Subject: [FFML] [fic][YST/SM]Ronin Summer Convergence 10
From: "Morgan Hudson" <dataraven_659@hotmail.com>
Date: 12/9/2006, 6:22 AM
To: ffml@anifics.com
CC: dataraven_659@hotmail.com

Hi!

Well, here we go again. As always, C&C is welcome, but this time more than 
usual. I am a bit concerned about the formatting on this one - some of my 
mails have been coming out with some odd line breaks lately, so if this 
looks funny please let me know and I may have to re-post. :p

Regardless (and with fingers crossed) on with the fic!

NEW-AND-IMPROVED LEGAL DISCLAIMER: Legally, the Sailor Senshi belong to
Kodansha, and the Samurai Troopers are the property of Bandai Entertainment.
Creatively, I can't lay claim to them either - that would be Naoko Takeuchi
who made up the Senshi and Hajime Yatate who thought up the Troopers. I am
only borrowing them for a few chapters, and I really do intend no lasting
harm. Despite appearances.

                     RONIN SUMMER: CONVERGENCE

  A Bishoujou Senshi Sailor Moon / Yoroiden Samurai Troopers cross-over

                          by Morgan Hudson

"Convergence (n) - the approach of an infinite series to a finite limit."


Chapter 10: Beyond the Gates of Mourning

	Night came quietly to the world, creeping softly through the
shadows and spreading itself across the rocky plains with the careful,
measured flow of a well-timed assault. The skies above slowly faded from
their usual blood red tint to a dark, bruised purple as the giant sun
gently set behind the imposing spires and spiked walls of the Castle of
Eternal Regret. Thick plumes of mist began to rise from the jagged chasms
and crevices that stretched and snaked through the terrain as the chill
air of the evening met with the almost palpable warmth still contained in
the stones from the blistering heat of the day. In the distance, the thick
curtains of swirling ectoplasm tightened and closed in, drawing themselves
across the land like the shimmering lids of a giant eye.

	The local youma and other creatures trapped within the boundaries
of this small world called it 'wraithfall' - that time of night when the
deadly spectres who patrolled their prison drew close and sought out new
victims from those foolish enough to be caught in the open. This was the
time when tyrant and slave alike trembled in their beds, waiting to feel
the cold touch of ghostly fingers upon their flesh and hear once again the
harsh, accusing whispers of the wraiths. Nobody had entered the realm who
was not first dragged into it by their steely grasp, and it was their
devious mutterings that filtered through the mind of every living being.
Some claimed that the voices of the wraiths had so permeated the land that
it rose from the very rocks themselves, pouring equal poison into the
ears of all.

	Normally, it would be considered foolish to venture forth at such
a time. Few creatures could even imagine something worth risking such an
end; to be taken by the wraiths was the only fate worse than the one that
they already shared. Every youma that was sensible had retreated to their
makeshift bunkers and buried themselves behind whatever defenses they
could scrape together hours ago. None of the captives in this realm spent
more than one night in the open during wraithfall, one way or the other.
Those who did not learn to hide themselves were usually taken care of
very quickly by the scourges and whips of the wraiths themselves.

	The warriors of Medea knew the risks quite well: they had been
trapped within the Castle of Eternal Regret for so long that most thought
the realm to be their native home. Certainly, there were no other youma
who could recall a time before the solemn and somber Medeans had walked
amongst them. It was the Medeans who came for the new arrivals when they
appeared, who taught them the ways of survival in the hellish lands of
the Castle of Eternal Regret. They were the elite, the most powerful and
learned of the captive monsters within this realm. For centuries upon end,
their numbers had remained strong while their rivals had dwindled through
foolishness and despair. With inhuman resolve and determination, the
Medeans had persevered, waiting for some undefined thing that had held
the promise of making their long imprisonment worthwhile.

	Recently, that promise had been answered. The Medeans had been
very patient in their jail, secure in the knowledge that the day would
come when they would once again see the one person who gave meaning to
their dreary existences. Like the loyal sons of Jupiter that they were,
they had waited for their princess to return to them. They had known that
she would have to come back to them, eventually. She was their leader.
She was their ruler. She was destined to die at their hands.

	It was what she deserved.

	The moment that Sailor Jupiter had showed her face in their realm,
every youma in the world had been made quietly and firmly aware that the
Medeans wanted her. With their true goal in reach once again, the various
warriors of Medea had put aside centuries of feuding and battle to focus
on the capture of their wayward princess. Pitting their various forces
against each other had merely served to keep their skills sharp and their
minds distracted: there was no more need for training when the real quarry
was available to be hunted.

	Crouching low to the ground and skittering from one piece of cover
to another, three Medean warriors gingerly worked their way across the
plains. Their long spines rustling softly as they moved, the trio paused
every few feet and carefully scanned the skies above them for any sign of
descending spectres. Each of the three was identical to his brethren, if
indeed it could be said that any of them were male. They lacked any sign
of distinguishing features, their faces and bodies amorphous blobs of
living shadow that only vaguely held the form of a human body. Long manes
of metallic spines jutted from their scalps like the quills of a
porcupine, and smaller clusters of thorn-like barbs jutted from their inky
skin at random locations. They did not speak as they crept through the
harsh terrain, moving with the fluidity and precision of a highly trained
military unit.

	One of the many scouts who served them had been flying overhead
this particular area a mere five hours ago. The winged youma's report had
been enough to capture the interest of the Medeans: a girl, human, with
long brown hair, had been seen bathing in a nearby stream. The youma had
spied an emerald green sailor fuku in the bushes nearby as the girl had
washed her hair. The Medeans had questioned him thoroughly, and there was
little doubt that it had been Sailor Jupiter that he had seen. With
wraithfall so close upon her, there was no chance that she had gotten
far from where she was seen.

	Speed was of the essence - if they waited until morning, she might
evade them again. For the moment, however, Sailor Jupiter was trapped in
whatever cave or chasm she had found for shelter until the night passed.
The thought of their darling princess with her back to the wall and no
hope of escaping them was enough to make their quills rustle with delight.
It was a chance worth risking the wraiths for.

	Deftly slipping over the razor-sharp shelf of thin shale that ran
along the lip of a wide chasm, one of the warriors fell to the rocky
ground below and landed on all fours. Quickly scanning the terrain, he
gestured for the other two to follow him and crept silently towards a
large crack in the side of the canyon wall. Even with the overhanging
walls of the canyon to shield him from the eyes of the hunting wraiths, he
stayed low to the ground and moved with a smooth gait perfected over ages
of stalking his prey. There could not be even the slightest noise to alert
anybody until they were sure their princess slept alone.

	Turning sideways, the silent warrior began to ease himself into
the thin crack. It was a tight fit at the start, but obviously widened
further along. With a wave of his hand, he motioned the other two back and
they fell obediently into defensive positions, staying alert for any
attempt at an ambush or trap. The last thing they needed was to get
clumsy this close to their target: there was no point in more than one of
them getting stuck or caught by whatever defences might have been set up
to protect the girl. He would go first, and then signal the others when
it was safe.

	He hissed softly as he squeezed himself through the narrow opening
and stepped gingerly into the wider chamber beyond. He could practically
feel her presence, now - they were so close that her aura was almost
overpowering him. It was getting harder and harder to control himself,
knowing that at any moment he was going to see his princess again after
so many centuries. His quills clicked and rattled against each other as
he struggled to keep them under control. Somewhere up ahead, a soft blue
glow beckoned, and he slinked carefully towards it.

	The glow grew brighter as he neared, and the youma drew back in
surprise as he rounded a corner and nearly stumbled into the source.
There, floating serenely in mid-air, was an armoured samurai warrior. His
spiked gauntlets rested in his lap, and his legs were folded under him as
though he were seated in the middle of a sphere of ghostly blue energy.
A massive helmet rested atop his bowed head, high and conical with two
thick golden horns that swept upwards until they nearly touched its peak.
The youma inched as close as he dared and gave the faintly humming bubble
a suspicious gaze. Carefully, he extended one clawed finger and tapped it
against the side of the glowing sphere, only to hiss and pull it back as
the globe spat and crackled with energy. Behind his intricate silver mask
the samurai twitched and stirred slightly before lowering his head and
slipping back into slumber.

	The Archer? There had been rumours among some of the new arrivals
that the Prince of the Heavens might have returned from the dead, but
most of the Medeans had ignored them as the panicked ramblings of mindless
rabble. Still, nobody but the Archer wore that style of armour, and only the
Archer could possibly bear the golden bow that floated next to the dormant
warrior inside his glowing bubble. The Sho Ha Kyu had been Prince Klarios'
signature weapon: there had been none save him who could even string so
powerful a bow, let alone dream of firing it. Even if the boy inside the
armour did not look quite the way they had remembered him, it could be
nobody else.

	Cautiously inching around the edge of the glowing sphere and its
armoured occupant, the youma crept into the large chamber beyond. After
such a long and twisting bottleneck of an opening the fissure widened
suddenly, creating a cavernous space deep within the rock. Aside from
the faint splashing of water falling from the stalactites on the ceiling
and a soft chiming sound that the creature could not place, the entire
place was quiet. Cast by the eerie blue light of the Archer's protective
bubble, shadows danced and flickered on the stone walls as if they had
taken on a life of their own.

	His quills bristling, the youma crouched down and glanced over
his shoulder. For a moment, it had looked as if one of those shadows had
been advancing towards him with some kind of weapon. Seeing nothing behind
him, he relaxed slightly. Between the danger of wraithfall and the
constant jangling presence of Sailor Jupiter rubbing on his nerves, he was
starting to get jumpy. It had probably just been the light passing over
that bundle of gourds and cooking gear stacked up in the corner. With the
straw hat hanging off of one of the bamboo poles, it would have almost
looked like a person when its shadow was cast on the cave wall, and the
natural distortion of the rock had created the illusion of movement. He
was in no danger: every living soul in the place was fast asleep.

	Creeping towards the mass of blankets and faded old robes that
were piled in the far corner of the cavern, the youma gingerly reached out
and pulled back the covers with his clawed fingertips. A thick mass of
chocolate brown hair spilled out from beneath, framing a face that he had
not seen in over a thousand years. Their princess had always been a true
beauty, more robust and energetic than those anemic girls from the other
planets - there was no doubt which of the Sailor Senshi he was viewing. Even
in her sleep there was a lively tilt to the corner of her mouth, an almost
jaunty air in the way she held her head that made her unmistakable.

	His fingers flexed and extended, twining around each other until
his arm had taken the shape of a gnarled axe. Its heavy crescent blade
glimmered coldly in the eldritch blue light as he raised it over his head.

	The strike was completely unexpected, whistling through the air
with only a faint chiming sound to serve as any warning. Turning at the
last second, the Medean flinched back instinctively as the heavy golden
shakujo swung in a glittering arc that slammed into his temple amidst a
riot of sparks and stars and clanging bells. Clutching at his spiked head,
the youma began to face his attacker when the weighted staff crashed into
his skull from the opposite direction and knocked him sprawling onto the
cold rock floor.

