The Dragon and the Phoenix
Akane watched Cologne as she walked out of the dojo, her eyes drilling into the back of the old woman’s skull as if she could part skin and bone and uncover the secrets hidden there. She knew without a doubt that there would be many secrets. First and foremost was where she had hidden the first stone and what she was doing with the second.
Of course, Cologne had not seen fit to reveal this information to either her or Darien although she had proclaimed them both leaders. She probably had good reason for keeping such secrets. Cologne always had a good reason for whatever she did though neither Akane nor anyone else had a clue to what that reason might possibly be. There had been times when she suspected that the old ghoul kept things from her on purpose just to spite her.
"Where are you going?" asked Darien as Akane stood up.
"After Cologne. I have a few questions I’d like answered."
Darien nodded and opened his mouth to say something more when a startled shout from outside interrupted him. For a second, he was going to let it slide, thinking it was another argument between the Scouts, however, a deep sense of dread filled him as he realized that all of the Scouts were inside of the dojo. Only Cologne had gone outside.
Akane sprinted outside, ignoring the aches caused by the earlier battle with Shadow and Saturn. They were trivial really, easy to ignore. What was not easy to ignore, however, was the feeling deep in the pit of her stomach that something had just gone terribly, terribly wrong. Her fears were confirmed when she stepped outside of the dojo, coming to an abrupt halt as her gaze fell on a horrible sight.
Cologne lay in a heap on the ground, a crimson stain spreading out from her body. Her eyes were closed and Akane couldn’t see even a flicker of life in the old woman’s body. No sign of breath being drawn, not even a flutter of her eyelids. Standing over her with the stone clutched in one hand and a rusted, bloody katana in the other was Happosai. His eyes were merry as he looked in her direction.
"Wh-What’s going on?" demanded Akane in a voice that was barely above a whisper.
Happosai blinked and looked around. "Well, I think that’s kind of obvious, don’t you?"
She did, but that hadn’t been the true nature of the question. "Why?!"
There were several startled gasps from behind Akane and she felt the strong presence of Darien and Ryoga at her back. She didn’t take her eyes off of Happosai, but she sensed that all of the others were there as well. Suddenly someone let out a scream of rage and a flash of purple shot past Akane.
"Shampoo no!" shouted Darien as he made a grab for the enraged Amazon, but was a tad too slow as the girl blurred past him.
Happosai grinned widely as Shampoo charged, amusement showing in his wrinkled features. The Amazon’s attack was wild and lacked any of Shampoo’s usual poise and grace. Happosai simply ducked out of the way, throwing a sharp kick to the side of Shampoo’s knee as he went. She crashed into the ground and made to get right back up again, but the cold edge of Happosai’s katana against her neck caused her to rethink that idea.
"I’m happy to see you too Shampoo," mocked Happosai, "but I’m afraid our date will have to wait until I’ve taken care of a few things here."
Murder blazed in Shampoo’s eyes as she glared up at the old man. "Shampoo never date with murdering coward like you!"
"No? Even if I brought you flowers?" Shampoo didn’t even bother to answer the question. Happosai sighed.
The katana snapped up and away from Shampoo’s throat just as Happosai’s foot crashed into the Amazon’s ribs. She was sent hurtling across the yard to slam back first into one of the small trees dotting the area. The tree’s trunk cracked with the force of the impact and Shampoo slumped to the ground. Shampoo managed to pick herself up off of the ground, but she was breathing heavily and clutching at her ribs.
Despite her injuries, however, Shampoo unsteadily approach Happosai again, cursing his existence each step of the way. Much more slowly this time of course. This was due more to the fact that she was having trouble putting one foot in front of the other than the idea that she might have learned a bit of caution from the dismal failure of her initial assault.
"Stay there Shampoo!" ordered Akane. The Amazon ignored her. "Ryoga, go make sure Shampoo stays out of this!"
Ryoga looked from Akane to Shampoo and back again. "But what about…" Two cold blue eyes regarded him angrily, daring him to finish his sentence. "Uhh…right, make sure Shampoo stays safe. Got it."
Ryoga crossed over to where Shampoo was still shambling towards her intended victim while giving many elaborate and colorful description of exactly what she thought of him. He kept a wary eye on Happosai the entire way, but the old man did nothing more than grin at him and leer at Shampoo and the other girls. When he reached Shampoo, Ryoga gripped her shoulders in a firm but gentle grip and tried his best not to aggravate her injuries while keeping her from her suicidal goal.
"Let me go!" demanded Shampoo, struggling against Ryoga’s iron grip. The effort was useless against Ryoga’s superior strength and soon she found herself slowly tiring, both physically and emotionally.
Akane turned her full attention back to Happosai. The shock had faded a bit, not all the way, but enough to allow her to regain some of her composure. She tried very hard not to look at the still body of Cologne lying on the ground.
"Why did you betray us Happosai?!"
The old man’s grin seemed to grow larger. "I didn’t betray you. I was never on your side."
The sun was still high in the sky, but it suddenly seemed as if it had grown darker. Shadows seemed to gather around Happosai. Looking closer, Akane realized they weren’t gathering around him, he was exuding the darkness. It oozed out of his skin like sweat, covering him from head to toe in writhing blackness. In seconds Happosai was gone and Shadow stood in his place.
"You see, Akane, it’s me you’ve been fighting against all this time. I’ve been searching for these stones for the last hundred and fifty years of my life, seeking to open the portal that will bring the Lord of Shadows into this realm. I danced with glee when I heard that obnoxious fool Ranma had been destroyed! My only regret was that I was not there to witness it."
At the mention of Ranma, Akane’s blood began to boil. "You are a traitor Happosai! You turned your back on humanity itself! Why?!"
"Why do you think? Power, plain and simple. It’s the same thing that has been drawing people to the shadows since time began. And now I’ll use this power to destroy all of you." Shadow took a menacing step forward, but then stopped. "But first…Tell me where the last stone is."
Darien gave Shadow a half smile. "That is a secret we will gladly carry to our graves."
The shadows writhing around the demon-Happosai seemed to laugh at Darien’s defiance. "I suppose I should have seen that coming. Guess I just need something that will open your stubborn mouths." As he peered through the obstacles ahead of him, he idly noticed the group tensing slightly, but paid them no heed. At last his eyes settled on someone and, with a wicked grin, he smiled at the group and said, "Perfect."
Shadow dropped the rusted katana and raised his now free hand. A tentacle of darkness snaked forward, shooting straight for Akane. She ducked out of the way, as did the others standing behind her. All but the one person whose reflexes had not been honed through months and years of practice, the tentacles true target.
