Determined to be rid of JOKER's power once and for all, Tomoyo and Sakura seek the one person who may be able to help them. But JOKER does everything in its power to keep them away.
Tomoyo leaned over the side of the whirling tornado and stared down into the dark clouds in disbelief. It simply wasn't possible. She knew she'd commanded JOKER to save both Sakura and herself, and even if JOKER was tapping into her subconscious wishes rather than her spoken command, surely she hadn't wished for Sakura to die!
But whatever the reason, she had to act quickly. She sat back in the funnel and braced herself against the sides. "Take me to the ground, quickly!" she shouted. "I have to catch Sakura before she hits the ground!" The tornado obligingly began to descend, but at a feather's pace. At that rate, Sakura would be dead before Tomoyo had even reached the cloud layer. Losing patience, she kicked at the air, nearly losing a shoe as her foot penetrated the soft surface of her conveyance. "I said quickly! We don't have much time!" Her descent accelerated, but not by nearly enough. She still felt as if she was sitting still in the air.
There was only one thing left to do. Tomoyo rolled over and pulled herself toward the side of the tornado, willing to take a fatal plunge if it would get her to Sakura faster than the reluctant magic. The sides of the funnel rose sharply, trapping her in its center, but the entire tornado tipped onto its side as her weight shifted, and she was falling again. The air continued to spin around her, but now it was merely there, offering no resistance to her drop at terminal velocity.
In seconds, she passed through the clouds, shielded from the dense moisture by the swirling wind. The ground was still forever away, but she was falling quickly toward it, and she suddenly wondered whether she was going to die when she hit it, having forsaken the protection of JOKER's magic. She screamed in terror, but could barely hear the sound.
Then, the air under her became solid, and she was slowing down. She looked down, and saw herself skimming just above the street's surface, almost close enough to touch if she was willing to brave sticking her hand into the spinning air that had saved her life. She heaved a relieved sigh, and had already begun to wonder how long it would take the tornado to release her when the original cause of her near-death experience resurfaced in her mind.
"Sakura!" she cried, leaping unsteadily to her feet. "Take me to Sakura, quickly!" Instead, the tornado vanished, dumping her to the ground. She barely managed to keep her balance as her feet touched down, lurching forward. She shook her head and peered down the street, searching for Sakura's body yet hoping that she wouldn't find it, that there was still time, even though she knew she was far too late.
"Ouch..." Sakura moaned from behind her. Tomoyo whirled around to see her friend sitting up in the street, wearing nothing but her underwear and socks, rubbing her posterior with both hands.
"Sakura!" Tomoyo exclaimed joyously, diving onto Sakura with the tightest hug she'd ever given and knocking the older girl onto her back. "I'm so glad you're alive!"
"No thanks to JOKER," Kero said morosely as he hovered overhead, still holding Sakura's dress by the back of the collar. "If I hadn't been following you two, she'd have a lot more than an achy butt to worry about."
Sakura felt her face heating up. "Um, Tomoyo, could you let go of me for just a second? I need to get dressed."
Tomoyo held the hug a few seconds longer before getting up and standing aside to give Sakura room to don her shed clothing. Kero's expression grew smug as his master regained her dignity. "Wasn't as safe as you thought, was it?" he asked.
"I can't understand why we suddenly couldn't fly anymore," argued Tomoyo, surprised to find herself so calm after such a harrowing experience. "I know I didn't want to fall, and there's no reason JOKER would have wanted to harm us...."
"I wouldn't be so sure of that," said Kero. "You weren't paying attention to where you were flying, were you?"
"Not really," admitted Sakura. "We were just on our way to Tomoyo's house to get her camera, when all of a sudden...."
"... you flew right to this spot, and the magic went away," Kero finished for her. "Take a look at where you are," he instructed, pointing to the looming torii that framed the walkway at whose end the girls had landed.
Sakura gasped. "We're right outside the Tsukimine Shrine!"
Kero nodded. "Seems like JOKER felt threatened when you two tried to fly over the shrine grounds. Even if you weren't planning to drop in for a visit, it didn't want to take the chance."
"That's not fair!" Sakura protested. "We didn't mean to come here! It was just a coincidence!"
