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Drunkard's Walk S:
Heart of Steel
by Robert M. Schroeck
4. We're Putting The Band Back Together!
I can take a beating, I'll rise again
Burning through the jungle until the end
I can live forever, I'll rise again
Keep rising up I'm
— Barns Courtney, "Champion"
Well my friends, it's been a long, long time
But we're still kickin' and we're in our prime
Out of the glare of the limelight
Walking the path of the wise
We got the flair for a new fight
Flyin' the frantic skies
Whoa! Sending out a call!
Whoa! Watching over all!
Yeah! We're gonna...
Get get the gang back together!
It's getting closer
Get get the gang back together!
Keep watching over!
— Miracle of Sound, "Get The Gang Back"
Fight for the Kingdom, bound for glory,
Armed with a heart of steel.
I swear by the sisters who stand before me
To no one shall I kneel.
Their blood is upon my steel.
— Manowar, "Call to Arms" (paraphrased)
Monday, May 18, 1992, 6:30 PM, Joy Fit.
"Before we get started tonight," Doug-sensei said once she'd peeled off her track suit and stepped to the center of the room, "I have a little something for you."
"You do?" Usagi asked. "What is it?" She wished Luna was here, if only to share a curious look, but she was working a shift at the arcade.
Doug-sensei slipped a hand into his pocket and drew out a small, flat case similar to the one her papa kept his business cards in. "I made this for you last night because after the last couple operations, I think you deserve it." He held it out to her in both hands, bowing slightly, just like Papa did when offering his business card. She bowed back and took it from him. Her breath caught as she realized she had seen something like this once before.
She looked up at him. "Is this...?"
Doug-sensei smiled. "Open it."
She gripped the edges of one side of the case with her fingertips, and copying what sensei had done the night she'd met him, flipped it open with a little twist of her wrist. There was a tiny hum, and suddenly a glowing block of kanji and romaji appeared in the air before her face and parallel to the floor while a transparent three-dimensional image of herself as Sailor Moon hung horizontally in front of her hand, slowly turning as if on a spit.
"Whoops," she giggled, and changed her grip on the case to right it.
"So, in the unlikely event you couldn't guess," Sensei said, "I'm deputizing you into the Warriors, specifically Alpha team. But before you actually become a member of the Warriors, even just a deputy member, there's an oath that you have to swear," he added solemnly. "It's a promise that will define your life, and guide everything you do with your metatalents."
She bit her lip. This was something more than just getting a new toy. Sensei was being very serious, and he was almost never completely serious, even about serious subjects. She stood up straighter and clasped her hands behind her back, folding up her new ID and holding it between them. "What's the promise, sensei?"
"You swear on your life and honor to uphold just laws and to oppose unjust ones," he said. "To defend those who have no defenders. To protect those who are exploited and oppressed, or who suffer the worst losses of unjust war. You promise to champion basic human rights, and to thwart those who would deny them to others. You vow to enact justice upon those who would wage unjust war. And most importantly, you promise to make and keep the peace." He studied her for a long moment, then added, "It's not always an easy promise to keep, teishi, and if you don't want to make it, I'll understand."
She looked at him blankly. "Not make it? Isn't it all what I'm already doing?"
Sensei chewed his lip. "Not really, not all of it. And what you are doing, you're doing against magical creatures which for all practical purposes are demons. But someday you might have to take that kind of action against other humans, other people. That's not an easy or happy thing, teishi. Power of the kind you and I wield has a responsibility that goes with it. Once you defeat your Enemy, your power almost certainly isn't going to just go away, so you need to think about how you're going to use it after."
Usagi fixed him with a gimlet eye. "It almost sounds like you don't want me to promise, sensei."
"No," he shook his head. "I just want you to think about what it really means before you do."
She opened her mouth to reply, then stopped. Now she really wished Luna was here to talk to about this. Could she really do it if she had to? All of it? Against other people? If there was no other way?
Yes. If it were an innocent person on one side, and a criminal, or an enemy soldier, or... or... some other kind of bad person on the other, yes. She could do it. But she would do her best to find another way, a better way, first. She nodded to herself, then looked up at Doug-sensei. "I'm sure, sensei. I'll make that promise, and do what it takes not to have to hurt other people, but I'll do it if it's the only way to save someone." She straightened up again, having found that she'd started to slouch while thinking. "This do I swear on my life and honor!" she declared confidently.
Sensei reached out and cupped her chin with his hand, then smiled at her. It was a proud smile, she thought, but a little sad at the same time, and that confused her. "My student is growing up," he said. "In that case, teishi, welcome to the Warriors. You now have a provisional brevet rank of Captain." He drew back his hand and snapped a salute at her. "Congratulations, Tsukino-ichii."
It was only her recently-improved reflexes which saved her from fumbling her new ID card as she returned the salute. "Thank you, Sangnoir-taisa!" Then she looked back down at the ID and opened it up again so she could read the text that it projected in both Japanese and English.
United Nations Metahuman Peacekeeping Force Warriors International
Codename: Sailor Moon
Civilian Name: Classified level Umbra-12/Need To Know
Commissioned: 17 May 1992
Rank: Itto rikui/Captain (brevet)
Assignment: Alpha Team (Auxiliary)
Metatalents: Light-aspected mage talent; obscuration; ranged physical/energy attack, magical; enhanced strength, agility and physical resilience; resistance (possible immunity) to mental domination; sonic-based stun/disruption effect...
"Sensei?" she asked, looking up. "It says, 'sonic-based stun/disruption effect'? I can't do anything like that."
Sensei laughed. "Actually, you did it the night I met you — your crying triggered something in the ornaments in your hair, and it knocked out all the women and girls in that jewelry shop."
Usagi thought back to that terrible, scary first night when it seemed like she'd become a superhero just so the monster could kill her. "I... I remember that I was crying and suddenly all the customers were asleep on the floor, but I don't remember doing anything to make it happen."
"I'm not surprised," sensei said. "You were pretty much out of it when I dropped in."
She folded up the ID and wrapped her arms around herself. "I don't like to think about that. It's embarrassing now when I remember it."
Sensei chuckled at that. "A friend of mine once said that if you never look back at yourself and say 'damn, I was stupid' or 'argh, how could I ever think that?', you're not growing and learning. Now you know better, and you are better, and you won't ever be in a place like that again. Right?"
"Right!" she replied, suddenly feeling better about herself.
"But now that you bring it up," sensei continued with a smile, "I actually wanted to follow up on that particular talent of yours today. The Enemy seems to use mind control at every given opportunity, and you've been attacked by — or could have been attacked by — mind-controlled innocents several times now. Let's see if we can't figure out how you can use it at will, and short-circuit any future attempts along those lines."
"Oh, that's a good idea, sensei!" She slid her new ID into the pocket of her gym shorts, and stood up straight and proud. "How do we start?"
In addition to working on her magic and her physical conditioning we actually spent a lot of time on Usagi's academics over the next few days. She had a practice test coming up on that Wednesday — some national standardized, overall-academic-performance thing that would clue her in to how she'd do on her future high school entrance exams and where she needed to focus on improving — and she was justifiably nervous about it.
Ikuko wasn't helping — even though Usagi's grades of late had been substantially above the rock-bottom level they'd dwelt at before I'd started tutoring her, Ikuko was actively nagging her any time Usagi tried to relax in between studying and tutoring sessions. It was causing her more stress than preparing for the test itself was, and I eventually had to pull Ikuko to one side and ask her to tone it down. I ended up having to promise to take the family out to dinner if Usagi failed any subject by as little as one point before Ikuko relented.
More directly, I helped Usagi relax by taking her out that night to see "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" (in English but with Japanese subtitles) which was playing at the Yebisu Garden, an art house cinema I'd come across a few weeks earlier. (Luna couldn't join us; she was working that evening at the arcade.) I'm not sure Usagi understood all the jokes, she hid her eyes after the first blood started spurting during the Black Knight scene, and I know the Castle Anthrax sequence embarrassed her, but she laughed herself silly at most everything else.
I know I was amused by her giggly attempts to say "Bring out yer dead!" and "African or European?" in a bizarre British-Japanese accent all the way home.
Tuesday, May 19, 1992, 3:30 PM.
"So why aren't you getting on my case about studying, too?" Usagi asked idly without taking her eyes off her manga. She was sprawled on her bed, still in her uniform after walking home from school with Luna.
"Why should I?" Luna replied from where she lay curled up on the windowsill. "Since Doug started tutoring you, you've shown substantial improvement. And I've done my share to help you as well. We both are confident that you will do well on the test." She flicked her tail. "Hounding you about it would only make you nervous and prone to errors. Which is the last thing we want."
Usagi looked up, surprised. "You really think I'm going to do okay on the test tomorrow?"
Luna sat up and began grooming herself. "Of course. Why wouldn't you?"
She bit her lip. "It's just that... there's this girl in my class who they say is the smartest person in Japan. Mizuno Ami-san? She's sure to get the best grades in the entire country. How can I compete with that?"
"Who says you're competing with her?" Luna asked. "If you're competing with anyone, you're competing with yourself. If you beat your old scores by any amount, you're a winner. And Doug and I both think you're going to beat them by quite a bit."
"Huh." Usagi closed her manga and rolled over on her back, staring up at the ceiling thoughtfully. "Thanks, Luna."
Luna looked up from her grooming. "You're welcome, Usagi."
Wednesday, May 20, 1992, 12:07 AM, the Crown Arcade.
"You would think that having a job here would make it easier for me to contact 0091," Luna groused as she exited the Crown Arcade. As the door and gate closed behind her, she blipped into human form while continuing her tirade. "But no, he can't arrange for the calls to be right after closing time, it always has to be midnight."
"Wouldn't that interfere with your after-work coffees with Motoki?" I asked with deliberately exaggerated innocence. Luna merely sniffed disapprovingly, and I went on. "Well, if he's really your old spymaster, it's probably compulsive espionage sneakiness." I pushed off of the bit of solid storefront I'd been leaning against. "So what did Agent 86 have to tell you tonight?"
"Precious little. Mixed praise for and complaint about Sailor Moon — he's pleased with her skill level, not so much with how quickly she's rooting out the Enemy." She scowled. "And he wants to know if we've made any progress finding the Princess."
I snorted. "Which means he knows even less than we do. And that he's suffering from the same memory loss and language confusion as you, only he doesn't have someone with an outside point of view to help clarify things."
"Which, you have to admit, are actually points in favor of him being genuine," she noted as she stepped to where my motorcycle was illegally parked at the curb.
I joined her, and pulled my helmet and a spare from the top pannier. "True — they're practically a signature of your Queen What's-Her-Name's coldsleep spell."
Luna glared at me. "Serenity," she insisted.
"Right. 'Serenity'. Anyway, your enemies don't seem to have connected Sailor Moon with the Moon Kingdom, so they don't have any reason to even suspect that the Princess might be present in this era." I pulled my helmet on and she did the same. "Did you tell him about the Mizuno girl?"
For some reason Usagi had focused on a girl in her class named Mizuno Ami when worrying about her performance on her practice exam. I (and Luna) had reassured her that Mizuno's performance had nothing to do with hers, but it'd seemed odd to me that a girl who allegedly had the highest academic scores in Japan for her age group was in Usagi's unashamedly mid-tier school instead of some high-end academy. So Luna and I did a little snooping from a distance.
What we found was a lonely-looking latchkey kid with a haze of darkly-aspected magic around her, living in an upscale, high security apartment building. Without getting a lot closer than I was comfortable with, we couldn't tell much more, but I was pretty sure I'd seen the magegift in her aura, buried under the darker magic surrounding her. And that the dark magic wasn't actually hers so much as something affecting her.
All Luna could tell with her much cruder mage senses was that there was dark magic around the girl. To get anything more she'd have to be practically sitting on her.
"No," she snapped, slightly muffled by the helmet. "I'm not reporting anything about her until we know for sure."
I swung my leg over the saddle and seated myself; Luna hopped on behind me. "Good. I still think she's at least a potential mage and ally, if not actually one of your Guardians. I read that dark energy around her as being environmental, or maybe something cast on her. It's nothing like the aura the fake Mikan had, remember."
"Perhaps. We'll see," she muttered as she settled onto the saddle.
"Once we can get closer to her," I agreed.
"Yes." She wrapped her arms around my waist.
"So tell me, Luna," I said as I started up the turbine. "Did you have us look into Mizuno because Usagi had the shpilkes about her and the test today?"
Either that language spell had managed to stuff some Yiddish into Luna's head along with everything else, or she had glarked the meaning from context, because she just sniffed. "Not at all."
Which of course meant she had. That darn cat was more protective of Usagi than she would admit to.
Wednesday, May 20, 1992, 8:33 PM
As we had promised, I made the trip up to Furano after work on Wednesday to pick up Mikan and bring her back to her apartment. Usagi had closed and locked everything up behind her when she left the apartment on Saturday, so I didn't deposit Mikan on her balcony. Instead I touched down on a back street near her building and then drove her to the front door like a normal person.
For my efforts I got a vigorous hug (and a second one to give to Sailor Moon when I next saw her), along with plentiful "thank you"s. After I pulled her suitcase out of the pannier (no doubt boggling the doorman), she gave me one more hug, then trotted into the building, trailing the case behind her on its little wheels. I kept a careful eye on her through the building's broad glass front until she got into an elevator, then headed for home.
Once I was back in my apartment, I stripped out of my leathers, splashed my face, and checked my answering machine, which was blinking insistently at me.
"Hi, sensei!" Usagi, reasonably cheery. That was a good omen. "I think I did pretty well. Thank you for all your help!" A longish pause, during which I could hear Shingo's muted voice, unintelligible, in the background. "So, um... I'll see you at our next session. Bye!" she chirped, followed by a click and a dial tone.
I laughed, shook my head, and went about preparing myself a late dinner.
Thursday, May 21, 1992, 6:30 PM. Joy Fit.
"Okay," I said. "One last thing before we call it quits tonight and I let you get to that dinner your mom's keeping warm."
"And what's that, sensei?" Usagi was sitting crosslegged on the mat, after finishing her magic exercises for the evening. She didn't look a bit tired, which was great because I'd started her on simple conjurations — basic shapes, single materials, easy concepts — and if you're not up to it that can take a lot out of a person. But she was still clear-eyed and energetic.
Which meant she wasn't spazzing out over her test scores, which were coming out tomorrow. I figured the more I could give her to focus on, the less anxiety she'd suffer. And it seemed to be working. But just to be sure, I had one more thing to impart that evening. I settled in, sitting crosslegged on the mat, too, a meter or so away. "Tonight's final lesson is an introduction to banter and trashtalking the enemy."
Usagi tilted her head quizzically. "I thought you told me not to give speeches while fighting," she said.
"No speeches, that's right," I replied. "But banter is something else entirely. It's an emotional and mental attack — not in the sense of the psychic, but meaning intellectually. You engage the foe in a conversation that you control, forcing them to spend some of their concentration on reacting to you rather than on their tactics."
I nodded. "Really. It doesn't even matter what you say, sometimes. You can insult them, bewilder them, try to undermine their confidence — whatever seems like it'll work. Just the fact that they'll respond to you will interfere with their ability to fight."
She leaned forward, her elbows on her knees and her chin propped up on her fists. "I don't know, sensei, that seems too easy."
"You'd be surprised," I said with a laugh. "Yeah, there are always opponents who are too disciplined to respond, but it's amazing how often even enemies you'd think were too smart to fall for it can be drawn into the most ridiculous conversations while fighting. And once they do, they're yours. With the right words you can practically lead them by the nose. And if you can rile them up, sometimes they'll abandon all their tactics and strategy just to get you to shut up."
Usagi gave me a flat look. "That doesn't sound good. Usually I'm trying to keep from being hit. I don't want to get them even more eager to hit me!"
"Ah!" I held up a finger. "But the more emotional they are, the less likely they are to think about what they are doing and trying to accomplish. They'll be prone to stupid mistakes, giving you openings you wouldn't have had otherwise. And if you can get them reacting to you instead of acting, then you have a measure of control over them and can lead them. But there's another benefit, too," I added.
She looked at me doubtfully. "What's that?"
I smiled slyly. "Part of banter is nicknaming — giving your foe a name that's insulting or belittling. Again, useful to rile up the enemy. But for mages like us — especially for a mage like you, who uses 'Will and Word' — names have power. And giving a name to your foe that is both true and limiting in some way will diminish your enemy if you put enough force and belief into it."
Usagi's jaw dropped. "You mean I can just talk someone into being easier to beat?"
I laughed. "If you're good enough, yeah."
She sat up straight, clasped her hands in supplication, and looked me in the eye. "Please grant me your wisdom, sensei," she said earnestly, but with a wicked little twinkle in her eye.
Friday, May 22, 1992, 8:30 AM
"Yes! Yes! Yes!" Usagi danced wildly in the hallway as the other students thronged past her to find their test results among the numbers posted on the wall behind her. A few eyed the girl and her flailing arms dubiously, and some laughed, but most ignored her in their rush to see their own scores.
Naru rolled her eyes, then shared a smile with Reina. "You're so weird, Usagi," she called out as the shorter girl laughed behind her hand.
Usagi dashed over to the two of them. "But did you see? I passed! Everything!"
"Only barely," Reina pointed out good-naturedly. "You're not even in the top 50%."
"So what?" Usagi demanded. "I didn't fail! Anything! Mama's going to have to stop nagging me now."
Naru gave her a half-lidded stare. "Usagi, your mom's not going to stop nagging you about your grades even if you beat Mizuno Ami-san." She gestured at something down the hall, and Usagi turned to see the girl from the back of the class, the one with short, wavy blue hair who never spoke to anyone unless they spoke to her first.
"Oh, her," Reina spat. "If she's so smart, why is she going to this school? She's just a stuck-up snob."
"She got the top score on the test!" Usagi countered. "You have to be smart to do that!"
"They say she has an IQ of 300!" Umino's massively-lensed face suddenly appeared between them.
"Gah!" Naru shrieked. "Don't sneak up on us like that!" She punched his arm, and Umino cowered in pain.
"Ouch! That hurt!" he protested. "She also goes to that new expensive cram school, the Crystal Seminar. The one that's so exclusive, even the children of Yakuza bosses have a hard time getting in? She's so smart they don't even charge her — they gave her a scholarship!"
"How do you find this stuff out?" Reina demanded.
Umino smiled dopily. "It's what I do after school — I find out all I can about the g... people I'm interested in."
Naru scrunched up her nose in a scowl. "You mean you're a stalker."
"Well, if you want to put it that... hey! Stop! That hurts! Ow! That doesn't bend that way! Help! Mommy!"
Usagi ignored the violence Reina and Naru were inflicting on Umino as she watched Mizuno Ami. She didn't look arrogant or snobby at all, Usagi thought. She looked sad. And lonely.
"I'm home!" Usagi called as she pulled off her shoes and stepped into her slippers.
"Welcome home, Usagi-chan," her mother said as she stepped out of the kitchen and into the hallway. "How did you do on your test?"
Usagi grimaced and dug her toe into the floor of the hallway, twisting the runner there to and fro.
"Usagi..." her mother began warningly.
She looked up, grinning. "I passed! Everything!"
Her mother's mouth popped open in a little "O" of surprise. "You did?"
"Uh-huh!" She nodded vigorously enough to send her ponytails swinging around her knees.
"Oh, I knew you could do it!" her mother cried as she rushed over and enveloped Usagi in a hug.
"No you didn't," Usagi mumbled into her apron.
Her mother didn't seem to hear her, which Usagi reflected was probably a good thing. "Oh, congratulations, sweetheart. Your father will be so proud when he hears." She suddenly released Usagi. "Oh! Oh, now we owe Doug-sensei a nice dinner."
"We do?" Usagi asked.
Her mother actually looked sheepish. "He promised me that he would take us all out to a restaurant if you failed any part of the test. I think it's only fair that we treat him to dinner since you passed." She winked at her daughter. "What do you think?"
"Oh, yes, Mama!" Usagi cried. "Can I help?"
"Let's find out when he's available first, all right?"
She nodded. "Right!" This was going to be great!
I got a call on the evening of the 22nd from Ikuko-san. Apparently Usagi had passed her test — if not exactly with flying colors, then at least with colors that had managed not to plow nose-first into the runway while attempting take-off.
In thanks — and I guess as her way of paying off on the implied wager in my offer to take the Tsukinos out for dinner if Usagi failed anything — I got an invitation to dinner at their home the next evening, Saturday the 23rd, at seven.
Of course I accepted.
Saturday, May 23, 1992, 1:15 PM
"Hey, Luna, isn't that Mizuno Ami-san up ahead?" Usagi was still elated over her performance on the test and, eagerly looking forward to dinner that night with Doug-sensei, had rushed out of school even more quickly than she usually did on days without Martial Arts club. Her dash through the streets of Azabujuban abruptly halted, though, when she recognized the solitary figure a half block away.
"It is," Luna agreed from where she had followed at Usagi's heels, and leapt up on the wall to their right to race ahead of her charge. This was the first chance that had come along to check the girl up close in an area relatively free of other magical influences, and she was going to make the best of it!
As Usagi began to trot after her, Luna caught up with the Mizuno girl and threw herself off the wall and at her. Remembering to keep her claws sheathed at the last moment, Luna managed to stick the landing on the girl's shoulder.
She had to give the girl credit for composure; she hardly reacted to the unexpected acquisition of a full-grown cat, expressing only a mild surprise. As Mizuno murmured, "Kitty?", Luna pressed her face to the girl's cheek and opened up her rudimentary mage senses as far as she could while ignoring the ever-present faint traces of the Enemy in the local magic field. Hopefully the physical contact would give her an advantage in analyzing the girl's confusing aura.
Luna almost lost her focus when the girl began scratching her under the chin, but the thought of how Doug would tease her if she gave in helped maintain her control. Slowly, she began to sort through the mixture of energies, and as the girl spoke to her of condos and adoption, Luna realized that Doug had been correct... the girl was not the Enemy, but the Enemy had bespelled her — and more than once!
And there was something else behind the contamination... something familiar.
With that realization Luna finally gave in and let herself enjoy the girl's caresses. (Perhaps, she thought, Doug hadn't been entirely wrong the time he had laughingly called her a closet sensualist.) Entirely too soon Usagi caught up and called her, and reluctantly, Luna disengaged herself and leapt into her charge's arms.
2:15 PM, the Crown Arcade
Usagi stared after Ami-chan as she ran frantically down the shopping street. They had been having such a nice time playing video games, too! And Ami-chan was a natural at the "Sailor V" game. She wasn't sure how she felt about that — that video game was hard and for Ami effortlessly break the high score and just keep going, and on her first time playing it, too... Usagi was torn between being proud of her and envying her.
After a moment's thought, though, Usagi decided she would be proud of her, and not envious. Ami-chan seemed to have so little fun in her life that it was good that she'd had so much so quickly. If only she hadn't abandoned the game for her cram school! Well, she'd just have to sit Ami back down at the "Sailor V" game and make sure she finished it next time. And there would be a next time — Ami had said "See you later!" before she left, after all.
As all the guys who had surrounded Ami while she played piled out into the street to watch as she ran off, Usagi promised herself that when they did come back, she would have to point out to Ami just how good she was at "Sailor V". She was pretty sure Ami-chan didn't realize it, even with the admiring crowd that had gathered, or else she wouldn't've said "Studying is the only thing I'm good at" right before she took off.
"Usagi-chan!" said a familiar voice. She turned to spy Motoki forcing his way through the throng of disappointed fanboys. He had a red floppy disk, and held it out to her, saying, "Your friend left this on the floor. Can you give it back to her?"
"Of course!" Usagi took it and glanced at it. The label on it said "Crystal Seminar - Tutorial Program". Wasn't that...? "Oh! I hope she doesn't need this for her cram school..." she said.
"Thanks. I knew I could count on you." Motoki smiled at her and Usagi felt all warm and gooey inside. "Oh, and could you do another favor for me?"
She smiled back at him "Anything!"
"If you see her, could you tell your friend Luna that I won't be able to have coffee with her tonight like usual? I've got an evening lecture I can't miss."
Usagi's smile froze. "Tell... Luna... Sure." She glanced around for the traitor cat whom she found lurking a few feet away. "Luna, Motoki can't have coffee with you tonight."
As Luna froze in turn, Motoki laughed. "I meant your other friend Luna," he said.
"Sure," Usagi said, her voice brittle. "As soon as I see her I'll let her know."
"Thanks!" He gave her a clumsy, one-armed hug, the kind of a hug a friend or a brother might give, before dashing back into the arcade. Ami's fanboys dispersed, some following him in and the rest taking off in either direction along the street.
When she was sure they were reasonably far away, Usagi glared at Luna, who was still frozen in place at the edge of the sidewalk. "You've been going out for coffee with Motoki?"
Luna shook herself and then leapt up onto her shoulder. "Yes, but that's not important now."
Usagi kept glaring at her, even though doing so with Luna only a few inches from her face made her eyes feel funny. "I think it's important! Motoki's supposed to be my boyfriend, not yours!"
"He's not my boyfriend!" Luna sputtered. "We just get coffee together sometimes. It's not like we're dating or anything!"
"Seems an awful lot like dating to me," Usagi muttered.
"Listen!" Luna hissed. "That's not important now. When I was on Ami-chan's shoulder, I checked her aura — the Enemy's been doing magic on or around her!"
Usagi forgot her annoyance. "What?"
"There are traces of the Enemy's magic in her aura, but it's been done to her, not by her," Luna explained. "The question is, where? She had to have been near it fairly often."
Usagi looked down at the disk in her hand. "You mean like almost every day?" She held up the disk so Luna could see it.
They checked the disk just to be sure — Usagi with her magesight and Doug-sensei's training, and Luna with her own mage senses — and weren't surprised at all to find it permeated with the same dark magic Luna had sensed on Ami.
"I guess we're going to cram school," Usagi said a determination that surprised Luna. "And I know just where I'm going to cram it, too," she added in an angry mutter. Luna rolled her eyes. Her charge had clearly been learning more than just magic, fighting, and academics from Doug, whether he had intended to teach it or not.
Then again, it had been good to see Usagi approaching the Enemy with confidence instead of the terror that had typified her first two outings as Sailor Moon, so perhaps she shouldn't complain...
The disk label had the address of the Crystal Seminar on it, so they had no problems finding the building. On seeing the imposing facade with its stone and glass, Luna wondered if it was real or an elaborate conjuration like some of the other Enemy "businesses" they'd encountered.
"Around here," Usagi said, and they slipped into an alley that ran along one side of the building. "I'm going to run in and scout out the Seminar, see if it's really what we think it is."
Luna nodded. "And then?"
"I'll come back out and we'll decide what to do next."
"Good," Luna said, then added, "You should disguise yourself."
"Yeah," Usagi said. She fumbled around in her pocket and pulled out the disguise pen. "I already had something in mind." She held up the pen and declared, "Make me a bicycle messenger with a package to deliver!" A momentary swirl of magic later and the thirteen year old girl had been replaced by a young woman in her late teens or early twenties, dressed in black spandex shorts and a teal T-shirt with the legend "Yamato Transport" and a stylized image of a black cat carrying a kitten in a yellow oval. A bicycle helmet and goggles hid her face and now (much) shorter hair, and in one hand she held a thick manila envelope, heavily sealed with packing tape and slightly battered along its edges.
"Well?" Usagi asked.
Luna looked her up and down. "You're not sweaty enough."
Usagi shrugged. "It can't be helped. Besides, how likely is it that the Enemy is going to know I'm supposed to be sweaty?" She hugged the envelope tighter to herself and added, "If I'm not back in ten minutes, get Doug-sensei." She spun on her heel and tore out of the alley.
Luna looked after her. "Good luck, Usagi."
Busy, busy, I'm in a big hurry. Usagi focused her mind on that thought as she concentrated on her "character". She yanked open the building door with barely-faked impatience, only slowing down enough to check the directory for the Crystal Seminar.
There it was, on the second floor.
She skipped the elevator — a busy bike messenger wouldn't wait around for it to come — and instead chose the stairs, taking advantage of this body's longer legs to hurdle them two at a time. On the second floor landing she stiff-armed the door so hard it slammed against the wall on the other side. A sign in front of the elevator a few feet away had "Crystal Seminar" and a left-pointing arrow on it, so she turned left.
A glass door with "Crystal Seminar" painted on it in romaji was only a few meters down the hallway. Usagi took a deep breath and pushed the door open almost as violently as she had the stairwell door, and strode in quickly. The room was a small, simple lobby, with another door with a large window in the far wall, and a bored-looking receptionist behind her desk to one side. A few seats and a larger, wall-mounted version of the "Crystal Seminar" logo finished the scene.
Usagi strode over to the receptionist, shifting her perceptions into magesight as she did. "I've got a package for a..." She tore her gaze away from the distinctly not human creature sitting disguised behind the desk and shifted back into normal sight to glance down at the package that was part of her disguise. She blinked at what the pen had provided. "...a Fleetwood Elton-san?" She recognized those names from the songs on sensei's little music player. Did the disguise pen have a sense of humor? Could a disguise pen have a sense of humor?
The creature behind the desk didn't even look up at her. "There's no one by that name here," it snarled.
"Ah, c'mon, lady," Usagi complained, putting a little whine into her voice, "I just biked all the way from Akihabara with this package for Fleetwood-san, and you say he's not here?" She sauntered up to the door and glanced through its window, as if she expected her mythical recipient to be hiding from her on one side of it or the other.
