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.
Author's Note: And here, following on the previous post, we have either the second part of chapter three, or chapter four of the interlude, depending on how things finally get decided. Again, hope you enjoy!
Chapter Four: Cataclysm
Balm's death was Loofah's first clue that something had changed.
It wasn't a visible attack, not a beam or a weapon strike. The command post was far enough back from the front line that those were rare. One moment the young warrior was fine, the next she was clutching at her throat, her eyes wide with panic as she tried to draw in breath. She struggled, clawing violently with her hands as she thrashed, but to no avail.
A few nearby warriors raced over to her, full of concern, but there was nothing they could do. Loofah ran over as well, coming in right behind a Silk Lotus tribesman who was trying helplessly to assist Balm. Then, in one smooth motion, Loofah took her cane and drove it straight through the man's back, killing him instantly.
The elder looked down in horror at her now-bloody cane, but her body was already lunging toward her next-closest ally. The man tried to defend himself, but Loofah broke his knee with one swing, then grabbed his head and smashed it into the ground with lethal force. A sadistic laugh bubbled up inside Loofah's chest, and she slowly licked the blood from her fingers as though savoring the taste.
A youma... somewhere... controlling me! thought the ancent master, as she gathered every scrap of mental strength as she fought to resist the invader. Her movements slowed, becoming uncoordinated and jerky as they struggled over control of her limbs. She staggered drunkenly back and forth as control wavered between her and her assailant, but it was clear that the youma's spell gave her the upper hand in this fight. More allies clustered around her, weapons at the ready, unsure of how to respond to their apparently-insane commander.
Where are you? thought Loofah, reaching out desperately with her senses even as she fought to keep herself under control. She called on every last bit of knowledge from over a century of experience, searching the countless auras in the youma army for one whose focus was specifically on her. It was a terribly subtle thing to detect, let alone in a situation like this one... but the elder succeeded. There you are!
She was still locked in the youma's grip, of course, unable to act on the knowledge. But the monster had made one fatal mistake when she had gloatingly lapped the blood from Loofah's hand. The old master now knew that whatever the nature of the magic being used on her... it extended even to feeling what the possessed body felt.
Without warning, she suddenly abandoned the battle for control of her limbs. Instead, she focused her efforts elsewhere, on one single action. Her attacker did not react to the switch in time to stop her from clamping her teeth down in a savage bite on her tongue.
It might have been her imagination, but she thought she heard a scream of pain in her head. Loofah felt the pain too, but she had been ready for it. In those precious seconds when the youma's concentration was broken, she took a huge leap straight up, soaring to a vantage point over the battlefield from which she could target her enemy.
Black fury for what the monster had forced her to do surged through her, and she unleashed that fury back on her foe. Ki blasts rained down from above, obliterating a large swath around where the youma had stood, turning any youma nearby to dust and the ground to smoking craters.
But the damage had been done. Nor had that incident been the only such damage either. All along their line similar incidents could be seen. Warriors spontaneously bursting into flame, falling into deep slumber, screaming in terror at things only they could see. Even in the melee fighting, Loofah could see many new youma rushing in to join the fray whose combat abilities were on a far higher level than ones they had faced up until now.
Elite forces... she thought grimly. Up until now it's been their basic infantry, but these are the ones with the real skill, and the truly deadly powers... Beryl must have been holding them in reserve until she'd taken our measure.
Already the tide of battle was starting to turn, as the human army's advance slowed to a stop. Their battle line was fracturing all over, as warriors were struck down by attacks they could not defend against. More reinforcements tried to fill the gaps, but Loofah could see it was a hopeless effort. They needed to stop those spellcasters—immediately—if they were to have any prayer.
Straining her ki senses, she detected about thirty likely candidates. Youma whose dark, oily auras seemed a bit more powerful than their comrades, youma that were radiating killing intent, but not pressing forward to attack. Now that the gambit to control her had failed, she had no doubt that in moments they would be targeting her using other unknown powers.
She needed to abandon her conspicuous position, and they needed to die. And so, gathering what remained of her strength, Loofah dove through their lines directly into the heart of the youma army, a tiny, dodging, weaving blur as she spun and twisted her way though their ranks in search of her targets.
Akane lashed out with a kick, causing the youma she was fighting to hop away. The monster retaliated with a series of wild swings with her sledgehammer-like fists, but Akane managed to sidestep one and grab her assailant's arm, locking her in place while she kneed the youma repeatedly in the stomach. They struggled, the youma trying her best to break free, but a second later the tattooed warrior to Akane's left drove his spear through the trapped monster's throat.
The young Tendo kicked away the dying youma, sending it crashing into two other monsters and knocking them both over. This left them easy targets for a magical lightning bolt from the line of mages that were kneeling behind them, providing artillery support from a position of relative safety. Akane, meanwhile, was already locked in combat with the next enemy.
There was no end to them. They swarmed at the human lines, kicking slashing, biting, shooting. They were terrifyingly strong and deadly, but they lacked anything resembling teamwork, discipline and coordination. That was the one edge the human armies had, and with it they were managing to hold this part of the line together. Akane's breath was coming in ragged pants, but she fought on with grim determination.
Then the red-skinned youma arrived.
She leaped into the air from behind the youma lines, clearing them with a single jump and plummeting toward the human army. She held a sword upraised in her hand, glowing with a spectral green light and trailing faint wisps of smoke in its path. One of Lao Shihong's men stepped forward to meet her descent, raising his own sword in a block.
The youma made a single swing as she landed, cutting both the man's sword and the man himself in half as though neither offered any resistance at all. Immediately she spun and decapitated the mercenary to her right, while kicking behind her to send another one flying.
That left the mages that had been taking cover behind them open to her attack. They tried to scramble away, but the youma was on them too fast. She raised her sword once more—
—and then staggered slightly to the left, as a spike of concentrated air pressure slammed into the side of her head. "Foul creature!" shouted Kuno Tatewaki, as he left his post on the line and advanced on her. "You shall not touch them while I draw breath! Face me, and feel the judgment of heaven on your evil actions!"
The youma glanced at the young kendoist with amusement, then cracked her neck left and right and raised her sword in a guard position aimed at him. Around them the battle raged, the human warriors struggling to hold back the Dark Kingdom. And it wasn't just their area that had been attacked by a more powerful opponent than before. Everywhere Akane looked new youma were joining the fray, far more deadly than any they had yet faced, and the casualties were mounting. It was taking every fighter they had just to hang on—and that only barely—leaving Kuno to fight alone.
The young girl fought on, but kept stealing worried glances back to where Kuno stood. Can he really beat her?
In the brief glimpses that she caught, she saw Kuno closing in on the youma, who awaited him with languid unconcern. Each sliding step he took was measured, his eyes examining his opponent's weapon carefully. His bokken has a slight advantage in reach, Akane thought, as she ducked under a spinning blade that nicked off some of her hair as a shot past. But he can't block that blade! What is he going to do?
Then, during a moment when her attention was on her battle, the sound of fighting broke out from behind her. A battle cry from Kuno, rapid movement, blades slashing through the air. When she finally managed to steal another glance, she saw that the two had pulled apart again and were circling. She also saw that Kuno was moving with a limp, having sustained a deep gash in his leg, along with a cut across his cheek. Even as she turned back, she heard the youma laugh. "Give it up, human. You don't have a chance."
"Never!" she heard Kuno shout back from behind her. "I fight on!"
There was the sound of another clash, this one shorter and more vicious, ending in a cry of pain from Kuno. When she looked again, she saw that Kuno was down on one knee, clutching at his leg with the youma closing in. She hacked down at him, just barely missing as he threw himself to one side in a desperate, ungainly roll. The monster followed leisurely, a predator stalking her wounded prey.
No! Akane thought. The youma was about to kill Kuno, and once she did that, she could tear apart their entire line from behind. Turning to the warriors next to her, she shouted out "Cover for me!" Then she spun and ran toward where her schoolmate was fighting.
The red-skinned youma had her back toward her, which was what Akane was counting on. She tried for a sneak attack, but before she got anywhere near close enough the monster whirled around with a slash. The Tendo girl frantically checked her speed, leaping back again while instinctively throwing up her arms in defense.