Kero shrugged. "JOKER's magic, JOKER's rules. I told you before, it's too powerful and too unpredictable to control. You've gotta be prepared for anything."
Tomoyo didn't even realize she was crying until she felt a tear run down her cheek. She sniffed involuntarily, drawing the others' attention to her. Sakura stepped carefully toward Tomoyo, her usual sisterly concern evident on her face and in her voice. "What's wrong, Tomoyo?"
Tomoyo shivered. "JOKER didn't even try to save you," she explained. "It wanted you to die. I don't know why, but it only saved me."
"I'm all right," Sakura assured her, stretching out a hand to pat Tomoyo's shoulder, but Tomoyo brushed her arm away.
"That's not the point," she said firmly. "JOKER didn't just try to stop us from getting to the shrine; it disobeyed my wish and tried to kill you. It's changed."
"What are you saying?" asked Sakura.
Tomoyo looked up at the torii with defiance in her eyes. "We can't just let JOKER have its way anymore. We have to fight it."
Kero interposed himself between Tomoyo and the shrine entrance, holding his arms wide. "Whoa, kid! Listen to yourself! You remember what happened the last time you tried to get in here, don't you?"
Tomoyo nodded. Her ankle still twinged in pain as she recalled her brush with the deadly power of MIST. "I know it's dangerous. JOKER will try to kill us again if we enter here. But it's already tried to kill us on the outside as well. We're no longer safe anywhere. I think we should face it where we know it will be waiting, rather than letting it surprise us the way it has been."
"You've got no way to protect yourself!" Kero reminded her. "Sakura and I are powerless, and JOKER's not going to defend you against itself!"
"I think she's right, Kero," announced Sakura. "We can't live the rest of our lives in fear. We have to oppose JOKER the only way we can." She took Tomoyo's hand and turned toward the shrine. "I'm ready to go."
Tomoyo shook her head. "Sakura, you can't. I'm the one it wants. You'll only be putting yourself in danger."
"If you're going into danger, then I'm going with you," Sakura insisted. "We'll be stronger together."
"You always stood by me when I fought the Clow Cards," Sakura interrupted. "Now, it's your fight, so I'm going to stand by you."
The smile on Sakura's face melted the last of Tomoyo's resolve. "All right," she agreed. "We'll go to see Miss Mizuki together."
Kero sighed. "Sure. Why don't we all just march right in there and get ourselves killed? You've lived good, full, eleven year lives."
"You don't have to come with us," Sakura reminded him. "We'll be fine on our own."
Kero groaned and settled on Sakura's shoulder. "You wouldn't make it halfway there without me," he decided.
The girls steeled their nerves and climbed the stairs one by one, their breaths growing heavier with each step. Finally, they reached the top and passed through the arch, bracing themselves for JOKER's attack. Seconds passed, and then a full minute. Yet all remained quiet.
"I guess we'd better keep going," Kero ventured at last. "But keep your eyes peeled. It's probably going to try to catch us off guard."
Tomoyo stared nervously at the path in front of them. It seemed to go on forever, even though she knew it was only a short distance to the shrine. Her terror was multiplying every sensation, making her feel like she was being watched from every direction at once. The trees that lined the path rustled as she and Sakura stepped forward, making her jump. Just nerves, she told herself. It was just nerves.
Suddenly, Sakura shrieked and jerked backwards, pulling her hand out of Tomoyo's. As Tomoyo turned to see what was wrong, something grabbed her wrist and yanked her off her feet. She had barely enough time to look up and see that it was a long, gnarled tree branch before another pair of branches shot out from the same tree and wrapped firmly around her ankles. Thinking quickly, she pulled her left arm away from yet another branch before it could ensnare her and grabbed the branch that was holding her right wrist, hoping to pry herself free. But it held firm, and the questing tendril managed to catch her arm while she was occupied, pinning her helplessly in place. The four branches that secured her limbs then began to pull in different directions, threatening to tear her body apart. The sudden pain drew a scream from deep within her, and Sakura echoed it as she suffered the same fate as her friend.
"Oh man, oh man, oh man," chanted Kero as he flitted from side to side above them, holding the sides of his head. "I was afraid something like this would happen!"
"Kero, do something!" pleaded Sakura. "It hurts!"