Through it she saw a large classroom, with dozens of students in individual cubbies, each one staring at a computer monitor. They all looked so gaunt and tired! A teacher was stalking about the floor with an unpleasant smile on her face, and although Usagi was pretty sure she didn't need to, she flicked into magesight just long enough to confirm her certainty that it was an Enemy monster, too. Just as she thought, the teacher was.
And she was looming over Ami-chan!
"I said, there's no Fleetwood here!" the receptionist actually snarled, and when Usagi turned back to look at her, she saw that the creature was standing, seemingly ready to throw itself at her.
She stifled the ripple of fear that ran through her. "Geeze, calm down, lady," she replied. "All I know is I gotta give this to a Fleetwood Elton at Cristo's Samovars."
The receptionist-creature actually face-palmed as she growled, "You are an idiot. This is not Cristo's Samovars, it's the Crystal Seminar!"
Usagi put on her best blank look, the one she used to use all the time in Ms. Haruna's class. "It's not?"
"No, it is not!" it grated out, and waved at the logo on the wall. "Look!"
Usagi turned, leaned forward and squinted, and very slowly sounded out the romaji as though she was worse at reading English than she really was. Then she stood up straight and turned back to the receptionist. "Well, geeze, I gotta go yell at Dispatch about this. Sorry to bother you, ma'am." And before the monster could get another word out, Usagi marched out to the hallway and down to the elevator.
"There are two monsters up there, and, like, a hundred kids," Usagi said as soon as she was back in the alley with Luna. With a thought she released the disguise and turned back to herself. "I need change for a pay phone," she added. "I have to call sensei."
"I know you had some change on you earlier," Luna replied. "What happened to it?" She spoke softly, hoping not to attract the attention of the vaguely familiar, dark-haired young man in a green jacket who had just walked uncomfortably close to the mouth of the alley. He hadn't seemed to notice them, but it never hurt to be careful.
"Well, duh!" Usagi rolled her eyes, but took her cue from Luna and spoke softly as well. "I spent it all playing video games with Ami-chan!"
Luna sighed and took her human form. Usagi thought the cream silk blouse and white linen slacks looked very good on her. She dug around in the matching purse that also had appeared with the shift, pulled out several ten- and fifty-yen coins, and placed them in Usagi's hand. "Here."
"Thank you, Luna," Usagi said, and dashed out of the alley again. Luna blinked, then followed.
When she caught up with Usagi at the pay phone on the corner of the block, she was already saying "Okay, bye!" and hanging up. She turned to Luna as though she'd been expecting her to be there, and said, "Sensei must be out — I got his answering machine. I told him where we were and what we were facing."
"You can't wait for him, not if there are two of the Enemy there," Luna observed.
Usagi took a deep breath and took a moment to compose herself. "No, I can't," she replied. "So I'm going in."
"No, we are going in," Luna corrected.
She was swept up briefly in a unexpected hug. "You're such a good friend," Usagi breathed. "Even if you are dating Motoki." She released Luna and stepped back with a smile as Luna sputtered another denial. "Now... I have an idea."
This time they took the elevator, and like when she and sensei investigated Mikan-chan's apartment, Usagi transformed into Sailor Moon between floors. And wow, sensei was right. If the change really lasted as long as it felt, the elevator would have been stopped and open, and maybe even going back down to the ground floor when it ended. But it totally wasn't — the elevator came to a stop just as she finished changing, and with a little "ding!", the door opened a second later.
She glanced around and then down to confirm that Luna had turned back into a cat while she was spinning and glowing. They shared a nod, and then the two of them stepped into the empty hall. Sailor Moon could hear the sounds from some of the other businesses on the floor, and hoped nobody came out at the wrong time and got hurt.
Just before they reached the door for the Crystal Seminar, she reached up and took off her tiara. As before it turned into a disk of energy, but instead of throwing it she held it tight in her right hand. "Ready?" she whispered.
"Ready," Luna whispered back.
Sailor Moon nodded to herself. Unexpectedly, that strange urge to make a speech bubbled up in her again, and just like at the talent show she clenched her teeth tight to keep from saying anything. Then she stepped in front of the door to the Crystal Seminar, kicked it open, and wordlessly flung her tiara at the disguised monster behind the reception desk. As she stepped into the Seminar's lobby, Luna dashed in and ran under one of the chairs.
The monster had no time at all to do more than turn toward the door and rise from its seat, before the tiara took it square in the chest. Smoothly catching the returning disk, Sailor Moon returned it to her brow and stepped over to the desk to see the dust now scattered over both the chair and the floor vanish.
"In the name of the Moon," she said softly but fiercely, finally giving in to the urge, "you've been punished."
Luna stepped out of her hiding place under the chair. "Good work, Sailor Moon. Now what?"
Sailor Moon looked over at the door to the classroom. They hadn't caught the attention of the monster in there, thankfully. She grimaced and said, "Now comes the hard part." She took a deep breath and added, "I wish sensei was here."
Ami tried to ignore Karite-sensei hovering over her shoulder. The woman was thoroughly unpleasant and something about her made Ami uncomfortable, but she was a skilled teacher. And Ami had yet to catch her in an error, however small; she had to respect her for that.
Still, her obsession with the computerized tutoring system verged on the maniacal, and did little to help Ami relax around her. Karite-sensei also blithely dismissed her complaints of headaches when she used the specialized program on the disk that every student received as part of the seminar. The very same disk she had lost — possibly while she had been at the arcade with Usagi, the girl who had simply walked up to her today and decided that they were going to be friends.
A tiny smile graced Ami's face. If she had known it was that easy to make a friend, she would have tried it long ago!
Behind her, Karite-sensei growled, and Ami wiped all expression from her face. She couldn't afford to be distracted at all during juku. Even by the thought of what just might be her very first real friend. She found herself smiling again, just a tiny bit (and hiding it from the teacher!) as she focused on the day's lesson.
She had succeeded to such a degree that when the classroom door was unexpectedly slammed open with sudden crash, she nearly jumped out of her seat. Along with every other student in the class, she looked up. Out of the corner of her eye, she absently noted just how unhealthy the boy in the next cubby looked. He ought to see a doctor, one part of her mind thought.
"Everybody out! Right now!" bellowed the vaguely-familiar girl standing in the doorway. Ami blinked at the sight of her — long blonde ponytails, wearing what looked like a cross between a swimsuit and a middle school uniform with red knee-high boots and white opera-length gloves. She matched the description of that "Sailor Moon" who had been appearing in the news over the past few weeks.
Alleged hero or not, Ami's breast swelled with indignation at her entry. She leapt to her feet. "This is a classroom!" she said, frowning. "Why are you interrupting our very important study time?"
It was oddly hard to focus on the girl's face, but Ami was sure she rolled her eyes. "Because your teacher is actually a monster!"
"How ridiculous!" Ami huffed. "Sensei, tell her how..." she began as she turned to Karite-sensei, who still stood behind her.
But she didn't. Instead, there was a red, vaguely-female creature at least a foot taller than the sensei had been, that looked a lot like the sensei. Before she could do more than gape at the creature, it shot out a hand that wrapped completely around her neck and head. "I don't know how you knew, Sailor Moon," said the not-sensei, "but you'll wish you'd never found out. I am Garoben, the master of knowledge! And I will offer the genius of this girl" — and Ami found herself lifted painfully and shaken like a toy — "to our Great Ruler!"
Ami gave a little involuntary cry of pain, which seemed to enrage Sailor Moon. "You put Ami-chan down!" she demanded.
How does she know my name? she wondered as the creature — Garoben — shook her again.
"You are in no position to make demands, insolent child! In fact, you will answer my questions or die!" Garoben snarled. Ami let herself hang limply in the creature's grip, grateful that she wasn't being shaken again.
"Three questions, I bet!" Sailor Moon said. "I'll save you time! My name is Sailor Moon! My quest is to defeat you and Jadeite and everyone else on your side! And my favorite colors are pink and white! Ha! You're not going to pitch me off the Bridge of Death!"
What an eccentric performance, Ami thought muzzily, and realized she must be going into shock.
The creature was not so hindered, and snarled, "Fool! I have no patience for the likes of you!" Its free hand suddenly held a sheaf of papers — although Ami couldn't turn her head, she could move her eyes sideways enough to see that they looked like unmarked quizzes — which suddenly spat like bullets from her grip. Things had become so surreal and so beyond the bounds of what she thought of as reality that Ami barely reacted to the way the quizzes acted more like missiles than paper, flying straight and true and embedding themselves like knives into anything they struck.
Which included everything in their path but Sailor Moon, who tumbled and dodged around them with a bizarre grace that seemed half skill, half accident. She rolled behind a desk, then shouted, "Hey, Garo-dumb! I've got a question for you! What is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow?"
Ami thought that the strange question — asked in an even stranger accent — must have surprised the monster, because it seemed almost to go limp. Its arms drooped, and for a moment she felt her feet touch the floor again. Before she could do anything about it, though, Garoben seemed to rally, bellowing, "Destroy her!"
And to her shock and terror, all the other students in the classroom rose from their seats and began to shamble toward Sailor Moon like zombies. No, not all — Nichigumi-san, who sat in the same row as her, was ducking down under her desk. Is that what the disk was supposed to do to us? she wondered.
Almost as though Garoben had read her mind, it turned its attention back to Ami. "And you, I will see you drained dry of your energy!" It shoved her forward and ground her face against the monitor on her desk. Ami whimpered when she felt... some force pulling on something deep inside her, trying and failing to draw it out of her. Although it felt nothing like one, all Ami could think of was a vacuum pump trying desperately to suck in air and getting nothing. Her face grew warm and tears began to leak from the corners of her eyes as Garoben all but crushed her face into the glass, while a ringing tone seemed to fill her ears.
Then she was suddenly yanked back as the monster lifted her and turned her around. "What is this? Why is your energy not draining?" It studied her face intently for a few minutes, clearly puzzled about something, then snarled again and threw her to the floor. "No matter. If I can't take your energy, I'll take your brain!" It held up its left arm, which to Ami's horror twisted and warped and turned into an ax blade so tall it pushed up the panels of the drop ceiling overhead. It bared its teeth menacingly at her as it began its backswing.
As the zombified students lurched at her, Sailor Moon almost smiled. This was just what sensei thought might happen again. She set her feet firmly, clenched her fists, took a deep breath, and sang out a single, wordless note, not as high as she could get, but quickly stepping up pitch by pitch to the highest she could make and keep it clean.
And just like when sensei had led her through recreating what she'd done by accident that terrible, scary first night, the ornaments in her hair began to vibrate and took up the note she was singing, growing louder and louder (but somehow not painfully so) even as they gave off a red glow so bright that it seemed to overwhelm the fluorescent lights overhead, at least within a few meters of her.
And yes! The zombies — well, they weren't, not really, but she didn't have the time to think of a better word for them — began to drop. First one by one, then more and more, until the only beings left awake in the room were Ami-chan, herself, Luna (who was somewhere near Ami-chan if she was following the plan), and the monster, who'd just turned her arm into an ax!
Oh, no! Ami-chan!
Without even really thinking about it, Sailor Moon hurled herself over the first few rows of cubbies as the monster swung the ax down. Horrified, she heard more than saw it hit the floor with a sound like a hatchet burying itself in a log. Its snarl of "Get back here, you..." made her smile, even as it drew back the blade for another try.
Then her foot caught the top edge of the little wall surrounding one of the desks in the last row, and she almost fell flat on her face as the monster began its second swing. She tucked into a ball and turned what would have been a deadly faceplant into a roll that left her on one knee in front of the monster. Without thinking about it she held up her left arm and shouted "<Shield!>"
A shallow dome of silvery light almost a meter wide sprang into existence on her arm just in time to catch the ax blade. Sailor Moon grunted with the impact but didn't yield; the ax shrieked and hissed as it skittered across the shield and slid to one side, slicing through the front legs of a desk in the next row back. The monster howled in frustration as it tried to tug its weaponized arm free, and Sailor Moon took advantage of the moment to swing the edge of the shield into its legs as hard as she could — which, since Doug-sensei's training and magic had boosted all her physical abilities, was very hard indeed.
Garoben howled in pain as something cracked. Its knees buckling under the impact of the shield and its ax still entangled in the desk, the monster fell into an untidy heap, and Sailor Moon immediately threw herself backwards and away from it, dismissing the shield so it wouldn't get in the way.
And as she did so, somewhere behind her she heard Ami-chan's soft, quiet voice say simply, "<Mercury power, make-up!>"
Sailor Moon glanced back into a blaze of shimmering blue-white light, then blushed and turned her attention back to the monster. Ami-chan was pretty, but she felt slightly dirty for looking at her in the instant during the transformation when she was naked. Even as that thought registered, a slightly deeper and far more confident version of Ami-chan's voice said, "Shabon spray!"
And the room filled with fog.
Sailor Moon had no problems seeing through it, but not so the monster, who acted almost as through it'd been blinded. Garoben freed itself, rose to one knee, then twisted to threaten a nearby computer as if it were Ami-chan. She didn't understand it, but she didn't need to — thanks to Doug-sensei, Sailor Moon knew a perfect target when she saw one, and even as Ami-chan started saying "Now!" her tiara had already hit Garoben square in the back. By the time it had returned her hand and was going back on her head, Garoben had crumbled into an unusually large pile of dust, which vanished almost immediately afterward, as usual.
Sailor Moon thought that was odd... shouldn't more dust take more time to vanish? She'd have to ask Doug-sensei about it. Later. She had something more important to do. As the fog vanished like someone had turned off the fog-switch, she turned back to face Ami-chan... no, Sailor Mercury. She'd heard the trigger phrase clearly enough, and there was no mistaking the outfit — it was almost identical to her own, only in white and shades of blue instead of her red, white and blue.
Luna sat next to her, tail wrapped around her feet, looking surprisingly smug. "If I may, allow me to introduce..."
"Sailor Moon," Mercury said with a genuine smile, larger than any Usagi had seen on her face before.
"Sailor Mercury!" Moon squealed in return, and swept her up in a hug. "It's so good to have another royal guardian on the team."
"Go ahead, ruin my moment," Luna muttered good-naturedly.
After Sailor Moon released her, Mercury tilted her head. "Guardian? Team?"
"Oh!" Moon chirped. "Wait a minute!" She reached behind herself, hoping it had come along when she'd transformed. This would be the perfect moment to use it! But there was nothing in the waist of her skirt in the small of her back, where she'd hoped it would be. Before her disappointment could show on her face, though, a small, familiar weight seemed to drop into her hand, and she drew forth the little case Doug-sensei had given her only five days earlier.
Trusting whatever had delivered it to her hand, she held it out and again gave it the same little flip she had seen Doug-sensei use. It obediently opened to project her image upward and the text forward. As Mercury's eyes widened, she proudly announced, "I am Sailor Moon of the Royal Guardians of the Silver Millennium, deputy brevet captain, United Nations Metahuman Peacekeeping Force Warriors Alpha." Oh good, she didn't mess it up — practicing it in her bedroom the last couple nights had really paid off! She leaned in closely and added in a whisper, "And I'm your new friend from this morning." Mercury's eyes grew wider.
"She's also my student."
Sailor Moon looked past Mercury to see Doug-sensei striding through the classroom door, sword in one hand and staff in the other. He paused just past the threshold and looked around at the students all over the floor, some of whom were just starting to awaken. "I see you've been busy, teishi. What did I tell you about beating up entire schools?" he asked as he sheathed the sword in the scabbard at his waist while the staff disappeared with a loud crack.
She put her hands on her hips and pouted. "Sensei!" she complained. "Don't tease!" But then she smiled, seized Mercury's hand in her own and dragged her around, through and over the still-unconscious students to stand before him. "Look who we found!"
Doug-sensei looked down on the pair of them — even though Ami-chan was almost ten centimeters taller than her he still towered over both of them. And though it was hard to tell with his helmet, she knew he was wearing a friendly smile. "And which Guardian might you be?" he asked gently.
For a moment Sailor Moon thought Mercury was going to curl in on herself or hide behind her — then she stood up straight and said, "I'm Sailor Mercury, sir."
Sensei laughed. "No need to call me 'sir', Mercury. I'm not your commanding officer. At most I'm an adviser and instructor. You can call me 'sensei' like Moon does, or by my codename, Looney Toons." He glanced around the room. "Looks like a typical Enemy op. Anything special to report, Moon?"
She nodded. "There were two creatures again, sensei, instead of one. Or one plus Jadeite. One was the teacher, the other was the receptionist." She screwed up her face. "I think it was supposed to be a guard but if it was it did a lousy job."
"Interesting." Sensei stroked his chin under his helmet. "Okay, save any other observations for the after-action debrief. Sailor Mercury?" He turned back to the taller girl. "Do you have about an hour free? We make it a practice to get a bite to eat and discuss how things went after every one of these... events."
Mercury looked about mournfully. "Normally I'd have cram school..." she said in a wistful tone.
Sensei laughed again. "Yeah, well, I think classes here are canceled, kind of permanently. So, care to join us? My treat." He gestured toward the door.
Sailor Moon glanced over at Mercury, who seemed to be wavering. "Oh, come on, it'll be fun and it's really useful, too. You learn a lot just talking over what happened."
"And we can answer all the questions I'm sure you have," sensei added.
Mercury bit her lip. "Well, in that case..."
"Yay!" Moon cheered.
"If I may, before you go..." a new voice interjected. Sensei looked up, as Moon and Mercury turned around. There stood a girl of high school age, hair in a traditional "princess" style and wearing a tailored uniform made of what Moon was pretty sure was much more expensive fabric than the usual uniform was made with. Despite the gaunt, hollow look she shared with the students on the floor, she was still pretty, with expert makeup and a very confident, self-assured air.
The girl bowed deeply to them. "Looney Toons-taisa. Sailor Moon-ichii. I wish to thank you for saving me from the creatures behind this sham of a juku." She paused for a moment, then continued. "My grandfather has spoken highly of you both, and I see that his opinion of you is warranted." She nodded to Mercury. "Sailor Mercury-dono. You are a new member of this group; indeed, if I am not mistaken you came to your abilities only a few minutes ago? My congratulations. My grandfather will be glad to know that your forces have increased in number and strength."
Sensei bowed back, as did Mercury, and Moon followed a moment later. "On behalf of my student and myself," said sensei, "you are very welcome. But forgive me, young lady — I'm afraid I don't recognize you?"
She smiled. "You wouldn't. I am Nichigumi Saiko, granddaughter of Nichigumi Shigeru."
The name meant nothing to Sailor Moon, but she could tell by the way sensei went absolutely still that it meant something to him. "Ah," he finally said. "In that case, please express our gratitude to your grandfather for the aid he has provided us. We are in his debt."
Saiko-san laughed demurely behind her hand. "Oh, Looney Toons-taisa, you do not understand. But this is neither the time nor place to discuss these matters. I'm sure my grandfather will reach out to you at some point to explain fully. A good day to you all." She turned to go.
"Wait!" Sailor Mercury called out, and Saiko-san turned back, one eyebrow raised. "How is it that when the creature commanded the class to attack, you weren't affected?"
"Ah," she breathed knowingly. "My grandfather has seen to it that I am protected." She unbuttoned and opened the jacket of her uniform, revealing several ofuda pinned to its lining. She glanced down at them, then met Mercury's eyes. "It was not entirely successful in warding me from the creature's spell, but I could at least resist the order to attack Sailor Moon-ichii." She closed and rebuttoned her jacket, and bowed again. "Once more, thank you," she said, and then she swept out.
Once she was gone, Sailor Moon looked up at him. "Sensei? Who...?"
He shook his head slightly, just once. "Not here. Not now." He glanced around at the other students who were starting to wake up from where they had collapsed on the floor. "We have to go."
Saturday, May 23, 1992, 3:15 PM. The Hard Rock Cafe, Roppongi.
"This is where you go for after-action briefings?" Mercury asked disbelievingly as they stepped into the Hard Rock Cafe.
She was still walking a bit unsteadily — while the flight on Looney Toons-san's motorcycle had been exciting, it had also been more than a little nerve-wracking. She couldn't figure out how it could fly at all, let alone lift all four of them, even if it was long enough for them to all sit on it comfortably, and of course as a cat Luna barely weighed anything. She supposed it had something to do with the way it didn't feel like they were moving at all despite the speed at which they had traveled — and why it felt like they were perfectly upright at all times, even when Looney Toons-san leaned the motorcycle into turns.
And then of course there had been the moment Luna had stopped being a cat. That had been a bit of a shock, too. After that there was the "disguise pen" — she really wanted to know how that worked, too.
"Sure!" Sailor Moon replied enthusiastically. "It's got great food, and it's loud enough inside that no one can overhear us without, like, standing right next to us. And sensei always treats."
Mercury looked around at the busy restaurant. "It's just... I was expecting someplace a bit more private, like a secret base or a large headquarters building. I mean, 'United Nations Metahuman Peacekeeping Force Warriors Alpha' led me to expect a military compound at the very least."
"Oh! Alpha Team has a big place in the countryside outside of London, England, according to sensei," Moon replied breezily. "Just not in this universe."
"Not in this universe?" Mercury echoed numbly.
"Oh yeah," Sailor Moon nodded. "Sensei will tell you all about it once we've ordered."
"Speaking of which, Moon, don't forget we've got dinner with your family tonight in only a few hours. Don't overdo it," Looney Toons-san said without looking back as he marched up to the maitre d's podium. When he got there he peered at the hostess standing there. "Oh, hi — Yumi-san, isn't it? I didn't expect to see you on a Saturday afternoon! I thought you were exclusively on the graveyard shift?"
The hostess' eyes popped almost comically when she looked up from the podium and saw their little group. Her eyes widened even more when she spotted Mercury, and Mercury again suppressed the urge to hide behind something. "Um..." the hostess stammered, then seemed to collect herself, and smiled. "I'm filling in for a sick co-worker. And I could say the same of you!"
Looney Toons-san gave a comically exaggerated shrug, his helmet swinging by its chinstrap from one hand. "Duty calls when duty calls. So... four, nonsmoking?"
She glanced down at something on the podium, then looked back up as she pulled out a handful of menus. "You're in luck. Your usual table is free."
He made a dramatic sweeping gesture. "Lead on, MacDuff."
As soon as she'd sat down, Mercury realized she was, in fact, voracious. She'd missed lunch during the time she'd spent with Usagi-san between the end of regular school and the start of juku, and now that the effect of adrenaline was fading from her system, her stomach made its needs known. Perusing the menu, she was hesitant to try some of the more exotic dishes — she would have to look up exactly what "guacamole" was when she got home — but she decided that the "Hard Rock Club Sandwich" looked safe enough.
That finished, she studied the other people at the table with open curiosity. Sailor Moon was arguing with Looney Toons-san about just how much she could eat without filling herself up such that it affected her appetite at the family dinner that he had mentioned earlier. Mercury watched Moon closely, comparing hair styles and marking many of the personality traits that Usagi-san had displayed earlier, then nodded to herself. Now the question was, had Usagi befriended her because she'd known Ami was Mercury? She added that to the list of questions she had been accumulating.
She turned her attention to Looney Toons-san, and tried to see past the homely face and brown hair he currently wore to the handsome blond man who was really there. In the few minutes she had known him, she'd already realized he seemed to be made up of contradictions: clearly a military man, but at the same time strangely informal and irreverent. He obviously had an almost paternal affection for Sailor Moon, but but at the same time seemed to treat her as a subordinate.
Ami violently quashed an unseemly surge of jealousy at the thought that Usagi/Moon had two father figures in her life and forced herself to turn her attention to the last member of the little ensemble: Luna, now a European-looking blonde, previously an elegant brunette, and before that a black cat, albeit a talking one. Her self-control was still engaged in wrestling down her jealousy, and Ami was mortified to hear herself blurt out, "Are you really a cat or a human, Lu- Sherada-san?"
Luna looked up from her drink and blinked in surprise. "Both, and neither, I suppose. I'm a Mau — my people are natural shapeshifters who resemble humans in one form and house cats in the other."
"More than resemble, Sherada," Looney Toons-san interjected, looking up from his debate with Sailor Moon. "You can pass as either for all but the most invasive medical examinations, remember."
"Yes, yes — I'm quite familiar with my own biology," she said with a huff, but Mercury got the impression it was amused rather than offended. "I was trying to go for the simple answer."
"Speaking of answers," Looney Toons-san continued, "I'm betting Mercury has a lot more she'd like to hear."
Mercury nodded. "I do."
Looney Toons-san spread his arms. "Fire away."
Mercury sorted her mental list, and selected the first question on it.
Half an hour later, Mercury nibbled on the remains of her club sandwich while watching and listening to Looney Toons-san and Sailor Moon discuss the shield she'd created in the fight against the teacher-creature and how she'd employed it. She was stunned to learn that the flighty-seeming girl was not only learning how to use magic beyond that which seemed to be built into the Guardian transformation, but was able to do so in a combat situation — and then discuss the specifics afterward with a vocabulary that was not at all mystic but instead sounded suspiciously scientific.
It had been a revelatory thirty minutes. Mercury wasn't entirely sure she believed that Looney Toons-san was actually from another universe, although his motorcycle and other technology testified strongly in support of the claim. She also wasn't certain what to think of the stories of reincarnation and an ancient kingdom on the Moon despite Looney Toons-san assuring her he had confirmed the existence of the capitol city's ruins (and offering to take them both to see it — which had Sailor Moon bouncing in her seat from excitement). After all, it wasn't as though it was hard to find the more speculative papers discussing the mysterious regular structures seen in the narrow "peninsula" between the Seas of Serenity and Tranquility.
Even without totally accepting the existence of the Silver Millennium, though, the nature of the Enemy and the creatures they were sending to Tokyo terrified Mercury. She had seen their abilities with her own eyes — there was no doubt there. But how Sailor Moon had made the newspapers and her — their — foes hadn't baffled her... and led her to worrisome suspicions.
She was also troubled to learn from Looney Toons-san that the girl who had approached them at the Seminar — Nichigumi Saiko — was the granddaughter of the sosai of the Minato-kai. Mercury had had no idea that she'd been attending juku with a Yakuza princess. At least the Minato-kai appeared to be allies, which was ... good? she supposed.
She'd been gratified to find out that Sailor Moon — Usagi — had not befriended Ami because she'd known or suspected Ami was Sailor Mercury. Moon had actually been briefly put out to learn that Luna-san and Looney Toons-san had suspected and hadn't told her — but relented when she learned that their initial interest had been born of their concerns over Usagi's anxiety about the recent practice test. Ami's... identity, she decided was the best word... had been a fortunate coincidence.
And then there had been the subsequent analysis of the fight itself. As she enthusiastically shoveled huge spoonfuls of brownie and ice cream into her mouth, Moon had immediately owned up to every error and stumble she thought she had committed, starting with nearly faceplanting at the end of her leap in front of the monster, and ending with a scathing criticism of her own impatience, with only a token justification for her decision to confront the creatures by herself instead of waiting for him.
To Mercury's surprise, Looney Toons-san did not reprimand Moon for her admitted failures. Instead, he disputed some, gently agreed with others, and discussed with her ways to improve her overall performance, mostly involving one kind of training or another.
Mercury's own report was not nearly as detailed. "I transformed using the wand L... Sherada-san provided," she said carefully. "Upon changing, I sensed that I potentially had a number of ... powers? spells? but only one was available to me at this time, a mist attack. So I used it." She smiled self-deprecatingly.
Looney Toons-san chuckled. "Well, when all you have is a hammer..." Then he looked thoughtful. "A literal fog of war attack, maybe? Teishi," he glanced at Moon, "were you bothered by it?"
"No." Moon shook her head. "I mean, I could see it, but I could see through it just fine." Then she tilted her head. "Sensei, how come Mercury knew what she could do? Sherada had to tell me how to use my tiara."
Mercury noticed that Looney Toons-san and Luna immediately shared an indecipherable glance. "I'm not certain," he said slowly. "I have a suspicion, but I don't want to share it yet until I'm sure." He turned back to her. "Mercury, is there anything else you 'just know'?"
She thought for a moment, then reached behind her back, where something solid put itself into her hand. She drew it out. "There's this." She held it before her, examining it for the first time even though she knew it was an old and familiar tool. It was a flat, rectangular case about the size of a pencil box, made of a pale blue material that felt almost like plastic but had no flex or give to it. A latch in the center of one long edge released it to open like a compact — or the ID Sailor Moon had shown her. In the center of what was obviously its "lid" was an oddly stylized version of the classic astrological symbol for the planet Mercury. When it opened, the lid locked into a vertical position, and its inner surface was a small, flat screen on which characters were already scrolling rapidly; a small keyboard filled the other.
Almost without thinking about it, she reached up and touched one of the earrings that had appeared with her transformation, and a long, narrow bubble of blue light sprang into existence, wrapping around her face from temple to temple. Immediately even more text began to scroll along the edges of her vision, and reticules appeared and disappeared as she changed her focus. She noted that its systems automatically identified Luna as a Mau, just as she had said; Looney Toons-san registered as "Mage, Anomalous, Extradimensional(?)" (which seemed to support his claims). When she looked at Sailor Moon, it flashed two separate items: "Guardian. House of Louksnae."
It took Mercury another moment to realize that the text she was reading was not in Japanese, but another, very foreign language, one that bore no resemblance to any script she had ever seen in all her reading. Yet it felt completely natural to her — like her native tongue.
Perhaps there was something to that claim about reincarnation after all.
Looney Toons-san had been very interested in the device that her memories had insisted was called the "Mercury Computer". He had speculated that it was not a self-contained computer at all, but a remote terminal and sensor pod for a much larger system hidden elsewhere in the Solar System. "I suspect they're connected by a subspace link, probably magical." To the extent that Mercury could remember anything more about it, she thought that he was probably right.