The tip of the glowing blade carved a wound across her forearms, and she staggered back unsteadily. But the distraction had given Kuno a chance to swing his bokken up and slam it into the youma's side. She howled, backpedaling away as Kuno lurched back to his feet. He was barely standing, his injured leg looking as though it might buckle at any moment. But he stumbled drunkenly forward, lashing out with all his strength. "I... fight... on!"
Her lip twisting in annoyance, the youma swung her own sword up to meet his, cutting off all but a short stump of the bokken with a single stroke. Akane rushed forward, heedless of her own safety, knowing that the next attack would kill Kuno if she didn't do something. Watch her sword! Get ready to dodge! I have to distract her. I have to keep her busy somehow!
As planned, her charge drew the monster's attention away from Kuno, but Akane didn't fare much better. Even focused on nothing but defense, she was completely overwhelmed by her opponent. She backpedaled, circled, sidestepped and fled, but it didn't take her relentless adversary long to see through her desperate evasions.
The youma moved as though she were going to slash in from the right, and Akane threw herself away in a lunge. Then—too late—she realized that it had been a feint. The monster had wanted her to dodge in exactly that way, leaving her off-balance for the true attack. A terrified scream caught in Akane's throat as the youma's blade stabbed straight at her face. There was nothing she could do—
Then something blurred in front of her vision, something shoved her backward, and a wet noise filled her ears. The next thing she saw was the blood-stained tip of the youma's glowing sword, quivering inches away from her left eye. It was stopped there, unable to come any closer, since the weapon was buried to the hilt in Kuno's chest.
Akane gaped, barely managing to process what she saw, her eyes wide with horror. The youma, for her part, stared at her opponent with incredulity, as though trying to puzzle out why he would take such an action. Eventually, though, she abandoned the attempt and began to pull her weapon out of Kuno's body.
But his left hand shot up, clamping down on the hilt of the weapon and holding it in place with a madman's strength. The monster's eyes widened, and she redoubled her efforts, but she was unable to yank it free. "I..." wheezed Kuno, as he raised his other hand, still gripping the stump of his bokken. "...fight... on!"
The youma should have abandoned her sword and fled... but she hesitated, still fighting to extricate it from the kendoist's grip. That hesitation was just one moment too long. Kuno took what remained of his bokken and, with a sudden surge of speed, drove it straight through the youma's eye socket and into her skull. Then he ripped it out the side of her head in a spray of dust, as she crumpled to the ground, disintegrating.
His foe defeated, Kuno toppled over backward as well. Akane caught him as he fell, almost impaling herself on the sword still in his chest. "Kuno!" she screamed, her hands moving in a hopeless attempt to staunch the flow of blood from the wound. "Kuno!"
The kendoist smiled at her, his teeth stained red. "Do not... worry, my fair tigress..." he coughed weakly. "I would... do this... a hundred times over... for the sake of your love..."
Akane's reply was a choked sob. Their "love", of course, had only ever been a creation of his deluded mind. Yet now he lay there, dying for it. Dying for her. Her eyes filled with tears, and she knew that she needed to do something. But now there was only one thing left that she could think of to do for him. Drawing in a deep, tear-soaked breath, she leaned down and pressed her lips against his.
After she raised her head again, she saw that Kuno was staring at her in astonishment. "Tendo... Akane... you..." He raised his fingers to his lips, touched them. "...you..." His eyes met hers, and there was a newfound clarity there, one that had not been there before the kiss. "...you... did not mean that... did you?"
The youngest Tendo jerked, as though stung. "What? I... No, Kuno, I..."
"Your... passion... Tendo Akane..." said the dying kendoist, quietly but firmly. "Even if... I was deluded... about everything else in my entire life... I could never... never... mistake your passion. It's presence... or its absence. That was what drew me to you... from the very beginning... my fierce tigress. When we argued... when we fought... I could... feel it toward me... like the brightest... flame in the world."
"I... told myself... you did not mean the words you said. I told myself... that the passion I felt from you... was actually from your love. Your true feelings... for me." He let out a wet chuckle. "It seems... that I have played the fool... to the very end."
Akane clenched her eyes tight, the cruel irony tearing at her. At the only moment in her life when she hadn't wanted it, her kiss had done what no shouting, no beating, no fiery protestation would ever have been able to do. It had made Kuno see the truth.
A touch on her cheek made her open her eyes. "Do not grieve... Akane..." Kuno told her. "Even now... I regret nothing. I had... the chance to experience your passion. Whatever... the reason for it. It made me..." His eyes were losing their focus, but he nevertheless pushed through the last words he had to say. "It made me... happy."
"Kuno!" But the kendoist had already slumped lifelessly in her arms, and was beyond the reach of her cry.
Her emotions were in turmoil, her spirit shredded. But the sounds of war all around her reminded her that she could spare no time for such concerns. Running an arm savagely across her eyes, she rose to her feet and charged back into the fray, throwing herself into the battle with newfound fury.
Even so, it was obvious that they were losing. Though Kuno had managed to kill the elite attacking this part of the battle line, other areas had been even harder hit. The wall of warriors had been completely breached in many places, and youma were pouring through the gaps like a swarm of insects.
Whole sections of the army were being driven back toward the tunnels they had come from, while others—like Akane's—had been cut off from the main force by the youma offensive. What remained of her group had pulled itself into a circle, with youma coming at them from every direction. But they fought on, striking out left and right at the growing press of monsters surrounding them.
Akane whirled, in time to see a small metal spatula tear through the throat of a youma she hadn't noticed jumping through the air at her from behind. The monster died as she fell, spraying Akane with dust but leaving her otherwise unhurt. The next moment, Ukyo, Shampoo and Kodachi burst through the surrounding monsters to join up with the remnants of Akane's group.
"Violent girl still alive?" panted Shampoo, as she slid into formation, while fending off two youma at once with her large, mace-like chui. "Shampoo surprised!"
"Sorry to disappoint you," quipped back Akane, as she sidestepped the swing of a youma wielding an axe. Her entire body felt as heavy as lead, and she knew she would not last much longer before finally making a fatal mistake. But she counterattacked as hard as she could, though her foe easily avoided the blow.
"This was the last place we could reach!" shouted Ukyo, trying to make herself heard over the din of fighting. "There's no way to make it back to the main group; there's just too many of them!"
Akane nodded once. It wasn't anything she hadn't known, but to hear someone else say the words gave it a whole different reality. Their attack had failed. Metallia was still protected. The Dark Kingdom was ripping their army to pieces, and this little group was completely surrounded.
Still she fought on, blindly, channeling her rage at all the death she had seen in order to stay on her feet just a little bit longer. Her gi was stained red with her own blood from all the attacks she had not quite defended against, but still she fought on.
It probably didn't last even a full minute, but it felt like an eternity.
Ally after ally fell around her, until at last it was only her, Shampoo, Ukyo and Kodachi. The four of them pulled in to form a box, shoulder against shoulder, striking out in every direction. A youma threw herself at Ukyo, but Akane drove a kick into the monster's knee, snapping the joint in mid-lunge. This left her wide open to another youma leaping in at her, but Kodachi's ribbon snaked around the monster's neck and hurled her to crash into a group of her fellows.
Akane could feel the labored breathing of Kodachi and Ukyo through where their shoulders were jammed together. She could hear the constant crashes as Shampoo fought directly behind her, guarding Akane's back. Together, fighting with the strength of desperation, they stood against the endless tide of monsters, even with all hope gone, even though they knew they were seconds away from being overwhelmed.
It came to her mind, suddenly, that up until today she had been bitter rivals with these three girls. She almost laughed at the thought. Everything they had gone through together, everything that had pitted them against each other... it all seemed so small and silly from where she stood now. Here, amidst the blood and the death.
Here, at the end of the world.
One hand leaning against the rocky wall for support, Queen Beryl slowly made her way through the winding passage that led back to her throne room. She had already replaced her torn and bloody dress with a new one from her quarters before leaving. She would not show any sign of weakness to Serenity's accursed heir.
Already she was planning ahead, savoring the delicious irony of using Endymion to kill the young princess. It would have to be done quickly, though. If the girl somehow managed to unleash her magic against Metallia before they stopped her, everything could be for naught. I think I can muster the strength for a simple teleportation spell, Beryl thought. That should be the fastest way to bring her into the grasp of her former beloved.
Soon, the queen reached her destination. Endymion was already waiting there, his blank eyes staring off at nothing. Beryl studied him lovingly for a moment, drinking in every detail of his regal frame. Mine, now, she reminded herself, focusing on that one fact, instead of everything else that had gone wrong. Mine. Not hers.