Hearing Sakura's desperate voice made Tomoyo's heart leap into her throat. It was her fault. She'd led Sakura into danger, and now Sakura was suffering for her mistake. Even her own pain was meaningless by comparison. She twisted her body, hoping to pull one of her arms free, but all that did was scratch her wrists and make her shoulders ache even more. Kicking with her legs proved equally futile, accomplishing nothing more than a dull throbbing pain in her hips. Her entire body hurt from the combination of her struggles and the imminent drawing-and-quartering, and there was nothing she could do about it.
Kero finally steeled his nerves and swooped in to grab one of the branches holding Sakura's wrists, pulling at it with all of his might. When that failed to produce any results, he put his teeth to the task, biting at the rough bark, but the tree was unaffected.
"It's no good," he declared at last. "WOOD's just too strong!"
"Isn't there anything you can do?" asked Sakura, fighting to counter the branches' pull with her own strength.
Kero sighed and shrugged helplessly. "Even if I had my powers, WOOD is Yue's specialty. It's not an attack card, so I've never had to think of a way to fight it." He shot upward, barely dodging a branch that tried to grab him.
"Well, think of one now!"
"It ain't easy to think at a time like this," Kero informed her as he retreated to a safe distance. "But it's just trees... they've probably got the usual weaknesses. Fire, and axes."
The mention of axes sparked a thought in Tomoyo's mind. If Li had been with them, he would have been able to slice through the branches with his sword. In retrospect, it would have been a good idea to seek his help before confronting JOKER, but now she and Sakura would have to fight for themselves. Still, that sword would have been awfully handy....
She felt something heavy in her hand and reflexively clenched her fist around a thin shaft, but still nearly dropped it. The weight quickly faded, though, leaving her fingers slightly numb but otherwise able to hold the object without even noticing that it was there. When she looked up at her hand, she was only mildly surprised to see Li's jewel-hilted sword tightly clasped in it.
Kero's eyes bulged as he noticed the weapon in Tomoyo's hand. "Where did you get that sword?" he asked. "Don't tell me...."
Tomoyo nodded. "I think JOKER gave it to me."
"Well, don't just sit there and admire it!" cried Kero. "Use it!"
Grasping the sword firmly, Tomoyo returned to her struggles with renewed hope... only to find that a sword wasn't much use if she couldn't swing it. The branches held her arm fixed in place, preventing her from bringing the sword to bear against them. "I can't move!" she shouted, hoping that Kero could come up with a solution.
Sakura craned her neck to get a better look at Tomoyo's predicament. "Tomoyo, I think you can cut that branch!"
"Which one?" asked Tomoyo, searching for the branch Sakura was talking about.
"The one that's holding the sword!" replied Sakura. "Just move your hand and you can hit it!"
Feeling sheepish for overlooking the obvious solution, Tomoyo quickly twisted her wrist, snapping the sharp edge of the blade against the branch that secured her right arm. She only managed to create a small gouge in the thick bark, but a few more clumsy swings weakened the branch in several places, until a final stroke sliced cleanly through the limb and severed it. She quickly pulled her arm down, falling forward as the sudden lack of support caused her to lose her balance. Her weight nearly pulled her left arm out of the socket, but her shoulder held together, and she managed to right herself and paused for breath.
"Don't stop!" urged Kero. "Finish cutting yourself free and help Sakura!"
For Sakura's sake, Tomoyo cut her break short, quickly slicing through the branch that held her left arm in a single stroke. This time, she really did fall flat on her face, feeling the strain on her calves as the branches tried to hold them upright. Fortunately, they gave just enough that she didn't break any bones, but her legs were in an awkward position as she twisted her upper half, trying to get the leverage she needed to cut her legs free.
"Watch out!" shouted Kero. "The branches are coming for you!"
Tomoyo was already swinging the sword as she looked up, dealing a glancing blow to one of the encroaching branches. Another branch wrapped around her left elbow, but she quickly cut through it and hacked the end off the damaged one before setting to work on the branch holding her right leg. It took three hits to cut most of the way through, allowing her to pull the rest apart with a firm kick. She rolled over onto her back, feeling the rough bark scrape her ankle, and sat up so that she could sever the last branch with a single chop.
"Way to go!" cheered Kero.
