Subject: [FFML] [RANMA][SI] Hybrid Theory Chapter 17
From: "Aaron Peori" <rlepsilon@hotmail.com>
Date: 11/2/2005, 1:11 AM
To: ffml@anifics.com

Here, attached find the usual latest chapter. As usual, this probably won't 
come out formated correctly so go to our webspace (www.bladenadepsilon.com) 
to see it, plus a HUGE new Sailor Moon gallery.

----------------------
Epsilon



-- Attached file included as plaintext by Ecartis --
-- File: hybridtheory17final.txt

Well hello there, all you beautiful readers!  It is I, the gorgeous and 
talented
Sakura Yamazaki, here to provide your recapping experience!  I noticed this
fanfic was suffering from a severe lack of me last chapter, which is 
undoubtedly
why everyone is depressed!

Well, it's possible people were also depressed because of the body count 
last
chapter.  First it started off with Vega killing Ran, which of course did 
not
endear him to basically everyone else involved, and made that studmuffin 
Ranma
so angry he wanted to kill Vega.  But he didn't!  Except he almost did after
Vega said something really far too nasty for this ladylike priestess to 
repeat
here, but then Ukyou killed Vega instead.  Didn't she say something about
killing being the one line she'd never cross no matter what?  How 
wishy-washy!
Just more proof that what this fanfic needs is more ME.

Speaking of things that would have been helped by me being around, those 
losers
at the TAC clearly can't accomplish anything if I'm not around to hold their
hands like I was in the original Blue Seed series.  I mean, not only did 
that
admittedly handsome but amsuingly dumb Kusanagi fail to beat Murakumo, but 
all
of them were left impotent when Telulu showed up with her new superweapon
Valkyrie and proceeded to eat Kaede's soul... literally!  Also, they didn't 
even
notice that that Matsudaira woman had been secretly working for Telulu for
goodness knows how long!

At least we can respect Nabiki.  A woman after my own heart, who knows what 
she
wants and sets out to get it, even if she has to pretend she was sexually
assaulted!  Not that she had to do that to get the wishing sword, which she
managed to do even after being shot by Professor Tomoe.  Not that he'll be 
doing
any more of that, since that ever-present Telulu showed up and had her
superweapon kill him.  Now that's a hostile takeover!  It really was beyond 
the
pale for that poor little girl Hotaru to watch her father get killed, even 
if he
was evil.  (sigh)  Once again, if only I'd been there to exorcise all the
demonically possessed scientists that seem to abound in Japan, this could 
have
been avoided.  But I'm already saving America and by extension to world, and
even someone as beautiful and talented as myself can't be everywhere!

I also could have exorcised those two dolls that came to "assist" (read: 
keep an
eye on) Vega before his untimely demise.  Thankfully, Ukyou defeated them, 
but
let them get away afterwards... tsk tsk, sloppy work.  And now Ukyou and 
Ranma
are running off to England to fight vampires.

See, I would clearly totally kick some tail fighting vampires!  So why am I 
not
front and centre here, too!?

I'll pass on going to Ohtori Academy, though.  That guy Chris was there 
talking
to this creepy - but DEAD sexy - guy Akio and his even creepier sister 
about...
uh... villages and how children are raised there and how this proved the
existence of God.  Or something.

While Chris was pretending to understand this, Akane and Shampoo were 
training
together.  We learned Shampoo might be brighter than she looks!  Not in my
league, of course.  The sort of brains and beauty combination possessed by 
me
comes around only once in a generation.  But Shampoo and Akane seem to be
becoming friends, which is nice for them I guess.  They're more pleasant 
than
that Pink girl, anyway.

Or than that Rei girl, who has been moping for, like, EVER about how her
grandfather's dead.  My mother's dead, and you don't see ME whining about 
it.
Stupid Shinto priestess wannabe.  Not even a tenth of my talent, of course.  
I
kill monsters - and save the world - WITHOUT magic reincarnation powers!  
Just
more proof that I should be the star here!

Now all you readers who want the beautiful and charming Sakura Yamazaki to
assume her rightful place in this fanfic, make sure you email the authors 
ten
thousand times each and get their heads back on straight!



			      C&A Productions Presents

                          A Work of Blatant Self-Insertion


                                   Hybrid Theory


                           Chapter 17: Somewhere I Belong




	Akane was alone in the forest. It was dark and the mist obscured
anything more than a few metres away from view. She was frightened, but that
didn't really matter. She knew she had abandoned her friends and that they
weren't here to help her any more. She was alone, and it was her fault.
	She looked up at the tall trees. They were impossibly large. No, she was
just smaller. She was a child again. She was a child lost in the woods and 
the
mist stretched off in all directions. This place was so familiar and so 
vivid.
Was this a memory?
	Before she could think on that any further, the ground below her
exploded. She screamed and tumbled. Her skills abandoned her, or maybe they 
had
never been there, but for whatever reason she was thrown to the ground and
collapsed in a heap. Her body ached and there were cuts on her arms. She 
started
to cry.
	The sound of harsh breathing drew her eyes up. The monster loomed over
her, its wicked claws hovering in the air. It was a creature she had never 
seen
before, some hideous combination of bird and rodent. The rational part of 
her
mind tried to tell her that such things existed, somewhere in the world. But 
she
knew they were never so big. It was big as a transfer truck. No normal 
animal
grew so large.
	Akane could do nothing but cower. Even as she did, she felt something
else there. It was larger, deeper and just beyond the giant platypus. It was
something that defied the definition of the term large. It tickled a far 
more
recent memory, but this was a memory she did not want to remember. She 
pushed
the thought from her mind as the monster animal closed on her.
	The shadow leapt from her right and swung a long staff, clobbering the
beast with a single expert strike. It collapsed to the ground, a large lump
forming atop its skull. Now that it was not looming so large, it did not 
seem
nearly so intimidating. In fact it seemed slightly silly.
	The shadow was standing on top of the skull now. It was another child,
holding up a bizarre weapon on one shoulder. Akane stared at her saviour. 
There
was something wrong here. This wasn't the way it had happened. The figure
stepped into the light and Akane saw a gleam off her spatula and the little 
girl
smiled at her.
	"Hey, idiot, you know you shouldn't be wandering around by yourself in
such a dangerous place, right?"
	"What...?" Akane asked. She knew she was supposed to say something else.
	"Listen, I gotta go," the girl turned slightly, making as if to leap
away. "Here, take this. It belongs to a friend of mine."
	The dream girl tossed something at Akane, who caught it with reflexes
she knew she had never had as a child. She glanced down at the thing. It was 
a
helmet, like the kind a motorcycle rider would wear.
	"If you ever need help, give that back to her, okay?" the dream girl
said before leaping away into the darkness again.
	"Wait!"
	Akane gasped as she woke up with a start. She glanced around the dark
room. Her pajamas were clinging to her body by the cold sweat. She saw a 
flash
of light in the darkness. The moonlight flickering of the edge of a sword.
	"No, Akane, we're leaving now. Are you awake yet?"
	"Shampoo?" Akane's eyes adjusted a bit more to the darkness and she
could see the Chinese girl sitting on the bed opposite her. She was holding 
two
swords, one of which she tossed at Akane. Akane grabbed it reflexively, 
caught
by a sudden surreal feeling. "Leaving? What...?" For some reason Akane 
couldn't
concentrate. Dreams were supposed to fade when you woke up, weren't they?
	Shampoo blinked, looking concerned for a moment. Then she got up and
slowly walked over to Akane. She leaned over and looked into her eyes.
"Akane..." Then Shampoo rapped the hilt of her sword against Akane's 
forehead.
Akane yelped in pain. "Wake up!"
	"I'm awake! I'm awake!" Akane waved her hands at the girl to stave off
further violence.
	"Good. Then get dressed, we're leaving." Shampoo turned and strode
purposefully out the door. Akane watched the taller girl leave, her long 
purple
hair rustling in her wake. Finally Akane sighed and slipped out of bed.
	She really needed a shower, but there probably wouldn't be time for
that. She remembered vaguely the time Akane had stopped at that one motel 
for a
good long shower and Shampoo had shown up and dragged her, still naked, 
covered
with soap and screaming, back to the rest of the group so they could get 
moving.
Akane reflected that it was really not the easiest thing in the world to be
Shampoo's friend.
	Akane merely slipped into a fresh set of clothes. Her weights were still
on, of course. She didn't even bother to take them off when she slept 
anymore.
As she got dressed, the memories of the real world filtered back to her. The
dream didn't really fade. In fact, she kept having to look down into her 
hand to
make sure she wasn't carrying a helmet. But it grudgingly retreated to the 
back
of her mind.
	She glanced out the window. In the distance, a dark mass loomed in the
moonlight. It was impossible to make out any details now, but Akane 
remembered
it clearly from when they had arrived in the small village earlier today. It 
was
a forest, a great mass of trees with streams of mist pouring from between 
the
gaps so that the entire thing looked like it was floating on a cloud.
	And Akane knew she had been here before. She didn't know when, and the
memory remained teasingly at the tip of her tongue. A slight weight settled 
on
her shoulder and Akane glanced up at her pet octopus. She smiled and 
scratched
underneath Patoratsyu's snout, causing him to close his eyes and make that
strange yet calming sound he made when he was happy.
	"One dream to another then..." Akane said to him as she turned away from
the window. "Does Chris just have a thing for these kinds of places, boy?"
	The octopus gave a very good impression of a shrug, considering he
didn't have shoulders. Akane shook her head. At least they were out of that
city. Something about Ohtori and its surroundings had just struck her wrong. 
It
was like there was a part of her that knew she wasn't supposed to be there. 
That
even lingering as close as she did was dangerous. But like all the strange
feelings she had been having lately, it was hard to pin it down.
	She wondered if Ami and the others were okay. It had taken Chris a long
time to convince them all to stay at the school. Not that Akane could fault 
his
arguments. He had just been doing exactly what she had asked him to do, 
after
all. Ohtori was a place where Chronos would never find the Sailor Senshi. It 
was
a place they could launch strikes into the world from and then retreat to 
for
safety. It was a place where they could have something resembling a normal 
life.
And if it was run by the next best thing to the Devil himself? Well, Chris 
had
spent most of that hour drilling into everyone's head in no uncertain terms 
what
he thought of Akio Ohtori and how everyone should interact with him.
	But that was the past. Akane shook those thoughts clear as she emerged
into the street in front of the small inn they were staying at. Everyone 
else
was already waiting for her. She waved cheerfully, and they all nodded or 
called
greetings. Well, everyone but...
	"Took you long enough, over," Pink snapped, her arms crossed over her
Chinese breastplate.
	Akane considered replying. Pink was always trying to get under her skin.
One part of her wanted to lash out verbally in return. Or even more than
verbally. But Akane settled for just grinding her teeth and glaring at the
smiling twin. She was better than that now. She didn't have time to be 
worried
about grudges with her companions.
	Akane reminded herself to have a talk with Chris about Pink's behaviour.
Next time she broached the subject, she would just have to ignore his 
excuses
and not let him sidestep the issue.
	"So, do you think it's dark enough now, Cologne?" Chris said once Akane
had joined them.
	The little old woman wasn't paying much attention to him. Her eyes were
staring off in the direction of the forest. Ryugenzawa, Chris had called it.
"Yes..." Cologne frowned and scratched at the ground idly with her staff. 
Akane
had never seen her looking so nervous, not even when they had been trying to
sneak into the heart of Chronos. But then again, ever since that day Cologne 
had
been more withdrawn. "If anything, the feeling of evil from that place has 
only
increased since we arrived here." She looked at Chris. "But if you insist on
walking into the dragon's maw, boy, then now is the best time to do so. I 
would
just remind everyone that our best option here is stealth."
	"We have to go. Pink was right," Chris said firmly. "We have to retrieve
the Moss of Life. Not just for what it might do for me... but for what 
anyone
else might misuse it for."
	"I warn you that we might already be too late for that," Cologne
intoned.
	"All the more reason to get involved quickly," Akane insisted. She
shifted her sword on her back, making sure the handle would be in easy 
reach.
	"Then let's get going, over!" Link practically growled as she started
marching down the street. Shrugging to themselves, everyone followed.

*

	There was something wrong with the cottage.  Even before it came into
view, Chris could tell that.  The traps they (and Pink and Link in 
particular)
had been encountering so often up until that point were conspicuously absent 
in
a large radius around the one-room shack.  Even that, however suspicious,
wouldn't have Chris as certain as he was that something was wrong.  It was 
the
animals. They had not seen any of them, giant or mundane, for several 
minutes of
walking.  Even the constant buzz of insects had faded, leaving them walking 
in
complete silence.
	Chris exchanged a glance with Cologne.  She had obviously noticed
something was very wrong as well.  But for the moment, they stayed silent.  
Not
much point in making a big deal until they knew more - warning Pink was just 
an
invitation for her to loudly call out whatever dared threaten her, anyway.
	Finally the trees broke, and he saw the dwelling.  It looked the same,
as far as his vague memories of the Shinnosuke story arc from the series 
told
him.  A run-down wooden structure, with a traditional ricepaper door and not
much else in the way of notable characteristics.
	His senses prickled, just as Cologne raised her staff sharply.  "There
is a great evil here," the old woman hissed.
	"This place looks... familiar..." Akane said, as if she hadn't heard.
She was staring at the cottage, trying to place the memories in her mind.  
No
time to wait for her to recall Shinnosuke and their childhood meeting now,
though.
	"Everybody get down," he said sharply.  There had been movement inside,
he was sure of it.
	The group all crouched behind the underbrush.  Pink did, in fact, open
her mouth, but a single look from Cologne caused her to close it again into 
a
tight, irritated grin.
	A moment later, the door slid open with a gentle whoosh, letting out the
flickering light of the firepit burning within.  It also let out two shapely
silhouettes, momentarily framed against the light from the doorway.  Chris
cursed under his non-essential breath.
	Vice and Mature walked away from the cottage, thankfully not in the
direction of his hidden companions.  Their easy banter, however, easily 
carried
through the eerily silent forest.
	"You really should stop teasing the poor boy," Mature complained in a
cultured, sultry voice.  She tossed her long blonde forelock back with a 
flick
of her head.
	"Awwwwwww..." moaned Vice, her low, throaty alto sounding a little too
openly sexual for decency.  "I'm not allowed to HURT him.  What else can I 
do?"
	"He's a child," Mature said with clear distaste.  "It's disgusting.
He's also the chosen one, which makes it practically sacrilegious.  I know
Goenitz never says anything, but-"
	"Mmm, sacrilicious."
	"You're not even listening to - did you just say 'sacrilicious'?"
	"I'm going to do something..."  Vice ran her hands down her body-hugging
scarlet and black dress.  "...profane to him when we get back."  She 
laughed.
	"You're hopeless," Mature sighed.  She brushed a stray leaf away from
her dress, which was black and white but otherwise identical to that of her
companion.  "Save it for later.  It's a long walk to the lake, and you know 
how
HE hates being kept waiting."
	Chris waited until the two demon-worshippers were safely far away before
relaxing.  "Well, that's about as bad news as I could have hoped for."
	"Friends of yours?" Cologne asked wryly.
	He opened his mouth to respond, but Pink broke in.  "They're
secretaries.  EVIL secretaries, over."  She walked in front of the group, 
her
confident smirk reasserted with gusto.  "The blonde-haired bimbo is Mature, 
and
the slut with short brown hair is Vice.  They both worship the Orochi, some 
evil
death god or something, and they and the Goenitz guy they mentioned are 
trying
to revive him, over."
	"Wait... the same Orochi we came to find?" Akane asked.  "I thought he
was the source of the Moss of Life and all the gigantic animals here."
	"He is," Chris replied.  "They worship a different Orochi, but they're
probably here because they don't know that yet."
	"How... convenient," said Link, then laughed quietly to herself.
Everyone glanced at her, but she waved them aside.  "And who is the other 
person
they were talking about, over?"
	"I have a strong suspicion, but it's a few years early," Chris said.
"Well, only one way to find out."  He started to walk towards the cottage.
"Besides, with them and Goenitz away, this is our best chance to investigate 
the
situation."
	They hadn't even bothered to close the door when they left.  Perhaps
no one was there?  But as he walked up to what was once Shinnosuke's home, 
he
knew that wasn't true - there was definitely someone still present.  
Dispensing
with stealth, he slid the door all the way open and stepped inside.
	The boy looked maybe ten years old.  His short milk-chocolate hair was
unruly, and his clothes those of a ragged street urchin.  He was curled up
against the wall, only drowsily looking up to see who had arrived, and as he
moved, the firelight glinted off a silver medallion that hung from a chain
around his neck.
	"I thought so.  Chris."
	"Ooh, ooh!  I want to see, over!"  Pink shoved him aside and rushed in.
"Oh, isn't he adorable?  Doesn't look much like a pretty-boy band member 
though,
over."
	"You're... you're not them.  Who are you?" the boy who was destined to
inherit the power of the Orochi asked.
	"Who is this boy?" Cologne asked from her newly-acquired perch on
Chris's head.
	"I said already," Chris noted with a sigh.  "That's Chris."
	"What?" exclaimed Akane as she filed in with the rest of the group -
except Shampoo, who remained outside, arms folded, presumably keeping a 
lookout.
"You mean he's your past self from before you died?"
	"Huh?" Pink stared at Akane.  "Wow, you're really some kind of idiot,
over."
	Chris cut in before that could degenerate.  "No, he's not.  No such
luck."
	At this point, the boy, who had been looking confused, suddenly stood up
and began waving them away.  "You guys have to get out of here before they 
get
back!  You can't stay around here!  He'll kill you!  Or... worse..." the boy
suddenly looked pale.
	Akane turned towards the boy, her motherly instincts kicking in so
strongly it was practically visible.  "Well, whoever he is, we're not going 
to
just run away and leave you here."  Then she bowed.  "I'm sorry, I'm being 
rude,
aren't I?  You're Chris, right?  My name is Akane Tendo.  We're here to, ah,
rescue you!"
	"What a load of bull," snorted Pink.  "We are not, over."
	"We are NOW," Akane insisted.
	"You don't understand," the boy protested.  "These people... they aren't
human!  If you don't leave, they'll kill you... just like those guys that 
used
to live here!  They did such horrible things... you can't stop them!"
	Well, that explained the absence of Shinnosuke and his grandfather.  Not
that Chris hadn't expected as much as soon as he'd seen Vice and Mature.  
"Don't
worry about it, kid.  If everything goes as I hope it will, we won't even 
have
to fight them."
	Cologne snorted loudly, but Chris chose to ignore that.  "Anyway,
Akane's right.  We can't leave, uh, little Chris here."  That would get them
pursued for sure, but it wasn't like Akane could be persuaded otherwise, and 
in
any case getting the Orochi heir away from Orochi's disciple was probably a 
good
thing.  "So we'll get out of here and-"
	"Little Chris?" Pink squealed like a schoolgirl.  "That's so CUTE,
over!" She ruffled the young boy's hair, smiling at him.  There was 
something
familiar in her eyes...
	"Please don't do that," the boy snapped, slapping her hand away.
Remarkably, Pink took that in relative good humour, her smile still broad.
"Anyway, just get out of here.  I can't leave."
	"We can guide you safely through the forest, boy," Cologne said.
	"No, I mean... I can't leave.  I mean..." The boy sweated, suddenly
looking very young, and chewed his lip.  "Vic... that lady... she said to 
me..."
He began to sweat even more heavily, rocking back and forth on his heels, 
and
looking anywhere but at the door.  "I can't.  I can't leave.  I can't go
outside."
	Link walked up to the boy and roughly grabbed his face, staring deep
into his eyes.  "Brainwashing," she declared after a moment.  "He's been
drugged, and probably compounded with some post-hypnotic suggestion 
technique,
over."
	"Yeah, I think Vice can do something like that," Chris said, a little
uncertain.  King of Fighters had never been his favourite series.  "Anyway, 
we
can't forget the real reasons we're here."
	"I assume," Cologne intoned, now smoking her pipe, "that the lake those
young ladies mentioned would be the same one you intend to visit?"
	"Of course," Chris groused.  "But that just makes it more important.
Whether that's the Orochi they're looking for or not, Goenitz is decidedly 
one
of those people we shouldn't let the power of this place fall into the hands
of."
	"So we'll split up, then," Akane said.  "Link can stay here and
unbrainwash little Chris, and we can go fetch the Moss of Life."
	"No, I'll go," Link immediately insisted.  "Pink can handle what's wrong
with the child, and I need to make sure... the moss is properly taken care 
of,
over."
	"Sounds like an excellent plan, over," Pink enthused.
	Chris shook his head.  "Not workable.  We're going to need to sneak in,
grab the moss from under their nose, and get out without being seen.  We 
don't
want to risk a fight with Goenitz and those two girls, and that means we 
have to
limit this to only the most skilled people."
	"Do any of you even know how to collect	or secure the Moss of Life?"
Link snapped instantly.  "Of course not.  You need me.  I'm going, over."
	Chris sighed, but Link did have a point.  The Moss was too valuable to
risk wasting.  "Very well, we can cover for you, but otherwise it should 
only be
me, Cologne, and I guess Shampoo."
	"Shampoo isn't trained for this sort of activity," Cologne replied.
"She will only slow us down."
	"Fair enough," Chris nodded.
	"You're all going to die," the boy predicted dourly.  "You have no idea
how horrible these people are."
	"Goenitz probably isn't quite a zoalord, but he could blow an entire
stadium to rubble," Chris said as Cologne glanced at him.  "The other two 
are
less worrisome, but I wouldn't ignore them.  They're vicious, and they won't
think twice about killing an opponent."
	Akane nodded, grabbing the hilt of her sword.  "Okay.  In that case
we'll stay here and guard little Chris if any animals show up or they come
back."  Hayato's octopus, perched on her shoulder, comically nodded along 
with
her pronouncement.
	"Right, that works," Chris said.  "Just don't let the octopus drink the
water."