The queen sat down on her throne, placing her staff with its crystal ball in front of her. She closed her eyes for a moment, taking a deep breath, gathering her remaining strength for what she was about to do.
Then Beryl opened her eyes, staring down at the image that now filled her crystal ball: Sailor Moon, standing on the Arctic plain, just outside the crater that housed the portal to the Dark Kingdom.
As she gazed at her young enemy, Beryl suddenly wondered if this was how Queen Serenity had felt, all those millennia ago. Now the roles had been reversed. This time, it was Beryl's domain that was under attack from an army that had struck out of nowhere. This time, it was Beryl from whom Serenity was determined to take Endymion. Everything about this age-old conflict had been brought full circle.
"So, little girl, you have come," the witch said. "I will show you what hell is."
With that, she activated the transport spell that she had been preparing. It took a great deal out of her, but she was satisfied with the result. The young princess would be standing before them soon.
On a whim, she stood and extended her right hand toward Endymion. He was motionless for a moment, before his brainwashed thoughts caught up with what she was asking of him. But once he realized her desire, he immediately knelt down and pressed his lips against her hand.
Despite everything, a small thrill ran through Beryl's heart at the feeling. It was wonderful. And if she tried very hard, if she made sure not to look directly into his empty eyes, she could almost forget that what kissed her hand was little more than a puppet dancing on Metallia's strings.
It doesn't matter, she thought, as she sensed the transport spell bringing the princess ever closer. He's with me. That's all that is important. I lost last time, but that was because he was with her. As long as Endymion is by my side, I can overcome her.
As long as Endymion is by my side, I can overcome anything.
Gasping for breath, Loofah hopped a rapid series of steps backward, angling left and right around the swings, thrusts and shots of the countless youma that surrounded her on every side. She knew she was almost done for. Her last dregs of strength had been spent in killing twelve of the thirty casters she had identified.
Nine more of the casters had also vanished from her senses without her action—or any other action that she had detected. She didn't know quite what to make of that.
She was trying to kill one more, but she didn't think she was going to be able to manage it. The youma had a wickedly fast teleportation ability, able to move herself out of danger in an instant, and several times now she had tried to teleport Loofah's heart right out of her chest. So far she had been able to keep making her opponent miss, but it was an extremely tiring fight, and the elder couldn't even get close to landing a hit in her current condition.
Loofah whipped a small throwing knife out of her sleeve and hurled it at the cackling monster, but she simply teleported away again, allowing the projectile to kill the youma that had been standing behind her. "Oooh, you almost had me with that one!" the teleporter mocked, then raised her hand in Loofah's direction. "Now my turn!"
The elder tried to move evasively again, but her body was too sluggish, and she knew it wouldn't be enough. Her enemy's crazed eyes lit up with the assurance of victory—
—just as the blade of a short bamboo sword exploded through her chest from behind. The monster had just enough time to stare down in disbelief at the weapon impaling her before she crumbled to dust, revealing Konatsu standing behind her.
"Elder Loofah!" the ninja called out, as the surrounding youma whirled to face the sudden new attacker. "Please, leave the rest of this task to me! Return to the army; I will take care of the work here!"
Even before he finished speaking, youma were charging at him from every direction, but the moment before they reached him he threw down a smoke bomb. By the time the smoke had cleared, he had vanished from sight completely. Loofah, for her part, took advantage of the distraction to bolt away as well. This solved the mystery of the other disappearing youma, of course. Someone else had realized those casters needed to be eliminated, and had applied his impressive assassin's skills to the task.
Now that she knew it was ninjutsu stealth techniques she was looking for, Loofah could pick out Konatsu's movements as he slipped through the horde of monsters on the way to his next target. He really is quite impressive, she thought. And he's right. I've overstayed my usefulness here. I need to get back to the main force. Hopefully, we've put enough of a dent in their high-level casters to make that a safer proposition.
The tiny old master darted and weaved through the youma ranks like a small, scuttling bug. The sight that greeted her upon coming into view of her warriors was not an encouraging one. Killing the casters had come too little, too late. The human army had been fragmented, their formation in shambles, and the surviving pieces were being driven back toward the tunnels.
Loofah whispered a heartfelt curse, but there was no time for recriminations. Even though the situation seemed utterly unsalvageable, she would not stop fighting. She would wage war as best she could, until the very end.
As she raced back, however, she noticed with surprise that she had been wrong about their army being in total retreat. That wasn't quite true. There was one part of the army that was still standing fast against the youma onslaught.
Specifically, one warrior.
Ranma was alone, completely surrounded, with monsters swarming at him from every direction at once. Talons slashing, fangs biting, weapons shooting, they attacked him relentlessly, but he cut wave after wave of them down. The Gekkaja was nearly invisible, he spun it back and forth through the air so fast, and his own maneuvers and dodges were similarly rapid. He was bleeding from several wounds, but he did not seem to notice them as he fought with the tenacity of a rabid dog.
Blood rage indeed, thought Loofah, amazed. All the same, she knew it was only a matter of time before either the enemy overwhelmed him, or he attracted the attention of a youma whose power was sufficient to kill him without risking death at his hands. She didn't want to waste the boy's life here, on an unthinking stand. If they still had a hope, it would be to regroup in the cover of the tunnels. She needed to snap him out of this.
Accordingly, she darted in close to him. "Ranma!" she shouted, punctuating her words with a quick slap across the face. Then, drawing on over a century's worth of experience leading troops, she put as much authority and command into her voice as she could. "Ranma, follow me!"
The pigtailed warrior blinked. He didn't exactly acknowledge her words, or stop attacking the youma, but as Loofah drew back he did follow along. They fought back to back, ancient master and young prodigy, until at last they drew near to the mouth of the nearest tunnel. A hail of assorted projectiles poured out of it, covering their retreat as they turned and ran the last distance.
The two of them jumped over the makeshift trench that someone had blasted into the rock, from inside which the suppression fire was coming. Soon after that, they rounded a corner in the tunnel that put them out of view of their enemies, along with a densely packed crowd of other survivors. And then, at last, Loofah was able to slump down against the wall in utter exhaustion.
Ranma did much the same, his hands trembling slightly, his eyes not quite focused. Loofah glanced over at him, then sighed. She wondered how many scores this boy had killed today? And how many hundreds he had seen die? A great burden for anyone, much more someone not accustomed to this kind of carnage. "First time is always the hardest," she offered, in between wheezing breaths. "It gets easier."
"Easier?" Ranma asked, the word full of bitterness and anger. "I... I watched him die! I just stood there and... the hallway was so long and... they just butchered him and I... should have thought of something!"
"You did what you had to do." Loofah didn't know the exact circumstances, but she could guess at them well enough. More to the point, it was what the boy needed to hear right now. "Whatever happened, whatever will happen... the important thing is to do what you can for the people you still can help."
That seemed to get through to the pigtailed fighter. He nodded, his gaze focusing again. "Yeah..." he whispered. "Yeah, you're right. The people I still can help." Then his eyes widened in horror. "Oh hell! Akane!"
He shot to his feet, looking back and forth in growing panic. "Where is she? I was up at the front... leading the charge... I... I don't even know where she was fighting!"
"Ranma..." began Loofah, but the young man was no longer paying any attention to her. He took off down the tunnel, searching the crowds, searching the injured that were lying everywhere, calling out the girl's name at the top of his lungs.
"Akane!" Ranma's throat was hoarse from shouting, but he pressed on, desperate to find his fiancée somewhere amidst the survivors packed into the tunnel. He didn't let himself think about the alternative. He couldn't. She had to be here, somewhere. She had to be!
But second after second went by with no sign of her, his desperation increasing with every step he took. By the time he came across Kiima—sitting propped up against the tunnel wall, nursing a shattered wing and an ugly burn covering most of her right side—he jumped at the slim chance her presence offered. She was one of the leaders; maybe she knew something! "Kiima! Have you seen Akane anywhere?"
The winged woman looked up at him, her expression weary and defeated. When she spoke, her words were brief and to the point. "Yes. I did. Toward the center, I think."
Ranma blinked, caught off-guard by the flat answer. "You mean... toward the center of the tunnel?" he asked, hope swelling up inside him.