"Magical, sensei?" Moon asked around a spoonful of brownie. "But it's a computer."
He smiled tolerantly. "Magic and technology can work together just fine, teishi. Look at it in magesight."
And at that surprising instruction, Moon seemed to unfocus her eyes while staring at the computer in Mercury's hand. "Oh! You're right!" she'd declared, tilting her head first one way and then the other. "And it does look like there's some kind of line of energy shooting off along the zorth axis, doesn't it?"
"Bingo," said Looney Toons-san with obvious pride in his voice.
"What... what are you doing?" Mercury asked. "And what's a 'zorth axis'?"
Moon's eyes came into focus again as she shifted her gaze to Mercury. "I was looking at its magic. And zorth is a direction that's... kinda hard to explain. It has to do with the universe being part of something that has more dimensions than it does." She glanced at Looney Toons-san. "That's right, sensei?"
He laughed. "Close enough for now."
"How do you do that?" Mercury demanded.
Moon looked surprised. "It's one of the first things I learned to do when sensei started teaching me magic. It's easy."
Mercury turned to Looney Toons-san. "Teach me. Please."
He looked surprised that she had even asked. "Of course!"
"He's a good teacher, too!" Moon added. "He doesn't just teach me magic and how to fight, he also tutors me in stuff for school. I was completely hopeless, but Sensei's helped me get my grades up so much!" Her eyes suddenly widened as an idea struck her. "And he can be your tutor, too! I mean, you're going to need something now that the Crystal Seminar is gone, right? And we can train together in Guardian stuff, too!" She turned to him. "You can handle two students, can't you, sensei?"
Looney Toons-san considered for a moment, then nodded in agreement. "Sure, I can handle two students. If Mercury is interested, I can at least offer myself as an affordable alternative to a juku."
Moon snickered. "You're going to have a hard time beating the Seminar's cost — Mercury was going there on scholarship, and it didn't cost her anything!"
"It's not like I'm charging your folks anything for your tutoring, teishi," he replied in a mock grumble that was belied by his smile and the twinkle in his eye. "So let's say I can match their price and offer individualized instruction, precisely customized to your needs." He shifted his gaze to Mercury, measuring her reaction. "If you want to, that is."
She considered the offer. It would take time to find another acceptable juku and arrange her enrollment; at the very least this would be a stopgap. And if his instruction in academic topics was on a par with what she could infer about Moon's other training, it might well be more than suitable as an alternative. "I think I'd like to try it," she said softly.
"Okay," he said. "I'll give you my card when we're done here, and you can have your parents call me."
Mercury nodded. The possibility of lessons with a friend, a real friend instead of a parasite or an academic rival, was so appealing...
Saturday, May 23, 1992, 4:11 PM.
Yoshi hung up the phone and took a long drag on his cigarette. Yumi-chan at the Hard Rock was turning into one of his most dependable sources.
It also helped that the man in grey and Sailor Moon seemed not to want to go anywhere but the Hard Rock.
It was a pity that Yumi-chan had reached him so late this time; there was no point in trying now to run to Roppongi in the hopes of catching them there. But that wasn't the irritation that it might have been any other time, because this time there was something that made up for it.
Another new sailor girl, called "Mercury".
He smiled as he turned back to his keyboard and began to type.
Between prompt service and slightly hasty eating, we were out of the Hard Rock by 4:30. I took Moon and Mercury to an empty alley off the Azabujuban market street — reasonably clean and out of sight, and devoid of the very few homeless who drifted about the neighborhood — to change back into their civilian forms. As soon as that happened, Ami found herself swept up in another enthusiastic hug as Usagi babbled on about how good it was to have a new friend who was also a Guardian and what fun they'd have and... well, you get the idea.
Witnessing the de-transform, I found myself idly wondering why they had such a flashy transformation in the first place. Some kind of training aid, maybe?
When Usagi finally released her, a somewhat overwhelmed Ami then turned to me. I'd already pulled out one of my business cards, and I presented it to her with all the pomp and formality I'd used with Usagi's father, weeks earlier. "Mizuno-san, I am Douglas Sangnoir, codenamed 'Looney Toons'. Colonel in the United Nations Metahuman Peacekeeping Force Warriors Alpha, video game programmer, and volunteer tutor to meta-powered middle-school girls." Behind me, Usagi snickered. "Please have your parents call me at their convenience if you wish to engage my services." I winked. "Or call me direct if you wish only training related to being a Guardian."
To her credit, Ami received the card gravely, bowing as she did and thanking me before she and Usagi walked together out to the market street — Usagi chattering excitedly all the way, and Ami quietly happy. From the expression she'd worn when I gave her my card and earlier in the Hard Rock, I wasn't entirely sure I would actually get a call, but hey, at least I'd made the offer. What happens, happens.
Saturday, May 23, 1992, 7:53 PM
Dinner with the Tsukinos had been just about as pleasant and fun as I'd hoped. Ikuko-san had set up not a formal dinner but sukiyaki — which, if you don't know Japanese cuisine, is a family-style meal. It starts with a big cast-iron hot-pot on a burner in the middle of the table with seared, thinly-sliced beef and various vegetables simmering in a sweet/savory broth. Plates full of more raw ingredients, including udon, are placed around it. Every diner gets chopsticks, his own dish and a small bowl with a lightly scrambled (raw) egg in it — and dinner then proceeds as a free-for-all. Everyone uses their chopsticks to fish out a bit of something they want, and replace it with something raw. If they like, they dip the hot piece of whatever into their bowl, which cooks a thin layer of egg onto it, before popping it into their mouths. When you've run out of ingredients to cook, you then parcel out the remaining broth with the noodles for a final soup course.
It wasn't the kind of dinner you'd invite an employee to, or a remote acquaintance. For the Tsukinos, at least, it was "welcome to the family".
And a treat for Usagi to celebrate her test scores, as it was a favorite of hers. Which when combined with our mid-afternoon visit to the Hard Rock produced predictable results. While Ikuko disappeared into the kitchen to get dessert and Kenji was distracted by Shingo acting out, Usagi shot me a mildly distressed look that clearly said "I am so full!"
I gave her a half-lidded look back which I hoped communicated the message, "It's your own damned fault for eating so much earlier." No, I'm not above "I told you so"s. Not where my students are concerned.
She stuck her tongue out at me, pulling it back in almost instantly when her mother returned from the kitchen with a tray full of mochi ice cream. The expression on her face when she saw it — equal parts "I must devour it!" and "I'm so going to regret this" — was so funny I had to laugh.
Saturday, May 23, 1992, 10:53 PM
Ami padded out to the kitchen of the Mizuno apartment in fuzzy slippers and pajamas. She had waited patiently for her mother to return from her extra shift at the hospital, but it looked like she would not be home until well after Ami was asleep.
She didn't sigh at the thought — it was the status quo, after all, and while Ami enjoyed evenings with her mother, she did not expect them. Nor did she feel especially deprived on nights like this where her mother came home late, late at night — if at all. Some weeks she never saw her mother at all, the two of them communicating solely through notes and letters left for each other on the kitchen table or pinned to the refrigerator door with a magnet.
Ami didn't begrudge her mother her schedule. Her work was important, after all — so many people at the hospital, both patients and staff, depended on her. And she was highly paid, which made for a comfortable home and covered all the extra lessons and juku which helped Ami reach her full potential, academically.
It also made for an empty home, but it was what she was used to, the way things simply were. Still, meeting Usagi today made her wonder about other ways things could be...
She shook her head. Woolgathering at this hour meant she was in serious need of sleep. She laid the letter she'd just finished writing on the kitchen table, and anchored it with the vase of flowers that was positioned precisely in its center. She'd spent the last hour composing and re-composing it, trying to explain the abrupt closure of the Crystal Seminar without once mentioning magical life-draining monsters from another dimension.
She was certain she had succeeded at making it sound like as boring and normal an event as possible.
The letter concluded with a paragraph about her new friend's tutor, and echoed the arguments that both Usagi-chan and Sangnoir-san — no, Sangnoir-sensei — had made in favor of her studying under him. She was sure that she had made that prospect as attractive as she could.
Ami then slid Sangnoir-sensei's card under the edge of the vase's base and left the kitchen, turning out lights behind her until she crawled into bed and flicked off the lamp on her nightstand.
Her last thoughts before falling asleep were of the tantalizing mixture of terror and wonder she had discovered hiding beneath the surface of the ordinary world that afternoon. And of a girl who was her very first true friend.
Sunday, May 24, 1992, 9:44 AM
Breakfast for me on that Sunday morning was tea and a heavily-buttered salt bagel. I got my bagels by the dozen from a little place a few blocks from Joy Fit which went by the unwieldy name of New New York Club Azabujuban. In my humble opinion it was and is the best and only place to get genuine New York-style bagels in Tokyo, at least in those universes and eras where it exists.
(It probably goes without saying that it doesn't exist in my home timeline. Pity, that.)
I used to buy myself a half-dozen a week, but once I introduced Usagi and Luna to bagels, I started mysteriously running out well before I expected to. I'm still not sure which one was filching them, but they were welcome to — as long as I had some for my breakfast. So I started buying by the dozen, which seemed to work out okay.
I was eating relatively lightly (compared to my usual breakfast, which drifted somewhere between an American spread and a full British fry-up depending on my time, mood, hunger and resources) because I intended to meet up with Usagi — and hopefully Ami as well — within the hour for the latest round in her physical training. As I was about to take my last bite, though, my phone rang.
I didn't have caller ID on my apartment phone — hell, I wasn't sure caller ID was even available to consumers yet in this here-and-now — but the only people who had my number were my job, the Tsukinos, and Luna. On the off chance it might be work-related, I answered it with a modicum of dignity. Which was good, because while it wasn't work, it was pretty much the next closest thing: Ami's mother, Doctor Mizuno Saeko. Turns out that her daughter's juku had abruptly and unexpectedly shut down, and she had heard that I did tutoring. She was willing to consider personalized instruction as an alternative to cram school... at least until she found another juku up to her standards and in her budget.
Long story short, we set up a dinner meeting for that evening, where I would give her all my credentials and references. And would do my damnedest to charm her into hiring me.
Sunday, May 24, 1992, 1:09 PM. Joy Fit athletic club, Azabujuban.
The occasional peal of thunder rolled outside, but if it made its way to them at all, it was muted and dull, little more than a faint rumble that was more felt than heard and easily ignored. Ami certainly ignored them; she had other, more important issues on her mind.
For one, she still couldn't quite understand how she had let Usagi-chan talk her into this, but here she was, wearing a set of her gym clothes from school, in a small room at a reasonably upscale health club. The room was padded on three walls and the floor, and the fourth wall was a mirror not unlike those she had seen in photos of ballet salles. Usagi-chan stood next to her, enthusiastically but sloppily stretching as she chattered away about... well, Ami had lost track, but it had something to do with martial arts and the middle school.
To her surprise, it was almost relaxing.
The second important issue was the reason she was here: Sangnoir-sensei. He stood across from them in the center of the padded floor, dressed not in athletic clothes but old but sturdy blue jeans and a faded black T-shirt with a cracked and peeling design on it. She'd surreptitiously peered at it when she'd had a moment earlier: in the center was a flying saucer that looked like it came from an old B-movie; surrounding it was the English text "Buckaroo Banzai and the Hong Kong Cavaliers War of the Worlds Tour 1984".
She'd never heard of the band, but then, she'd never heard of most bands. They weren't necessary for getting into a good school.
Luna-san, the mysterious cat/girl alien (and that thought still gave Ami pause) was also there (in her human form), but she sat on the floor with her legs curled underneath her, her back against one of the padded walls, with a book in her lap. Ami was still uncertain precisely what her role was, but it certainly wasn't as a fighter despite being at Sailor Moon's side in her cat form at the Crystal Seminar. Nor did she appear to be a trainer as Sangnoir-sensei was.
But that would have to be a puzzle for another day. Today, she was here to find out what she could learn from Sangnoir-sensei.
Usagi-chan stopped stretching and stood up straight while taking a deep breath between sentences, and Sangnoir-sensei took that as his cue. "Okay, let's get started. Ami-kun, welcome to our training sessions, and thank you for coming. Teishi," and with this he looked at Usagi-chan, "I want to you to help Ami-kun out until she's up to speed, okay?"
Usagi-chan nodded once, sharply. "Right!"
He smiled approvingly, then turned his attention back to Ami. "These lessons I've been giving Usagi for the last several weeks cover a lot of territory. There's the physical stuff, of course: martial arts, mainly, but with some gymnastics thrown in, along with anything else that seems like it might be useful. Then there's the mental side — tactical and strategic thinking, situational awareness, psychic defenses, and of course, what I know you're interested in, magic." Unconsciously, it seemed to her, he'd dropped into a parade rest position with his hands clasped behind his back. "It's a lot. But it all has a single, simple purpose: to keep you alive. The enemy you're fighting is dangerous. Their covert activities to date have had potentially lethal effects on the people they've targeted. And when they fight, they do not hesitate to attack with intent to kill."
Some trepidation must have shown on her face, because Usagi-chan suddenly leaned in and hugged her with one arm, and Sangnoir-sensei give her a gentle smile. "You're very brave for joining the fight," he said, more softly.
"I don't feel very brave," she said in a tiny voice. "That's a very frightening summary you just gave."
He nodded. "I imagine it must be. But I'm not going to lie to you about what you're facing." He rubbed his chin for a moment. "It might be more reassuring to think about it a different way. A swordsman I trained with in one of the first worlds I visited had a saying. 'There is only one god,' he'd tell his students, 'and his name is Death. And there is only one thing we say to Death — Not Today.'" He punctuated the last sentence with a pointed finger and an expression more serious than any she had yet seen him wear. He lowered his hand and added, "What I'm teaching Usagi, and what I'll be teaching you, is every way I know of to look Death in the eye, say 'Not today!' and make it stick."
He clapped his hands suddenly, and Ami jumped at the unexpected sound. A faint rumble of distant thunder rolled underneath and after it. "So... I'm going to start you out with the same thing I started Usagi on. It's the standard first lesson of most martial arts, and one of the hardest: falling."
"Falling?" Ami frowned. "There's nothing hard about falling."
For some reason, Usagi-chan burst out in laughter, and Sangnoir-sensei grinned broadly. "Of course there is, Ami-kun," he replied, and to her surprise Usagi-chan chimed in as he added, "It's called 'the ground'!"
Ami suddenly had a very bad feeling about what was coming next.
I frowned as Ami collapsed against the wall, sweating, breathing heavily, and avidly (enviously?) watching Usagi as she practiced her newest kata. Knowing her for more the academic type and lacking even the basic physical conditioning that Usagi had acquired over the past few weeks, I had tried to make her first session low impact, but it had quickly become obvious that she wasn't used to coming in second, even in a physical arena in which she'd never competed before.
"You're pushing yourself too hard, teishi," I said, settling down next to her. "You're not getting graded here, you're not going to flunk out. And I'm not expecting you to match Usagi-chan on your first day."
Ami took a deep breath, held it, and then let it out. "I know, sensei," she said finally. Strangely, her soft voice reminded me of both Lisa and Skuld while not quite sounding like either. "But like you said, what I'm learning here could be the difference between life and death." She glanced over at me and, peering out from under the cobalt fringe of her curling bangs, offered me a shy, wry smile. "It's a powerful motivation."
"That's what I get for indulging my sense of the dramatic," I said with a rueful chuckle and a shake of my head. "Look, Ami-kun... Yes, everything you'll learn from me will be something that could save your life. But you don't have to, you can't, learn it all right this instant. It's like math — you can't jump to calculus the day you learn your numerals, you have to work your way up to it." I gave her a stern look. "And unlike math, if you push too hard too fast you're going to injure yourself."
Ami gently hit the padded wall with the back of her head as she closed her eyes and sighed. "I understand, I do. I just don't like being behind."
I reached out and patted her hand. "Trust me, teishi, you're not behind. Like I said before, Usagi-chan's only got five or six weeks' training on you. You'll catch up in no time."
"If you say so, sensei." She looked doubtful.
"I do say so, and I'm alway right about these things," I replied with a smile. "Go shower and change. When you get back, we'll start on your magic training."
Ami's eyes lit up and she seemed to receive an influx of energy. "Magic!" she whispered. "How soon will it take me to do the kind of things Usagi-chan can?"
"Well," I said, "The style of magic I'm teaching Usagi is more like an art than anything else. I suspect you'd do better with a more structured approach, where you're working directly with the math that defines the spells."
Ami sat up straight. "You mean there's mathematics behind magic?"
"Of course," I replied. "There's mathematics behind everything in the universe."
She nodded thoughtfully. "I just wasn't expecting magic to be... scientific. I mean... it's magic."
I laughed again. "There are two things I usually say in response to comments like that. First, magic is just knowing how to do something the other guy can't. And second, magic is simply the art of getting results. Everything else is details."
She hopped to her feet. "I promise I won't disappoint you, sensei!" she declared before trotting toward the door.
"Oh, teishi," I said to myself. "I have no doubt of that."
After presenting her with the basics of the style I intended to teach her (a variant of classic Hermeticism heavy on the math and light on the ritual and religious subtext), I got Ami started on the same set of beginner's exercises I'd given Usagi five weeks earlier. While Usagi had taken to them quickly, Ami made it clear to me that she fully intended to master them completely before the week was out. Having dealt with more than a few prodigies in my day (and having been one myself), I wouldn't've bet on her not making her goal.
And once she'd caught up with Usagi, I planned on introducing them both to node magic, courtesy of the node that, just as in many of its alternates, lurked deep below Tokyo. This one was a small, stunted thing by my standards (which had been set by the monster under Mega-Tokyo), but more than enough to train my students on.
Anyway. Two hours later, I met her mother for an early dinner at a restaurant only a couple blocks from my apartment. It took me a little effort to find it in the rain — it was on a bit of a back street at the edge of Roppongi and had a very plain, unadorned facade of brown-painted wood with a small, discreet sign next to the door.
It frankly didn't look like much from the outside, but inside I found a kaiseki establishment with two stars from Michelin. (This according to a modest little plaque just inside the door.) It had a small but well-appointed dining room, every square inch of which was made of a bright natural wood that was almost golden in color. Along one side was a long counter with a half-dozen seats, behind which were a number of prep stations where members of both the waitstaff and cookstaff bustled. There were a half dozen or so small tables in the center of the floor, and the opposite wall held several curtained alcoves.
When I let them know I was there to meet with Mizuno Saeko-sensei I was led into one of the alcoves. Inside was a single four-seat table where she was already waiting for me. She stood, we bowed to each other, and I presented her with another copy of my card, with all the ceremony that entailed, after which she invited me to join her at the table.
I'll say this — Doctor Mizuno was all business. The meal was easily the best I'd eaten in that timeline, and definitely among the top ten restaurant experiences I'd had in all my travels up to that point. (And knowing kaiseki, probably also among the most expensive, as well.) But I doubt Dr. Mizuno noticed anything about it other than that the food was there and it was going into her mouth. Instead, she focused a gimlet eye on me and subjected me to one of the most intense interrogations I'd ever undergone, starting with my qualifications over the sakizuke course and never letting up until we finished the dessert, a custom confection of mango, ricotta cheese and honey.
I found myself not only having to justify my skills but handing over copies of every single piece of paperwork I'd acquired, modified or fabricated in expectation of needing it to convince the Tsukinos. Every credential, every reference... down to the Tsukinos' phone number so they could testify to my success with Usagi. She studied every sheet before tucking it away in a small portfolio that occupied one of the empty places at the table.
I suppose it wasn't as bad as it could have been — she had a pleasant voice and wasn't actually hostile, just... very intense and businesslike. I got the distinct impression that she was to education mamas what education mamas were to ordinary parents — an education mama bear, perhaps. It didn't take long for me to completely and thoroughly understand Ami's drive to exceed. Mizuno Saeko simply would not expect or settle for anything less than the absolute best from Ami, and would likely perceive her not being first and best in an academic subject as a personal betrayal.
The question that stayed with me through to the end of dinner was, is she just horrendously high-pressure, or actively abusive? I wasn't going to ask Ami, at least not until she knew me better, and I certainly wasn't going to learn it from Dr. Mizuno herself.
I intended to find out for sure, though, and soon.
As I swallowed the last spoonful of the mango confection, Dr. Mizuno closed the clasp on her portfolio and sat back. I set my spoon down and watched her watching me, and raised an eyebrow.
"Well," she said. "I'll admit you've surprised me. I wasn't quite sure what I was expecting, but a moonlighting software engineer certainly wasn't it." She actually smiled at me, for the first time in the whole evening, as she gathered up her belongings and stood. "I'm not dismissing you outright, but I'm not saying yes yet, either. I'll be checking your references, and I'll be back in touch." She stood up. "Do be aware, though, that even if I do engage your services, it is likely for only as long as it will take me to find another suitable juku for my daughter."
I stood as well and bowed to her. "Regardless of your decision, thank you for speaking with me," I said when she'd returned the bow and we were both vertical again. "And thank you for the dinner. It was exquisite."
She paused, glanced at the table and the few items left on it, and seemed to think for a moment. "I suppose it was, wasn't it?" she said, confirming my impression that she hadn't been paying much attention to it at all. "You're very welcome."
I escorted her to the door, and we went our separate ways. For my part, I didn't go right home, It was still early, so I ran a couple errands first. (Even timelost metahumans need to go grocery shopping every once in a while.)
When I got back to my apartment a few hours later, my arms laden with grocery bags, I spied a blinking light on my answering machine. I braced myself against the little thrill of worry which ran through me at the thought of what Usagi had stumbled onto this time, and dumped the groceries on the counter of my kitchenette before popping over to the machine and hitting the "play" button.
To my surprise, it wasn't Usagi, but Mizuno-san, letting me know that I had been given the signal honor of tutoring Ami, at least for the immediate future. That wasn't exactly how she'd phrased it, but with the almost regal way she delivered her decision, she might as well have.
I stared at the phone for a moment, honestly surprised at just how quickly she had made her decision. (Curious, over the next few days I touched base with my various references as well as the Tsukinos to see whom she had actually contacted. It turned out she had at least tried to reach all of them starting, as best I could determine, the moment she got home after our meal. Efficiency, thy name is Mizuno Saeko.)
Well. I wasn't going to complain that it had been too fast. I returned the call to finalize the arrangement and to coordinate Ami's tutoring with Usagi's. Things were definitely looking up.
Monday, May 25, 1992, 9:39 PM.
As she prepared for bed, Ami reviewed her day and tried to decide how she felt about it. It had started with her waking with the brand-new awareness of the magic in the world around her, faintly tickling at the edges of her mind as the first dividends from her magical exercises made themselves known. She wasn't yet adept enough to see magic as Sangnoir-sensei and Usagi-chan could, but she felt confident she would master the skill quickly and thoroughly.
When she made her way to the kitchen to prepare breakfast, Ami found a note left by her mother informing her that her first formal tutoring session with Sangnoir-sensei would be that evening at the Tsukino home. "Arrangements" had been made, she had written.
Ami had had mixed feelings about that — while she was glad that her mother had decided to let her study under Sangnoir-sensei, she had wondered just how much she would actually get out of a lesson split between herself and Usagi-chan, who cheerfully admitted that she was nowhere near Ami's level. If his tutoring didn't engage her to at least the same degree as a juku would, her mother was likely to terminate the lessons, and she would be forced to squeeze her Guardian training in around whatever cram school her mother then selected for her — and she was determined that she would improve as a Guardian and a mage no matter what.
Ami's concerns faded into the background when Usagi-chan and Luna intercepted her on the way to school. It was, she quickly learned, impossible to stay worried or upset in the face of Usagi's boundless enthusiasm. It swept you up and along like a rip current at the beach, and all you could do was swim along with it until it let you go.
It let her go when they were seated and Ms. Haruna started class, swirled around her as Usagi chatted with her between classes and at lunch, and swept her up again at the end of the day when Usagi pounced on her and insisted that Ami come home with her rather than waiting until the evening. Ami made a token protest, but she knew that the only thing waiting for her at home was an empty apartment and a refrigerated dinner destined for the microwave oven. So she allowed Usagi to cajole her into coming over.
To her surprise, though, they didn't immediately leave the campus. Instead, she found herself carried along in Usagi's wake to a meeting of the martial arts club she'd mentioned the day before. "I joined a couple weeks after starting with sensei, he's okay with it, and it's fun!" Usagi explained (again) as they trotted through the halls to the gym. She burst through the doors and cheerfully cried, "Hiiii, everyone!", which got her a chorus of greetings in return. "This is Ami-chan!" Usagi then declared, waving at her. Ami resisted the urge to hide behind her as she added, "She just started with sensei. She's not ready to join the club yet but I wanted her to see it, 'kay?"
The next thing Ami knew, she was seated comfortably on a stack of unused mats, watching a gi-clad Usagi take part in the exercises and practice bouts as a series of friendly club members kept her company and kept her informed about what she was watching. She also noted with some amusement that almost everyone in the club seemed to be intensely curious about Sangnoir-sensei, and clumsily tried to pump her for information on him.
When the club finished for the day, Hurricane Usagi finally led her to the Tsukino home where, fortified with mochi by her mother (who was delighted to meet a new friend of her daughter's who was also a student of Sangnoir-sensei), they ensconced themselves in Usagi's bedroom to do their homework together. Usagi's room, Ami noted as Luna (in cat form) joined them, was a bit more whimsical than her own, with stuffed animals, bright colors, and a persistent motif of bunnies. And, she realized on second glance, a positively huge shipping carton of a popular brand of energy drinks.
Usagi noticed her staring at the box. "Would you like one?" she asked.
"Oh, no thank you," Ami replied. "I was just surprised by it. How... Why...?"
Usagi smiled. "Shiratori Mikan-chan had them send me a case because we helped out on a problem with her talent show." As she spoke, she traced out a crescent in the air with her fingertip and Ami understood that the problem had been solved by Sailor Moon and Looney Toons, not Usagi-chan and Sangnoir-sensei. Which meant that the talent show had been invaded by the Enemy? That might explain why she'd been so obsessed by competing with her frankly embarrassing "Mathemagics" act; now she was thankful her mother had forbidden her from skipping juku to take part in the competition.
One monster trying to drain her had been more than enough.
Then Usagi showed her another piece of proof for Sangnoir-sensei's claim to have come from another universe (as if her new computer's analysis wasn't enough) — a positively tiny music player with thousands of songs in it, with miniature headphones so small that they sat inside your ears. And yet the sound was as good as her mother's expensive stereo! "Sensei got this in the future of another Earth," Usagi blithely informed her. "He says they'll start making them here in about ten years, and this one's from only another ten years after that."
Ami could only nod numbly as she skipped from song to unfamiliar song. Perhaps she should simply accept Sangnoir-sensei's origins as fact and stop tallying the evidence for it. Especially as she had seen no evidence against it but her own doubts.
When they finally got to it, homework was actually calming and relaxing. Under any other circumstances, she would have been sure that the only reason she'd been invited over to a classmate's home was to do their homework for them. But even with the disparity in their grades, Ami was confident that Usagi wouldn't even think to ask — she seemed too proud of her own recent improvement to dilute it that way.
And that's how it was — as Ami worked at Usagi's desk, Usagi herself lay on her stomach on the bed with Luna curled up near her, chewing on a pencil and kicking her feet as they worked on their assignments. It wasn't all work, though; around and between their homework they chatted about school and the martial arts club and life and other non-Guardian topics, with Luna offering the occasional quiet comment of her own. The only time Usagi even brought up her own work was when she was done and asked Ami to look it over.
It wasn't perfect, but it was better than Ami had expected, given Usagi's history in class. Ami had pointed out a few errors; Usagi thanked her and went back to work on them.
The next thing Ami knew, it was time for dinner. She was just starting to ponder how she would get home for her own meal and back in time for Sangnoir-sensei when she was informed that an extra place had been set at the table for her. Tsukino-san would not let her decline and before she knew it, Ami was seated next to Usagi and across from her younger brother Shingo.
Apparently, Usagi had inherited being an irresistible force of nature from her mother.
Afterward, Ami couldn't remember much about the dinner at all, only that it had been delicious, Usagi's parents were polite and pleasant, and that Shingo never took his eyes off of her during the entire meal except the one time she smiled at him, when he blushed and looked away.
She wondered what that meant.
They had barely finished dessert when the doorbell rang to announce the arrival of Sangnoir-sensei. As he was welcomed into their home, the elder Tsukinos treated him like a close family friend, which Ami felt spoke quite well of him. It was the third time she had seen him, and again he was dressed differently, presenting yet another image of himself. This time he was in a sports jacket and slacks with a dress shirt and tie, and looked very much the professional.
As he and the Tsukinos finished their greetings, Ami and Usagi took the opportunity to seat themselves at the now-clear dining table with their books and papers. Sangnoir-sensei strode in, grinning widely, and seemed to try to mess Usagi's hair between her ponytails as she laughed. "Good evening, ladies!"
"Hi, sensei!" Usagi chirped exuberantly, as Ami more respectfully offered, "Good evening, Sangnoir-sensei."
"Ami-kun, welcome to our study sessions," he said, setting the stack of books and papers on the table and then seating himself. "I have a special first-night task for you." He pulled a manila folder out of the stack and from it drew a sheaf of papers. "I'd like to see where you stand in the various academic fields, the better to tune the level of the work we'll do together, so I've prepared a set of quick quizzes for you. They're short, not at all comprehensive, but the questions on them range from terribly easy all the way up to practically impossible." He smiled reassuringly as he slid the papers in front of her. "Don't worry, you're not getting graded. This is just to tell me where you rank so I know where to start with you."