*

	The doorbell rang.  Nanami answered it, as she always did.  The man
handed her a newspaper.  "This is the latest issue of the Tokyo Sun, as
ordered."  She took it and thanked him graciously, because she was well-bred 
and
it was expected.
	Her brother was sitting in his chair, as he always was.  The recording
was still off, as it had been for three days.  "Here you are, big brother!" 
she
said cheerfully, and smiled at him.
	Touga took the paper without a word or a look, as he always did, and
began reading it silently.  Nanami waited for a few moments before leaving 
the
room.  Like always, she felt a slight feeling of disappointment, but she was
happy to help her brother in whatever way she could.
	The doorbell rang.
	"This is the latest unabridged dictionary, as ordered."  The delivery
man handed Nanami a book about the size of her head.  She thanked him, he 
left,
and she brought the book to her brother.  Touga took it without comment, and
after a few moments, Nanami left.
	The doorbell rang.
	This time the delivery man was holding a large box.  "This is 1992's
Encyclopedia Britannica, Japanese Edition, as ordered."
	Nanami huffed and puffed and tried to carry the box along, but finally
had to just drag it along the floor.  It scraped the floor, and Nanami made 
a
mental note to have Keiko, Aiko, and Yuuko revarnish it later.  Finally, she 
got
it to Touga's chair, and he opened the box, selected the first volume, and 
began
to read without comment.  Nanami stumbled out of the room and leaned against 
the
wall, trying to catch her breath.
	The doorbell rang.
	Nanami felt very put-upon as she opened the door, but then stared at the
piles upon piles of boxes being unloaded from the back of the van.
	"This is the entire print run of the Mainichi Daily News since its
inception on March 28th, 1872, as ordered..."
	Nanami screamed.
	And sat bolt upright in bed.  She peered around blearily for a moment,
but realised it had all been a dream.  She sighed.  The dream wasn't that 
far
from reality.  She was glad her brother had stopped moping around listening 
to
that recording of his voice, but she didn't think sitting in the same chair
doing nothing but read newspapers and magazines was much better.
	She looked at the clock.  2:46 a.m.  It had definitely been a nightmare.
Nanami still felt very tired.
	But...
	If it was still that early, why was the room lit up as if it were
daylight out?
	"I see.  But is that truly your dream?"
	Oh, that explained the light.  Nanami looked over at the glowing white
pegasus - or was it a unicorn? - that had spoken.  "Of course not.  I have
beautiful dreams."  The glowing pegasus merely looked at her quizzically, as
much as an equine could be said to look quizzical.  Nanami had a fleeting
thought that something was rather strange about glowing talking horses with
wings and golden horns, but dismissed it.
	"Maiden, in that case, what is your true dream?"
	Nanami felt faintly insulted.  Why would anybody think her dreams were
about pointless drudgery?  "Well, my dream is about my big brother, of 
course."
	"The man with the red hair?"
	"Naturally.  Can't you tell we're both born of the same noble
bloodline?"
	"But he is not even here."
	Nanami sat up, frowning at the talking horse.  "Where is he?"
	The pegasus looked out the window for a long moment.  "His dream is
elsewhere, and not here with you."
	"Well then," Nanami commanded, "take me to him."  At some point she had
gotten out of bed and sat upon the back of the horse, though she couldn't 
quite
remember how.  Her long lavender nightgown rippled in the wind from the 
window,
which was now open.
	The pegasus was now looking back at her over his own shoulder.  "Very
well.  I will do my best."
	Two steps and suddenly they were out the window.  The ground fell away
so fast that Nanami felt dizzy, though not scared.  She watched the mansion 
she
had lived in shrink away until it looked like a dollhouse, and saw all the 
tiny,
perfect little buildings of Ohtori Academy arrayed below like so many toys.  
She
laughed a little.  "Who are you?"
	The pegasus didn't look back, though its golden horn dipped in
acknowledgement.  "I am Helios, maiden."
	That name seemed to perfectly sum up everything about the creature that
Nanami needed to know.  She watched as they left the city, flying over the
countryside of Japan.  And even though his wings beat slowly, and the 
landscape
seemed to pass by with so much lazy ease that Nanami could gaze at whatever 
she
wished, in a remarkably short time they found themselves over a city.  The
million, billion lights of the city glittered through the night sky, and 
Nanami
lost her breath in wonder for a moment.
	"Here.  This is where your brother's dream lies now, though I cannot
know where it will take him."
	"Here?"  Nanami looked over the city in all its brilliant glow.  And
there, right beneath, where the moon should have cast its light, was 
darkness.
A darkness greater than the blackest night, the deepest cave.  And as she
watched and felt the first stirrings of fear, the darkness crawled outward,
yawning like an opening wound, threatening to swallow up the entire city, 
the
entire country, maybe even more.
	Nanami cringed back, but the great shining light of Helios surrounded
her, and she felt warm.  "You need not fear."
	"Is that where my brother is headed?"  And though the pegasus did not
answer, Nanami knew it to be true.  "But why?  That's awful!  And he... he
didn't take me with-" She couldn't finish the sentence.  It was too 
terrible.
	Helios was looking at her again, and his large brown eyes were so
serious and solemn that Nanami felt like crying.  "Would you follow him into
that darkness, then?"
	"Of course!" Nanami said without hesitation.
	"Even though he left you behind?"
	"No matter what!  He and I are the same!  I couldn't ever let him be
alone and lost in a place like that!"
	"I see," said Helios, and with two lazy flaps of his wings, they were
back in Nanami's bedroom, and he was easing her back to the bed.  "That is a
beautiful dream, young maiden."
	"See, I told you so!" Nanami said triumphantly.  But somewhere in the
back of her mind, the gnawing fear remained.
	"Indeed you did."  Helios dipped his head towards her, and the top of
his horn - which Nanami suddenly realised was the source of his warm 
radiance -
touched the palm of her hand.  She felt a gentle weight settle there.
	"This is a gift," the pegasus said.  "If you ever find yourself alone in
the darkness, use it, and I shall come for you."
	"Well... thank you very much," Nanami said, because she was well-bred,
and that sort of thing was expected.  However, this really was beginning to 
seem
rather confusing.  There was a throbbing in her head.  What was it she had 
seen,
while on Helios' back?
	And she lay back, and thought about that question, and woke up.
	The room was completely dark, but Nanami remedied that by reaching over
and fumbling for the lamp switch.  Blinking her eyes painfully against the
sudden electric radiance, she peered over at the clock.  3:21 a.m.  The 
house
around her was silent, maybe a little abnormally chilly for such a hot 
summer.
	What a strange dream.  What had it been about?
	Nanami blinked and held up her hand to the light, suddenly realising she
had been clutching something.  She looked at it curiously.  It was a golden
bell, with a heart-shaped jewel inset.  The bell had a larger handle, also
heart-shaped.  The bell fit easily into the palm of her hand, and felt a 
little
warm in the chill of the room.
	Now, where had that come from?  Nanami had a lot of jewelry, but she
kept pretty careful track of it, and she'd never seen this piece before.  
Also,
all the hearts were a little juvenile for her age and image.
	Suddenly, Nanami smiled.  "Big brother!" she whispered.  He must have
given it to her in her sleep.  No wonder she had woken up.  She leaped out 
of
bed, clutching the bell to her breast.  How thoughtful of him!
	She ran to the music room.  She knew he would be there - he'd not left
the room in weeks, not even going to school, except for that one night 
earlier
in the week when there had been a terrible storm, right before he began 
reading
the magazines and newspapers.
	The lights in the room were on.  The stacks of reading material were
arrayed here and there in some pattern which always eluded Nanami.  But his
chair was open.  The patio door was open, and a chill wind suddenly blew in
through it, rippling the nightgown around her ankles.  Nanami wrapped her 
arms
around herself, suddenly taking an obscure comfort in the bell she held.
	"Big brother?" she called, at first with trepidation, but then louder:
"Big brother!"
	But no answer came.
	Stepping into the room, Nanami espied a sealed envelope on the seat of
the chair.  Her own name was written on it, in handwriting as familiar to 
her as
her own reflection.
	And suddenly, Nanami knew, somehow.  Touga was gone.  Gone from the
house, gone from Ohtori.  Gone from her.
	And he wasn't coming back.
	Suddenly, viciously, she pinched her arm.  She winced at her own effort,
and felt tears in the corner of her eyes.
	But she didn't wake up.

*

	"What on earth are those two young ladies doing?"
	"At a glance, swimming around in the lake in their underwear, carrying
bottles of sake."
	"I know that, boy.  I'm asking what, precisely, is to be accomplished by
this."
	"The Orochi - well, this Orochi - is attracted to two things: beautiful
young women, and alcohol.  Presumably Goenitz intends to get its attention, 
but
it isn't working yet.  Must be still asleep... lucky for us."
	"Yes..." Link replied in a whisper.  "Lucky, over."
	The three of them paused for a moment, considering their options.  Link,
for her part, looked over to the far shore of the lake, where Goenitz, the
Heavenly King of Orochi, stood bathed in moonlight.  He was accurate to 
Chris's
description - a middle aged man with short blonde hair and black beard, clad 
in
a long coat like a Christian priest with a short cloak over his shoulders 
and
glossy black military boots - but that didn't really do him justice.  
Goenitz
was tall, and... regal in a way unlike any other person Link had ever met.  
He
radiated a sort of savage nobility, a presence that could not be captured in 
the
words Chris had used.  He was the sort of man, Link supposed, who could form 
and
lead cults on the strength of his fanatical charisma alone.  Not that his 
power
would be a detriment.
	Link was glad he was here.  This was the most perfect test possible.
	Mature's voice called out as she treaded water, sounding equally annoyed
and plaintive.  "Master Goenitz, is this really necessary?  We've been doing
this 'ritual' for five nights with no results."
	"Or is this just some sort of weird fetish?" Vice added.  She didn't
sound like she particularly disapproved of the notion.
	Goenitz chuckled urbanely.  "As a matter of fact, it is.  But not mine."
His voice was like himself - regal, noble, a clear, piercing tenor that cut
through the night.
	"I sense a primal power in this one, boy," Cologne hissed.  "You'd be
wise not to test his defences."
	Chris nodded. "With any luck, we won't have to.  I'm worried he might be
waking up the Orochi, though."
	Oh, too, too perfect.  Link almost smiled.  "I can help with that," she
whispered.  "I can whip up something which should hopefully keep it asleep.
I'll also include something that ought to help leave this Moss of Life vital 
and
easily retrieved, over."  The last part was true, at least.
	"Can you do it quietly?" Chris asked.
	"Don't worry about it.  Worry about how you're going to dive in there
without alerting those three, over."  Link felt a little irritated at the 
undead
thing questioning her competence, but put it aside for the moment.  Sitting
back, she rummaged through her pack of herbs.  A little of this, a little of
that...
	"That's a good point," Chris said.  "Cologne, can you make some sort of
distraction for when I go?  Nothing that'll put you in danger, but maybe 
ensure
Goenitz isn't looking so I can slip in?"
	The old hag sucked on her unlit pipe for a moment.  "No sharks around
here, are there?"
	"Probably not.  And thank god for that, considering the size they'd be."
	"I'll suppose I'll have to make do, then."  The old woman wandered off
noiselessly into the forest.
	Chris was keeping a wary eye on Goenitz, but it appeared the mock priest
was more interested in the lake than anything else.  But then, why wouldn't 
he
be?  He'd killed the only other humans that lived here, and Link doubted he 
was
too worried about the giant animals of the forest.
	"Alright, here you go, over," she said.
	"All this?" Chris said dubiously, looking at the giant barrel of vivid
red powder.
	"Yes," Link said coldly.  "A creature as big as this Orochi requires a
rather large dose, over."
	Chris nodded and began to slip towards the shore.  It was odd to see the
giant, muscular body moving with the grace of a gymnast, easily hefting the 
huge
container.
	Link shook her head, and almost smiled again.  Poor, trusting Chris.
Along with the promised agent to help with the harvesting of the Moss, the
barrel actually contained purified caffeine and a herb generally efficacious 
for
problems of male potency, both in quantities larger than necessary for 
several
dozen adult humans... or elephants.
	She sat back against a convenient tree, ready to watch the show.  Her
eyes fastened on the face of Goenitz.
	Here was where the real answers lay.

*

	"Are you feeling okay, little Chris?" the short-haired lady asked him.
"Is there anything I can do for you?"
	"Yes, stop calling me that, please." Chris asked with a grumble.  He
didn't really dislike the lady, and he supposed he was actually smaller than 
the
giant red-haired man also named 'Chris'.  But it was the principle of the 
thing.
He'd grown up on the cold, indifferent streets of Stockholm, and his 'cute'
looks always caused more trouble than they were worth.  He didn't like to 
feel
talked down to.
	Besides, all these people would be dead soon.  No sense getting attached
to them.  That was a lesson he'd also learned, ever since that nun who'd 
taken
him in had died of that illness... Chris realised he couldn't remember her 
name.
It made him feel a bit sad, and he tried to dredge it up from his memories, 
but
couldn't.
	"Hey, there's no need to cry," the girl said, brushing off his cheeks.
"Listen, we're going to get you out of here and to someplace safe.  I know 
this
really nice girl, a little older than you.  I think you'll be good friends-"
	"Stop talking like we're going to get out of here.  We're not, you know.
Even if we did, he'd hunt us down.  You don't know him."
	The girl grabbed his chin and pulled his eyes up to hers, and suddenly
her expression was very serious. "I know his type.  And believe me, he can 
be
beaten."
	There was so much conviction in her voice, and for a single moment,
Chris almost believed.  Then he turned away.  "We'll see."
	The nice lady hovered over him a few moments, obviously wanting to say
something, then left to go talk to the purple-haired girl that was guarding 
the
door.  Good, maybe they'd leave.  The lady WAS nice.  Chris didn't want to 
see
her die.  Not like... that other guy.  The forgetful guy.  He'd been nice 
too.
He had said they'd get out of this.  Of course, he had been wrong.
	Chris kept staring at the two girls talking in the doorway, hoping they
would leave, but mainly so he didn't have to look at the Other Girl.
	Of course, that became hard when the Other Girl came up behind him,
looming, not quite touching but too close to be comfortable.  "So you're 
going
to become a god, huh, over?"
	Chris glanced up at her, then looked away sharply.  He didn't like how
she smiled at him.  "That's what he said."  If he answered her, maybe she'd 
go
away.
	"So, have any godlike powers yet, over?"
	"No," he began to answer sharply, then lowered his voice.  "If I did,
why would I be staying here?"
	"Because you're scared," she laughed, leaning down until her chin almost
rested on his shoulder.  "Aren't you?  I think I see you trembling, over."
	Chris realised he was the moment she said it, and stilled himself.  He
wanted to leap away, but where would he go?  He couldn't... leave the 
cottage...
	Besides, compared to Vice, she wasn't so bad.
	Compared to Vice, nothing was so bad.
	"Pink, are you bothering Chris again?  I asked you not to scare him,"
the nice lady said, walking back inside the shack.  She looked like she was
about to say something more, but then all noise was drowned out by a 
tremendous
roar and an ear-splitting crash.  Everybody ran to the door - though Chris
didn't put so much as a toe outside - staring at the spectacle in the 
distance.
	The trees were huge here.  Chris remembered that.  So huge that most
times you couldn't even see the enormous animals that wandered, crawled, or 
flew
among them until they were almost next to you.  But what was rising out of 
the
forest now was even larger.  Seven serpentine stalks twined up from the
treeline, silhouetted against the silvery moon.  They were so large that 
even
the other animals looked like pygmies in comparison.  Chris figured one of 
those
heads could eat a giant platypus like the one Goenitz had killed in two 
bites.
A burst of flame flared from one of the mouths, the light briefly glinting 
off
its violet scales.  A haunting roar echoed across the forest, echoed from 
seven
mouths.
	"How ridiculous-looking is that, over?" the Other Girl sneered.
	"Shampoo no think plan worked," the purple-haired girl noted.
	"They must be in trouble!" the nice lady shouted, and took a step
forward before she stopped, and looked back at Chris.  Her expression looked
torn for a moment.
	Chris wasn't really paying attention to her, though.  He was watching
the seven-headed serpent.  Several of the heads abruptly darted down into 
the
forest, and he could hear a few other indistinct noises.  Shouts, or 
something?
	But why did that serpent look so... wrong to him?
	"You should go help them, Akane," the Other Girl said suddenly.  She
smiled, trying to look nice, not really succeeding.  "They must be fighting 
all
those guys, plus the Orochi itself.  They'll need all the help they can get,
over."
	Akane looked back and forth between Chris and the creature again.  "But,
we can't just leave him alone..."
	"Don't worry about it!" the Other Girl laughed.  "Take Shampoo too.  I'm
not going to help much in this fight, so I'll stay here with him, over."
	The purple-haired girl looked at the Other Girl for a moment, and her
eyes narrowed.  "Shampoo no think-"
	"I never told you to THINK," the Other Girl said, and for a moment her
voice snapped like a whip.  "There's no time to debate.  Shut up and go,
Shampoo.  That's an order, over."
	The purple-haired girl glared for a long moment, and then gave Chris a
long, unreadable look.  Then she turned around sharply, drawing her sword 
from
the sheath on her back.  "Shampoo have orders.  You coming, Akane?"
	The nice girl looked confused for a moment, then her expression firmed
up.  "Alright.  Pink, if any of them come back, I want you to shout for 
help.
Don't let them lay a finger on Chris, okay?"
	She waved her hand.  "Don't worry about that, Akane.  They won't, over."
	Chris had been too busy staring at the strange wrong-serpent to really
pay attention up until this point, but suddenly realised they were going to 
go,
and leave him with the Other Girl.  He opened his mouth to protest, but at 
that
point the Other Girl slipped a bit in turning around, falling partially into
him and sending him stumbling... through... the... door...
	He Had To Stay Inside.
	Vice had told him to Stay Inside.
	He was sitting in the corner, rocking.  He could feel moisture in his
eyes.  But he wasn't going to cry.  He wasn't.
	A shadow fell over him.  "So, we're all alone, over."
	He buried his face in his hands.  Why couldn't they just leave him
alone?  He didn't care about the Orochi, or about this forest, or about the 
nice
lady, or anything else.  He never thought he was lucky to live on the 
streets,
but he wanted to see Stockholm again more than anything else in the world.
	"Oh, we don't have time for your blubbering.  Somebody could be back at
any minute," the Other Girl snapped, jerking his head up by yanking on his 
hair.
"I need you to do me a favour, kid, over."
	He hated people touching his hair.  He tried to pull away, but she was
holding him too tightly.  "What do you want?" he said petulantly.
	"Take this and stop asking stupid questions, over," she said, handing
him something.  He stared at it.  It was a knife, with a simple design, but 
it
looked very sharp.
	"I don't know how to fight," he said simply.
	"Is there anything you're good for, over?" the Other Girl asked
sarcastically.  She let him go and sat down again, and her hands began to 
work
at something at her sides.  After a moment, she took her breastplate off,
tossing it to the side where it landed with a soft clunk.
	"W-what are you doing?" Chris asked.  Maybe she was more like Vice than
he thought.  That... wasn't good.
	The Other Girl smirked at him.  "Don't get your hopes up, kid."  But
then she undid the top button on her red-trimmed white shirt, and the next, 
and
the next.  Chris shrank back.  This wasn't happening wasn't happening not 
again
not her too-
	But thankfully, she stopped when just the top of her breasts were
exposed.  She reached up, touching a spot directly between them.  "Right 
there,
over."
	"Right there, what?" he said, now just confused.
	"Cut me open, you idiot.  What do you think I gave you the knife for?
You're really nothing worth mentioning until you become a god, over."
	Chris stared at her, then down at the knife, then back at her again.
"Wh- but I couldn't hurt you!"
	"That makes two of us," the girl sneered.  "I've been trying for awhile,
but it's harder to cut yourself than you think.  I was going to get Shampoo 
to
do it, but she had to not get any satisfaction, so it'd be hard... anyway, 
those
idiots are totally outmatched against the Orochi and those other three, so 
I'm
not going to waste any more time.  Cut me.  A nice shallow cut, about as 
long as
your thumb."  Then she smiled, a vicious little happy smile.  "Do it now, 
and do
it right, or I'll hurt you.  And I have much nastier drugs than Vice, over."
	Chris's hand was shaking again, and he tried to catch his breath, but he
couldn't seem to stop taking little shallow gasps.  This woman was crazy.  
Why
had they left him with her?  Were they all just as bad as Goenitz?  Was he 
just
going to be dragged around, traded back and forth, until he became... 
whatever
they said?
	But she was staring at him, her eyes flashing dangerously, so he forced
himself to step forward.  He put the knife against her smooth pale skin, and
hesitated.  He'd been in fights, more than a few times on the street, but...
he'd never really HURT anybody.  He'd only fought long enough to get away.  
That
was what you did, when you were 'cute'.  If you didn't, well...
	He swallowed, and then... for a moment, he felt the urge to drive the
knife into her heart.  Drive it in and twist and tear and laugh as she fell 
down
and retched and bled and died, just like that forgetful boy and-
	What was he thinking?
	The Other Girl's hand fastened on his wrist, her nails digging painfully
into his skin.  "We don't have all day, over," in a tone that said she'd 
lost
all patience.
	Just do what she wanted.  Do what they wanted, and they'd eventually
stop hurting you.  That was the most recent lesson he'd learned.  She 
released
him, and he resisted the urge to close his eyes as he slowly drew the knife 
down
the centre of her chest.  She hissed in pain, and a vivid scarlet line 
appeared,
slowly swelling in the wake of the glinting silver blade.
	He stared in fascination until she knocked his hand away.  "That'll do,
over."
	She was holding something in her other hand now, and as she brought it
up, Chris could see it.  It was like a blue... stone, or maybe like a seed, 
he
couldn't decide.  It glinted in the firelight, a bit too brightly.
	"Just like that stupid Kushinada, over," the Other Girl said to herself,
and then pressed the blue seed into the bleeding cut on her chest.
	For a moment, nothing happened.  And then, Chris could hear it.  It
was... like the sound of a heartbeat, only louder, echoing throughout the 
room.
The blue seed sank into her chest, the veins around the cut suddenly bulging
grotesquely.  The girl screamed and fell back, her hands clutching at the 
stone.
It looked like she was trying to both pull it out and push it in at the same
time.
	She spasmed on the ground for almost a minute, but the screaming died
off eventually, as did the coughing that followed.  Chris wanted to shrink 
back,
run away from her, but something about the whole thing kept him watching,
fascinated.  Besides, there was nowhere to run.
	Finally, the Other Girl sat up.  For a moment, she just stayed still,
eyes closed, the smile on her face slowly widening until it became both 
funny
and frightening.  "So that's what it's like..." she said softly, then her 
eyes
snapped open.  Before, they had been a sort of earthy brown, but now they
glittered a brilliant green.  "I understand it all now.  Oh, why did I wait 
this
long, over?"  She glanced over at Chris, and her grin widened still further,
almost inhuman.  "Thanks, kid."  She pulled another of the seed-like things 
from
a pouch.  "I know exactly where I'm putting this one.  I won't need your 
help
this time.  Just turn around, over."
	Chris thought about saying something, but then just did as he was told.
He didn't want to talk to the Other Girl.  Especially not now.  There had 
been
something... different about her.  Not just her eyes.  Something... it 
reminded
him of Goenitz.  He shuddered.
	He heard a soft sound of cloth rustling behind him, and then she cried
out.  But this time, she didn't scream in pain... at least not like the last
time.  Chris felt uncomfortable listening to the sounds she made, and stared 
at
the wall.
	Abruptly, her noises stopped.  Chris didn't turn around.  Maybe she'd
just leave now.  After a moment, his nose wrinkled.  There was a sweet scent 
in
the room.  Like... flowers?
	A hand fell on his shoulder.  "You can turn back around now, over."
	He didn't want to look, but for some reason he did anyway.  The Other
Girl looked even stranger than before.  Her eyes weren't just brilliant 
green
anymore, but were slitted, like a cat's.  Her entire face seemed different, 
just
a little more angular, nose a little sharper, cheekbones higher.  The tops 
of
her ears now came to delicate points, and there were some sort of strange 
bulges
on her shoulders, under her shirt.
	The smell of flowers was stronger now, and she smiled at him, and Chris
felt like running, but he couldn't move.
	"Little Chris," she said.  Her voice hadn't really changed, but
something had been... added to it.  It sounded older, somehow.  "You've been 
so
helpful.  Here, give me your hand, over."
	She held out her own, and Chris stared at it.  The tips of each
finger... something was emerging from them, lunging out of the flesh like 
claws.
Except they were more like thorns.
	He wouldn't touch that.  He wasn't frozen, he wasn't scared of Vice, he
was going to run, he stood up, but then she grabbed his hand, and he felt a
prickling sensation, and then... then...
	... everything was okay.  He felt it all fall away.  Ten years in the
street, fighting for scraps of food... none of that mattered.  Being 
kidnapped,
tortured, abused... who cared?  His destiny to become the horrible god 
Goenitz
worshipped... what difference did it make?
	He was happy.
	He realised he'd never been happy before.  Oh, sometimes he thought he
had been.  When the nun had taken care of him, or when he'd had a good meal
because a stranger took pity on him... but he hadn't been.  He'd never been
happy.  Not like this.
	Because there'd always been pain.  Or the memory of pain.  It lurked in
the background, like a snake in the grass, and nobody could ever be really 
happy
like that.
	But not anymore.
	He was happy.  He was perfectly, wonderfully happy.
	And it was all thanks to Pink.
	He wished he knew poetry, so he could tell her how happy he was.  He
wished he could sing, so he could tell her how much he loved her at that 
moment.
But he couldn't think of any words that could describe it.  How could he 
have
ever been afraid of her?
	She was a goddess.  Her touch was happiness.
	And at that point, she drew her hand away, and Chris felt a sense of
almost unbearable loss.  All the pain and misery and memory came crashing 
back
all at once, and it was a thousand times worse.  He gasped and his body 
spasmed
as if struck, and then he fell to his knees, clutching Pink's legs, sobbing.
	"Did it feel good, over?" the goddess asked him lightly.
	"Please..." he sobbed.  "Please touch me.  Make the pain go away again!
I've never... I've never felt that way before..."
	She drew his head up, and her beautiful emerald eyes looked into his.
"Of course I will.  Just as soon as you do something for me, over."
	"Anything."  He meant it.  He would kill for her.  He would kill Vice.
He would kill the nice lady.  He would give her anything, if she would only
touch him again.
	She held out a tiny bottle.  The liquid inside was dark, churning green.
"Drink this.  Drink it all, and then I'll touch you again, over."
	His fingers almost fumbled the bottle, he grabbed it so hastily.  He
pried the cork loose with his teeth, and even as he did, the acrid fumes it
released burned their way down his throat.  Pink was looking down at him.  
She
was smiling.  Her hand beckoned invitingly.  She was the most beautiful 
thing he
had ever seen.  Every instinct he had told him the liquid in the bottle was 
bad;
even breathing in the fumes made him feel sick.  But it didn't matter.  For 
her,
he'd make it delicious.
	And it was.