She shook her head. "No. Toward the center of the cavern out there. That was where I last saw her fighting. Her section of the battle line had been cut off. Couldn't retreat with the rest. Didn't see how she died. Youma shot me down first."
"No..." whispered Ranma, her words hitting him square in the chest like no blows ever had. "No, that... that can't be right..."
Kiima shrugged. "You don't need to believe it. Won't make much difference whether you do or not."
"No!" Ranma repeated. Then his hand shot down, and he grabbed the Kinjakan from where it lay at Kiima's feet. Before she could protest the theft of her weapon he was already off, racing back the way he had come. There's no way! he thought. There's just no way she'd die like that! Maybe she's just... injured. Maybe she was knocked unconscious in the battle. But she's gotta be alive! I need to get out there and bring her back!
A magical staff held in each hand, he sprinted through the remnants of the army to the barricade at the tunnel mouth. He vaulted clear over the defenders there, using his weapons to strike away any shots that managed to target him. He then spun the Kinjakan so that he landed on the circular end, and felt the familiar hum of power as he kicked it into its transport mode. He careened toward the youma army at a breakneck pace, perched atop his impromptu unicycle while wielding its sister weapon with his free hand.
The youma army unleashed their firepower at him, but he veered right, then left, their attacks ripping up long swaths of the rocky ground on either side of him, spraying him with debris. He had to deflect a few more stray shots with the Gekkaja—and then he was on them.
At the last instant before he collided with them he spun into a low slide along the ground, skidding right between the legs of a youma as she tried fruitlessly to grab at him, before using the Gekkaja to hack clean through her ankle as he slid past. On the other side he sprang back up, flipping right over the head of the startled youma behind his first target. He hooked the circular blade of the Kinjakan around her neck as he went by, then used it to fling her over his head, sending her crashing into a group of youma behind her. He landed on the Kinjakan again, running over the fallen monsters as he rode it deeper into their ranks.
He was centimeters away from death countless times as he fought his way through the teeming horde, but the speed and sheer audacity of his attack served him well, catching his foes off guard. And eventually, after fighting through chaotic scramble after chaotic scramble, he burst out the other side of the youma army.
Now he really gunned the Kinjakan, rocketing along the ground toward where Kiima had described seeing Akane. He could see no one standing, but his eyes searched every strewn body that he passed for any sign of her. She's gotta be alive! I'll find her... wake her up... get her to Doctor Tofu to treat her wounds... Please, just let her be all right!
He raced on, farther and farther into the cavern, until he neared the edges of where their army's advance had reached. Still he found no sign of Akane. Did I miss her back there somewhere? he wondered, unsure of whether to double back or press on.
And then he saw her.
A choked cry escaped his throat, as he jumped off the speeding Kinjakan, stumbling forward to stand by the pile of bodies in front of him. Akane's body lay among them, unmoving, staring into the cavern floor with lifeless, unblinking eyes. Her neck had been snapped by a vicious blow, and her left arm and leg hung askew as well.
Ukyo, Shampoo and Kodachi lay there as well, their bodies sprawled one over another. From her wounds, it seemed that Kodachi had been stabbed in the stomach several times, while Shampoo had bled out from a slash across her throat. She was draped over the others, the last to fall. Ukyo's wounds weren't obvious at first, and Ranma even had a half-second of hope that she might still be alive, but as he tried to move her, her head rolled limply over, and he saw that most of the left half of her face had been blown completely away.
Ranma sank to his knees, his eyes staring blankly at the hideous sight before him. Dry sobs shook his frame, and he felt a cold, empty despair smothering his thoughts. It was a familiar despair—the very same despair that had claimed him at Jusendo when he had thought Akane dead. But this time there was no mistake, no possibility of her suddenly waking up to console him. She was dead, brutally dead, and there was nothing he could do except clutch her cooling body tight to his chest and howl in anguish.
But eventually, even through the clutches of his grief, he heard a persistent memory echoing through his mind. Loofah's voice, speaking to him. Admonishing him. "Whatever happened, whatever will happen... the important thing is to do what you can for the people you still can help."
Angrily he shook his head, trying to block the thoughts out. But they continued, in Ryouga's voice now. "This will be your chance. Wait until the shooting stops... and once that happens, attack. And don't let up. Not for anything."
Those words hit him even harder—the realization that stopping here would be abandoning the dying charge the lost boy had given him. He raised his head, tear-tracks staining his face, and looked down at the still form of his fiancée. As he did so, he heard her voice in his thoughts. Memories from the previous night, when he had tried to tell her how much he didn't want her to come. "I know," she had said to him. "But this is too important."
"You understand that, right?"
"Yeah..." said Ranma—barely audible—as he lowered her body back to the ground and closed her eyes. "Yeah, Akane, I understand. And don't worry. I'm going to take care of it. I'm going to take care of it all. You just... don't worry."
With that he rose to his feet, picking up both his weapons as his gaze swept across the battlefield, taking in everything before finally coming to rest on the youma army. His mind analyzed everything with an icy detachment, all his talent and ingenuity bent to one purpose, and one purpose alone.
He was going to destroy them.
It wasn't long before he had decided what his plan would be, and he acted on it instantly. There was no time to waste. While he had been grieving, the youma army had thrown together a small platoon of about forty monsters and sent them running after him. Even now they had covered more than half the distance, but he was not worried. They would not reach him in time to stop what he was going to do.
Ranma got back on the Kinjakan and shot away, racing toward the very center of the huge cavern. It didn't take him long to reach it, at which point he skidded to a halt. He then looked down once more at the two weapons he held. The Kinjakan and the Gekkaja. Fire and ice. Heat enough to flash fry a human instantly, cold enough to survive the mountain-melting flame of Saffron's Tenka Shunmetsu Kokyudan. He had both powers at his disposal now. It only remained to put them to use.
He twisted the crescent blade of the Gekkaja down, and felt a chill permeate the air as its freezing powers activated. He then jammed the blade into his other hand, forming a protective coating of magical ice around where he grasped the Kinjakan. There, he thought, ignoring the pain. This should let me use it without completely frying myself.
Then he deactivated the Gekkaja, and twisted the circular blade of the Kinjakan. Immediately, trails of steam began to rise from the ice as the weapon melted away at the ice encasing his grip. It wouldn't last for very long, but he didn't need it to.
And so, using the superheated weapon as his partner, he began to walk the spiral steps that were now second nature to him. Performing the technique using this variant method required a few adaptations, of course, but he improvised those on the fly.
The youma rushing toward him were getting closer all the while. An energy beam burned through the air by his head, while a spear ricocheted off the ground near his feet. But his steps did not falter, as he drew the spiral in tighter and tighter, winding the coiling temperatures with his movements, with his Soul and Body of Ice. Then, at last, he reached the center, and thrust his fist skyward with a corkscrew motion and a shout.
"Hiryu Shoten Ha!"
Herb's eyes widened as he saw the raging whirlwind explode to life far behind the enemy lines, stretching its howling vortex all the way up to the arched ceiling. Rushing forward to the mouth of the tunnel, the Musk Prince took a position next to Loofah as he craned his neck for a better look. "Ranma..." he said, half to himself.
"What does that fool boy think he's doing?" asked Loofah, perplexed. "A Hiryu Shoten Ha might have done a fair bit of damage if he'd been able to crash it into the main youma force, but what can it accomplish all the way back there?"
The dragon prince didn't understand either... but he didn't for a moment believe that Ranma didn't have something planned. He looked at the Hiryu Shoten Ha, studied its peculiar positioning... and as he did, a memory came into his mind. A memory of the final moments of his final duel against Ranma atop Mount Horaisan.
And then he realized what was about to happen.
He whirled back to Loofah, urgency suddenly in his voice. "Take cover!" he shouted.
The elder looked up at him, blinking. "What? Why? At that distance, there's no way a Hiryu Shoten Ha could—"
"Take cover!" Herb roared, now turning to everyone near the tunnel mouth. "All of you, take cover! This isn't just a Hiryu Shoten Ha!"
Ranma stood at the center of the tornado he had created, his eyes focused on his target through the screaming winds that whipped about him. The ice protecting him from the Kinjakan was almost gone, so he tossed the weapon aside, breaking the remaining ice as he did so. The weapon was promptly sucked up into the vortex, the better to feed the whirlwind with its heat.
Then Ranma looked toward the ceiling, gauged that the time was right, and stepped out of the tornado's eye himself, allowing the winds to rip him off his feet and hurl him upward.