Sakura started to echo Kero's congratulation, but it quickly became a pained scream as the branches increased their pull on her, as if taking out their frustration at Tomoyo's escape on her. Tomoyo leapt to her feet, sliced at a few more branches before they could get hold of her, and hastily cut Sakura's arms free, catching Sakura in her left arm as she fell.
"Thanks, Tomoyo," said Sakura, clutching at the younger girl for support. "I thought my arms were going to be ripped off!"
"Are your legs okay?" asked Tomoyo.
Sakura nodded. "It's not pulling my legs as hard. I think I'll be okay."
Tomoyo smiled. "I'm so glad!"
Kero sniffed at the air. "Hate to break in at such a sensitive moment, but I feel something big coming. My fur's standing on end."
No sooner had he finished speaking than a bolt of lightning shot from the sky, striking the tree that still had its branches wrapped around Sakura's legs. A shower of sparks flew from the point of impact, setting the surrounding foliage on fire. One of the sparks just missed the hem of Sakura's dress, making her jump, knocking Tomoyo to the ground and falling on top of her.
"It's hot!" shouted Sakura. "Am I on fire?"
"No, you're safe for now," Kero assured her. "But Tomoyo, you'd better cut her free quick, before those flames spread!"
Tomoyo crawled out from under Sakura and hefted the sword, cringing from the intense heat as the fire quickly worked its way along the branches toward Sakura. She tried to take a step forward, but the radiation was like a solid wall, pushing her back before she could get close enough. "It's too hot!" she cried, shielding her eyes as the fire flared up, forcing her even farther back.
"I'm burning up!" shouted Sakura, coughing as the smoke started to choke her.
"Tomoyo, quit staring and do something!" ordered Kero. "She's gonna die!"
Tomoyo bent down and crept forward, shutting out the heat as best she could. But the smoke was so thick by now that she couldn't even see Sakura's lower half anymore. If she swung blindly into that smoke, she would risk cutting Sakura's leg instead of the branch. "I can't get to her! We have to put out the fire first!"
"With what?" Kero shot back. "JOKER's magic? Even if it is still granting your wishes, it's already used both WATERY and RAIN! There aren't any more water type cards you can use!"
Tomoyo's heart sank as she realized that Kero was right. She'd wasted the useful wishes already, and now the powers that remained weren't enough to get the job done. She looked down at Sakura, who looked back up pleadingly, but Tomoyo could offer her no hope. She averted her eyes and tried to remember a happier time.
Suddenly, the answer popped into her head. There was one more water type card, one that she and Sakura had spent hours playing with on their last sleepover, when they'd had to wash the dishes together. One of the more amusing and pointless cards, but in this instance, it just might prove to be a lifesaver. "JOKER!" she shouted. "Cover the branches with bubbles!"
"Bubbles?" Kero echoed questioningly. Then, comprehension dawned in his eyes, and he nodded his understanding. "I get it. BUBBLES can put out the fire!"
"I hope so," Tomoyo said worriedly, as there was no visible change in the output of smoke from the fire. She couldn't even tell whether the bubbles were appearing or not. Perhaps JOKER had chosen to ignore her again....
"I can't wait any longer!" Tomoyo announced. She squared her shoulders and pressed forward again, forcing her way into the thick cover of smoke and flame. "Sakura, hang on! I'm coming!"
"Don't come any closer!" warned Sakura, her voice weaker than before. "Get away, or you'll die too! You have to get to Miss Mizuki... get rid of JOKER!"
Tomoyo started to protest, but her foot landed in a shallow puddle of boiling water, soaking her sock immediately and driving pins of pain into her sole. She quickly stepped back and pulled off her sock, wondering where the water had come from. The path had been completely dry when they'd arrived, which was a bit odd considering the recent rainstorm.... was it what was left over when the bubbles popped from the extreme heat? If that was the case, then the bubbles must have been working, but it obviously wasn't enough.
"Tomoyo!" gasped Sakura. "Water... ground...."
"I can barely hear you!" replied Tomoyo, bending down to listen to whatever Sakura had to say.
"WAVE..." was all she could make out before Sakura fell silent.
"What did she say?" asked Kero as he did his best to brave the thick smoke.
"She said WAVE," related Tomoyo.