	Shaking his head, the youma struggled to his hands and knees,
looking up blearily at the blurred outline of a slender man with long
crimson hair and a very large pole. With a sharp tap, the robed man thrust
the tip of his shakujo staff through the stone floor of the cavern and
began to stride closer. The youma raised his arm, his muscles tensing as
a barrage of needle-like spines flew from his hand and spun towards his
mysterious attacker.

	The man shook his head sadly, as the spines passed through his
chest with barely a ripple and bounced harmlessly off of the glowing
sphere behind him.

	"Now really," he said with a sneer, "was that supposed to
accomplish anything? I had been under the impression that you Medeans were
supposed to be some kind of a challenge."

	Lunging from the ground, the youma threw himself towards his
strange attacker. With a grim smile, the red-haired wraith snapped his
fingers and the gleaming shakujo staff leapt between them to block the
Medean's barbed axe. Gripping his weapon, the man spun it expertly to
block another strike from the youma's other hand and thrust his foot into
the creature's instep, causing it stumble forward. The robed man easily
stepped out of the way, seeming to almost float around the falling Medean
as he gripped it firmly by the long quills that jutted from its head and
slammed its face against the side of the glowing energy field.

	Sparks spat and flew as the youma flailed wildly in an attempt to
pull away from the crackling electricity that coursed through its body.
Ducking under a blind axe swing, the man deftly caught its wrist and
forcibly bent its arm behind its back, pressing it even harder against the
side of the unyielding wall of force.

	"I don't believe we've been properly introduced," the robed man
commented, ramming his heel into the back of the youma's knee and forcing
it to the ground as he pressed his weight down from above to squeeze its
face between his palm and the sizzling blue energy. "I am Toshitada Koma,
and you are my new plaything. I am going to ask you some questions, and
you are going to answer every single one of them, because if I start to
feel like you're holding back on me, I will become upset. Don't worry
about being coherent: I speak 'strangled gurgle' fluently."

	"What... d-do you... want?" the Medean asked, its voice dry and
cracking from centuries of disuse.

	"That's better," Toshitada said with a grin. "To start with, I
want to know how many of you there are around here. I killed at least
two outside; are there any others?"

	"Hundreds," the youma bluffed. "This cavern is surrounded by a
legion of our soldiers."

	"You wouldn't be lying to the Masho of Cruelty, would you? Because
that would not be a very smart thing to do."

	"Wouldn't know," the youma croaked. "Never... heard of you."

	"You obviously don't get out much," the robed man replied flatly.
"Perhaps you are more familiar with the name of Sailor Pluto. Would you
like me to take you to *her* for questioning?"

	"There is nobody else," the youma said after a brief pause, his
spines drooping. "I am the only other one, I swear."

	"Excellent: that's what the other two said. Now that we know
where we stand with each other, let's try something a little harder."
Toshitada pulled his captive away from the scorching force field and
roughly shoved him against a nearby wall. "Tell me who lives in the
Castle of Eternal Regret. You creatures wouldn't be lurking around out
here if you didn't have a very good reason to avoid going inside that
fortress, and I want to know what it is."

	"Xiang Yao!" the youma replied, clawing in vain at the hand
pinning him against the rocks. How was it possible for a ghost to be so
solid and yet so untouchable at the same time? It had to be one of the
wraiths: there was no other explanation! "Xiang Yao resides within the
castle! She's a killer - a monster! None dare cross her path!"

	"Xiang Yao has left this place," the slender man argued, leaning
in closer and locking gazes with the faceless youma. "If she were all you
feared, why has nobody tried to claim her castle?"

	"Xiang Yao has left before," it said in reply, wilting further
under his examination. "Xiang Yao is the only one who ever does. She has
always returned. We have no wish to be nearby when that happens."

	"You're not telling me everything," Toshitada said warningly.

	"No," the youma agreed, "I'm not."

	"I want to know who lives in that castle, creature!"

	"Then knock on the front gates and ask, spirit! You'll get your
answer soon enough!"

	"Tell me its name, or so help me I will-"

	"Pedri take you for one of his own!" the youma cursed. "Would you
taunt one who could so easily destroy us all? This world was built to
keep people OUT, not in! We survive here only because he does not know
that we exist! If you trouble him he will wash us all away like fleas!"

	"Wash us-?" Toshitada's eyes widened with realization, as his grip
slackened slightly on the youma. "I see. No wonder Xiang Yao was the only
one safe up there: she was his body servant...."

	"Now you see the reality of our prison, spirit," the youma spat.
"There is no escaping this place, for any of you! You are trapped with us
for all eternity, guests of the great sea dragon himself."

	"Leviathan," Toshitada muttered, as he released the youma and
turned to gaze back towards the interior of the cavern. Twisting past him,
the youma bolted out of the fissure and hurled itself back into the eerie
green air of wraithfall as the man cried out and grasped for it in vain.
The sky moaned hungrily as the youma scrambled back up the wall of the
canyon, ignoring the shattered remains of its former comrades. There were
dozens more where they had come from, and now they knew exactly where their
princess was going to be.

**********

	Toshitada Koma watched the monster go and cursed bitterly to
himself. Now there really would be a legion of those damned things
descending on them, if he was one to judge. Moving quickly, he donned his
wide straw hat and roughly nudged the sleeping girl with his foot as he
began to gather their supplies.

	"Ow! Who taught you to wake people up like that?" Makoto Kino
asked, rubbing her back as she sat up and glared at the slender monk.

	"No time to talk," he said curtly, tossing her a bundled package
of gourds. "We need to get out of here."

	"Now? Aren't there a whole bunch of angry ghosts out there?"

	"There's going to be an angry ghost in HERE if you don't start
helping me pack!" Toshitada snapped at the girl, as he slung a large
basket over his shoulders. "Now go straighten your tiara and wake up your
boyfriend: we are *leaving*."

	"He's not my boyfriend!" Makoto objected, and did her best to
ignore the rude snort she got in response. Quickly crossing over to where
Touma Hashiba still sat floating in his bubble, she gently placed her
hand against its glowing surface.

	"Come on, Touma," she said quietly, as the electrical current
snapped and spat harmlessly down the length of her arm. "You gotta wake
up, now."

	The blue-armoured samurai stirred and lifted his head, his mask
retracting into the beak of his helmet to reveal a boy not much older
than Makoto herself. With a stifled yawn, he carefully unfolded his legs
and lowered himself back onto the ground. The crackling force field that
surrounded him flickered softly and then vanished with a gentle popping
sound and a rush of air.

	"How long was I out?" he asked, rubbing his eyes with one gauntlet
as he fought back another yawn.

	"A while," Makoto admitted. "Toshitada said not to disturb you,
because the healing trance needed time to work on your arm. And your
ankle. And your head...."

	"Don't remind me," Touma groaned, as he rubbed the side of his
face beneath his helmet. "I've still got a killer migraine. Looks like I
finally got all my limbs in order, though. What's with the sudden rush?"

	"Ask the guy in the rice picker," Makoto replied with a shrug. "He
just kicked me out of bed and told me to start packing."

	"Glad to see you have the use of your legs back, Tenku no Touma,"
Toshitada said brusquely as he pushed his way between the two teens.
"Feel up to an evening jog? The correct answer is 'yes'."

	"Why?" Touma asked, giving both of his companions a confused look.
"I mean, what's the big deal? Did I sleep through something important
again?"

	"Young Sailor Jupiter's fan club has finally tracked us down,"
Toshitada explained. "It would be in our best interests not to be here
when they come back looking for autographs."

	"It's still pretty bad out there," Touma said nervously, looking
at the mouth of the cavern. "Maybe our odds would be better if we just
held our ground here and fought them off."

	"Oh, yes, that would be wonderful," Toshitada replied with a
scowl. "I'm sure that we could easily defeat them - just you, me, and that
cohort of Dynasty Soldiers we both forgot to bring! Sailor Jupiter's
powers don't work against them, remember? Our odds are better on open
ground."

	"They can surround us on open ground," Touma argued.

	"They can collapse the entire cliff on top of us in here!"
Toshitada snapped. Pushing his baskets ahead of him, he began to squeeze
his way through the crack that led to the outside.

	"Good point," Touma admitted, and began to follow after the
red-haired monk. After a few steps he reached back and took Makoto by the
hand, gently tugging her in front of him and guiding her into the opening
first.

	"Try to stay between us," he said to her quietly, with a
reassuring pat on the back. "If we get seperated, you just do whatever
Toshitada says, okay? He'll do whatever it takes to keep us safe."

	"Easy for you to say," Makoto replied in a whisper. "At least he
*likes* you."

	"No he doesn't," Touma corrected her with a grin. "He doesn't like
anybody. But he has promised to get me out of here, and he knows I won't
leave without you. Besides, I'm pretty sure he's meaner than anything
we're going to run into out there."

	"Your lack of faith disturbs me, Hashiba," Toshitada interjected
sardonically. "After all these years, you should be more certain."

**********

	The wind moaned softly as he stepped out into the open, a gentle
keening sound that was somehow even more eerie than if they had been
surrounded by a gale. Toshitada scanned the length of the canyon as his
regal blue and white robes rippled around his body. Everything was still,
but the shadows were far too long for his liking. The entire canyon was
filled with debris, and the walls were made from jagged sheets of shale
and slate with a liberal mix of volcanic glass to keep things interesting.
There were almost as many places for someone to hide as there were ways
for someone to shred themselves on the way down. Or up.

	A frown passed over the monk's aquiline features as he fiddled
with the straps on his straw hat. With enemies everywhere and only Touma
Hashiba for backup that cohort of Dynasty Soldiers was starting to sound
like a better idea every second. He had never appreciated how less stupid
ideas like this seemed with a few hundred armoured warriors to back him
up while he tried them.

	Toshitada chuckled softly and slipped the hat over his head. He
missed his cannon fodder. They used to come in handy all the time.

	Sailor Jupiter stepped gingerly out into the air, her long
ponytail streaming behind her like a pennant and her skirt rustling in
the breeze. He gave her a cursory glance, then turned his attention back
to the task in front of them.

	"I hope those boots of yours are good for climbing," he said, as
he gazed upwards at the steep and craggy cliffs. "It looks like our only
choice is up and out."

	"Don't worry about me," the girl assured him. "At least I've got
gloves on. If you're not careful, those bandages are going to be more than
just decorative."

	"I'll get by," Toshitada replied dourly. "Tenku no Touma, a little
help, if you could."

	"Right," Touma said, quickly reaching behind him and drawing an
arrow from the armoured quiver on his back. Nocking it to his gleaming
bow, the young samurai pulled back and released in a single fluid motion.
The arrow seemed to shimmer as it shot from his grasp, changing for a
split second in a glowing beam of energy as it darted through the air
and sank deep into the side of the cliff. A thin plume of steam rose from
the point where his shaft had pierced the rock, and a thin cord of silver
swung lazily from the end of the arrow.