*

	"Perhaps you do not realise exactly who I am?"
	The man in the torture chamber was thin, but athletic. He had short
black hair and unshaven stubble on his gaunt cheeks. He had once been 
clothed in
the robes of a Buddhist monk, but now he was dressed only in rags. His eyes
stared down at the floor, seemingly empty.
	"Don't think you fool me." The hand was huge, the fingers thick as they
jerked the man's head from the ground and forced him to look into the eyes 
of
his new master. "I must admit, you have a remarkable will. Most would have
cracked under the pressure of my Psychopower by now."
	"Go... to... hell..." the man said softly, his voice barely carrying
enough strength to escape his lips.
	Bison smiled. This man had a power, a certain purity of purpose, that
Bison could admire. It was really too bad he was such a fool. Bison may have 
let
him live otherwise. He might have served the glorious future that was 
Shadowloo.
	"I am Bison, my power is supreme," Bison informed him, not for the first
time. "Your will shall crack, and your spirit shall be broken. None can 
resist
me. I am your master, and you shall call me as much."
	"Never..."
	Bison released his head, which slumped again. The loud, happy sound of
Bison's laughter filled the small room. He had not had this much fun in 
ages.
The very thought of this contest filled his blood with boiling vigor. At 
first
he had thought that these 'I-Jin' carried no great challenge for him. He had
stormed their metal island with his Dolls and a few dozen of his lesser
servants. They had not stood a chance. Compared to the battle he had fought 
to
capture the aircraft carrier they now wandered the sea in, it had been 
nothing.
	But this was a contest of wills. There were no crude physical battles to
be had with this man. His was a refined spirit.
	Bison's laughter cut off sharply.
	He had no time to suffer fools.
	A loud crack echoed across the chamber as Bison reached out and casually
shattered the man's shoulder in five places. The I-Jin's pupils shrunk to
pinpricks and his breathing became shallow, but he did not scream.
	"Do you think you can escape my will?" Bison shifted, settling his cape
over his shoulder. "Or do you hope for rescue?" There was the slightest 
shift. A
normal person might have failed to see it. But Bison could see directly into 
the
heart of this man. He could see the hope flickering there, hidden behind 
walls
of serenity and peace. Bison grinned again. "Ah, so that is it. You think 
one of
your fellows will save you?" Bison walked over to one of the walls. "Another 
of
your cloned brood? Or perhaps the mysterious people who created you?" Bison
grinned. "Don't be a fool. They are already finished."
	"You... lie..." There was a bit more strength in the man's wheezing now.
	"No," Bison said simply. "Bison never lies." He reached up towards the
ceiling. As he willed it, purple flames burst to life around his grasping
fingers. They flickered and sparked in the dim light, casting his face into
sharp relief. "I have already learned all I need to about you and your
organization. The minds of your fellow clones were not nearly so strong as 
your
own. Even as we speak, my forces are seeking out these... Dokusensha. Soon, 
all
your precious cloning technology will be in my hands."
	For the first time, doubt was forming in the man's eyes. Bison grinned
further. A chink in his armor. It was time to crack him open like a ripe 
melon.
"They gave up their memories to me willingly, after a time." He snapped his
fingers and sent out a mental summons. "This one, for instance..."
	The wall next to Bison seemed to shimmer, and a woman walked through it
as if the solid metal were nothing but illusion. She was beautiful, with a
dancer's build and generous cleavage. Her chin-length blue hair framed a 
face
that might have sent lesser men to sleepless nights. She moved with a sultry
grace, her every motion containing hidden promises. Bison thought she looked
particularly fetching in the abbreviated Doll's uniform. Maybe a little too 
old
for his tastes, but every now and then he was willing to make an exception.
	"N-nancy..." the man croaked.
	The woman eyed the captive for a short moment. Then Bison flexed his
Psychopower. He funneled it into her body, an invisible hand that flowed 
down
deep into the core of her being. Her back arched, and her eyes turned 
upwards in
rapture as the power flooded her body. With a hungry smile she walked to 
Bison
and draped herself across his arm. He held her at his side as a trophy of 
his
victory.
	"Mine," Bison informed him. "Her mind was so simple, it broke like candy
glass." He laughed again, deep and joyous. "Her... sister, is it? She is 
proving
harder to break. This one is newer, I think. But do not fear, already she is
succumbing to the power of the Psychodrive." Bison gazed at the man, but he 
let
his attention drift. He could feel the woman struggling in his power, her 
body
and identity trapped within the Psychodrive like a fly in a spider's web.
Beneath her struggles he could sense her relief, the relief she felt at 
having
let her 'friend' escape. Such foolish hope. No one could escape Bison. They
could only delay their inevitable surrender.
	"No..." The man was close to breaking now. So it was that Bison almost
destroyed the intruder when the door opened, interrupting his pastime. He 
glared
at the door with his full strength, willing his presence to humble the fool 
who
had walked in on him.
	Juni and Juli cringed under the psychic assault. Their bodies bent like
willows and they fell to their knees in supplication. Words of remorse and
regret fell from their mouths like rain, but Bison did not hear them. He cut
them off with an angry chop of his hand and a a mental command to be silent.
	"What do you want?"
	"Master Bison..." Juli began, "We have grave news."
	"Very well, make it quick."
	"Vega is dead." Bison raised a single eyebrow at the news. He really
shouldn't be surprised. Vega was a fool who got in over his head far too 
often.
Still, Bison had been looking forward to his betrayal. The look of complete
horror in Vega's eyes when his futile hopes were dashed would have been
something to see. If it had been sufficiently entertaining, Bison might even
have let him live.
	"He was killed by the girl, Ukyou."
	"Was he now...?" Bison murmured. He released his new Doll and walked
towards his previous favorites.
	"The girl also defeated us," Juni informed him. There was no shame in
her declaration, merely a statement of fact. "Somehow she turned the force 
of
the Psychopower against us." That perked Bison's attention even more, and he
grinned again.
	"More and more I hear about this Ukyou," Bison said with dreadful
enthusiasm. "I think I should meet this young woman." He reached down and 
placed
his hand on Juni's shoulder. "Where is she now?"
	"England."

*

	Well, the Orochi was certainly just about as big as he'd imagined it.
	Maybe a little bigger, actually.
	Chris took the efficient route of dodging the first set of snapping jaws
and grabbing onto its furred crest, letting the awakened monster's head 
carry
him out of the water.  As he emerged, he heard twin shrieks as Vice and 
Mature
scrambled out of the way, barely avoiding being swallowed.
	For a moment, the Orochi's head towered out of the water, and Chris
flipped into a more stable position atop the creature.  The other six 
'lesser'
heads had also emerged from the lake, and all seven weaved and bobbed, 
searching
for the sake-carrying underwear-clad vixens that had been offered to it.
	Four noticed the two desperately swimming towards the shore and lunged.
One irritably tried to shake Chris from atop it, but he held on with all of
Adon's strength and Kodachi's grace.  The other two... were shooting down so
fast the air screamed in protest.  Their target, a blurry female figure on 
the
shore, who he could faintly hear laughing in a familiar voice.
	Swearing, Chris leapt from the head, his feet landing on one of the two
slippery scaled necks snapping towards Link.  He didn't even think, letting 
his
stolen instincts guide him as he dashed, pushing his body to move faster and
faster as he raced towards the head in a desperate attempt to reach it 
before it
reached her.
	Then he was past its nose, diving in a football tackle, driving the air
from her lungs and almost smashing her into an enormous tree.  But the 
massive
serpentine heads crashed impotently into the ground behind him, sending up a
cloud of dust and shattered rock.
	Link gasped back her breath, and then immediately resumed laughing.
Chris sat up, and stared at her.  "Do you have a death wish or something?"
	"I believe in God, over!" she yelled triumphantly at him, even as he
pulled her out of the way of another lunge from the now-recovered heads.
	"You WHAT?"
	"Well well well, what do we have here?"
	That wasn't Link.  Dropping her, Chris spun around to face Goenitz.  The
Heavenly King of Orochi was standing calmly on one of the heads that had 
just
attacked, calmly stroking his beard and shifting his stance only minisculely 
as
the creature attempted to throw him off.
	This could definitely be considered the worst case scenario.  Chris
wondered briefly why he hadn't planned for the worst case scenario.  Then he
remembered the only plan that made SENSE was to run.  "Get out of here, 
Link.  I
can't watch you and deal with this at the same time."
	She was still chortling to herself.  "Don't worry about me, over."
	Chris leaped into the air, bounced off the tree behind him, and kicked
directly at Goenitz's face.  He didn't actually yell 'Jaguar Kick', but it 
was
Adon's technique nonetheless.  Maybe he'd take Goenitz off-guard and-
	A small tornado rose from the ground and hit Chris in the back, sending
him spiralling into the air.  Goenitz hadn't even moved.  "Fighting me in 
the
air is a fool's gambit," he noted calmly.
	As Chris crashed into the ground, he noticed that at least Link had
vanished in the woods.  But even as he picked himself up, Goenitz raised one
hand and elegantly flicked three fingers.  Three trees - each at least a 
metre
thick- tumbled apart, and huge gouges were ripped out of the ground behind
Chris, cutting off his escape.
	Chris stepped into a Muay Thai stance.  Not much choice but to fight.
	"I don't know who you are, nor do I truly care.  I must thank you for
awakening this beast for me.  To show my appreciation, I shall make your 
death
painless."  Goenitz thrust one arm forward, and for a moment a swirling 
vortex
of some sort began to form... and then a green blur appeared from the right 
and
knocked the arm aside.  Goenitz backed up a step, clutching his forearm with 
a
grimace of pain.  Before him stood Cologne, balanced on the end of her staff 
at
the tip of the increasingly-annoyed Orochi's snout.
	"Flee, boy," Cologne intoned.  "This battle is beyond you."
	"And beyond you as well, old woman," Goenitz noted in a bemused tone.
He raised his injured hand, clenching his fist.  For a moment, the wind 
swirled
around Cologne, but she leapt up, her staff slashing out and into the 
cyclone,
tearing it into a dozen harmless dust-devils before it could do any harm.
	She landed in the same position as before, her eyes narrowed.  "You are
not the only one who has studied the wind."
	Chris was just considering his options for the upcoming battle when a
movement caught his eye.  At the far end of the lake, the figures of Shampoo 
and
Akane emerged from the forest.  The Orochi, naturally, noticed as well.  Six
unoccupied heads dived down towards them.  Both managed to dodge the initial
attacks, however.
	This was as good an opportunity as Chris could hope for to accomplish
what he'd come here to do.  Running past the now ominously-glowing forms of
Cologne and Goenitz, he dived into the dark water.
	The dark, looming mass of the Orochi's final head bobbed beneath the
surface of the lake.  To call it huge would be an understatement.  It was as
massive as all the other heads and necks put together, a giant reptilian maw 
as
big as a house.  The other necks snaked from the back of the enormous head,
making the whole Orochi look like some sort of freakishly monstrous squid.
	It also wasn't paying even the slightest bit of attention to a male
corpse that wasn't carrying alcohol, a fact which Chris had been counting 
on.
It did seem sort of oddly jittery for some reason, jerking around a bit, its
eyes darting from side to side, but it wasn't giving Chris more than a 
passing
glance. As long as he didn't attack it directly, he could approach it.  
Would it
be so sanguine when he stole the Moss of Life that grew on its primary head?
Well, only one way to find out.
	He swam up from behind the thing's crest, straining to see in the murky
water.  The Moss ought to be right on the top of the head... ah, there it 
was,
the strands swaying slightly from the motion of the water.
	Unlike Akane in the manga, he wasn't planning to leave any.  The
squarish patch of moss was about half a metre on each side, which was a 
little
more than he'd thought.  Drawing to a stop, his churning legs threw up a
corkscrew of water as he fought his lack of living buoyancy.  Still the 
creature
didn't seem to care.  Pulling out a sharpened teaspoon, he cleanly stripped 
the
entire patch of Moss of Life from its scalp and flipped it into the bag Link 
had
given him in one motion.
	Both eyes, each easily as big as a SUV, instantly snapped to him.  Uh-
oh.  A titanic roar filled the water, the creature's tremendous bellow 
sending
waves of pressure through the lake, buffeting Chris with disorienting force. 
He
found himself struggling against the current, blinded by the foam as the
Orochi's breath filled the water around him with air bubbles. A second 
later, he
felt the disturbing tickle of danger along the back of his neck. He grunted,
forcing the last of the air from his lungs, and spun in place.
	A second later the monster's massive teeth emerged from the foam. He
kicked out, just barely hitting one of the giant incisors. Each was the size 
of
a full-grown man. But he wasn't aiming to hurt it: instead, he used the 
tooth as
a launch, kicking off with all Adon's power to send himself flying clear of 
the
blinding foam. Even as he did, he felt the pressure of the thing's tongue
approaching. He struggled to dodge, but all his momentum was too much for 
even
him to change. Still, all it did was slam into him with crushing force and 
send
him spiraling off in a new direction, rather than curling about him and 
drawing
him in to be its latest snack.
	He collided with the side of the lake, forming a small crater
underwater. He grunted again, but all that came out was a soft gargling 
sound.
Chris realized vaguely that the ribs along his left side had been snapped 
like
kindling.
	No matter.  He crawled up to the shore, carefully cradling the bag in
the crook of one arm.  With all the trouble he was going through for this, 
Link
had better appreciate it.  There was a flash of movement in front of him, 
and
Chris half-fell into a defensive stance before realising it was in fact the
selfsame Link.
	Except something was wrong.  She was leaning up against a tree,
breathing heavily, her hands curled around her midsection.  Her two small
aragami pets, mewling plaintively, were clustered around her legs.
	Chris began to ask what was wrong, then realised he couldn't take in any
air to speak.  Oh, right.  Turning away, he spent a moment coughing and 
hacking
up the water from Adon's lungs.  When he could speak again, he turned back 
to
Link, but Akane was already there.
	"What's wrong?" he heard her ask.
	"I don't know... something with Pink, over..." She raised a hand to her
chest gingerly, as if it had been burned.
	Pink?
	Chris looked around.  Two great glowing lights flashed through midair,
occasionally crisscrossing each other, while the seven smaller Orochi heads
darted around them as if in some sort of intricate dance, trying to slay the 
two
annoyances.  Occasionally the lake was lit by great gouts of flame erupting 
from
one of the Orochi's maws.  But neither Cologne nor Goenitz appeared to even
notice the monster's attempts to slay them, often using the shifting coils 
of
the great dragon to launch themselves in fresh directions.
	Shampoo had emerged from the forest near Akane, her sword glinting in
the moonlight.  There was a large dent in it, shaped roughly like a 
toothmark.
	But Vice and Mature were nowhere to be seen.
	And Pink was in trouble...
	Damn it!
	"Here, take this!" he yelled, throwing the Moss to Akane.  "I've got to
go help Pink!"
	Before anyone could respond, he dashed into the woods.