"WAVE? But why?" asked Kero. "WAVE only works if there's water nearby."
"There is!" Tomoyo shouted triumphantly as the pieces fell together. "JOKER, make a wave with the water on the ground! Splash it all over the fire!"
From the depths of the smoke-filled area came the tiny sounds of water splashing, and the sharp hiss of the fire slowly dying as the combination of bubbles and splashing finally proved to be its match.
Not waiting for the fire to die out completely, Tomoyo dashed into the thinning cloud of smoke and fell to her knees, ignoring the heat of the water under her and groping for the branches with her hands. Her fingers closed around Sakura's leg, and she quickly ran her hands down its length until she found the branch. It was a simple matter to pull the weakened branch from around Sakura's ankle, and the brittle wood crumbled to ash as soon as it was removed. Thinking quickly, Tomoyo grabbed Sakura around the waist and carried her out of the smoke, letting the last remaining tether break of its own accord as she pulled Sakura to safety. Kero grabbed Sakura's collar and lent his own strength to the effort until the three were well clear of the hazard.
"How is she doing?" asked Kero. "Is she breathing?"
Tomoyo rolled Sakura onto her back and cupped her hand over Sakura's mouth. "I don't feel -"
Sakura suddenly coughed and weakly opened her eyes. "Tomoyo... are you okay?"
"You're the one I'm worried about," said Tomoyo, clutching Sakura in a hug. "You were in the fire."
Kero flew down the length of Sakura's body to investigate her condition. "Her left leg looks a little burnt, but it's just on the surface. It could probably use a bandage, but she'll survive."
Tomoyo turned to examine Sakura's leg, expecting far worse than what she saw. The skin was singed a bright red, with specks of black here and there. She pulled the burnt end of the skirt away from the wound and fingered the material lightly. "Sakura... may I use the end of this dress to make a bandage? I'll repair it later, I promise."
Sakura lifted her head to look, but the fabric in Tomoyo's hand blocked her view of the leg. She sighed. "It's already ruined anyway," she agreed. "Don't worry about it. I can get another one."
Tomoyo's face darkened as she tore a strip off the bottom of the dress and returned to the fallen trees to soak it in the hot water. "I'm sorry, Sakura. This was my fault."
Sakura shook her head. "No, it's okay. I'm just glad we're together. I wouldn't want you to have to face this sort of danger alone."
Tomoyo knelt beside Sakura to tie the bandage around her leg. "It's my danger, Sakura. You've already done too much for me, and now you've been hurt because of it. You should go home and let me face this...." She couldn't even get the word 'alone' out of her throat. She couldn't go on without Sakura. If Sakura left, she'd probably just sit right where she was and cry until JOKER found another way to kill her. But as she firmly knotted the strip of cloth around Sakura's calf, she reminded herself that she was responsible for Sakura's suffering. She had to convince Sakura to leave before anything worse happened to her. Why did doing the right thing have to feel so horrible?
She was surprised to feel Sakura's arms wrapped around her. "I won't leave you, ever," whispered Sakura. "No matter how much JOKER hurts me, it's only pain. If anything happened to you because I wasn't here with you, it would never stop hurting."
Well, that explained why it felt so horrible. Sakura was never one to be pried away from protecting her friends, even when she couldn't do anything to protect them. And Tomoyo remembered how doggedly she had stuck by Sakura's side at times, even though she'd had nothing to offer but moral support. She wouldn't have been turned away then, no matter how great the danger. Although she'd sat on the sidelines when things got really bad, she was always there, filming Sakura's bravery for her collection while cheering her on as best she could. Sakura wasn't used to being the moral support - she had always been the one fighting in the past - but she wasn't going to let Tomoyo face anything alone.
Tomoyo wanted to protest again, but she just didn't have it in her. She left it at "Thank you."
Sakura gave her a quick squeeze and released the hug. "Well, let's go. JOKER could attack at any time, so we'd better be ready."
"Are you sure you can walk?" asked Tomoyo.
"My leg doesn't hurt anymore," replied Sakura. "I think I can walk."
Tomoyo stood up and helped Sakura to her feet, much relieved to see that Sakura didn't appear to be in any pain as she placed weight on the injured leg.
"Hey," Kero piped up, "are you going to leave the sword behind?"