	"Is that really going to support our weight?" Sailor Jupiter
asked, as Touma held the cord steady for Toshitada to begin climbing.

	"It will if I tell it to," Touma replied with a grin. "Now hop on,
Mako-chan: you're next."

	"Okay," she said, "but if you're climbing up after me, you take
that helmet off first. Those horns look sharp."

	Taking a firm grip on the slender wire, Makoto braced her feet
against the side of the cliff and began to pull herself upwards. Toshitada
spared a quick glance down to make sure that she was doing well, and then
focused on his own ascent. The cord went slack and began to sway in their
hands, and he knew that Touma had stopped anchoring it at the bottom in
order to join them in the climb. Hopefully, the Medeans were still taking
their time and regrouping: the three of them were perfect targets against
the dark stone. All it would take was one of the creatures to break the
rope or open fire while they were unable to dodge, and it would be a very
long fall with a very bad ending for all of them.

	He decided not to think about that too much while he was still
stuck halfway up a cliff with no way to do anything about it. Setsuna had
always told him that he was too much of a pessimist for his own good, and
it wasn't like he had much to worry about. What were they going to do,
kill him? He had died years ago: if the courts of the dead hadn't judged
him completely unrepentant and highly recidivist, he would probably have
gotten shuffled off to whatever afterlife he had earned a long time ago.

	There was a flicker of motion on the ridge above them, and
Toshitada's blood ran cold. There was nothing in this entire miserable
world that would do something stupid like be out during the wraithfall
unless it had some serious motivation. The Medeans had already finished
regrouping. Knowing them, they wouldn't just be standing around like a
bunch of idiots waiting for their enemies to reach the top, either - there
was probably another group circling around on the other edge of the canyon
to get a line on them. Looking down, he saw the shadows beneath them begin
to  spread and thicken as dozens of the dark creatures and their porcine
servants rushed out into the rocky terrain below. Down was not an option.

	He reached back with one hand and gently eased his shakujo staff
out from between the straps he had threaded it through before beginning
to climb. The dangling golden rings clinked softly as they bumped against
each other, and he shifted his grip on it as he gauged the distance.

	"What going on, Toshitada?" Makoto asked from somewhere beneath
him, as he lowered the staff and cursed under his breath. There was no way
he could hit any of them from where he was: the angle was all wrong.

	"We have company," he said bitterly, as he let go of the rope and
stepped out into empty space. He hung in midair for a moment, then slowly
tumbled towards the ground below. As he fell, he closed his eyes and tried
to focus whatever powers he might possess. Ever since he had come to this
place, he had been fading in and out of reality, as though the world
itself couldn't seem to decide whether he was a living being or a ghost.

	I am dead, he told himself. I have no body. I am not here. I am as
immaterial as the thinnest gauze, the haziest of veils fluttering in the
breeze. I have no weight.

	I fall only where I choose to fall.

	His sandals touched rock, and Toshitada's eyes snapped open. A
vast and broken plain stretched out before him, and the skies above were
rapidly turning a ghastly shade of green as a vast wall of swirling
ectoplasm churned towards them on all sides. He turned, and saw the
Medeans and their lackeys forming up along the edge of the canyon behind
him. The silent youma warriors were gesturing to their troops with an
emphasis as sharp and menacing as any barked order, and the various
porcine and toad-like creatures lumbered into position to form a crude
firing line. Toshitada Koma had a fleeting moment of regret, as he once
again missed the comforting presence of his own faceless horde.

	Then he was upon them, and there was no more time for pointless
regrets. He swung, and the closest of the piggish beasts fell with a
gurgling squeal as his staff crunched into its skull from behind. Another
of the creatures faced him, its beady eyes widening with shock as he
swung his staff again and caught it in the temple with enough force to
send it to the ground along its comrade. Spinning the shakujo in his
hands, he knocked aside the clumsy spear thrust of his next victim and
then drove the pointed cap of his staff through its chest. With a sharp
flip of his weapon, Toshitada tossed the dying youma off of the end of
his staff and into the arms of its advancing friends. None of these beasts
were especially smart, and they had not been expecting an attack from the
rear. Their confusion would work in his favour, if only for a short time.

	Toshitada ducked as one of the toads swept its halberd over his
head and retaliated with a quick punch that shattered several of its
dagger-like teeth. Spinning on his heel, the monk blocked an overhead
strike from behind him and drove the winged head of his staff into the
attacker's face before turning back to the toad and doubling it over with
a well-placed knee to its stomach. Screaming with rage, one of the porcine
youma tackled him from the side and Toshitada fell hard. He hit the rocky
ground and skidded several feet before another of the toad creatures
leapt on top of him as well, the two youma struggling to claw out his eyes
as he held them off of his body with his staff. A third pair of claws
began scrabbling at him, and then a fourth and a fifth, as more and more
of the monsters gathered around to take advantage of his weakness.

	The shakujo glowed brightly, and the pile of squabbling youma
pulsed suddenly as a silent blast of force sent all five of the creatures
sailing into the air. Shrieking in terror, the youma flew back over the
heads of their fellow troops and plunged over the edge of the canyon.
His staff still smoking, Toshitada kicked his legs and rolled into a
crouching position. Lighting split the sky overhead as he tore loose the
bindings on his hat and cast it aside to reveal his face to his enemies.

	"I am Shutendoji, the Masho of Cruelty," he said, echoing the
words he had spoken on a thousand other battlefields over the centuries.
"Prepare yourselves, for this shall be our first and final battle!"

	As one, the horde of youma raised their weapons and roared their
defiance, rushing forward in a disorganized crowd of slavering fangs and
splintered tusks as they charged towards the lone monk and his faintly
glowing staff. The ground trembled under the force of their advance, and
the skies above churned even faster as arcs of lightning flashed from one
cloud to another in jagged bolts of purple. Toshitada Koma watched them
come, and a part of him exulted in the knowledge that he had managed to
distract them from their goal of attacking Touma and Makoto.

	The rest of him -the part that still answered to the name of
Shutendoji- bellowed an ancient battle cry and ran forward, shakujo held
at the ready as he raced toward the advancing mob of youma.

**********

	"What the heck is going on up there?" Makoto asked Touma as she
gave a worried glance at the top of the cliff. A spear hurtled over the
edge, dropping past the two moments before its owner plunged down after
it with his arms flailing. Despite herself, Makoto found her gaze
following the youma's rapid descent until he disappeared into the shadows
beneath their feet. There was a dull thud, and she winced slightly.

	"I'm pretty sure that Toshitada is buying us some time," Touma
replied, as he climbed up behind her. "We'll need to hurry, though - he's
good, but not good enough to take on a whole army without his armour."

	Wailing helplessly, another youma fell past them, tumbling through
the air as he dropped into the canyon below.

	"On the other hand," Touma admitted with a shrug, "I have been
wrong about him before...."

	Makoto shook her head and sighed, then turned her attention back
to climbing. She still had no idea what she had done to make those spiked
demons and their lackeys so mad at her: all Shutendoji had told her was
that they used to be her own people, back when she was the ruler of
Jupiter. For her own part, Makoto could barely recall anything of her
former life. There were small bits and pieces, fuzzy and incomplete around
the edges, but very little beyond that. It was like trying to recall
a dream years after she had actually had it. She remembered something
about a castle, and she was fairly certain there had been a man in a suit
of white armour at one point, but none of that really helped her at the
moment.

	How could she not remember a whole army of people who wanted her
dead? It seemed like the sort of thing that most girls would have no
problem keeping track of.

	Gripping the arrow that still protruded from the shale at the
top of their rope, Makoto reached up and grabbed a handhold in the jagged
shelves of rock that made up the canyon wall. Touma's shot had been
pretty good; he had only missed the top by about ten feet. Just a few
scraped knees and some bloody palms from the end of their climb, she
reassured herself with a grin as the serrated rocks dug into her hands.
She was not going to just sit around and let Toshitada Koma fight all her
battles - somehow he always managed to make helping people look like he
was insulting them for not being able to handle things on their own.

	A gnarled hand of twisted muscle reached down and grabbed her
wrist, pulling the girl up and bringing her face-to-face with the dark
features and bristling spines of a Medean warrior. Makoto gasped in
surprise and pulled back instinctively, the loose soil crumbling beneath
her heels as she tried to gain her footing and break free. The Medean
scowled and raised its arm high, the whip-like cords of muscle whirling
and reshaping themselves into a curved axe that glinting coldly in the
eerie green light as they struggled. Its grip on her arm was as firm as
if it had been cast in iron, the thorns and barbs in its skin catching on
her flesh like fishhooks as it drew her closer.

	"Vengeance is nigh, traitor," the Medean croaked, its voice
cracking dryly as lightning split the sky overhead. "Your thunder shall
not avail you this time!"

	"So who says I need thunder?" Makoto asked, and punched it in the
face with her free hand. There was a loud crack, and the youma's head
snapped back from the impact. As it staggered, Makoto grabbed the arm that
held her and swung forward, sliding between the creature's legs with its
wrist still gripped in her hands. As she rose to her feet, the girl
wrenched upwards in the youma's trapped arm and sent it somersaulting
over the lip of the canyon. The youma let out a raspy cry of frustration
as it fell, a hail of darts flying from its hands and ringing off of
Makoto's golden tiara before bouncing away harmlessly. Recoiling, the
girl gingerly touched her forehead with her fingertips. That had been a
lot closer than she wanted to admit, she decided, and quickly turned her
attention on the youma closest to her.

	The toad-like youma opened its fanged maw and bellowed as it
slashed at her with its halberd. Stepping aside, Makoto easily caught the
polearm with one hand and brought her other down on its shaft, shattering
the weapon in half and deftly bringing its bladed head around to stab her
attacker in the shoulder. Even as it fell, clutching its arm and mewling
in pain, another of its breed noticed her and charged forward to take its
place. Swatting its weapon aside, Makoto lashed out with a kick that
caught the beast in the forehead. Its bloodshot eyes crossed, and the
youma stumbled back a few feet before suddenly dropping to the ground.

	"I think I'm starting to get the hang of this place," Makoto
said to herself, flipping a stray lock of chestnut hair out of her face
and grinning with satisfaction.

	The ground trembled, and Makoto turned in time to see a wall of
muscle and tusks rushing towards her. Clad in a suit of armour made
entirely from pieces scavenged off of other people, one of the porcine
youma was charging forward with its head low and its yellowed tusks
glinting dangerously. Raising her arms defensively, she braced herself
for the impact as a slim antennae rose from her tiara. The youma hefted
a massive hammer fashioned out of a tree limb and a lump of wrought iron,
swinging the weapon overhead as it trundled on its deadly path.