*

	What did it feel like?
	Pink couldn't describe it in mere words.  She was full of life, of
energy, of power.  All around her, she could feel the presence of her 
faithful
servants.  Trees, flowers, grass were all around, and she could feel each 
and
every one of them.  They knew her, and she heard in the back of her mind 
their
murmuring, an incomprehensible chorus of respect and awe.  She knew that 
with a
thought she could reach out and wrest away their vitality.  She didn't know 
what
she could do with it, but she could DO it.
	So, maybe she could describe it with words after all.  Pink laughed.
What a marvellous, wondrous feeling.
	She threw the knife down, and gazed lovingly at herself in the small
mirror she had found by the cottage's futon.  She was still recognisably
herself, which was good.  But the changes were unmistakable, too.  Ears 
pointed,
brilliant green eyes slitted like a cat's.  The mitama on her chest, now 
visible
due to the just made-alterations to her outfit, glowed faintly in the dusky
light.  The new growths on her shoulders were also now unencumbered by her
shirt.  They were large petals, a beautiful crimson like roses in bloom. 
Their -
HER - faintly sweet scent filled the room, but Pink knew instinctively
she could make something far more interesting emanate from them.
	Oh yes.  Even at first glance, she'd never be mistaken for someone
ordinary.  Pink laughed again.  Everything had gone so perfectly.  Now Chris
could thank her for the body of a god-to-be, indebting him further and 
reminding
him how much more useful Pink was to him than Akane ever would be.  And the
powers Pink felt... just a taste, the merest tip of the iceberg compared to 
how
high she now realised she could rise.  What a beautiful relationship they 
had,
the dead man and she.  Perfectly symbiotic.
	First, she'd need to ensure they got more mitamas.  But that wasn't
all...
	"Well, now, I never expected such an exotic bird to fly into our little
cage."
	Pink spun around, then instantly relaxed.  Just the evil secretaries.
Vice was lounging against the entranceway, arms crossed and an inquiring 
smile
on her face.  Her hair had a glistening sheen of water on it.
	From beside her, Mature gasped.  Her hair was also damp, though had lost
none of its typical elegance.  "Vice, the boy!"
	Vice glanced over at the crumpled body in the corner, and her smile
instantly vanished.  She glanced back at Pink.  "Did you do this?"
	Pink smirked. "I didn't do anything he didn't want me to, over."
	"There's no mark on him - he was poisoned!" Mature snapped.  "Vice, see
what you can do.  I'll wring the information out of the intruder."
	Now Vice looked even more disappointed, but quickly rushed to the kid's
side.  Pink's smile didn't waver.  "You think so?  I think you two will make 
a
great experiment, over."
	Pink stretched her arms forward, and the growths on her shoulders
lifted.  The sweet smell in the room rose, becoming cloying, as a scarlet 
mist
leaked from the petals.  Vice snarled and rose one sleeve to cover her mouth 
and
nose, but it would be useless.  Soon the two would barely be able to stand, 
and
once Pink touched them, they'd be her devoted-
	Mature snapped one arm out, and the air screeched in protest.  The
scarlet mist seemed to funnel into the path behind her hand.  Then she 
lashed
out with her other arm, and more of the mist followed.  Her hands danced in 
a
complex pattern, and only after a moment did Pink realise that the obnoxious
wind-using bitch was catching the mist and hurling it harmlessly out the 
doorway
to dissipate.
	Well, it didn't matter.  She willed the thorns on her hands to extend, a
process that was slightly painful but nothing she couldn't ignore.  Doing 
that
did cause her to stop producing the mist, but it wasn't working anyway.
Grinning, she dashed towards Mature.  "Stupid secretary!  The merest scratch 
of
my ambrosial thorns, and all of your precious martial arts skill will be
useless, over!  Then you'll serve me-"
	Pink had barely noticed the movement, but abruptly Mature was holding
both of her wrists in a grip of iron.  Pink jerked to a stop, her threat cut
off, as her forward momentum was brought to a crashing halt.  She struggled 
with
the other woman's grip, but her fingers couldn't curl down enough to touch 
any
flesh, and Mature wasn't moving.
	The blonde woman smiled slightly.  "I assume you meant these thorns?"
she said, nodding towards Pink's immobilised hands.  "I don't think I need 
to
worry about them."
	The world flipped around, and Pink suddenly found herself crushed into
the floor with enough force to drive the air from her lungs.  She tried to
scrabble for purchase, but one of her hands stopped moving abruptly with a 
loud,
unpleasant crunch as Mature stepped on it with enough force to drive one of 
her
stiletto heels through it and almost an inch into the floor.  Pink stared 
dumbly
at it for a moment before the wracking spike of pain made her scream.
	Mature elegantly stepped out of her shoe, the slight movement causing
Pink to cry out again.  She knelt down, her knee pinning Pink's uninjured
forearm to the ground.  Her fingertips brushed delicately against Pink's 
neck.
"And now, you will begin talking.  Or I shall begin removing body parts.
Starting, perhaps, with these things growing from your shoulders."
	Pink had been bullied by the best of them, and was not unduly
intimidated.  However, she was starting to think that, perhaps, she had 
somehow
ended up a bit over her head.
	At that point, she saw Vice stand in the corner of her eye.  "He's
dead," the Orochi-worshipper declared.  "There's nothing I can do."  Her 
voice
was not particularly angry, or even annoyed.  Just slightly disappointed, 
like a
petulant child who had misplaced a favourite toy.
	Mature's breath hissed through her teeth.  Her voice was terse.  "Then I
see no reason to keep this one alive."  Her grip tightened around Pink's 
neck.
	Then the world exploded in a cacophony of sound.  The sharp crack as the
wall exploded into fragments.  An inarticulate howl of rage.  A feminine 
scream
of pain.  All three so close together they seemed almost the same sound.  
The
pressure on Pink disappeared at the same time, and an instant later she 
heard
the other wall explode, and a soft whistle as a heavy object flew through 
the
air to crash into the soft loam outside.
	Pink felt herself being lifted from the floor.  The shoe was removed
from her crushed hand, gently, but still sending another stab of pain down 
her
arm.  She looked up.  Adon's face wasn't handsome even before it was dead 
and
soaked, and even less so with that worried scowl.  But she felt a swelling 
surge
of joy inside her breast at the sight of it.  Not just for saving her life,
although that was part of it.  It was what it MEANT.
	"Thank you, over," she said softly. She resisted the urge to break out
in another peal of laughter.  It would ruin the moment.
	"Are you alr-" the undead Chris started to say, but suddenly was ripped
away and his voice turned into a wordless howl as he smashed through a third
wall.  Unsurprisingly, a large chunk of the roof caved in at that point, but
Vice elegantly sidestepped it, stretching her arm languidly.  Her long 
sleeves
billowed in the gust of air caused by the collapsing roof.
	Pink landed uncomfortably on the floor, and gasped a bit as she
instinctively tried to break her fall with her injured hand.  Vice spared 
her a
glance.
	"It looks like I will get a chance to kill you after all," she said, her
voice far more chipper than it was a moment ago.  "Since Mature seems to 
be..."
she pursed her lips, glancing out towards the slumped, quivering figure of 
her
partner.  "Well, yes.  But first."  She twirled around gracefully, just as 
Chris
leaped towards her.
	The two started that whole tiresome martial artist thing, but Pink
ignored them as she gingerly climbed to her feet.  Chris would win anyway.  
But
in the meantime, Pink had a small loose end to tie up.
	Stepping out the hole in the shattered wall, she rooted around in her
pouches with her usable hand.  Mature wasn't quite completely unconscious, 
but
probably wished she was.  She was quivering slightly, lying face-down in the
dirt, her torso twisted and one leg bent in a direction they generally 
weren't
supposed to.  Pink's trained eyes quickly looked her over and concluded that
aside from the obviously broken leg, most of her ribs had been reduced to
splinters.  The unhealthy sound of her breathing and a bit of red splatter 
on
the dirt near her mouth only confirmed that.  She was sobbing softly,
involuntarily, each slight motion obviously causing her even more pain.  If 
she
wasn't a superhuman martial artist, she'd already be dead.  Even then, Pink
estimated her chances of survival at less than fifty percent without prompt
medical attention.
	Pink clucked her tongue as she knelt down.  She pinned one of the
woman's arms under her knee, and reached out to caress her neck with her 
good
hand.  No thorns this time.  This mewling little wretch didn't deserve to be 
a
slave.
	"Mature," she said softly.  The woman didn't respond, so Pink wrapped
her fingers around the woman's throat and squeezed just hard enough to be
uncomfortable.  "Oh Mature, over," she continued.
	Mature twitched almost involuntarily to look in Pink's direction, but
her eyes were glassy and unfocused with pain and shock.  That wouldn't do at
all.  Pink released the woman's throat, drew back her hand, and struck her
sharply across the face, sending a gob of crimson spittle flying away.
	When Mature looked back, her eyes were fully focused.  Ahhh, what a
wonderful thing, that martial artist concentration.  Pink smiled her 
special,
secret smile.  "Now that I have your undivided attention..." She lifted her
hand, letting the little packet she'd retrieved earlier slide into her palm.
"Memorise this face.  It's the last thing you're going to see, over."
	She hurled the packet into Mature's face.  It exploded, of course,
coating the woman's beautiful features with a fine viridian powder.  A 
moment
later, Mature tried to scream.  She couldn't quite do it, but a horrific 
gargle
forced its way from her punctured lungs and out her throat.  As Pink stepped
back, Mature's spine arched sharply despite her injuries, and seemed for a
moment as if she were going to snap in two.  Her arms jerked to life, moving 
so
fast the air snapped around them, trying frantically to claw and rake the 
powder
off her face.
	Really, it must have taken a rather exquisite amount of agony to
distract Mature so completely from her previous injuries.  Pink felt rather
proud of herself.  She watched for a few minutes as the woman desperately,
mindlessly tore gouges in her beautiful features, nails leaving long red 
tracks
on the milky skin.  When the woman's eyes were nothing more than gore-filled
pits, Pink lost interest in her and turned back to more important things.
	The fight behind her had been a little more equal than Pink had
expected, since Vice was still standing.  She was sporting a nasty-looking
bruise on the side of her face, though.  The woman didn't seem to mind, 
however,
as she eagerly licked the blood off her lips.
	A loud creak echoed through the forest as Chris catapulted himself off
the tree, leaving the meter-thick trunk shuddering like a reed.  He slashed
towards Vice with a cry, one leg extended, but the woman laughed lightly and
slashed her own arm forward to meet him.  There was a blur of red on black, 
and
Chris was somehow snatched in midair long before he was in striking distance 
of
Vice.  He didn't even let out a sound as she slammed him into the tree 
behind
her, leaving a dent of Adon's not-inconsiderable size.   Chris didn't even 
hit
the ground, instead sliding onto his feet as he tumbled from the trunk.
	Vice took a step back, her expression becoming petulant.  "You don't
even feel pain, do you?" she asked in a whining, childish voice.
	"No, I don't," Chris responded coldly.
	Pink was just considering her options when most of them were rendered
moot as a middle-aged man in a priest's outfit - obviously Goenitz - 
suddenly
appeared, standing a tree branch.  Both Chris and Vice glanced over at the
newcomer, Chris looking far less pleased.  Goenitz elegantly floated down 
from
the branch, buoyed by the wind.  His cultured voice rang across the 
clearing.
"Don't you?  I suppose we shall have to test that."  He spared the slightest 
of
glances for the cottage, his eyes narrowing slightly, and Pink felt every 
living
thing in the forest suddenly shrinking in fear from the cold aura that 
abruptly
surrounded him.  "Who has slain the scion?"
	Vice flowed over to her master's side and took up position beside him.
"It was the girl.  Poisoned him while the others distracted us.  But I don't
know who she works for."  She sank to the ground beside him, stretching
languidly like a cat, her dress puddling around her like a pool of blood.
"Should I get her to talk?"
	"No, that won't be necessary." Goenitz noted.  He raised his hand,
looking directly at Pink.  "I think this shall be her best possible use."
	A raging whirlwind sprang into being underneath his outstretched palm.
Flashes of silver light circled inside, and the ground was torn to shreds 
and
sent spitting in all directions, turning the interior of the cyclone into a
brown geyser.  A loud roar, like the buzz of a thousand bees, filled the
clearing.  It drifted towards Pink almost lazily, leaving a narrow band of
destruction in its wake.
	It didn't take some high-and-mighty martial artist to dodge that.  Pink
smirked and leaped to the side.  Except the whirlwind turned sharply without
pausing.  In fact, it was getting faster.  And it was pursuing her.  Goenitz 
was
chuckling to himself, though Pink wasn't sure how she heard it over the 
roar.
She continued to back away, but the tornado followed her every step, and was
starting to overtake her-
	Hands encircled her waist from behind, and the world flipped around for
a moment as she was yanked through the air so quickly the wind whipped 
around
her.  As she landed, slightly dizzy, Chris was yelling at her.  "Get over to 
the
lake and the others!  I'll handle this-" which was right about the point 
that
the whirlwind slammed into his back.  Pink flinched back, but the tornado
stopped dead at that point, and after a moment dissipated into thin air.  
Most
of Adon's legs were actually still in the spot where Chris had been 
standing.
Only a few feet away was his right arm.  Most of the rest of the body, 
including
the head, was flung up against a tree on the side of the clearing nearer the
cottage.
	Goenitz dusted off his lapels, smiling slightly.  Then he raised an
eyebrow as Chris attempted to use his remaining arm to struggle back to an
upright position.  "I see 'doesn't feel pain' is rather an understatement."  
He
shook his head.  "It seems that you are, in fact, more trouble than you're
worth."
	He began to walk, slowly and deliberately, towards Chris.  This wasn't
good, but could be a benefit too.  Pink began sidling towards the cottage.
Except Vice was suddenly drifting towards her with an unpleasant smile.  
Could
be a problem.
	Pink's eyes snapped away from Vice abruptly. The mitama on her chest was
pulsing, sending a sharp echo through her mind. Something was coming. 
Something
big. Then everyone in the clearing paused, as a series of cracks and roars
echoed out of the forest. A dark shadow was charging through the underbrush, 
its
huge eyes flashing red in the darkness. Two trees toppled down in front of 
it,
massive ones that threw up a cloud of dust in their wake. The thing leapt 
over
the collapsing trunks with surprising agility for something that was as 
large as
an elephant.
	It landed on four legs, its reptilian claws digging great chunks out of
the loamy soil. It resembled a turtle, but with a shell covered in dozens of
pyramidal spines. Bony plates extended over the shoulders and hips of its 
limb,
and from these jutted a series of long thin piercing barbs. Its head was 
short,
with a snapping beak and great insectile red eyes. In the air behind it 
waved
the monster's club-like tail, long and whip-thin compared to the rest of the
beast. The club itself was a ball of spikes.
	Pink could feel the mitama in it, even if she couldn't see the thing. It
was also oddly colored, with a blue shell and black scaly skin, but the 
shell
turned redder the closer it got to the tips of its spines. It roared, its 
voice
like a dozen lions, and stepped deliberately into the space between Goenitz 
and
Chris.
	"Well," Goenitz frowned almost imperceptibly and flicked his hand,
causing the dust from its arrival to puff from his coat. "This forest is 
just
full of surprises."
	He glanced idly behind him as the trees cracked once again, announcing
the arrival of another aragami. Pink raised an eyebrow as Link walked 
casually
in front of the other beast. Her twin did not even glance in Pink's 
direction.
	The thing that followed her resembled a two-story-tall praying mantis.
Its body was thin, skeletally so, and seemed to be made of some sort of 
thick,
ropy plant material. It strode forward on four thin legs and had two more 
raised
in the air before it. The long, vicious-looking claws that descended from 
these
legs framed Link as she walked. It had no mouth, but only two tremendous 
over-
sized eyes sticking out of its almost comically small head. They spun and
whirled in place, looking off in seemingly random directions.
	"Friends of yours?" Goenitz asked Pink's twin.
	Link stared at him for a moment, her expression oddly blank.  Then
suddenly she chuckled, almost looking as if she wanted to smile.  "Oh, it's 
you.
They're my friends, yes.  The Water of Life is really quite exceptional, 
even
more than Jyusenkyou water in some ways, over."  She caressed the bag she 
held
under one arm.  "Let's cut right to the chase.  You've lost already.  Why 
don't
you save your life and run away, over?"
	"And if I don't accept your summary of my chances?" Goenitz asked
mildly.
	Link shrugged.  "I don't really care.  You're going to fail.  You might
win, or think you do.  You might kill some of us, even me."  She looked over 
at
the remnants of Adon's body, and laughed to herself.  "But you've lost 
already.
You can't beat him, over."
	"But railing against fate is such a fascinating pastime.  I do not
believe I can tear myself from it so easily."
	Link spread her arms wide.  "I couldn't agree more. Then let's see what
happens, over!"
	Her two creatures lurched into movement, circling around Goenitz.
Before the battle could be joined, however, two more figures emerged from 
the
forest, although with less destruction than the two aragami.  Pink smiled.  
This
was all going just marvelously, really.  Vice had paused to look at the 
group
of newcomers.  Shampoo and Akane had also stopped upon entering the 
situation,
their naked blades gleaming in the moonlight.  Shampoo's eyes immediately 
locked
upon Vice's.  Akane, however, was looking around, as if searching for 
something.
	"Shampoo!" Pink barked.  "Get rid of that stupid secretary.  Keep her
away from me, over!"
	It wasn't really an order Pink expected Shampoo to hesitate at, and she
was not disappointed.  The stupid Joketsuzoku bitch screamed a war cry and
charged, her sword flashing through the air in an arc intended to behead her
opponent.  Vice, however, merely laughed, and snapped forward, first with 
one
arm, then the other.  In a blur of black and red, first Shampoo's sword was
ripped from her hand, then Shampoo herself was tossed in the other 
direction.
	Akane, realising her "friend" was in over her head, stopped whatever it
was she was doing and leaped into action.  Pink immediately dismissed all 
the
idiots from her mind - no one was paying attention to her anymore.  While 
the
sounds of battle erupted behind her, she strode over to the ruined cottage.  
It
was a bit of a hassle to try and drag the kid's body with only one hand, but
even without his legs, Adon's body would have been a larger burden.
	As she reemerged into the night with her surprise, she noted Vice was
holding off Akane and Shampoo rather handily with that annoying throw-at-a-
distance trick of hers, but hadn't managed to land a decisive blow yet.
Meanwhile, Goenitz was dodging casually between the lightning-fast sweeps of 
the
mantis creature and the slashing club of the reptile.  He and Link were 
still
chatting, as if nothing was happening.  All the pieces were in place... 
except
for the annoying old bat.  Had Goenitz gotten rid of her?  Pink would have 
to
thank his corpse after this was all over, if so.
	And then all the sounds of the melee were drowned out as a roar louder
than anything Pink had ever heard in her life filled the entire forest.
Something was ripping up the life force of the forest!  She spun, dropping 
the
body in her startlement.  Above the treeline, a huge vortex had suddenly
appeared, like the finger of some god lancing down from the sky.  In its 
titanic
mass swirled blue streaks of water and the dark forms of the huge trees as 
they
were swept up into it.  Then, both were drowned out as the gargantuan form 
of
the Orochi - or so Pink assumed - was hurled up in the centre of the 
tornado,
helplessly flailing heads occasionally breaking out of the storm only to be
inexorably drawn back in.
	Oh.  Well, that explained where the annoying old bat was.
	The whirlwind rose up in the sky, carrying the howling eight-headed
serpent with it.  Even as the tornado dissipated upon reaching the clouds 
above,
the Orochi continued flying up and away, its enormous bulk temporarily 
blotting
out the light of the moon as it hurtled out towards the horizon.
	Pink made a mental note not to call the old bat an old bat to her face
anymore.  At least, not until she could be taught her place.
	The next sound Pink heard was the sound of someone charging across the
field.  She turned, to see everyone still staring in astonishment at the
horizon.  Everyone except Akane, who was dashing into the treeline.  Then 
there
was a flash of silver, and Akane stepped behind a particularly large tree,
hitting it with her elbow.  Ponderously, the tree slid down on the angled 
cut.
Around that time Vice snapped out of her stupor and spun to face this new
threat, sleeves dangling; but from her expression, the colossal tree 
toppling
towards her was a little beyond her ability to hurl aside as she had her 
foes.
Perhaps she might have dodged, but it was right about that point that 
Shampoo
slid in, her legs sweeping Vice's out from underneath her, then rolled away.
	The boom of the great tree landing on top of Vice was suitably
impressive, Pink grudgingly had to admit.  At the other side of the 
clearing,
Goenitz was thoughtfully stroking his beard, his head tipped forward and his
face in shadows.  "My word.  What a surprising lot you are.  I suppose I 
shall
have to stop holding back so much."  His eyes snapped wide open, their 
brilliant
blue flashing through the darkness, and he grinned, a savage animal smile.  
With
two casual sweeps of his arms, the aragami on either side of him exploded in 
a
shower of green gore.  He hadn't destroyed the well-hidden mitamas within 
their
bodies, however - Pink still felt them pulsing with life.
	Well, it seemed things were just about to get out of hand.  Time, then,
to save the day.  "CHRIS!" she cried as loudly as she could.  "You can't 
fight
him in that wrecked body!  You'll have to take this one, over!"
	At that point, both Chris and Akane looked at her, and at the limp
corpse she was holding up, and their expressions could not have been more
different if they had tried.
	A fraction of a second later, the remains of Adon's body collapsed and
the one she held by the hand was not nearly so limp.  Pink tightened her 
grasp
around Chris's new hand and helped him up.
	"It's whole, but it's not nearly as strong as any martial artist," Chris
muttered, staring down at himself, but there was no accusation in his voice.
	"It doesn't matter!" Pink trilled triumphantly.  "He was a god!  You
know the power that slept in that kid, over!"
	"Maybe..." Chris grunted.
	And then Link was there, clutching her mitamas and the bag to her chest.
"You'd better figure out something quickly, Chris!" she snapped.  "Goenitz 
isn't
going to be stunned into silence for long, over!"
	Pink smiled, looking over the battlefield.  Shampoo and Akane were
running towards them, and both of them were staring at Chris.  Shampoo's 
eyes
were flinty, but Akane's face was full of open horror.  Chris wasn't paying
attention, however, as he clenched his fists and stared at them impotently.
Pink wasn't too concerned.  Vice was still buried under the tree, though the
massive trunk was quivering slightly as the woman struggled to gain the 
leverage
to free herself.
	And Goenitz... Goenitz was just recovering, smoothing over the naked
shock with indiscriminate rage.  "This..." he said, his voice filled with 
anger
for the first time.  "This goes beyond everything.  This is more than an
outrage.  This is blasphemy!"  A cold white aura built around the Heavenly 
King
of Orochi.  The air around him slashed and snapped, great trees and giant 
rocks
around him were ripped into the air and fell apart, cleaved in twain.
	And Link leaned in close to Chris, closer than Pink could ever remember
her twin voluntarily getting to the dead man.  "Chris," she said, her voice
hissing into his ear.  "If you don't do something now, Pink and Akane are 
going
to die, over."
	Chris raised his head.  The childish features of the other Chris were
set in hard, determined lines. His cold, dead eyes flashed from blue to red.
"No.  I won't let that happen."
	Goenitz was rushing in, his mouth open in a scream of rage, the wind
swirling around him tearing the ground up in his wake. He was moving so 
fast,
even Pink's recently enhanced senses could barely follow him.
	Chris raised his childlike hands, almost in slow motion.
	And there was fire.
	A giant wall of purple flames roared from the earth, hissing four
stories into the air.  Instantly, a wave of heat struck Pink almost like a 
blow,
sending her staggering a step back.  The earth around the flames 
disintegrated,
and Pink felt a sick, bloated tear in the vital force of the forest, like a
festering wound had erupted from under it.
	Nobody was looking directly at the barrier of flames.  Nobody could have
stared directly into that blindingly bright abyss.  Except Chris.  Pink 
stared
at him, instead, and saw him looking out into the flames he had created.  
She
laughed with delight, and that seemed to snap the dead man out of his 
reverie.
He spun on his heel, and the voice of the dead child carried over the 
hissing
roar of the flames.
	"That won't stop him forever.  Let's get out of here.  Now!"

*

	Rei had to admit, after thinking it over, that it had been a complete
success. Even Usagi had managed to get through it without once falling over 
or
looking like an idiot. The entire fight had an almost dream-like perfection 
to
it. They had shown up, just as the huge hulking monster - Rei assumed it was 
a
zoanoid - had been about to level a building, posed, shouted at it and 
blasted
it back to wherever it came from. Then they had left without any incident, 
and
here they were again.
	Rei glanced around the school as she wandered through it. The
architecture was strange, not quite like anything Rei had ever seen before. 
But
even as she thought that, she knew it was a lie. This place very much 
reminded
her of somewhere, somewhere from her past, maybe even her past life. It had 
an
air of elegance and refinement to it. The whole campus existed with almost a
fairy tale quality.
	Perhaps that was why Rei wasn't comfortable? She frowned and looked down
at her feet, keeping her eyes away from the buildings as she passed them
anonymously. This entire place gave her a headache. The buildings, the 
people
inside them, even the uniforms that had been handed out to her... they all 
felt
wrong. Tainted.
	It was the same feeling she had when the zoanoids, or youma, or whatever
other demons were out there came too close. But then again, that did make 
sense.
Chris had told them that this place was run by the next best thing to Satan
himself. Rei believed him. She had felt the taint on the man when he had 
come to
speak to them. They had only talked the once, and even then it had been 
nothing
more sinister than what you would expect any school chairman to lecture a 
group
of strange young girls regarding attending a new school. He had talked about
grades, and attendance, and dress codes and other mundane things. Nobody had
mentioned magic or demons or evil schemes.
	Rei had spent two hours scrubbing herself off after the meeting.
	But things seemed to be going well. They had settled into this strange
school. It had only taken them three days. Makoto had already challenged the
school's judo team and won herself a place on it; no doubt she would be
captain soon. Ami had shyly mentioned a boy she had met and was talking to. 
He
was apparently very smart, and an accomplished pianist. Rei didn't think she 
had
ever seen Ami even look at a boy before. And Usagi...
	Usagi was a princess.
	Everywhere she went, Usagi dazzled and charmed. Her clumsy enthusiasm
and goofy good-natured humour, which had actually made her something of a 
social
outcast back in Tokyo, seemed to be winning over half the school. Usagi was 
even
now throwing a party at a local ice cream shop. For everyone else, it was 
just a
routine get together. For the Sailor Senshi, it was supposed to celebrate 
their
stunningly one-sided victory over the forces of evil.
	Rei had declined her invitation.
	She sighed. She really had to stop doing that. Usagi needed her. She was
still young and needed to master her powers, and until then the Senshi would
have to-
	Rei collided with something going very quickly in the opposite
direction. She screamed and fell back, landing painfully. The world swam for 
a
few seconds as she rubbed at her scalp. Rei had no idea what had happened, 
but
reacted instinctively.
	"Watch where you're going, you stupid moron!" she snapped.
	"Hey! You should... well, I guess it was my fault. But there's no need
to be rude!" Rei's eyes focused on the speaker for the first time. She would
place the girl at around her own age, although she was a little shorter. Her
burgundy hair fell to the nape of her neck, with one lock settled artfully
between her violet eyes. Like Rei, she was dressed in the Ohtori girl's 
uniform:
a typical sailor suit with huge puffed shoulders but no sleeves and a shirt 
cut
so tight it made every girl look like they had a stick for a waist. Instead 
of
the bow sported on most school uniforms, this one had an oversized red tie 
with
a single yellow stripe slashing across it. The girl was sitting on the 
ground
like Rei, also clutching her forehead.
	Rei considered her words for a minute and methodically reined in her
anger. She gave a long sigh. "Apology accepted," Rei said, getting to her 
feet.
She held her hand down towards the other girl.
	"Um, thank you," the girl said, accepting the help up. She stood weakly
for a second and when Rei released her, she stumbled back and almost fell 
again.
Quick instincts let Rei catch her before she would have suffered another 
nasty
spill.
	"Are you alright?" Rei asked, suddenly concerned.
	"My ankle..." the girl said, looking down at her leg. "I think I twisted
it..."
	Rei bit the inside of her lip. She had really been planning on spending
the evening alone. Without the sacred fire, it was hard to find her centre. 
She
needed it, in this strange place with its... its overwhelming 'it'-ness.
	"Here, lean on me," Rei offered, then proceeded to pull the girl into a
position where Rei could support most of her weight without waiting for a
response. The girl only blinked and stared. "Now where were you headed,
exactly?"
	"I can get there myself!" the girl cried indignantly and suddenly pushed
Rei away. Rei was caught off-guard by the smaller girl and stumbled back. 
The
shorter girl sniffed and turned her head sharply away. Then she made it two
steps before her ankle gave out and her legs flew out from underneath her.
	Expecting this, Rei caught her from behind. "What are you, an idiot?
Don't you know to accept help when you need it?" Rei frowned as the girl
stiffened in her grip. Then she suddenly relaxed and her head dipped down. 
Rei
blinked as the girl began to tremble in her arms, slowly at first and then 
with
increasing intensity. Soft sobs echoed back over her shoulder.
	Oh great. This was all Rei needed, another crybaby.
	"Ah, I didn't really mean it..." Rei said lamely. Apologies were not her
strong point.
	The girl let out a loud hitching sob, trying to rub the tears from her
cheeks with one hand. "I'm sorry, I feel so stupid!" She sniffed again, but 
this
time the sound was far less arrogant. "It's just-" she cut off sharply.
	"Just what?" Rei asked. She was running mostly on autopilot now.
Whenever Usagi started crying, Rei just yelled at her louder until she 
stopped.
She somehow sensed that was not the course to take with this girl. So she 
fell
back on what little she could remember of her shrine maiden training, at 
least
the parts that had not dealt with meditation and predicting the future.
	"Nothing, it's stupid..." the girl said, finally having gotten her
sobbing under control. Rei could still sense the despondence in her voice;
despondence and something deeper. "I was going to Nemuro Memorial Hall. I'd 
be
glad if you could take me there."
	"Sure," Rei agreed, glad herself that there finally was something to do.
"Uh... just one problem..." She coughed as she adjusted her grip on the girl 
to
one more suitable for a long walk. "Where is that?"
	"Just down this way, on the other side of the campus from the
dormitories." Rei nodded, and the two began to walk.
	"I'm Rei Hino," Rei introduced herself. "As you might have guessed, I'm
new here."
	The girl laughed a little. "That's a coincidence, I'm new here too." She
paused and reconsidered her statement. "Well, I used to go here awhile back, 
but
I transferred away and just returned recently." She paused again. They 
passed by
a rusty gutter as they turned a corner, the water from the storm still 
dripping
out of it slowly. It looked like blood. "My name is Shiori Takatsuki."
	"Pleased to meet you," Rei said. She knew she should have left it at
that. She had much bigger problems to think about than this girl she hardly
knew. The entire world practically rested on her shoulder, and she was 
wasting
time propping up a crying schoolgirl? But Rei couldn't help it. The world 
was
vast and terrible, and maybe there was nothing Rei could do about it...
	But she could guide this girl to where she needed to go.
	"So what's his name?" Rei asked.
	"Huh?"
	Rei rolled her eyes. She had seen Makoto in a similar huff once too
often. "The name of the boy. The one who dumped you, or you caught with 
another
girl before you could ask him out, or who stuck your love note up on the 
school
bulletin board..." Rei trailed off invitingly.
	"It's nothing like that at all!" Shiori replied irritably.
	Rei could sense Shiori's indignation. This close, Rei could hardly help
but feel it. She also sensed a spark of resentment nestled down under her
chaotically swirling emotions. It was the only thing that had remained 
constant
since they had met, Rei realised.
	"I still don't think it's that important," Rei said, putting more
dismissiveness into her tone than she really felt. Shiori's brow wrinkled, 
and
her lip twisted slightly.
	"Not important? I suppose it's common for the person that has always
been around you, that's always been there for you, that's been your only 
friend
since childhood, that it's common for HER to be secretly lusting after you 
for
years?"
	Rei had to admit, she wasn't expecting that. Taking Rei's confused pause
as a signal to continue, Shiori continued to vent.
	"I thought as much. And you know what the worst part is? It isn't just
that you've always been together. It isn't just the sleepovers and the baths 
and
the clothes shopping. It's not the secret picture of you that she... she 
kept in
a locket next to her heart and touched when she thought no one was looking!
	"I thought she was better than that! I trusted her. I told her
everything. When I felt low and worthless, she was the one I confided in.
Then... when I..." Shiori's voice began to lose some of its bitter edge. Rei
kept her features carefully neutral. "When I betrayed her because of some 
stupid
boy, I just made myself feel worse. I asked for her forgiveness. But she was
betraying me all along! She was the snake! Using our friendship like that,
always making me feel inferior..." Shiori's voice was beginning to grow 
stronger
and harsher again, and Rei decided she had heard just about enough.
	"Oh, is that all?" Rei said and smiled. "Well, that isn't so bad then."
	Shiori cut off as if she had been shot, and gaped at Rei like a landed
fish. Rei chuckled a bit at how comic she looked. Rei guided them over to a 
set
of stone steps and sat Shiori down.
	"Shiori, my grandfather is dead. He was killed." Rei clutched her hands
into fists, but willing the anger away. "Some... very bad men killed him. 
And I
had to sit there and do nothing. I couldn't help him. All I could do was 
run. He
DIED." She looked straight into the girl's violet eyes, willing all her 
emotions
into her gaze for a split second. She frowned and closed her eyes. She 
wouldn't
cry. But it hurt so much. "If... if I could have him back, even for a 
moment...
I think about all the times I yelled at him for being a fool. All the times 
I
hated him for making me get him out of messes. I'd gladly take those 
feelings
back again. I wish I could get annoyed and frustrated at him, just one more
time.
	"But I can't. Because he's dead."
	Rei opened her eyes again. Shiori was staring up at Rei, wide-eyed. She
was leaning back a bit, as if the force of Rei's grief was pressing down on 
her.
"I... I'm sorry, I didn't realise-"
	"No," Rei cut her off. "I'm not telling you this because I want your
sympathy. I don't want you to feel sorry for me..." Rei had enough of that 
from
the others. They never said anything, but Rei could see their sympathy in 
their
eyes. "I just want you to stop feeling sorry for yourself."
	"Sorry for myself..." Shiori repeated slowly.
	"There are bigger problems out there than what you went through,
Shiori," Rei said, crossing her arms. "The world is a vast and terrible 
place.
Today, you found out that it isn't always fair. That sometimes it hurts. 
That
sometimes it lies to you." Rei looked away, towards the campus. The 
chairman's
tower rose from the center of the school, casting its shadow as the sun set.
"Once you realise that, I guess that means you get to be an adult."
	"Well... I see what you mean..." Shiori pulled her legs to her chest.
"But just because there are bigger problems out there doesn't make me feel
better."
	"It isn't supposed to," Rei agreed, sitting down next to her. "You're
what, fifteen years old?"
	"Sixteen," Shiori corrected, but Rei waved that away.
	"You have every right to feel betrayed and angry. But this girl, she
sounds like she's always been there for you. She must really care for you, 
like
a true friend." Rei paused. "Did she ever... touch you?"
	"No!" Shiori gasped in shock. "Nothing like that!"
	"Then what's the problem? She never made you feel uncomfortable by
bringing it up, right?" Shiori nodded absently. "You have every right to 
feel
betrayed at the moment. I doubt you could stop yourself. We... we can't 
really
control how we feel, I guess. And neither can this girl. She's different 
from
you and me, but that doesn't make her less human." At that point the sun,
travelling its eternal path, emerged from behind the chairman's tower and 
cast
the entire stairwell in a warm red light. "You could stay angry and bitter. 
But
ask yourself... if she died tomorrow, would you really care about all this?"
	"I guess, if you look at it like that..." Shiori trailed off again. She
looked away from Rei.
	Rei smiled and patted her on the shoulder. "So obviously, what you need
to do is go find her and demand an apology. Then, what happens next... I 
guess
that's up to the both of you, isn't it?"
	Shiori turned and stared at Rei for a long time. Her eyes were so
intense, it began to make Rei feel nervous. Then her lips parted in a small
smile. "But I still can't walk."
	"Oh... right," Rei chuckled, and they shared a short laugh. "So, why was
it you were in such a hurry to get here again?" Rei pointed up the steep
staircase towards the building they were sitting in front of.
	"I..." Shiori laughed a bit again. "Actually this building is where... I
guess you could call him the school's guidance counselor lives. Students 
come
here when they need someone to talk to." Shiori smiled again, the first 
real,
genuine smile Rei had ever seen her give. "But I think I'll just think about 
it
first."
	"Guidance counselor?" Rei looked up at the building. The red glow of the
setting sun was slowly creeping up the side of the building, leaving it in
shadow. Rei realised suddenly she had dredged up feelings she had been 
keeping
locked inside since... that day. Maybe she did need somebody to talk to?
	Rei felt a sudden chill pass through her. No. This place... it was
wrong. Ohtori was overwhelming, like a warm but smothering embrace that 
followed
you everywhere you went. This place... it was like the embrace of the grave.
Equally smothering, but in a far more sinister way.
	"Come on, I'll help you home then," Rei said slowly, standing up and
offering her hand to Shiori again.