Tomoyo turned to look at the discarded weapon. It lay invitingly on the stones of the path, offering its feeling of security by simple virtue of being a weapon to the otherwise unarmed girls. Certainly, it could deal with many of the threats that might face them on the path ahead... but somehow - perhaps because it was a gift from their enemy - Tomoyo was afraid to touch it. "I don't think I can really use it anyway," she said aloud. "I'd be more likely to hurt myself or Sakura if I carried it."
"Don't worry," said Sakura. "I'll carry it. I've use SWORD before, lots of times." She let go of Tomoyo's hand and trotted back to retrieve the sword.
With his usual ironic timing, Kero's brow twitched in sudden realization just as Sakura's fingers closed around the sword's hilt. "Wait, Sakura!" he shouted. "Don't touch it!"
"What's wrong?" asked Tomoyo as Sakura slowly straightened up, holding the sword as naturally as Li would have. "What will happen?"
"Have you forgotten what SWORD's other power is?" replied Kero. "It's a mind-controlling card as well as a weapon. When it's tame, it just gives the user innate skill with the sword, but in its wild state...."
Wordlessly, Sakura turned to face Tomoyo, staring into her with eyes that showed no spark of humanity, merely blank enlarged green irises without pupils. She raised the sword in front of her body, poised as if to leap at any second.
Kero recoiled, cringing in fear at the sight. "This is bad... she's under SWORD's control! And I have a feeling you're going to be her target!"
"How can we stop her?" Tomoyo asked breathlessly, still in shock that her best friend was about to try to kill her.
"It's going to be tough," said Kero. "If you get too close, she'll slice you apart. And throwing things at her won't work either. She'll just cut them out of the sky."
"I don't want to hurt her!" Tomoyo protested. "It's not her fault she's being controlled!"
"I don't think you have a choice," replied Kero. "It's her or you." An idea flashed across his features. "You could use SHOT and incapacitate her!"
"NO!" screamed Tomoyo. "I won't do that!"
As if taking Tomoyo's raised voice as a signal, Sakura leapt into the air, aiming to land right in front of Tomoyo with the sword held horizontally to slice through Tomoyo from head to feet. It was only Kero's quick reflexes that saved her, as he shoved her out of the way of the blade, barely clearing the sword's path himself as it lopped off a few wisps of his tail fuzz.
"She's going to kill us both if you don't do something!" shouted Kero, as Sakura turned to strike again.
"I won't hurt Sakura!" she reiterated, backing away from her possessed friend.
"Then you'd better start running," advised Kero, "because it doesn't look like she has any problem with hurting you!"
"I can't leave her like this!" Tomoyo narrowly ducked a quick swing by Sakura, then rolled out of the way as the sword tore into the paving stones she'd been lying on.
"Look," said Kero, "the only way you can fix this now is to get to the shrine. I'll try to stall Sakura while you go on ahead."
"Are you sure you should -?" she began.
Ignoring her, Kero positioned himself in front of Sakura's face and waved his arms frantically. "Wake up, Sakura! Snap out of it!" he shouted.
Sakura reached up with her free hand and grabbed Kero by the wings, tossing him aside casually yet with enough force to knock him unconscious instantly when he hit a tree headfirst. With the obstacle removed, she set her blank eyes on Tomoyo and raised the sword, assessing the distance between them in preparation for a final, fatal strike.
With one glance at the fallen Kero, Tomoyo's fear for her life finally overrode her concern for Sakura. She spun on a heel and took off at full speed toward the shrine. Sakura's footsteps followed her, slowly catching up as the path continued, seemingly forever. There was no end in sight, and no sign of the shrine, or the courtyard, or anything at all other than the infinite tree-lined path. It felt very wrong, but she didn't have time to stop and consider it. Sakura was in far better shape than Tomoyo was, and Tomoyo's feet were beginning to ache from running on the hard stones with no shoes and only one sock. If Sakura was suffering from her own inadequate footwear, it didn't affect her pace at all.