The shadowy limb wrapped itself around Hotaru’s throat, yanking her off of her feet as it dragged her back to Shadow. Kasumi was standing next to the young girl, but she could only watch with eyes that were wide with fear. Hotaru tried to scream, but it came out as a gargled gasp. Small hands clawed at the darkness, but it was to no avail. Hotaru didn’t have the strength of even the weakest of the warriors she kept company with, and even they would have been hard pressed to break Shadow’s grip.
Before anyone could react to save the young girl, Hotaru was at Shadow’s side, held fast by his inhuman strength.
"Now tell me, where is the last stone?"
"Let Hotaru go!" shouted Rei. "She has nothing to do with this!"
"Of course she doesn’t. That’s why she makes the perfect hostage. Give me the last stone or she dies."
Akane glanced at Darien, who looked about as helpless as she felt. "We don’t have the stone," she said.
Shadow snorted. "Don’t lie to me Akane! I don’t have much patience left!" The darkness wrapped around Hotaru’s neck tightened slightly and she gave a soft whimper.
"It’s true! Cologne hid the stone, but never told us where. Only Cologne knew where the stone is, and now…" Akane couldn’t finish, her eyes alighting on the still form of their teacher.
Shadow was silent for a long moment, considering the validity of Akane’s words. Inside he was cursing himself for a fool. He should have assumed that the crafty old ghoul might do something like this just in case one of the others was captured. He should have asked Hotaru about it, but he had been in a hurry to finish this.
"I’ll accept that," he said at last, "but not knowing where it is does not mean that you cannot find it. You have until this time tomorrow to find the stone and bring it to the school grounds. If you don’t…the girl dies."
"No, wait…" began Akane, but Shadow was already fading away. The darkness around him deepened until there was no sign of either him or Hotaru. Then it vanished like smoke leaving behind no trace of either person. "Dammit!"
Ryoga released Shampoo and she hurried as fast as possible to the body of Cologne. Once there she fell to her knees and turned Cologne face up, searching for some sign that her great grandmother still lived. Blood stained the old woman’s robes. The sword had entered her right side and had gone all the way through, coming out her back.
Akane walked over and placed a hand on Shampoo’s shoulder. "I’m sorry," she whispered.
Shampoo ignored Akane, her small hands probing Cologne’s neck in search of a pulse. Akane sighed, but didn’t try to stop the Amazon. It was obvious to her and the others that the old woman no longer lived, but they would have to let Shampoo discover this for herself.
Suddenly Shampoo let out a small gasp of joy. "Great grandmother is alive!"
Akane couldn’t believe it. It must be Shampoo’s shocked mind playing tricks on her. Still, she bent down and laid two fingers against Cologne’s neck. At first she felt nothing and was about to say something, but then she felt the barest flutter of a pulse. She was still alive!
"Quick!" she said. "Someone call an ambulance! We need to get her to a hospital!"
"No…" The voice was soft, barely above a whisper.
Cologne’s eyes flickered open slightly, her eyes gleaming dully from beneath lowered lids. Akane could hardly believe that Cologne was still alive, let alone conscious. She was strong, but Akane would never have believed this strong.
Shampoo grasped her great grandmother’s hand. "Why no go to hospital great grandmother? You need help."
"There’s no time child." Talking was obviously taking a great deal of effort.
"Be quiet," said Akane softly. "You need to save your strength."
Akane thought she saw amusement flash across Cologne’s half closed eyes. "There’s no strength to save. This body has served me well, but I’m afraid that final blow was too much."
"No great grandmother! You will live!"
"No Shampoo, I’m afraid not." She smiled up at her great granddaughter. "You are everything I could have wished you to be. I am proud of you." A spasm of pain suddenly shook Cologne’s body and her eyes opened wide. Blood trickled out the sides of her mouth. "Not much…time left. Akane…"
Tears blurred Akane’s eyes as she took hold of Cologne’s other hand. "I’m here."
It was a struggle for the old woman to talk again and her voice was barely audible. "The stone… hidden… pond… fifth rock… from the left. Don’t… let them have it."
The hand in Akane’s suddenly went slack and Cologne’s body slumped back against the ground. Her eyes closed the rest of the way and a look of peace crossed her features. Then all life went out of her body and Akane knew that she was now irrevocably dead. Shampoo knew it too.
Shampoo didn’t scream, or rage. She simply collapsed over the body of her great grandmother, her own body shaking with silent tears. Akane’s eyes stung with tears of her own, but she could offer the Amazon no comfort. She could only stare, her mind numb with shock and fear. Grief gripped her heart like an iron vice. The pain of loss that constricted her heart was not for Cologne alone however.
A hand came to rest on her shoulder, squeezing ever so slightly. Akane looked up and saw Darien looking down at her in concern. Sorrow painted his features and unshed tears glittered in his eyes. Akane turned her attention back to Shampoo and saw that Mousse was giving her the comfort Akane could not. For once the Amazon did not push her unwanted suitor away, but instead held on to him and cried upon his shoulder.
"First Ranma and Serena," whispered Akane, "now Cologne. How many more before this is finished?" Her eyes traveled from face to face, wondering which of her friends would be next.
"No more if I have anything to say about it," stated Darien in a tone of voice that held only conviction.
Akane nodded and scrubbed the tears from her eyes. "No more. That includes Hotaru." Akane stood up and began walking around the dojo, her stride purposeful.
"Where are you going?" asked Darien.
Akane didn’t answer so Darien, with a puzzled glance at the others, followed her. Ryoga, Amy, Haruka, Michiru, and Mina trailed after as well, throwing Shampoo concerned looks over their shoulders. Rei, Lita, and Ukyou watched them go while Mousse paid them no heed, his full attention given over to comforting the grief stricken Shampoo. Kasumi, who had watched from inside the dojo, now made her way to the house murmuring about needing more bandages. Her face was pale. Sweet, kind, unshakable Kasumi was very shaken.
When the others had disappeared around the corner of the dojo, Rei moved to kneel down next to Cologne. Gently she folded the old woman’s hands upon her breast and did her best to smooth out her rumpled and bloodstained clothing. Then, in a soft voice, she began to speak prayers over Cologne’s body, prayers intended to speed the soul on its way to the afterlife.
The others watched this in silence, no one wanting to disrupt the feeling of peace that had suddenly descended over the area. Mousse looked up from his whispered words of solace and even Shampoo turned to regard the priestess, the flow of her tears stemming somewhat.
"May she find peace with her ancestors," finished Rei. Shampoo smiled a thank you at Rei and she smiled back. "The least I could do for all she did for us. The only thing I could do." That was not quite true, there was one more thing she could do. Honor the memory by preserving the legacy. Rei chose not to think about that.
Akane and those who had followed after her now stood in front of the dojo’s koi pond. She was staring intently at the pond while the others peered at her curiously. Ryoga came up beside her and tentatively placed a hand on her shoulder. She jumped and he did as well, crimson staining his face. Seeing that it was just Ryoga and not the bogeyman, Akane returned her attention to the pond.