Angling his body left and right, the Anything-Goes heir rode the air currents, aiming his trajectory exactly where he needed to go. The higher he went, the more oppressive the heat became, until at last he reached the point where he could slam his fingers of his free hand into the cavern's stone ceiling, latching on with all his strength. By then, the heat felt as though it was going to boil the flesh from his bones. He could barely think straight, but he forced himself to continue.
The last time he had used this technique, the only battle auras powering it had been his own and Herb's. And even then, their ki had been released into the open air above Mount Horaisan, giving it the chance to spread and disperse.
Not so here. The cavern was completely closed off from the sky, trapping every last bit of battle aura that had been expended within it. Instead of rising into the sky, the ki had risen to this point, guided by the arching ceiling to gather here, at the cavern's center. Not just Herb's battle aura, this time. Not just Ranma's battle aura. The battle aura of friends, and the battle aura of rivals, the battle aura of warriors known and unknown. The battle aura of every elder, of every grandmaster, of every single one of the thousands of martial artists that had fought and died on the battlefield below. It was all there, sucked in and concentrated by his Hiryu Shoten Ha.
Waiting to be given form. Waiting to be used.
The first step is done, Ranma thought. The power is ready. Now I need to open up a new channel for it. After that, I'll be ready for the final move.
He stabbed the Gekkaja into the ceiling above him, then twisted the staff to turn the blade into the active position once more. Intense cold started to emanate out from it, and immediately he hurled the weapon corkscrewing down toward where the youma army lay spread out below him. The last time he had used this technique, it had been to smash the Dragon Tap at Jusendo and save Akane's life.
Now the only thing he could use it for was to avenge her death.
"Hiryu Gyoten Ha!"
Far below, the sudden tornado had drawn the attention of much of the youma army, as they turned to try and figure out whether the strange new phenomenon was a threat to them or not. So most of them were watching as the Gekkaja shot spiraling down from above like a shooting star, forming a second, diagonal whirlwind in its wake. The intense cold of the magical weapon was able to draw a large degree of heat after it, and the Hiryu Gyoten Ha swelled even as it struck ground in the center of the youma formation, centered around where the Gekkaja had embedded itself into the rock.
Dozens of youma were thrown about or ripped apart at the whirlwind's point of impact, and those nearby scrambled to get away, giving it a berth of at least ten yards on all sides. Perhaps they thought that was a safe distance. Perhaps they thought the whirlwind was the full extent of the attack.
If so, they soon realized how wrong they were.
High above the battlefield, Ranma struggled to remain conscious amidst the terrifying concentration of ki that he had accumulated—so much power that it was dangerous even in this unfocused state. Already his clothes had ignited in several places, and his vision was starting to swim. But he ignored all of it. This was the crucial moment.
He could feel, could sense the balance shifting in the energy that was compressed into the air around him. It was tipping toward the new path he had carved for it, the heat drawn by the cold. The gigantic mass of expended battle aura was exactly where he wanted it, balanced precariously, ready to fall at a moment's notice.
Ranma focused down through the tunnel of the Hiryu Gyoten Ha, targeting the locus of cold embedded at the far end of it. Then he drew back his fist, and thought of Akane, lying dead on the ground. He thought of Ryouga, Ukyo, Shampoo, Kodachi, thought of going through the rest of his life, day in and day out, carrying their absence in his heart. He felt the cold despair grip his heart once again... and this time he embraced it. Focused on it. Gathered it to his arm in the coldest, most desolate aura he had ever achieved.
Then he hurled that aura down at the youma who had birthed it, his hand blurring in a corkscrew punch. The balance tipped, and all the gathered energy roared down the Hiryu Gyoten Ha, forming into a ki blast of unbelievable power as it went. The wake of its passing ripped the air from Ranma's lungs, incinerated most of his shirt, and carved second-degree burns all along the arm he had used to direct it. Even so, he screamed out the name of his technique, as he called down destruction on the ones who had killed the girl he loved.
"Hiryu Korin Dan!"
The ki blast smote the earth with a force that made the one he had used against Herb look like a tiny firecracker. It struck right in the center of the youma army, the shockwave reducing countless numbers of the tightly-packed monsters to dust as it exploded outward in a huge sphere of destruction. Those fortunate enough to be on the outermost edges of the blast were merely flung through the air, their limbs twisting and snapping as they were scattered like so many broken toys. In the space of a few seconds, the scene below had been turned from a battlefield into a ruin, with an enormous, gaping crater where an army once had been.
In total, there were perhaps as many as a few hundred youma left standing at the edges of the crater, all of them staring in mute horror at the destruction. The broken bodies of several hundred more littered the crater's outer slopes. A thick haze of youma dust hung in the air, choking it like a macabre fog.
Then the triumphant roar of many voices rose up from beyond the curtain of dust, followed by the thundering of many footsteps. Moments later, the remnant of the human army burst through the haze in an all-out charge, like shadowy phantoms ripping their way through the veil into the real world.
What was left of the youma army broke and ran, scrambling over each other in every direction in their terrified attempt to escape. The human army, for their part, charged straight across the cavern with one single purpose, bearing down on the looming edifice of the Dark Kingdom palace.
Her body phasing through the floor of the throne room and down through the ceiling of the chamber below, Queen Beryl then fell the rest of the way to the floor and landed in a crumpled heap, gasping for breath. With one hand she clutched at her chest, where Endymion's rose was even now embedded.
It was killing her, sending cracks spreading relentlessly through her body. And most horrible of all, she could feel exactly what powered the magic that was ripping her apart from the inside out. His love for that damned girl.
She grabbed hold of the rose and ripped it out with a small sob, tossing it to one side. Then, holding her hands at the source of the wound, she tried to use her healing sorcery once more. But it was a hopeless effort. Her earlier battle and injury had left her far too spent to mount yet another such recovery. The queen beat her fist into the ground in quiet, helpless fury as she crawled forward, looking for one of her retainers.
I will pull all my elites back from the battle to kill her, Beryl thought. I don't care if it weakens the other defenses. I don't care if that army sacks the entire Dark Kingdom, so long as she dies!
The queen managed to reach one of the walls and used it to prop herself up, hobbling along it until she reached a corridor. Farther down its length she saw several youma running in her direction. "Kill her for me," she rasped out, neither recognizing nor caring who the youma were. "Someone, kill her for—"
But her words were cut off as the terrified youma ran right past her, one of their shoulders colliding with hers and forcing the queen to struggle to keep her balance. Incredulous, Beryl watched their retreating backs for a moment, before finally noticing the faint sounds of battle coming from down the hallway. Sounds of battle that were far closer than they had any right to be.
She dragged herself forward, finally reaching a small balcony overlooking the palace exterior. Stepping out onto it, she saw spreading out before her what had caused the youma to flee.
The human force was attacking the palace itself, crashing through the efforts that the few remaining defenders made at stopping them. Wolf beastmen were running straight up the towering rock face at unbelievable speeds, grabbing youma that were trying to shoot from the windows and flinging them out to plummet all the way to the rocky ground below. Winged warriors flew this way and that, carrying other fighters and dropping them straight onto the battlements, where they carved their way through their enemies. The youma manning the walls were utterly demoralized, fleeing left and right—as though they had seen something that had shaken them to the very core.
And what in all the hells had happened to her army?
She staggered back from the balcony, turning to run, but she tripped and fell, crumpling to the ground once more. How had all of this happened? Her ultimate triumph had been so close at hand! But now foes were appearing from every direction. Her servants were all dead or fleeing. Her own power was broken and exhausted. There was nothing left she could do.
Except... there was. There was one last chance to crush her enemies. One last way to make them suffer for what they had done.
Clenching her fists and calling on all her remaining willpower, Queen Beryl teleported once again.
Ranma's face was buried in his hands, his breath shuddering in and out as he knelt on the ground in front of the crater his Hiryu Korin Dan had torn into the earth. He had done it. He had turned the tide of the battle, killing countless youma in one single outpouring of destructive force. But he felt no pride in the achievement. He felt nothing at all. Just a sick emptiness as the full scale of what he had done sank in.
His allies had long since gone, routing the enemies before them as they made for Beryl's palace. He had not followed them; he hadn't had the heart for even more killing, not after this. In that moment he felt like a used-up shell of a human being, ready to be thrown out. There was only so much you could give, before there was nothing left.