*

	It was another hot day in Tokyo. The people moved about slowly, many of
them frowning, most of them sweating. The engines of industry kept moving,
regardless of the weather. People had jobs. People had lives. They worked 
them
and they lived them as best they could. What other choice did they have?
	Nabiki almost pitied them. She stood at the window of her air-
conditioned suite and stared down at the street. Her fingers tapped out a 
slow
rhythm on the glass. How they could stand to be so small, she did not
understand.
	She didn't really think of herself as better than they were, not really.
She'd started out at the same level as any of them: no special powers or
training. But she understood something that they did not. She understood the
game.
	In life, there were winners and losers. Money, lovers, favours were how
you kept score. Business cards, bank statements and contracts were the score
sheets. The key to victory was understanding the rule, to knowing the way 
the
pieces moved. A long time ago she had thought that she could be happy with 
petty
victories and small awards. She hadn't been really willing to risk it all. 
In
time, she might have become one of them... old, timid. She would have just 
lived
out her life as another cog in the machine. A successful cog, a happy cog, 
she
had no doubt. But still content to win only those games that had come her 
way.
	She had to thank Ukyou, the next time they met. It had been hard, at
first. She had been playing a game she didn't know the rules to, thinking it 
was
one with much lower stakes. So she had been kidnapped and humiliated and 
almost
died.
	But that had not hurt. What had hurt was losing the game. Nabiki had
never lost before. There were games she could not win, but in those games 
she
had refused to participate. Now... she was in the greatest game of all. A 
game
where the stakes were so high it made her dizzy in a way being fifty stories
over the city could not. And she was winning.
	She reached down and touched the sword. It was cool to the touch,
innocuous to look at. Wrapped in a simple cloth, it merited no more than a
passing glance from the people outside. She wondered how many of them 
desired
it?
	Well... there was no need to wonder anymore, was there?
	Nabiki narrowed her eyes and concentrated. There was a man on the
street. He was going home after a long day of work. He was hungry and wished
that his wife would remember to cook dinner tonight. She hadn't for the last
three nights, because they had gotten into a silly fight the point of which 
he
could no longer remember. He bowed his head and realised he should probably
apologize. He had no idea if he was in the wrong, but it would work. And he
couldn't eat take out again. Besides being expensive, it was beginning to 
give
him a bit of a gut. Maybe he should renew his membership at the gym? He
certainly...
	He passed out of Nabiki's sight and she let him pass out of her mind.
She sighed and stepped away from the glass, spinning in place. She felt like
dancing. She felt like singing. She settled on laughing. It was so easy! She
had not imagined that it would feel so good! Just a flicker of concentration
and... and everything was at her fingertips. Names, addresses, account 
numbers
and other brands of ID.
	Still laughing, Nabiki fell back onto her bed. It gave out a sound like
an elephant sighing as the plush fabric bent beneath her. It was like 
falling
into a cloud. She kicked her legs in the air, giggling with girlish glee. In 
all
her life she had never stayed in a place so fancy. And she hadn't paid a yen 
for
it! It was amazing what a few words whispered in the right ear could get 
you,
when you could know everything about anyone you wished.
	She dropped the sword onto the bed beside her. It would never be out of
her reach. Not until she had spent her other two wishes, at least. To think 
she
had doubted it, even up to the end. All that work, just to get this little
sword, and she had doubted if it was real... truly real right up until the 
end.
Then it had spoken. "Wish Granted," it had said.
	She would have to be careful with the other two wishes, she supposed.
There were things out there. Monsters and witches and martial artists. If 
any of
them came too close to defeating her, she would need a trump card. Not that 
she
pictured she would ever need it now.
	Not now that she could read minds.
	She giggled to herself again and crawled further up the bed, sitting up
when she reached the headboard.	Most people liked to think of themselves as
modest, but Nabiki knew better. She was clever. She was brilliant, in fact. 
Oh
sure she could have wished for many things. Money. Power. Why not? But there
were a lot of martial artists in the world. There were a lot of monsters.
	And they just kept getting bigger.
	She could have wished to be the strongest woman in the world. Heck, she
could have wished for power like a god. But that was not Nabiki's style. She
didn't particularly think she had either the temperament or the inclination 
to
godhood. She also didn't picture herself enjoying all that tedious violence. 
But
she now had a power none of them could match. She had knowledge.
	"Ryouga!" she called.
	"Yes?" He was sitting in the corner. Just sitting on the top of that
ratty backpack of his, his chin resting on one fist and his eyes staring out 
at
nothing. He had been doing that for hours. Ryouga, she reflected, was very
boring company. He didn't talk or joke. He just sat like a land-bound hawk, 
and
fought like a demon. As usual, he radiated a heavy depression. It was always
there, on the corner of her awareness. She was still having trouble blocking 
off
the empathy that seemed to come with her new gifts. That was part of the 
reason
she was fifty stories up.
	"Come here a moment, will you?" she said, making her voice slightly more
sultry than normal. He turned red as a tomato and stammered something before
nodding and approaching. She resisted the urge to laugh. About the only 
thing
Ryouga was good for aside from fighting was teasing. His buttons were too 
easy
to push. She stretched slightly as he approached and he turned redder, and
stopped at the base of the bed, turning away.
	He must have noticed by now, that there was only one bed in the room.
Not that Nabiki had any real intention of sharing it with him. Ryouga was... 
too
thick for her. Oh, he was nice enough to look at, and his earnestness and
loyalty were kind of cute... but he was dumb as a sack of rocks. She was 
certain
he wouldn't mind sleeping in the closet again. He never had before, 
especially
not when he was a pig.
	"Is there... something I can help you with?" Ryouga's voice was thick
with emotion, and Nabiki scanned him visually for a moment.
	"Just stand there, would you?" she asked lightly. Ryouga nodded and
Nabiki smiled again, giggling to herself. She supposed it was time to test 
her
new abilities.
	After all, she was not narrow-minded enough to think she was going to
get by on just mind-reading. That would have been a waste of a wish. No, she 
had
wished to be 'the most powerful telepath on Earth.' She was slightly 
surprised
with the results. She had suspected that telepathy must be a rare talent,
considering how much it should have affected the world if even a few people 
had
it. But she had found herself able to casually read the minds of people with 
a
moment's concentration.
	She didn't even need to see them, really. All the minds around her, they
seemed to radiate their feelings like an aura into the air. She could... 
feel
the emotional miasma of the world. She had spent most of today walking 
through
the streets, just bathing in the radiated emotion of the people. It had been
like nothing she had ever experienced before. It had been beautiful.
	Now... now was the time for more serious testing. She coughed and
settled her face into a more serious expression. Ryouga, she decided, was a 
good
test case. His surface thoughts were minimal. He mainly spent his time 
analyzing
everything like a fight would break out any minute. Everything he saw was
cataloged as either a threat, an obstacle or a weapon. Every person that
approached Nabiki was evaluated with cold efficiency. When they had stayed 
in
one place for too long, his thoughts would drift randomly.
	He thought of her a lot, which pleased Nabiki. Some of his thoughts were
disgusting, but Nabiki couldn't really blame him. It wasn't like he would 
ever
have acted on them in a million years. Besides, what girl didn't like to be
admired?
	But she wanted to see how far beneath the surface she could go. She had
never cracked open a psychology book in her life, but she knew that the mind 
had
to go deeper than just the surface. It would be very useful if she could 
probe
into the memory, the subconscious... a thousand avenues of knowledge. A 
thousand
ways to gain power over someone.
	Besides, how deep could Ryouga go? He was a sap with a brain the size of
a walnut. Probably the deepest thought he had ever had in his life was 
wondering
where he was.
	She chuckled and focused.
	'...hope she finishes this soon. I can't stand being this near her. Why
is she chuckling like that? Oh god, am I doing something stupid? I certainly
hope not... if she sends me away I can't protect her...'
	Pretty standard stuff, that. Nabiki narrowed her eyes and focused more.
For a few minutes, nothing happened and she began to grow frustrated. Then 
she
found some sort of mental key, a way of thinking she hadn't tried before. It
just sort of slipped into her mind out of the ether. And in a flash she was
beyond the top of Ryouga's mind and into what lay beneath.
	Pain. It was pain. Nothing but pain.
	Nabiki gasped and her body stiffened. Her fingers dug into the silk
covers. Her eyes widened and her mouth opened in a soundless scream. It was 
like
a maelstrom, a cycle of despair and pain and self-loathing. Memories floated
up... no, not memories... one memory. Her. She saw herself lying on the 
ground
before him. She was bloody and battered and crying. He was standing and 
staring
at his hands and he was despair.
	Nabiki wanted out. The emotion, the raw naked force of it, had hit her
like a physical blow. She was stunned. She had thought that she could feel 
him,
but she had no idea what he was. He was pulling her down, pulling her in.
	Another memory, triggered by some need of hers. Nabiki had just taught
him the Shishihokodan. He had taken to it like a fish takes to water, and 
why
not? What did he have to be happy about? He was a rapist! He had hurt a 
woman! A
woman he... He couldn't think it, he wasn't worthy of thinking of her like 
that!
Why couldn't she have just asked him to kill himself?
	But this was better. She had taught him what he was. He was pain. Nabiki
was asleep and he wandered. He knew that he could lose her forever, but also
knew that he would not. He would never leave her, ever. Not as long as she
needed protecting.
	He came across a field, empty... alone. Nabiki had to be kilometers
away, asleep. He rose his face to the sky and screamed. It was wordless. It 
was
all his despair. The green light flashed up from him in a pillar. He was 
blinded
by it. It was the world. The ground around him buckled with the force of it.
Then it was gone, and he was empty. He didn't even notice the force 
returning.
When he looked up he was standing in a crater five meters across. He 
frowned.
	Not enough. He raised both hands to the sky and roared again. This time
he dredged it all up. A life without friends or a home. A friend who became 
an
enemy. A curse. And Nabiki. Always Nabiki. She was everything. She was his 
sin.
The rest was the world. She was him. HIS FAULT. When the energy was finally
spent, he stood staring up into the sky and felt the emptiness fill him.
	Not enough. He roared and willed his anger and self-loathing back. He
felt his body fill with it. The sphere was like a second sun, mad swirling
green. It dwarfed him. It fell with ponderous inevitability. He screamed his
defiance at it and it came down on him like the wrath of god.
	Then he knew no more. It was still dark when he woke up. The moon had
hardly moved. A few minutes of blissful unconsciousness, of forgetting what 
he
was. His body hurt all over. It was like he had fallen asleep on a highway 
or
been run over by a train.
	Not enough. He rose to his feet. He raised his head to the sky and
screamed. The depression roared around him..,
	ENOUGH!
	Nabiki pulled herself free of the memory by force of will. She could see
Ryouga shake a bit, like a leaf on a breezy day. He had felt the memory 
return.
He wasn't aware of her inside him, but he knew something was happening. The
thoughts of that night increased the strength of the aura around him.
	'...too much of a coward, aren't I? All this strength? Can't even kill
myself properly with it! I guess it would have been the coward's way out,
though. Not what I deserve. Not what she needs me for. The only reason I 
die, is
for her... Wait!'
	Nabiki felt the sinking depths of Ryouga at the edge of her mind. He was
worried about her now. He had noticed her discomfort. He was walking along 
the
side of the bed now, softly saying her name. He was asking if she was 
alright.
Nabiki couldn't answer. As he stepped closer it grew stronger.
	There was light in there, somewhere deep under the pain. Something he
was pushing down in himself, battering with his pain and his loathing. She
willed herself towards it with the desperation of a drowning man.
	He was getting closer. The pain, the despair, it was getting stronger
with every step. In a few seconds, he would touch her. If he did, she would 
go
mad.
	She never quite made it to the light. But she felt it. It was warm and
brilliant. She had felt the emotion by now. It was love. Not lust, which was 
hot
and hard like a stone from a volcano. This emotion was soft. She had felt a
little bit of it, just a little, as she walked through the city. Mothers 
with
their children. Husbands and wives. Something warm and precious. In their
presence, Nabiki had lingered a little longer.
	He loved her. That was what was under all that pain and misery. He loved
her and he hated himself for it. He would never touch her. He would never 
say
anything to her. He believed he owed her everything. He would die for her.
	She began to cry.
	She hadn't cried this way since... since mother had...
	The thought snapped her back to herself. She shook her head. Ryouga was
standing, his hand a few centimetres from her cheek. She could feel him, but
only his usual aura of depression. Nothing more, not anymore.
	"Go away, Ryouga," she pleaded, her voice hoarse.
	"Nabiki?"
	"Just go away!" she begged.
	"I..." She didn't need to read his mind to know what he was thinking.
She was rejecting him, and his comfort. Did he think that she was 
remembering a
rape that never happened? Did he think she was disgusted by him?
	"I can't leave you..."
	"I'll find you," she said softly. "Just go... go away... I need...
alone..."
	Ryouga took one last look at her, his face falling. Then he turned and
stumbled to the door. He only got turned around once before he was out of 
the
suite. She shuddered, as she could still feel him even as he moved down the
hallway. She was right, she would have no trouble finding him now. He was 
like a
black bruise on the emotions of the city.
	Nabiki pulled her knees up to her chest. That had... that had to be
some...
	She couldn't accept it. It had been a joke. Just part of the game.
Ryouga was thick as a brick. Ukyou's journal had said so. Goofy and 
depressed
and with the worst luck in the world. But hadn't the book also said 
something
about being nice, and heroic and kind? Facts that Nabiki had passed over 
when
reading about him. She had been looking for weaknesses. That was how you won 
the
game. You learned what would hurt the other player, and you ruthlessly 
exploited
it.
	That was how it worked.
	She hadn't made the rules.
	You couldn't blame her for playing the game too well! It wasn't right!
She wasn't at fault! He was just too stupid, was the problem. There was no 
need
to take it so seriously. It was Ryouga's own stupid fault for believing her. 
It
was his fault for keeping all that rage and pain bottled up inside. She 
hadn't
asked him to fall in love with her! She hadn't asked!
	Nabiki continued crying.
	"What have I done?"