"Um…Akane?" ventured Ryoga. "What are you doing?"
"She said fifth rock from the left," muttered Akane, "but the pond is round! How am I supposed to figure out where to start counting?"
"Akane!" It was Soun. He was coming out of the house with Genma right behind him. Nabiki followed them out, but stayed on the deck that ran the length of the house. "Akane, Kasumi just came in from the dojo looking very pale! She went upstairs and locked herself in her room, and I think I can hear her crying! What’s going on?!"
Akane still hadn’t taken her eyes off of the pond. "She just watched ‘grandpa’ Happosai run Cologne through with a sword. I’d probably be doing the same thing if I didn’t have more important things to worry about." She paused, squinted. "Maybe she meant from the farthest point on the left."
Leaving her father and Genma standing in shocked silence, Akane moved closer to the pond. Starting at the point that she considered being the outermost edge of the circle, she counted over five places. There was a rock there. Just a plain gray rock, nothing special about it. She counted the other direction, moving away from herself. Another plain gray rock. Hell, they were all plain gray rocks. Not a single rune inscribed rock among the bunch.
"Maybe she meant another pond?" But, of course, Akane didn’t know of any other ponds.
Genma was the first to recover his voice. "You mean our master just… murdered someone!?"
Akane didn’t answer the question, or even appear to hear it. Darien, who, along with the others, was watching Akane count rocks for some unknown reason, nodded. "He’s made a pact with the demons. He’s one of them now."
Genma and Soun exchanged frightened looks. "Well old friend," began Genma, "I think it’s time I left! I’ve been a burden on you all this time and I wouldn’t want to impose upon your hospitality a moment longer! I wouldn’t want you to think me rude or anything!"
"I think it’s time I got out of the house myself for a short while," stated Soun. "Maybe visit the mountain for some training! Several years of training!"
"Sounds like a great plan Tendou! We’d better start packing now, though. I hear the mountain can get very crowded this time of year and we need to move fast if we’re going to get a good training spot!"
"Glad to see you thinking ahead Saotome! Let’s get to it!"
The two men hurried into the house and Akane turned enough to watch them go. "Cowards," she muttered.
From the porch Nabiki waved and called out, "Good luck little sister. You’re going to need it." Akane turned back to the pond as Nabiki followed Genma and Soun back into the house.
"Akane?" It was Darien. "What are we doing out here?"
"Looking for something."
Akane moved closer to the pond and kneeled before the first rock she had thought might be the one she was looking for. She picked it up and examined it closely, coming to the very astute conclusion that it looked like a rock. But there was something about the way it felt in her hands, something that made her think that it wasn’t exactly what it appeared to be. Studying it closer showed that there was a hairline crack running all the way around the stone. Akane began to grow hopeful.
Placing the rock back on the ground in front of her, Akane raised a fist over her head. The rock shattered beneath Akane’s fist as she hit it with all her strength, revealing a very interesting feature. It was hollow. And not only was it hollow, but it had something inside. A smaller stone engraved with green runes. Smiling to herself, Akane picked it up and turned to the others.
"Secret Amazon technique for hiding magic rocks. Hide them in other rocks."
The others looked a bit perplexed as to how Akane had suddenly come up with the location of the one thing everyone was after, but relief showed on all of their faces as well. "Now we can get Hotaru back," said Mina.
Haruka glanced at Mina and then turned a hard gaze on Akane. "You’re not going to give it to them are you?"
Startled looks appeared on the faces of Ami, Mina, and Ryoga. "Then you’re just going to let them kill Hotaru?" asked Amy in a shocked voice.
Darien answered her question. "If we give them the stone then we hand them the means to kill not only Hotaru, but everyone else on the planet. We cannot let them do that."
Akane shook her head. "I have no intention of letting them do anything to Hotaru or anyone else."
"And how do you plan on stopping them?" asked Haruka.
Akane’s smile faded. "I don’t know."
Happosai stood before Shiko and did his best to keep his temper in check. In his mind he ran through a list of various unpleasant things he would like to do to the woman who claimed to be his superior. The object of his ire was currently standing in front of him ranting about his apparent incompetence. His eyes flickered briefly to Hotaru, who had reverted to Sailor Saturn upon arrival at their headquarters. The dark Scout appeared to be wandering around the chamber absentmindedly and Happosai had to fight down a smile as he watched her.
"So why," demanded Shiko, "did you not destroy those fools when you had the chance!?"
Happosai sighed. How many times did he have to explain this to her? "Cologne was the only one who knew where the last stone is hidden. Cologne is dead. Therefor no one knows where the stone is hidden."
"But you chose to give them a chance to find the stone first!" interrupted Shiko.
"Yes, because they have the best chance of finding it soon. They will find it today and they will bring it to me tomorrow." Happosai tried to keep a condescending tone out of his voice.
Shiko thrust a finger at Saturn, who was currently examining the large portal standing behind her. The first stone rested comfortably in its place on the ring of stone, while the second still sat in Happosai’s pocket. "Because of her?!"
Happosai shrugged. "They’re a soft hearted bunch. They won’t let an innocent die if they can help it. It’s the inherent failing of all ‘good guys’."
Shiko grumbled under her breath, but after a few minutes of thought she could only find one hole in her servants logic. "What if they don’t find the stone?"
"Then we kill them and look for it ourselves. If they do find it, then we still get to kill them. It’s a win-win situation."
This idea brought a grin to Shiko’s face. "I think I will enjoy watching them die."
A dark smile spread across Happosai’s lips. "I bet you would. It’s too bad you’re not going to get the chance."
"What are you talking about?"
Happosai’s smile widened. "Saturn."
Shiko stared at the old man in confusion and then turned to find out what he was talking about. Actually, she never got to the turning part because at that moment the tip of a silver blade made a rather messy exit through her chest. Her eyes widened in surprise as she stared uncomprehendingly at the five inches of silvery steel protruding from her ribcage. Shiko’s eyes meet Happosai’s and anger flared in her blue-green orbs.
"Traitor!" she spat. Blood flowed from the sides of her mouth. "The Master will not stand for this!"
"My Lady," mocked Happosai, "the Master doesn’t give a damn who rules his minions on Earth. All he cares about is results, and I will get those results."
Shiko tried to say more, to threaten Happosai into saving her, but she no longer had the strength to speak. There was no pain, only a sense of detachment. Her eyes began to grow heavy and she slumped forward onto the end of the blade that had stolen her life. Saturn wrenched the Silence Glaive from Shiko’s back and the older woman tumbled into a heap at Happosai’s feet.
"Sweet dreams," whispered Happosai as darkness closed in around Shiko. Harsh laughter followed her into oblivion.
