in his hands as his entire body shook with uncontrolled sobs. Seeing that had broken him completely. It was only when he felt Ying Jie's hands on his shoulders that he was able to look back up with a tear-stained face. "Why?" he demanded, choking the word out. "Why?"

"Because you're my friend." Ying Jie wrapped his arms around Mousse, pulling him into a tight embrace. "I knew how scared you were. I was scared too, so I can understand why you did what you did. I don't hate you for a moment of weakness."

"But—!"

"I forgive you." Ying Jie's voice overrode Mousse's objections. "However bad you think it was, I forgive you. However much you hate yourself for it, I don't feel that way about you. However much you wish it had been you that had died, you need to know that I wanted you to live. I want you to live!"

Ying Jie pulled back from the embrace just a little, so he could look directly at Mousse. "And it's not just that. I want you to be happy! Promise me, Mousse. Promise me you won't throw away the choice I made."

Mousse tried to answer, but he was completely unable to respond with words. In the end, he just nodded. The smile Ying Jie gave in response was radiant. As he did, the forest around them began to come undone, slowly unraveling into white light.

"I'm glad," Ying Jie said. Their younger selves were starting to vanish too, Ying Jie as he lay on the ground, Mousse as he ran away, without looking back, the empty vial of antidote lying discarded on the ground. "Then there's just one thing more."

He looked his friend right in the eye. "Remember this, Mousse. When you fight Zhang again, even if you can't see me, I'll be watching over you. You won't be alone. We'll face him together again."

Now even the ghostly Ying Jie was starting to vanish along with their surroundings. But as he disappeared he raised both hands, taking hold of Mousse's head and pressing their foreheads tight together, a few tears running down his own face as well. "So the next time that bastard tries to use my memory against you... I want you to remember whose side I'm really on. Don't let him insult me by acting like what happened back then was the end of the story."

Mousse could feel Ying Jie becoming insubstantial, no matter how he tried to hold on. But his friend still had time to give one last bit of encouragement. "Show him, Mousse. Show him what you can really do. I believe in you."

And then everything vanished into white.


**********


Zhang slowly inched open the door, looking inside the room. Sure enough, a hospital gurney sat at the center with several people clustered around it. They blocked his view of who was lying there, but he recognized the people themselves as Sailor Chibi-moon and Sailor Moon's parents, along with two cats. There was little doubt about who the patient was.

Even better, none of the ones watching over her were even the slightest threat to him.

He swung the door open, stepping through and moving silently toward them, drawing a sword from his sleeve as went. They were so absorbed in their worry that it was child's play to approach, until he stood right behind Sailor Moon's mother. Now he could see the patient directly, confirming that it was indeed Tsukino Usagi lying there.

Only then did Sailor Chibi-moon look up, her eyes going wide as she saw him standing there. She let out a cry and leapt back, fumbling for her wand. But she was far too slow, and far too late. Zhang raised his sword high, aiming for Usagi's neck.

Usagi's parents also turned, horror filling their faces as they saw what was about to happen. Their child was about to be murdered right before their eyes. Zhang ignored them, his attention focused on his target. He had no intention of underestimating her. She was still Sailor Moon, no matter how fragile she looked. He would strike with all the force he could muster, severing her head from her body in a single stroke.

Then he swung down, his blade hungry for blood.

The air reverberated with the noise of something shattering the sound barrier, but that only reached Zhang's ears after the metal spike tore through his wrist. The attack threw his swing wildly off-course and made him lose his grip on his sword. The weapon flew off to embed in one of the walls, as Zhang let out a pained cry, instinctively whirling to see who had attacked him.

All he saw was a small hole in the stone, its edges still smoking from how fast the spike had pierced through the wall. His attacker had timed his strike to exactly coincide with Zhang's own surge of killing intent, increasing the chances that it would be undetected. The attack had come just as Zhang had committed himself to his own strike, targeting his wrist perfectly. All without seeing him.

Even as Zhang realized what that meant, the wall with the hole exploded inward as something much larger came through it, a blur of white shooting at him with incredible speed. Zhang barely managed to pull a knife from his sleeve before it reached him. Sparks flew as his weapon deflected countless attacks in the space of a second, from every type of weapon imaginable.

Zhang struggled with all his might, but his left-handed defense could not keep up. Soon a kick caught him in his chest, lifting him off his feet. As he flew backward he threw the poisoned knife, ricocheting it off the ceiling to fall toward Usagi. But his attacker jumped back in time, knocking it harmlessly away. Zhang landed, barely managing to keep his footing as he skidded backward across the floor to a stop.

Mousse stood protectively between him and Usagi, a sword in hand, his battle aura crackling around him with focused intensity. Zhang grimaced, fighting back the excruciating pain from his wrist. This was... not good. No matter how it might have gone normally, there was no way he could defeat Mousse with only one hand.

Fortunate, then, that he didn't need to defeat him. He only needed to kill the Tsukino girl, and for that he only needed one slight opening, a single rash attack. This standoff would be decided by whoever made the first mistake, however slight.

And if there was one thing that was reliable about Mousse, it was his susceptibility to Zhang's provocation.

The assassin drew another knife and began to slowly circle his prey. Mousse shifted carefully to match, keeping himself in position to counter anything Zhang did. His sightless eyes were not focused on anything in particular, giving him an air of eerie calm. "So, you're still alive!" Zhang said. "I'm impressed! That makes twice now that you've survived being poisoned by me. And you didn't even have to murder anyone to do it this time!"

Zhang watched Mousse's face, anticipating the reaction as he jabbed the painful memory. But... it never came. There was no sign Mousse had even heard his words, not the slightest crack in his focus. Frowning, Zhang tried again as he continued to circle, staying just on the razor edge of optimal attack range to bait his foe. "Is that why you're trying to protect her now? You think that saving her will make up for what you did to your friend? You think that will wash the blood from your hands?"

No reaction. Mousse continued to match Zhang's movements with cold, methodical precision, his sword held at the ready. "You're just deluding yourself!" Zhang snapped. "You think your friend would be satisfied with that? You think that would be enough to make him forgive that kind of betrayal? Someone like you doesn't deserve to pretend like they're the hero! Someone like you doesn't—"

But as he inched closer to the hidden weapons master, as he fought through the pain and the blood loss, as he shouted with increasing frustration in an attempt to draw out one more impulsive attack... as he did all that, Zhang stepped a tiny fraction of an inch too far, his weight distribution just slightly overextended. The standoff would be decided by whoever made the first mistake, however slight.

And Zhang had just made it.