	"SUPREME THUNDER DRAGON!" she called out, and a shimmering bolt
of lightning lanced from the sky, striking the ground where she stood and
causing an explosion of crackling electricity. Deep within the heart of
the pulsating dome of energy, a shadowy feminine form hovered in midair,
and the charging youma staggered to a halt as it stared in amazement. She
gestured, and a wave of lightning surged outward, its form changing into
the shape of a massive dragon as it caught the youma in its sizzling jaws
and flew off into the depths of the crowd. Dropping back to her feet,
Makoto flipped her ponytail back over her shoulder and kicked aside
another of the creatures as it tried to lunge at her from behind.

	"SPARKLING WIDE PRESSURE!" she cried, and hurled a glowing disc
of lightning into the midst of three more piggish creatures that were
racing towards her with their spears at the ready. The porcine youma
screeched and fell, jittering and shaking as the electricity coursed
through their bodies. Running forward, Makoto vaulted over the fallen
beasts and lashed out at another of the toad creatures, kicking it in the
temple and knocking it to the ground as she turned in search of her next
opponent.

	A whirlwind of thorns hurtled through the air, darting into the
dirt where she had stood moments before as Makoto threw herself out of
the way and rolled to safety behind a craggy boulder. One of the Medean
warriors hissed angrily as it pushed its way through the crowd and
examined its handiwork with obvious frustration. Makoto hissed between
her teeth and glanced down at the long spine jutting from her arm, a thin
trickle of blood slowly making its way from the wound towards her elbow.
Those things were almost *too* good with those barbs of theirs. If she
hadn't seen it preparing to fire at her, she might have wound up skewered.

	The Medean's shadow fell over her, its quills bristling and
standing away from its body as it crested the boulder and glared down
hatefully. One hand shifted and changed into a heavy, curling blade, and
the other seemed to grow and enlarge as the youma's fingers stretched into
wickedly barbed talons. Makoto slowly backed away, lightning buzzing
around her hands futilely as she tried to guess what it would try to do
first. Probably grab her with those claws, to hold her in place while it
chopped at her. If she could duck under that first strike, maybe get her
knee into its ribs or force it to the ground, she might have a chance.

	There was a sudden noise, a meaty thwacking sound that resonated
through the air as the Medean rose to its full height and gurgled
menacingly. Makoto raised her hands defensively as it took a step forward,
then tumbled off of the rock and landed in a heap on the ground below
with a single golden arrow jutting from between its shoulder blades.

	"Makoto! Are you okay?" Touma asked, stepping on top of the rock
where the youma had been moments before and casually drawing another arrow
from the quiver on his back. His silver mask retracted back into the beak
of his helmet, and he smiled down at her nervously.

	"Yep!" Makoto said cheerfully, with a smile of her own. "I'm
doing fine, as usual, senpai! What's up?"

	"I think I found Toshitada," he replied breathlessly, casting a
glance over his shoulder. "At least, I think it's him - most of the
fighting seems to be happening over there. Come on; we're getting out of
here."

	"What's the rush?" Makoto asked, as she took the hand that Touma
was offering and let him help her back onto her feet. "I'm starting to
think we could take these guys!"

	"We probably could," Touma agreed, as he fired another shot into
a toad-like youma that was getting to close to them. "But they've got more
guys coming, and we've got other problems at the moment. Taken a look
around, lately?"

	"I've been a little busy," Makoto said, as she glanced across the
battlefield. She had been wondering why their enemies seemed so chaotic
and disorganized, but she had just assumed that Toshitada Koma was keeping
them too distracted to put up a decent offence. Now, she realised that
there was more going on than just one monk with a stick to keep the youma
from working together. All across the plains, monsters were struggling
and battling with each other, some hacking wildly at their own comrades
as they flailed about in a panicked fury. There were nearly a hundred of
the creatures, and they had all turned on each other! It was almost as
if they had been driven insane....

	"Oh, darn," she said quietly, as she saw things move in the thick
fogs that were sweeping around the edges of the rocky plain. "This is
bad, isn't it?"

	"It's the wraiths," Touma explained, giving her a worried look.
"They're spurring everyone into a frenzy, driving them all mad! Most of
these creatures are too weak-willed to resist their influence. Look, over
there: do you see them?"

	Makoto looked where Touma was pointing, and saw a knot of youma
hacking and slashing at each other. At first, she didn't see anything
particularly special about them, but then a spectral form darted into
view, swooping down out of the sky. The wraith skimmed briefly over the
creatures' heads before diving into their midst and carrying one off,
dragging him screaming back into the depths of the mists. As she watched,
Makoto saw more of the skeletal figures floating through the air, soaring
out of the swirling walls of ectoplasm and darting furtively amongst
the scrabbling youma.

	"My god," she muttered, as she watched them eagerly picking
through the mob, "they're like kids in a candy store!"

	"Yeah, well I don't want to be around when they get here," Touma
interjected, pulling Makoto after him as he hopped down from the boulder
and charged into the milling crowd. "We need to get to Toshitada! His
shakujo should be able to keep them at bay for a while!"

	"How can he do that?" Makoto asked, as she and Touma fought their
way through the mob. Most of the youma were so crazed that they barely
even noticed the two humans in their midst, preferring instead to dig
their claws and blades into each other. The biggest problem was clearing
a path through the frenzied creatures, punching and kicking and climbing
over people in their hurry to escape. Touma swung his bow like a club,
beating youma aside with the heavy metal weapon as Makoto made her way
through with fists and elbows. A chill ran down her back as one of the
wraiths dove past her, gibbering wildly. Touma turned and fired an arrow
in its direction, but the ghastly figure merely floated off with a shrill
cackle.

	"Unhand me, fools!" a voice screeched in the distance, as Touma
and Makoto worked their way through the crowd. "You think to chain the
mighty Shutendoji? Pathetic vermin! I'll crush you all!"

	A youma fell through the crowd, landing heavily on the ground and
bouncing back into the air before falling back to earth. The wall of youma
parted before them, and Makoto elbowed one of the toad-like monsters aside
to see what was going on.

	Toshitada Koma lay flat on the ground, one of the porcine youma
standing on top of his head. His captor was clenching a thick chain that
had been somehow wrapped around the monk's throat and another of the
youma had forced one of his arms behind his back, while three more were
piled on top of his legs in order to pin him down. Toshitada's robes were
tattered, and his free arm had been shackled. None of the creatures had
been able to take hold of the chain attached to that iron, however, as
Toshitada was flailing about and cracking it like a whip into the faces
of any youma that got close enough to grab for it.

	"I vow," he growled, "this indignity will not be forgotten! Swine!
Fools! Vermin! Your every action only dooms you to a slow and painful
demise! Your misery shall be like wine to me! I shall feast upon your
pain! Release me now, or my wrath shall have no limit!"

	"Have the wraiths gotten to him?" Makoto asked, giving Touma a
concerned look.

	"No, he just gets cranky when he's losing," Touma reassured her,
as he fired an arrow into the throat of the youma standing on Toshitada's
skull.

	Knocking aside his other captors, Toshitada bolted to his feet
with a triumphant roar. As the youma that had held his arm tried to flee,
the slender monk swung one arm and caused the chains of his shackle to
unfurl, snaking them around his enemy's neck as though they were a part of
his body. Toshitada grabbed the steel links with his other hand, reeling
the struggling beast back towards him as its kicking feet dug furrows in
the thin soil.

	"You thought to chain one of the Masho of the Dynasty?" he ranted,
clutching the youma by the face and hefting it easily off of its feet.
"You IGNORANT, fetid piece of slime! Did you think you would escape so
easily? I am going to FEED these chains to you, slime, and I promise you
will savour every bite compared to what comes afterwards...."

	"Toshitada, we're a little short on time, here," Touma interjected
as he hurried past. "Besides, you're supposed to be one of the good guys
now, remember? Stuff like that is bad karma."

	"A valid point," Toshitada admitted, as he released the youma and
let it fall to his feet. Quickly stooping down, the monk retrieved his
shakujo staff and straw hat from the ground. Dusting some dirt from the
brim, he carefully placed the hat upon his head and shouldered the shakujo
before following after Touma.

	"Come on, Toshitada," Makoto said tiredly, as she walked past him.
"We don't want Touma to get too far ahead of us - especially since I'm not
too sure where he's going."

	"I don't need to know where he's going to know we won't like it,"
Toshitada grumbled, as he fell into step behind her. "He may be a genius,
but that boy has the survival instincts of a lemming."

	"This coming from the guy who was going mental on an entire army
of monsters a few minutes ago!" Makoto rolled her eyes dramatically and
shook her head as she forced her way past a trio of battling youma. "What
was going on back there, anyway?"

	"Let's just say that old habits die hard," Toshitada admitted
sullenly, "and that it's probably best to let them. Believe it or not, I
used to be slightly maladjusted."

	"What, you? No way."

	"Regardless, this place is not exactly conducive to mental
health," Toshitada concluded. "The sooner we are shut of this place, the
better. I, for one, could use the respite."

	"Why are you even here?" Makoto asked curiously. "I mean, as far
as I can tell you hate Touma, you don't like me very much, and it kinda
seems like you'd rather be anywhere else. So why bother coming in the
first place?"

	"Because as hard as you may find it to understand, some things are
more important than our personal desires," Toshitada snapped in reply.
"Whether or not I like any of you doesn't have anything to do with it.
There are dark forces at work in our world, Sailor Jupiter, and if they
have their way we will all be in a great deal of trouble. I gave up more
than you could ever imagine to save this universe once, and I intend to
make sure that it *remains* saved. Without the two of you to help them,
there is no telling how badly your teams are faring against this threat."

	"Our teams? Wait a minute, are you saying that the rest of the
Sailor Senshi are in danger, too?"

	"Your capture by Fei Lian was merely the opening gambit in this
battle, Princess. With a killer like Xiang Yao on the loose, we can only
imagine what kind of things she may already have done."

**********

	The Bluff Clinic was a small building, barely two stories high
and only a little larger than an average house. It sat happily wedged
between three schools and two churches, in one of the quietest and most
peaceful parts of Yokohama. On the other side of the street stretched
Motomachi, one of the many small parks that dotted the area like small
islands of greenery amongst the concrete. The Marine Tower stood in the
distance, rising above the trees and shrubbery of the park with a majesty
that could not be denied even from such a distance.

	At the moment, Doctor Tsunehiro Akashi could not care less how
calm and relaxing his practice was supposed to be. In his small operating
theatre, the usually gregarious and sprightly man hunched over the comatose
form of a young girl who had been brought in only moments earlier. Her
friends had burst out of the park at a dead run, carrying her over their
shoulders and racing as if their lives depended on reaching his offices
before he closed.