Around him, absent the roar of battle, the cries and pleas of the wounded youma that his attack had strewn everywhere rose up in a ghastly chorus. He wanted to shut his ears, but couldn't, transfixed by the knowledge that it was he who had done this. It wasn't guilt he felt, not exactly, but the sheer weight of the suffering he had inflicted wore at his soul nonetheless.
He didn't know how long he remained there like that, but it was interrupted in an unexpected way. The faint touch of a hand, feather-light, on his shoulder.
Ranma whirled, stumbling to his feet, his hands raising to a guard position. He might have expected an ally coming to find him, or an enemy coming to attack, but what he saw instead caught him completely by surprise.
It was a woman. He could not guess her age. She did not appear old, exactly, but she gave off an air of quiet wisdom and dignity that felt somehow even more ancient than Cologne. She was dressed in a pure white gown, with white hair streaming down on either side of her in two long ponytails. She looked down at him with a look of compassion... and as he looked closer at her, Ranma realized that her entire body was slightly transparent.
He opened his mouth, trying to form words, but none came. Eventually, the woman spoke. "I am sorry," she said, her voice gentle. "I did not intend to startle you. It seemed as though you were in need of comfort. And..." She hesitated, turning away slightly so as to not quite meet his eyes. "And I... did not wish to be alone either. Not during this final hour."
The pigtailed fighter was still stunned, but eventually he lowered his fists. "Who... who are you?" he asked, still not quite believing this to be real.
"I was once Queen Serenity of the Moon Kingdom," she told him, simply and without equivocation.
The name caused Ranma's eyes to widen, and brought back memories of what he had heard from Altine's hologram during the war council. "You..." he breathed. "But aren't you... dead?"
"I linger," was the queen's reply. "I died from using the Ginzuisho too heavily, but my fate is still tied to it. I have watched over my daughter her entire life, from the moment she was born until now, the moment she faces her final battle." Then a small almost-smile flitted around Serenity's lips. "Though I must confess, I never imagined that she would arrive safely at that battle thanks to the intervention of a Dark Lord."
"Oh, uh, that..." Ranma scratched the back of his head, completely thrown for a loop by this whole conversation and answering on pure autopilot. "That whole thing was... well... it was kind of a long story...."
"I imagine..." agreed the queen. "But whatever the motivation behind your actions back then, I thank you for what you have done here." As she spoke, a look of sorrow crossed her face, and her next words were barely above a whisper. "The story of House Serenity has been a very long one as well... and thanks to your valor, it may yet end with saving the world one last time..."
Beryl lay prostrate before the orange, vein-wrapped cocoon in which Metallia was sealed. Even now, she could feel Endymion's magic destroying her. She didn't know if this one last plea would work, but it was all she had left to try.
"Queen Metallia," she begged. "Please lend me your power. Please give me the power to defeat that hateful girl!"
The cocoon began to pulse in reply, purple energy writhing within it. "Very well," came Metallia's response, in a distorted voice. "The time has come to bestow hatred and suffering to all living creatures in this universe. Queen Beryl, kill everything and everyone... and turn the world pitch black!" Then, with an immense surge of power, the cocoon burst open, sending an ichor-like liquid spilling out of it as the power of the ancient demoness raged free.
Beryl gasped, even as the purple energy shot forward to engulf her. Then she screamed in agony, the power and malice of the abomination coursing into her soul like a flood of poison, an irresistible pollution that no human could possibly withstand.
And yet, despite it all, one tiny part of her resisted Metallia's influence. One tiny candle amidst the gale of rage leveled against it, one tiny piece of her soul that tried to reject being consumed. The love—however selfish, however misguided—that she still held for Endymion.
But it was so small, and the demon's hate was so limitless, and it hurt so very badly knowing that he had only ever loved another. And so she finally surrendered it, allowing it to be snuffed out under Metallia's grasp, ending the pain.
And—though to all outward appearances it seemed otherwise—it was then that Queen Beryl of the Dark Kingdom truly died.
It was the presence that Ranma sensed first.
Subtle to begin with—an uneasy, prickling sensation that he couldn't quite dismiss. And it built, swelling in strength until he was certain that it was not his imagination. He turned to Serenity's ghost, troubled. "Something's... wrong. What's happening?"
"The end of this age-old struggle," she answered, her voice quiet, her face set like stone. "The moment when the future of your world stands balanced on the tip of a knife."
Ranma licked his lips. "What do you mean? We've won, right? We've got the Dark Kingdom beat!" Even as he spoke, he felt a faint vibration building in the ground under his feet.
Serenity nodded. "You have beaten the Dark Kingdom. But to save this planet there remains one more task to complete. One more foe that must be overcome."
The constant vibration was growing, becoming a loud rumble that shook the entire cavern, even as the queen continued. "The enemy has been backed into a corner," she told him. "Every other avenue of attack that would have stopped my daughter has been countered. By your sacrifices. By the sacrifices of her Senshi. By the sacrifices of her prince."
Ranma was having to fight to keep his balance, so violent had the quaking of the earth become. Stalactites above were shattering, the fragments raining down along with chunks of the cavern ceiling. The ghost, of course, remained unperturbed. "And so the forces of darkness face the very situation they most wished to avoid," she said. "Despite their best efforts, the heir of the Moon Kingdom stands before them. And she is at full strength, the true power of the Ginzuisho still unexpended. Every plan has failed them. Every tactic has been thwarted."
The queen turned away from Ranma, looking across the cavern to where Beryl's fortress stood. "And now they have no choice left... but to play their final card."
Then Ranma sensed Metallia's full presence manifest.
He had heard Cologne and the others discuss Metallia's power before. He had heard it many times, in fact. He had heard their descriptions of what the demoness could do. What she had done. But before that moment, it had been nothing but words.
As the abomination's aura crashed over his mind, he experienced for himself what it truly meant to face a creature with the power to lay waste entire worlds. He felt like an ant in the path of a hurricane as he crumpled to his knees, clutching at his head in a futile attempt to block it out. Nothing he had ever sensed before came even remotely close to preparing him for the overwhelming power and hate that beat against his soul. He heard a voice screaming, as though from a great distance.
It took him several seconds to recognize the voice as his own.
Everywhere around the world, crowds stared up at the sky in fear as swirling black clouds engulfed the heavens from one end to another, cutting off the sun. Cities were plunged into darkness as power plants spontaneously failed, cutting off the manmade sources of illumination as well. Panic began to grow, as humanity tried to come to grips with what was happening to their world.
On a rooftop in Tokyo, two injured cats also stared at the sky. But unlike the humans around them, they both knew exactly what the disturbances portended. They could feel for themselves the power of their ancient enemy, reaching out to enfold the entire planet.
"It's the end," said Artemis, as the white cat stared upward in trepidation. "The end of the world has come!"
A pillar of dark energy exploded up out of the heart of the Dark Kingdom palace, ripping straight through the structure, and the cavern ceiling as well. Then, rising from the hole it had made came a mass of huge black petals, wrapped around the source of the terrible presence. It ascended higher and higher, lifted by a dark, thorn-encrusted vine, until at last it passed through the cavern ceiling and into whatever was above.
Ranma drew in deep, shuddering breaths as he tried shakily to stand. At this point his sixth sense had been almost completely deafened by merely being this close Metallia—and even so deafened, the crushing pain was nearly unbearable. But he rose to his feet nonetheless.
He noticed that Serenity was looking at him, and that she seemed impressed by his resilience. But when she spoke, it was on more immediate matters. "I am sorry," she told him. "But it is time for me to depart. What is about to take place... I must witness it to the very end."
As she spoke, Ranma caught another glimpse of the deep sorrow that lay behind her eyes. He didn't know exactly why it was there... but he did remember what she had said to him shortly after appearing. That the ghost didn't want to be alone for what was about to happen. "Can I..." he began, then plunged forward. "Can I come with you?"
The queen regarded him for a moment, then gave a single, grateful nod and reached out her hand toward him. Ranma took it, and a tingling sensation swept through him, like a small electric shock. The next thing he knew, they were standing on a plain of ice, staring at the revealed form of what had been inside those black petals.
She was huge, towering over the surrounding landscape. She wore a blood-red dress, and her skin was a pale, corpse-like color. Her green hair rose straight above her head, and her shoulders were adorned with small spikes protruding from her flesh. Her arms were spread out as she looked up toward the dark, roiling clouds above, as though she was claiming the very heavens for her own.