Mousse exploded forward, sword slicing along an intricate path. This time, Zhang didn't even get the chance to throw the knife, his opponent controlling the initiative too completely. The assassin dove backward in a series of leaps, moving for all he was worth, only to find chains erupting from Mousse's other sleeve, snaking through the air to cut him off no matter where he tried to dodge. Zhang flung himself back out of the room and into the hallway, but Mousse was right on his heels, the two of them shredding the stone around them as they dueled down its length, blade striking against blade.

Zhang backpedaled for all he was worth, just trying to stay out of Mousse's reach. Then, realizing that he no longer had any chance whatsoever of completing his mission, he turned and fled outright, sprinting for all he was worth toward the London portal. Mousse followed relentlessly, pursuing him in a chase not unlike the long-ago chase that had first linked their destinies together.

Only this time, it was Zhang's turn to run.


**********


His breathing ragged, Genma peeked around the corner of the house, still trying to think of something he could do. Could I risk attacking that weapon directly? he thought. There has to be someplace I could damage it without it exploding and killing all those people. But where? And how could I be sure I'd done enough damage that it wouldn't fire when they tried to shoot it?

And there was another, darker thought mixed in as well. What if... I did just destroy it? With everything that's at stake... surely some sacrifices would be justified. I would barely even need to put myself at risk. If I made a ranged attack from the opposite side of the cannon... not even Tanizaki could stop it in time. I could save Ranma, save the world... surely everyone would see that it was necessary!

Involuntarily, Genma's eyes flickered over to the faces of the terrified people kneeling around the weapon. The student about Ranma's age. The mother clutching her little girl protectively to her as she looked up at the gunmen surrounding them. Genma felt sick thinking about what would happen to them. But what was the alternative? Just wait here, cowering, while that scientist finished his work and killed Ranma and the others? That had to be worse!

Scenario after possible scenario flashed through Genma's thoughts, but each one had some drawback, some cost. He clenched his fists, caught between the different choices, all with outcomes that horrified him. But he was almost out of time. One way or another, he would have to face one of those futures. The question was which one. Who did he want to save?

And who was he willing to sacrifice to do it?


**********


Tanizaki focused, his every sense on high alert. The aura manipulation technique he was using to detect hidden foes within its radius was simple in principle, but devilishly complex in its execution. It had taken him a month to fine tune it, and it had been many years since he had used it in a real combat, so he was a touch rusty.

Worse, stealthy attacks were not the only danger. He could protect the scientist in front of him well enough, but if his opponent had the pragmatism to abandon the hostages and attack the cannon, he had to be ready to counter. Or, in the worst case, to get clear of the blast in time. Getting vaporized was something he would prefer to avoid at this juncture.

The realization of how precarious his position was infuriated him, but he channeled that anger into determination. He would not allow that washed-up old fool to disrupt his plans any further. No matter what Genma tried, no matter what tactics he used, Tanizaki would stop him.

No other outcome was acceptable.

Then, without warning, he sensed a distortion in the battle aura he was projecting, a man-shaped hole in its flow shooting direction toward him from behind at blinding speed. Tanizaki whirled reflexively, his hand shooting out and firing the ki blast he'd charged to his fingertips at the white-clad blur hurtling toward him.

The focused beam tore straight through the man's torso, slowing his trajectory... and allowing Tanizaki to see that it was not Genma at all. It was the body of one of the guards Genma had knocked away at the beginning. The old martial artist had wrapped the body in his own gi, then thrown it at Tanizaki from behind!

Even as he realized the trick, a second distortion entered his field, this one coming from a different angle and aiming for the scientist behind him. He'd wasted his ki blast, so he moved to intercept this one personally, shifting right into its path. Even knowing exactly where Genma was, it was difficult to track him in his ghost-like technique, but Tanizaki kept himself loose, ready to react to any further slippery maneuvers or tricky diversions.

So he was caught off-guard when this time, Genma abandoned all such tricks. As he shot toward Tanizaki, the balding martial artist dropped his stealth technique entirely, shifting suddenly into a style completely opposite in form to the one he had been using up to that point. He hurtled straight at his foe, driving his hand like a spear toward Tanizaki's heart with a cry of "Dokuja Tanketsu Sho!"

Even then, Tanizaki managed to react in time, his hand clamping down on Genma's wrist and stopping it inches from his chest. Tanizaki's eyebrows went up a little at the raw power of the attack, his arm straining a little to hold Genma at bay.

But despite its impressive power, the attack failed to cause Tanizaki any harm... which meant that the battle was now over. Now that Tanizaki had caught hold of his opponent, Genma could no longer use his stealth technique to evade, and in a straight-up fight it was obvious who would win. There would be no escape this time.

Except Genma didn't try to escape. Rather, in that moment of straining, as Tanizaki fought to hold off the spearing thrust, Genma used his other arm to grab hold of Tanizaki, locking them together even tighter. Heedless of danger he leapt forward with long-practiced skill, wrapping Tanizaki in a crushing bear hug with both arms and legs.

Tanizaki ground his teeth at the indignity. From that position he didn't have much leverage, but he was able to bring his fist back a little bit before driving it forward into Genma's ribs. He felt bones crack and heard a cry of pain from the other man.

This is only delaying the inevitable! he thought, annoyed. The gap in skill between them was too great. If Genma relaxed his hold even slightly to attack the scientist behind him, Tanizaki would kill him before he could. Even if Genma didn't relax his hold at all, it would take Tanizaki only seconds to break free, at which point he would also kill him. What can he hope to accomplish by tying us both down, if he can't exploit that to—

But then Tanizaki's eyes widened as—too late—he remembered something he'd seen Ranma use during their fight in his skyscraper... listed in his dossier as a core Anything Goes technique. The same technique that Genma called on in that instant, his ki exploding around him. He looked Tanizaki in the eye, a triumphant little smirk on his face as an enormous, building-sized version of himself enshrouded them both.

Tanizaki struggled frantically to break free. If he could just get between the scientist and the ki construct, he knew he could defend against it. But Genma gripped him with maniacal strength, strength that exceeded what he should have been able to muster, holding him in place. Around them, the ki projection raised its hand high, then brought a single finger straight down from above.

The scientist was cowering right in between two of the human shields, but Genma's strike was as precise as it was devastating. The finger shot between the two civilians with centimeters to spare on either side and crushed the scientist like a bug. Then, to make doubly sure, it used its finger and thumb to grab the rat's nest of wires that the scientist had been working on and rip them out, hurling them away.