Happosai walked around the dead body of his former boss, and came to stand in front of the portal. Reaching into his pocket he pulled out the second stone and held it in his hand, thinking. If he placed it in the portal along with the first, it would open up the second tier, granting him and Saturn more power. It would also, however, grant some of Shiko’s friends and allies access to this world. He had little doubt as to their reaction when they found Shiko dead.
The Master had promised to bestow great power upon the one who brought the three stones together and fully opened the path into this world. If Happosai were to wait until he had the third stone as well, then that power would be his and none of Shiko’s friends would dare challenge him. The choice was easy. He returned the stone to his pocket.
Happosai turned to face Saturn, who had just finished cleaning her blade on Shiko’s kimono. "Come," he said, "we must prepare for tomorrow."
"So that’s it then?" asked Ukyou. Darien nodded. "We give them the stone, take back Hotaru, and then try to take the stone back again?" Darien nodded again. Ukyou looked from him to Akane, and then decided that maybe she should be sharpening her spatulas.
It was late that night and everyone was gathered around the table that had long since been cleared of dinner by Kasumi. No one had felt much like eating so there had been a lot of leftovers. This didn’t seem to bother Kasumi much, at least, she hadn’t said anything concerning the matter. In fact, she hadn’t said much of anything all evening.
"It’s not one of our better plans," pointed out Amy.
Darien nodded once again. "I know, but it’s the best we can come up with." They had been discussing the issue since Akane had discovered the stone and this was indeed the best plan they had been able to devise.
"I still say we keep the stone and let them keep Hotaru," said Haruka.
"No." Darien would have said more, but felt that it was in everyone’s best interest if he did not divulge in detail what he thought of Haruka’s idea. Being that he was both physically and mentally drained, it probably would have been a very colorful dissertation.
"Fine. We spare one life while putting billions at risk. Wonderful."
Darien’s slammed his fist into the table. His face was a mask of anger, an emotion that he did not express regularly. "We’ve discussed this Haruka! We will not be responsible for anyone’s death!"
Akane stood up as Darien fell silent. "Everyone’s tired, it’s been a long day." That was an understatement. "I think we’d all be better off if we went to bed. We’ll flesh out the details of the plan in the morning."
It was very well put, but what Akane said basically boiled down to ‘everyone go away’. They did. It had been decided that it would be in everyone’s best interests if they stayed close together that night, so the Scouts were sharing the dojo with Ukyou, Ryoga, Mousse, and Shampoo. Not the most comfortable sleeping arrangement, but the dojo was large enough and no one complained. Sleeping alone didn’t really seem to appeal to anyone.
When everyone had gone except Darien, he said, "I can’t believe Haruka would sacrifice Hotaru like that."
Akane let out a tired sigh. "She’s giving her opinion of the best course of action to take. Her idea makes sense, but none of us are willing to go through with it. Except her of course, and maybe Michiru."
Darien hated to admit it, but the idea of giving up one person to save billions did make sense. "That’s why he took Hotaru instead of one of us. An innocent in place of one who would no doubt lay down his or her life to protect the Earth."
"Happosai can be very clever when he’s not being perverted." Yawning, Akane glanced at the clock on the wall. It was way past her bedtime. "Like I said, it’s been a long day. I’m going to bed, see you in the morning."
Darien stood. "Good night." Akane left for her room and Darien headed for the dojo. He was surprised to find Rei standing on the porch staring up into the sky. "What’s up?" he asked.
Rei had been lost in thought and Darien’s sudden appearance startled her. "Not much. Just ah…thinking. That’s all."
Darien turned his gaze to the heavens as well. "What’s on you mind?" He had a pretty good idea, but he asked anyway.
Rei was silent for several minutes. When she did speak her voice seemed far away. "The future, the past. The sacrifice Serena and Ranma made for us. I have to wonder sometimes what my part in the universe is and whether I’ll be able to perform well when my turn comes."
"You’re worried about tomorrow? Don’t be, you’ll do great. You always have in the past and I have faith that you will in the future. Serena would say the same thing."
A small, sad smile spread across Rei’s lips. "Thank you Darien."
"No need for thanks. I’m simply telling you the truth. Now come on, Akane was right, it’s time for bed. We’re going to have to be in top shape tomorrow."
"In a minute. I want to look at the stars for a little while longer."
Darien nodded and continued on to the dojo. Rei stared up into the sky, watching the stars glitter against the backdrop of space. She wondered idly if Serena and Ranma were staring back from some distant star. Foolish fancy she knew, but it was still fun to imagine. Imagine that soon she would join them on that star and they would watch the world turn together. The sad smile returning, Rei shook her head and headed for the dojo and sleep.
The mid-afternoon sun hung high in the sky, bathing the dirt field behind Furinkan High School with its dazzling rays of light. For some reason she couldn’t explain, this had a comforting effect on Akane. Maybe it was the lack of shadows, but she didn’t feel nervous about the coming fight. She felt relaxed, calm, as if today anything was possible.
A quick glance around showed that the others were just as relaxed. There was no fidgeting; no one was stiff and tensed. They all stood calmly, waiting for what was to come. Sailor Mars seemed especially calm. She stood slightly apart from the others, her eyes glittering in the sunlight, her raven black hair trailing out behind her in the soft breeze that brushed across the field. Her face was completely smooth except for the small, sad smile she had worn all afternoon. Akane had meant to ask about it, but had never gotten the chance.
The light from the sun dimmed suddenly, as though a cloud had passed across it. The sky was perfectly clear in all directions though, and everyone knew that this darkness was vile and unnatural. All eyes turned to watch the other side of the field, where shadows that shouldn’t have been able to exist began to gather. They flowed up from the ground; bubbling and writhing like something alive.
The shadows formed a humanoid shape, one that was neither tall nor short nor wide or thin. It just was. Held tightly in what appeared to be an arm was Hotaru, her eyes wide with fear. Shadow had come, bringing Hotaru with him as promised. Akane’s eyes scanned the area searching for Sailor Saturn. She doubted one would come without the other, but if the dark Scout was present Akane could find no sign of her.
Their plan was a simple one. After the trade was made, it would be up to Ukyou and Sailor Venus to get Hotaru to safety while the rest of them tried to get the last stone back. If only Happosai was present, then they would simply rush him together. If Saturn were present as well, as everyone suspected she would be, then they would split into two groups and attempt to defeat their enemies separately. Akane would lead Ryoga, Mousse, Shampoo, and Mercury against Shadow. Akane had wanted Shampoo to remain at the dojo because of her cracked ribs, but she had insisted on coming and Akane knew they would need every bit of help they could get. Endymion would take Mars, Jupiter, Uranus, and Neptune and try to take down Sailor Saturn.
Simple. Akane hoped they had what it took to pull this off.