Ami worried her top lip, then nodded before pulling out her pencil box. "Yes, sensei."
He patted her hand. "Just give it your best shot."
She nodded again, took out a pencil, and bent to her task as Sangnoir-sensei turned to Usagi. She tuned them both out and focused on the quiz in front of her, which was on math.
Despite Sangnoir-sensei's description of their difficulty, Ami hadn't expected much — she'd never been given a test or quiz that she couldn't get a perfect score on. Teachers had a habit of underestimating her, even after having her in their classes for an entire term. Even in every juku she'd attended — her instructors were less inclined to challenge her than to take her test scores as evidence of their performance. The few who had tried to tailor lessons and tests to Ami's level eventually gave up when nothing they offered even slowed her down. She supposed that it became a purely pragmatic trade-off — the teachers had to choose between devoting extra time to challenging one student who could do the coursework without any real effort, or spending that time actually teaching the students who needed it. Put that way, Ami couldn't really blame them.
And now that she thought of it, it probably explained why her mother had been willing to try a tutor. Even one who seemed to specialize in helping under-performing students.
(The idea that she might have been under-performing, just at a higher level, didn't occur to Ami until quite a while later.)
So, no, she hadn't expected much. Which why she was shocked when the math quiz Sangnoir-sensei had composed dispensed with middle-school and high-school topics after the first five questions, and dove right into calculus before the first sheet was done. By the middle of the next she was being presented problems in algebraic and differential geometry, then topology and number theory, and after that was what she vaguely recognized as vector calculus and matrix algebra... Even with the calculator in her book bag Ami was quickly out of her depth — an utterly alien feeling in her academic experience.
Even more unfamiliar was having to give up when presented with questions she had no idea how to answer. Just admitting that to herself made her burn with shame and embarrassment. Only the realization that Sangnoir-sensei intended to challenge her as no teacher in her memory had ever done before kept her from throwing her pencil down and fleeing.
The other quizzes were much the same — regardless of the topic, they dove into college and post-graduate topics after a token set of easier questions. Subjects like history and social studies surprised her even more by starting right away with questions that asked her to analyze and speculate on their topics instead of just regurgitating memorized facts.
And they all eventually brought her to a point where she could go no further and had to admit ignorance, inexperience or both.
On the one hand, Ami hated it. Once again, Sangnoir-sensei had put her in a position where she was ... imperfect. Insufficient to the task. She had been the best in every venue for so very long that she didn't like not being best.
But on the other, she loved it. There was so much more to learn; the quizzes promised that working with Sangnoir-sensei would not be boring like her classes, even her juku, so often were. It was something she hadn't expected to experience again until college, and maybe (she had feared) not even then.
When she reached the point on the last of the quizzes (General Science) where she could go no further (a question beginning with "Assuming a proposed theory of quantum gravity which predicts a spin-2 massless messenger particle that follows the constraints of the Weinberg-Witten theorem..." before requiring her to evaluate the theory and then design an experiment to test it), Ami sighed, set aside her pencil and gathered all her test papers together in a neat stack, then looked up. At the other end of the table Usagi-chan had apparently finished her own work, and she and Sangnoir-sensei were quietly chatting — in English, Ami realized as she listened in on a few exchanges. Sensei was speaking slowly, and from her responses, Ami deduced that Usagi's fluency in the language was still rudimentary at best.
"Sensei?" she said hesitantly. "I'm done."
They paused and looked her way. "Excellent," Sangnoir-sensei replied in Japanese as he took the completed test papers from her. He turned back to Usagi. "Teishi, <I'd like you read through the next chapter in your social studies book while I speak to> Ami-kun," he said, slowly and clearly enunciating each word. "<If you have any problems or questions we'll talk about them when she and I are done here, okay?>"
Usagi took a moment to work that out, Ami noticed, then smiled. "<Sure>, sensei!" she chirped before pulling a book out of the stack next to her and flipping through it to a point that Ami recognized from her own recent reviews of class material.
As Usagi settled in to read, Sangnoir-sensei turned back to Ami and said in a less stilted manner, "<You may have noticed that I didn't give you a quiz on English, Miss Mizuno. That's because we're going to do one right now.>" And before she could respond to that announcement he launched into an aggressively casual chat about her day, in colloquial, idiomatic American English.
Ami almost gave up right at the start, because from the first it was obvious that what Doug-sensei considered English and what her instructors over the years had thought it was were two entirely different things. Oh, she could understand what he was saying, and could pronounce the words she needed to reply, but to her ear they were almost two different languages.
One of her first instructors had told her, "you don't speak English, you sing it"; until now she hadn't realized just how right he'd been. Sangnoir-sensei's English was liquid and melodic, almost slurring from one sound to another, and ran through nearly an octave of pitches. (Though to be honest, the extremes at either end were rare.)
In contrast, her attempts to speak the language, while technically correct according to her teachers, were a monotone by comparison, and her diction was stiff and abrupt. And she still hadn't quite mastered the way English was built out of half-syllables; too much of her pronunciation was trying to force Japanese sounds to act like English ones. And she was sure she was missing nuances of meaning carried by the tone and pitch of some of the words.
Even knowing this, she persevered, gamely but imperfectly carrying her side of an ordinary conversation about classes, the martial arts club, and doing homework over the course of fifteen or twenty minutes. She only stopped when Doug-sensei held up a hand. "That's enough for now, Ami-kun. How do you think you did?" he asked with a gentle smile, returning to Japanese.
Ami worried her lip again for a moment before replying, "I've been told I speak very well by my instructors, but it's obvious that I sound nothing like a native speaker."
Sangnoir-sensei nodded. "That's true, and not all that uncommon. You have Japanese teachers training Japanese teachers training more Japanese teachers without enough Americans or Brits to correct and guide them, and you end up with a kind of linguistic drift."
"I can see how that could happen," she allowed after a moment's thought.
He gave a kind of half-smile then added, "It also doesn't help that your teachers are training you to pass your entrance exams, not communicate with native speakers. You end up missing out on a lot because they're teaching to the test. So, that said, I can tell you that you have a very impressive vocabulary, but your usage is shaky and your pronunciation needs work, particularly when it comes to stress and tone." He paused for a moment before adding, "I'm going to help you fix that, just like I'm doing for Usagi-chan. When we're done you're both going to be speaking English idiomatically, with little or no accent."
Ami glanced over at the other girl who, engrossed in her reading, hadn't even looked up at the sound of her name. Then Ami looked back at Sangnoir-sensei and nodded. "I'd like that," she said. "When do we start? And how?"
"When is now," he replied. "How is full immersion. From this point on, just like Usagi and me, we use English exclusively during our lessons." He smiled slyly. "And that means you and Usagi, too."
Ami thought about that for a moment, "<Okay>," she replied in English with more confidence than she actually felt, "<I can do that.>"
He grinned. "<Good girl. We'll have you and Usagi chattering away nineteen to the dozen in no time at all.>"
Ami nodded doubtfully. The idiom was unfamiliar, but she could gather the meaning from context. She knew full immersion was a time-honored method for language instruction, but she could only wonder just how much immersion Sangnoir-sensei could really provide with their limited time together. Then again, Usagi — as halting as her conversations with Sensei were — was noticeably more fluent than she'd ever been in class. Perhaps it would work after all.
"<It help me much learn better with you>," Usagi suddenly offered, looking up from her textbook. "<I suck English>," she added with a grimace. Sangnoir-sensei let out a laugh, and Ami, baffled, looked at him questioningly.
"<'Suck at English'>, teishi," he said.
"<Yeah.>" Usagi nodded enthusiastically. "<That. I do it.>"
Understanding, Ami covered her mouth with one hand as she giggled.
Forty-five minutes later, Ami carefully dismounted from Sangnoir-sensei's motorcycle from where he had pulled off of Azabu-don Avenue in front of her building. She retrieved her book bag and then bowed to him. "Thank you for driving me home, sensei," she said.
As she straighted from her bow, Sangnoir-sensei chuckled and said, "Not a problem, Ami-kun. Your condo wasn't terribly out of my way. Have a good evening and say hello to your mother for me."
She smiled. "I will. Good night, sensei."
Ten minutes later she was in her pajamas and turning over the day's events in her mind as she slid into bed. This day had been different, she had decided easily enough. But had it been a good day? To be honest, the idea of a teacher who would actually make her work for her grades was an off-putting prospect. But having Usagi as her first real friend, she thought wearily just before sleep rolled over her, that was the best.
Monday, May 25, 1992, 10:33 PM. The Hard Rock Cafe, Roppongi.
Kegon's eyes widened at the dish set before her. She was still becoming used to human — particularly Japanese — cuisine, but this was something that was both familiar and alien at the same time. The menu called it a "Texas-T': a small slab of meat, with a bone still in it, that had been grilled with a selection of spices she could not identify, but the scent of which made her mouth water.
She had to restrain herself for a moment and reinforce the illusion of humanity she wore before allowing herself to tear into it — her disguise had wavered slightly as sudden lust for the rare meat before her seized her. Japanese food was all well and good — she had to admit already having developed a fondness for gyudon — but its predilection for shaved, sliced and cubed meats deprived her of the deeply primal experience of taking apart and devouring a solid block of flesh.
Sadly, it would do her cover identity no good to simply pick up this "Texas-T" and tear it to shreds with her teeth and claws. Kegon had to satisfy herself with bite-sized gobbets of rare meat cut from it with the eating dagger provided by the restaurant.
As she savored the first bite, Kegon congratulated herself once again on her cleverness. The daily newspaper to which she had subscribed as part of her intelligence gathering had trumpeted the appearance of a new sailor girl — Mercury — in the company of Sailor Moon and the man in grey. Reporting on this Mercury's existence was not part of her duties — she assumed that Generals Jadeite and Nephrite between them had information sources which had already relayed the news. But the article about Mercury had offhandedly mentioned that they had come to this establishment several times already. So it only made sense for her to become a regular patron during the late hours at which they were prone to visit.
That doing so had revealed to her a meal not unlike her favorite at home in the Kingdom, Kegon mused, was a pleasant bonus.
Monday, May 25, 1992, 11:57 PM.
"Sailor Mercury, huh?" Sailor V said as she stood on the rooftop and looked out across Minato. She hadn't seen the latest papers until after school, and the thought of a new Sailor had been on her mind all evening.
"Apparently, yes," Artemis replied. He sat on his haunches at her feet, his tail wrapped around his paws.
She glanced down at him. "So... tell me again why I shouldn't find them and join up with them?"
Artemis sighed. "I've told you before, you need to act as a decoy while Moon — and now Mercury — grow in skill and confidence."
"And just who am I decoying away from them?" V demanded. "I'm beating up muggers, and they're stumbling on youma every time they open a door." As Artemis struggled for an answer to that, Sailor V dropped into a squat, the better to look him in the eyes. "This is one of those 'when the stars are ripe' things, isn't it?"
Artemis sighed again. "'Right', Mina-chan. 'When the stars are right'."
She leapt to her feet again. "I knew it! I knew it! So, when will they be right?"
"No! That's not what I..." Artemis cut off what he was going to say with an angry growl. Did she just...? "Yes, Mina. There will be a great and powerful mystic sign that we cannot mistake, and when we see it, we will rush to Sailor Moon's side." He was very glad that she wasn't looking at him as he rolled his eyes.
Tuesday, May 26, 1992, 5:41 PM.
I was puttering about in my kitchenette when the knock came, and I opened the door almost before it finished echoing. On the other side stood Luna in, well, not exactly old clothes, given that virtually everything in her wardrobe had been bought in the last two months, but an inexpensive pair of jeans, a colorful sweatshirt and simple black tennis shoes, all of which I suspected she'd purchased especially for tonight's outing. Completing the look, her long hair was tied back into a ponytail with a scrunchie.
Along with everything else I had been taking care of over the past few weeks, I hadn't forgotten Luna's memory issues. I'd come up with a good handful of songs I knew or suspected would have memory-enhancing effects, along with a couple that should let me confirm first that Luna's neural structure was close enough to a human's that I needn't worry about unexpected side effects.
But before I gave any of them a shot, there was one thing I wanted to try first, something noninvasive that just might shake a few memories loose. I'd proposed it the day before, and despite a certain trepidation, Luna had agreed to try it.
"Hey," I said. "C'mon in. You ready to go?"
"Not really," she said as she stepped in and I closed the door behind her. "But there's nothing to gain by delaying."
"Yeah, I understand that." I grabbed my helmet off the counter and pulled it on.
As I tightened the chinstrap and the computer booted up, she gave me a quizzical look. "Aren't we going outside?"
I shook my head. "No need. You'll have to hold on tight to me, though."
"What?" she asked flatly.
I grinned slyly, although I doubt she could see it, what with the helmet. "Just pretend I'm your boyfriend Motoki."
"Why does everyone think I'm involved with Motoki?" she protested. "He already has a girlfriend — who's not me!" she added sharply.
"It might have to do with after-work coffee three times a week, you know," I replied, holding up a demonstrative finger.
She opened her mouth, shut it, then, after a second said, "Point."
"Seriously," I said. "You need to be touching me, and the firmer your grip, the better." I spread my arms, and in the cheesiest French accent I could manage (which in Japanese was pretty damned awful), I intoned, "Come into my arms, bay-bee!"
Luna rolled her eyes, but stepped up close to me and wrapped her arms around my waist. I closed mine around her shoulders. "<System>," I said conversationally, "<Load song 'This Time Radio Mix'. Play song.> Close your eyes, Luna." And then I shut my eyes and concentrated on our destination.
The track started with almost no prelude, just a couple of guitar strums that defined a simple riff, and then the vocalist — a male voice — began to sing:
"<Just lay your eyes on
Don't you stay there
Seems like the world is
Right just as before>"
Nothing happened immediately, but I could feel the power building around us — and from the way Luna suddenly froze in my arms, I was sure she could, too.
"<Why don't we step out
Let's just have a
Forget about the
And open the doors
You should take me away
To a new place
Where we just might
Keep the night on the sky
We'll be crossing the lines
Turn you somewhere new
Let's do it this time
There was a brilliant flash that I could see through my eyelids in the moment before the flare compensation in my goggles cut in, accompanied by a soundless implosion as my metatalent punched a hole in the fabric of space-time and we were roughly pushed into and through it. Luna gave a wordless cry of surprise as the event horizon flowed over and around us.
And then we were elsewhere.
"<We keep on hitting
We still are shown from
And don't you say no.>"
As soon as the feeling of not-motion faded I murmured, "<System. End song.>" Then I opened my eyes and let go of Luna. "We're here." I glanced up to see the gibbous Earth not far above the lunar horizon, huge and shedding blue-white light over the scene. It was the only source of illumination, the sun having set a week or so before.
Luna released me and stepped back, eyes wide and already looking around us. "This... I know this place."
"You should," I replied as I turned around to look with her. "This is what remains of your queen's palace."
We were at the end of one of the long, shallow marble trenches that I expected had been reflecting pools, once. Before us was a deep, broad stairway that led up to the entrance into which I had not quite made it the last time I'd been here. The walls were shattered, great gaps blasted through them, leaving little more than a stone framework supporting what remained of the dome above. The bleached skeletons of the palace's last defenders lay scattered about on the broken and stained paving stones.
The earthlight gave it all a ghostly cast, especially against the solid black of the sky that the environmental spell did nothing to mitigate.
Without saying a word, Luna took off up the steps, running for the great bronze doors hanging ajar at their top. It wasn't until I turned to take off after her that I realized that the gravity here was practically Earth-normal, instead of the one-sixth of a G with which I was familiar and which I'd been expecting. A function of the environmental spell? I wondered. Or a separate enchantment on the area? And why? If the people living here had been native to the Moon, why the higher gravity?
Come to that, if they had been native to the moon, why the environmental spell at all?
As I pondered those questions, I ran after Luna. I caught up with her as she paused on the threshold, eyes still wide, one hand stroking one of the scars left in the intricate relief cast into the door, where something had melted the bronze long and hot enough for it to run and drip before cooling. "It's so quiet," she whispered, turning to me. "When I was here last, there were explosions, spellfire, the howls of the weapons, and screams." She shuddered. "So many screams. Now it's silent."
"It's a tomb now," I said softly, glancing at the skeletons that she was deliberately not looking at.
She didn't seem to hear me. "The smells are different, too. In better times there were flowers everywhere, and the scent of the sea. It was only a kilometer or so that way." She gestured vaguely to the lunar west. "But that last day, all you could smell was brimstone, and ozone, and blood." She closed her eyes and took a long breath of the cool, dry, odorless air through her nose. "I think maybe it's better this way."
I nodded silently. It seemed my plan was working. As I'd hoped, Luna was remembering things... but so far it had been ephemeral sensory details. I was hoping the experience would break loose something far more substantial.
Amazingly, the doors and their frame were still intact, and it took just the barest push to widen the gap between them enough for us to enter. Luna paused on the threshold, then took a step in, advancing slowly at first, then faster, and faster, until she was almost running once more, darting through the broken corridors, leading me deeper and deeper into the ruined building.
We came upon a section which was almost completely intact, and she paused to look through an elaborately carved marble archway into a large room whose floor was blanketed with more skeletons, these browned with age instead of bleached by ten thousand years of sun. At the far end a mound of white rubble upon a low dais marked the remains of what had obviously been an ornate seat carved from the same marble that made up so much of the rest of the building. Behind it was a half-shattered wall bearing the flaking remains of a mural; there was enough left of it that I could just barely make out the forms, partial and not, of nine women — one in a white gown, flanked by four on either side wearing grey bodysuits, each highlighted in a different color.
I looked at Luna. Her eyes were darting about, taking in the entire space. "Serenity's throne room?" I asked.
"No." She shook her head. "One of the more intimate audience chambers. I remember this room — I would sit at Her Majesty's side, as would... as would..." She trailed off, biting her lip. "Someone sat on the other side of her." She squeezed her eyes shut and grit her teeth for a moment. "Someone... important to me. I can almost see them, damn it."
She stood there for a moment more, then made a wordless noise of frustration and whirled away to plunge even deeper into the half-destroyed building. I peered into rooms as we passed unstopping. Most of the furnishings had crumbled to dust or rotted away in the last ten millennia. But here and there I spotted ... artifacts would be the best thing to call them. Crystalline objects, a couple metallic devices of some sort, even a few things that looked like they were made of plastic. Other than the ruins themselves, they were all that remained of what had clearly been a great and beautiful civilization.
I made note of them all.
As we delved deeper into the building, the less building there actually was around us — ceilings, even fragmentary ones, vanished; semi-intact walls gave way to first broken walls and then to rubble; mostly clear hallways were replaced with fields of shattered marble. Entire areas were rendered impassable by the cracked and upthrust remains of multiple pancaked floors. Still Luna pressed onward, leaping over the larger obstacles she could not detour around or kick out of her way. She seemed to have a destination in mind, as she never stopped, never paused, until finally she jogged left and we burst out into what had once had to have been a courtyard or cloister.
A single line of arches remained intact for all of ten or fifteen meters. Another, solitary, arch stood, not quite touching, at a right angle to it. Other than that, destruction. A few fluted columns of marble still stood, broken off barely three or four meters above their bases; far more were toppled entirely. The missing pieces — stubs and fragments anywhere from a meter to five times that in length — lay scattered about what I thought might once have been a formal garden with marble paving stones marking paths through it. Whatever plants had grown there were long, long gone.
To one side an almost complete column lay canted at an angle, propped up on another that lay catty-corner on a low wall at one end and next to the stub of its base at the other.
Upon the column was a skeleton.
It was stretched out in repose, as though whoever it had been had simply laid down to rest for a moment. It was oddly high up on the column — they had to have climbed up to lay there, with their feet a meter or more from the column's lower end. Exposed to the sky as they were, the bones were bleached pure white, paler even than any other skeleton we'd seen so far, and somehow over the past ten thousand years it had remained intact. Not even a finger had fallen away to land on the ground below. And amidst the bones, something metallic glinted in the earthlight.
When she saw the skeleton, Luna froze.
"Serenity," she whispered. She turned to me, eyes glistening with tears. "I remember!" she said wonderingly. "I was here in those last minutes. It was here the Queen struck down and banished the Enemy — and their queen, who stood there, gloating at the destruction of all we knew and had worked for." Then Luna made a wordless cry of anger. "I can't remember her name! Neither her name nor that of the abomination that gave her the power to call her hordes of youma foot soldiers." She slowly spun in place. "Her Majesty and we were the last survivors. They had cornered us here, and the Queen made her last stand."
Luna drifted slowly into the courtyard, almost as though she were not entirely willing, but unable to stop herself. "And when the Enemy was sealed away, with her last breath the Queen used the power of the Ginzuishou and the... the..." She shook her head angrily. "She used the power of the Ginzuishou to send the souls of everyone on to the future, to Earth... and put us in our capsules to follow them."
"Who's 'us', Luna?" I asked. "That's twice you've mentioned that you weren't alone with the Queen."
She squeezed her eyes shut, then shook her head. "I... I don't... I can't..."
I lay a hand on her shoulder. "Don't push it. It'll come in its own time. But I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest it might be our pal Agent 86."
Luna's eyes opened to a distant gaze as she considered that. "Mm. That feels right." She focused on me and gave a sad little half-smile. "It doesn't help any, but ... yes." She turned back to the skeleton and even that shard of humor dropped away from her. "Your Majesty..." she whispered, reaching out one hand toward the pale bones. "I think I must have been in my cat form for some reason, because I remember looking up at her," she breathed as she approached the column-turned-bier. "She was ever so much taller than we were..." I kept pace with her, a step behind so as not to distract her from whatever elusive moments the sight of the ruined cloister and its sole occupant were drawing forth from her damaged memory.
Luna came to a stop an arm's length from the column. Once more she began to reach out a hand, then drew it back suddenly. While I kept one eye on her, at the same time I studied the remains laid out before us. A few rotted scraps of cloth lay among the bones, so decayed that it was impossible to tell what kind of fabric they had been, or what color. On the side of the skull closest to us, what appeared to be a pendant earring of some sort, gold or golden-colored metal with a white post that looked like moonstone (of course), lay caught in one of the rounded valleys between the well-preserved ridges of the fluted stone. Perched delicately on the breastbone was a crescent-shaped brooch or pin, also of gold, perhaps five or six centimeters on its long axis.
Well. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that the queen of the moon had worn a crescent-moon brooch right in the middle of her long-gone cleavage. I was just surprised she didn't have a crown — or even just a tiara like Usagi and Ami got. Then again, I had my suspicions why their outfits were what they were, and they had nothing to do with prehistoric Moon couture.
"The Ginzuishou isn't here," Luna said, getting my attention again. Glancing up at her, I saw that she was looking at the pavement beneath the angled column. "Not that I really expected it to be. Nor is the... the..." She growled, clamped her eyes shut, and took a long breath. "I remember what it's called, and I know what that should be in Japanese, but the Queen's spell wants me to call it something else," she spat. "It is not a '<moon stick>', damn it all! It's the...." She visibly struggled for a moment. "The Crescent. Moon. Wand!" she slowly forced out, a word at a time, until the last exploded out in a moment of release.
I stifled a laugh. "The spell's not entirely wrong," I pointed out. "The English word for 'wand' used to mean just '<stick>' up until about six hundred or so years ago, when the phrase '<magic wand>' mostly crowded non-magic wands out of the picture. How the spell got its metaphorical hands on that antique a usage, though... I got nothin'." I leaned down a bit and looked around at the ground where she had been searching. "So... what's a Silver Crystal when it's at home?"
Long story short, we interred the Queen's remains with as much proper ceremony as I could perform, calling on the Four, the Other Four, and even The Boss, as Chris liked to call Him. (Hey, just because I have personal issues with gods in general doesn't mean I'm going to deprive the late queen of whatever good invoking them might do, and hey, five of those nine were friends of mine and it seemed like the Boss didn't have a problem with me. So why not?)
After that I set up a cairn and a monument for her; all of this I accomplished with a judicious selection of songs. (Luna very diplomatically avoided commenting on how the song I used to dig the grave briefly turned me into a Tolkien-style dwarf — four feet tall, three feet wide, massive beard sticking out of my helmet, and pre-equipped with a shovel and pick that cut through both marble and lunar soil like spongecake.)
As I dug and built, Luna retrieved the crescent brooch and the earrings. On our way out we also recovered the various artifacts I'd noticed on the way in. We assumed that Ami's computer could interface with the ones Luna identified as data storage devices. In the highly unlikely event it couldn't, I was pretty sure I could bodge up something to do the job — with or without a song.
Oh, and a Ginzuishou? According to Luna, it's one seriously overpowered magical focus, enough to make a sorceress of sufficient strength into a one-woman terraforming team — or army. And it got even stronger — dangerously so (for the caster), apparently — when mated to the moon stick... excuse me, the Crescent Moon Wand. The combination, according to Luna's few newly-returned memories, let Queen Not-The-English-Word-Serenity banish an entire invading army, its leaders and their pet Eldritch Abomination into what sounded like a custom-built pocket dimension, then force a metric crapton of souls to reincarnate on a different planet entirely, at the cost of her own life.
And wherever both of those artifacts were now, they belonged to the Princess.
Who was probably Usagi.
Note to self: step up her magic training before she gets her hands on them.
"You know," I said just before I started the song to take us back to Tokyo, "we'll need to bring the girls here sooner or later. Preferably sooner."
Luna turned to look back at the remains of the palace. "Yes, we will."
I glanced back at the palace as well. "I should probably come back and bury the other remains first though."
Luna left almost immediately upon our return to my apartment, but not before stopping at the door and asking, "Would you be willing to include me when you train Ami-chan? And ... when you do for her whatever you did to enhance Usagi-chan?"
"Of course," I said instantly. "But if you don't mind my asking, why the change?"
She bit her lip the same way Usagi did. "After seeing the Palace again, after... remembering, I want to be able to do more than just give out wands and tell Usagi-chan how to throw her tiara." She took a deep breath. "I was an admiral of the fleets once, but never on the front lines. And when the enemy's forces attacked the Moon, I could do nothing but accompany the Queen and witness the end of everything I knew. I can't do that again. I need to learn how to serve the Princess, my sovereign, in a more immediate, more effective way. And in this time and place, that means being one of her soldiers, even if I'll never be as powerful as a Guardian." She looked up at me with hopeful eyes.
Slowly I nodded. "I'd be honored."
I spent almost all my free time in the next five days on the moon, collecting and interring skeletons from in and around the palace, allowing only for work, tutoring sessions and Saturday's "special" training between it all. (I'd intended to enhance both Luna and Ami on Saturday, but it had turned out thunderstormy, which meant training indoors at Joy Fit. I didn't want to use any area-affect songs there, so "improvements" got pushed back to the next nice day. But I did manage to coach Ami through casting her first light spell, so there was that. Interestingly, it seemed even her non-Guardian magic was aspected toward water and maybe ice, given the frosty mist her light spell manifested as a side effect.)
If I hadn't had a wide selection of "utility" songs to help me with all the burials, I wouldn't've accomplished a fraction of what I did. Even so I'd barely cleared a path from the steps to "Serenity"'s cloister, along with most of the rooms that the girls might peer into along the way. I spent three hours on the "audience chamber" alone, and I couldn't help but muse on that mural of the nine women every time I returned to the room. Even after I'd finished with the chamber, I found myself coming back there to contemplate the image at least once every day that I was on the moon.
Regardless, I needed to bury more of the enemy's victims before I could take the girls to see the shattered legacy of their previous lives.
The Dark Kingdom
"Report," barked Jadeite without looking up from the stacks of writingskins on his cluttered desk. He was still catching up on all the minutiae of his command that had gone unaddressed as he recuperated, and doubling up on tasks was one way to make up for lost time.
Youma Ramua knelt before him. "We await only your word to activate our plan, my lord. We completed the link through the passage to the improved accumulator a half-cycle ago, and the time-space labyrinth has been emplaced. Grendaur and Micse are casting their compulsions out into the greater Tokyo area at this very moment, and when that is complete they will stand ready to kill any who might threaten our harvest. When we receive your approval we shall open our doors, the humans will stream in, and we shall reap the energy needed to awaken great Metaria!"
Jadeite looked up and nodded, his grimace at the residual pain of his injuries unseen by the pale blue youma who still knelt, head bowed, before him. "Good, good," he muttered as he mused on the potential of this operation. Ramua's talents lay in the manipulation of others' sense of time, and he was curious how much energy that would allow her and her team to harvest. The two hunter-killer youma dispatched to serve with her were far less gifted, but they were there for muscle and claw, not their magic. That they could weave basic compulsions was bonus enough.
At least the new accumulator would guarantee that the energy stayed harvested this time. He suppressed a growl at how long it had taken for it to occur to the spellsmiths to make the flow one way. Now the energy would no longer simply drain away back into the humans it came from if the harvest was prematurely interrupted.
The development of the accumulator alone would increase his standing immensely with Her Majesty once he revealed it to her, to say nothing of actually having a non-zero energy yield even should the War Wizard continue to interfere in the harvests. Which, he was loathe to admit, looked to be all but certain. At least this way he would never again return to Queen Beryl empty-handed, a vital concern now that the discovery of the Wizard's second student had prompted her to demand he double the energy yield from his operations.
A faint rustle of movement roused Jadeite from his ruminations, and he looked up. Ramua remained kneeling before him. "What are you waiting for?" he snapped. "Return to Earth and commence your operation."