**********


With an effort, Ryouga struggled back to his feet, standing next to Sailor Saturn as fire gathered in the Wyrmspawn's maw for another one of its cataclysmic blasts. His burns still hurt and his balance was still shaky, but he was beginning to recover a little. His hearing was slowly returning, though the monotone ring still interfered.

Still, he wasn't in any condition to replicate his previous feat, and he doubted it would work a second time anyway. And yet, despite everything against them, Sailor Saturn looked like she had something in mind. She raised her hand, shielding her eyes from the attack as she studied it, a look of determination growing across her soot-stained face.

She took a step forward, then extended her arm to the side. With a flash of purple light, the Silence Glaive reappeared in her hand, and she swung it around to hold at the ready in front of her. Waiting.

Is she going to block it with another Silence Wall? Ryouga wondered. Will even that be enough against a blast that huge?

He didn't know. But what he did know was that he trusted the girl standing in front of him. He'd seen firsthand her bravery, her iron-clad will to protect others, especially those she cared about. Even weakened and wounded, even against a foe completely immune to her magic, when he saw her with an expression like that, he couldn't imagine her losing.

"Ryouga?" she said, not taking her eyes off the monster. "You saw it do this last time. Can you tell when it looks like it's about to fire?"

"I'll try." There was no time to waste on questions. Ryouga just agreed, studying the charging attack himself. Already the searing radiance was close to what it had been before, but its killing intent would be an even better gauge. His brow furrowed in focus, comparing what he sensed to his memories, trying his best to read the monster.

Each passing second increased the tension. They were staring death in the face, to say nothing of all their friends fighting behind them. But Ryouga forced himself to focus only on the task at hand. The heat pouring from the creature made his already existing burns hurt all the more, to the point where his vision began to swim, but he ignored it. It was almost there, almost there...

Then his head snapped up. "Now!"

Sailor Saturn spun the glaive in her hands with lighting speed, drawing it back behind her for a throw. Then she hurled the glaive like a spear, screaming out a desperate cry as it shot from her hand toward the monster. The speed of the weapon was such that it crossed the distance in an instant, its tip striking straight into the creature's open maw. The Silence Glaive bisected the sphere of flame, causing it to detonate right then and there, unleashing its full, unimaginable force.

Inside the Wyrmspawn's head.

It was like staring into the heart of the sun. The explosion—or rather, the fraction of it that escaped its container—raged toward them, filling Ryouga's vision completely. But just before it hit them, it crashed into the most immense Silence Wall Ryouga had ever seen Sailor Saturn create. Height, width, thickness... in all dimensions it surpassed her previous efforts as she poured all her remaining power into this last desperate defense.

Even that residual fraction of the explosion was so enormous that there was no way she could block it all. On either side of her barrier the flames raged past the edges as the blastwave continued to expand. But the Silence Wall created a break in its path, a wedge of safety that fanned out behind it... so long as the wall itself held.

Sailor Saturn stood there, straining with all her might, both hands held out in front of her as she struggled to hold back the apocalyptic onslaught. The flames silhouetted her form in black as they hammered against her barrier. Even as Ryouga watched, a crack appeared in her defense, followed by another, and another, each one larger than the last.

Those cracks allowed some of the consuming heat from the blast to leak through. The smell of burning flesh reached Ryouga, and he realized in horror that it was the palms of Sailor Saturn's outstretched hands, which were not far from the weakening Silence Wall. But she only pressed harder, letting out a scream that was equal parts pain, fear and defiance as she lowered her head and fought to hold her barrier together.

Ryouga, watching helplessly, was not sure how long it lasted. But eventually, it did come to an end. The last remnants of the explosion faded, the full force of its fury spent. And still the Silence Wall stood. Unbroken. Only once she was certain that the threat was completely gone did Sailor Saturn allow it to flicker away into nothingness. Then she herself dropped to her knees, then pitched forward, face-first.

With a lunge, Ryouga caught her before she could hit the ground, cradling her in his arms.


**********


The first of the Wyrmspawn's blasts had thrown the defenders into disarray, hammering down on them from above, worsening the injuries of the wounded they were protecting and smashing their defensive formation. It had also hurt the Synths attacking them, of course, but in what had already been a battle of attrition, the damage had put the defenders even closer to defeat.

The second blast had turned the tide in the exact opposite direction.

Fundamental to the Synths attack pattern from the beginning was how they had kept themselves spread out, sending in wave after wave to keep the pressure on, never allowing themselves to be taken out en masse by the Senshi attacks. But the sheer scale of the Wyrmspawn's fire turned those very precautions against them. The only Synths to survive were those in the band of safety created by Sailor Saturn's Silence Wall, and because of how spread out they were, that was a much smaller number.

In the space of a moment, almost the entirety of the enemy force had been wiped out, leaving nothing behind but a sprawling, desolate wasteland.

Shampoo drew herself up at the sight, fresh hope lending strength to her tired limbs. She lashed out with all the ferocity she had, sending Synths flying left and right as the last battered remnants of the enemy force made their final charge. Akane joined in beside her, as did the others. Most of them were barely standing, covered in a mess of soot and sweat and blood and Synth fluids. But they fought on, protecting the wounded and crushing the enemy.

"Fight!" Shampoo screamed out as she swung and swung. "Everyone, fight! Is just few more left! Is time to finish them now!"


**********


Tanizaki stared at his ruined cannon, his thoughts roiling in mortification. He had been outmaneuvered entirely. Outmaneuvered by someone of that level! A lazy, undisciplined fool had thwarted him. He clenched his fist so hard that it ached, some distant part of himself warning him to keep his anger in check. But the admonition held little weight in that moment.

Behind him, Genma lay on the ground, his arms and legs broken. He hadn't escaped, of course. But Tanizaki considered that no consolation. The cannon had been the true crux of their duel, and in that respect he had failed unequivocally.

At length he turned away from the useless weapon, looking down at Genma directly. Beneath the pain, Tanizaki could see satisfaction in the man's expression, something that incensed Tanizaki even further. Genma had anticipated this result and accepted it, making his capture even less of a victory.

"This doesn't change anything, you realize," ground out Tanizaki. He fought hard to keep his voice level and emotionless, as though the loss had not affected him. His success was... limited. "The cannon was just added insurance. The Wyrmspawn will still kill everyone there. In fact, they're probably already dead! You haven't saved anyone!"

Genma looked up at him from the ground, then shook his head, a tiny smile on his face. "You're wrong. My son's still alive. Your precious monster isn't going to be enough to kill him. And he's going to come for you."

Tanizaki stared down at the man, at the quiet confidence in Genma's expression, confidence that spat in the face of all the reason and logic Tanizaki could throw against it. Confidence that Ranma would survive. Confidence that Ranma would beat him.