	According to her friends, her name was Rei Hino, and she was
clearly suffering from some kind of ailment well beyond anything the few
scrapes and bruises on her body might be responsible for. The girl had
been listless and unresponsive from the moment that she had arrived and
he had begun his examination - her pupils were so constricted that they
looked like pinpricks, and her skin was cold and clammy to the touch. She
was also very pale; he had already drawn a few blood samples and had one
of his fellow doctors preparing the laboratory for a hemogram. He needed to
be in the lab looking at her platelet count, not dithering around in the
exam room.

	Gingerly removing the earpieces of his stethoscope, he coiled it
in his hands and draped it around his neck before stepping outside to face
the inevitable.

	The inevitable was sitting impatiently on the edge of her chair,
clenched fists held tightly in her lap as she rocked back and forth
slightly. As soon as he stepped back into the main room, she bolted to her
feet and rushed over to him, her twin pigtails flapping behind her and her
blue eyes wide with barely hidden concern.

	"Is she going to be all right?" the girl -Usagi, he recalled-
asked, skidding to a stop in from of him and staring up at him with the
same pleading eyes he always got from his patient's loved ones. "You
figured out what's wrong with her, didn't you? Shuu said that you were the
best doctor in the whole city, so I just *know* you're going to make sure
Rei's okay, aren't you?"

	"Sorry," he said with an nervous smile. "I need to do some more
tests to be sure. She seems to have some kind of blood disease, or
possibly poison. I won't know any more until I've had a chance to go over
these tests. In the meantime, I have made her comfortable and given her
something to help her rest while we figure out what to do next."

	"Have you considered activated charcoal?" another of the girls
asked, rising from her seat and smoothing her short blue skirt with her
hands as she stood. "If it's a poison, that might be able to slow the
absorption...."

	"We've given her activated charcoal," he assured them both, "and
we've also given her a dose of Mucomyst, to bolster her immune system.
I am concerned that she may need to go on dialysis, if her kidneys fail.
This is just a small clinic... there is only so much that we can do. I
can recommend her to a hospital if you would prefer, call for an
ambulance...."

	"No," one of the other kids in his waiting room said emphatically,
as he walked over to join the girls in circling the doctor. "My father
told me that you were the best in all of Yokohama, Doctor Akashi. When he
was diagnosed with cancer last year, nobody else in the city gave him more
than a few months; after just three visits you had him well enough to work
again! If anybody can help her, I know you can."

	"You flatter me," Doctor Akashi said with an embarrassed bob of his
head, "but this is the not the same as your father's illness, Shuu. I
can't promise the same results."

	"If Shuu says we can trust you, then you're the man for the job,"
another of the boys said from where he was leaning against one of the
walls. He had his hands in his pockets, and his unruly black hair framed a
face with surprisingly stern features for one so young. He met the
doctor's gaze, and Tsunehiro blinked in surprise at the intensity of the
boy's stare. "We've got total faith in you, doc. Just tell us anything we
can do to help."

	"I will do my best not to let you down," the doctor promised,
easing his way past the teens who were crowding around him and heading
towards the laboratory that had was waiting for him. Partway there, he
paused. "Actually, there is one thing you might be able to do for me: if
your friend has been exposed to something that has affected her, then it
would be very helpful if we could get a sample of it to test. That might
save us a great deal of time in her treatment. Is there any chance that one
of you might be able to go back to where she first showed her symptoms and
look for anything that seems strange or out of place?"

	"You heard him," Usagi said brusquely. "Ami, take Ryo, Shuu, and
Shin with you and go back to where we found Rei. If there's anything there
that we can use...."

	"I'll find it," Ami said reassuringly, as Ryo and Shuu walked over
to stand behind her protectively. "I just hope their systems here will be
compatible with my computer."

	"And we'll make sure nothing distracts her," Shuu promised. "Right,
Shin?"

	"I'm not going," Shin said quietly.

	"What?" Shuu looked first at Shin, then glanced at Ryo, then back
at Shin again, a confused look in his eyes. "What are you talking about,
Shin? You've gotta come!"

	"No," Shin replied, rising to his feet and folding his arms across
his chest. "I'm staying here with Usagi and Rei. You guys don't need me
there
messing things up any further than I already have."

	"Aw, come on!" Shuu objected. "You're being crazy, Shin! Ryo, tell
him  he's got to come with us, or he'll be moping around here all night!"

	"Let him do whatever he wants," Ryo decided, as he headed back
towards the exit. "Shin's cool, Shuu: if he thinks he should stay, then
that's what he needs to do."

	"Besides," Ami mentioned thoughtfully," someone really should make
sure that Usagi remembers to get her arm checked out, too."

	"Ami! This is no time to worry about me! Rei needs help!"

	"WE'RE helping Rei," Ami argued, "and you'll be able to take care
of her a lot better if you're at full health! I'm sure Doctor Akashi can
find time to have someone examine that bite you got. At the very least, you
should get a tetanus shot."

	"Ah, nutbunnies," Usagi grumbled, rubbing her arm self-consciously
as she gave the doctor a suddenly suspicious glance. "Do I have to?"

	"I'll take care of her," Shin promised, as he waved farewell to
the other teens. "And I'll keep an eye on Rei, too, just in case. You guys
just go do what you need to do, okay? We've got everything under control."

**********

	"They'll never come after us in here," Touma said, as he forced
the massive gate shut behind them and slammed the heavy bars in place to
lock the doors. "Even the wraiths avoid the Castle of Eternal Regret."

	"I can see why," Makoto muttered, as she took a look around the
courtyard. What had once been an orderly garden had long ago been
overgrown into a dark and tangled snarl of dead trees and creeping vines.
Weathered statues jutted haphazardly from the cracked and unsteady tiles
that still creaked and groaned beneath their feet as they moved through
the tall grass and thick shrubs that choked everything in sight. Each
statue was of a soldier, their armour uniform only in their ugliness and
the obvious menace that radiated from each figure even as they lay
scattered about in disrepair. Something in the depths of the small jungle
croaked deeply, and a dark shape flapped between the trees before
disappearing into the darkness.

	"Lovely," Toshitada said sarcastically, as he tilted his hat back
on his head and peered into the omnipresent gloom. "Have I ever told you
about the survival instincts of the common lemming, Touma? There is much
that you could learn from them."

	"What do you want from me?" Touma asked, as he joined his partners
and began to thrash forward through the brush. "We got away from the army
of insane youma, didn't we? Not to mention the wraiths. All in all, I
think we're doing pretty good so far."

	"Haven't any of you people noticed yet that every time we escape
from something, we end up someplace worse?" Toshitada asked, as he fell
into step behind the armoured youth. "At this rate, we'll all be crawling
into the safety of Arago's own gullet before the night is through."

	"Give him a break," Makoto suggested, as she followed behind the
red-haired monk. "Touma's been doing a pretty good job of looking after
everybody so far, if you ask me. We're all still alive, right?"

	"Oh, of course YOU would say that," Toshitada grumbled. "Your
precious senpai can do no wrong, can he? Incidentally, how are those
Physics lessons going? Learned anything yet?"

	"We'll hit the books when we get home," Touma said confidently,
as he led them through the underbrush. "Don't you worry, Makoto: I still
haven't forgotten about your paper. Once we're out of here, it's straight
to the library for us: we're going to have to cram like crazy to make up for
this study break."

	"You call getting stuck in an alien dimension a study break?" Makoto
asked incredulously. "Remind me to show you what a break really looks like
as soon as you figure out how to get us back where we belong. We are
totally going to have to hit the arcade."

	"Sounds like a date," Touma joked, "but if you think I'll be a
pushover, you haven't checked any of the video parlours in Osaka. You're
looking at the best gamer in southern Japan, Mako-chan! And once I win,
it's straight back to the books, deal?"

	"Who says you're going to win? I'm not exactly a pushover,
either."

	"Yeah, whatever. Pick your poison, Makoto: any game, any time."

	"Arm-wrestling simulator," she said, grinning smugly.

	"What? No fair!" Touma Objected.

	"You said any game," Makoto retorted, sticking her tongue out at
him. "That's a game. I'll even give you best two out of three, deal? And
once *I* win, we can talk about a rematch over parfaits."

	"I swear to all that is holy," Toshitada groaned, "if you two
don't stop right now, I will kill you both myself and spare this place
the trouble. Could we please just walk in silence for a while?"

	"Probably not," Touma reasoned. "I think I just found another
door. Mind throwing a little light on the subject?"

	Lifting his shakujo obediently, Toshitada pointed the staff in
Touma's direction. The golden bulb on its tip shone with a brilliant
light that cast aside the shadows which had been clinging to them, and
revealed a large wooden pair of double doors that were heavily covered
by vines and other detritus. Touma carefully pawed aside some of the
thicker growths, rapping his armoured knuckles against its battered
surface. The blue-haired boy grinned enthusiastically as the doors boomed
like a kettle drum under his knocking fist.

	"Oh, yeah," he said with satisfaction, "this is definitely a door.
Unless I'm mistaken, these should be the doors to the great hall. Judging
by the architectural design of the overall structure, there should be a
big open area right on the other side of these babies."

	"And we are going to get through them how, exactly?" Toshitada
asked, raising one arched eyebrow with legitimate interest. "In case you
have failed to notice, these particular doors are shut tight. What miracle
shall we produce to convince them to open?"

	"Looks like a pretty standard lock," Makoto replied, as she knelt
next to Touma and gingerly prodded the heavy iron latch with one finger.
Reaching up behind her head, she fidgeted with the bindings of her thick
ponytail and pulled free a long pin. "I could probably get this thing
open in my sleep, if I still remember how."

	"You know how to pick locks?" Touma asked curiously. "Where in the
world would a girl like you learn how to do something like-"

	"You can ask questions, or you can lend me something to turn the
cylinder while I move these tumblers," Makoto interjected, as she
carefully inserted her hairpins into the large lock and began to
manipulate it.

	"My word, you're a regular delinquent!" Toshitada said in
amazement, as he watched Makoto work on the lock. "I may have to take back
some of things I've said about you, Princess."

	"Don't mention it," she replied. "And I mean, like, EVER. To
ANYBODY. Understand?" With a resounding clack, the lock snapped open.
Pulling her pins out of the keyhole, Makoto pressed her face against the
surface of the doors and peered through the thin crack between them.

	"It's barred on the other side," she said after a moment's
observation. "There's a bit of give in these doors, though - I think I can
get one of your arrows through the crack and use it to lift the bar off
its hooks. It won't break, will it?"

	"I don't know," Touma said, handing her an arrow. "I've never really
used any of this stuff for breaking and entering before."

	"That's because you're not very creative," Toshitada commented.

	"This doesn't really seem like the sort of thing our spirit guide
should be encouraging," Touma retorted, placing his hands on his hips.

	"Get over it," Toshitada replied with a snort. "It's called 'doing
what works'. You dunderheads might benefit from trying it every once in a
while. Are you feeling more spiritually guided now?"