Monday, June 1, 1992, 2:27 PM
"Hello, Sensei? I'm sorry to bother you at work, but..."
When the phone on my desk at work rang, that was the last voice I expected to hear. Mostly because I hadn't yet gotten around to telling her where I worked, let alone given her the number or extension.
"Ami-kun? How did you...? Is something wrong?"
Over the line I heard a sound that was half an inhalation and half a gasp of repressed panic. "I used the... my computer to, well, find your number. I would have tried to contact you directly with my computer like we tried that one time," she added breathlessly, "but I didn't think you'd be wearing your helmet right now. And yes, Luna and I think there's something very wrong."
Well. Give a thirteen-year-old genius a palmtop supercomputer, and the first thing she does with it is hack the phone company. I was impressed for a moment, until the second part of her answer registered. "Luna and I"... and not Usagi?
I canceled the debug build I'd just launched, and began to shut down my workstation. "What's happened? Executive summary, please, teishi."
Ami quickly briefed me on the situation — cursed clocks causing schedule anxiety in everyone, resulting in traffic jams, rising tempers and even fistfights among the normally restrained Japanese. And Usagi — whom Ami was sure was affected, too — was nowhere to be found.
"I've got to get us all cell phones," I muttered.
"What was that, sensei?"
"Something for the future, teishi. Never mind," I replied. "Yeah, this sounds like it's exactly what you think it is. And Usagi being AWOL has me very worried. Where are you? I'll come to your location and we can take it from there."
After getting the address she was calling from (and telling her to stay put), I shut off my system, found my manager and explained to him that I had a family emergency, then got out of the building as fast as the elevator let me.
I'll admit I didn't see much like the problems Ami had described around the Tokyo Midtown complex when I left, but the traffic started getting just a little crazy as I rode into Motoazabu — not a lot, just a bit more, just a bit faster, than the neighborhood normally experienced.
I quickly hit my apartment and changed into my leathers, stashed all my gear in one of the bike's panniers, and then peeled out of the parking lot behind my building. The closer I got to Azabujuban and my rendezvous with Ami, the worse the streets were, until I reached a point not far from Amishiro Park where the roads became simply impassible — one solid mass of gridlock for blocks in all directions. It was exacerbated by accidents where people had run lights, emphasized by horns honking and drivers all yelling at each other about being in a hurry... it was like a cross between the worst parts of both L.A. and NYC traffic, with a generous dollop of Boston ladled out on top for extra flavor.
It was so bad that I turned around, ducked into the first alley I could find, switched the bike's color to grey, and then immediately went vertical. From the air it took me only a minute to spot the red phone booth where Ami and Luna waited for me, the former still in her civilian clothes, the latter in human form. I couldn't exactly land next to them without endangering her cover, but traffic was moving on the street where she stood (their side of it, at least; the other side was jammed tight), so I found another alley nearby, dropped down into it, and rolled out onto the street after restoring my bike's normal "black-and-flames" paint job.
"Sensei!" Ami cried as soon as she spotted me, and waved to flag me down as though I might pass her by, unknowingly. All around the two of them, passers-by rushed to and fro, visibly frantic. All any of them needed was a massive pocket watch and they could have passed for the White Rabbit from "Alice in Wonderland". Ami and Luna stood out simply by virtue of standing still.
I pulled up onto the sidewalk because while the traffic was moving on this side of the street, nobody was stopping for anything or anyone in their way. I popped the bike up onto its kickstand, but left the turbine running; instead I spun up the sound suppression to 100%, rendering it practically silent. (Not that anyone would have heard it over the engine noise and the honking horns.) "Luna. Ami-kun." I nodded to them. "Anything new to report?"
Ami and Luna shared a glance, and then with a tiny frown Ami said, "Whatever it is is still affecting everyone." In the distance there was a louder, longer fusillade of honking horns, and Ami winced slightly at it. "If anything, it seems to be getting worse. We still can't find Usagi-chan. I tried calling the school but no one..."
I never found out what "no one" did or didn't do. From down the street beyond the girls came a horrendous screech of brakes, and I looked up from them in time to see a bus come hurtling the wrong way through oncoming traffic, swerving wildly around the oncoming cars. I leapt off my bike with the intention of tackling Ami and Luna out of its way, but before I could do more than that, the bus ran up over the curb to avoid a car and plowed into a concrete utility pole halfway down the block from us.
The pole refused to yield right-of-way, and consequently the front of the bus folded around it. "<Holy...>" I started to mutter in English, and took off to see if I could help. The sound of footsteps behind me indicated that Ami and Luna were following.
I poured on the speed so it took only a couple seconds for me to reach the bus, but even so by that point passengers were already streaming out the open door, looking none the worse for wear and generally more annoyed at the delay than at the fact that they were in, y'know, a major accident. Through what remained of the windshield I could see the driver being berated by a heavyset woman but looking equally undamaged. The hell...?
Ami's shout startled me out of my confusion to see the very personage whose location had eluded us just stepping off the bottom step of the bus door. Like the other passengers, she had not a scratch on her.
"This," I said mostly to myself, "is entirely too convenient to be believable." I wondered for a moment if my field was responsible, and if so, how.
Next to me, Luna made a noise of vague agreement.
"Teishi!" I barked, a little louder than normal, because even though all three of us were less than three meters from her, she seemed so focused on whatever goal occupied her that she didn't seem to see us at all. She started, and as she turned to look our way the driver leaned out, his uniform hat askew and a confused expression on his face.
"Sensei! Ami-chan! Luna!" she chirped. "Hi! Can't stop to talk, I'm too busy." She then suited action to words and began to trot off down the street past us.
"Uh, nope," I said, snagging her around the waist. "Sorry, teishi, but you're sitting still for a moment. <System. Load song 'Pushed Again'. Play song.>"
I probably should have focused the effect on Usagi alone with "I'll Play For You" first, but, well, I wasn't sure I could hold on to her long enough without someone on the street raising a fuss about the gaijin biker grappling a struggling schoolgirl. So quick and dirty, overpower the song as much as I could, and hope Usagi broke free before the side effects started a riot or something.
"<Whispering voices in my head
Sounds like they're calling my name
A heavy hand is shaking my bed
I'm waking up and I feel the strain
I'm feeling pushed again
I'm feeling pushed again>"
Ami must have reached the same conclusion as I had about the visuals of me holding Usagi against her will, and rushed over to wrap her arms around both of us. Luna followed a moment later, and instead of a possible assault, we looked like a fond reunion.
"<Why should I go where everyone goes?
Why should I do what everyone does?
I don't like it when you get too close,
Don't want to be under your thumb.
I'm feeling pushed again
I'm feeling pushed again
I'm feeling pushed again!>"
The song had started soft, but as it ramped up and the both the percussion and the vocalist got louder and angrier, Usagi's struggles died away. In contrast, Ami and Luna, although both held on tight, grew increasingly tense. Without a mind control effect for it to help them shake off, other aspects of the song were affecting them. I could only hope Usagi broke free before they were overwhelmed.
I needn't have worried. About a minute and a half in, Usagi relaxed, going almost boneless in my arms. "Sensei," she said softly. "You can let go now."
"You still in a hurry, teishi?" I asked as the vocalist kept on being angry. Just to be certain. Around us, the frantic energy of both the traffic and the passers-by seemed to have faded, at least for the moment.
"No..." she breathed. "I'm not even sure what I was in a hurry for any more."
I nodded, more to myself. "Good. <System. End song>," I murmured, and relaxed my hold on her. Feeling that, Luna let go and faded back a half-step or so, followed a tick later by Ami. "Glad to have you back," I added as they did.
"I don't think Usagi-chan did anything wrong, sensei," Ami said. "She was exposed to the clock's effect for hours. Surely that would be enough to overwhelm whatever resistance she has to mind control, combat or not."
"No, no, Ami-chan," Usagi objected. "It was a mistake on my part, completely. Mama said Umino's mother had bought seven clocks from the shop. Right there I should have realized something was wrong."
The four of us were across the street from the store in question, which was closed up tight — right down to the metal shutter with a clock face painted on it, rolled down over the storefront and locked securely. Well. Given that it was late afternoon on a Monday, and the store had only had its grand opening two days ago, that was pretty solid evidence that something hinky was going on as far as I was concerned. "I think we're better off debating that later, girls," I said. "We have more important matters at hand."
"He's right." Luna laid a hand on each girl's shoulder. "We'll talk about it in the after-action briefing."
Usagi's eyes lit up, no doubt at the thought of the brownie waiting for her at the Hard Rock. "Right," she echoed, then glanced at me. "What's next, sensei?"
"Oh, no," I chuckled. "I'm not in command, Captain. You are. Take what you've been learning the last few weeks and apply it." Ami gave me a curious look, but I didn't react to it.
Usagi bit her lip as she thought. "Well, first thing is we need intelligence on the enemy. No!" she interrupted herself. "There's something else, first." She grabbed Ami's hand and dragged her back into the alley behind us. As first Usagi and then Ami called out the trigger phrases for their transformations I shared a grin with Luna, after which we joined the girls in the alley, next to the back door of an out-of-business food stand of some sort.
"...ways transform before we start an operation," Sailor Moon was lecturing Sailor Mercury. "That way we're protected both physically and identity-wise if something goes wrong right from the start." I suppressed a proud smile at hearing her repeat my words almost exactly, and I noticed that Luna wasn't even bothering.
Mercury had a very serious expression on her face, and nodded solemnly when Moon finished. "And now we gather intelligence?" she asked.
"Yeah!" Moon replied with a brisk nod. "Now, what I've done before is use the disguise pen to go in looking like someone who belongs wherever the Enemy is set up. I find out what I'm facing, then leave and come back as me. But I can't do that this time." She waved toward the steel-shuttered shop across the street.
"But this time we have my computer!" Mercury said, producing the gizmo in question out of a little blur of magic in the small of her back.
"Exactly!" Moon declared triumphantly as Mercury was already suiting action to words. Luna and I stood back and watched the two of them as she flipped it open, then touched the stud in her ear to turn on the "goggles" that wrapped her face in a bubble of blue light. I seriously wanted to look over her shoulder as she used the device, but that could wait until later. This was a learning experience for the two of them, and didn't need me sticking my nose in.
Mercury held the tiny terminal in both hands like a game controller or a cell phone with the text messaging app open, and operated it in much the same manner. Her thumbs danced across the keys with a practiced speed — I briefly wondered if muscle memory carried over across reincarnation or if it was an effect of the transformation — then she paused for a moment, apparently studying something displayed on her HUD. She tilted her head, then began rapidly keying again.
"I hope I'm reading this right," she muttered. "It looks like there's some kind of space-time distortion inside the shop. It makes it hard to scan anything past the first few meters inside the shutter, but I can just make out two non-human entities inside."
Moon nodded thoughtfully. "Just like at the Crystal Seminar," she said softly. "One to guard, and one to drain."
"Yes," Mercury replied. "That does seem reasonable."
"One question," Moon added.
Mercury looked up at her from the computer. "Yes?"
Moon smiled sheepishly. "What's a space-time thingy?"
"Moon," I interrupted, letting some disappointment seep into my voice. "You know enough to figure out what Mercury said. You need to get out of the habit of thinking — and acting like — you're stupid."
"Yes, sensei," Moon sighed. She bit her lip and screwed up her face in concentration, no doubt trying to remember the science lesson from two weeks ago where I'd explained the concept of space-time to her. "Soooooo..." she let the word trail off. "Something inside the shop is twisting the world and time around?"
Mercury opened her mouth, glanced at me, then said, "Close enough. We'll have to be careful, it might be dangerous."
"More dangerous than the monsters?" Moon asked.
"Maybe?" Mercury allowed.
"It takes a lot of power, magical or not, to distort space-time," Luna said. "And if you get caught in the distortion, you could get... lost."
"Lost." Moon stared at her, then me, then back to her.
"Yes," Luna replied blithely. "Lost."
Moon seemed to consider this. "Right," she finally said. "Let's not do that." She glanced at me. "Will you be coming in with us, sensei?"
I nodded. "I'll be your rear guard and reinforcements. But this is Guardian business, so I'll be letting you call the shots, and I'll only step in if you really need it."
Moon bit her lip for a moment, a minute frown briefly creasing her brow. "Okay, sensei," she said. "Sailor Mercury?" she added, turning to her fellow guardian.
Mercury stowed the computer. "Ready, Sailor Moon."
"Okay, let's do this." Moon turned on her heel and strode out of the alley, Mercury at her side.
Using that funky tiara attack of hers, Sailor Moon had blown an irregular hole the size of a double door in the shutter, one that that revealed nothing but pitch black darkness, and which glowed a suspicious shade of green all around its circumference. She and Mercury ran straight through it. I was only a meter or two behind them, but when an unexpected flare of white light hid the hole immediately after they passed through it, I didn't stop, I didn't think, I just dove head-first through it after them.
I curled into a ball and rolled through the fall, dropping sword and staff as I did so. As I popped to my feet at the end of the tumble, the sunlight abruptly cut off. I didn't need to look, but as I brushed myself off I did, and sure enough, the shutter and the doorway it had covered had both restored themselves. "If that doesn't say 'trap'..." I muttered, shaking my head. I knelt to retrieve my weapons, then turned to study the dimly-lit shop.
There was no sign of Luna, who had been no more than another meter behind me as we chased after the guardians; no doubt she'd been stranded outside on the sidewalk. To my alarm, there was no sign of Moon or Mercury either.
I glanced around, taking quick stock of the store interior. At first glance it looked like a fairly ordinary, if empty and poorly-lit, retail shop. I raised an eyebrow at the cavernous space above my head — it was a good three stories tall in here for no good reason; the second level held a mezzanine ringed with arches, and above that was a wall of windows, one of which was very obviously open and letting a brisk draft in. Just like that jewelry shop a few weeks earlier — did no one in Minato shut their damned windows?
I rolled my eyes and turned my attention back to the ground level of the store. There were still a couple clocks here and there to testify to its most recent merchandise, including a gigantic grandfather model which looked more like a decoration than leftover inventory, but otherwise the place had been picked as bare as a discount store on Christmas Eve.
That was more than having a good-looking product. I'd lay good odds that there was as much compulsion magic behind the appeal the clocks had as there was in the effect they cast on their buyers. It certainly was the enemy's style — whoever they were, we knew they had mind control magic to spare; why not use it to drive a buying frenzy in their targets? It would certainly explain things like the jewelry shop mob from that first night.
As I carefully stepped around the barren displays and shelves, I realized that the shadowed space that on first glance I had thought was the back wall of the shop was anything but a wall. Katana and Toothpick at the ready, I carefully navigated around the end of the checkout counter which stood a bit more than a meter in front of it. As I got closer to what looked less and less like a natural shadow, I probed forward with the Toothpick — and found nothing.
Nope, not a wall... and given that it was still all but impenetrably dark when I was nearly nose-to-face with it, it wasn't just a result of the dim lighting. This was some sort of camouflage. I slipped briefly into magesight to study it. The background magic in here was so high as to wash almost everything else out (not that I was really surprised — as Luna had noted, the power needed to play these kinds of games was considerable) but whatever this shadow was, it was definitely magical, and just powerful enough to stand out against the elevated background count.
Color me surprised.
I holstered the Toothpick, pulled off my left glove, and thrust my bare hand into the midst of the shadow while relaxing my control over my field.
The shadow flickered and... shattered is the only way to describe it; it broke into long, almost-physical shards that fell to the ground and seemed to liquefy before flowing away into the corners of the room. As I tugged my glove back on and then drew the Toothpick again, I studied what it had hidden: a passage that was far too deep to fit inside the building.
"Well, hello, Mister Space-Time Distortion," I said with false jolliness. "And how are you doing this fine afternoon?"
I slipped into magesight once more. No help there — this was the source of the background magic, or as close as to make no difference, and to my magical senses was a swirling mass of raw energy that gave no clues to its purpose or internal structure. I returned to normal sight, shook my head at my own foolishness, then took a deep breath and stepped into the passage.
From within it was obvious that it made no pretenses to being architectural; walls, floor and ceiling all were blank black surfaces made of no particular material. In the distance, some fifty or so meters from the look of it, there was a perfectly ordinary door. But I was barely three meters in when it turned into a fun house — the passage began to visibly stretch, the door receding as I approached it.
Well. That was certainly annoying.
I broke into a quick run — nothing faster than a normal could do but still fast for all that, and the rate at which that door receded picked up to match, leaving me no closer than I'd started. I growled softly, set myself, and then launched myself at my top speed.
I've been told that when I do what Lisa once called my "flash-step" I move so fast that I blur. I honestly think that's an exaggeration, but I do know that when I push myself like that, I can briefly hit what you might call "highway speed". It usually takes a dedicated speedster to beat me in a moment like that — a speedster or a sadistic space-time distortion. When I finally had to stop and catch my breath, that damned door was still just as far away from me as it had been when I started. Whatever was controlling the corridor definitely didn't want me reaching it.
And that was assuming it was in fact a real door and not just an illusion intended to distract me from the real way in. Usually I can pick apart an illusion in a few seconds, but I didn't have enough trustworthy context here to find and unravel its edges — unless the entire corridor was an illusion on top of the damned distortion. That would be a nasty combination.
Her fingers dancing across the tiny keyboard of the computer, Sailor Mercury tried and discarded filter and sensor combinations one after another as all around them the sickly green and black half-toned atmosphere of the labyrinth seemed to bubble and writhe. She wasn't sure what to make of the ghostly Dali-esque melting clock faces that drifted through space on all sides of them, but assumed that they were only a distraction and resolved to ignore them until they proved otherwise.
Sailor Moon stood back-to-back with her, her tiara a glowing disk in her hand, as Mercury tried to find the right combination to pierce the distortion and lead them directly to Ramua, the monster which had presented itself (herself?) as the perpetrator of this latest attack only minutes before.
"Anything?" Moon asked, her voice betraying neither impatience nor fear.
"Almost..." Mercury murmured, spinning settings and narrowing in on a faint signature that seemed to match the brief sample she had gotten of Ramua's magic. "Just a little bit... there! I've found her!" She glanced over her shoulder and nodded in a direction a few points off from straight ahead. "This way."
Moon pivoted on her toe to stand side by side with her. "I hope Sensei is okay," she said softly. "He should've caught up with us by now."
"He's fine, I'm sure of it," Mercury replied, trying to sound more confident than she actually felt. "Let's go."
The pair broke into a run, Mercury leading the way through the strange, distorted space. "Don't forget," she said between breaths, "there's another Enemy somewhere in here besides the one we've already seen."
"I remember," Moon said, her own breaths as steady as her pace. "We can't let our guard down." A moment later she added, "But we can handle two. I've done it by myself, but with both of us now it won't be as hard or scary."
"You get scared?" Mercury asked as they dodged around a sickly greenish wisp of ... something that had darted into their path. "I thought it was just me."
Moon took her hand and brought them both to a halt. "I'm always scared," she said softly. "I'm scared right now. The first night I was Sailor Moon, I was so frightened that I just flopped down on the floor and started crying with the monster standing right there! If it wasn't for Sensei showing up, I don't know what would have happened to me."
"But at the Seminar..." Mercury began.
Moon shook her head. "I was so scared, but I was too busy to show it. Two monsters, a hundred kids, my new friend, and I couldn't reach Sensei. What wasn't there to be scared about?" She surprised Mercury with a quick hug. "I'm so glad it worked out. I don't know how I would have rescued you and the others without what Sensei's taught me already. His lessons make it easier to not be so scared I can't do anything."
Hesitantly, Mercury returned the hug. "I think I understand. I'm scared, too. I'm terrified. But you're here with me, and Sensei's got to be nearby, and we have a job to do, don't we? So can't let being scared get in the way."
Moon smiled broadly. "That's right. We've got a couple monsters to stop. We can be scared about it over brownies at the Hard Rock Cafe when we're done."
"Right." Mercury returned the smile, then turned to face back in the direction they'd been running. "In that case, we need to keep going this way." And together they took off once more.
Mercury wasn't sure for how much longer they had run through the labyrinth — if anything, time seemed even more distorted than space was here, appropriately enough — but she didn't think it had been longer than a few more minutes before they caught sight of the first thing they seen since they'd entered that wasn't a distorted clock face or wisps of black and green. In the distance was what looked like a great, rippling curtain like you'd see spanning a stage. It had a velvety look to it which seemed to catch and reflect the light differently at different points along the ripples, giving it the appearance of moving stripes of a nauseous yellow and green.
As they got closer, Mercury realized that it wasn't a curtain, but more like a wall of tubes or columns across which flowed pulsing waves of color from yellow to green and back again. It was impossible to tell if it was actually solid or yet another strange manifestation of this place, nor did she really have the time to study it, not with Ramua herself rising up out of the floor as they approached.
Is that a... red cocktail dress she's wearing? a confused corner of Mercury's wondered as they closed in on the creature, who held a black-hafted spear with a golden ball about six inches across just behind its long-bladed head. Her skin was mostly a very pale blue, but her face and head were a carnival of colors, starting with long, wavy navy blue hair, followed by the broad band of white that ran down its center from hairline to chin and two narrow slashes of red that paralleled it over her yellow eyes, which sat in patches of green. Mercury couldn't tell if it was makeup or the creature's natural coloration. The pointed tips of her ears just barely extended past the navy hair, and heavy gold earrings hung from both.
As she and Sailor Moon came to a stop, Mercury marveled at just how much detail she could see from so far away. Another Guardian ability? she wondered. Out of the corner of her eye she caught movement, and turned her head slightly left and right. The disturbing curtain-wall had encircled them, trapping them with the monster.
"Sailor Moon," she whispered.
"I saw," Moon whispered back. "We're cut off. Doesn't matter, we were going to have to fight anyway."
Mercury gave the tiniest of nods. "Right. In that case, I'll..."
"You've done well to make it this far, Sailor Moon," Ramua declared, cutting her off. Mercury wasn't sure if she should be upset or grateful that the youma seemed to be focused on Moon and ignoring her entirely.
"But now it's over!" Ramua continued. "You've reached your end! Grendaur! Micse!"
Two monstrous forms rose up from the floor on either side of her. In stark contrast to Ramua, they were only vaguely humanoid — huge, hulking figures that towered over her and them, massively muscled, and armored — one with plates of bone, the other with thick scales. Both were heavily clawed, fierce talons ending each finger and toe. A thicket of horns sprouting in all directions crowned the head of the plated one, and spiky ridges ran from the other's eyes over the top of its head then down its back. Both had faces more like a predatory beast than a human, and as they grinned evilly, revealing mouths full of long, sharp fangs, their eyes glowed red.
"You said there were two!" Moon hissed accusingly.
"I also said the distortion made it hard to get a good read!" Mercury hissed back.
"Get them!" Ramua shrieked.
"Shabon spray!" Mercury whispered the invocation, her right hand barely leaving the keyboard of her computer to point at the monsters. As they stumbled to a halt she retreated, veering abruptly to the right, while Moon suddenly executed a graceful tumble to the left that took her well out of the creatures' reach and potential sightlines. Ramua shrieked again and a bolt of pale green energy shot between the two hulks and through where they'd been standing only seconds before.
Mercury ignored the chill from the thought of what that blast might have done to either of them. Circling around to the side to keep the monsters from simply charging blindly into her, she engaged the computer's communications suite. "Sensei," she whispered into its pickup. "We need your help, there are three of the Enemy here." She dove to one side as Moon released her tiara into the plated creature; it bellowed in pain as the shining disk glanced across its armored skin, carving a smoking, bleeding furrow into its flesh before returning to Moon's hand.
"Help, sensei!" she whispered.
"sensei... need your help... three... enemy... help..."
Even through the distortion, flanging and signal drop-outs, there was no doubt that that was Mercury's voice. I snarled as a glanced down the length of uncooperative corridor at the door that sat there taunting me. My students needed me, and I had no idea where they really were. Odds were they weren't behind that door — if there was actually a real door there at all. Time to do something drastic and unwise... in other words, business as usual for Looney Toons, idol of millions.
I made sure I had a good solid grip on both my sword and the Toothpick. Then I metaphorically crossed my fingers, and...
"<System. Combat mode on. 'I'll Go Where I'm Needed'. Play.>"
The person or persons who called themselves "3 A.M. Again" were an independent, online-only musical act that I'd stumbled across in one early-21st century Earth and had never found again in any subsequent universe (at least so far). I couldn't tell if they were male or female, or how many there were in the group, if indeed they were a group and not a single individual. What I did know was that they wrote and recorded interesting, dreamy-sounding songs, a few of which had set my metatalent a-tingling.
Like this one.
It started with a slow but crisp guitar riff; ten eternal seconds later a rhythm guitar joined in, setting the beat almost like a drum. And at twenty seconds, the bass and the vocal line both appeared.
"<It's about time and it's frustrating me
Feeling like everything's dead>"
The melody was languid and the mix was odd, with the vocals almost buried under the three guitars, so faint you almost couldn't make out the words. The gender and number of singers was difficult to make out as well, with choral harmonies, faintly echoing, that might have been a single person multi-tracked — or maybe not.
"<An image as faded as an image can be
Resting somewhere in my head.>"
As I felt the flows of magic begin to move around and through me, I focused on going to my students' side and resisted the urge to close my eyes — I'd need them open the moment I arrived at my destination.
"<I'll go where I'm needed
That's what my soul conceded
Another year receded
I will go to where I'm needed>"
There was a palpable snap, followed by a roar as the space-time distortion around me was punctured by a wormhole powered by my metatalent and my will. It collapsed in on itself like a balloon run through with a railroad spike.
"<Faded as an image can be
Faded as an image can be...>"
I arrived with a thunderous crack in the middle of a chamber with a really ugly yellow and green paint job, filled with a strangely transparent mist that had to be Mercury's "fog of war" thing. Snapping out "<Song off>", I quickly assessed the scene. There were indeed three of the enemy, but two of them were unlike the vaguely female, mostly human-like creatures we'd exclusively encountered up to that point. Instead, these were large, massively muscled and armored — and tough: the smoking gouges criss-crossing the one with the bony plates suggested that Moon had gotten several good tiara hits on it with no real effect. The last was typical of the creatures we'd seen until now, humanoid, female-ish, wearing an entirely improbable red cocktail dress, and wielding a fancy spear.
Tuxedo Mask paused in an open window on an upper level of the shop, his cape fluttering in the draft. As he had approached, he'd heard something that had sounded like an explosion within, but, now, staring down into the empty showroom he saw no signs of anything of the sort. How curious. He wondered if the sound might have been a lure to tempt him into a trap of some kind. It was impossible to tell; besides, the compulsion that drove him urged him onward.
Making a graceful leap and dropping two stories to land gently on the shining marble floor of the empty shop, Tuxedo Mask rose from the crouch in which he'd landed and studied the great grandfather clock before him.
Fortunately, the shockwave caused by my arrival had stunned all three of the enemy, and they were staggering about in a momentary daze. (The girls were unaffected; I wasn't sure why but I wasn't about to question our good fortune.) "<'Lightning's Hand', play,>" I said to my helmet, going with my tried and true standby, then settled on my target. I didn't think it was likely taking out the "leader" would make the other two any less dangerous, so I picked the scaly one, charged up both Buckaroo's katana and the Toothpick, and leapt.
I plunged sword and staff — both sparking with electricity and the latter suddenly tipped with the odd orange-gold energy spearhead that it had so very rarely manifested since I'd nearly killed Marller with it all those years ago — into the creature's armored back. The sword glanced off of bone and skittered down the creature's side, burning a long slice along and through its right flank and nearly throwing me off balance; the Toothpick, however, drove into and through its torso like a barbecue skewer through tofu, giving me an anchor to hold onto as it bellowed and convulsed wildly.
Welp. It warn't stunned no more.
At its roar of pain the female-looking one shrieked in fury and started flinging pale green energy blasts wildly into what I assumed was the opaque fog surrounding her courtesy of Mercury, who dodged the one bolt that came anywhere near hitting any of us. I let go of the Toothpick (it being too deeply embedded in the creature for me to pull it out) and let its wild spasms toss me out of its reach.
I tucked and tumbled and made a perfect three-point landing, katana still in hand. As I did, I caught sight of Mercury, down on one knee, twirling her forefinger in the air to draw a tiny mana diagram of frosty blue-white runes before her. Mist drifted down off them as she completed the circle and punched her fist through it.
I was already running back at the creature I'd decided to call Cocktail Frank (because it had the Toothpick stuck through it) when Mercury spat that out, and I smiled to myself. I should have guessed that she already knew more Latin than the few words I'd had her using in her magic lessons. Her supercharged light spell splatted, icy blue-white in its brilliance, right into the face of the female creature. It screamed as much in pain as further fury, dropping its spear to clutch at its eyes. Meanwhile, I came in low and tried to hamstring Frank with Buckaroo's katana, which was still crackling and sparking from the lightning I'd kept feeding into it.
Across the room, Moon was alternating powerful throws of her tiara with wild, random-seeming dodges as she tried to inflict a telling blow on her armored opponent, but it looked like she was barely started on a death-of-a-thousand-cuts. I ducked under a talon-filled swing of Frank's hand and tried to drive the chisel-point of the katana into its unarmored armpit; a sizzle-crack, the smell of burning meat, and the sudden seizure of its muscles told me that as shallow as the wound had been, it'd been deep enough to discharge its electrical payload into what passed for the thing's chest cavity.