And something in Tanizaki snapped.

All the suppressed rage from the loss of the cannon, the rage from the crippling of his global empire, the rage from the failure of his plan to kill Sailor Moon, the rage from everything that had gone wrong with his plans and brought him to this point of humiliation... all of it boiled over into a raw, blinding fury at this ignorant fool lying in front of him, looking up with that damned smug smile!

His hand shot down, grabbing Genma and dragging him back up to his knees. Then he drove his other fist into Genma's face, relishing the feel of bones breaking. He switched hands, using the hand he'd punched with to hold Genma in place while he slammed another hit into the opposite side of the man's face, snapping his head back in that direction. He continued to punch and punch and punch, the blows coming faster and harder, pummeling Genma's head and body with ever-increasing savagery.

Through it all Tanizaki never said a word. As hostages and guards alike looked on, the only sounds that broke the strained silence were the brutal meaty sounds of violence and Genma's wet, increasingly faint gasps of pain. On and on the torturous beating went, until at last Tanizaki paused in his assault. His eyes were wild, his hair disheveled, his fists covered with Genma's blood.

Somehow, even after all that, Genma still hung onto a sliver of consciousness. He looked up at Tanizaki, his face so mangled that it was barely recognizable... but that defiance still there. Tanizaki glared back down, then finally spoke, biting out each word. "There will be no victory for you, or anyone on your side," he said. "Even if by some miracle Ranma does manage to flee the Wyrmspawn, I will hunt him down wherever he goes and kill him with my own hands. The only fate the future holds for any of you is death."

Then he raised his hands to Genma's head, one on top of it, one on the man's chin, and twisted with all his might.


**********


Ryouga held Sailor Saturn's limp body, frantically checking her injuries. She was barely conscious and her stab wound was bleeding again, but even so she managed to open her eyes and look up at him. "Everyone... all right?" she murmured. "Did anyone... get hurt?"

The lost boy looked back to where the others were finishing off the last of the Synths. "No, no, you protected everyone," he assured her. "That was... incredible, Hotaru. You saved us all. So just take it easy and rest."

A smile of pure relief appeared on Sailor Saturn's face. "Thank goodness," she breathed. "Thank goodness. And... the Wyrmspawn? What about it?"

Ryouga hesitated. "I'm... sure it has to be dead," he told her, looking over to where the monster's body lay. "After something like that, even it... couldn't... possibly...."

But his voice trailed off, replaced by a cold terror as his sixth sense warned him of the unmistakable signs of life. He could still sense a presence.

Even as he watched, one of the Wyrmspawn's claws twitched, then twitched again. Then the claw slammed into the ground, digging in deep so that the monster could pull itself back to a sitting position. No... Ryouga thought in dismay. Not even that? Not even that could kill it?

The creature's visage was now, if possible, even more nightmarish than before. The entire left side of its face was blown away, the intertwining scales and horns ripped free as the explosion had annihilated the underlying muscle and connective tissue from the inside, leaving only the white bone of its skull. The right side of its face had fared only slightly better, and its jaw was completely gone.

But it had survived. Even through the unimaginable forces released right inside its very body, it had survived.

In that moment the lost boy understood, not just in words but to the very core of his soul, the full difference in nature between himself and the things he was fighting. This was a being that had endured untold millennia, a living weapon created to slay a goddess. He was just Hibiki Ryouga, nineteen years old, a brawler who spent most of his time trying to figure out where he was. The sheer disparity crushed down on him like a lead weight.

The Wyrmspawn rose back to its feet amidst the destruction it had wrought, looming to its full height as it looked down with its remaining eye at its kneeling prey. Ryouga could see the boundless hate in that glare. Hate that promised their deaths, their friends' deaths, the deaths of anyone and everyone the monster could reach for all time.

Sailor Saturn could no longer help him fight. He was alone, completely out of his league, without even the weapon that had allowed him to inflict what little damage he had. He was bruised, burned and exhausted. He had no clever plan, no hope of rescue, and no cards whatsoever left to play.

Except one.

Gently, he lowered Sailor Saturn to the ground. She must have seen something in his eyes as he did, because she spoke up, fear in her voice. "Ryouga...?"

The lost boy gave her the most reassuring smile he could manage, taking one last look at her as he did so. "Don't worry," he said, resting a hand on her head and then giving it an affectionate ruffle. "Everything's going to be all right." Then he pulled himself away and stood, turning to walk straight toward the Wyrmspawn.

The monster was trying to call on its fire yet again, continuing in its crazed, all-out attack. But this time, its attempt was failing. The flames came to the shattered cavity where its mouth had been, but they spluttered and flared away in erratic spurts, not concentrating into any fixed shape. The monster tried and tried again with the same result, trying to wrap its mind around the fact that its weapon had been ruined.

Despite his brave words to Sailor Saturn, Ryouga didn't really know if even this would be enough. Part of him was certain it would be just as ineffective as everything else had been. But even a tiny chance was better than nothing. With a deep exhale he reached within himself, weaving his ki into the twisted pattern he had figured out years ago, ready to be activated. Then he lowered himself into a deep stance, waiting.

Eventually, the Wyrmspawn managed to grasp that its fire was no longer an option. Abandoning the attempt, it instead returned to the tactic it had used in the very beginning. Ripping its prey limb from limb. It gathered itself for a charge, then launched its huge frame directly at Ryouga with all its terrifying speed, claws outstretched.

But just before the oncoming juggernaut reached him, a surge of ki exploded out from Ryouga's body, one that absolutely dwarfed any battle aura he had used in the fight until now. It wreathed him in enormous, coursing streams of bluish-white energy, and from Ryouga's viewpoint the Wyrmspawn's lunge slowed to a crawl. Straining his will, Ryouga bent all that overflowing ki to empower his muscles and reinforce his bones to a level utterly beyond anything he could normally manage.

That's right, he thought, looking right into the monster's hate-filled eye. I'm just Hibiki Ryouga. Just a puny mortal so far beneath you that there's practically no comparison. But if you want to hurt my friends... if you want to hurt Hotaru... you won't get past me until I've hit you with everything I have.

Every last bit.

Ryouga drew back his arm and clenched his fist.


**********


Sailor Saturn watched, eyes wide, as the Wyrmspawn's body jackknifed, bent completely double from the force of the blow Ryouga drove into its stomach. An instant later the shockwave from the impact crashed over her, while at the same time the monster shot away like a bullet from a rifle, carving a deep trench in the ground it passed over from the air displacement.