*

	Chizuru sat on the balcony overlooking the city. Kyoto was the ancient
capital of Japan, and a city of shrines. Perhaps that was why she had always
felt so at home here? It was a lovely place, nestled in the heart of Japan's
great mountains. The very air was filled with spiritual energy. The hot sun 
did
not bother her as she stared down at the city and smiled.
	She raised a hand, extending one finger. In a flutter of wings and a
flash of brown her pet settled onto his perch. He chirped at her 
inquiringly.
Perhaps he could sense her mood. She only shook her head and smiled wider. 
Chee-
chan was a very exceptional sparrow, but he was still a sparrow. His primary
concerns were the building of nests, the chasing of worms and the singing 
for
mates. What did he understand of the life of an eighteen-year-old who also
happened to be one of the richest women in all Japan?
	Not that she was overly concerned about that. She had been preparing for
these days for years now, ever since... She sighed and flicked her finger,
sending Chee-chan to go rushing off into the blue sky. She turned and strode
into her office.
	It was the very model of a modern Japanese office. The desk was glass,
with dark metal piping supporting it. The walls were polished granite, grey 
and
imposing. The floor was pristine white marble and her heels clicked on it,
echoing throughout the massive chamber. And massive it was. In a place so
starved for space as Japan, such a chamber was a sign of ostentatious 
wealth.
	She hated it. She resolved to get some trees in here, perhaps even give
her an excuse to practice her bonsai. She sat down at the desk and sighed 
again.
There were only a few papers piled atop her desk, but they were imposing
nonetheless. She had managed to put off this for six years, but now that she
had graduated high school, the stockholders would not take no for an answer. 
She
was going to lead the company her family had founded, or she was going to 
have
it dismantled around her.
	It was too useful a tool to let it be wasted. The Clan of Yata had
served Japan for centuries, and this organization was the heart of what had 
once
been their power. Now, as the only survivor, she would need it more than 
ever
before. While her mirror could discover much, there were only so many things 
she
could focus on at once. Not that she wanted to think about the mirror right 
now.
Having the resources of one of Japan's economic powerhouse zaibatsu at her 
beck
and call would serve her work well.
	Especially if she ever planned on defeating Goenitz, and sealing away
the power of the Orochi once and for all. She stared down at the files and
shoved them aside. Underneath were the dossiers on two young men, as much
information as her company had been able to gather. One was labeled 'Kyo
Kusanagi' the other 'Iori Yagami'. Two boys, barely old enough to shave. But
they were the only hope of the world. Then again, she thought with a smile, 
she
was only eighteen herself.
	Even as her thoughts began to turn towards more mundane matters, Chizuru
felt the woman enter. She snapped to her feet, her soft leather chair 
clattering
behind her. The woman had not just stepped into her office, she had 
literally
appeared at the door. Chizuru had left express orders that she was not to be
disturbed. Her security force was one of the most well-trained in the world. 
No
intruder who got past them could be anything less than a deadly threat.
	The two women examined each other for a moment. Chizuru flowed into a
martial arts stance. She stood with one hand extended towards the opponent,
calmly rolling her wrist. She wished that her dress suit allowed her freedom 
of
motion. It would be very hard to fight like this.
	The other woman hadn't moved. She was just standing in front of the
closed double doors. She had the largest and most ridiculous hairstyle 
Chizuru
had ever seen. It was a garish lavender and stuck out from her head in two 
huge
bangs. She was wearing a wine-colored coat and a yellow shawl. She had made 
no
move as yet, instead just examining the woman behind the desk.
	"I expected someone taller," the woman said. Her voice had an odd power
to it. Chizuru could feel the energy flowing from her. It was cold but 
active,
like a chill wind that ran from her body in all directions. But it felt 
oddly
peaceful. Yes, Chizuru realised with a start, there was no hint of 
aggressive
intent anywhere in this woman. She radiated peace... and a deep, almost
primordial focus.
	"I'm sorry to disappoint," Chizuru responded.
	"You are Chizuru Kagura." It was not a question. "At eighteen years old,
you are the head of a large multinational corporation, inherited from your
parents."
	"And you are?"
	"I am Rose, but that is not important," the woman said with the same
sort of resigned tone one used to talk to overly enthusiastic children. "You 
are
also the last of the Clan of Yata, an ancient bloodline of Shinto 
priestesses
that have maintained the seal on the power of the Orochi for centuries."
	Chizuru did not gasp. She did not stammer and ask for an explanation.
The secret history of her family was just that, secret. That did not mean 
that
it was impossible to discover. She had learned that lesson six years ago, 
when
Goenitz had tracked down and killed her elder sister to release the power of 
his
foul god. She did narrow her eyes slightly.
	"And I take it you have interrupted my privacy for some reason?"
	Rose inclined her head, as if she respected that question. "I have come
at the behest of necessity."
	"You need me for something?" Chizuru did not relax. Even if she could
feel no hostile intent, the power of this woman still put her on edge.
	"I do not need you." Rose's voice was full of contempt. But then she
paused, and her features softened slightly. "I apologize for my tone and my
rudeness." She bowed, but only slightly. "I am not much used to dealing 
with...
people." She gestured towards the balcony. "Perhaps we can sit and discuss 
this
like civilised folk?"
	Chizuru considered her offer for a moment, then accepted. A few minutes
later they were sitting beneath an artfully placed umbrella and sipping tea 
that
Chizuru had sent for.
	"I am afraid I might have started out on a bad foot, so to speak," Rose
admitted. "I have come to you because I do, in fact, have need of your 
help."
	"My help?" Chizuru asked. She was having trouble placing the woman's
accent.
	"Yes." Rose had drained her tea and was staring down into the dregs of
it. "A... comrade of mine has fallen. I need your help to revive her."
	"Excuse me?" Chizuru blinked. "You might know about my heritage, but I
assure you that even I can't bring back the dead."
	Rose laughed, a soft sound that didn't even require her to open her
mouth. "If death were all I was worried about, then this would be a much 
simpler
task." Rose rolled her fingers over the teacup. "No, the wounds my ally has
taken are not physical. They are wounds of the spirit." She frowned, and for 
the
first time Chizuru felt a hint of frustration in her aura. It was small, 
barely
enough to even be noted, but until now her aura had been as calm and focused 
as
a strong northern breeze. "I find myself unable to help her, and I do not 
enjoy
the feeling. I have come to think of this woman as my friend, as my trusted
ally." Chizuru guessed that Rose did not make such admissions easily.
	"And why me?" Chizuru asked. She could honestly see no reason why she
should help this woman. Not that this would have stopped her from trying.
Chizuru had spent too many years alone, aching inside for her own spiritual
wounds, not to have some sympathy. But she was not trained at counseling. 
Her
skills were in the boardroom and the battlefield.
	"Because it is your time," Rose informed her. She gestured down into her
cup and Chizuru's eyes followed. She saw nothing but a few scattered leaves.
"Your destiny stands before you, Chizuru Kagura. You have already felt it 
move,
and soon it will draw you down into it. And from the depths of this fate, I 
fear
there can be no escape."
	"I'm sorry, I've never been much for fortune-telling," Chizuru explained
politely.
	Rose nodded, as if expecting this answer. "You can feel it, the power of
the Orochi." Rose seemed to prefer to speak in statements. Chizuru stiffened
slightly, but nodded. "Then you felt what happened a week ago." Again, she
stated instead of asked and again Chizuru could only nod.
	She remembered it well. Sitting bolt upright in the middle of the night,
her body covered in a cold sweat. Her family had been the guardians of the
Orochi's prison for centuries, ever since her family and the clans Kusanagi 
and
Yagami had defeated the dark god and sealed him away in a mirror. That 
mirror
had been her family's terrible responsibility ever since. Over time, they 
had
grown attached to it. They had learned to touch its power, to feel the moods 
and
strength of the dormant god within it. They had also mastered other talents 
that
drew on the mirror, but that had been the first night she had ever felt the
mirror scream.
	She had walked over to it, shaking like a leaf. The mirror itself was
simple, almost prosaic. When Goenitz had slaughtered her family and freed 
the
Orochi from the mirror's confinement, a single great crack had run down its
center. But the prison had been imperfectly broken, and still the power of 
the
beast was linked to it. So Chizuru had constantly been reminded of her loss.
	Whenever her heart faltered, it was there. In the long lonely nights
when all she could do was cry for her dead sister, it was there. When she 
lay on
the floor in a pool of her own blood, her body a mass of bruises from her
instructor's merciless beatings, it was there. When she had walked coldly 
back
into her home, having just broken the heart of a young man she was certain 
she
had loved, it was there. All she had to do was touch it to feel the power of 
the
Orochi. She could feel it growing. She could feel it yearning to be free. 
She
knew that the insane god's darkness was coming, and that she was the only 
person
alive who could stand before it. So she had dried her tears, she had picked
herself off the floor, she had turned her heart off... and kept going.
	Somehow.
	But that night was the first night she had not wanted to touch the
mirror. That night was the first time she had truly been afraid of it. 
Because
what she had felt was the Orochi's pain. She had felt a god's outrage. She 
had
felt its fear. She had looked into the cracked surface and her heart had 
skipped
a beat. Something had hurt the Orochi. Something so terrible that a god 
quailed
at the thought of it.
	As far as she knew, nothing could harm the Orochi. Seal it, maybe even
destroy its mortal shell, but harm it? The metaphysical it, the essence of 
the
darkness that was its soul? If there had been anything under heaven that 
could
have done that, her ancestors surely would have sought it out and used it 
long
ago.
	In the end, she had not touched the mirror. And she had not touched it
since.
	"You are afraid," Rose stated. Chizuru shook her head free and stared at
the woman. An enigmatic smile had crept across her features. It was a smile 
with
no warmth, only cold humour. Chizuru did not doubt that Rose knew exactly 
what
she had been thinking. "You are right to be afraid. Go... take up the 
mirror.
Probe it. Anything I say to you will be meaningless. You must see for 
yourself."
	Chizuru hesitated for a long time, but Rose's eyes were insistent. So
she drew a deep breath and gathered all her courage and walked into the 
office.
The mirror was behind a hidden panel in the wall. It was wrapped in cloth 
that
was etched through with wards against evil and darkness. With trembling 
hands
Chizuru undid the knots and peeled away the cloth.
	All she saw in the mirror was her own face. Rose hadn't even left the
balcony. She had poured herself another cup of tea. Chizuru forced down a 
lump
in her throat and steeled herself. Then she reached out and placed her palm
against its surface. She felt the Orochi's fear. She willed the mirror to 
show
her-
	Rose was holding her, fanning Chizuru's face with her shawl. She wasn't
moving the shawl with her hands. Chizuru blinked and pushed her away. Rose
merely stood, looking down at her impassively.
	"I saw..." Chizuru took a long breath. "A woman... a field, a long
weapon, a voice crying out in horror... and... and..."
	"Nothing." Rose nodded. "You saw it. The thing which we are fighting.
The end. The very end. That is destiny, that is fate." Rose stretched down 
her
hand. "The voice you heard was my ally. She needs help, because her spirit 
is
wounded. She is the one that will rail against fate. She is the only one who
might change it. Will you help us?"
	Chizuru didn't hesitate. What was the Orochi, compared to this?

*


	They were monsters. They stood in the darkness, watching the rain fall
down on the streets of London. The fires sputtered here and there, fighting
against the downpour. The larger fires had stopped burning a while ago. They
would have kept them going, let it all burn to the ground... but they needed 
the
shelter.
	The sun was down now, but in too short a time it would be back. Rising
from the east, heralding the long periods they would have to spend inside. 
It
itched at their souls, hiding away like this. Even the darkness no longer
brought the release they needed. London belonged to them. There was nothing 
left
here but vampires and an army of ghouls.
	"This is boring!" one of the vampires declared. He was wearing a German
uniform from a war that was nearly fifty years dead. But then again, so was 
he.
He snarled, his huge fanged maw flashing white teeth in the darkness.
	"Be quiet!" Richler snarled back and back-handed the offender. The
vampire flew backward with the force of the blow. He collided with the side 
of a
nearby van with enough force that the vehicle skidded back a few meters and
developed a man-sized dent. The vampire flopped to the ground next to it.
Richler reached up and adjusted his monocle with one hand. He no longer 
needed
it, but he had grown attached to it in life and he found he preferred the 
image
it cast about him now. "Do your duty. That is what is required of you."
	"This is not duty," one of the other men commented. Like all the others,
he was clad in the bulky uniform of a German soldier. His mushroom-shaped 
helmet
and the wrapping around the lower half of his face hid most of his face from
view; all of it but his blood-red eyes. Richler glared at him too, but the
man glared back. The officer slowly unclenched his fist. The problem with
vampires was that they were creatures of instinct. You had to be very 
careful
how you pushed them, or they just might push back. And considering the squad
outnumbered him four to one, and none of them looked happy, he decided to 
try
diplomacy.
	"We have our orders," Richler stated first. That caught all their
attention. The concept of orders was one they understood well enough. They 
were
soldiers. They fought and killed and died on orders. But they were also
monsters. Monsters obeyed because you pleased them. The Major had the 
ability to
win their loyalty... Richler did not. He was only in command here because 
the
Major had told the others he was.
	"This is hardly the war we were promised," one of the soldiers
complained. He tugged on the chain he was carrying in one hand. There was a
chorus of moans as the line of ghouls attached to the chain by collars 
reacted
to the sudden motion. The group had eight such chains, each with over a 
hundred
of the mindless walking dead attached - and room for a hundred more. 
"Collaring
ghouls... it is drudge work."
	"It is necessary drudge work," Richler shot back. He frowned. "If we do
not get these beasts to a dark place, come morning they will burn up. Then 
what
use will they be?"
	"Who cares what use they will be?" the original soldier roared. He was
standing up now and swung his arm back, his fist tearing through the metal 
of
the van like it was tissue paper.
	"The Major does..." Richler responded. He closed his eyes. He could
still see the image of the man clearly. It had been the night of their 
ultimate
victory. He had been standing on a balcony suspended from the glorious 
airship
Ex Machina and declared all of England theirs. Victory had been complete and
final. The humans left on the island nation were now outnumbered by the dead
twenty to one. But this was not the war he had promised them. That would 
come
soon, he had said. But the element of surprise was no longer theirs. They 
would
need an army... "You all remember his orders as well as I do. We need an 
army.
In a few weeks, we march on the fatherland and every ghoul we can drive 
before
us will make victory all the more sweet."
	The men began to grumble, but none of them met Richler's gaze. He
smirked to himself. "Now come on, the sooner we fill our quota tonight the
sooner we can get back to the feast halls!" That at least seemed to cheer 
them
up. He turned to lead them forward, but paused.
	There had been a half-dozen ghouls up ahead. He had seen them, idling
around in that mindless manner near the upcoming intersection. True, the 
rain
made it hard to see very far in front of them, but his superior senses 
should
have pierced it like it wasn't there. But there was only one human shape up
ahead now. It was moving towards them.
	He held up his right hand and instantly the soldiers were on alert.
Their hands tightened around firearms that had been lovingly maintained for 
five
decades, and could still kill with brutal efficiency. He heard one of his 
men
sniff. Surreptitiously, Richler followed his example.
	A dark, vicious smile split his features.
	He smelled blood. Warm blood.
	He could now make out more of the figure walking towards him. It was a
girl. She couldn't have been more then fifteen years old. She was puny, with 
the
build and features of an Asian except for her impressive breasts. Her black 
hair
and red silk shirt were plastered to her by the relentless downpour, leaving 
not
much to the imagination. Even her thick pants were waterlogged, but they
appeared to be several sizes too large for her.
	"She is alive!" one of his men exclaimed happily.
	"I thought everyone in the city was dead?" another crowed back.
	"Be quiet," Richler ordered sharply. He smirked. This was a most
fortunate turn of events. By turning over this young thing to his men, he 
would
allow them to work off the frustration that weeks of drudge work had built 
up in
them. He just wanted to wait until she got a little closer. Not that a pack 
of
vampires couldn't chase down one little girl... but he was curious why she 
was
walking right towards them. Surely even a human could see them by now. Any 
human
who had survived this long in London must know what they were, and what they
would do to her.
	"You there!" Richler roared into the night. The girl only looked at him
idly. He frowned and cursed himself. Of course, she didn't speak German. He
switched to English, despite finding the language vaguely distasteful. "Stop
right there, girl!" he ordered.
	The girl either didn't understand him or didn't care. She kept walking
forward, her pace slow and deliberate. A prickle of fear ran up the back of 
his
neck. This wasn't right. He had heard rumours of a girl, a girl who hunted 
his
kind... but she was supposed to be quite distinctive. This girl looked 
nothing
like 'V'. Even so, some primal instinct told him something was wrong here.
	"Take her!" he barked sharply once she was within a dozen meters. He
snapped his hand forward and pointed. The four vampires didn't need further
prompting. They streaked through the rain like grey lightning, the clatter 
of
their equipment forming an almost musical rhythm.
	Watching vampires on the hunt was fascinating. They moved with savage
fury, their movements almost unnatural as they raced through the flashing 
rain.
Their speed was beyond human, more like sprinting stallions or roaring 
trains.
The only thing more frightening than their speed was their strength. Put 
simply,
once a vampire closed in with a human, the contest was over. No mortal could
hope to defeat them.
	The girl took one step forward in the time it took the undead soldiers
to race the twelve meters to her position. The first leapt at her, thrusting
with his bayonet, meaning to take her through the gut and pin her to the
pavement like a butterfly.
	Richler didn't even see her move. One moment his soldier was in the air,
the next he was flying past her, and his head was flying in the other 
direction.
The girl was holding his rifle by the stock in one hand, the bayonet blade
gleaming as she flicked it once to snap off the blood. She hadn't stopped 
moving
forward at the same pace.
	The second vampire wasn't able to halt his momentum before he reached
her. This time Richler saw the battle, however brief. The vampire swung with 
his
rifle, which the girl parried without breaking stride. She let the force of 
his
blow knock the rifle from her hands, but caught it easily with the other as 
it
sailed past. Graceful as a ballet dancer, she spun in place, brought up her
weapon and thrust it through the vampire's chest. Her heart shot was 
perfect.
She released the weapon and stepped past the poleaxed soldier. The vampire 
took
a few moments to open and close its mouth, wondering what happened, before 
it
realised it was dead.
	"SHOOT HER!" Richler roared, bringing his own pistol to bear. The
remaining vampires skipped back from her and brought up their machine guns. 
The
sound of raindrops striking pavement was drowned out by the roar of 
firearms. A
virtual wall of lead bullets filled the air. The girl was simply not there 
to
meet them.
	Richler looked up, his superhuman senses barely able to follow as the
girl leapt into the sky. She spun in place and thrust out towards a lamppost
with both feet. Already the bullets from the soldier's machine guns were
tracking her, but she hit the post and flew away. Her body skimmed through 
the
air like a striking eagle, her chest a fraction of a centimeter above a 
stream
of bullets being fired from one of the vampires.
	If he had raised his weapon a fraction higher, he might have hit her. He
had even tried to. His vampiric reflexes put normal humans to shame, and the
barrel of his gun blurred as he raised it. But he was still too slow. They
collided with enough force that Richler watched the shockwave push the path 
of
the rain around them away. The ground under the vampire cracked as the 
petite
girl smashed him down into it. He roared in pain.
	Before she could finish him off, the other vampire brought his gun to
bear. She slid to the side, seeming to fade between the rain drops. The 
blaze of
gunfire did nothing but tear a dozen holes into the vampire's fallen 
comrade,
eliciting another cry of pain.
	"V!" the remaining vampire roared. "It's her! It must be V!"
	Richler knew when he was outmatched. That was no girl. He had no idea
what sort of monster she was... but no human could move like that! No human
could strike with that much power! He grabbed the lengths of chain from the 
road
and tugged violently. With eight hundred clatters the ghouls were unlocked 
from
their restraints. Richler turned to them and pointed behind him.
	"Kill her!" he commanded.
	Ghouls were simple creatures. They were really nothing more than
mindless eating machines. Normally they resulted when a vampire drained the 
life
of a non-virgin, or a virgin of the same sex. They were nothing more than 
failed
vampires. As such, they were as bonded to their sires as actual vampires 
were,
but with even less will to resist. The doctors of the Letztes Battalion had
experimented with this until they devised a way for all vampires to command
ghouls in the same way their actual sire could. Thus, while the beasts were
stupid and slow, they obeyed his order without question.
	He ran through their ranks, moving in the other direction as they
shambled forward to ruthlessly attack their victim. When they were done, 
they
would disperse. He would have to round them up again later. But he had to 
live
until later to do so.
	Richler turned and sprinted down an alley. He moved with all the inhuman
speed of a vampire fleeing as if its life depended on it. He didn't even
see the staff coming.
	A roar of pain escaped his lips as the wooden shaft shot through his
chest. It missed his heart, but came so close he could feel the cold wood
brushing against the organ inside him. The force of the blow pulled him off 
his
feet. He was able to see a dark shape in the rain spinning him in place as 
it
held the staff. A second later he heard the wall behind him crack as his
assailant drove the staff into the brick. He kicked his feet. He was now 
pinned
to the wall, his feet inches above the pavement.
	Now that the flurry of motion was finished he could see his opponent. It
was another girl. She too was Asian, but taller and with much longer hair, 
which
she kept tied back in a ponytail. She was wearing a black leather trenchcoat
that kept most of the rain off her, but her shirt was still soaked and clung
tightly to her less generous curves.
	But none of that mattered. The girl was looking straight at him and her
expression was cold and merciless. Her eyes weren't human. The pupils were
shaped like black flowers in bloom, and they gazed at him in such a way that 
he
felt like they were staring straight through him. Like he didn't exist. 
Worst of
all... she was cold. Richler had known cold, ever since he had turned. The 
only
heat he felt was the warm flush that came with feeding. But the cold that
radiated from this girl was somehow worse that the cold of undeath.
	"I missed the heart on purpose," she informed him in English. Her voice
was even, and promised more pain. "Who is V?"
	"I don't know vat-" Richler's words cut off in a scream of pain as the
girl reached out and twisted the staff grimly.
	"Who is V? What do you know about her?" she asked again.
	"I von't tell you a thing!" Richler spat. A dark splotch of red appeared
on the girl's cheek, but she didn't even react. Instead she reached into her
coat and came out with what looked like a tiny spatula.
	"Silver," she explained, then cut off his left hand. He screamed again.
"Tell me what I want to know, and I'll finish you quickly."
	"Go to hell, Asian whore!"
	The girl sighed. "I guess that answers that..." she said. Her hand swung
up towards his nec-

*

	Ukyou grabbed her staff, but then reconsidered and left it where it was.
The thought of pulling it free made her stomach churn. She turned away and
walked out of the alley, dropping the silver spatula from her fingers. Now 
that
nobody was watching, she reached up and clutched her forehead.
	So, maybe there were lengths she was unwilling to go. The thought of
torturing that... thing... to death... She shook her head. It had disgusted 
her.
It had disgusted Aaron. They had pitied the monster.
	As they reached the alley Aaron reminded Ukyou that they couldn't think
of the vampires as human beings. They were rabid beasts: nothing but insane,
uncontrollable killing machines. They had to be put down. Unless Ukyou and 
Aaron
dehumanised them, they wouldn't be able to do what needed doing.
	Ukyou looked down the street. Hundreds of ghouls were shambling down the
road, moaning. Aaron grimaced. From the safety of a warm couch, where the 
things
were comfortably stuck behind a TV screen or caught in the images of a comic
book... these things weren't all that disturbing. He remembered laughing 
with
friends through some of the most gruesome zombie movies. He had always 
enjoyed
telling sick jokes about the things, making fun of the very concept. But the
reality was something different.
	They were corpses. Their flesh was rotting off their bodies as he
watched. Their hollow, sunken eyes stared without seeing. Their lips peeled 
back
from their teeth, forming rictus smiles full of vicious teeth. But worst of 
all
was the smell. It was everywhere. It soaked into your skin. It crawled down 
deep
into your lungs and refused to go away. It sickened and mocked you. For the
first time since their merger, Ukyou wished she had somehow gotten Aaron's
abominable sense of smell, rather than her own well-developed chef's senses.
	Ukyou closed her eyes and took a deep breath, trying to breathe through
the mouth. None of the things had seen her yet. They were all going after 
Ranma,
anyway. She wasn't that worried about him. When they had first made landfall 
on
this damned island almost a week ago, Ukyou had watched him like a hawk
every time he engaged another group of the horrors. But now she was 
confident he
knew how to handle them; how to put them down once and for all.
	Still, even Ranma would take a long time destroying what had to be
almost a thousand of the things. Ukyou leapt up, landing on a partially
collapsed building. Lightening her footfalls with chi, she ran down the 
unstable
row of houses until she could see the epicenter of the violence. Ranma was a
whirling dynamo of carnage. As the things reached him, his fists and feet 
lashed
out, crushing bone and rending limbs. He was screaming, shouting and roaring 
in
his feminine register.
	There was something wrong, but Ukyou couldn't put her finger on what. He
was in no danger. She could see that every ghoul Ranma put down, he put down 
for
good. Not one of them came near him without having its head knocked from its
shoulders or its chest crushed so savagely by his blows that the heart had 
to be
utterly destroyed. They weren't even scratching him.
	Ukyou shook away the bad feeling.  It was the same bad feeling she'd had
ever since... the same bad feeling she had now that Ranma had stopped 
calling
her Ucchan. She drove the feeling away. Instead she leapt down and 
approached
the bodies of the soldiers. She retrieved what she needed in short order and
then walked towards Ranma. She gave a sharp whistle. Ranma looked at her, 
but
didn't stop his one-man killing spree.
	"Ranma, this will take forever," Ukyou shouted through the rain.
"They'll send reinforcements here if we take too long."
	"Let them!" Ranma shouted back.
	"Ranma..." Ukyou hissed. They had talked about this. There was no way
they could topple Millennium by just attacking head-on. Ukyou very much 
doubted
that the two of them could make any real difference at all.
	But Ranma was here. Ranma was going to fight the good fight. She would
fight it alongside him.
	"Just let me handle this, okay, Ranma?"
	He glared at her again, then sighed and leapt up. He landed on a
lamppost and then backflipped away from the horde. He landed behind Ukyou 
and
she sighed in relief. The horde was approaching her, but Ukyou took her 
time.
She carefully lobbed her goods into the crowd one at a time, arming them as 
she
did so. She wanted to get as much coverage as possible. Of course, slow and
careful for her was a blur to the untrained eye, and the last of the 
grenades
touched down in the crowd just as the first was going off.
	Ukyou leapt backward, taking cover behind a van with a large dent in it.
Ranma joined her as the explosions continued to roar behind them. His arms 
and
legs were covered in gore, a thick red coating that stretched up to his 
elbows.
Splatters of it decorated the rest of his body. Ukyou looked away.
	"Will that get all of them?" Ranma asked. He sounded like he hoped it
wouldn't.
	"It will get enough of them," Ukyou said. "Come on, we have to get back
to Hotaru. I don't like leaving her alone for too long." That caused Ranma 
to
draw a deep breath. Ukyou hated using the presence of the little girl like 
that.
But so far the only thing she had found that could pull Ranma back was her.
"Just clean up first, okay?"