"Do you have it?" called out Shadow.
Endymion pulled the last stone out of a pouch hanging from his belt. "We have it."
"Good. Walk out slowly and place it halfway between us."
Endymion did as Shadow said. He experienced a slight feeling of déjà vu and remembered that the last time he had done something like this it had gone rather badly for him. He hoped that this time things worked out better, but had the sinking feeling that they wouldn’t.
Placing the stone on the ground, Endymion walked backwards until he was halfway between the stone and his friends. "Now send over Hotaru."
Shadow released the young girl and shoved her in Endymion’s direction. She stumbled away from the demon and then began to walk towards her saviors. After about three steps she broke into a shambling run. She barreled into Endymion, holding on to him tightly while tears streamed down her face.
"Are you okay?" asked Endymion. "Did they hurt you?"
Hotaru shook her head. "I’m okay," she said in a voice that trembled.
Endymion nodded and looked up. He was surprised to see that Shadow was standing where the stone had been, holding the rune inscribed rock in his dark hands. Never taking his eyes off of the demon, Endymion led Hotaru back to the others. He turned her over to Ukyou and Venus who hurried the young girl towards the edge of the field.
"What do you think?" he asked Akane.
"I think Saturn is around here somewhere, but she’s not going to show herself until she has an opportunity."
Endymion nodded. "I agree. So we attempt to take him down while keeping an eye out for Saturn. This isn’t going to be easy."
"No, but we don’t have much of a choice. Shadow!" shouted Akane. "We challenge you for possession of the stone!"
Shadow laughed. "No need to be so formal about it! I was going to fight you all anyways. I have two stones with me, so if by some twist of fate you actually win you’ll be ahead. You won’t win though. This field will run with your blood!"
"We’ll see about that!"
Akane, Endymion, Ryoga, Jupiter, and Uranus charged forward and the battle commenced. The others moved forward as well, but slower so they could give the first wave the space needed to attack. Only so many people can fight a man-sized opponent at the same time without causing each other as much trouble as their opponent. The rest hung back and looked for openings as well as the appearance of unwelcome guests.
Akane was the fastest off the line so she got first crack at Happosai. She was dressed in her gi and her sleeves fluttered outward as she delivered a barrage of punches at Shadows head. None of them even grazed him. She avoided the pain of the demon’s counter attack only because he never got the chance to deliver it. Ryoga saw to that.
Second one on the scene, Ryoga spun around Akane and lashed out with his elbow. It found its mark in Shadow’s gut, or what they assumed to be his gut anyway, but did little more than elicit a grunt from the demon. This was a bad thing. It got worse when two, whip like limbs turned Ryoga into a temporary punching bag while simultaniously defending against Akane’s renewed assault. Ryoga stumbled away from the battle in order to avoid more punishment.
Akane ducked and turned the movement into a kick aimed at Shadow’s legs. Endymion’s sword flashed over the top of her head, driving towards the demon’s chest. Happosai jumped, avoiding both attacks. He left a small surprise behind in the form of several of his trademark bombs though. Normally more of an annoyance then a real threat, these were charged with dark energy and when they went off a second later both Akane and Endymion were tossed aside like leaves caught in a high wind.
Happosai didn’t get the chance to enjoy his little trick however, as he was now in mid-air and dealing with the lightning bolt streaking towards him. The shadows around his arms bunched up and exploded outwards, blasting through the lightning bolt and exploding into Sailor Jupiter with the force of a semi-truck. The Scout of thunder was sent sprawling.
When he landed from his jump, Shadow got the distinct impression that something wasn’t quite right. That ‘something’ happened to be the fact that the ground beneath him was glowing brightly. "Damn!" he muttered.
"Uranus World Collision!"
The ground at Happosai’s feet erupted in a column of yellow energy that completely engulfed the demon. Knowing from past experience that this wouldn’t be enough, Uranus was already prepping her second attack when the column dissipated leaving behind what appeared to be a completely unharmed Shadow in its wake. Her attack was interrupted, however, by the terror filled scream that rent the air followed by a flash of brilliant purple light.
After Endymion had brought Hotaru back to the group, Venus and Ukyou had escorted her to the edge of the field and towards the large building known as Furinkan High. They stopped about halfway to their destination though, the sounds of battle drawing their attention back to where their friends were fighting.
"You’re not going to leave me alone are you?" asked Hotaru in a terror filled voice.
Venus smiled down at the young girl. "Of course not. We’ll make sure you stay safe." She then returned her gaze to the battle that would determine the fate of the world.
Their orders had been to see Hotaru to safety as quickly as possible and then return to assist in the fight. Neither felt that stopping to watch the battle for a minute would hurt anything. Considering their charge, it probably wouldn’t have made a difference in the long run, but who can say for sure. No one ever knows how their choices will effect their life until it’s too late. Fate is tricky that way.
With their attention completely on the fight happening without them, neither girl saw Hotaru change into Sailor Saturn. Had they, they might have lived to see tomorrow.
Sailor Venus saw Shadow bash aside Ryoga and then do something that took down both Akane and Endymion. Forgetting for a moment why she wasn’t with the others, Venus took a step back towards the fight. Ukyou’s voice stopped her.
"We have to see to Hotaru first."
Venus nodded, but didn’t take her eyes from the fight. "I know, but it’s so hard watching them and knowing I can’t help."
A surprised gasp from Ukyou caused Sailor Venus to turn around. She found herself staring into eyes wide with surprise and confusion. Ukyou’s mouth hung open as though she had forgotten how to shut it. Venus’s eyes slowly traveled from Ukyou’s face down to her chest where blood dripped from the tip of the blade that had impaled her from behind.
The weapon was pulled free and Ukyou fell forward into Venus’s arms. The Scout watched in abject horror as the life drained out of her friend’s face just as her blood poured from her body. Her mouth worked to say something, but nothing but blood came forth. Soft brown eyes glazed over, their sightless gaze staring up at Venus as though asking why. Venus had no answer.
"Oh god," she whispered softly as she let Ukyou’s lifeless body slump to the ground. Her eyes were locked on the form of Sailor Saturn standing where Hotaru had stood.
Saturn pointed the bloodied Silence Glaive at Venus. "Silence Glaive Surprise."
Venus screamed, it was the only thing she had time to do before the purple energy washed over her like a tidal wave over a small bit of wood.
From where they stood on the field, everyone saw Sailor Saturn blast Venus with all of her power. They all saw the still form of Ukyou slumped at the feet of the dark Scout. They didn’t see Hotaru anywhere. It wasn’t hard to put two and two together and come up with four.