Before it had gone far, Ryouga vanished from her sight. In the same moment the Wyrmspawn's trajectory was halted as the lost boy slammed another punch into its back from behind, cancelling out its momentum and transforming it into pain. Before it could recover, Ryouga linked both hands and swung them straight down, driving the monster into the ground with a force that rippled outward, spraying shrapnel and debris everywhere as it blasted out an enormous crater.

Ryouga battered the Wyrmspawn back and forth all over the area, its body twisting like a rag doll as it tried in vain to retaliate. But Sailor Saturn took no joy whatsoever from the sudden reversal. She remembered the story Ryouga had told her just a few days ago. She knew what technique he was using to do this.

"No..." she whispered. "Oh no..."


**********


Ryouga pounded on his enemy without restraint, punch after punch after earthshaking punch, his entire world narrowing to just the two of them as he made his last, desperate bid to take the creature down. Already he could see blackened, dead patches of skin spreading across his body. He could feel it spreading inside him as well, as the technique used him up for its fuel. He tried to control the spread, to guide it to organs it wouldn't kill him immediately to lose, but he knew he couldn't last much longer.

Like taking all the power you'd ever have over your whole life, and using all of it up in a single minute, he thought. Everything I am, everything I could have been... and it's still not enough.

He wasn't doing enough damage. He could knock the Wyrmspawn around, maybe hurt it some, but it just kept getting back up again. It was going to outlast him.

Ryouga refused to accept it. He kept up the attack, but he was fighting on borrowed time. All too soon, when he raised his fist to strike, a burst of wet, heaving coughs doubled him over. He dropped to his knees, his attack ruined as his body convulsed. Damn it! he thought, looking down at the mixture of blood and bile he'd coughed into his hand. It's reached one of my lungs.

Above him, the Wyrmspawn recovered and raised its claw high, then swung it down in an unsteady strike. Ryouga surged to his feet and twisted away, the claw ripping just inches from him. The lost boy gritted his teeth. Is this it? he thought. Is this all I can do?

But then he noticed something that sent a small jolt of hope through him. As the monster's missed swing carried it past him, it came close enough that he saw a series of fine cracks running through the exposed section of its skull. That's from Hotaru's attack! he thought. It did more damage than I realized! That area right there is weakened!

A quick shove broke the Wyrmspawn's balance for a moment, allowing Ryouga to grab its shoulder with his burned left hand, despite the pain. Roaring out a battle cry, he used that arm to wrench the monster toward him as hard as he could. Simultaneously, he drew back his right hand and swung it with all his might at the weakened area.

The blow landed with a devastating impact, shattering the ground for yards around them, and Ryouga felt the cracks in the Wyrmspawn's skull grow slightly. The monster reeled, its legs wobbling, but Ryouga pulled it back up and repeated the attack again. And again. And again.

He soon lost track of how many times he had crashed his fist into his enemy's head. It had no meaning for him. The only thing that mattered was the damage he could feel increasing with every strike. Even as he fell apart, he continued to attack with raw, bloody-minded refusal to give up. Just hold together! he begged his body. Just hold together a little bit longer!

He could feel the cracks expand. He could feel the skull weakening. He struck and struck and struck, and then drew back his fist once again, swinging it toward a target that surely could not take any more...

...and then, when that strike hit, his knuckles shattered. Then his wrist, then his elbow, then his shoulder, the force traveling up his arm until the entire limb was ruined, flopping down limp. No! Ryouga thought. The decay! It's reached my bones! I can't even withstand my own attacks anymore!

He looked up at the Wyrmspawn. It staggered back, fighting for balance, and for a moment Ryogua thought it might topple. But then its foot slammed down hard, steadying itself. Ryouga saw to his astonishment that he had smashed the skull so badly that whole sections of bone had actually broken free and been driven into the creature's exposed brain. Yet despite the horrible damage, it still stood.

Step by step it lurched toward Ryouga. Its movements were erratic spasms, unfocused, but driven by its murderous imperative. The lost boy stood in its path, barely able to breathe, fighting just to stay on his feet. One more hit... he thought, glaring up at the monster. It's almost dead. Just... need one more hit...

But he couldn't even move. So this is how it ends? he asked himself as the Wyrmspawn hobbled closer. I broke my promise to Ranma, to Akane, to Hotaru... and I couldn't even make good on the reason I broke it. I couldn't kill this thing. I couldn't protect Hotaru. It's going to kill me, and then it's going to go after her, because I failed!

A sickly green aura swelled to life around the lost boy. He forced himself to focus on the negative emotions, cultivating them until they filled his soul. And why would I expect anything different? he thought. A failure is all I've been my whole life. The only thing I've ever been any good for is fighting... and in the end I wasn't even good for that. Just a worthless liar who lets down the people who depend on him. In the end, this was all I could do.

In the end... this is all I ever was.


**********


Sailor Saturn sucked in a breath as a huge pillar of raging green energy shot up around Ryouga, enveloping both him and his enemy as it stabbed into the heavens. More and more power coursed skyward, forming into an enormous green sphere that hung there, growing with every bit of ki that the lost boy poured into it. Until, at last, the flow ceased. And for a frozen half-second, everything seemed to hold in place.

Then the sphere fell.

The impact shook the earth, unbalancing Synths, martial artists and Sailor Senshi as far back as the main battle. Sailor Saturn pressed herself tight to the ground as the sphere burst outward, venting energy across the battlefield to buffet her. When she looked up again there was nothing visible but an enormous crater, too deep to see the bottom from her angle.

Her heart in her throat, Sailor Saturn forced herself to climb back to her feet. She was exhausted and badly hurt, but she didn't care. She threw herself stumbling forward, barely managing to keep some semblance of balance as she raced toward the crater.

When she reached the edge she was in no state to check her momentum. So she didn't even try, tumbling down the slope to come to a stop at the bottom. She crawled forward on her hands and knees, over to where Ryouga and the Wyrmspawn lay.

The monster was dead. The animating fire that had once burned inside it was now inert, its one remaining eye staring sightlessly toward the ground. Shards of bone had been driven even deeper into its brain by Ryouga's final attack. But Sailor Saturn paid the corpse no heed, crawling over to kneel at Ryouga's side.

"No..." she said, her voice a choked whisper as tears ran down her face. "No, no, no no no!" The lost boy was still alive, but his technique had consumed huge sections of his body, leaving them decaying before her very eyes.

She placed her hands on his chest, calling on her healing magic. A few meager sparks of purple light flashed from her palms, and it did push back the decay just a bit. But it was not nearly enough. She tried to force more power into it, but she was already like a rag that had been wrung completely dry.