As it tottered on its heels and started to fall backwards I yanked the blade out of its armpit with a deliberate carelessness that flayed green-hued flesh from its now-visible ribs and sprayed dark blood in a splattering arc to the side. At the same time I grabbed the end of the Toothpick poking from its chest — now lacking the magical mystery spearhead — and pulled it through and out of the creature's body with an unexpected ease.
A quick step backwards took me out of the way when, drawn forward by my retrieval of the Toothpick, the still-convulsing Frank fell forward onto its less-than-lovely face, landing with a dull, meaty thud. Another step was enough to bring me close enough to drive the Toothpick, charged again with a thought and once more manifesting its energy blade, into the creature's head.
It had barely started to crumble into sparkling dust when behind me I heard Moon mutter, "Oh, for... <Moonbeam>!" A blinding silvery flash of light washed out the entire area as an earsplitting "zorch" sounded behind me. A moment later I was splattered from behind by a shower of something warm, wet, and unmistakably biological — at least until it, too, transformed into sparkling dust that vanished, leaving me dry once again. I turned around to see a wobbly Moon blowing off the tip of her forefinger like it was a smoking pistol, looking smug and entirely too satisfied with herself. Glancing the other way, I saw that Mercury was visibly stunned by whatever Moon had done.
Linked to their life-forces as she had been though the collection web, Ramua had felt the destruction of Grendaur and Micse at the hands of the humans, their energies sucked back into the accumulator to feed Great Metaria with their final sacrifices for the Kingdom. But blinded as she was by the cursed light that had begun to burn its way into her face like cold fire, she did not see them fall. And, she realized with a sudden surge of panic, she herself could have no more than a few minutes left to live as well — blinded, bereft of her guards, and outnumbered three-to-one — and one of the three was the cursed War Wizard, who had just defeated one of Lord Jadeite's premiere hunter-killer youma singlehandedly.
No, Ramua knew she was doomed.
A shill peal of laughter born of fear and growing madness bubbled up out of her as Ramua pushed the spells laced through the great clock to their utmost. She could tell that one of the two girl-children had been bound to the web; even the slightest drain from the clock would have disabled her. To take two not bound to the web would stress the enchantments to their limits, but they were close, and they were burning with an intensity that would override the spells' aspecting. For the chance to drain the War Wizard and both his apprentices... even if she were to die at their hands, the yield, oh, the yield... They would sing songs of her at the Great Nest for hundreds of cycles to come.
And if she were to survive? The rewards she would receive...
Ramua stilled her fearful heart and bared her teeth at the three who unseen stood before her. "You may slay me," she declared proudly, "but I have already won! That which is taken — and that which I am taking now — will never be given back!"
I was just turning my head to indicate to Moon that we should take out the last of the enemy when the creature started laughing madly, then launched into a classic villain monologue.
This would have been the perfect time to take it — her? — down, but a powerful magical attack brushed past my field, latched onto my reserves like a leech on a vein and started draining me for all it was worth. I'd been the target of my share of absorption attacks in my time, and this was easily one of the strongest, siphoning my endurance away like a shop vac sucking up a puddle. In moments I felt like I'd just run a marathon and was yea-shy of passing out from complete and total exhaustion. I only remained upright because I was leaning on the Toothpick — which seemed to be feeding me just barely enough energy to stay awake.
My students weren't so lucky. Mercury had been driven to her hands and knees and was moaning slightly. Moon had fallen face-first to the ground, apparently unconscious; only the occasional twitch showed she was even still alive.
Laughing Girl, meanwhile, just kept cackling.
I had to do something, or none of us would get out of this.
Tuxedo Mask took an involuntary step back when the grandfather clock began to glow. Its hands spun wildly before locking into place at midnight, and it began to chime.
As I mentioned earlier, like many of its counterparts I'd visited during my travels this version of Tokyo had a magical node deep beneath the city. Compared to most, it was tiny and weak, too small for me to bother with under almost any circumstances, although I had intended to use it to introduce the girls to node magic in a few weeks.
Now? Now, I had another, more immediate, use for it.
"Lightning's Hand" was still playing; my metatalent was still active, even though I had no personal reserves left with which to actually do anything with it. Not and remain conscious, at least. But while it was active, I didn't actually need reserves.
Not if I had a node handy.
Keeping myself upright and awake by sheer force of will, I turned my defective mage gift to the task of reaching out to the node... and tapping it. After all these years I was far more practiced at this than I had been in, say, Mega-Tokyo — or, gods forbid, Valdemar. I had certainly learned my lesson there, in that keep on the Hardorn border... the same lesson I now intended to teach a certain pale blue humanoid in a red cocktail dress.
The enemy's spell was feeding directly off my reserves. I tapped the node and began pulling mana into my reserves at a rate a fair bit faster than it was being drained.
And when after a moment I had a little to spare, I tied the line of power from the node to the business end of the enemy's leech spell, took myself out of the circuit... and removed any and all restrictions on the feed.
In the Dark Kingdom, a sudden flare of light from the accumulator bound to Ramua and her guards caught Jadeite's eye. He picked up the spell construct and looked deep within, his eyes widening at the ravening torrent of energy, only barely flavored by the passage through a human soul which made it at all useful, pouring into it like the ocean forcing its way through a broken seawall.
Such power! he thought. How is Ramua doing this? Is she draining the entire city? And then: Can we reproduce this? We could wake Metaria in only weeks with this kind of yield. He dared to take the faintest taste of the seemingly limitless energy and felt the last of his injuries' remaining aches and pains fade away.
Ramua laughed and laughed as the power draining out of the War Wizard grew and grew. Some of the flow spilled out of the web's channels, and she boldly dipped into it to dispel the burning cold light in her face and heal her savaged eyes. She had to look upon the body of defeated mage-warrior, to see the proof of her complete triumph over him, to see...
The War Wizard standing there, proud and tall with staff in one hand and sword in the other, smirking at her as the life energy continued to flow into the accumulator at an ever-increasing rate. She stopped laughing and stared at him. "How..." she began. And then everything went white.
He didn't know what prompted him, but Tuxedo Mask found himself flinging a single rose at the face of the great grandfather clock. It shattered the glass and drove into and through its hands and the mechanism behind it.
Jadeite marveled at the veritable deluge of life energy pouring into the accumulator, causing the spell construct to glow more and more brightly — until, abruptly, the stream of power ceased. Curious, Jadeite cautiously sent his senses down the connection, only to find it had been roughly severed at the far end.
Have the War Wizard or his apprentices found her? he wondered.
Ramua shrieked as the accumulator's connection to the collection web collapsed, leaving only the web and herself to receive the unstoppable river of power, incredible unending power, that still poured in with no sign of ceasing. Frantically she tried to dispel the enchantments which formed the web but to her horror the very spells she had cast to preserve and maintain it in the face of insufficient energy were now happily feeding on more energy than she had ever expected them to receive. Stunned, she could only watch as they consumed this unanticipated bounty and with it reinforced the web far beyond anything she had ever imagined, casually ignoring all her attempts to shut it down.
And still the energy roared in... Terror seized her when realized that ultimately something had to give: the overwhelming river of energy, the web trying to contain it and feed it to an accumulator that was no longer there... or herself.
"What have you done?" she screamed at the wizard as she dropped to her knees to retrieve her spear.
"You ever play the video game 'Dig Dug'?" he asked.
"What?" She levered herself to her feet even as she began to feel currents of energy spilling out of the web and into her — too much energy, so much it was burning away at the very fabric of her being.
The smirk under the wizard's helmet turned into a vicious grin. "You lose."
Ramua didn't respond; fire was racing through her body, ahead of a wall of energy she knew she couldn't resist. She just closed her eyes and thought longingly of the members of her clutch who would survive her.
Jadeite held the accumulator reverently in his hands. It shone brilliantly enough to cast shadows in all directions, filled with more energy than he had ever expected any six missions to Earth to generate. If only Ramua, Grendaur or Micse had survived to explain their success... the explosion that had killed Ramua had echoed over the collapsed feed all the way from Tokyo, which had shocked him — the implications for the amount of energy Ramua had still been collecting after the connection had been broken was frankly astounding. If only she had survived to share what she had learned or done...
He grimaced. Lost knowledge. Bad enough when it had come from the long-past days of the Earth Kingdom — but to have had a new discovery like this all but in his hand and then lose it... He sighed.
Her Highness would be delighted with the success, though.
Jadeite slid the accumulator into his pocket, straightened his uniform jacket, and departed his office for the throne room. His steps were brisk and crisp for the first time in far too long, and privately he reveled in being pain-free thanks to Ramua's efforts.
I will have to put her — and the other two, of course — in for a posthumous commendation, he thought approvingly as he turned the first corner.
I wasn't surprised when the final creature simply overloaded and exploded from the mana I had fed into her. What had surprised me was the look of resignation, acceptance and, yes, regret that had settled onto her face in her final moments — not what I'd expected from a creature that had pinged my every instinct as a demon, or at least of demonic stock.
I shut off "Lightning's Hand" while the ... room? space? ... still echoed with the sound of her detonation. As her finely distributed remains turned into sublimating dust, the sickly green and yellow walls around us shuddered and began to shake violently.
Never a good sign in my experience.
I scooped up the still-unconscious Moon then dashed over to where Mercury had all but collapsed on the ground. I got my arm around her shoulders and started to cue up a teleportation song, but before I could get out more than the first syllables of the command, the walls surrounding us shattered just like the shadow in the shop had. They crumbled into shards of yellow and green that drained away like water to reveal the clock shop... and a familiar tuxedoed and top-hatted form who froze when he saw us.
"You!" I barked. "Help me with them!"
For a moment he stared at us like a deer staring at an oncoming car. Then he spun on his heel, leaped up to that open window, and fled. "Damn it!" I spat. "Next time I see that schmuck, I'm nailing his goddamned foot to the floor!" I looked down at the two Guardians in my arms, who had yet to recover from the creature's drain. "C'mon, girls..." I muttered. "<System>..."
Before I could get out another word, the entire shop itself shimmered and vanished, leaving the three of us sprawled in the middle of a small empty lot. Another damned conjuration. No wonder the entire place had radiated magic; none of it had actually been real. That would explain the bizarre architecture, too...
"Sailor Moon! Sailor Mercury! D... Looney Toons!" Luna dashed across the empty street, clearly mad with worry. "What happened to them?"
"Industrial strength absorption attack," I replied as I laid Moon down on her back and then rolled Mercury over on hers. "I think they're just out cold, like they wore themselves out with physical exertion. At least that's what it felt like to me."
Luna dropped to her knees next to Moon. "I know a basic field medic spell for treating mages who've over-exerted themselves." She glanced up at me. "Should I try it?"
"Can't hurt," I said. "And it'll be faster than me searching through my songbase for something appropriate. Go for it."
I still searched for a song to use, though.
Long story short, Luna's spell did the trick. Watching in magesight, it looked to me like (among other things) it just stuffed energy back into a tapped-out mage, restoring enough of their reserves that they could function. With the right song I could probably do much the same using the node as a power source, but better that Luna do it slowly and safely than I do it quickly and possibly lethally.
Mercury was still somewhat awake and perked up immediately; it took a bit longer with Moon, but she came around after a minute or so. (That worried me no little bit — I'd enhanced Moon to the peak of human fitness, and anything that could drain Mercury almost to unconsciousness shouldn't've been able to knock Moon out completely. I resolved to investigate what had happened after they recovered.) The girls were both a bit wobbly for a few more minutes, but once they could walk properly I summoned my cycle and we all piled on.
Half an hour later we were doing only our second daylight post-combat debrief at the Hard Rock Cafe. Yumi from the night shift wasn't there this time, and apparently she hadn't warned the other hosts about us, given how the fellow behind the podium stared and stammered when we walked in the door. Once he recovered, though, we got seated quickly enough, and I was amused when Moon and Mercury both ordered the Outrageous Hot Fudge Brownie without even looking at the menu.
Monday, June 1, 1992, 9:00 PM
After ordering we went over the battle and extracted everything we could learn from it (which was, unsurprisingly, more than we previously could thanks to the sensor logs from Mercury's computer). I also got the lowdown on Usagi's moonbeam-zorch. (It had been a desperation cast using Will-and-Word that was as much responsible for her collapse — "I'm not trying that again any time soon, Sensei!" — as the final creature's subsequent energy-suckage). Once they'd polished off their brownies, I took the girls home and headed back to my place. There I packed myself a bottle of iced tea and couple snacks and 'ported to the Moon for another thrill-packed evening of moving and burying skeletons.
As I labored under the blue-white Earthlight, the same questions I'd pondered for the last week kept crossing my mind: who were these people? The only reason the Moon had had a biosphere at all was their magic — or maybe magitech, judging from some of the fragments left behind — and this city was bespelled to have something close to an Earth-normal gravity. There's no way they could have been natives. But what were they? Colonists? Refugees? And from where? Earth? Somewhere else?
If only some kind of written media had survived the past ten thousand years. But like so many Earth civilizations, the Moon Kingdom appeared to have used paper or a similar organic substance for its books and other writings. Combine that with the obvious presence of a vigorous microbial ecosystem along with how the environmental spell had continued to maintain the city at a level of humidity that felt comfortable to normal humans. It all added up to the entirely foreseeable result that anything even vaguely organic — not just the bodies of its inhabitants — had entirely rotted away after the city fell.
So... no books, no scrolls, none of the paperwork generated by the day-to-day operations of a planetary (?) government. Nothing but the few storage devices I'd found, and which I had yet to ask Ami to check out with her computer. That sucked, because with the right song I could read just about anything printed, and do it faster than Ami could scan an alien hard drive, I'd wager. Then again, they'd been exposed to what passed for the elements here for some ten thousand years. Gods only knew what kind of bit rot they'd suffered from the cumulative effect of a hundred centuries' worth of cosmic rays and background radiation. We'd probably be lucky to get anything useful off of them.
Once again I found myself drifting past the audience chamber and its crumbling mural. I paused at the door, as I did every time, and studied those nine fragmentary female figures again. The clock shop had been a close thing. Ami's logs made it clear we only made it out because Captain Opera had tossed his corsage of doom at the grandfather clock in the shop; what if the formal-clad putz hadn't shown up? He didn't always. It had been sheer luck he'd been sniffing around when we needed him.
A few more hands and we could have properly overwhelmed the opposition, crushing them utterly before they could do that drain thing. If only we had all eight — well, all nine if Lu and I were right about Usagi — of the women in the mural. But the odds of that... we were damned lucky Mercury had been reincarnated so precisely close to Moon in age and geography. The chances that we'd come across another Guardian were...
My train of thought ground to a sudden halt. The chances...
The chances were one hundred percent. Because we'd decided more than a month ago that Sailor V had to be Tserla Venus.
Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times...
I needed to talk to Luna.
Tuesday, June 2, 1992, 7:00 PM
Ami had arrived at Usagi-chan's home after school in a frankly novel state of combined exhilaration and exhaustion. After only a couple real lessons with Sangnoir-sensei ("The most important ones!", the other girl had said, "How not to get hurt!"), Usagi-chan had declared her ready to actually join the Martial Arts club and take part in its activities. And so Ami had found herself dragged to the gymnasium once again after the end of classes.
After a short discussion with Usagi and club president Shujuku, Ami had promptly been kitted out in a gi and set of padded chest and head protectors, then paired off with an upperclassman named Kinzoku Ryuuji. He was several centimeters taller than her, and was considerably bulkier, but he had a friendly smile. "Relax," he'd gently said. "I'm just going to show you a couple basic strikes, something your sensei will probably get to in your next lesson. Think of it as reading ahead," he added with a sudden grin, and Ami had felt a tiny twist of tension inside her untwist.
"I think Kinzoku-sempai likes you," Usagi said later, on the way to her home for what had quickly become their usual pattern of homework, dinner and tutoring. Ami blushed and ducked her head, but she couldn't deny that he had been very attentive and friendly, and she had enjoyed the club meeting as much for his company as for the activity itself. Even though her first practice strikes hadn't affected him at all, raining down ineffectually on his chest protector, he had praised her efforts. It wasn't the first time she'd been praised for a purely physical activity, but it still made her feel unexpectedly warm and energized, even though she was still tired from the effort she'd put in.
That energy had carried her all the way to the Tsukino home, through doing her homework with Usagi and then to dinner. Dinner with the Tsukino family had somehow become part of the tutoring routine; Usagi's mother just assumed Ami would be joining them every time — and to be honest, she liked that. It was becoming her new normal, a cheery, boisterous normal that had begun to erode the pervasive loneliness and isolation she hadn't even realized that she'd grown far too used to.
She still had to figure out why Shingo always looked away when she smiled at him, though.
As was usual, Sangnoir-sensei arrived not long after dinner and began the evening's tutoring. With a trepidation that was growing both familiar and exciting, Ami returned to his custom-crafted lessons, doing work that was far in advance of anything any juku had ever presented her with. Usagi was still working on reaching parity with their classmates, but did so with a surprising good humor and no less effort than Ami expended.
As they worked, Luna — in cat form, of course — strolled into the dining room, hopped up onto an unoccupied seat where she could see everything, and began grooming herself while keeping a watchful eye on the proceedings.
When they had both completed their individual studies that night, Sensei worked on their conversational English with both of them at once. This time he led them through the basics of using tone and pitch like a native speaker, which Ami (knowing it to be one of her weaknesses in the language) had been looking forward to. It would be a while before either she or Usagi mastered the lesson, but at least now they had an idea what they should be working toward.
Especially with the notes he wrote, she thought. They're practically an essay on the subject!
When the evening's lessons came to an end and Ami began packing up her books and papers, Sangnoir-sensei busied himself with saying good night to Usagi's parents. When she pushed back her chair and stood, bag in hand, Usagi leaped from her seat and enveloped her in a hug. "Good night, Ami-chan! See you in school tomorrow!"
With her free hand, Ami hugged back. "Good night!"
"Oh, Usagi-chan?" Sangnoir-sensei had stepped back into the dining room, Usagi-chan's parents right behind him.
Usagi released Ami. "Yes, sensei?"
"Could you do me a favor?" he asked. "Please tell your friend Luna that I need to speak with her?" He glanced back over his shoulder at the puzzled Tsukinos. "I've been coordinating with her on Usagi's tutoring," he explained.
"Sure, Sensei!" Usagi chirped, and to Ami's sudden terror turned to Luna and very seriously said, "Luna, Sangnoir-sensei needs to talk to you."
Ami's panic at the thought that Usagi-chan had just casually revealed one of their biggest secrets evaporated when she giggled, her parents laughed and Sangnoir-sensei rolled his eyes. "Your other friend Luna, you silly person you."
Luna, for her part, hopped off the seat where she'd been curled up for most of an hour and marched off imperiously, nose and tail in the air.
And a few minutes later, Luna — now in her human form — joined them on Sangnoir-sensei's motorcycle.
In what was quickly becoming routine, I gave Ami a ride back to her building after the evening's tutoring, with Luna also riding pillion behind her. When we started this, she had held herself apart and upright — almost certainly because I had been all but a stranger — but since then she had relaxed around me and had begun to lean forward and wrap her arms around me during the ride.
With the local gravity and inertial suppression dialed up it wasn't really necessary, but it did show I was getting past her reserve and earning her trust.
"Sensei?" she said against my shoulder, just barely loud enough to be heard.
"I was wondering... if we could have some tutoring sessions at my home some nights." She took a breath, then surged onward. "My mother is usually on the night shift at the hospital, so it'd be just us, and if you wanted to cover any Guardian business along with the lessons for school, we could do that safely." After another brief pause, she added, "We'd have to make some kind of arrangements for dinner, though. I'm not much of a cook."
I nodded without taking my eyes off the road. "That's not a bad idea. As long as your mother is okay with it."
"I'll talk to her about it," she replied, a little louder and confidently. "I'm pretty sure she would be."
"Well, if she approves," I said as I turned north onto Azabu-don Avenue, "then sure, we can do that." I shot straight up the Avenue, keeping an eye for Ami's building on my left. "As for dinners, well, we can do takeout, or if you don't mind I can whip up something."
"You?" she blurted, followed immediately by, "I'm sorry. You cook?"
I pulled into a grey-painted strip of bicycle lane right in front of her building. "I've been a single man fending for myself for over seventy years, Ami-kun. I'm a fair chef, if only so I don't get bored."
Ami giggled at that while Luna chuckled and slid off the bike to give her the room to hop off. She stepped up the curb and past the green metal rails which separated the sidewalk from the street here before turning and bowing politely to me. "Thank you for the ride home, sensei." She popped back up vertical and Luna handed off her bookbag as she added, "Have a good evening, both of you." Then she turned and strode into the entrance of the building.
"Is it me, or is she a little more self-confident than she was when we first met her?" I asked Luna as she slid back onto the bike.
"I think you're right," she replied.
"So, I was thinking..." I said, some twenty minutes later, in my apartment. Luna and I were seated, as usual, in the paired armchairs with the end table between us, tea in hand.
"Always a dangerous thing," she replied with a smile.
I gave her a brief raspberry. "I was thinking," I repeated, "that we could avoid potential disasters like yesterday afternoon if we had all the Guardians available for operations."
Luna sniffed. "But we don't. What's the saying in this era? 'If wishes were horses...'?"
"Maybe." I blew across the surface of my tea to cool it a bit. "Don't you think that it was an incredible stroke of luck that we stumbled over another Guardian only a few weeks after you first found Usagi? And not just another Guardian, but a Guardian in the same school and grade — hell, in the same freaking classroom — as her?" I ventured a sip; still a bit too hot. "Especially considering it was Ami, who should by all rights be at a top-tier escalator school fast-tracked all the way into Toudai, instead of a mid-level public school."
She gazed down into her tea as she considered this. "I hadn't given it much thought until now but yes, you're right. It is... odd."
I nodded, more to myself than to her. "Amazingly so, given Ami's mother. Having met the woman and having had to prove myself so thoroughly just to be considered for her tutor, I can think of no possible reason she's allowing Ami to attend Juban Municipal Junior High School. She should be foaming at the mouth to transfer Ami somewhere 'more suitable'." I made quote marks in the air with my fingers.
Luna looked up. "Really?"
"Oh yeah," I said, nodding vigorously. "Complete and utter education mama there. And then there's Sailor V. I think we're both in agreement that the 'V' does not stand for 'Valentine's Day'."
She gave a decorous little snort of laughter at that. "No, I believe we are in agreement there. If Sailor V is not Tserla Venus I will be frankly astonished."
"Okay, then." I took another sip of my tea. Perfect. "That makes three Guardians, all in Minato, all approximately thirteen or fourteen years old. That's fully one third of that mural in the audience chamber accounted for."
Luna turned to look at me. "Are you suggesting that..."
I held up a finger. "Honestly, Lu. What are the odds that Her Nibs bound all the Guardians' souls together so they'd have no chance but to be reborn at around the same time in the same area, and stay near to each other as they grew up? Especially if she was going to send you and Agent 86 to find and train them?" I snorted. "Or, better question, how likely is it that she would have been stupid enough not to?"
Luna laughed. "'Stupid' was a word no one — not even her enemies — ever used to describe Her Majesty."
I smirked and spread my arms. "Then it only stands to reason — we must have another half dozen or so Guardians all around us, no doubt all in this ward, maybe even all in Usagi's homeroom, just needing a swift kick in the butt to wake up and join the fun."
I saw the realization of what I meant dawn across her face. "I do believe that you are right. I arrived with several of the Guardians' wands in my storage space — Jupiter, Mars and Mercury. I did not have them in my possession when Her Majesty charged me with this mission." She took a long sip of her tea before adding, "And I believe I can summon the wands for the other Guardians as well."
I chuckled. "Well then, considering all that, it'd be a waste to sit back and wait for them to wake up on their own, don't you think?" I asked, and took a long drink from my tea. "So what do you say we give them that kick?"
Thursday, June 4, 1992, 9:50 PM
Luna thought that was an absolutely spiffing idea (although "spiffing" wasn't quite the word she used). I was actually a bit less sanguine about the prospect than I sounded. I didn't really like the idea of tossing a half-dozen more teenaged girls into a battle for their lives. But between awakening them deliberately and getting them some training first, or letting them come into their power in the middle of a freaking firefight like Ami had, I'd much rather they were aware of what they were about to get into and knew how to handle themselves.
And maybe have a choice whether to get involved, too.
Consequently, I spent all my free time over the next couple days working with Luna on a ritual that would — theoretically — wake up the other Guardians. I wouldn't be able to perform it myself, so I was designing it for Usagi as the primary officiant, pretty much on the assumption Luna and I were right and she was the Moon Princess. Ami would serve as either a secondary officiant or a simple participant, as befit her comfort level.
(Well, technically, I was doing the designing because — as she kept insisting — Luna wasn't anything but a dabbler when it came to magic. But she was my reference when it came to anything specific to the Guardians I might need, to the extent that her damaged memory permitted.)
Now just because I can't use a style of magic myself doesn't mean I'm not adept at working in it, designing and configuring spells or rituals for the use of others. And honestly, it wasn't even the most complicated or critical ritual I'd ever worked on. For that, you'd have to go back to one of the worst times in my life.
At the lowest point of the Vampire War back home, my wife Maggie was almost turned. Chessandar's foot soldiers weren't like movie vampires; in particular, there was no "three days buried and then come back" with them. Their conversion process ran more like the Borg — give'em a couple minutes' uninterrupted access and ten minutes later a friend would be transformed into an unrelenting enemy.
We caught Maggie in the even shorter window between initial infection and the first mental changes. Dwimanor slapped a stasis on her, and by the time he had to release her he'd come up with one hell of an improvised spell to halt the vampiric infection in its tracks. The good news was she wasn't going to turn into a vampire. The bad news was that she wasn't quite human anymore.
For the short term, that was acceptable. Long term? Nobody liked that solution. So Dwimanor and I sat down and designed a partially-thaumaturgical ritual to purge the vampiric infection from her body and restore her to original (meta)human state. We performed it at Stonehenge on the Spring Equinox with Dwim as the officiant while I supported him by playing Kansas' "Hopelessly Human".
It hadn't been a sure thing, but it worked. Maggie came out of it very much not a vampire or half-vampire, and even got to keep some of the physical improvements the infection had made before we'd stopped it. We then distributed the source for the ritual to the various traditions on our side in the war, just in case there were any others caught on the cusp like Maggie had been.
So yeah, I have some experience with this kind of thing.
I was following the same basic plan — a ritual that the active magic-user(s) would perform, with support from me in the form of a song that dovetailed neatly into the purpose of the ritual, and around which it had been partly designed. And I had the perfect song waiting in my repertoire: Manowar's "Call to Arms".
If that heavy metal bellow to rise and return to the fight didn't wake the sleeping Guardians up, nothing would.
Afterward, I fully expected we'd have to go hunting for them, of course. Just because they had awakened didn't mean they would know what to do with themselves.
Or maybe they would — if they'd been reading the papers they might make the intuitive leap from Sailors Moon and Mercury to Tserla Moon and Tserla Mercury.
We'd just have to see what would happen once the ritual was complete.
Thursday, June 4, 1992, 11:37 PM
Tomoe Souichi smiled to himself and adjusted his glasses as he stood in the opened door to his daughter's bedroom. A narrow wedge of yellow light cast by the hallway's ceiling lamp fell across the dark rug and across the coverlet under which Hotaru lay. Her raven hair spread across the pillow as she slept, facing away from him.
His beautiful little girl — so innocent, and oh-so-perfect.
There could be no better host for the Mistress than his little firefly.
"Not much longer..." he whispered, wary of waking her. "Less than three days... My preparations will finally be complete, and the stars will be right — all the conditions will be perfect."
Friday, June 5, 1992, 6:20 PM
Homework, dinner and "tutoring" this evening was at Ami-chan's home for the first time — and with good reason, Usagi thought, because tonight's lessons were Guardian stuff and not school stuff, which they could discuss because Ami-chan's mom was working at the hospital so no one was around to overhear.
Case in point: the complicated diagram that looked like it had been printed by a computer on a long, wide sheet of paper, laid out along most of the length of Ami's dining room table. A pair of boxes marked with the "Pizza House" logo anchored one end of the paper, while at the other end several of Ami's schoolbooks, retrieved from her room, kept it from rolling up into a tube.
Usagi had decided that the dining room was really nice — just like every other part of Ami's apartment she'd seen so far. It seemed almost wrong to eat pizza on its fancy dining table, like it was only for better and fancier meals. But Ami had said it was okay, and besides, the kitchen table was too small to eat and study the plan for the ritual Doug-sensei and Luna had come up with.
And wasn't that a surprise? Of course when they'd found Ami, Usagi had wondered if there were Guardians for each of the other planets, but Sensei and Luna had been so far ahead of her. He explained that they had a plan to "wake up" all the other Guardians. Then he'd shown them a photo of an old, old painting they'd found in a building on the Moon (!) on a little gadget he'd called a "smartphone" (and didn't Ami almost drool at the sight of it despite having the Mercury computer!). "This is a mural of the Queen and her Guardians," Luna had said.
It was a pity it was so old and crumbly that you couldn't see all that much, but Ami had stared at it, then tapped on one of the women. Both Ami and she had let out a little squeak when the picture suddenly zoomed in where she'd tapped to show a close-up of the woman. One blue eye and hair almost the same shade as Ami's was all that could be seen of her head, and she was dressed in a grey bodysuit that had panels of the same blue as the skirt on Sailor Mercury's fuku.
"Was... was that me?" she breathed.
"Maybe," Sensei replied, sharing a glance with Luna. "We think so."
"Why aren't we wearing our seifuku?" Usagi asked. Ami continued to stare at the image on the little device.