*

	It was the kind of dark that scared children at night, the kind that man
had stared into with blurry eyes since the beginning of time. It was the 
reason
man had made fire. It was the reason there was such a thing as fear.
	Hayato felt his entire being crawl as Tethys walked into the chamber.
Here was where she had lain in wait for millennia, waiting for the chance to
revive herself. Far from trying to ignore his fear, Hayato embraced it. It 
was
the warning inside him, the warning that he was getting in over his head. It
warned him that despite everything, he was still human. This battle was 
beyond
him.
	How had it gotten so far? Fighting a dark god was not his plan. He had
only agreed to this union because Tethys had promised him vengeance. 
Vengeance
he had never managed to get. Now... now they were here preparing to battle 
for
the fate of a nation of monsters. Why was he here?
	He had told Tethys not to go into this battle unprepared. He had forced
her to dredge up all the memories about Metallia she could. He had insisted 
they
learn all the histories of the youma about her. They had to find her 
weakness,
her achilles' heel. But Tethys' memories of the days before the final battle 
had
been woefully cloudy.
	Tethys had shown them to him. She had watched Metallia raise a dark
hand, nothing more than a claw shaped out of the black and red miasma of her
being, and smite a city from the face of the moon. It had not even been an 
act
of effort. She had done it with the same ease a human might swat a fly. An
entire city, not quite so large as Tokyo but still large enough that 
hundreds of
thousands must have lived there, gone in a flash.
	But she was weak now. Injured. Sealed. The silver crystal had blasted
her apart and sent her crashing down here. Tethys had not been to her 
chamber,
but she knew what it looked like. It was large, with a single dark, 
membranous
sack in the center connected to the floor and ceiling between thin black 
columns
of rock. Inside that rock pulsed the terrible power of Metallia. Shattered 
and
weakened, but still stronger than any youma or human.
	To call her a god was a mistake. The youma did not offer her worship,
they did not revere her or pray to her. Metallia was a creature of fear. She 
was
as much beyond the simple youma as the youma were above human beings, 
according
to their twisted view of the world. While she was their creator, she was not
offered thanks. The only words spoken of her were in hushed tones, away from
prying ears.
	Hayato wished they had been able to discover more. The youma were not,
it seemed, a race given much to scholarship. Tethys' efforts to discover the
history of her people had turned up almost no details. There were no texts, 
or
stories or fables. The only person who even bothered to keep a journal was
Nephrite, and they were full of rants about the stars and his own inevitable
ascension to the top of the Dark Kingdom food chain. Still, in between his 
mad
ramblings one could discern a nugget or two of truth, if one knew how to 
look.
	"Why have you come here, little youma?"
	Metallia did not so much speak as project her voice. The dark miasma
within her healing cocoon trembled and flashed as her words echoed through 
the
vast chamber. Her voice was female, but sibilant and inhuman. Hayato knew
instantly that this was not the true voice of Metallia, but merely one she 
had
chosen for herself.
	"I thought it was time we met," Tethys informed Metallia evenly. There
was no sign of the fear Hayato could feel from her in her outward 
appearance.
Recently her barriers against him had been growing thinner and thinner. She 
was
not maintaining them as steadfastly as she once had. So Hayato was getting a
great insight into her being.
	What he found disturbed him.
	Tethys gestured with the staff of office she had taken from Beryl's dead
hands. It was a long staff with a black and red orb at the top, flanked by
projections not unlike the wings of a bat. Hayato had seen Tethys use it to 
view
the world from afar, and supposedly it had other powers as well. He had 
watched
as Tethys followed the course of her minions, many of which had been sent 
into
the human world to retrieve books and items of technology. Some of them had
fallen while Tethys watched; killed by Sailor Senshi, or a man in dark 
organic
armour, or simple humans with heavy weapons. Hayato wished any of them were 
here
now.
	Through his link with Tethys he could feel the oppressive force of
Metallia's attention. It was like the world had suddenly grown much heavier, 
and
darker. It was pure, undiluted fear. Panic and terror had been given a 
physical
sensation, and that was the presence of Metallia.
	If Hayato had been able to, he would have lost control of his bowels.
For him to feel the effect of this monster so keenly, he shuddered to think 
what
Tethys must be feeling.
	But she remained unbent.
	"I have killed your witch," Tethys said, holding up the staff for
Metallia to see. "I am now the ruler of the youma, and the entire Dark 
Kingdom."
	"You think I was unaware?" Metallia's voice was filled with contempt.
"Nothing happens to my children that I am not aware of. This changes 
nothing.
You, like Beryl before you, will serve my will."
	"And if I refuse?" Tethys said coldly.
	Metallia laughed. "You cannot refuse."
	Then Tethys screamed and fell to one knee. Her back arched and Hayato
felt her pain. He shrunk away from it.
	"Such a pathetic little creature you are," Metallia informed her. "Did
you truly think that you, a mere weapon, could face against my will?" Tethys
didn't answer, her voice could do nothing but scream. "I am surprised that 
you
can hold the power you stole from Beryl's corpse." Now Metallia's voice had
taken on a lazy, almost sing-song tone. "I had thought I had stripped from 
you
such potential. The only reason I left so much humanity in Beryl was because 
of
her need to govern you lot..."
	The pain suddenly stopped and Tethys collapsed onto her side. She took
long, slow breaths. Hayato knew she must be in great pain, he could feel it
dimly through the body they shared. It did not much please him that she was
doing this to his body. She had already twisted it, reshaped it into one 
more
fitting her own needs. Now she was fighting a god in all but name, and might 
get
them both destroyed.
	"What... did you say?" Tethys gasped and rose to her feet again. Hayato
paused in his reflections. The barriers Tethys had erected around her 
feelings
and memories had all but crumbled under Metallia's psychic onslaught. He 
could
feel her anger, her resentment... but also something he had never felt from
Tethys before.
	"You are a part of me, youma," Metallia said coolly. "I stripped away
anything in you that was useless to me, leaving only a weapon. If I had 
known it
was possible that you could still wield such power despite this, I would 
have
done so to Beryl a long time ago."
	"Stripped away..." Tethys breathed. A memory rose unbidden from the
depths of her mind. A memory of the time Before. She had been fighting in 
the
Dark Kingdom's army, wielding sword and shield against the forces of the 
Moon
Kingdom. Her commander, Jadeite, was in front of her and she fought because 
she
loved him. But that was impossible. Hayato knew that youma felt nothing of 
love,
but he could not deny the memory. Tethys fought because she loved that 
man...
	"You... stripped away... what?" Tethys rose to her feet again.
	"Do not be so ungrateful," Metallia projected, her voice filled with
anger. "In the end, you would have been dragged away like all the others, 
reborn
as a pitiful human again. When the Silver Crystal struck, I saved that part 
of
you that was useful to me and made you my child. Now, be gone from my 
presence.
Bring me the Silver Crystal and enough energy to maintain my health, or face 
my
wrath again."
	Tethys frowned up at the god-being in front of her. Then she turned and
left. Hayato was silent the whole time. She wasn't paying attention to him
anyway.

*


	Rip Van Winkle was a hunter. She had been one in life, and she continued
to be one in death. She moved with the casual grace of the predator. Her 
every
movement was filled with the confidence of knowing she was at the top of the
food chain. The other vampires were monsters. They killed for pleasure and
sport. But they melted out of her path like rabbits before the wolf. She
grinned.
	The halls of the Ex Machina were particularly busy today, so she got to
see a lot of her lessers scrambling to find a safe place out of her path. 
She
didn't give them a second glance. Soon enough, her steady pace brought her 
to
the bridge of the massive flying fortress that served as the Letztes 
Battalion's
home base.
	The bridge was massive, a cavern in the sky. Shadows cloaked the distant
walls, making it impossible to tell how far away they were. Figures lurked 
just
out of sight, working at stations on unseen tasks. On one wall, a large map
displayed the whole world. Silhouetted figures moved icons around on the map
with long rods. In the center of the room was a raised dais, and upon that 
dais
was the Major.
	Visually, he was unimpressive. The Major stood barely five feet tall,
with a plump, stocky body. His face was chubby, almost childlike, and his 
short
blonde hair was cut carelessly. He wore glasses. Even if you saw his fangs 
and
blood-red eyes, you would still see him more as a oddity rather than the 
true
threat he was.
	Major Krieg was the Letztes Battalion. Major Krieg was Millennium.
	"Herr Major!" Rip stopped just in front of him, clicked her heels
together sharply and saluted with arm outstretched. He glanced at her and
smiled. She felt her spirit rise just from the presence of his smile. It was 
the
same confident smile he always gave her, the one that showed he believed in 
her
skill. Just thinking about it made her believe.
	"No need for such formality," the Major said. His voice was cool and
mellow. He gestured idly for her to relax and Rip did so. She swung up her
matchlock musket, the long barrel almost taller than she was, and rested it 
on
her shoulder.
	"You summoned me, Major?" she asked.
	"Yes, but just a moment..." He gestured off into the darkness. "Get me
ze Valentines."
	There was a shouted acknowledgement from the darkness. Rip frowned. Why
he still trusted those foreign jackals, she did not know. They weren't 
German.
They were 'instants', 'freaks'... little more than cannon fodder that had 
gotten
lucky. But she would never think of denying him, at least not aloud. He had
given her everything. He had taken her from the ashes and made her immortal.
	A moment later there was the crackle of radio static and a voice rose
from out of the darkness. It sounded eerily disembodied, even though Rip 
knew
it was really just a radio.
	"Major Krieg?" The voice was sophisticated, almost gentle. Though Rip
could not see the man attached to it, she immediately pictured him as 
handsome
and well-groomed. She shook off the image. In the background there was some 
sort
of annoying wailing sound, but it was distant. "I am honored... how may I be 
of
service?"
	"Well, Mr. Valentine... I seem-"
	"Hey!" a voice that sounded distant on the transmission shouted, cutting
the Major off. "Is that the Major?"
	"Yes it is..." the first voice said.
	"Cool!" There was a sound of running footsteps. The wailing grew louder.
Rip could almost place it. "Hey, gimme that! I want to talk to 'im!"
	"Yan! This is no time for your-!"
	The transmission shrieked and whined as the microphone on the other end
was tugged and jostled in the struggle that followed. Rip closed her eyes 
and
rubbed her temples.
	"Major! Dude!" the second voice yelled, his high-pitched voice echoing
loudly as he shouted into the microphone. "I have GOT to thank you! Deeply! 
This
whole vampire thing is the shit! The absolute shit! Like right now, me and 
my
bro are tracking down the survivors... you know, shooting screaming people 
in
the head and fucking them in the holes and all that jazz. It's great!"
	"I'm certain it is..." Major Krieg responded. His voice was unreadable,
and he sat back in his command chair with his fingers steepled in front of 
his
face.
	"Yan, he doesn't want to-"
	"Yo, quiet down bro! Me and the Major, we're commiserating here! Making
ourselves all buddy-like. Anyway... the best, the FUCKING best part is yet 
to
come!" Yan screamed like a singer at a rock concert. "These assholes were 
hiding
out in a fucking old orphanage! With real live orphans still inside!" He
laughed, a sound devoid of any kind of sanity. Now Rip could recognize the
wailing sound. A child crying.
	"And we sicced the ghouls on them! It was like all Night of the Living
Dead but in real technicolor complete with 3D! I laughed so hard I almost 
pissed
myself. Of course, we kept a few of the stragglers for ourselves!"
	"Yan, what are you..." The wailing cut off suddenly, with... a sound.
The sound was... it was... Rip decided she didn't really want to think about
what it was, even though her mind insisted on presenting all sorts of
possibilities.  Suddenly, she felt rather ill.
	"OH, MAN! I can't believe I just did that! Sometimes I'm so fucked up I
even scare myself!" He laughed again. "I mean, seriously, this is some 
fucked up
shit! And I just wanted to dedicate that one to you, Major." There was a 
pause
as he cackled over the transmission. "My next piece, I dedicate to every 
girl
who ever laughed at me in high school! Yeah, you know who I mean, bitch!"
	"Marvellous," Major Krieg said, his voice level. "Could you put your
brother back on ze line, now?"
	"Oh, sure thing boss!" There was a wet splat from the other end. "Just
wanted you to know you have my support!"
	"I'm very sorry about that, Herr Major..." the other Valentine began as
the sound of Yan's laughter receded into the distance.
	"Zink nothing of it," the Major replied. "I take it you two are
enjoying yourselves?"
	"Yes..."
	"Good," the Major said, grinning and leaning forward. It was
unnecessary, as the microphones would pick up his voice just as well from
wherever he choose to speak. "In a matter of hours, I shall be leaving zis
city. Since you two did such a marvelous job, I am placing you in charge of 
it."
	"Me?" the man asked, sounding surprised.
	"Yes." Major Krieg chuckled to himself. His voice was cheerful, almost
playful. "I recognise talent when I see it. You and your brother toppled
Hellsing, defeated ze mighty Alucard! Fifty years ago, he destroyed 
everything
I had been vorking on... but you defeated him and his human master in one
evening."
	"T-Thank you, sir..."
	"Of course..." The Major's voice grew more melancholy. "I zink I vill
have need of your particular expertise again."
	"Expertise, sir?"
	"Vy, monster hunter hunting, of course." The Major grinned. "You haf
heard of 'V', haf you not?"
	There was a pause. "Yes, Herr Major."
	"Good, zen this will be short." The Major sat up stiffly. "She is
disrupting my troops, killing my men. She is a thorn I want removed. Find 
her.
Kill her."
	Another long pause. "I understand, sir."
	"Gut, gut..." The Major's voice was cheerful once more. "I vill be
sending along an additional expert to assist you in your efforts. I expect
prompt results." With a gesture the Major terminated the connection before 
the
more sane Valentine could respond.
	"So, what do you zink?"
	Rip glanced at the Major. His eyes were sharp and focused on her. She
chose her words carefully. "I zink they are animals. Vild dogs. I believe 
zat
had Alucard actually been capable of fighting, zey would have been nothing 
more
zan chum in the vater."
	"Hmmm, perhaps..." The Major nodded, mostly to himself. Then he grinned.
"But zey certainly are entertaining! The younger Valentine has a spirit and
enthusiasm I zink reminds me of myself ven I was his age."
	"I take it you vant me to assist zem?" Rip said, forcing the words out
of her lips.  Her stomach was churning again.
	"Yes..." He smiled. "You find zis task... unpleasant?"
	"With all due respect, Herr Major..." Rip turned her eyes away, unable
to continue staring into his piercing gaze any longer. "I am a Verewolf, an
elite! I vould be much better used on ze new front. All this city has left 
is
busy work. This 'V' is no threat to us. I have studied her attacks, her 
patterns
and her so-called powers. Vile she could certainly do damage to the 
unprepared,
her attacks are random and unfocused. She does not strike useful military
targets, and even when she does hit something important she doesn't follow
through. She is alone, hitting targets of opportunity and vithout any sort 
of
support at all." Rip pulled her rifle from her shoulder and gestured with 
it.
"To vaste my 'magic bullet' on such a insignificant target is almost a 
tragedy."
	The Major was grinning again when she looked back. "Yes, I know." He
chuckled cheerfully. "But call me a perfectionist. Instead of leaving her in 
ze
capable hands of the Valentine brothers, I prefer to strike her with
overwhelming force immediately. She may be insignificant now... but in time 
she
could grow to be a nuisance. The game is changing even as ve speak. Kill her 
for
me, please."
	Rip inclined her head slightly and turned to walk away. There was no
need to vocally acknowledge the order. She would do her duty, even if she 
had to
work with those foreign dogs to do it.

*

	"You shouldn't be up here."
	Hotaru jumped and glanced over her shoulder. For a moment Aaron was
worried she might lose her balance. The footing on the roof was precarious,
especially when one was standing on the edge like the little girl was. But
Hotaru managed to regain her balance and turned slowly to face them. The sun 
was
rising behind her and it briefly put her body into silhouette, only her 
large
purple eyes flashing through the darkness.
	"It's daybreak," Hotaru said in a soft, resentful tone. "The monsters
are supposed to fear the sun, aren't they?"
	"Most of them," Aaron agreed. He took another step forward. "But it's
still not safe. You should come inside." He extended his hand, but Hotaru 
made
no move to take it. The sun rose over her shoulder, and her body slowly came
into view again, She was dressed in a black body-stocking with a purple
ballerina skirt, and the similarity to her animated incarnation struck Aaron 
to
the quick. She had the same large eyes, the same hair and the same face... 
but
not the same body. She was smaller, whole years younger and just beginning 
to
grow out of her baby fat. And she wasn't smiling.
	In the months Aaron had been forced to live in Ukyou's skull, his
memories of his past life had begun to fade. One by one, things that he 
could
have recalled with ease had begun to be reduced to simple icons. For some
reason, the image he had carried around of this young girl had been of her
smiling. He remembered that she did frown and pout and occasionally even 
look
like she was being crushed by the world, like she did now. But mostly Aaron
remembered that she had smiled.
	She never smiled now.
	Aaron let his hand fall. "Who were you talking to?"
	"You were eavesdropping?" Hotaru asked, but her voice lacked any real
accusation.
	"Not really..." He frowned. It would be hard to explain it to Hotaru.
Ever since they had come to England... ever since they had left Japan, he 
had
been focusing all his energy into the Void Chakra. It was the spiritual 
center
of his perceptions, the part of his chi that governed how well he could 
sense
the world. He knew what would keep them alive here was knowing what was 
going
on before it burst upon them. He had to keep his senses acute, no matter how
much this place sickened him. Aaron had walked up to this rooftop and knew 
that
Hotaru was talking, but because he had been keeping his senses diffuse and
spread across as wide an area as he could, telling what she had been saying
would have been impossible.
	"I wasn't talking to anybody," Hotaru responded after a moment. She
turned around and stared out across the city again. It was eerie, to see it
abandoned and shattered like a wasteland. But the view during the day was 
much
better than the view at night.
	"Hotaru..." Aaron sighed and slipped up onto the small wall that ringed
the edge of the rooftop. He sat and dangled his legs over the edge. It was a
five story fall to the pavement, but he wasn't really worried. "We talked 
about
this."
	The girl flashed him an angry glare. He shook his head. He supposed he
deserved a bit of that. But he had to know. If Mistress 9 was somehow 
clawing
her way up from the depths of Hotaru's psyche, he needed to know. He 
remembered
well the last time. She must have thought Ukyou was asleep when she came 
into
the tent. She had been carrying a knife, taken from the cooking supplies.
Hotaru's eyes had glowed like smoldering candles, and her lips had been 
twisted
into a vicious smile.
	Ukyou had disarmed her handily, but received a nasty shock as Mistress 9
discharged her energy. Hotaru had collapsed into their arms, weak and 
trembling.
He remembered the cold lump of fear that had settled into their hearts as 
they
held the little girl and tried to comfort her. Long hours, spent waiting in 
the
darkness, trying to figure out what to do.
	How could he or Ukyou fight an enemy that hid itself in the mind of a
little girl? He didn't know the first thing about exorcism. But he would 
save
her. He knew there had to be a way. He and Ukyou would find it. That was why
they were here. Aaron couldn't let this girl be lost to darkness. It was his
responsibility. He would find a way, somehow... if only he could find 
them...
	"I know..." Hotaru sighed and looked off into the sunset. She sat down
too. "I wasn't talking to Mistress 9." Aaron felt a wave of relief flood 
through
him. He had broken the news to the girl as gently as he could, explaining
everything. She had taken it with remarkable aplomb. Then again, maybe the
tragedy that was her life had simply left the girl numb. "I was praying."
	"Praying?" Aaron raised an eyebrow.
	"To God..." Hotaru reached up and clasped a small silver cross that now
hung around her neck. Aaron could feel the power in it. It was tiny, barely 
even
worth mentioning, but it was there.
	He had figured out that the power he had started sensing recently was
magic. It was a force that seemed more profound than just chi alone, like it 
was
denser. But it was also rarer. Chi was everywhere. It was literally 
everything.
The air was chi, the water was chi, the earth was chi... even the empty 
spaces
where there was nothing else was chi. It connected, flowing back and forth 
like
the tides of an ocean. If you could read the ripples in the ocean, you could
learn a great deal.
	Magic wasn't like that. It was like it was grounding into the world
through certain things and people. It was from Elsewhere. But even so, it 
seemed
to belong in a strange way. Where it came in, the world seemed to bend and 
shape
to accommodate it. The very nature of the chi near the magic was changed,
becoming a part of it.
	The cross around Hotaru's neck had been acquired by accident. Aaron had
been leading them through the streets of a small European town. The people 
there
had been afraid. They had looked at the strangers as if they might be 
monsters.
Who could blame them? England was a charnel house, and all their governments
were trying desperately to understand what was going on before they became 
the
next victims. Aaron had sensed the magic at the periphery of his senses.
Surprised, he had led them to a small church at the edge of town.
	The man who had come out to greet them was old, probably in his sixties.
His hair was white and he had the kind of fat, lined face that only came 
from
years of healthy living. He had called a greeting in English, not hesitating 
a
moment to invite them inside for refreshments. Aaron had been reluctant, but
Ukyou had overridden him. Besides, Ranma and Hotaru were already walking 
inside.
	Aaron had never been a religious person. He had been raised Catholic,
but never truly believed. The skeptic in him refused to accept that there 
was a
God, sitting on a cloud somewhere, staring down in omnipotent benevolence on 
the
world he had created. His arguments against it were the same old catspaws; 
war,
disease, hatred and misery. How could God exist and let humanity do such 
things
to itself?
	Ukyou, on the other hand, had been raised in a very spiritual society.
It was one that did not believe in a single God, but in many small gods. 
Ukyou
prayed at temples, and had even done volunteer work for them on occasion.
Sometimes, during the darker times in her life, when she had thought that 
she
would never find Ranma again and that it would all be meaningless, religion 
was
her only comfort. She didn't believe that the gods would solve her problems, 
but
she believed that they listened.
	The kindly priest had served them and he and Ukyou had talked, comparing
their separate religions. They found more to agree about than Aaron would 
have
thought possible. But he had not participated in that conversation. He had 
spent
it all examining the man.
	He had magic. Compared to the immense untapped well that resided inside
Hotaru, his magic was a pittance. It was a candle being compared to the sun.
Even the magic that Aaron had found lingering over Ranma from his curse 
outshone
the magic of that priest by a significant margin. His magic was barely 
anything,
probably not even enough to float a pencil if he even knew how to control 
it.
When they had made to leave, he had blessed a small silver cross and given 
it to
the little girl among them. Ukyou had asked him why and the man had only 
smiled.
	"She needs all the love that God can bring her," had been his reply. The
words still lingered with Ukyou and Aaron now, even as the little spark of 
his
blessing still lingered in the cross around Hotaru's neck.
	"Why are you here?" Hotaru asked suddenly.
	Aaron's head snapped up and he stared at the girl. But she was looking
at him innocently.
	"I came to bring you inside..." Aaron started to explain, but trailed
off as a small frown traced across the girl's features. "That isn't what you
mean, is it?" Hotaru shook her head. "I'm following Ranma. He wants to 
fight...
fight evil. I will follow him."
	"You love him, don't you?"
	Aaron looked away, but Ukyou answered quickly enough. "Yes, I do."
	"But you're lying."
	Aaron glanced at her again.
	"You aren't following him." Hotaru looked out across the city. "You
chose to come here. You're right that he will try to fight, but you chose 
the
battleground for him."
	"You're very wise for your age, aren't you?" Aaron replied flippantly.
	"Maybe..." Hotaru looked away. "I just don't understand why."
	Aaron looked down. There weren't even birds in the air, or animals in
the streets. You'd think with the humans gone that the animals would have 
taken
over. But there was nothing. Just emptiness. Perhaps the ghouls chased them
down? Aaron smiled grimly. That was one way of solving your city's pest 
problem.
He didn't think that it would catch on.
	Suddenly he felt sick. He squeezed his eyes shut and clutched his
stomach. He reeled. How could he joke about this? How could he laugh at all 
this
carnage?
	He hadn't expected this. It was too big. It was too real. This wasn't a
darkened theatre with the quiet sound of people eating popcorn. This wasn't 
a
soft bed at night, the only light shining from a flashlight, when your 
parents
thought you were asleep. This was here and now. It was all around him. He 
could
see it and touch it and smell it... and feel it.
	The very spirit of this place was polluted. Whatever foul magic that the
vampires had brought with them, whatever it was that gave them their macabre
unlife, it was shaping this place. The chi itself was sick with it, and 
walking
with his senses wide open was like swimming in a cesspool. Magic had a way 
of
molding the chi around it, and unless they did something, it would taint 
this
land.
	That was why there were no animals, he realised suddenly. They knew
enough to flee. This place no longer belonged to them. In this city of the 
dead,
it was people like him and Hotaru that were unnatural.
	"Are you okay?" Hotaru asked, but there was only politeness in her
voice. Ukyou forced them to smile at the girl. Hotaru only gazed back 
passively.
It was like the joy had been driven from her.
	'She needs all the love that God can bring her.' The words stung. He
remembered the red-eyed thing in Hotaru's body holding the knife as it 
slipped
open the tent flap. The cold pit in his stomach would not go away.
	He really wanted to save her. He cared for her, he thought. Not deeply,
not really. It wasn't a very deep connection he felt to her. He couldn't 
tell if
his feelings for Hotaru were his own, or were Ukyou's. They mixed together,
blossoming from deep inside them somewhere. Given time, maybe he would come 
to
really care for Hotaru. No, not maybe, he knew he could. She was kind and
helpful. She never said a harsh word now that she accepted what Ukyou had 
done
for her.
	But there was a wall between them. Neither he nor Ukyou could offer the
friendship and support Hotaru needed. There was too much history between 
them.
Not even Ranma could be there for her. He was too busy with his own pain to 
be
the happy, cheerful kind of person that Hotaru needed.
	"I'm fine," Ukyou lied cheerfully.
	Hotaru either didn't notice, or choose not to mention it. "Can you
answer my question, then?"
	"I'm here..." Aaron briefly considered saying he was here for her. But
how would it sound, when he told Hotaru the whole truth? How would Hotaru 
take
it when she learned that Ukyou had dragged her all this way, through all 
this
pain and literally half-way across the world... just to abandon her with a
person they had never met? The words died in his throat.
	"I'm here to answer a question," Ukyou said slowly. Hotaru raised an
eyebrow, but said nothing. "This shouldn't have happened..." Ukyou gestured 
out
across the quiet city and its sickened, dying chi. "This place had heroes... 
a
hero at least. A man, a violent and dangerous man, who should have been here 
to
stop all this. But he wasn't. I want to know why."
	"What do you mean?"
	"Somebody interfered," Ukyou tried to explain. But how could she? Ukyou
herself didn't want to believe it. She woke up, sweating from her nightmares 
and
tried to drive it form her mind. How do you try to tell a little girl she 
was
nothing but a character from someone's imagination? A fantasy given form? 
You
couldn't, not when you didn't really believe it yourself. Ukyou had to 
believe
she was real, so she couldn't tell Hotaru that she wasn't.
	"He should be here, but he isn't," Ukyou said slowly. "I want to find
out why."
	She meant it too. She did want to know why Alucard hadn't risen up in
the night and scattered Millennium like ten pins. But... that didn't seem
as important as the girl in front of them.
	"Maybe that's just part of God's plan," Hotaru said, clutching the cross
around her neck again.
	Ukyou looked at the girl, and she saw her haunted face reflected in the
girl's purple eyes. "I don't want to believe that. I can't..."
	She was real. Her life was her own, wasn't it? God didn't own her, or
control her. No more than she was a fiction, a shallow reflection of a 
woman.
Nothing more than two dimensions of ink and paper. But... she looked down at 
her
hands. She heard, for the millionth time, the sharp crack of Vega's neck
breaking.
	She had done it.
	THEY had done it.
	Aaron had been with her. He had worked with her. They had done it
without hesitation.
	They hadn't wanted to.
	They had sworn not to.
	But they had.
	"If I believe that," Ukyou said, her voice barely audible. "I have to
give up all hope."
	Hotaru only looked at her, then she leapt from the edge and landed on
the roof. She walked away, entering the door that would lead down into their
safehouse. Aaron followed her progress, his eyes closed. Ukyou raised her 
face
up to the sky.
	The sun was still rising. Its steady warmth beat down on them. Aaron
could feel it, the warm, healthy chi of it. It was life, beating down on the
world. An endless font of strength and vitality. It battered vainly against 
the
sick city, trying to scour it clean.
	"Why am I here?" he asked no one in particular, and so he got no answer
worth mentioning.