"So...rry..." With a start, she looked over to Ryogua's face, and saw that he was looking up at her, barely conscious. "Broke... pro...mise... I'm... sorry..."

With a sob, Sailor Saturn tried again to heal him, tried to reach deeper into herself, tried to find some remaining scrap or reserve of strength. "No!" she repeated. "No, no, don't die, please!"

But despite her efforts, all those few sparks of magic did was slow the progress of the decay as it progressed toward Ryouga's heart.


**********


His vision failing, his body falling apart, Ryouga looked up at Sailor Saturn. He could feel the warmth of her power, small though it was, a source of comfort even as his life drained away.

He could also tell that she was crying. Sobbing out his name as she tried to force more power into her healing spell. Damn it, he thought. Even now I'm hurting the people I care about. I just can't get anything right, can I?

Still, even if she was sad now, that would surely pass in time. At least he'd gotten rid of the danger. She was safe. That was what really mattered.

It was as he was reassuring himself with that thought that he felt the presence manifest.

His first, panicked thought was that somehow, despite everything, the Wyrmspawn had survived. But no. Even at its most powerful, the monster's presence had never commanded anything even resembling the sheer, animal terror that seized Ryouga's soul in that moment. He knew intuitively that whatever this was, he was less than a speck of dust in comparison. But even worse than the fear itself was his fear for Sailor Saturn. He couldn't bear the thought that she would have to face something like that alone.

But then, as he strained to look up at her, he realized something. Sailor Saturn was showing no surprise at the overwhelming manifestation. Indeed, she did not even react to it, continuing to kneel at his side, her head bowed, her shoulders trembling uncontrollably. And it was only then that he realized the truth. This presence was not any kind of threat to Sailor Saturn.

This presence was Saturn.

An anguished scream tore itself from her throat. She looked up, the symbol of her planet blazed on her forehead, written in purple light. The radiance cast everything around in shadow, as the air crackled with overwhelming magical power. Ryouga saw, in that moment, a glimpse of her true nature as she forced it to descend into that mortal frame. He saw the larger part of the girl he knew as Hotaru, ancient beyond comprehension and utterly inhuman.

"No." This time, when she said it, it was not a plea. It was a command, in a voice as final as the grave. "I am Saturn. I am Ruin and Rebirth."

"And I say no."

She placed her fingertips on his chest, and healing magic engulfed Ryouga's entire body from head to toe. It felt like liquid fire had been poured into every cell of his body, and his back arched as his mouth opened in a soundless scream. The power of Saturn's true, unveiled self burned away the decay from his technique, purging its effects entirely.

Eventually the blaze of purple light faded. Ryouga had little strength left, but somehow he managed to look up at Sailor Saturn. The power from before had left her, its work complete. She was still crying, but now he could see tears of joy there as well. "Thank goodness..." she whispered. "Thank goodness..."

With that, the last dregs of her strength left her and she pitched forward, landing on top of him, her body limp. For a moment he was afraid, but then he felt her breathing against him, and he realized that she had only lost consciousness.

He followed her seconds later.
claymade
Asteroid Senshi
Posts: 930
 

Re: The Dark Lords Ascendant, Chapter 16 [R/SM Cross]

Postby CRBWildcat » Tue Jan 23, 2018 8:09 pm

I don't have much time to spend on here, so I'll keep my comments brief. Also, I doubt anyone's going to get the following reference.

My first thought when I saw Genma step up to the plate was: "Wow, he's going to be the MVP." Then we got to the point where it finally sunk into his mind that Tanizaki stood a very real chance of killing Ranma if he didn't kick things up to the highest notch possible. By the end of it all, even after Genma was reduced to a broken shell, the only thing I could think was: "...Tanizaki, why did you have to say 'no' to panda?" >^_^<

I'm not going to lie and say I'm a fan of graphic imagery, but I'd still like to say this chapter was well worth the wait. Definitely looking forward to the next one.
Senshi of Zeta Aquilae
Spammer Rank C --- from Himitsu, 10-25-07. "Holy @!#%!, she made Zelas cry."
SpamLady Supreme --- from Colonel Caprice, 8-16-2017
Song of the week. Updated Sundays/Mondays.
CRBWildcat
User avatar
Super Power Senshi
Posts: 30881
 

Re: The Dark Lords Ascendant, Chapter 16 [R/SM Cross]

Postby claymade » Wed Jan 24, 2018 12:03 am

CRBWildcat wrote:I don't have much time to spend on here, so I'll keep my comments brief. Also, I doubt anyone's going to get the following reference.

Heh heh, I'm afraid that I, at least, didn't catch it...

CRBWildcat wrote:My first thought when I saw Genma step up to the plate was: "Wow, he's going to be the MVP." Then we got to the point where it finally sunk into his mind that Tanizaki stood a very real chance of killing Ranma if he didn't kick things up to the highest notch possible. By the end of it all, even after Genma was reduced to a broken shell, the only thing I could think was: "...Tanizaki, why did you have to say 'no' to panda?" >^_^<

I'm not going to lie and say I'm a fan of graphic imagery, but I'd still like to say this chapter was well worth the wait. Definitely looking forward to the next one.

Thank you very much! Yeah, I don't usually try to use too much imagery like that, but for this chapter in particular I felt it was necessary to really capture the extremes to which the various characters were going to in order to accomplish what they needed to. Glad to hear that you enjoyed the chapter! :D
claymade
Asteroid Senshi
Posts: 930
 

Re: The Dark Lords Ascendant, Chapter 16 [R/SM Cross]

Postby CRBWildcat » Wed Jan 24, 2018 1:02 am

Thanks. >^_^<

Heh heh, I'm afraid that I, at least, didn't catch it...


It's a reference to an ad campaign ("Never Say No to Panda") used to promote a product called Panda Cheese out in Egypt, circa 2010. The premise of each commercial is that someone is offered the product, but declines; at that point a giant panda shows up from out of nowhere, stares at them for a few moments, then throws a fit and wrecks any objects in the vicinity.
Senshi of Zeta Aquilae
Spammer Rank C --- from Himitsu, 10-25-07. "Holy @!#%!, she made Zelas cry."
SpamLady Supreme --- from Colonel Caprice, 8-16-2017
Song of the week. Updated Sundays/Mondays.
CRBWildcat
User avatar
Super Power Senshi
Posts: 30881
 

Re: The Dark Lords Ascendant, Chapter 16 [R/SM Cross]

Postby Sunshine Temple » Wed Jan 24, 2018 6:08 pm

Poor Saturn, the scene with her and Ryoga was really cute and of course how it ended for him.... (which was a great moment for Hotaru)

That "armor" of Tanizaki is a /bit/ clichie villain, but human shields /are/ often used in that exact way.