For a moment everyone but Shadow and Saturn was stunned. Uranus’s attack faltered and Happosai used the moment to his advantage, lashing out with a spear of dark energy. Uranus recovered just in time to avoid being the third fatality of the day, but she wasn’t fast enough to avoid the attack entirely. The dark spear pierced her right shoulder and erupted out the other side. She bit off a scream of her own and danced backwards out of the way of more attacks while clutching at her wound.
By this time both Akane and Endymion had regained their feet. Both of them had to fight down the feeling of pain and loss bubbling inside of them. They could mourn for the dead after the battle was won.
A quick look around showed that the others were regaining their senses. Neptune, seeing Uranus injured by Shadow, was now engaging the demon. The others seemed a bit confused as to what was going on however. Their plan was falling apart around them and they had to work fast if they were going to salvage what they could.
Endymion moved towards Saturn, who was in turn headed towards the battleground. "Mercury, Mars, Shampoo, and Mousse with me!" he bellowed. "We’re going to take down Saturn!"
"Everybody else on Shadow!" shouted Akane.
Endymion started moving towards Saturn at a walk. His eyes fell on the still form of Ukyou lying on the ground and then moved to the blackened hole in the ground that marked where Sailor Venus had been standing. There was no sign of her body. Anger welled up within him and he charged. Endymion moved too fast for Saturn to be able to use her powerful energy attacks. Instead she was forced to meet him with the Silence Glaive.
They met at the edge of the field, the sound of their weapons clashing rang through the air. Rage and the sharp pain of loss drove Endymion. He ignored the wounds inflicted by Happosai’s bomb assault and put everything into reaching Saturn with his blade. The dark Scout made a point of keeping him at a distance though, using the superior length of the glaive to her advantage.
Anger made Endymion sloppy. He tried to force his way inside of Saturn’s defense instead of waiting for an opening or using skill to create his own. The result of this was a blinding flash of stars as the butt of Saturn’s glaive crashed into his temple. Endymion stumbled backwards, barely staying on his feet as dizziness washed over him. He had a death grip on his sword or else he would have dropped it.
The Silence Glaive rose to deliver the finishing blow to Endymion, but due to the fact that it was suddenly entangled by a large number of weapon tipped chains, Saturn was having a difficult time making it do what she wanted. Turning from Endymion, Sailor Saturn spun the glaive to further entangle the chains and then yanked hard in her direction. Mousse, still holding on to the end of the chains, sailed through the air towards the dark Scout.
Sailor Saturn kicked Mousse before his feet had even touched the ground. He let out a grunt that was shoved back into his mouth by Saturn’s fist. The dark Scout delivered a crescent kick to the side of his head and then slammed a knee into his groin. Mousse folded with a soft whimper and Saturn extracted her weapon from the chains entangling it.
The bonbori that hammered into her back was a big surprise. Saturn spun, swinging the Silence Glaive around in a wide arc. It cut the air above Shampoo’s head, but missed the Amazon completely. With an uppercut like movement, Shampoo slammed the bonbori into Saturn’s jaw. It was a blow that would have shattered any normal person’s face. Saturn was not a normal person.
Blood running from the corners of her mouth, Saturn struck back with a palm strike that had all the force of a speeding car. Shampoo’s head whipped to the side as blood poured from her nose. The knee that followed the palm strike took Shampoo’s already cracked ribs and shattered them. The Amazon stumbled backwards; her vision dimming as pain threatened to steal the world away. She was nearly unconscious and so she didn’t feel the side kick that slammed into her face and sent her spinning into darkness.
Despite appearances, Shampoo’s blows did have some effect on the dark Scout. She just hadn’t shown it initially. As Saturn shook her head to clear it, Mercury lined up her own attack.
"Mercury Ice Spear!"
Sensing the attack more than seeing it, Sailor Saturn flung herself aside and narrowly missed being skewered by the frozen weapon. It still grazed her shoulder though, and this caused her to spin out of control as she fell. Ignoring the pain in her shoulder, Saturn rolled as she hit the ground and came up on her feet. She was just quick enough to raise her glaive and block the downward strike of Endymion’s sword.
Blood flowed down the side of his face, but it didn’t seem to bother him any. He had learned his lesson and this time he was calm and collected as he attacked. His strikes were smooth and clean and possessed the finesse of a master swordsman. Endymion pushed and Saturn fell back.
On the defensive now, fending off sword blow after sword blow, Sailor Saturn found herself backing away. Everything she tried was countered and Endymion was slowly inching his way into her guard, using her previously superior weapon length against her. A thin cut suddenly appeared along her cheek and her eyes narrowed.
"No!" Endymion swung his blade up over his head in a two handed grip, his eyes shinning with an inner power. "Heaven Meets Earth!"
Endymion’s sword burst into flames as he brought it down with all of his strength. It crashed into Saturn’s barrier in a brilliant flash of light and sound. The power Endymion was exerting threatened to rip the invisible wall down and Saturn gritted her teeth and threw everything she had into keeping it up. Power filled Endymion to bursting and he let out a roar that seemed as though it would shatter the heavens. There was a sound like a sonic boom and the Silence Wall shattered. Saturn was flung backwards as raw power hammered into her.
Endymion stood there breathing heavily and fighting the urge to sink to the ground. He stared at where Saturn lay in the middle of the field and prayed that it was over. For a moment he thought it might be. She didn’t move and he couldn’t see any sign that she was still alive. His hopes were dashed when she slowly picked herself up off the ground. It was obvious that she had been hurt by the attack, but it was also readily apparent that it hadn’t been enough. Endymion was exhausted, but Saturn still had plenty of fight left in her.
The battle against Shadow was going much the same way the battle with Saturn had progressed. After seeing Happosai nearly kill Uranus, Neptune had stepped in to defend her wounded lover. Daggers formed of water and hardened by magic had sped towards the demon. A wall of darkness erupted around Shadow and the daggers shattered against it.
The wall dropped and suddenly Ryoga was there, surprising Shadow whose attention was on Neptune. He struck with a powerful two-handed blow that hurled Shadow through the air. The demon crashed into the ground, but was back on his feet instantly. Once again Ryoga was there, but this time Happosai was ready for him.
The darkness around Shadow exploded outward, tearing into Ryoga like the teeth of a wild dog. Throwing his arms up to protect his face, the lost boy fell back before the powerful assault. Shadows rent his clothing and ripped into the flesh beneath. In seconds blood flowed from over a dozen wounds on the martial artist’s body. Ryoga knew if this kept up much longer there wouldn’t be much left of him, but he couldn’t do anything to stop it.
"Thor’s Thundering Hammer!"
Suddenly the tearing darkness vanished, leaving Ryoga with his clothing tattered and blood running from more wounds then he could count. Looking up he saw Sailor Jupiter engaging Shadow with a hammer made of lightning. She didn’t have any experience wielding a war hammer in battle, but Happosai didn’t know that and he backed away from the furious assault.