"That's her?" asked Ranma, even though the unbelievable power rolling off her as she stood at the center of the apocalyptic scene answered the question well enough. "That's Metallia?"
Serenity nodded. "The demoness has infused herself into Beryl's body and soul. Any trace of human compassion that might have remained in her is gone now. All that remains is an incarnation of hatred, whose only desire is to crush every other living thing under her heel."
Ranma took a deep breath. "So how can we stop her?"
"We cannot," replied the queen. "Your strength—formidable though it is—will not avail you against a creature such as her, and the power left to me in this state is barely more than a whisper. We have only one chance. Only one hope."
The pigtailed fighter followed her gaze, and for the first time noticed a small figure walking across the icy plain, a tiny spot of color against the white. "Sailor Moon..." the pigtailed fighter murmured. "Can she really beat that... thing?"
"She can." The queen's response was unhesitating, and there was no doubt whatsoever in her voice as she said it. But even so, there was no joy in it either. In fact, if anything, that simple pronouncement of victory carried with it the greatest sadness that Ranma had yet heard from her. He looked over at Serenity's ghost with a puzzled expression... and then he understood.
"But she isn't going to survive either," he said, the words tasting bitter in his mouth. "That's what all this is leading up to, isn't it? Just like you. You beat Metallia, sent everyone else forward to be reborn... but you couldn't bring yourself back, could you? That means... if she dies out there..."
"It is the only way." The words ground out of the queen, one by one, and this time there was no hiding the grief in her voice. "Only an heir of House Serenity has the power to end this threat for good. But the cost..."
Her voice broke, and it was some time before she could continue. Even then, her voice was raw and shaking. "My daughter will do what I was too weak to fully accomplish. It is her destiny. The reason I sent her forward to this exact time. The reason I provided Luna as her teacher. It was all to prepare her for this moment." She buried her head in her hands as she crumpled to her knees, her entire body convulsing in broken sobs. "I led her to this. I led her to this!"
Metallia had noticed the girl now, and seemed to be saying something to her. Given how far away they were, though, Ranma couldn't hear the words, and from his position behind Sailor Moon he couldn't see if she gave any response. Then the demoness raised her arms, black lightning flashing between her palms, and hurled a building-sized bolt of dark magic down at where Sailor Moon stood.
She made no move to defend, and the magic hit her head-on, blasting the surrounding ice high into the air and obscuring all sight of her. Ranma's heart caught in his throat, but then he noticed that there was something unnatural about the way the ice was moving. It wasn't a normal blast pattern; the ice rose in one direction to form a tall, spindly tower, then froze back into place.
Then the ice shot out to form a small platform at the tower's top, and Ranma saw that Sailor Moon was standing on it, unhurt. Except she was no longer dressed in her sailor fuku, but rather a regal, flowing white gown.
Nor was that the only change. Where once everything had been crushed under Metallia's chaotic, corruptive presence, now a new sensation began to permeate the surroundings, actually pushing back against the vile aura. It felt like a crystal-clear note of perfect pitch and heart-rending beauty, played at just below hearing. It reverberated in Ranma's soul, deep and powerful as the ocean, rippling out from the small girl as she stood there, motionless, with the ancient demoness towering over her.
She's doing it, thought Ranma. She's starting to use her full power.
The thought jolted him into action. He had to do something. He couldn't just stand here and watch her die. He didn't give a damn how powerful this Metallia was. He had lost his friends to her. He had lost the girl he loved to her. He wasn't going to let the demon-bitch take one more thing. Not from anyone.
He broke into a run, darting past the surprised ghost as he sprinted across the frozen plain. The footing was treacherous, but despite the occasional stumble on the ice he made good time. He didn't know what he could hope to accomplish against an enemy like that. But even if he only distracted her for a second—even if he could only spit in her eye and curse her—he would do everything he could to help tip the balance.
Ahead, the two foes were beginning to move. Sailor Moon aimed a short rod with a golden crescent on its end at Metallia, as magic began to gather at its tip. Metallia, for her part, raised her arms once more, an even greater surge of black lightning crackling to life between her hands. The demoness hurled the attack down at Sailor Moon in a long, destructive stream, while at the same time the young girl released her own spell. It took the form of a blazing golden sphere that surrounded her, before expanding out toward her enemy.
The two attacks collided in midair with a cataclysmic smash, and shockwaves from their impact ripped across the icy plain. Ranma halted his run, raising one foot and then slamming it down again to create a deep foothold. Then he crossed his arms protectively and braced himself as the wave of displaced air crashed into him.
That force drove him back, his feet grinding trenches into the ice as he went. He lowered his body, trying to present the smallest possible profile to the battering air currents, and he managed to halt his backward slide. Then he moved a foot forward against the constant gusts, driving it down again to secure a new foothold farther on. Then he did it again. And again, and again, increasing his speed with each step.
Ahead, he could see that Metallia was talking again, while keeping up her magical assault. Between the distance and the raging winds there was no possible way to hear what she was saying, but he could see the spiteful look on her face as she spoke. It looked like Sailor Moon was shouting something back, and eventually, something she said enraged the demon queen such that her never-ending stream of chaotic energy gained an additional surge of power.
The shockwave caused by that plowed into Ranma like a wrecking ball, and his footholds broke under the impact. He went flying backward, but he managed to angle his trajectory into a flip that allowed him to drive the fingers of one hand into the frozen plain. His body twisted back and forth in the air like a demented kite, those five fingers his only anchor. The air howled past, ripping shards of ice out of the ground and slashing him with them like so many tiny knives. But his grip did not falter.
Cracks, however, were starting to appear in the ice around his fingers, and he knew his purchase would not hold much longer. Pulling himself forward with all his strength, he slammed his other hand into the ice farther on. Then he repeated the process, pulling himself forward hand over hand, moving relentlessly toward the titanic struggle.
With each passing second Sailor Moon was getting backed farther and farther into a corner. The area covered by her pulsing sphere of magic was starting to shrink, while Metallia's power kept on increasing. Ranma clawed his way forward, screaming out challenges and obscenities at the demon queen that were swept away by the winds immediately after leaving his mouth. He was too far away. He wasn't going to reach them in time.
Then, impossibly, Metallia gathered up an even greater surge of power. Ranma's eyes went wide as the demoness hurled it down. It struck, the force of its impact against the princess's sphere shattering the ground for a kilometer in every direction. Ranma's handhold was obliterated, his body blasted back through the air with such ferocity that he was almost knocked out. But he hung onto consciousness, angling his body to ride the air currents back to the ground, where he latched on again with both hands.
The sphere around Sailor Moon had contracted until it was barely visible, and still Metallia kept up her punishing assault. Damn it! Thought Ranma in silent fury. How can anyone win against something like that? I have to do something; I can't let her fight it alone!
Then suddenly, he sucked in a breath of surprise. Because, as he watched the battle rage, he saw that Sailor Moon was not alone. Not anymore.
They stood around her, their arms reaching out to support and enfold hers. Their bodies were transparent, much like the queen's ghost had been. Two on Sailor Moon's right side, two on her left. Clad in colorful sailor fuku, they all joined their princess in her unflinching stand against the abomination before them.
As the five of them joined hands, Ranma could feel an instantaneous shift in the air. Metallia continued to unleash her magic, but the sphere surrounding Sailor Moon was no longer showing any signs of shrinking whatsoever. He could feel power building, power that was deep and fierce and joyous and pure, power that eclipsed anything he had yet felt. He could see energy coiling in front of the girls, red, green, blue, yellow, white, all swirling together to focus at a single blinding point.
And more magic kept flowing in, and more, and more, gathering from all directions, shredding the surrounding darkness as it came. It was so bright that Ranma could barely stand to look at it, and so beautiful that he couldn't stand not to.
Metallia let out a gasp, jerking back in shock and fear. Her assault faltered, the shockwaves abating, allowing Ranma to fall to his knees. He immediately climbed to his feet, running toward the battle again, even as the five girls released their attack. A strobing pink sphere began to move toward the demoness, small, but its size increasing as it went. By the time it reached its target it was huge enough to engulf the giant wholesale—which it did, as Metallia screamed in horror and pain. Ranma saw her entire body disintegrate, as the Senshi's magic ate away at her until there was nothing left.