Ranma should probably be a /bit/ more worried about having so many of his knuckles broken. Course given the breaks he gets later on...

Good work with Genma with his role in the battle and his bit at the end, while tragic, his defiance was earned


Seriously impressive fight scene. Epic in scale, great in descriptions.
And the pacing is superb.


Very well done.

I didn't notice any typos or mistakes.

My only recommendation is a stylistic thing.
Splitting the chapter might help the flow better, give another *pause* for the reader given how action heavy it all is.
Sunshine Temple
User avatar
Site Mistress
Posts: 2040
 

Re: The Dark Lords Ascendant, Chapter 16 [R/SM Cross]

Postby claymade » Wed Jan 24, 2018 11:15 pm

CRBWildcat wrote:It's a reference to an ad campaign ("Never Say No to Panda") used to promote a product called Panda Cheese out in Egypt, circa 2010. The premise of each commercial is that someone is offered the product, but declines; at that point a giant panda shows up from out of nowhere, stares at them for a few moments, then throws a fit and wrecks any objects in the vicinity.

Ahhhh, I see. Yeah, wouldn't have recognized it.

Sunshine Temple wrote:Poor Saturn, the scene with her and Ryoga was really cute and of course how it ended for him.... (which was a great moment for Hotaru)

Heh heh. I figured it would be nice to have a bit of a more light-hearted scene before things got really serious; glad you liked it.

Sunshine Temple wrote:That "armor" of Tanizaki is a /bit/ clichie villain, but human shields /are/ often used in that exact way.

Yeah, and against opponents like the Sailor Senshi, there's really few things so effective. If that's where they're vulnerable, I figured Tanizaki would be the kind of person to play to that.

Sunshine Temple wrote:Ranma should probably be a /bit/ more worried about having so many of his knuckles broken. Course given the breaks he gets later on...

I guess he's probably counting on his new friends with the healing magic, at least as far as the long-term goes. As long as he doesn't actually die (and the injured parts in question are still at least somewhat there to be repaired) he probably figures he can (eventually) get himself put back together when he has the chance.

Sunshine Temple wrote:Good work with Genma with his role in the battle and his bit at the end, while tragic, his defiance was earned


Seriously impressive fight scene. Epic in scale, great in descriptions.
And the pacing is superb.

Thanks! This was a chapter I've been waiting a long time to write, and I'm really glad the result was enjoyable.

Sunshine Temple wrote:My only recommendation is a stylistic thing.
Splitting the chapter might help the flow better, give another *pause* for the reader given how action heavy it all is.

Arrrrrrgh. Yeah, this is something I fought back and forth with myself over for a long time. Because it definitely is a long chapter, and I did keep trying to find good places to break it. The best place I came up with was right after the Wyrmspawn busts out, but... gah, I dunno, something just didn't feel right with me when I tried to work through it, hence why I posted it as a unit like above. Felt like the first part didn't have enough meat to stand alone as a chapter, and putting a breather in that particular spot somehow felt awkward in a place where I was trying to press the momentum of the "it got worse, and worse and WORSE" escalation that's taking place right in there.

...

If I'm being brutally honest with myself, I'm afraid that the real, best-of-both-worlds solution to fix this issue that I probably ought to do would be to go completely back to the drawing board on a bunch of the scenes and try to re-work them, from the ground up, to be tighter. Trying to do things in different ways that don't require quite so much setup, so the chapter isn't so long and yet also keeps the battle as a contiguous whole. But at the same time... at this point I've been working on this chapter for... crap, eight months now... and I've already gone back to the drawing board like that so many times on other scenes to make them work that at this point I feel like any big structural changes will end up coming out lower-quality overall, just from the sheer exhaustion of going back to that sequence yet again in such a "ground-up" way. And given how long I've already kept people waiting... gah.

But yeah, I totally hear what you're saying. I'll try to bang my head against the problem a little more, see if I can't get something else to fall out; it's just a thorny issue that I haven't had much success with yet.
claymade
Asteroid Senshi
Posts: 930
 

Re: The Dark Lords Ascendant, Chapter 16 [R/SM Cross]

Postby Sunshine Temple » Thu Jan 25, 2018 7:31 am

More detailed reply will follow

I totally understand the fatigue of having spent so much time on a chapter and wanting it done.
Your idea about revising it is a good one.

I will say that revisions do go much easier than writing the first time.
And it is amazing how little changes can add up to really polish and smooth out a scene.
And that you can find whole sections that you can remove or reposition to make it better.

That said, sometimes gaining a bit of distance helps best. That is let the chapter lay still, work on something else for a while. Then go back to it with fresh eyes.
(Technically it's going to it without the story-memory in your head. That is all the little bits that you're remembering and thinking while you write it.)
Sunshine Temple
User avatar
Site Mistress
Posts: 2040
 

Re: The Dark Lords Ascendant, Chapter 16 [R/SM Cross]

Postby Fellow Sufferer » Thu Jan 25, 2018 1:26 pm

It's good to see Genma redeem himself - perhaps even in his own eyes. Now, with Tanizaki reeling from his defeat, and Ranma his loss, the fight between them will be much more dramatic.

Ryoga's conflict, on the other hand, is not resolved. After all, he did just what he always seems to do during a climatic fight - attempt to suicide himself upon an unbeatable enemy. Dark Kingdom, Karna's armor, here - nothing really changed for him. The narrative seems to imply that only hooking up with a girl will bring him peace - Akari or Hotaru, and it's not fair to him or to the girl.

As is in the Dark Lords, Mousse seems to be in position to defeat an important underling who threatens the heroes in an unforseen way.

Usagi and her clone are the real wild cards here.
'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean different things.'
'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master - that's all.'

Fellow Sufferer
User avatar
Senshi Cadet
Posts: 121
 

Re: The Dark Lords Ascendant, Chapter 16 [R/SM Cross]

Postby CRBWildcat » Thu Jan 25, 2018 2:24 pm

I've been taking a second look at the chapter today, and I think I did find a few minor errors.

But the instant the brick entered Tanizaki's peripheral vision he grabbed the scientist * pushed the man out of its path.


Should be an 'and' where the asterisk is.

Fundamental to the Synths attack pattern from the beginning was how they had kept themselves spread out,


Should be an apostrophe at the end there.