*


	Pluto sat alone. It was not a new feeling. To measure the time she had
spent alone was an exercise in futility. In the Gates, the concept of time 
was
meaningless. There was no sun to set and rise, there was no clocks or 
calendars
or even anything worth scratching away the days in. Standing in the swirling
white mist of the Gates of Time was to stand in the endless now, the 
perpetual
point between the future and the past. There was no going forward, and no
backward. In the world outside, an instant or an aeon could have passed, and
those standing inside would neither notice nor care.
	That was how you survived, standing guard over a power that was not to
be touched. Some would think the loneliness would drive you insane. They 
would
think the epochs of temptation would fall upon you like great weights until 
you
finally cracked. Nobody understood the reality. The Gates of Time was the 
one
place time never passed. You simply existed, without momentum or inertia, 
until
something happened.
	Invaders, accidents and unwanted visitors could intrude, but then once
the crisis was dealt with you existed again, simply going on until the next
crisis came.
	How she wished she could go back there. She wanted to stand in that
endless field of white mist, and let herself forget. Forget her failure, 
forget
how she had let everyone down.
	Again.
	But she was not in the Gates of Time. She was in a house owned by a
false identity she had been forced to go back in time thirty years to 
create.
She could hear the music of her fellow housemates as it drifted through the
home. Michiru's violin ached with sweet sorrow, and Haruka's piano played a
counterpoint of soft hope. The music was time. Any note, held too long, was 
just
noise. It was the change that made music, the movement from one moment to 
the
next.
	Abruptly, the music cut off. Pluto raised her head. It was light
outside, the sun shining through her open window and flooding her bedchamber
with soft light. She could sense no danger, so she assumed that it was 
merely
another minor crisis. Perhaps their senses picking up another monster's 
attack.
Then they would go out and fight the good fight, saving lives as much as 
they
could.
	Pluto felt wetness on her cheeks. What good would it do? Save a life?
Save a million lives? Save a billion? A trillion? It was a fool's errand. 
Fate
existed for all things. It was rushing towards them with a speed that was
uncanny.
	A soft knock on her door was ignored. Pluto did not want to be seen like
this. She did not want to be seen crying and wallowing in her own misery. 
The
others needed her to be strong. They needed someone to look up to. They 
needed
to believe they could win.
	Rose knew. Rose always knew. Her piercing eyes could see into your soul
and draw out all your pain. Pluto had never told her what she did in this 
lonely
room when the others were gone, but Rose knew. It had only been a few days 
ago
that she had come inside without invitation and spoken to Pluto. Her words 
had
been stilted and cryptic, full of words like 'duty' and 'necessity' and
'fighting the good fight'. They had rung hollow in Pluto's ears.
	All she could see, when she closed her eyes, was the girl's face.
	Pluto had been at her funeral. She had sat among the mourners unnoticed.
Her friends and classmates, her distraught parents, none of them had even so
much as glanced at this stranger in their midst. But even as one of her 
friends,
a girl with short brown hair, had said a few words, Pluto had been mourning 
her
own mistake.
	Ran had been going to turn. Pluto was certain of it. She had seen the
horrible duty fill the girl's eyes even as she fled the house. Those eyes 
would
haunt her forever. Because now Ran was dead. Ran was going to turn, in time, 
and
now she was dead.
	How convenient was that? How perfect?
	She remembered her own joy, that day. She remembered sitting in the
expertly flown helicopter and watching as Ukyou's allies abandoned her, one
after another. She had been so certain they would win. She had tasted it. 
Then,
it had slipped from her fingers. Like catching mist, Ukyou was under their 
guns
with nowhere to go... then she was gone.
	Perhaps she could have survived that. But then everything else came up.
First Ran died, then Ukyou vanished, taking Sailor Saturn with her. And 
shortly
after that, the hunt had begun. Pluto did not know who hunted her. They were
powerful, with access to many resources. Already the homes of Michiru and 
Haruka
had been struck. Their families had been taken. Creatures attacked, seeking 
to
draw them out... and some figure in dark armour pursued them as well.
	If Pluto had not stepped in, had not cheated and changed the very course
of history, then they would probably already be dead. Whatever enemy she had
called down upon their heads, it was powerful and implacable. But she knew 
that
the source of the monsters was not her true enemy.
	Her true enemy was fate. How had she ever believed she could win against
that? She had seen it, had she not? She had seen the future with her own 
eyes.
And she would see it again. Every time that she should have changed the 
future,
something had interfered. At first Pluto had thought it was luck, or skill 
or
perhaps even some strange quality of Ukyou herself... but now she knew 
better.
Fate protected her. Fate had its own plans.
	How else did you explain how many times Ukyou should have died, but had
not? In every battle she escaped by the skin of her teeth. Pluto had seen 
her
friends, or even her enemies, arrive at the nick of time once too often to
discount it anymore. But the last time had been too close... hadn't it?
	She sneered, the tears still rolling hot and wet down her cheeks. Yes,
she had come too close. And even if she hadn't succeeded, she had gotten to 
Ran.
She could have defeated fate... but now Ran was dead. Now monsters hunted 
her.
She was certain they had nothing to do with Ukyou. But she and her friends 
had
barely escaped with their lives the first time.
	Except that Pluto knew she could survive, that she would survive. She
had to be there at the end to see it, after all.
	The door opened and someone walked into the room. Pluto looked up
sharply, about to snap at the interruption, but paused. She did not 
recognize
the young woman who stood in the doorway. She had long, straight black hair 
and
a classical Japanese beauty. She wore a white suit jacket with matching 
skirt.
Pluto could sense a maturity and power in her that did not often exist in 
women
her age. Then Pluto saw her eyes.
	Ah. That explained it.
	"Why have you come here?" Pluto asked.
	The woman nodded out of the door and Pluto watched Rose close the door
slowly. Just beyond her, she could see the two young senshi watching 
anxiously.
But the door closed on them, and she was alone with this stranger.
	"You know that," she said in a refined voice. She walked over and sat
down on the edge of the bed, uninvited. "My name is Chizuru Kagura."
	"So you've seen it, have you?" There was no need to mention what it was.
	"Yes, all of it..." Chizuru reached into a pocket and offered Pluto a
handkerchief. "You look awful."
	Pluto smiled grimly. "I feel awful."
	"You were the one who sent the message, weren't you?" Pluto nodded, and
Chizuru pursed her lips. "I see..."
	"I'm sorry you came all this way," Pluto said, beginning to clean under
her eyes. She held back her sorrow for now. Pluto had always been a private
person. She did not feel the need to share her soul with this stranger. "But 
you
should go back to your old life. This battle... it is not for you."
	Chizuru's eyes flared, and for a moment she looked outraged beyond
words. Then her expression calmed, and she took a deep breath. "Once, long 
ago,
my sister told me the same thing. We were twins, and she was born only a 
minute
ahead of me. Our clan have been the guardians of an ancient evil for 
centuries,
and always the eldest girl of my bloodline has had the responsibility to
maintain that seal." Chizuru leaned back, looking at the ceiling. "I always 
used
to argue with her about that. I felt that, because we were twins, it was
obviously our destiny to guard the seal together. We should fight together, 
and
live together and die together to preserve it. But she would always smile 
and
tell me that she was the eldest, and that she was the heir. 'This battle... 
is
not for you,' she would tell me. And when she did, I would feel better. I 
would
stand out on the plains and play with butterflies and birds while she was 
inside
breaking her back with her training and responsibilities." Her warm smile 
slowly
dissolved. "Then one day a man came to our home. He was powerful, a demon-
worshipping priest... a monster in the shape of a man. He wanted the power 
of
the Orochi that we guarded. My sister fought him alone. She died."
	Pluto gazed at this strange woman for a long time before Chizuru worked
up the will to continue. "Ever since that day, I knew that those words meant
nothing. It WAS my battle. Maybe, maybe if I hadn't let her fight alone..." 
She
shook her head, her black hair shining in the sunlight. "But that is the 
past. I
cannot change it." She gazed at Pluto. "So do not tell me that this isn't my
battle. This is everyone's battle. I may not be able to change the past, or 
the
future, but I control NOW. This is the moment that matters, and I refuse to 
look
back on this day and say 'maybe if I hadn't...'"
	Pluto locked gazes with the young woman. Her gaze was hard steel. She
nodded. "You're right, I apologise."
	"Very well."
	"So... what did you want to do?" Pluto smiled grimly again. "Rose too
came like you, offering salvation. What brilliant plan do you have to save 
us
all?"
	"Plan?" Chizuru looked away, "I have no plan. I came here to help you.
To give you a good swift kick so that you would stop moping in here and DO
something!" She stood up, throwing her arm to the side dramatically. Pluto 
was
not overly impressed by her performance.
	"And what would you have us do?"
	"It doesn't matter," Chizuru said stiffly as she crossed her arms.
	"Doesn't matter?" Pluto was standing herself now. "Doesn't matter? Of
course it matters!" She stepped up to the young woman, towering over her. "I
have watched everything fail! Even as I struggle, I find myself only pushing
things closer to the edge. How can I know that I have not pushed Ukyou 
further
to what she will become? Even when I interfere, it only seems to grow worse! 
I
am a PART of this! Don't you see? I can't change the future!"
	Chizuru did not back down. "Listen to yourself." She took a deep breath.
"You've lost hope, haven't you?"
	"Yes... yes, I have." Hard words. But true, and Pluto realised that
saying them aloud was oddly necessary.
	"You're lying."
	"What?" Pluto's eyes narrowed. She might not always tell the whole
truth, she might sometimes misdirect and mislead, but she was not a liar.
	"You haven't lost faith," Chizuru said slowly. "So you failed. Pick up
and go back at it."
	"So are you Rose too? Do you claim to see into my heart like she does?"
Chizuru frowned. "Or perhaps you are like those two children? What do they 
know
of hopeless causes? And who are you to..."
	Pluto's head snapped back and she stumbled away from Chizuru. Her cheek
burned and she placed a hand on it dumbly. Chizuru was crying now. "Take 
that
back."
	"What?"
	"I'll let you insult yourself, but don't you dare insult them." Chizuru
turned towards the door. "They love you. I can see it in their eyes. Didn't 
you
hear the music they played for you? How can you listen to that song and not
understand that they believe in you? And Rose? She came to me for you. She
destroyed my life... for you. I have never met a person so devoid of passion 
as
Rose is, but she loves you. She doesn't understand it, but you can hear it 
in
the way she talks about you... in the way they all do. They hold you in 
awe."
She looked over her shoulder at Pluto, who was still struck dumb. "This pity 
you
wallow in is destroying them. They are losing hope." She straightened her 
hair
and turned around to face her. "If you can't do it for yourself, fight on 
for
them."
	"For them...?" Pluto lowered her eyes, unable to meet Chizuru's gaze. "I
can't... If it were that easy."
	"You believe in yourself," Chizuru insisted. "I've seen it. You know
it's true."
	"No... it..."
	"THINK!" Chizuru hissed sharply. "You've heard it!" She walked up to
Pluto and grabbed her by the shoulders. "Who sent the message?"
	"What?" Pluto gaped.
	"WHO?"
	"I did... from the future..."
	"And who did you send the message to?"
	Pluto stared at her dumbly.
	"I was not called. Rose was not called. You didn't send a warning to
Haruka or Michiru. You didn't send it back to the girl who died, or to 
anyone
else. Some others have seen it... but the message was for YOU."
	Pluto fell back when Chizuru released her, barely aware of the bed
catching her fall.
	"In the end, when you had already failed... you still believed! There
was something that future you knew that you do not! There was some way to 
kill
her, to prevent the end of everything!" Pluto backed away as Chizuru stepped
forward and loomed over her. "You have a destiny. You must fight. You must
believe. Believe in yourself. Trust that you will know what to do when the
moment comes. Because if you don't, then you are betraying yourself. You are
betraying these women who believe in you. You are betraying everything you 
stand
for."
	Pluto lowered her eyes, and heard the soft click of Chizuru walking to
the door. The door opened and closed behind her, and she was gone without a
word. Pluto could only stare at the sheets of her bed. Here and there, the
stains of her tears... like freckles. She felt a weight settle down next to 
her.
	She looked over and saw Rose sitting next to her. She smiled. It was a
smile without real warmth or passion. But she stretched out her arm and 
circled
it around Pluto's shoulder. Pluto let herself be pulled into a rough 
embrace.
She began to cry again.
	But these tears were not bitter. They were not pain. They were
cleansing. They were relief. Even on Rose's cold, almost inhuman, shoulder 
she
found comfort. "We fight fate, don't we?"
	"Yes," Rose answered.
	"Then we'll defeat it." Pluto smiled through her tears. "Because we
believe."

*

	Ranma awoke with a start. His body was covered in cold sweat. His heart
was racing. He looked to his side and saw Hotaru standing there. He was 
sitting,
and he still came up to her chest. She was gazing down at him impassively.
	"Geez, Hotaru..." Ranma panted. It was hot in London, especially during
the day. "You startled me."
	"I'm sorry," Hotaru replied. Her voice was soft and hard to make out.
She turned and walked into the murky apartment that they were using as a
temporary shelter. It was hard to see anything, since all the windows had 
been
covered with thick curtains and the electricity was out. If they were pulled
aside, he knew the sun would shine in brightly, but Ukyou had insisted that
secrecy was their best defense for the time being.
	"Don't apologise," Ranma said, forcing false cheer into his voice. He
threw off the blanket he had been using. Despite its thinness, the fabric 
was
soaked with sweat. He grimaced and reached around blindly until he found his
pants and shirt. He would have felt uncomfortable dressing with anyone else 
in
the room, but Hotaru was really too young to worry him. "Sometimes I think
that's all you do, is apologise," Ranma tried his best to put a note of 
humour
into his joke.
	In the darkness, he couldn't tell how Hotaru reacted. She walked back
into the light a few seconds later. Balanced on her hands was a tray filled 
with
leftover okonomiyaki. It was cold, but Ukyou was such a fantastic cook that 
it
hardly mattered. He grinned at Hotaru and ruffled her hair before sitting 
down
to dig in. She looked mildly annoyed with the treatment. At least it was a
reaction.
	"You didn't seem to be sleeping well," Hotaru said softly as she
crouched down nearby. Ranma paused in mid-bite, then hastily swallowed 
before he
choked.
	"Just the heat," he said dismissively. Hotaru gazed at him levelly. He
grinned weakly and rubbed the back of his neck. "Okay, okay... geez, Hotaru.
You're a little monster when you don't get your way, ya know?"
	She blinked at this.
	"Just kidding," Ranma laughed. He shook his head. The kid needed to
lighten up. "It was just another nightmare."
	"About her?"
	"Yeah..." Ranma looked down at his food again. He screwed his eyes shut.
	He took a deep breath. "Yeah." He forced a grin onto his face. "But I
can't dwell on it, right?" He flipped a piece of food towards his mouth, 
making
sure it spun acrobatically along the way. Before it could get there, he 
snapped
another piece at it, bouncing the first piece of food higher. A fraction of 
a
second later a third morsel joined them, slamming into the second so that it
knocked that one back up and into the first, keeping all three airborne. As
Ranma continued to add more and more food to his little show, he talked as 
if
nothing were happening. "I mean, I can't lock myself away and get all 
blubbery
about it. Ran d... died and nothin' ain't gonna change that, right?" He 
didn't
wait for Hotaru to respond: her eyes were following his display with 
something
approaching fascination. "Besides, I made a promise. I'm gonna make a
difference! I'm gonna see to it that even if Ran can't be the one, I'll be 
known
as a hero who -AH!"
	Ranma finally lost control and the entire display, now consisting of
three dozen morsels ranging in size from a grape to a hamburger, fell 
straight
down onto his face. He stared upward for a moment, blinking bits of 
okonomiyaki
out of his eyes. He looked down at Hotaru.
	Nothing.
	"Ah, c'mon! That was funny, damnit!"
	Hotaru's perpetual frown lessened, but she didn't smile. "It was a waste
of food."
	"But a FUNNY waste of food!" Ranma pointed at her, trying to look as
dignified as he could with a meal plastered over his features. Still 
nothing.
Tough audience. "Besides, Ukyou can always make more. Where is she?"
	"Out patrolling," Hotaru replied as she moved away. Ranma waited and a
second later she returned with a wash cloth. He grudgingly accepted it and 
began
cleaning himself off. Ukyou was always patrolling during the day when he was
asleep, trying to find new targets for them. Sometimes he envied her the 
ability
to go literally days without sleep.
	As if summoned by the conversation about her, the door swung upon and
Ukyou strode in briskly. She had changed her appearance slightly on their 
trip.
She still wore her hair long and tied back at the nape of her neck, and she
still wore the same long black trenchcoat. However, she now wore a slightly
tighter shirt and slacks, giving more emphasis to her feminine curves.
	She glanced at Ranma and one of her eyebrows shot up. He grinned at her
and waved. A piece of food fell from his cheek to the floor with a wet 
smack.
	"Never mind," Ukyou said before either of them could. "Ranma. We have to
go."
	Ranma stood up, cleaning himself with a single superspeed swipe of the
cloth. He recognized that tone of voice. "What is it?" he asked quickly.
	"I felt something," Ukyou explained. "Magic, coming out of nowhere.
Magic a lot like Hotaru's."
	"So..." Ranma trailed off.
	"I don't have much time to explain," Ukyou said quickly. "I think we
should go help her immediately. Now that I've caught her scent, so to speak, 
I
should be able to track her down."
	"Track who down?"
	"V," Ukyou said simply. Ranma frowned. He had heard the 'name' before.
He'd killed a dozen or more vampires since getting here, but the person they
really seemed to fear was this 'V' woman. "Hotaru, stay here for a few 
hours!"
Ukyou called over her shoulder as she stepped out.
	Ranma shrugged and followed her, glancing back over his shoulder as he
did so. Hotaru just sat on the floor and looked out after them with an
unreadable expression. He struggled for something to say, but sighed and 
just
shot out a quick "Later," before dashing off after Ukyou.


				To Be Continued...


Author's Notes:


Blade: Yeah, that did end a little abruptly, but it's not our fault.  We're 
not
ourselves.  And do you know why?  Can you even comprehend what we've gone
through?  For YOU?

Epsilon: We watched THREE seasons of Sailor Moon, from beginning to end, 
every
single episode, as research for this.

Blade: And as you can see, that included Super S.  But it did not just 
"include"
Super S.  It included us watching ALL of Super S within a WEEK.  A GODDAMN 
WEEK.

Epsilon: Nobody should be exposed to that much concentrated Amazon Trio.

Blade: I would not wish such a fate on... Saddam Hussein.  I mean, he was 
bad
and all, and yeah, torture rooms and he thought really mean thoughts about
getting a nuclear weapon program once, but even HE did not force people to 
watch
Tiger's Eye.  And I think that's a lesson to us all.

Epsilon: Also, the other two idiots.  Also, Nehelenia.  Also Zirconia.  Also 
the
entire goddamn plotline and how it made no sense whatsoever!  Also Helios!  
Why
the hell couldn't he just SPIT IT OUT already in the first half of the 
series?
He had to wait until the world was literally being destroyed until he told 
the
heroes what was going on or how they could stop it, and there was never the
slightest iota of good reason why!  And don't even get me started on 
Mamoru's
mysterious illness which unlike the manga never had any explanation or any
payoff, or any point!  And the time-management!  23 episodes for the 
fricking
Amazon Trio, who advance the plot not even the slightest iota, and besides
which, we're suddenly supposed to believe malevolent roaming pedophile 
Fish-Eye
is the sympathetic one, and-

Blade: I think you get the point.  No fanfic authors have ever sacrificed so
much, suffered so much, for the sake of their art!

Epsilon: And we're even more mad than we seem, but we can't tell you why,
because it's a massive spoiler.  Goddamn us and our desire to actually make
proper usage of continuity and characters!  Why couldn't we just make up 
shit
about Sailor Moon and Ranma like everyone else?

Blade: So, uh, that's probably enough bitching then, huh?

Epsilon: Not nearly enough!  Go to our website this month, and you can see 
us
bitch even MORE about Sailor Moon!

Blade: What a tempting prospect!  And not at all a gratuitous plug!  There's
more Hybrid Theory fanart this month, too.  But just in case you're only 
here
for the ficcage, here's your tempting prospect for next month!



	"But nights like this are waluable beyond price, you see," the vampiress
said, her voice suddenly deadly serious. She stood up. "A bright night, 
perfect
for hunting." She paused and turned to stare directly at the roof V was 
hiding
on. "Don't you agree, fraulein?"
	V froze up. She heard the vampires cursing and hissing as they all spun
to face her, drawing their weapons. She narrowed her eyes, but stood up 
slowly.
As she did, she raised her hands into the air. The vampires all leveled 
their
weapons at her. Her new armor couldn't hope to stop so many bullets, and she
didn't fancy her chances of dodging them all.
	She resisted the urge to smile.
	"You must be 'V', ja?" The vampiress said as she waved cheerfully at
her. "You haf been making yourself quite a nuisance. Killing our men, 
ruining
perfectly good ghouls. Shame on you." V didn't reply, she just stood on the
roof, her hands still raised. The woman hadn't made a move to remove her own
weapon from its resting place on her shoulders. V could see the light 
glinting
off a medallion she wore around her neck, a swastika that hung on a chain 
that
came down almost to her navel. "I haf been instructed by Major Krieg, 
commandant
of the Letztes Battalion, that I am to personally escort you to no less than
fifty separate locations across the city simultaneously." She grinned, a 
huge
pleasant smile that made her look like she was much younger than she 
probably
was.
	"Come again?" V said, speaking for the first time.
	"Ah." The woman bowed slightly. "I'm sorry. I shall haf to explain it in
a vay you can understand."  She paused, making a grand gesture of thinking 
about
it.  "Bang bang. You're dead. Is that clearer?"
	V smiled now. "Better than you have tried."
	The woman's grin disappeared. "No. No, they haf not."


		Hybrid Theory Chapter 18: A Place For My Head



































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