	"I got it!" Makoto said triumphantly, as something fell to the
ground on the other side of the doors with a loud clatter. Pushing her
shoulder against the twin doors, the tall brunette slowly forced them
inward with a screech of badly rusted hinges.

	"We'd better get inside," Touma said, looking up at the swirling
sky above them with a worried look on his face. "It's looking worse up
there, and I don't want to be caught outdoors by any of those wraiths. It
was bad enough when they dragged us here: I don't want to know where else
they take people."

**********

	Perinne Etrange woke up cold. Considering her location, that was
not too much of a surprise to her, but it was still very offensive. Right
about now, she thought as she burrowed deeper beneath the piles of
reflective blankets and packing material, she should be opening her
beauty shop for the day and waiting for her first customers. Tokyo was in
the middle of a heat wave, and it was murder on her clients' hairstyles.
They would probably be lined up at her door; yammering in their mobile
phones, clutching their tiny little dogs, and tapping their ludicrously
high heels in anticipation.

	On second thought, freezing her butt off in the middle of the
polar ice cap was starting to seem like the better option, after all. At
least there wouldn't be anyone on top of a glacial ice shelf who would be
wanting her to fetch and carry for them.

	"Are you going to stay in bed all day, or are you going to get these
scanning devices out of the rigging for me? We've only got another three
months of daylight up here, and you're wasting them with sleep!"

	Perrine scowled as she sat up and pulled the covers away from her
face. Somehow, in the middle of all her slumber, she had managed to forget
that there was at least one person around who still thought fetching and
carrying were the perfect chores for her. She might have said that Kaori was
a pain in the neck to work with, but only if she was the sort of person who
would describe getting stuck in a plane crash as a 'slight inconvenience'.

	"Come on, Petz! If you think I'm going to let a slight inconvenience
slow us down, you have no idea who you're working with! Planes fall out of
the sky all of the time: the important thing is that none of the gear seems
to have been damaged." There was the sound of metal clanking against metal,
and the snow crunched wetly as something heavy slammed into it. Moments
later Kaori Kuromine walked around to the open door of the fuselage, her
crimson hair whipping around her slender frame in the harsh Arctic wind. She
had changed out of her usual 'mistress of the night' garb, and was instead
wearing what appeared to be a bright red halter dress with a neckline that
stopped somewhere around her belt buckle. Her only concession to the cold
was a ratty-looking old lab coat that she had draped over her shoulders like
a cape.

	"Kaori, it's the middle of the night. I am asking you nicely to go
away."

	"It's morning in Japan, and we're wasting daylight," Kaori replied
sternly, as she placed her hands on her hips and glared at her partner. "The
Professor is counting on us to get to the Dark Kingdom in time to meet up
with those strange alien children, and we are behind schedule!"

	"Getting attacked by dinosaurs does that to people," Perrine
grumbled. "I'm sure this Professor of yours will understand. I'm going back
to sleep now: you do whatever you think is necessary."

	"Petz...."

	"Oh, look how warm and comfortable I am under these covers. I think
I could stay here for hours."

	"Dammit, Petz! I can't move all these things by myself!"

	"You body slammed a brachiosaur last night. You'll manage."

	Kaori sighed in exasperation. "I need your help, Perinne. Please?"

	Perinne smiled and gently her head out of the covers. "Make me
breakfast, and we'll talk. I don't work on an empty stomach."

	"Coffee's already boiling," Kaori replied with a grateful smirk.
"And I've started some soup, if you don't mind taking something that I had
a hand in cooking."

	"It's not going to turn me into a newt, is it?"

	"Not if I remembered to rinse out my cauldron," Kaori promised with
a wicked glint in her eyes. "I guess you'll have to try some and find out
the hard way, won't you?"

	Chuckling softly, Perinne kicked off her covers and shuddered as the
cold wind bit into her exposed skin. The green-haired woman cursed and tried
to rub some feeling into her suddenly numb flesh as she looked around for
some kind of clothing. Her costume from last night was completely out of the
question: one quick prod with her bare foot was enough to prove that her
usual ensemble of leather and feathers had stiffened in the cold until it
had all the flexibility of a steel plate. She grabbed a fistful of blankets
and wrapped them around herself, shivering as she stepped over the equally
frozen black gown that Kaori had been wearing and began searching for the
luggage that contained her other clothes. She could always generate an
electrical field powerful enough to keep away the elements and let her own
body heat keep her warm, but at the moment that seemed like far too much
work. Why had stupid Kaori needed to leave that damned door open, anyway?
It was turning the whole plane into an icebox.

	After a few minutes of searching, Perinne located her suitcase and
flipped it open. She hadn't exactly had a lot of time to pack, but at least
she had been smart enough to bring a few changes of clothes and some spare
costumes, just in case. After selecting a black turtleneck and a pair of
dull grey khakis, she dressed as quickly as possible. A pair of leather
gloves and a white scarf were added as an afterthought, and she only
hesitated for a few moments before she shrugged into the midnight blue
jacket with its glittering silver spangles. She had mostly brought it for
moral support, but in this weather she would take whatever help she could
get.

	Properly garbed, she hauled herself out of the plane and out onto
the icy fields of the Milne Ice Shelf, a miserable expanse of snow whose
only redeeming feature as far as she and Kaori were concerned was its close
proximity to something called 'D Point'. Professor Tomoe had been a little
vague on exactly what it was or how it worked, but all that mattered to them
was that it was supposed to be some kind of portal into the Dark Kingdom.

	Kaori was already setting up the first of the devices when Perinne
emerged. The machine was built like a metal spear with a small television
screen mounted on top of it and a pair of solar panels on either side. As
she watched, the crimson-haired woman drove its pointed tip into the surface
of the ice and the device began to whir as it anchored itself. With an
almost comical springing noise, a trio of antennae suddenly flew into
position, and a small satellite dish mounted between them started to spin
rapidly and make small beeping sounds.

	"What the hell is that thing?" Perinne asked. She had asked the same
question when they had been packing it aboard the plane a few days earlier,
but Kaori had not been very forthcoming.

	"It's an aetheral spectrometer," Kaori said, as though telling an
exceptionally slow child what colour the sky was. "It draws in samples of
the electromagnetic and aetheral fields in the surrounding area and allows
for real time sampling of supernatural forces that may be influencing the
turbulence on the astral plane. And we have about six more of them to set 
up,
not to mention calibrate."

	"Wait a minute... there wasn't enough time for you to build anything
like this before we left. Are you telling me that you and this Professor of
yours just had these things lying around?"

	"Amongst other gear, yes," Kaori said, nodding in agreement.
Noticing the strange look her partner was giving her, Kaori straightened and
folded her arms primly across her chest. "I'm sorry, darling, but if you
wanted sane and rational scientists, you should have checked our resumes
more carefully. Now would you mind helping me get the rest of these in
place? I still have to connect the fiber optic cables and sanctify the
ground with the proper runic symbols before they can work properly."

	"Fair enough," Perrine admitted, as helped herself to a small pot of
coffee that was hanging over a steaming black cauldron. The fact there was
no fire under said cauldron was a bit disconcerting, but she had to admit
that the coffee was still pretty good. A few feet away, the aetheral
whatchamacallit made a series of beeping and clicking noises that sounded
like something out of a bad science fiction movie, and then focused its
attention on her.

	"Fascinating," Kaori said, looking at the screen. "I had no idea
your aura was so strong, Petz. You must have a great deal of power trapped
inside of you. Strongly elemental power, too, I see. No wonder you were able
to harm that dinosaur with your thunderbolts. This could prove useful to us
when we need to locate Sailor Jupiter... were you aware how similar your
signature is to hers?"

	"We have a few things in common," Petz admitted. With a final gulp,
she finished her drink and set her cup down on the crumpled wing of the
plane.

	"More than just a few," Kaori clarified, as she kneeled back over
the glowing screen and began to type frantically on a small keyboard that
she had plugged into the base of the monitor. "This is one of the most
blatant examples of the law of similarities I've seen in ages. I think I
see how Elios gave you back your powers, Petz - he just took advantage of
your morphic resonance with Sailor Jupiter and used his magic to nudge you
into closer concert with her. Simple law of association, really: commonality
always wins. I probably could have done the same, but it would have taken
weeks of trial and error - to say nothing of all the equipment I would
require. That is some very complicated eldritch manipulation for someone of
his youth! When this is all over I shall have to remember to interview him.
Or dissect him. One of the two."

	"Hey, what do I care? Strap him down and pump him full of happy
juice, if you want to: I won't interfere. I'm still pretty sure that I
should have clocked the little freak with my baseball bat the moment I laid
eyes on him."

	"The point is, I can use you as a focus in my tracking spells once
we get to the Dark Kingdom and it should lead us straight to wherever
they're hiding Sailor Jupiter. All we have to do here is get everything
set up, and I'll try to see if I can't convince the universe that you and
I belong somewhere very far away."

	"I just hope that the other team hasn't run into as many problems as
we have," Petz said bitterly as she retrieved another of the long metal
devices from the cargo netting inside the plane and struggled to drag it out
into the snow. "There's no telling how much trouble they've got into out
there."

**********

	"Do you guys have to be so mean?" the youma asked, scuffing her
heels as she shuffled along the meandering path. Like her slightly older
sister, she was dressed in a pale tan uniform with darker slashes that ran
along her sleeves and leggings, with a large pair of circular saws mounted
on her shoulders. Unlike her sibling, her rust-coloured hair hung over
her left eye, as opposed to her right. Also unlike her sibling, she had
been pouting for the last hour.

	"We're not mean," Ail assured her with a gentle smile as tightened
the ropes around her wrists. A few feet away, his partner Ann was doing
the same to the other two youma they had captured. "We're just...
eminently practical."

	"It's not fair," his captive whined. "You guys have no right to be
doing this! You're the ones who were trespassing - we were just doing
what we were supposed to do!"

	"You picked a fight with the wrong people," Ann said impatiently,
as she scowled in the direction of the cloaked youma who floated
sullenly beside her. He had been trussed up like a Christmas present,
with all four of his limbs tied to each other and then bound tightly to
his sides until his entire body was cocooned in rope. His eyes narrowed
as he noticed her looking at him, and his bindings creaked softly as he
struggled against them.

	"Besides, we can be downright friendly, once you get to know us,"
Ail added with a boyish grin. Stepping back to examine his handiwork, the
elfin lad ran his fingers through his pale blue hair and struck a jaunty
pose.

	"For example," Ann added sourly, as she picked up the floating
youma by the length of rope that dangled from his bindings and towed him
over to where the rest of their prisoners were seated, "we could have just
killed all three of you, like I wanted to."

	"Better to die than face this humiliation," the cloaked figure
grumbled bitterly.

	"There's still time for a recount, Kamisori," Ann reminded him,
and he sank noticeably.