Other than that, it looks clean.
Senshi of Zeta Aquilae
Spammer Rank C --- from Himitsu, 10-25-07. "Holy @!#%!, she made Zelas cry."
SpamLady Supreme --- from Colonel Caprice, 8-16-2017
Song of the week. Updated Sundays/Mondays.
CRBWildcat
User avatar
Super Power Senshi
Posts: 30881
 

Re: The Dark Lords Ascendant, Chapter 16 [R/SM Cross]

Postby claymade » Thu Jan 25, 2018 10:28 pm

Sunshine Temple wrote:I totally understand the fatigue of having spent so much time on a chapter and wanting it done.
Your idea about revising it is a good one.

All right, so I went back through the various scenes, and the only sections where I could find enough wiggle room that they could be cut enough to make a noticeable impact on that "overall pacing" level are the stretch where they're leading the Wyrmspawn through the mist, and maaaaybe to a lesser extent, the subsequent bombardment after they trap it. If I cut a lot of the maneuvering through the Shabon Spray, maybe even the Shabon Spray itself, and have Ranma just get it in much faster and more directly, that might work to tighten up the pacing a bit.

On the balance, spending less time there could also make the Wyrmspawn's initial capture feel more... quick and perfunctory, which could work against the gravitas of the threat a bit. It'd all depend on how much I cut, of course. Where does the gain of the cut start to get outweighed by the loss? Could I still work Venus in naturally in the compressed version? Would the various cuts give "enough" to make up for losing those parts of it? Rrrrgh... Really second (and third) guessing my pick.

Sunshine Temple wrote:I will say that revisions do go much easier than writing the first time.

Huh, that's interesting. For me, personally, it tends toward the reverse, if anything, as far as how the process usually turns out. The first pass through a scene (for me) is often relatively straightforward; what really takes the time and hair-pulling is all the (many) times when that first time through just illuminates the problems with the original conception that I didn't think through fully and I have to rip it apart and figure out how to change it in a way that still serves the larger purpose of the scene and yet addresses the problem that showed up. That is generally like pulling teeth for me.

(You can tell when I hit one of those parts in my notebooks, since that's where you see multiple pages in succession with big, frusturated Xs drawn through their entirety.)

Sunshine Temple wrote:That said, sometimes gaining a bit of distance helps best. That is let the chapter lay still, work on something else for a while. Then go back to it with fresh eyes.

Yeah, if I let it sit for a few weeks and ride out the "post-chapter-crunch crash" before starting on the next round of editing then it would definitely make it a lot easier. It's just... like I mentioned before, this chapter is already stupidly late, and delays that big between installments do in and of themselves hurt immersion and involvement in their own way, so I kinda really want to push through.

And, like you said, I also just really want this thing done. So bad.

Fellow Sufferer wrote:It's good to see Genma redeem himself - perhaps even in his own eyes. Now, with Tanizaki reeling from his defeat, and Ranma his loss, the fight between them will be much more dramatic.

Oh yes, their conflict just got very personal...

Fellow Sufferer wrote:Ryoga's conflict, on the other hand, is not resolved. After all, he did just what he always seems to do during a climatic fight - attempt to suicide himself upon an unbeatable enemy. Dark Kingdom, Karna's armor, here - nothing really changed for him.

True, his arc is certainly not yet resolved. That being said... I didn't want the narrative to give the impression that the resolution to his arc would come in the form of negating any of the above-mentioned decisions. He certainly does have problems, but (IMHO) his willingness to go that far to save lives doesn't form the actual substance of those flaws. The reason it didn't change for him for those choices is that they were the right call, given the situation. (No less than it was also the right call for Genma.) Whatever form the resolution to his character arc takes, his take-home message isn't going to be just "you shouldn't do that."

Fellow Sufferer wrote:The narrative seems to imply that only hooking up with a girl will bring him peace - Akari or Hotaru, and it's not fair to him or to the girl.

Indeed, it's very true that you can't pin your happiness fundamentally on someone else like that. And worse, it's very easy to have themes bleed across like that, when a romantic subplot is concluding at the same time as an interpersonal one. Thanks very much for the warning to keep them distinct; I think there are some things I can tweak in the next chapter to put more emphasis on the delineation. It's definitely an issue I need to keep in mind.

Fellow Sufferer wrote:As is in the Dark Lords, Mousse seems to be in position to defeat an important underling who threatens the heroes in an unforseen way.

Heh heh, he does seem to find his way into such situations, doesn't he?

Fellow Sufferer wrote:Usagi and her clone are the real wild cards here.

*rubs hands excitedly*

CRBWildcat wrote:I've been taking a second look at the chapter today, and I think I did find a few minor errors.

Should be an 'and' where the asterisk is.

Should be an apostrophe at the end there.

Other than that, it looks clean.

Oooh, nice catches! Thank you very much for looking it over again!
claymade
Asteroid Senshi
Posts: 930
 

Re: The Dark Lords Ascendant, Chapter 16 [R/SM Cross]

Postby Cheb » Sat Jan 27, 2018 4:19 am

[groan] :x
Added to my backlog.
I will read this fic this year!
Proud owner of 1.5 kilograms of Germanium transistors
Cheb
User avatar
Moon Senshi
Posts: 1386
 

Re: The Dark Lords Ascendant, Chapter 16 [R/SM Cross]

Postby Spica75 » Sat Jan 27, 2018 5:56 am

Cheb wrote:[groan] :x
Added to my backlog.
I will read this fic this year!


Agreed.

I've ended up several chapters behind, AGAIN! :?
Spica75
User avatar
Moon Senshi
Posts: 1911
 

Re: The Dark Lords Ascendant, Chapter 16 [R/SM Cross]

Postby claymade » Sat Jan 27, 2018 8:25 am

Cheb wrote:[groan] :x
Added to my backlog.
I will read this fic this year!

Spica75 wrote:Agreed.

I've ended up several chapters behind, AGAIN! :?

Heh, I know the feeling... :D

At any rate, as far as changing up the pacing of that one exchange goes, most of the things I've pondered are still leaving me second-guessing myself as to whether the stuff I cut takes away more than it gives, so I think for now I'm going to put it up with what I've got so far, since I think it does work decently as is, even if I could eventually make changes to make it even tighter, but at the risk of losing some of the setup it provides for what comes after.

I am planning to do another revision pass once I get to the end of the story, so I'll definitely mark that section to come back and look at it with fresh eyes when I do that. But for now, I'm not feeling confident enough in any of my attempted cuts to go through with them, and I feel like I'm going in circles a bit at this point.

Thanks again to everyone for your help!
claymade
Asteroid Senshi
Posts: 930
 


Return to Stories and C&C

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users