Sensei shrugged. "We don't know. Maybe the fukus are actually your dress uniforms and we haven't figured out how to switch you into your combat fatigues. Or the other way around. Or maybe they changed the design after the mural was painted to make you look less threatening or something."
She glanced at Luna. "Don't you know?"
Luna looked away. "No. I don't remember."
Usagi reached out a hand toward her. "Luna..."
Sensei clapped his hands very loudly and everyone jumped. "Okay. That's the what, and the who. Here's the how." And then he and Luna spent half an hour in between bites of pizza explaining the magical ritual that he had designed to wake the other Guardians, and the parts she and Ami had to play in it.
"So, any questions?" he asked when he'd finished, gesturing with one hand at the complex design of concentric and interlocking circles while holding a slice of pizza well away from it with the other.
Usagi shared a glance with Ami-chan. Grabbing a paper napkin, she wiped grease from her pizza off her hands before laying a fingertip on one of the smaller circles near the center of the design. "Okay, so I stand here. As Sailor Moon," she added. "And Sailor Mercury stands here." She pointed at the second small circle, nearby. "And we're supposed to recite the stuff you have written down on the side there." She gestured at what looked like a block of verse in romaji alongside the complicated drawing. "That much I've got. But I don't understand how I'm supposed to... how did you put it? 'Feed power' to ..." She grimaced and waved a hand over the entire sheet. "This."
Doug-sensei nodded and chewed his lip for a moment. "Yeah, fair question. What you have to remember is that the design is more like a cross-section than, um, the copper lines on a circuit board. It will have an existence that extends up and down from the ground where it's drawn. Just completing it will let it power itself enough off the local environmental magic to 'finish' itself that way. I wish I had a holodisplay to show you," he added almost as an aside.
"Anyway," he continued. "One of the things that happens when it gets that little bit of power out of the environment is that this" and he tapped a complicated-looking swirl of lines and characters near where she was to stand, "sets up something kind of like a magical funnel."
Usagi nodded. "I'll be able to see it in magesight?"
He grinned. "Exactly! And then when I give you the high sign you just focus like you're casting in Will-and-Word and push your magic at it. And keep pushing until the song I'm going to be using ends, one of us falls over, or all of the Guardians magically appear in front of us and ask what's up. Got it?"
Usagi giggled. "Got it!" She picked up her slice of pizza and took another bite.
"And Ami-kun, same for you." Usagi glanced sideways across melted cheese to see Ami-chan nod once, briskly. "I know your magesight isn't quite there yet, but you should be able to get a 'feel' for where you should connect, just from your experiences with the simpler diagrams I've been walking you through."
"I understand," Ami replied. "And how do I feed it power? If I understand this correctly, it's not like a diagram I've scribed myself, so I don't have an inherent connection to it. So I don't think I can just 'push' magic into it."
Oooh, that was a good question. Usagi really didn't understand how the magic Ami was learning worked — it seemed like a whole lot of trouble to do stuff she could do just by wishing for it, almost. "There's a minor mana manipulation circuit that you can use," Sensei said. "I'll show it to you during training tomorrow afternoon."
Ami-chan nodded and took a delicate bite from her slice of pizza. Usagi saw her half-closed eyes and figured that she was already thinking of things she could do with a bit of magic like that, the way she'd turned the light spell into an attack a few days ago. That was just so... Ami.
"You're going to teach me how this all works, aren't you, Sensei?" Ami pressed.
Sensei grinned at her. "I already am, teishi. I already am."
Saturday, June 6, 1992
Saturday had gone much as I'd hoped. We'd met up in the park and sought out our usual clearing. Usagi was in a new set of sweats, and it was obvious she and Ami had gone shopping together because my second student was wearing her own brand-new set of sweats, identical to Usagi's except for color: Usagi's were white with gold trim while Ami's was a familiar shade of blue, and I knew it had to be intentional. Luna, meanwhile, was in a set of black and yellow sweats that made her look like Uma Thurman in "Kill Bill".
I suppressed an urge to sigh and shake my head. It's one thing to have signature colors, but I was going to have to warn them about being a bit too obvious about their Guardian identities. Even Luna. Yes, we'd all been disguised when we'd been out in public, like at the Hard Rock, but it never hurt to be careful.
Yeah. That's me saying that. But I'm not a 13-year-old girl with an unprotected family.
After I walked Ami through the mana manipulation circuit I'd mentioned the day before, we moved on to the main event. It took all of ten minutes to run Ami and Luna through first "Harder Better Faster" and then "I'll Make a Man Out of You". Watching them flop over like Usagi had, I took pity on them. "G'wan, get out of here," I said. "Take the rest of the day off and get used to your new baselines. Usagi, watch over them please?"
She grinned and saluted. "Sure thing, sensei."
I gave her a nod and turned back to the other two. "Okay, then, I'll see you all back here tomorrow morning at 11 for the ritual. In the meantime you may need to watch yourselves for the next few days, as you're going to have to consciously keep acting and reacting at your 'normal' levels."
"Don't worry," Usagi said as she trotted over and helped first Luna and then Ami to their feet. "I know what to do and just what you need."
"Oh, good," murmured Luna as Ami made vaguely agreeing noises and they headed back out into the more public areas of the park. Usagi waved goodbye as they passed into the underbrush and out of sight. I knew she'd take care of them. Having gone through the process herself, she was no doubt already queuing up a low-impact afternoon punctuated by high-protein snacking — just what the doctor ordered to recover from the effect that those two songs had had on their bodies.
After they wandered off, I spent several minutes reviewing my side of the experience. There had been something different about "I'll Make a Man Out of You" this time — a sense of options that hadn't been there or which I hadn't noticed the first time I'd used it. Almost as though I could have sent it in another direction, toward something other than basic training. I'd have to investigate that, just to make sure there weren't any unexpected negative side effects.
I spent another half-hour or so prepping the space for the next day's ritual as I thought about that, removing twigs and rocks and piling them up to one side. The ground was nice and flat already, thanks in part to our increasingly frequent use of the space as the weather had improved, and for much the same reason it wasn't overgrown or weed-ridden. I just needed to remove any random kibble that might interfere with first scribing and then using the ritual diagram.
Once I was satisfied with my work, I left the park, did some shopping, and headed back home. After putting away the groceries I double-checked the bag of supplies I'd assembled over the last week, making sure I hadn't forgotten anything we might need for the ritual. Just like the last dozen times I checked, it had everything: spray chalk, some sturdy nylon cordage, a measuring tape, a couple of garden stakes, a rubber mallet, a magnetic compass — and a copy of the ritual plan.
Sunday, June 7, 1992, 6:12 AM
Tomoe Souichi laughed quietly to himself as he carefully stepped from station to station. The basement laboratory was barely lit, cloaking him in shadow except for the glints of light his glasses caught from the display panels and readouts around the room. He paused at one table and peered into the sealed vessel of smoked glass, so very much like a canopic jar from ancient Egypt, in which he had been keeping a very special daimon egg.
"Not long now," he whispered, smiling. "Just a few more hours until the Mistress is born."
Sunday, June 7, 1992, 9:25 AM, Fuji International Speedway, Shizuoka
Tenoh Haruka allowed a grin to stretch across her face as she threw her car into the first hairpin turn out of the straightaway at the northeastern end of the track, powering through it just shy of fast enough to send her spinning out, trusting to the new tires to grip and keep her on target. As she shot out of the turn and the track sloped down to another, shorter straightaway, she slammed through a gear change and took off toward Coca Cola Corner, then barely touched her brakes enough to take her safely through the nearly right-angle turn to the left that led into the horseshoe of track misleadingly called the Toyopet 100 R Corner.
This, this is what living is about, she thought to herself with a savage glee as the acceleration forces threw her against the unyielding safety restraints that held her in their tight embrace. As she prepared to take the second hairpin of the course she spied the white roof and glass walls of the CRANE Garden restaurant and spared a thought for the cute race queen-themed waitresses there and the fun she'd have flirting with them after her track time was over and she had a little time to relax.
What a difference a month and a half makes, she thought as she came out of the hairpin and accelerated toward Dunlop Corner. Yeah, she could have dropped 900,000 yen for an hour on the track back in April, but it would have been seen as just a rich girl playing at being a racer. But a few weeks and a couple real races at Circuit Akigase had gotten her noticed, and now she was seen as the real thing — a newbie, to be sure, but a driver with potential. Now an hour at FSW would not only peg her as serious, but also raise her visibility in the circles she wanted to race in.
She was carefully navigating the vicious S-curve that led back into the main straightaway in front of the stands when the sound of a young girl outright howling suddenly filled her ears. "Masao!" she shouted into the radio link to her crew chief as she came out of the turn. "What is that?"
"What's what?" he replied over the crackly link.
"I'm hearing a girl screaming! Is it on the link?"
"Not on this end!"
Haruka opened her mouth but never got her response out because the howl suddenly became words — English words — sung, to a heavy, pounding metal beat:
"<When they see us they will run for their lives.
To the end they will pay for their lies.
So long did we wait, now we are home!>"
"Highness," Haruka whispered without realizing it as a sudden need to be... somewhere, elsewhere seized her. Without thinking about it, instead of accelerating into the straightaway she abruptly braked and pulled off into the pit area, hurtling through it far above the safe speed to squeal to a stop in front of the bay she'd rented for her team. Cutting the engine, she slapped the quick release on the restraints and climbed out of the car.
"Haruka?" Masao came scrambling out of the bay. "What the hell's up?"
"Gotta go, Masao," she said, stumbling as she dropped to the asphalt and caught herself before falling over. "Got somewhere to be."
"What?" he demanded, following as she began to jog to the door at the back of the bay.
Haruka waved at the car without turning around. "Pack'er up, take her home. I'll be back... sometime." She burst through the door and threw herself onto her waiting motorcycle, starting it and peeling out without bothering to hear whatever Masao said next. He'd do what she'd told him, and more. That's why she paid him, after all.
A few minutes later she shot through the Speedway's East Gate, and a moment later jogged left then right to get onto Yamabuki Street. She barely slowed down to the speed limit as she roared through Tanagashira, but she knew she had to get to Route 246 as quickly as possible. She needed to go east, fast and far. How fast, she knew — as fast as possible. How far... that was a different question. She didn't know where she had to be.
But she'd know it when she got there.
"<I now issue the call, are you ready to fight?>"
the girl's voice demanded in her ears.
"Yeah!" Haruka shouted into the wind.
Sunday, June 7, 1992, 10:33 AM, Shanshan Plaza Concert Hall
Kaioh Michiru sat with her ankles demurely crossed under her seat and the folds of her skirt elegantly draped about her legs, as she waited patiently for the conductor to finish his business with the stage manager. It had taken more than two weeks — and reportedly all manner of trouble between the Shanshan Plaza management and the unions which worked the concert hall — but all the fallout of the bizarre talent show that had supplanted her premiere on the Shanshan schedule had finally been resolved and the concert rescheduled. There were still rough edges that needed smoothing over, even so — hence conductor Kinoshita-san and the stage manager taking special care to make sure that each other was satisfied with the arrangements for this somewhat hastily-arranged dress rehearsal.
Michiru bided her time, confident in both the orchestra and herself. During the involuntary hiatus, they had continued their regular rehearsals, maintaining and further polishing their performance while waiting for the apologetic management of the hall to rearrange their schedule. Little truly remained for them save to make adjustments for the acoustics of the auditorium.
A rapid tapping broke Michiru from her musings, and she looked up as Kinoshita-san called out, "All right, everyone, if we're all ready? Let's begin. Kaioh-san?"
Michiru nodded, then rose and took her place to the side of the podium. Kinoshita-san smiled and returned the nod before turning his attention to the orchestra, and with a graceful downstroke of both baton and empty hand, began their performance of the last movement of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E minor.
Opus 64, a corner of her mind whispered insistently, and she smiled privately at that as she began the fourteen bars which would have marked the transition from the second movement had they been performing the entire concerto. This passage was almost a conversation between her violin and the string section, alternating soft counterpoints and rich reinforcement of the melodic line she played.
The tempo was gentle — not too slow, but certainly not the allegro non troppo the score called for. The transition passage was deceptive, though, and when those fourteen bars were complete, almost a minute later, there came a little trumpet fanfare (to which she played in counterpoint) that announced the true beginning of the movement — and its true tempo.
With that fanfare, her solo was supposed to become a brisk, bubbly sonata rondo built out of rapid arpeggios both up and down the scale — a lively and challenging melodic line which would carry the orchestra into a recapitulation of the opening. But before they could get there her concentration was shattered by the voice of a young girl emitting a howling glissando that launched itself up the scale, dragging her bow with it across the strings of her violin.
Amazingly, instead of a discordant screech, it drew forth the same climbing tone as the howl that only she seemed to hear. Around her, the orchestra crashed to a stop, one instrument at a time.
"Kaioh-san, this isn't funny. What do you think you're playing?" Kinoshita-san demanded, but she couldn't stop to answer — the mystery girl had launched into a song and Michiru found herself playing along, carried by the vivace tempo and somehow knowing just in time what note to play next. The girl, whoever she was, was singing in English, her soprano voice hitting low notes that were almost out of her register.
"<Here once again there's a battle to fight —
Gather together for the sound and the might.
So long did we wait, now we are home!>"
Laced through the insistent, pounding melody was an imperative that seized Michiru. More than the need to play, she needed to go, to leave. Now. There was somewhere that she had to be and it wasn't the Shanshan concert hall. With a sudden flourish she forced herself to stop playing, then stepped forward and dropped off the stage with a surprising ease and grace.
She strode up the aisle through the empty audience, ignoring the conductor who was calling her name and demanding an explanation. She had none. Michiru only knew that she was being called, and that she had to answer.
Carefully cradling her violin and bow, Michiru burst out of the hall. At a pace just shy of a run, she crossed the lobby and thrust her way through the glass doors and out of the building entirely. Not knowing what called her, not caring, she simply listened to the girl as she sang, and let the phantasmal voice lead her across the plaza and into the nearby station for the Chuo-Sobu line. As she approached the gate it opened for her, even though her railpass was in her purse, which was still in the green room backstage at the concert hall.
Michiru didn't question it. She took the stairs to one of the platforms without thinking about which one it was. A train pulled up as she came out of the stairwell; the doors opened and she stepped in. She took a seat and listened, her violin and bow wrapped in her arms.
"<I now issue the call, are you ready to fight?>"
the girl's voice demanded.
"Yes!" Michiru whispered fiercely, not understanding why but knowing, deep inside her, that it was true.
Sunday, June 7, 1992, 11:04 AM, Prince Arisugawa Park
I had barely arrived in our usual clearing and begun a final pass to make sure there was no loose debris in the ritual space when Ami, Usagi and Luna made their way past the encircling bushes. Usagi's cheery greeting was followed by more reserved ones from Luna and Ami.
"Good morning, ladies," I said, tossing a couple sticks aside and straightening up. I gestured to one side of the clearing, where I'd left a brown paper bag, a white plastic shopping bag, and a bucket at the base of a large bush. "I brought bagels. I suggest you each have one, you'll probably want the extra carbs for the ritual."
"Ooh, bagels! Thank you, sensei!" Usagi was already across the clearing and digging through the brown paper bag. "Cinnamon raisin! Yay! Is there cream cheese?"
I chuckled. "Yes. And butter." I think I knew who'd been nicking my bagels now.
"What are bagels?" Ami asked.
Luna said, "They're a kind of bread from Europe. They're quite good."
Or maybe not.
As Luna led a somewhat dubious Ami to join Usagi in ransacking the bagel bag, I smiled to myself, then crossed the clearing to join them — not to get a bagel but to get the tools in the plastic bag next to them. It was time to scribe the diagram.
As I grabbed the bag, I noticed that as Luna patiently waited her turn, Ami was carefully sawing a plain bagel lengthwise in half with a plastic knife, and doing a surprisingly good job at it. (Usagi hadn't bothered cutting her bagel open, and had just spread the cream cheese on top of it. Which of course led to as much cream cheese getting smeared around her mouth as going into it. Not that she cared — she just scraped the cheese off her face with her finger, which she then licked clean.)
I grabbed the bag of tools and carried it over to the approximate center of the clearing. Dropping to one knee, I reached in and pulled out a wooden stake and rubber mallet. A key reason that diagrammatic magic — more commonly called "Hermetic" thanks to one particular latter-day group of practitioners — is one of the first styles primitive civilizations develop when they move from spontaneous emotion-driven casting to more systematic approaches is how easy it is to manage with the low-tech tools of classical Euclidean geometry — the ruler, the compass, the stylus... and in this particular case two stakes, several pieces of string and a can of spray chalk.
The night before I had carefully created several precisely-measured lengths of nylon cord. (I chose to use nylon because the humidity had been fluctuating over the past week, and I didn't want to risk a natural fiber cord changing its length with it.) Each had a loop a bit bigger around than the stakes' circumference tied off at either end; a drop of Crazy Glue on each knot ensured they wouldn't loosen. Then I'd carefully bundled each one fast paracord-style before wrapping the bundles with color-coded Post-It notes on which I'd written their lengths.
Kneeling there in the clearing, I dipped my hand in the bag and grabbed what felt like the thickest bundle. I glanced down at it and confirmed that it had the fluorescent yellow Post-It reading "2.5m" wrapped around it. I removed the Post-It and shoved it into a pocket, then pulled the cord loose. I slipped one end over the stake I'd just hammered into the ground. Then I grabbed the bag, stood up, and pulled out the second stake and the can of spray chalk.
As I did, Ami appeared at my side, a bagel filled sandwich-style with a thick layer of cream cheese in one hand. "Sensei, may I watch?"
I smiled. "Of course, teishi. In fact, I was going to suggest it. It looks complicated, but it's just an extrapolation of what you're already learning."
After I oriented myself to north using the magnetic compass, it took about ten minutes to lay out the diagram. As I did I gave Ami a high-level explanation of each part as I marked it out on the ground with the spray chalk. In place of a giant geometer's compass with a three-meter span, I used the various lengths of cord I'd prepared and the two stakes to define the different sizes of circles that made up the "skeleton" of the diagram, "scribing" them on the ground with the spray chalk, which I aimed down the length of the "free" stake. Eventually I let Ami try her hand at scribing part of the diagram. Using chalk made correcting errors simple, but I wasn't at all surprised when she made none, not even the classic beginner's mistakes.
Usagi, now mostly devoid of her cream cheese decoration, came over and watched, asking questions about the process as we worked. I did my best to relate what Ami and I were doing to the style of magic she was learning. Luna, delicately noshing on her own bagel (note to self: regardless of personal history, don't forget the lox next time) stood next to her and offered her own questions and insights.
I'm not sure Usagi got as much out of it as Luna or Ami did, but she certainly wasn't bored. She even seemed to be trying to memorize some of the symbols and characters used to shape and channel the mana that would be flowing through the diagram once things got started, copying the strokes in the air with one forefinger. Interesting. I wondered what she had in mind.
Anyway, when Ami and I were done, every component was in place and the diagram was complete except for the narrow openings where Ami, Usagi and I would enter the smaller circles that marked our positions for the ritual. Once we were in place, Luna would then close the diagram behind us, moving from the innermost to outermost segments, until all the openings had been sealed. At that point the diagram would self-initialize off environmental mana.
After, she would stand ready to break the diagram in the unlikely case something went wrong. Behind me, specifically, trusting to my field, my armor and my body mass to shield her if something explosive or damaging happened and it turned out strong enough to break through the diagram's containment boundary.
That was my idea, by the way. She wasn't happy with it, but agreed it made sense. Neither of us expected anything of the sort, but ... well, fill in your own cliché of choice here.
"All right," I said, standing up from a crouch and slapping stray chalk dust off my legs and hands. "Fifteen minutes to showtime, ladies. Gather 'round." With the very attentive Ami still at my side I carried my plastic bag back to the bagels and bucket and took out my last tool — a ladle. I dropped the bag and glanced up at the grey sky as Luna and Usagi joined us.
I gestured at the bucket with the ladle. "Water from the shrine across the street. It's not exactly flowing right now, but still it couldn't hurt to do a ritual cleansing with it before we start. All of us." I put actions to words by scooping out half a liter or so of water, washing my hands with some of it, then rinsing my mouth with the rest in the proper Shinto manner.
I got three agreements and Usagi stepped forward. I handed her the ladle, then I moved back to give her room. "And when you're done with that," I added glancing at her and Ami, "It's time for you two to change."
Sunday, June 7, 1992, 11:16 AM. Hikawa Jinja, Akasaka, Minato, Tokyo.
Hino Rei, miko, knelt before the sacred fire of the Hikawa shrine and performed her devotions. She did not normally attend to the fire late on Sunday mornings, but she had been uneasy since rising some hours before. Something she could not identify weighed upon her, as though she had a vital task to do which she had forgotten, something so utterly important that not knowing what it was was driving her crazy.
So she had turned to the sacred fire to calm and center herself. Only it hadn't worked. If anything her anxiety had grown; she could barely keep herself centered and focused on the flame. Only the familiar ritual kept her from rising and pacing back and forth across the shrine's polished wooden floor like an agitated cat. But completing it — for the sixth time! — had done absolutely nothing for her.
Rei took a deep breath and began the ritual one more time, hoping that this time it would calm her as it usually did. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath to center herself — again! — and then clapped her hands. At the sound the sacred fire flared up suddenly, swirling briefly into a column. Startled, Rei flinched back. At the same moment her mind's eye opened of its own accord and she once again saw the shrine's guardian spirit, poised within the pillar of flame as though it was searching the horizon for enemies.
Then, to Rei's astonishment, it turned its attention to her and addressed her for the very first time. "The one you are waiting for calls for you."
And with that Rei could hear the voice of a girl, a wordless cry that was half-sung, half-screamed into the spiritual world. Something deep inside her leaped at the sound, and that anxiety which had plagued her vanished.
"<Here once again there's a battle to fight,>"
the mysterious girl sang out. That it was in English didn't seem to matter — Rei understood it without thought.
The guardian spirit nodded approvingly. "She calls you," it repeated. "Go to her. Now!"
Rei didn't need to be told a second time. She leapt to her feet, turned, and dashed out of the shrine. She stopped only to put on her zori sandals, then ran out to the narrow street toward which the shrine faced. As she paused under the granite torii to figure out which way to turn she heard her grandfather call out, "Rei-chan? Where are you going?" She shook her head irritatedly and ignored him, launching herself left and to the southwest.
As she sped down the street, her miko vestments flapping and her long black hair streaming behind her, her grandfather watched, a look of intense concern replacing his normally jovial expression. When she had vanished in the distance, he turned and entered the shrine to study the sacred flame, now returned to its normal size and dimensions. He studied it carefully for several minutes, then nodded sagely to himself, the lines of concern relaxing slightly. "Ah. If that is the case..." he muttered, then fed a log to the flame.
As he passed through the door of the shrine he suddenly felt weak, with an unaccustomed pain in his chest. He fell against the lintel and barely held himself upright as the pain grew to an almost unbearable intensity.
With his granddaughter gone, the only person who noticed his distress was the shrine's newest employee — who did nothing to stop what was happening.
Blocks away, Rei heard the unknown girl demand
"<I now issue the call, are you ready to fight?>"
"Yes!" Rei hissed with an outward rush of breath as she continued to run.
Sunday, June 7, 1992, 11:21 AM, Shibakoen, Tokyo, Japan
"<Here once again there's a battle to fight —
Gather together for the sound and the might.
So long did we wait, now we are home!>"
Minako shot straight upright from her slumped position sprawled in an armchair in her family's sitting room, spilling a dozing Artemis onto the floor with a yelp.
The white cat shook his head to clear it, then looked up to see her staring blankly into the distance, almost quivering with... tension? Excitement? He couldn't tell. "Mina-chan? What's up?"
Minako looked down, turning wide eyes on him. "It's her. It's the sign you told me about. She's calling!"
That got his attention. "What?" Artemis demanded.
"The princess! She's calling us! All the guardians, right now!" In Minako's hand was the wand she had used for so many months, and as she raised it into the air, she shouted the words that turned her into Sailor V:
"Moon Power, Transform!"
Sunday, June 7, 1992, 11:23 AM, Azabujuban
Chiba Mamoru paused at the corner of Zoshiki and Azabujuban Streets. There had been... something... Something like a sound just on the edge of his hearing. He stepped out of the flow of pedestrian traffic and into a niche holding the side employee entrance to the confectionery that opened on the intersection, closed his eyes, and concentrated.
Whatever it was, it was faint and all but impossible to make out... but somehow he was certain it was addressing him, trying to get his attention like a person whispering his name across a noisy room. Or, he allowed, perhaps not just him. After a moment's thought Mamoru pressed himself back against the door and quickly blocked his ears with his fingertips.
The noises of the street, predictably, were muffled — but as he had suspected, not the call, which remained just as maddeningly faint but unmuffled and unobscured. He opened his eyes and lowered his hands. It seemed to be coming from — or maybe drawing him toward — the southwest.
Well. He stepped out and away from the door, and a few steps more to the crosswalk across Azabujuban Street. It certainly couldn't hurt to investigate.
Sunday, June 7, 1992, 11:24 AM, Minamiazabu 3 Chome, Tokyo.
Kino Makoto let the ringing timer run down as she turned off the oven then pulled on her insulated mitts. She opened the oven door with more dexterity than ought to be possible with the clumsy gloves, then bent over to pull out the middle rack and the cookie sheet on it.
With a nudge from her knee she closed the oven door, then paused a moment to inhale the scent of the freshly-baked cookies before laying the sheet on top of the range. She was just reaching for the spatula with which to transfer the cookies to the cooling rack on the counter next to the stove when she heard the howl.
Makoto froze. Not a howl. A shriek? A cry? No... a... a... she didn't know what to call it, but in a second it was clear that it was sung, a young girl's voice belting out a single note that climbed the scale then hung in place for a long, eternal moment.
Before she even realized what she was doing, Makoto had torn her apron off and was running for the door.
"<I now issue the call, are you ready to fight?>"
"Yes!" something deep inside her cried triumphantly, and Makoto answered along with it as the door slammed behind her.
Sunday, June 7, 1992, 11:25 AM, Prince Arisugawa Park
As the girls stepped to the edge of the clearing to change into their guardian forms, I did a final check of the diagram, walking around its edges and comparing the paths, components and stand-alone runic structures to the plan. When I'd satisfied myself that Ami and I had made no errors in our scribing, I looked up to where the two guardians now stood, chatting quietly with Luna.
"Mercury?" I called.
"Yes, sensei!" she replied and jogged over to my side. "What is it?"
"Your turn to check the diagram," I said, and held out the plan. She nodded, took it, and immediately began comparing them, just like I had.
Once Ami had had a handle on sensing magic, the first thing I then taught her, before even the simplest building blocks for mana circuits, were the safety protocols defined by and for this particular style. To vastly over-simplify matters, it worked something like a cross between computer programming and electronic circuit design, and I'd demonstrated with a few small explosions why it was vitally important to check your work — and that of anyone you were casting with — before feeding power to a diagram. Because a bug in your design wouldn't just burn out a chip or crash the program — it could very well feed a very large amount of uncontrolled energy right into the caster and/or their immediate environment.
In the words of the immortal Dr. Peter Venkman, "Important safety tip!"
She made her way around the edge of the diagram at bit more slowly than I had, and just as intent on confirming that the diagram matched the plan exactly. Finally, she nodded to herself, looked up and walked back over to me. "I didn't see anything wrong," she said softly as she handed the plan back.
"Me neither," I replied. "Looks like we're ready to go."
Both Guardians nodded soberly and silently. As I pulled my helmet on and waited the few seconds for it to boot up, Moon took up her position — it was located almost at the center of the diagram, as befit her role as the primary officiant — and Luna carefully began closing the lines surrounding her.
If this had been a more traditional summoning, Moon would have been outside the diagram, which would have functioned as a target and containment for what was called, holding it within and protecting everyone outside. But she would be powering it — and this diagram was far less a summons and much more a beacon, generating a call that targeted anyone with a magical signature which shared the common elements possessed by both Moon and Mercury, and asking them to come to us.
And if, as Luna and I were all but certain, Usagi was the reincarnated Moon princess, making her the power source and the officiant of the ritual would all but guarantee that that call would resonate with everyone who should receive it.
Luna backed out of the "path" left open into the interior of the diagram and let Mercury make her way to her subcircle. Once she was in place, Luna then closed the diagram behind her.
Meanwhile I had taken up my place, which had a separate "entry" from the girls' on the diametric opposite side of the diagram. Luna trotted over to add the last strokes of spray chalk to seal me in and complete the circuit, and as she dropped the can and stepped back to her pre-assigned station, I felt the faint "hum" of the diagram collecting and circulating mana from the glade around us. A quick glance in magesight — which I noticed Moon doing (and Mercury trying) as well — confirmed that the dome of mana generated by the first stage of the ritual had formed properly. I came out of magesight and nodded to myself.
"Ready, teishi?" I asked across the circle.
"Ready, Sensei!" she chirped.
I made sure my external speakers were turned on. Then I lifted my hand to the cheek of my helmet and slid open the external keypad, entered the ID for Manowar's "Call to Arms", and hovered my fingertip over the "GO" button. "Counting down from three..."
Sunday, June 7, 1992, 11:29 AM
"Poppa? What's going on?"
Souichi stopped to savor the loving trust his daughter had in him. Even as he strapped her down upon the gurney in preparation for the implantation of Mistress 9, she did not struggle or cry. Instead she simply relaxed and allowed him to do as he wished. He would dearly miss her once the Mistress had consumed her soul and taken sweet Hotaru's body for her own.