	"You know, I don't think you ever told us your name," Ail said to
the girl as he finished working on her knots and gestured for her to
continue marching. "In all the confusion, it completely slipped my mind
to ask."

	"I'm Balam," the girl replied, and motioned towards her twin with
a jerk of her head. "That's my older sister Para. We're the Terra Twins."

	"Your name is Para Terra?" Ann asked with a raised eyebrow.

	"I'm not the one who picked it," Para replied with a growl.

	"That was our dad," Balam said with a sigh. "The less said about
him the better. If he knew we were out here...."

	Para shuddered. "Don't even mention it - we're better off with
these two."

	"I don't think I like being the lesser of two evils," Ann said to
Ail with a girlish pout.

	"It is a new experience for you," Ail agreed, as the two elfin
youths led their prisoners over a large rise of rocky ground. As they
walked, they slowly became aware of a constant thumping sound: it was faint
at first, but grew steadily louder the longer they walked. After several
minutes, the relentless pounding was joined by a sharp cracking sound
that echoed through the rocky terrain.

	"That is a very disturbing noise," Ail admitted, turning to Ann
and giving her a worried look. "Sounds kind of like someone hitting a
tree, don't you think?"

	"Sounds more like a tree getting revenge," Ann said warily.

	Another deafening thump filled the air, and a thick cloud of
dust wafted out from around the corner. A caped figure darted into view,
stumbling backwards and ricocheting off of one of the standing boulders.
After a moment draped against the stony face of the giant rock, the man
lurched forward and flicked his cloak back with a practiced turn on his
wrist. Slowly, he wiped a trickle of blood from the corner of his mouth
and stared at his gloved fingers as though he was not entirely sure what
he was looking at.

	"Not bad," he said. "You're definitely showing some improvement,
Takenoko. Let's try it again, only this time see if you can-" Noticing
the two elfin youths and their captives, his golden eyes narrowed
dangerously.

	"That's Korran," Balam said helpfully. "You're probably not going
to like him very much."

	"There is a small chance that you have a good reason for
placing my comrades in bonds," Korran admitted calmly. "Release them
immediately, and I may agree to listen to it."

	"That's very nice of you," Ail said agreeably. "You know, most guys
would not give me a chance to say something like - MINOTARON! ATTACK!"

	With a bellow, the cardian leapt over the captive youma and dove
towards Korran, her long ivory horns gleaming in the sun and her fangs
bared. Looking up at the muscular woman as she descended, Korran gathered
his cape up around himself and stepped easily out of the way. Minotaron
landed hard enough to shake the ground, and a large cloud of dust filled
the air around her before she rose to her full height and glared down at
the caped swordsman. She stood almost three heads taller than Korran, and
he was not a short man. Her eyes were the colour of blood, and her skin bore
a faint blue sheen that contrasted with the auburn tone of her hair. With a
dismissive snort, she bowed her head and prepared to charge at him again.

	"Falion, get over here and take this guy out!" Ann ordered. There
was a sudden roar, and a white-furred leonine cardian leapt from her perch
on the lip of the canyon, where she had been keeping pace with the group.
Korran dodged her strike and lashed out with his sword, the humming blade
passing through thin air as Falion dropped to all fours and tackled him.
Korran gasped for breath as six feet of furred muscle slammed into the
stomach and drove him back, her claws raking against the surface of his
armour and gouging deep furrows in the metal.

	"Hey, don't just stand there looking impressive!" Ail shouted at
Minotaron, who gave him a disgusted look. "Get over there and help out!"

	"Quick, while he's off balance!" Ann yelled, pointing into the sky
above them at a distant speck amongst the clouds. "Finish it, Gigaros!
Falling Bomber Attack, now!"

	Korran glanced up and saw the rapidly approaching figure of a winged
woman clad in a white toga with golden armour on her arms and legs. She was
trembling as she fell, and her wild mane of orange hair streaked straight
back behind her like the flames of a falling rocket. There was a faint glow
forming around her body, and the air was filled with a distinctive moaning
sound.

	"Oh, no," Korran said quietly. "I think not." Bracing his feet, the
youma pressed the flat of his hand against Falion's abdomen. There was a
muffled explosion, and the lion-like cardian went tumbling backwards
trailing smoke. Struggling to her feet, the feline creature shifted out of
her lion form into a slightly more humanoid shape and shakily rose to her
feet. Korran wrapped his cape around himself and abruptly blinked out of
existence, appearing behind Falion only long enough to kick her in the
spine and drive her into the spot where he had been standing moments
before Gigaros plummeted headfirst into the ground.

	There was a sudden bright flash, and the shockwave shuddered through
the canyon with enough force to knock all of the combatants sprawling. Ann
scrambled back onto her feet, staring in disbelief as the smoke cleared to
reveal both Falion and Gigaros lying on the ground in the centre of a small
crater, completely unconscious. The air tore and shimmered abruptly, and
Korran appeared floating above the fallen cardians.

	"Shall we end this farce now?" he asked, sounding almost bored. "My
reinforcements shall be arriving very shortly, and yours are growing fewer
by the minute. Accept your defeat."

	"Why should we?" Ann spat angrily. "Ever since we got here, you
people have been attacking us! What makes you think we'll just give in to
you, when all you want to do is talk about all the horrible things you're
going to do to us just for being here?"

	"Well," Korran reasoned, "I hate to bring it up, but I *am* planning
to incinerate your two little friends down there if you don't."

	"What? But... but they're completely helpless!"

	"Yes, that does make it easier, doesn't it? Thank you for pointing
that out to me." Korran smiled coldly. "Really, now - you didn't think we
were *all* going to be as weak as those three fools you captured, did you?
I am of the nobility, stranger, and I am more than willing to murder anyone
who tries to get in my way. It's sort of a defining trait amongst my kind."

	"Minotaron!" Ail ordered from where he was still lying prone. "DO
SOMETHING TO THAT GUY, WOULD YOU? Quit standing around!"

	"Yes," Korran admitted from where he was floating, "I would be most
interested to see whether my recent training has been to any advantage. By
all means, Minotaron, do something."

	The cardian looked up at Korran, then over at Ail and Ann. Turning
back to face Korran, she shook her horned head and snorted softly, clenching
her fists and stamping the ground with one hoof experimentally.

	"Yeah, that's right!" Ail said encouragingly. "You can do it! Don't
think about how easily he just wiped out those other two! I'm sure that
won't happen twice!"

	"Ail, stop encouraging her," Ann groaned. "It's not as effective as
you think it is."

	Steeling her nerve, Minotaron crouched low to the ground and began
to charge. Korran flinched back slightly as she thundered towards him, then
relaxed as she passed beneath his feet without even trying to attack and
just kept running away.

	"Well," the youma said with a smirk, "it looks like the Minotaur is
the smartest one of the whole group. Then again, considering that I'm
dealing with two children who let their minions do all their fighting and
two lackeys who weren't able to keep out of their own crossfire, maybe I
shouldn't be surprised."

	"I think you're about to be," Ail suggested amiably. "She's almost
halfway up that cliff, now."

	"What?" Korran turned and looked behind him just as Minotaron kicked
off of the canyon wall and launched herself at him like a dart. Korran
reached for his cape to teleport out of the way and Minotaron's horns
suddenly extended to five times their length, slamming into his stomach and
punching through his armour even as the rest of her body caught up to him
and sent them both tumbling to the rocks below. The youma hit the ground
hard enough to bounce, skidding several feet as Minotaron rode him like a
human sled, her knees dug firmly into his ribs. Kneeling on his chest,
Minotaron sat up and began raining punches down onto his face like a
schoolyard bully.

	"TAKENOKO!" Korran cried out, as the cardian pummeled his face with
blow after blow, driving his head back into the rocks with each punch.
"HELP!"

	Loping along at a leisurely pace, a youma rounded the corner and
began to stroll towards the fight. Like Minotaron he was a minotaur, if one
that had a much better chance of being mistaken for a geographical feature.
To call him large would have been an insult: he had passed 'large' such a
long time ago that he was beginning to close in on 'tremendously huge' with
very little effort. Ail and Ann watched in stunned amazement as almost
eight feet of solid muscle on hooves the size of dinner plates very
casually sauntered towards them. Takenoko was not the sort of youma who
needed to hurry very often: any fight that was still there when he
arrived was not going to want to be for much longer. He was carrying what
appeared to be a tree in one hand, as though his massive, curved iron horns
might not be enough to handle whatever he happened across. He glanced over
at where Minotaron was still pounding on Korran, and a smile stretched
across his broad features.

	"Hey!" he said, sounding pleased. "Looks like the new boss has
finally started hiring some REAL women around here! About time, too."

	"Would you mind hurrying up?" Korran shouted. "She's trying to turn
my skull into a pancake!"

	"Yeah, she's a little spitfire, isn't she?" Takenoko said with a
chuckle. Walking over to where she was sitting on top of his partner,
Takenoko casually grabbed the cardian by one horn and hauled her into the
air, kicking and swinging fruitlessly.

	"Now you simmer down, and I'll let you go," he said patiently.
"Really, what's a refined lady like you doing wasting your time with a puny
little wimp like Korran, anyway? He ain't good for no sparring!"

	"I think she may have dislocated my FACE," Korran moaned, rubbing
his jaw painfully as he sat up.

	"Yeah, they'll do that," Takenoko noted wisely, nodding his head as
he gingerly lowered Minotaron to the ground. Standing next to each other,
the cardian seemed almost... dainty. Clenching her fist, she punched the
other minotaur in the chest as hard as she could, and the sound of the
impact echoed through the valley.

	"So," Takenoko asked, as if nothing had happened, "what's the big
deal, chief? You sounded real upset, there."

	"Oh, nothing," Korran said with an exasperated sigh. "I suppose if I
pointed out that your little friend there was trying to turn me into paste,
you'd just feel...."

	"Jealous," Takenoko responded, giving Minotaron one of his most
charming smiles as she rolled her eyes and looked the other way with a
derisive snort. "Little lady like this, a guy should feel honoured to get
his butt handed to him. So, who do you need me to squish?"

	"We're willing to go quietly now," Ail said quickly. "Is that still
an option?"

**********

	"Oh great," Makoto muttered as they entered the castle's front
parlour, "this place just does everything in its power to make us feel all
comfy and at home, doesn't it?"

	"I think I played this game once," Touma commented as he began to
slowly walk around the massive room with his neck craned back to examine
the vaulted ceiling far above them. "There were a lot more zombies, though."

	"Well by all means," Toshitada interjected as he dusted off one of
the faded sedan chairs and tossed a faded velvet cushion out of the way,
"let's go giving whoever built this place IDEAS. Hey, add a few more
zombies, and toss in a pit trap or two! Touma Hashiba doesn't think you've
captured the mood yet! We demand giant blades swinging on pendulums!"

	"Nah, that was in the sequel," Touma said absentmindedly, as he
crouched next to a shrouded piece of furniture and peeked under the sheet.
"Hey, there's a skeleton in this cage."