He continued to run toward Sailor Moon, his eyes locked on her. The ghostly images of the other Senshi had vanished, leaving the girl alone once again atop her icy tower. Please, Ranma prayed as he ran. Please, let that not have taken too much from her. She's still standing! Maybe it was enough. Maybe—
But then, as he watched, Sailor Moon toppled backward, her regal gown fading back into her normal Senshi uniform as her limp body crumpled. No! thought Ranma, hoping that it was nothing more than exhaustion, but knowing that this was much worse. It was all going exactly as the queen had said it would. No, no, no!
He sprinted forward as fast as he could. Ahead of him, the glowing pink sphere was still expanding, filling up his entire vision. It reached Sailor Moon's tower and disintegrated it as it passed, causing her motionless body to plummet down into the swirling energy.
Ranma let out an angry shout, and increased his speed even more toward the falling girl. Time seemed to slow to a crawl for him as he channeled his ki, shooting across the icy plain in a barely-followable flicker of speed. The sphere of magic was now a solid wall in front of him, still expanding across the ground. He threw up his arms defensively as he careened straight toward it.
The instant before he hit, Queen Serenity's ghost swooped in behind him, and laid a spectral hand on his back. Ranma felt a sudden warmth flow through his entire body, and the next instant he hit the spell head-on, running through it with only slight resistance.
And then, with one final burst of effort, Ranma launched himself into the air with a mighty leap toward the Senshi's falling form.
Sailor Moon's eyes blazed as she launched her final spell at Metallia, the amalgamation of all the Senshi's power, of all their loves and hopes, of all their prayers for a better world. The Ginzuisho made their wishes into a reality, projecting them at the demoness with a strength that Metallia could not resist. It was, in the end, the only thing that could have defeated her.
And it cost Sailor Moon everything.
She had known it would. A part of her had known, from the moment she had confronted the demon queen, that this would be the end of her. She had used up all her own immense magical might. She had used up all the magic that her friends had given her. She had used up all her strength and will and resolve, and still the Ginzuisho had demanded more. In the end, the only thing she had left to give was her life.
So she gave it.
She felt her gown vanish, replaced by her sailor fuku as she fell back onto the tower's platform with a limp thud. She could feel her life draining from her, as the Ginzuisho took it, used it as fuel for what she was doing. Everything that had gone so wrong, everything that had been so cruelly lost in this battle... she would put it all right again. No matter the price to herself.
"Everyone," she whispered, knowing she didn't have much time left. "Thank you." Then she slumped, her eyes closing as she felt her consciousness bleeding away.
The glowing sphere that was her spell soon engulfed the tower she lay on, disintegrating it. She fell toward the ground, disappearing into the pink glow. Even through the dying haze she felt vertigo pull at her stomach from her uncontrolled fall. She could not move, but some small part of her tried to brace herself—mentally, at least—for the coming impact.
Then, suddenly, she felt strong arms warp around her, as someone leapt up to tackle her from the side. Their collision slowed her previously-unchecked descent, as both of them careened away on a new trajectory. She could feel the other person maneuvering as they fell, trying to bleed off as much of the fall as he could in air resistance, before finally twisting to put his body between her and the ground. They hit hard, tumbling over one another before finally coming to a rest with him kneeling above her.
The next moment she felt a sudden pain burst across her face as he slapped her. "Wake up!" she heard him shouting, as though from a very great distance. "Wake up!"
With what seemed like an impossible effort, the dying girl managed to open her eyes just a tiny crack. The boy standing over her was a disheveled mess, with cuts, bruises and burns covering his body. Looking at him, she had the strangest feeling of familiarity, but her clouded mind couldn't quite place it. He was looking down at her, desperate concern on his face.
He reached one hand behind her head, cradling it, while placing his other hand on her chest. "I saw it!" he told her. "I saw your friends. I saw them giving you their power. I don't know if you can take mine too, but... it's the only thing I can think of to try." He took a deep breath, then added in a whisper. "Please let this work."
The boy clenched his eyes shut, focused, and Sailor Moon felt a sudden warmth begin to emanate from the hand on her chest. The next instant her body jerked in a violent spasm as a wild burst of pure life shot into her.
It hurt. It hurt like liquid fire poured down every nerve and vein in her small frame. But it also allowed her to suck in a breath of air into her lungs, bringing the world back into focus slightly. The Ginzuisho quickly pulled that infused life energy right back out of her, but the boy just kept pouring more in.
The demands of the thing she was doing were so huge that his power was a tiny trickle in comparison, but it was a trickle that flowed through her body in a constant stream, with just enough in her at any given time to keep her alive from one moment to the next. She felt like a sieve poised over a bottomless abyss, always draining but never quite empty.
"Come on!" the boy shouted down at her. "Come on, fight! You're gonna let yourself die like this? After you've come this far? After you've done this much?"
Slowly, Sailor Moon raised her gaze to meet his directly. She saw worry for her in those eyes—and beyond that, sorrow, heartbroken sorrow over someone else. She wanted to tell him that it would be all right, that even now she was fixing everything, but she didn't have the strength.
And it would have been a lie anyway. She realized that, as she looked into his eyes. Even if she fixed everything else, if she died here she could tell that it would still make this boy sad. It would grieve all the loved ones she was doing this for, the ones who had a place in her soul, and she in theirs. If she really wanted to make everything right again, if she really wanted to deny the evil she had vanquished any shred of victory...
...she had to go back with them.
The boy continued to pour his immense life energy into her, his teeth grinding with effort as he opened every last reserve of his strength. It was a slender thread on which to hang her survival, but it was a slender thread that she somehow knew would not break. She clung to it, hanging onto life as her spell expanded and expanded, engulfing more and more with its radiance. As it did, a simple refrain began to run through her thoughts.
When I wake up in the morning, a pure white curtain of lace is rustling in the breeze. The cuckoo clock in the room says it's seven o'clock, and Mom's voice says "You'll be late if you don't get up!"
I'm still half-asleep, and I think, "Please let me sleep for three more minutes."
I'm late for school every single day like clockwork, my teacher makes me stand out in the hallway, and I get failing grades on my tests.
The crepes we'd all eat on the way home. We'd gaze dreamily at a party dress in a show window. The little things bring such joy and I'm happy. I wish...
I wish I could go back to that kind of normal life.
I want to go back.
Ranma woke up with a jolt, thrashing on his futon as he fought his way clear of the blanket wrapped around him in raw, primal panic. Muddled, disjointed images flashed back and forth through his memories, horrible images that his mind couldn't fully process, yet his emotions were already in the middle of reacting to. What the...? How...? he thought, as he tried to make sense of it all. Cologne? Ryouga? Then cold dread clutched at his heart. Akane!
He lurched toward the door of the Tendo guest room and flung it open, stumbling out into the hallway. For some reason he was utterly drained, as though every last drop of his strength had been wrung out of him. Even so he struggled onward recklessly, propelled by visions of death. He did not stop until he reached the door to Akane's room and burst through it headlong.
She lay there wrapped in her usual blankets, and in that frantic moment her sleeping form seemed to Ranma the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. He tumbled forward, unable to check his momentum, as the manic, fear-granted energy left him in a rush, leaving only the bone-deep weariness behind. Akane's bed caught him at the knees, and he flopped forward across her as he collapsed.
He could feel her warmth stir groggily beneath him—a real, tactile sensation that served to further dispel the inexplicable panic and inexplicable images. He let out a giddy laugh, his hands trembling as raw relief joined the already-potent cocktail of off-kilter emotions running through him.
In a few seconds, he knew, Akane was going to wake up and realize that he had jumped onto her, in bed, for no reason that he could explain—even to himself. But the prospect of swinging mallets in his immediate future did absolutely nothing to dampen what he felt as the night terror was eroded by the reality around him. Already, the details of what had made him so afraid were evaporating like morning mist before the rising of the sun.
"Just a dream..." he muttered to himself. And that was, indeed, the most obvious explanation by far.
But even so, there was a small part of him that did not quite believe what he said. A small, nagging voice, a touch of his danger sense, that told him it had been something real. And something that was not over for him yet.
"Just a dream," he repeated once again, trying to convince himself. He clutched Akane's sleeping body tight, feeling the rise and fall of her breathing against his chest. Proof that—whatever had actually happened—she was alive.
And, for the moment, that was all that mattered to him.