Jupiter swung her hammer at Shadow’s head, but he stepped just out of reach and the weapon whistled through the air. He stepped forward and Jupiter tried to bring the hammer back around, but Happosai caught her arm in an iron grip and halted her attack. For a split second they were frozen like that, and then Shadow slammed his hand palm first into Jupiter’s elbow. There was a sickening crunch and the Scout screamed in pain as her hammer fell from numb fingers, vanishing as it hit the ground.
Jupiter’s scream was cut off abruptly as Shadow slammed his elbow into her gut, driving the air from her lungs. Doubled over with one arm broken the Scout had no chance to block the knee that sped upwards towards her face. Her head snapped up and Jupiter’s eyes rolled back in her head as she collapsed to the ground.
Leaving the fallen Scout where she lay, Shadow spun around and caught Akane’s fist in his hand as she took a swing at him. He drove his foot into her stomach and then lifted her into the air and hurled her at Ryoga, who was charging towards them. She crashed into the lost boy and they went down in a tangle of arms and legs.
"Shadow Retaliation Strike, Uranus World Collision!" A column of dark energy erupted around Akane and Ryoga.
"Neptune Deep Submerge!"
"Uranus World Shaking!"
The two attacks hammered Shadow from either side. He bellowed in rage and pain as he was engulfed in blazing energy. When the energy dissipated, Shadow turned towards Uranus. Already wounded, she drew her golden saber and prepared to meet the enraged demon.
Shadow charged, closing with Uranus impossibly fast. She stabbed at him with her sword, but he dipped to the side and the strike pierced only air. A powerful uppercut hammered Uranus’s jaw and she fell backwards. Grabbing her arm, Shadow kept Uranus standing and ground his hand into her wounded shoulder. She screamed in pain and he delivered a back fist that whipped her head around. Driving his knee into her gut, he tossed her aside like a worn out doll.
Akane groaned as she stood up, her entire body hurt. Ryoga was lying next to her and he looked like he was even worse off than she was. So much blood soaked his clothes that she had to wonder how much he had left in him. He was conscious, but rising slowly. She doubted he would be worth much more today.
Looking around she spotted Shadow. He tossed Uranus’s broken body aside and turned to face the oncoming Neptune. Akane doubted the Scout would have much of a chance since hand to hand combat was not her strong suit. Forcing herself to forget her injuries, Akane rushed to help Neptune.
Shadow parried Neptune’s first punch and discovered to his dismay that it had been a feint. Her other fist arced around to smash into the side of his face. Just because it wasn’t her strong point didn’t mean she didn’t know how to fight. It’s just that Happosai knew how to fight so much better. He proved this by dishing out massive amounts of damage with several lightning fast kicks that spared no part of Neptune’s body.
The Scout stumbled backwards, but didn’t back down. Happosai pulled back his fist with the intent of flattening her, but was rudely interrupted by Akane, who drove her foot into the side of his head. He spun to face Akane and Neptune swung at his head. Shadow ducked the attack and casually backhanded the Scout with enough force to send her sprawling. Akane took the opportunity to lay into the demon with several punches of her own.
Shadow retreated and Akane followed, forcing him back with blow after blow. He blocked one punch and countered with a punch of his own. Akane blocked it, went to one knee and slammed her elbow into his gut. Standing up, she spun around and caught him in the side of the head with a spinning hook kick. This rocked his world, but Shadow came back with his own vicious assault.
Akane did her best to defend against the demon’s attack, but he was too skilled and too fast. Blow after blow rained down on her body. Shadow finished his assault with a powerful round kick to the side of Akane’s head. She fell to one knee, still refusing to go down. Blood trickled from her mouth and one eye was almost swollen shut.
"You’ve lost Akane," gloated Shadow.
Akane forced herself to stand. "As long as one of us stands this fight will not be finished."
"You’re a fool! Surrender and I promise to make your deaths quick."
"We’ll never surrender!" Akane launched herself at Shadow once again. "Kachu Tenshin Amaguriken, Dragon’s Raging Spirit combination! Heaven’s Wrath!"
White fire exploded around Akane’s fists. The speed and intensity of the attack took Shadow completely by surprise. A hundred blows hammered into the demon, each one possessing nearly the force of Akane’s chi blast. Shadow did what he could to defend against the raging assault and managed to block or dodge many of the blows, but far more connected then not. The final punch struck home and Shadow was flung across the field to crash into the ground next to where Saturn was standing. When he hit the ground, one of the stones fell from the darkness surrounding him, knocked from his pocket during the course of the fight. Akane collapsed to the ground in an exhausted heap.
Sailor Saturn turned from Endymion to look at Shadow laying on the ground at her feet. He slowly moved himself into a sitting position and then managed to get to his feet. Happosai staggered slightly when he stood. That he was hurt was obvious, but he wasn’t hurt enough. Akane groaned and tried to stand as well, but she was only able to make it to her knees. She had absolutely nothing left to give.
"That was impressive girl," said Shadow. "I never expected such a powerful attack from you. It wasn’t enough though."
Akane just stared at them. She and the others hadn’t been able to do what was needed and now they were going to die. They had given it their best and they had lost, Shadow and Saturn were just too powerful. Tears of anger ran down her face. A slight breeze began to blow, but no one paid any attention to it.
Shadow spoke, gloating over his victory. "I will take great pleasure in destroying…" He trailed off, glancing at the sky. "What’s that?"
The breeze began to grow stronger, becoming a soft wind. It swirled across the field and it seemed as though it whispered to those gathered there. Soft words barely heard, indecipherable, like a thousand souls had gathered here and were straining to be heard.
"What’s going on?!" demanded Shadow.
Now that they listened, a single voice could be heard above the whispering of the wind. Raised in chant, it was clear and firm, flowing along with the wind. Akane looked around along with everyone else, searching for the source of the voice. They found her, standing at the edge of the field with a scroll held out before her, raven hair streaming out behind her in the wind. Sailor Mars stood there, chanting softly in a language none of them understood, and the wind grew stronger.
"Stop her!" roared Shadow.
He raised his hand’s as though he intended to do just that, but nothing happened. The whispering grew louder and suddenly the shadows surrounding him were stripped away, leaving the familiar old man in their place. His eyes were wide with surprise and more than a bit of fear. Happosai’s limbs quivered, but he didn’t move. Saturn stood perfectly still as well. It finally dawned on Akane that they couldn’t move, they were frozen where they stood.
"I won’t let you do this!" It seemed that Happosai strained against the invisible bonds holding him and the whispering grew quiet for a moment, the wind died down. Then it picked up in intensity once again. Sweat ran down the old man’s face.