	"Is it human?" Makoto asked, looking concerned.

	"Is it moving?" Toshitada asked, looking disgusted.

	"No on both counts," Touma admitted with an air of disappointment.
"Just some stupid python in a glass cage that nobody remembered to feed, I
guess. Poor thing probably starved."

	"This place is like a museum," Makoto said as she looked nervously
at the rusted suits of armour and shrouded display cases that lined the
walls and the vacant pedestals that stood scattered about the floor. "But
not a real museum - like, one of those nasty museums that only exist in
horror movies. The ones where people end up accidentally unleashing some
ancient evil that eats them and wears their skin, and stuff."

	"Well, there's a charming image," Toshitada said dryly, as he lay
down on the ancient sedan chair and hugged the velvet pillow to his chest.
"Sleep tight, everybody! Don't let the ancient evil eat you and wear your
skin."

	"Weird," Touma said, as he jiggled the knobs on one of the massive
oaken doors leading further into the castle. "It's locked."

	"They're all locked," Makoto said, trying one of the other doors.
"All the ones down here, at least. I think there's some more up at the top
of these stairs. See how the balcony extends out over this room a little?
There's a hallway up there."

	"You're not actually thinking of EXPLORING, are you?" Toshitada
asked, nudging his hat up slightly and giving the two teens an incredulous
look. "Seriously, what's next: splitting up so we can cover more ground
faster? I can't think of anything in this place worth looking for, unless
you want to stumble across Xiang Yao's unmentionables. And that thought
alone is frightening enough to make *me* want to stay down here."

	"Well, we should at least make sure the place is secure before we
bed down," Makoto said sensibly. "We don't know we're alone in here - even
if the castle is empty, who's to say that some of those youma outside didn't
get in here some other way? I'll sleep a lot better when we know for sure
that all of the doors are locked and nothing will be attacking us."

	"I'll sleep a lot better when Touma finds a way out of this
miserable place," Toshitada responded. "Until then, I'll sleep the same way
I always do: lightly, and in shifts. You two should stop poking around with
things you don't understand and do the same thing."

	"It's in here somewhere," Touma said softly, as he scanned the
massive chamber one more time. "I can practically *feel* it. We're getting
closer and closer to the way out, even if we can't see it yet. I've just
got to figure everything else out."

	"Good luck with that," Toshitada said with a yawn. "If you're so
certain that you're on the cusp of brilliance, then you can stay up for the
first shift. I'll take second and fourth shifts, Makoto can take third. Try
to think quietly."

	"Right, right," Touma replied with a sheepish grin. Scratching
behind one ear, the blue-haired boy began to wander amongst the crumbling
marble pedestals. Each stood at about waist-height, and a few still had
the remnants of plaques bolted onto them. Kneeling next to one of the less
tarnished ones, he rubbed his thumb over its surface and tried to make out
what it said.

	"So, uh, Touma," Makoto said in a hushed tone as she tiptoed over
to where he crouched, "I was just thinking... I'm not really too tired
right now, so maybe you and I could get a chance to talk? I mean, we were
on the train, and then you were hurt, and I was hurt, and I was here, and
you were here, but then you were sleeping, and there's been so much going
on lately...."

	"There has? I wouldn't say it's been that out of the ordinary."
Touma blinked and furrowed his brow in thought. "Well, Toshitada has been a
lot crankier than usual lately, but I just put that down to the psychic
influence of those wraiths. Is there something you wanted to talk to me
about?"

	"Sort of," Makoto admitted, blushing furiously. "I mean, we've known
each other for a while now, but it doesn't really feel like we've had a
chance to, uh, relate, and junk. I don't even know what your favourite food
is, or your favourite colour, or, uh, what kind of girl you like, or
anything like that."

	"Oh, is that all?" Touma asked, giving her a curious look. "Well,
my favorite food is pretty much anything with sugar in it. I've kinda got a
bit of a sweet tooth. Candy, mostly. Ice cream, for sure. Maybe with some
nice chocolate sauce? Yeah, that stuff would be awesome."

	"Okay, cool," Makoto said, wringing her hands together as she stared
down at the oblivious teen. "So what about the other stuff?"

	"You mean, like, my favourite colour? Uh, blue, I suppose."

	"AND?"

	"And what?"

	"And what about... you know, the other question?"

	"Huh?" Touma scratched his head and tried to remember what they
had been talking about. Something about girls that he liked? "Uh, well, I
guess I would like an energetic girl. Someone cheerful, and light-hearted,
who I can have fun with. She'd probably have to be athletic, and like
sports: not one of those fussy girls you can't take anywhere without them
worrying about their hair. Someone I could really relax with, and be myself.
I guess that would be my kind of girl."

	"Oh, really?" Makoto cleared her throat. "But, uh, I guess you
wouldn't want a girlfriend who was too tall, though, huh? I mean, some guys
really get weirded out by stuff like that."

	"Hey, I think I found something down here!" Touma said excitedly.
Bolting upright, he laughed triumphantly and showed Makoto the object in his
hands. On the other side of the room, Toshitada tossed aside his pillow and
gave up any pretense of slumber as he hurried over to join them.

	"It's a puzzle box," Makoto said blankly.

	"Because we haven't seen enough of THOSE to last us the next few
centuries," Toshitada commented bitterly.

	"Hey, a puzzle box got us into this mess," Touma said defensively,
as he clutched the device to his chest. "Maybe this puzzle box will get us
back out again! It makes sense, doesn't it? I mean, if the guy who built the
way in also built the way out, why wouldn't he use the same lock for both
portals?"

	"I have to admit, that DOES make a bit of sense," Toshitada admitted
with a shrug of his shoulders. "After all, the designer would be the only
person who knew the importance of the box, let alone how to solve it. It
would make for a very ingenious exit."

	"So how do we solve it?" Makoto asked excitedly, her previous
question temporarily forgotten in the face of such news. "What kind of
puzzle is it?"

	"Well," Touma said thoughtfully as he examined it, "it's not a
normal one, that's for sure. For one thing, there's no blank space on the
top for the tiles to slide in. I'm not too sure: it looks like each tile has
some kind of symbol on it. I wish it was in Japanese."

	"How dare those ancient cultures not use the language we hadn't
invented yet," Toshitada interjected. "Just start sliding the tiles around
and see what happens. There's got to be some kind of pattern you can decode
in there."

	"I'm trying," Touma replied angrily. "None of the black ones are
moving at all!"

	"So try that white one down there! If it's different, it's got to
do something!"

	"Fine!" Touma snapped, and slammed his thumb down on top of the
only white tile on the surface of the box. With a resounding chorus of
slams, every one of the doors in the room flew open with the shrill creaking
of hinges that had not been oiled since before recorded time. A thick cloud
of dust and decay billowed out from the newly opened portals, filling the
room and causing both Touma and Makoto to begin coughing violently as they
fanned the air. Toshitada raised one eyebrow and gave all of the doors a
suspicious glare before looking down at the box in Touma's hand. All of
the black tiles surrounding the teen's thumb had shifted to white.

	"So, that's the big secret?" Makoto asked, wiping her eyes with
the back of her glove. "It's some kind of creepy garage door opener? Big
deal!"

	"I don't think that's the whole thing," Toshitada said warningly,
as he strode over to one of the opened doors and reached up to run his hand
over the top of the frame. "There's a symbol carved up here. I suspect that
each of the other doors has one, too. And I would wager that each of these
sigils matches one of those tiles on that box."

	"It's not a puzzle," Touma said in a hushed tone as he examined it
more closer. "Not really, I mean. Each of these tiles must stand for one of
the rooms in the castle. If we open the doors, the tile changes from black
to white." Lifting his thumb, he stared down at the single black tile now
surrounded by a crescent of ivory. "Uh-oh. White tiles turn black, too. Now
I'm *sure* I've played this game before: the object is to get all of the
tiles the same colour. Then the box should open...."

	"Try pressing one of the other white tiles, now," Toshitada
suggested quietly.

	"Nothing's happening," Touma reported, still staring down at the
box as he tried to press or move any of the tiles.

	"I was afraid of that," Toshitada said, nodding sagely. "Try coming
over here and pressing the tile that matches that symbol on the door. I'll
bet you have to be in the right room before you can press the right tile."

	"That makes sense," Touma admitted glumly.

	"Yeah, if you're dealing with a total dweeb," Makoto grumbled. "He's
going to make us walk all over this castle pressing buttons and messing
around with doors just to get inside a stupid box? I'll bet you anything
that if we get that thing open, he probably just put another, smaller box
inside of it."

	"That makes sense," Touma repeated, in the same glum tone.

**********

	It floated, and dreamed.

	How long had it been? There was no way to tell. It had been in this
singular existence for so long that it could no longer clearly recall a time
before it had been as it was. Once, there had been light and air and ground,
it was certain: those were not merely words it had invented in its mind.
Once, there had been a beautiful maiden in a gown of shimmering ivory, with
her long silver hair bound up in twin buns and a crescent wand held in her
hands. The wand had burned, it recalled, and shivered slightly in its sleep.
It remembered the wand. The wand had not been pleasant.

	It remembered its defeat, too: that crushing moment when all of its
great rage and defiance and power had collapsed inward on themselves and
left it only with a gaping void in its soul. It recalled kneeling amongst
the ruins of what it had sought to claim, feeling the ashes run through its
fingers as the realization slowly filtered through its mind. It had lost.
Everything had been destroyed. Nothing even left to be worth fighting over.
All of those wonders, those riches of a thousand ages, turned to bitter
ashes. There had been no denying it. The great crusade had failed. HE had
failed.

	Yes, he was a 'he'. That was something else from The Before, a
detail he had nearly forgotten in his endless dreaming. He had failed, and
he had been left in the remnants of his defeat. His own enemies -whoever
they might have been- had not even thought him worth finishing off. They
had left him with nothing but the constant, endless reminder of his failure.
His guilt, and his loathing, and his eternal regret. Yes, they had left him
those.

	He stirred in his sleep, his arm (he had arms, yes, he had forgotten
that too) stretching out and finding something amiss. Xiang Yao was not
with him - the space next to him was cold and vacant. Where was Xiang Yao?
It was a problem to vex him as he slumbered. Had he only dreamed that she
was there? Or was her absence now just another of his mind's torments? There
was really no way to tell.

	A dull thumping noise echoed through his chamber, and he frowned. A
door? One of his? How could that be? His doors were all firmly shut and
sealed closed. Nobody should be doing anything with his doors unless they
were in his castle. It was probably nothing. Maybe Xiang Yao had wanted to
stretch her legs. He hovered for a moment on the cusp between dreaming and
wakefulness, teetering on the brink of the familiar abyss with only his
curiosity to keep him from sinking once more into slumber.

	Again a door slammed, and the Leviathan awoke.

**********

To Be Continued....

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