"Poppa's going to take care of you, Firefly," he crooned. "In just a few minutes you'll never have to worry about your injuries ever again." He glanced across the basement at Kaorinite, who stood guard in the shadows over the table that held both Mistress 9's daimon egg and his surgical instruments. As he drew tight the strap on Hotaru's left arm, he shared a wide, feral smile with her.
Sunday, June 7, 1992, 11:29 AM, Prince Arisugawa Park
"Counting down from three..."
Sailor Moon took a deep breath, shifting the focus of her magesight to the part of the circle right in front of her. There before her was the "funnel", just as Sensei had said it would be. Not that she'd doubted him.
Or ever would.
Moon knew this ritual would work. With Luna and Sensei both designing it, how could it not? But she was a mage, too, and she could do more than just recite her lines while she fed power into the ritual, then let it do all the work. It wouldn't be Will and Word, not exactly, but it would be her will and her words.
She took a deep breath, and focused her mind and her will as sensei had taught her.
Sailor Moon shoved all the magic she could produce into the "funnel"... and with every bit of it she demanded "WAKE UP AND HELP US!"
It would be nice if she could understand the song, too, she mused, a tiny afterthought in the moment before she was to start reciting her part of the ritual, right before everything happened.
I'd never used this song before. I'd never had a need, although there had been days when I'd come close. And then once — no, twice — in Velgarth, long before I'd gotten my hands on it, when I would have used it if I'd had it.
This was not a song I wanted to leave up to chance.
So I pushed it.
If you've not been going through these journals of mine in order, o Hypothetical Reader (whomever you may be), I probably need to explain this. My primary metatalent is... whimsical. Some would say random, even chaotic, but I don't believe that's really the case. Even so, it doesn't take every song I hear and turn it into a magical effect; in fact, not quite one in five will do something I find useful.
(I'm sure many, if not most, of the rest do things, too. They're just not... noticeable. Too small, or displaced in space or time. My wife Maggie once joked that for every new song I tried that didn't seem to do anything, a star probably blew up in a galaxy on the other side of the universe, and that sooner or later someone would come by to tell me to cut it out.)
Regardless, the first time I hear a song, I always get a good idea of what it might do, if it turns out to be one of those one-in-five. And if I really want that song to work, I can do something more than just play it and see — I can metaphorically grit my teeth and clench my fists and try to force my metatalent to give me the effect it promised me, by sheer willpower.
Theoretically, it should work every time. Magic is, after all, the imposition of change upon reality powered by mana and directed by the practitioner's will. But the problem here is that I'm not directly casting a spell. I'm trying to force my own subconscious to do something that, for unknown reasons of its own, it might not want to do.
Sometimes it works.
And sometimes my subconscious lets me know in no uncertain terms that it doesn't like to be bullied. If I'm lucky, I just end up looking like Elmer Fudd after the shotgun blows up in his face. But if I'm not, well, it can start at "fucking ouch" and escalate from there. I'm pretty sure my subconscious wouldn't actually kill me in such a case, but a few times, long ago, I certainly wished it had.
I'd already decided that this was too important a matter to not force the song. I was hoping my subconscious agreed.
I was wrong.
Within the first crashing drumbeats, I realized that I'd made a possibly fatal mistake. As the bass line and underlying chorus took off, I felt any control I might have had over the song and its effect yanked out of my metaphorical hands. But instead of snapping back and flooding me with painful feedback like a usual backfire, something else was happening — something that felt like the times I had played the role of conduit for more power than I could handle. My metatalent was running wild, dumping all the power it could pull from and through me... somewhere.
It wasn't until Moon, having completed her invocation, suddenly went rigid and howled the first sung note along with Eric Adams that I realized where that somewhere was.
And along with all the power the song was pulling out of me, I felt something else. Something I hadn't felt since Velgarth, some seventy-five years earlier, when Delandra and I accidentally triggered the artificial node hidden under Haven without even knowing it was there.
The first drumbeat had barely sounded when Sailor Moon felt an immense surge of magic erupt out of the circuit. She had barely a moment to think, Maybe I shouldn't've done that before it smashed into her like a tsunami. But instead of breaking her, it broke on her, its power swirling around and filling her and spilling back out into the circuit again. In its wake, she felt larger, somehow, in a way that had nothing to do with size, larger and yet somehow missing something.
Quickly, before she forgot, she recited the incantation that had been assigned to her. She didn't understand the language it was written in, but she knew what it meant and that was the important part. As she did, she noted almost absently that heavy, deep guitars and a chorus had joined the drum — and deep inside her, something pulsed in tune with it all. As she finished the last syllable of the incantation, the music seemed to seize her and freeze her in place, until with a tiny fanfare to herald it, a man's voice all but screamed his way into the very first note sung in the song.
Without consciously intending to, Sailor Moon screamed along with him. And driven by that emptiness she didn't understand, she thrust her right hand, fingers spread wide, up above her head just in time to receive the first answer to the demand that she had made of the ritual.
In the midst of that howl-to-note transition, Moon abruptly reached up over her head and without looking caught seven tiny comets of light — one of each color of the rainbow — that shot down out of the overcast sky from all directions. The moment they met in her hand there was a flash of light so bright my helmet's flare compensation kicked in to protect my eyesight.
When it released, Moon was no longer in her red-white-and-blue miniskirted uniform. Instead she wore a long white gown. A golden crescent, positioned horizontally with its points facing upward, adorned her brow, shining like the sun.
And in the hand above her head she held a star.
As more guitars joined the song, Sailor Moon lowered her arm and stared at the huge, gleaming gem which now lay nestled in her hand. It gave off a blinding white light that somehow didn't affect her at all, and looking at it, she knew that it was hers — and that it was important, more important than anything. It began to pulse to the beat of the song, and before she realized what she was doing, Moon raised her arm again, looked off into the distance and began to sing with the recording.
"<When they see us they will run for their lives.
To the end they will pay for their lies.
So long did we wait, now we are home!>"
Singing, a small part of her mind realized in surprise, in perfect English unlike anything she'd ever said before in the language.
"<Here once again there's a battle to fight —
Gather together for the sound and the might.
So long did we wait, now we are home!>"
Luna took an involuntary step backward from the ritual diagram. The gown that Moon — Usagi — wore now was one that despite her damaged memory she could recall perfectly. And that gem...
She and Doug had been right.
Usagi had been the Princess all along.
As a smile began to break across her face, Luna suddenly felt a flicker of magic accessing her storage space. Checking it, she realized that the transformation wands she'd been keeping safe had all vanished.
"<Now we will fight for the Kingdom, fighting with steel!
Kill all of them, their blood is our seal!
Fight 'til the last of the Enemy is dead!
Ride through their blood that we gladly have shed!>"
Sailor Mercury reeled, almost stunned — even with her still-limited ability to sense it, the sheer power of the magic exploding from Sailor Moon was like a gale force wind. Mercury had to physically brace herself against it, lest it bowl her over and send her tumbling back against the containment boundary of the ritual diagram.
Braced against its force, Mercury finally lifted her eyes back to Moon, who was almost hidden in the glare of a brilliant white light that she seemed to be holding in her hand. She could just barely make out Moon's profile — she wasn't looking at whatever was emitting the light, but instead off into the distance. The calm, almost serene, cast of her face, just barely visible through the blaze of white, was a stark contrast to the unabashedly bloodthirsty lyrics.
Lyrics, Mercury realized a moment later, that were in English — which Moon was singing as though she was a native speaker. And, she realized, which she was understanding with an unconscious ease she'd never experienced before.
"<I now issue the call, are you ready to fight?>"
Moon sang, and something deep inside Mercury responded. "Yes!" she shouted, realizing even as she did that yes, she was ready to fight at Moon's side — to the death, if necessary.
And somewhere at the edge of her hearing, she could swear she heard other voices, all girls and women, calling out "Yes!" with her.
"<Fight all together as one for the right,
To be free once again — tonight we will win!>"
Sunday, June 7, 1992, 11:32 AM. Shirokane 3 Chome, Tokyo.
Kegon abruptly stood up from her eating table (dining table, she reminded herself), across which she had spread the newspapers and books which all played a key part in her assignment. Something... something had alerted her.
And she couldn't put her claw on precisely what.
She glanced to either side and then turned to look behind her. No, nothing was in the room with her. She tilted her head and listened carefully. Nothing but the usual sounds she had come to know from the building and the devices in the apartment. She closed her eyes, lifted her chin, and drew a long, slow breath in through her nose. No... no unexpected scents.
But still... something had triggered her instincts, something that just for a moment had screamed "Threat!"
What could it have been?
Sunday, June 7, 1992, 11:32 AM.
"<I now issue the call, are you ready to fight?>"
"No, Poppa! NO!" shrieked Hotaru as her father, his scalpel gleaming silver in the darkness of the basement, made the first cut into her bare chest. The razor-sharp edge stung, and the pain only grew as her father pressed the scalpel harder.
Somewhere beyond the pain, a girl was singing, was calling, was offering — and deep inside herself, Hotaru accepted. A part of her she'd never known was there opened its eyes and through the pain whispered into the darkness.
"Saturn power, make up."
Less than a minute later, Guardian Saturn stood amidst the wreckage of the basement, the Silence Glaive in her hand angled down toward the floor with a line of crimson slowly dripping from its edge. The daimon egg was smashed and melting into a foul goo that was already evaporating into wisps of noxious green mist. Smoke rose from the shattered devices that filled the room, and water from a severed pipe sprayed through the air to pool on the concrete floor where it mixed with the blood that flowed from the cooling bodies of her father and his assistant Kaori.
Saturn panted in the moist, smoky air, and slowly, Hotaru's awareness emerged from behind the ancient warrior persona. Her eyes widened when she saw the bodies at her feet. "Poppa?" she whispered.
"<I swear by the sisters who stand before me
To no one shall I kneel!
Their blood is upon my steel!>"
She reached out to the bodies with her free hand. A droplet of blood rolled down the curved blade of the Glaive, hung quivering on its very tip, then fell into the pooling water in which she stood with an absurdly loud "plop". Saturn squeaked, spun away from the mortal remains of her father, and vanished.
Sunday, June 7, 1992, 11:33 AM
"<I now issue the call, are you ready to fight?>"
"Yes!" Meiou Setsuna — no, Guardian Pluto — lurched to her feet, abruptly shoving back and knocking over the stool on which she'd been sitting as she worked on a new design. She glanced around the converted bedroom she used as her private studio, suddenly disoriented, before the realization forced itself to the forefront of her mind: The Princess! She calls!
The Garnet Rod was in her hand with the briefest thought, and with it came a ripple of magic that replaced her slacks and blouse with the skin-tight, flexible armor of a Guardian, its cool grey highlighted with the dark green that had once dominated the Seal of her home planet.
The transformation complete, Pluto almost teleported to her sovereign's side before thought overrode instinct. She reflexively glanced at the calendar on the wall over her work table although she knew to the second the date and time, and frowned. "It's too soon," she muttered. "The timeline has changed. Why? How?"
The state of the timeline — and any potential threat to Crystal Tokyo — took priority, even over a summons from her Highness. Pluto took a step forward... and arrived at the Gate of Time. She tapped the butt of the Key twice against the floor, then snapped out, "Access. Scan mode."
Slowly, the doors with their images of the phases of the moon opened to her, and Pluto began searching through the recent past to find the critical divergence.
She found it.
She watched it five times. Once in reverse.
Then she followed the cascade of changes it had caused which led to the Princess's call. "What are they wearing?" she muttered at one point.
She frowned thoughtfully. This... was significant. How was it that the Gate had not alerted her to a threat to Crystal Tokyo? Something this major should have triggered every alarm that she had set on the timeline. Fearing the worst, she said, "Gate, show me the current status of timeline designate Crystal Tokyo."
The Gate complied, and Pluto's jaw dropped. She stared, fascinated, at the images displayed by the Gate, then began scanning up and down the timeline. Finally she shrugged and terminated the scan. "Well," she declared. "I can certainly live with that." She studied the now-quiescent gates. "Maybe I should help him a little?"
She thought about it for a moment, then shook her head. "No. It will be better if I just observe." With a wave of the Garnet Rod she conjured a bucket of popcorn and an armchair, then settled in to watch.
"<I can see by the look that you have in your eyes,
You came here for metal, to fight and to die!
Defenders of steel, now we are home!>"
I shook my head to clear it. For a moment there, I'd thought I'd heard a small chorus of female voices shout "Yes!" along with the male voices on the recording. Shoving that thought away, I glanced around the clearing. Thank the gods, whatever was happening wasn't destructive — at least not yet. No one was hurt that I could see, and the landscape was fundamentally untouched. The only changes anywhere were, as I mentioned, in Usagi.
I took a better look at her; the gown she was now dressed in was a sleeveless, off-the-shoulder, high-waisted Empire-style affair of white silk with a massive bow in the back (not unlike the one on her sailor outfit, I noted absently), its abbreviated bodice decorated with enough metallic gold to almost qualify as a breastplate.
"<Fight for the Kingdom, bound for glory,
Armed with a heart of steel!
I swear by the sisters who stand before me
To no one shall I kneel!
Their blood is upon my steel!
Blood is upon my steel!>"
As the recording dove into a guitar solo, I studied my student. Maybe it was the brilliant light squeezing out between the fingers of her clenched fist casting her face into an unusual relief, but Usagi looked like she just might be feeling exactly as bloodthirsty as that lyric. Which I suspect that you, o theoretical reader, would agree was not a normal look for her.
Then again, after our last playdate with the enemy I'm pretty sure all four of us had been entertaining the occasional bloodthirsty thought about them.
Anyway. Just what that light was was a matter of intense interest for me. In comparison, the fact that she was actually singing in perfect unaccented English — and adapting the song's lyrics on the fly — was almost trivial. It was pretty obvious to me that whatever the hell had happened to copy my knowledge of the language to Delandra lo these many years and worlds ago had just repeated itself.
I supposed that directly (if accidentally) transplanting my native speaker's grasp of English into Usagi's head counted as "teaching" her and I could legitimately take credit for all her upcoming test scores. Not to mention it gave me more time to concentrate on the subjects she was still weak in.
Focus, Doug, focus. I reined my wandering thoughts back in, realizing as I did that while I didn't seem to be injured, I was certainly having trouble staying on a single train of thought. Maybe I'd been hit with a bit more magical backlash from... whatever the hell had happened... than I'd initially thought.
The guitar solo ended, and Usagi began to sing again — and it finally occurred to me to wonder how she knew what to sing and when. Something strange was going on.
Tell me something I didn't know.
"<Now we will fight for the Kingdom, fighting with steel!
Kill all of them, their blood is our seal!
Fight 'til the last of the Enemy is dead!
Ride through their blood that we gladly have shed!>"
She didn't sing the verse so much as bellow it, a command issued to whomever heard her. And it wasn't just the light coming from whatever it was she held — her expression was something genuinely angry and determined both. I don't think I had ever seen her looking so fierce and warlike.
"<I now issue the call, are you ready to fight?>"
she demanded again, even more emphatically, and this time I was sure — a chorus of female voices drowned out the rough male voices on the recording with their own shouts of "Yes!" They were nowhere to be seen — the four of us were still the only ones in the clearing — but I had no doubt who they were.
The Guardians had awakened, and they were coming to answer the call of their Princess.
"<Fight all together as one for the right,
To be free once again — tonight we will win!>"
Slowed almost to a crawl by the urban traffic, Haruka turned her motorcycle off the street and up onto the sidewalk at the northernmost tip of Prince Arisugawa Park, scattering pedestrians as she veered first right and then left to turn into one of the entrances to the park. The overwhelming sense of urgency obliterating all other thought, she ditched the bike in the little paved and fenced area just past the gateway. As it crashed to the ground, she winced at the damage she'd almost certainly done to its finish. But she didn't — couldn't — look back, instead launching herself, still wearing her helmet, at a run along the path that led deeper into the park. She was still unsure of what she was running to, but was absolutely certain of where it was — and that she needed to be there.
"<I can see by the look that you have in your eyes,
You came here for metal, to fight and to die!
Defenders of steel, now we are home!>"
As soon as the Hibiya Line pulled into Hiro-o station, Michiru pushed her way out of the train car, twisting sideways and cradling her violin and bow in her arms to protect them from the crowd that even on a Sunday morning surged to board around her. Sacrificing elegance to the mysterious exigency which drove her, she all but ran along the platform to the exit at the end, the Tengenjibashi District gate, through a turnstile, past the ticketing machines, and up the long flight of stairs to emerge on Gaien nishi-dori Avenue.
Without really thinking about how she knew where to go, Michiru hurried to the next intersection, turned left, and ran down the smaller street, barely registering the shops and offices she passed while dodging the other pedestrians. She followed a bend to the left, and shortly found herself at an intersection — on the other side of which from her was the entrance at the southwestern corner of Prince Arisugawa Park.
She nodded once to herself, then dashed across the street and through the gate, where she felt a moment's irritation at the need to go around the pond that stood between her and her goal.
"<Fight for the Kingdom, bound for glory,
Armed with a heart of steel!>"
As he emerged from a narrow walkway between two buildings to find himself facing Prince Arisugawa Park, Mamoru's right hand twitched, like he was supposed to be holding something that was inexplicably missing. The closer he got, the clearer and more powerful the mysterious call became. It wasn't for him, he realized, not exactly... but somehow he knew that he wouldn't be unwelcome.
He dashed across the narrow one-way street before him and continued onward into the park.
"<I swear by the sisters who stand before me
To no one shall I kneel!
Their blood is upon my steel!>"
Makoto burst into the intersection at the southeastern corner of Prince Arisugawa Park at a full run, her skirt flapping noisily in the wind. She paused a moment, then charged through the intersection just as the light changed in her favor, crossing Nanbu Zaka diagonally and hopping across the low white safety railing which separated the sidewalk at the corner on the other side from the street in lieu of a proper curb.
She kept running along the sidewalk paralleling Nanbu Zaka until it abruptly stopped about twenty meters along at a gate in the hedge-and-stone wall. Without slowing, Makoto hurdled a mother kneeling in front of her child. "Excuse me, please!" she called back over her shoulder, before heading deeper into the park and dashing across an open area where she passed a statue of a boy with a flute.
"<Fight for the Kingdom, bound for glory,
Armed with a heart of steel!>"
Barely a minute later, Rei arrived at the same intersection from the east, not nearly at the full run she would have preferred as her zori had threatened to fly off her feet if she ran too quickly. Nor did her miko's garb allow her the length of stride an all-out run would have demanded. But despite being hobbled by her clothing she was here, just as the singer's demand had reached a crescendo.
"Not far now," she muttered to herself as she trotted across the empty street against the light. "Not far." She glanced to her right as she crossed to confirm that there were no entrances to the park that way. Nodding to herself, she kept heading straight, following the sidewalk to the point it ended at the park gate, and sidestepped a mother and her child to enter the park proper.
"<I swear by the sisters who stand before me
To no one shall I kneel!
Their blood is upon my steel!>"
Sailor V sped across the skyline of Minato, bounding from rooftop to rooftop as she raced southwestward across the ward. The voice of the Princess rang in her ears as she touched down lightly on a tiled roof and then launched herself into the air again.
"Every other superhero gets to fly," she muttered under her breath (conveniently forgetting that Moon and Mercury were as earthbound as she) as she bounced on, over and past apaatos and manshons. "Me, I've got to watch every step." Fortunately the route was more-or-less downhill, giving her a chance to scope out her next touchdown well before she was in mid-leap and committed to her trajectory.
As she rebounded off the top of a manshon made of yellow brick (next door to the embassy of Qatar, which she had carefully avoided — she'd learned the hard way that guards didn't like it when you roofhopped onto their buildings, and she'd made a point afterwards to memorize all the embassies in Minato), Sailor V checked the call that still played forth in her mind and heart, then nodded to herself. It was coming from the patch of green woods that was now in view ahead — almost directly behind the off-white, ten-story condominium complex at whose roof she had targeted her current leap.
A moment later V stood on that very roof, atop the low wall that ran around its edge. She allowed herself a little sigh of relief as she gazed down across the narrow street that separated the building from Prince Arisugawa Park. Not far now.
"She's there?" Artemis asked, hopping up onto the wall at her side. "In the park?"
One of these days, Sailor V thought, I'm going to find out how he keeps up with me when I'm bouncing across the city. "Yeah, right there, in the thickest part." She gestured at the heavy woods beyond and to the right of the library building that sat in the middle of the park's eastern edge.
Artemis harrumphed. "Best not to keep Her Highness waiting, then."
V quirked a tiny smile. "My thoughts exactly," she said, then launched herself into space.
"<Fight for the Kingdom, bound for glory
Armed with a heart of steel!>"
The urge that rose within her to be at Moon's side was so strong Mercury could barely resist it, even knowing that the success of the ritual depended on her not breaking the diagram in which she stood. Even so, she found herself twitching in place, making little half-steps and then catching herself before her toe scuffed the chalk line that enclosed her.
Instead, Mercury restricted herself to nervously fidgeting in place, whispering the lyrics of the song along with Moon as she anxiously awaited the end of the ritual.
General Nephrite looked up from the mass of documents on his table and frowned. He could have sworn he'd heard...
No. It was nothing.
He shook his head. But for a moment it seemed so familiar, a voice calling, reminding...
It. Was. Nothing.
He grit his teeth. It was most certainly not nothing, whatever it was, but it was too faint to make out.
Ignore it. Remember your duty to Queen Beryl, to Metaria.
No. Remember my duty to...
Elsewhere, Jadeite twitched at the touch of a foreign sensation but ignored it and remained focused on the plans before him for the next harvesting mission.
Sunday, June 7, 1992, 11:35 AM, Prince Arisugawa Park
"<I swear by the sisters who stand before me
To no one shall I kneel!
Their blood is upon my steel!
Blood is upon my steel!
Blood is upon my steel!
On! my! steel!>"
The recording ended, and with it Usagi fell silent, still lit by a much subdued glow from the whatever-it-was she continued to hold over her head. As the ritual diagram powered down to merely ambient energies, the clearing was suffused by an almost palpable hush, an expectant calm.
"Lu?" I half-whispered.
"On it," she said from behind me, and moment later I felt the circle collapse entirely.
"And now," I said, "we wait, and..."
And that was when everything happened at once.
I stopped mid-sentence as a chorus of snapping twigs and breaking branches surrounded us; I spun around (as did Moon, Mercury and Luna) to see four teenaged girls and one college-age guy crash through the underbrush on all sides of us. At the same time, Sailor V plunged down from the sky above into a perfect three-point landing.
There was a rat-a-tat of tiny, sharp cracks. A set of wands, clearly related to Mercury's in design and manufacture, appeared floating in the air before the girls — even Sailor V, who presumably already had one, and was still in that half-kneeling landing position. And instead of a wand, a sword appeared with a louder crack in the air before the guy. With an almost mechanical-seeming synchronization, as one they all — even the guy — reached forward to take that which was presented to them.
And then the girls all spoke at once.
"Venus!" A triumphant cry from Sailor V, louder than the rest.
"...Power Make-up!" In perfect unison. Strangely, the guy said nothing.
It was late morning on an overcast day, but for a few seconds the clearing was awash in light even brighter than full sun at high noon. Rainbow-hued shadows were cast in all directions, wavering and dancing as five simultaneous balls of colored fire erupted around the five girls, hurling them into the air, spinning and dancing as ribbons of energy twirled into existence around them.
At the same time, the guy brandished the sword and grew a cape of midnight blue lined in red satin. It swirled around him and cloaked a far more modest transformation that left him in a sleek mix of military dress uniform and enameled armor in shades of blue ranging from navy to sky, with the sword now sheathed and hanging from a burgundy belt over one of its tassets.
As he flipped the cape off his shoulders I turned my attention back to the girls, who had come out of their own transformations. I had been expecting more variations on Moon's outfit — she, Mercury and V all had blue skirts and collars over white leotard-like bodysuits, after all — but no. Before me was a rainbow's worth of uniforms: fiery red, both sea green and a verdant green, navy blue — and V's red, white and blue had been replaced by bright orange. Her mask had vanished, too — but the red bow in her hair was still there.
And they were all armored. Pauldrons on the shoulders, and cuirasses surmounted by bows, vambraces on their forearms over their gloves and greaves over their boots, all of them enameled in the dominant color of the uniforms underneath, and chased with white gold filigree. Their skirts looked to be made of something like kevlar, covered by overlapping strips of some thick and flexible-looking material with further armor plates (also brightly enameled) riveted to them, almost like a Roman cingulum.
Next to them Mercury looked almost pathetically under-dressed in her simple blue and white outfit.
Before I really had a chance to process that all, though, the one in red with waist-length raven hair took a step forward and announced, "Soldier of Flame and Passion, I am Guardian Mars!"
Across the clearing, the one in the verdant green, tall with rich chestnut hair in a high ponytail took a step and declared, "Thunder and Courage, I am Guardian Jupiter!"
Usagi was spinning in place, the hem of her long white skirt flaring out, as she turned to face each of the Guardians in turn.
The tall, short-haired blonde with the navy blue armor stood forth. "Guided by the new era, I am Guardian Uranus, appearing magnificent!"
At almost the same moment, the one with long hair a couple shades lighter than her uniform's striking sea green gestured gracefully and said, "Guided by the new era, I am Guardian Neptune, appearing elegant!"
Well. Obviously a matched set. And don't we have a high opinion of ourselves?
V rose from her crouch and half-bowed to Usagi, her right hand in a fist and held across her modest bosom. A white cat with a familiar crescent on its forehead dropped out of the trees to stand at her side. "Soldier of Love and Beauty, I am Guardian Venus!"
I glanced back at Luna to share a look of mutual smugness at our deductive prowess, but she was staring wide-eyed at the white cat. In that moment Mercury leapt away from Usagi and with a look of confusion blurted, "Soldier of Water and Wisdom, I am Guardian Mercury!" A ripple of pale blue light raced up her body from feet to head, and when it had passed, her simple seifuku-styled outfit had been replaced by the armored version that had appeared on the other girls.
In her seat before the Gates of Time, Guardian Pluto's eyes widened as a similar ripple of dark green raced across her body, transforming her familiar, comfortable combat fatigues into one of the armored party dresses that the rest of the Guardians now wore. As it did, she found herself murmuring, "Mine is the planet suspended in time and space. Soldier of Revolution, I am Guardian Pluto!"
Hotaru sobbed, curled into a ball on a massive bed covered with satiny linens of a deep purple hue, secure deep with the heart of Titan Castle. As she lay there, the automated systems of the castle quietly strove to repair the lingering injuries from the explosion caused by the possession of her father by the daimon Germatoid. Overwhelmed still by the events of the past few minutes, Hotaru never noticed them, nor the violet shimmer that transformed her bodysuit into an armor-plated seifuku, nor did she realize that as it did she whispered, "Mine is the planet of silence. Soldier of Ruin and Birth, I am Guardian Saturn!"
The guy then stepped forward, his bearing erect and regal. "Defender and prince of Earth," he said. "Endymion is here."
Damn it. I recognized that voice.
It was Captain Opera.
I glanced over at Usagi, who still stood with the glowing whatsit held over head. She hadn't reacted to his voice.
I turned my attention back to "Endymion". My eyes narrowing, I resolved that whatever he claimed his name was, the putz wasn't going to get away this time. As I did my hand slid down to rest on the Toothpick in its holster — entirely innocently, I swear.
To my shock, the moment I made skin contact with the Toothpick I heard a mental voice I hadn't heard in decades, not since the terrible day when I nearly killed Marller on the street in front of the Tarikihogonji temple.
Compatible component detected.
END OF CHAPTER FOUR
This work of fiction is copyright © 2022, Robert M. Schroeck, and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.
The Sailor Moon universe and the settings and the characters thereof are the property and/or licenses of Takeuchi Naoko, TOEI Animation, DiC, Kodansha, Bandai, Cloverway and others, and are used without permission.
"Douglas Q. Sangnoir," "Looney Toons", "The Loon" and any representations thereof are copyright by and trademarks of Robert M. Schroeck.
"The Warriors", "Warriors' World", "Warriors International" and "Warriors Alpha" are all jointly-held trademarks of The Warriors Group.
Lyrics from "This Time - Radio Mix", recorded by DJ Antoine, music and lyrics by Antoine "DJ Antoine" Konrad, Fabio Antoniali and Yoko, copyright © 2006 DJ Antoine, WMG and Kontor Records.
Lyrics from "Pushed Again", recorded by Die Toten Hosen, music and lyrics by Michael Breitkopf and Andreas Frege, copyright © 1998 Michael Breitkopf, Andreas Frege, WMG/WM Germany and/or JKP Records.
Lyrics from "I'll Go Where I'm Needed", recorded by 3 A.M. Again, music and lyrics by 3 A.M. Again, copyright © 2020 by Kitty Litter Studios.
Lyrics from "Call to Arms", recorded by Manowar, music and lyrics by Joey DeMaio, copyright © 2002 Ragnar Prod. Ltd.
These and all other quotes are included in this fiction without permission under the "fair use" provisions of international copyright law.
For a full explanation of the references and hidden tidbits in this story, see the Drunkard's Walk S Concordance at:
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Many thanks to my prereaders on this chapter: Christopher Angel, Kathleen Avins, Nathan Baxter, Andrew Carr, Kevin Cody, Shaye Horwitz, Helen Imre, Eric James, Rob Kelk, Josh Megerman, Berg Oswell, Peggy Schroeck and Amanda Stair-Duran.
C&C gratefully accepted.