Akane turned back to Mars and she gasped. Raven black hair was now streaked with gray. The soft, fair skin of a young girl was now beginning to become lined with age. Her uniform began to fade slowly, growing transparent until it vanished altogether leaving her in the simple clothes she had put on that morning. The wind grew even stronger, the whispering grew louder, and everyone there could feel a great power pressing down against them.
Happosai had stopped struggling against the power that held him, but his eyes were filled with anger as he glared at Rei. No emotion showed on Saturn’s face or in her violet eyes. Akane had no idea what was going on, but decided that whatever it was it was good because of the simple fact that Happosai didn’t like it.
Rei’s hair was solid gray now, her eyes sunk deep in a face lined with wrinkles. Her voice remained clear and strong as she continued to chant though. At first Akane thought it was her imagination, but then she realized that Rei was becoming less substantial. Both Happosai and Saturn seemed to be fading away as well.
"Rei!?" called out Endymion. "Rei what’s happening to you!?"
Rei continued to chant, giving no answer. The wind continued to pick up strength, growing to almost hurricane force as it whipped around the area. She could almost see through Rei now, as well as Happosai and Saturn.
"Know this priestess," bellowed Happosai. "This spell won’t hold me forever! I’ll return one day and I will make your friends suffer for this! Do you hear me priestess?!"
Suddenly the wind began to swirl around Happosai and Saturn, forming into a giant tornado. Dust and debris whirled around the area and Akane was forced to cover her eyes with her arms. The voices carried on the wind had become unintelligible shouts that seemed to resound through her skull. Over it all she thought she heard Endymion call Rei’s name again.
Then as suddenly as it had begun it was over. The wind vanished as if it had never been; leaving behind an eerie silence that fell across those present like a thick blanket. Akane uncovered her eyes and looked around. Rei, Happosai, and Saturn were gone. The only signs that they had every been there in the first place were a pile of clothes where Rei had been standing and the stone that Happosai had dropped.
Forcing unsteady legs to support her weight, Akane stood. "Rei," she called out. "Rei!" There was no answer.
Endymion and Mercury walked over to the clothes laying on the ground where Rei had been standing. Akane would have gone too, but she didn’t trust her legs to get her that far so she continued to stand there looking around in confusion. No one seemed worse off then they had been before the strange wind had come. Not that that was saying much seeing that two of their friends were dead and half the rest were down with severe injuries. Akane didn’t process this though, her mind was reeling from the shock of seeing too much too fast.
"What happened?" she asked in a soft, unsteady voice.
"Rei cast a very powerful spell of binding."
"Huh!?" Akane spun around to see who had spoken and her unsteady legs dropped her on her butt. Standing at the edge of the field was Rei’s grandfather. "How…" She trailed off, just staring at the old man. Actually, everyone was staring at him now.
Ignoring those gathered there, the old man moved to where Rei had been standing. He stared down at the pile of clothes laying there and a look of deep sadness crossed his face. Akane saw tears glitter in his eyes.
"She cast a very powerful spell of binding," he repeated. "Those who you were fighting will not trouble you for a great while now. They have been sent to the astral plane."
Endymion just stared at Rei’s grandfather. "Astral plane?" He shook his head. "What happened to Rei?"
Tears streamed down the old man’s face, but his voice was steady. "The spell she cast was extremely powerful, and as such it required a great amount of power to cast. It drained Rei of her life force. She’s gone."
It took a few moments for those last two words to sink in. "No!" screamed Akane. "No! First Ranma and Serena, then Cologne, then Ukyou and Mina, and now Rei! No, it’s not right!"
Endymion had sunk to his knees, his sword laying unnoticed on the ground next to him. "Why?" he whispered.
"She felt it was necessary," answered Rei’s grandfather. "She didn’t tell me as much, but she wouldn’t have used that spell if it wasn’t so. Rei has sacrificed her life to preserve yours."
Akane gazed around the area again. Those who were still conscious, still alive, were huddled on the ground with tears running down their faces. Neptune sat next to Uranus’s unconscious form doing what she could for her lover. Ryoga lay on his back staring up into the sky as though the reason for all this lay in the expanse of blue hovering over his head. Mercury knelt next to Endymion, sharing his pain and grief. Mousse was cradling Shampoo’s head in his lap.
Akane’s eyes found the stone laying in the soft dirt of the field, and she just stared at it. It seemed as though the green runes were glittering softly in the warm sunlight. So much pain and death over such small things, it didn’t make any sense.
"What now?" she found herself asking.
Rei’s grandfather looked at her. "They’ll be back eventually. They were both very powerful and that spell will not hold them forever. Rei has bought you time and has paid for it with her life. Remember that and use the time well." He bent down and gathered up her clothing then, holding it reverently in his arms. Turning, he began to walk away.
"How long?" asked Endymion softly.
"I don’t know," he answered as he continued on his way. "Maybe months, maybe years, maybe centuries. You won’t know until they return."
Everyone watched him go, not knowing what more to say. Akane found the strength to stand and walk over to where the stone lay in the dirt. They had fought so hard for it, it was only right that someone pick it up. She didn’t want to though. It was as though the stone were the cause of all of this and if she touched it more pain and suffering would be forth coming.
And maybe it would, but she picked it up anyway. It was a simple stone engraved with green runes, but it was coated in the blood of her friends and for that reason it was sacred to her. That day, beneath the warm rays of an afternoon sun, with a slight breeze brushing across her face, Akane vowed that no demon would touch this stone as long as she lived.
Something made both Endymion and Akane look up then. Another person approached now, coming from the direction of Ukyou’s lifeless body. Startled gasps from Akane and Endymion brought the person to everyone’s attention. Moving slowly and gingerly, as though the simple act of walking hurt a great deal, Sailor Venus hobbled onto the field.
Venus’s left side was horribly burned. Blackened skin cracked and oozed blood down her arms and legs, and from a large hole burned into her side. The rest of Venus didn’t look much better. Her uniform was torn and tattered, blood ran from over a dozen places, one eye was sealed shut with drying blood that caked the entire left side of her face, and her hair was several inches shorter, the ends curled and black.
Slowly, painfully, Sailor Venus made her way to where Akane was standing. There she stopped and looked around, her eyes alighting on the stone in Akane’s hand.
When she spoke, her voice was scratchy and harsh, as though her throat was sore. "Did we get ‘em?"
Akane smiled as tears flowed down her face. "Yeah, we got ‘em."
Sailor Venus returned the smile. "Good." Then she collapsed into Akane’s arms.
Akane cradled the wounded Scout in her arms while crying and smiling at the same time. Cologne, Ukyou and Rei were gone, but here was one person who had come back to them. For some inexplicable reason, that made it seem that for a few brief moments everything was right in the world. Akane took those moments and sealed them away in her heart where they would remain as long as she drew breath. Then she lowered Sailor Venus gently to the ground and began to do what she could for her injured friend.