Knowing that she had no chance against Sakura if she caught up, Tomoyo had no choice but to keep running. But surely she should have reached the shrine by now, several times over! The path had never been this long, had it? It had to be the work of JOKER again, making the path stretch forever so that she could never reach the shrine at its no longer existing end. She'd experienced the phenomenon once before... the work of the LOOP card. She was repeating the same section of the path over and over again in an inescapable loop. Well, not inescapable... if she could locate the end of the loop, and find a way to cut it, the path would return to normal. But without the power of magical sight, that was much easier said than done. The trees all looked the same - in more ways than one - and in the darkness, she had no way to tell where the invisible line was.
Her bare foot came down badly on a cracked paving stone, and she stumbled, giving Sakura time to catch up. She managed to spin around as she fell so that she landed in a sitting position, facing Sakura, but her muscles froze as the sword rose over her, her fear paralyzing her even as sharp death swung down at her head. A vertical slit of light passed between her eyes, and the world split apart as a sharp pang tore through her head. Then, everything cleared, and she found herself staring up at the torii. She raised her hands to her head, expecting to pull them away covered in blood, but there wasn't even a scratch. In fact, there wasn't a mark on her body except for the scrapes on her ankles from earlier.
She stood up, waiting for the last traces of her headache to vanish, while she tried to puzzle out what had just happened to her. The loop was clearly broken, since the path no longer stretched infinitely in both directions, and there was no sign of Sakura.... Tomoyo heaved a relieved sigh as the pieces fit into place. By some miracle, the end of the loop had been right between herself and Sakura, so the sword swing had broken the loop before it could hit her. That meant that the shrine was only as far away as the length of the path, now... but Sakura was waiting for her at the other end, and still under SWORD's control.
Tomoyo suddenly felt very alone, and wished Kero were there to keep her company and help her come up with a plan to restore Sakura to normal without hurting her. Unfortunately, Kero was lying unconscious somewhere further up the path, in the same direction as Sakura. Steeling her nerves and praying for the best, she set off in search of her flying companion, keeping her eyes on the ground and her ears perked for the sound of footsteps. Fortunately, she found Kero first, slumped against the trunk of the tree that Sakura had thrown him at. She picked him up and cradled him gently, examining him for any signs of injury. Thankfully, there were no obvious bruises on his head or body.
"Kero, wake up," she whispered, shaking him lightly. "I need you!"
Kero didn't even stir, leaving Tomoyo at a loss for what to do next. She would have to come up with an idea on her own. But only two cards came to mind: ILLUSION, which was how Sakura had saved her friend Rika from the SWORD card's influence, and SHOT, which had been Kero's only suggestion. She was sure ILLUSION had already been used up, and SHOT was simply out of the question. ARROW was equally unthinkable; shooting Sakura with hundreds of arrows was even worse than a single shot.
A softened footstep caught her ear, interrupting her train of thought. She looked up to see Sakura standing a few feet away, holding her sword expectantly. She had only seconds to act before she was attacked, and she still couldn't think of anything except for those three cards. ILLUSION, SHOT, ARROW... it was useless. Every other card she could think of had already been used. There had to be another card she could use to stop Sakura....
As Sakura stood there, surveying the situation, her hair and dress waved in a slight breeze that blew coldly down the newly unlooped path. It was Sakura's spur to attack; it was also the key Tomoyo needed to come up with a plan. "JOKER!" she shouted as Sakura shifted her weight and prepared to strike. "Pin Sakura down with arrows! But only hit her clothes!"
Several horizontal shafts of light appeared, surrounding Tomoyo with brilliant blue arrows. As Sakura leapt forward, the arrows shot toward her, barely missing her as they caught in the fabric of what remained of her sundress. Her forward momentum stopped instantly, and she fell backward, landing on her back with the arrows holding her torso and shoulders on the ground. Silently, she twisted and strained, trying to stand up, but the arrows gave her no room to maneuver.
Tomoyo was stunned to see Sakura so unconcerned at her predicament, as if she were a single-minded machine rather than the girl she'd come to love as her best friend. The fear she'd been feeling all along became mixed with a new emotion - the sinking feeling of betrayal as she had been forced to turn her power against Sakura. But the sound of tearing cloth broke the spell, as Sakura's dress tore, freeing her from one of the arrows. Tomoyo dashed forward, realizing that if Sakura were to escape, there would be no way to stop her again.
Sakura raised the sword threateningly as Tomoyo approached, unable to move her arm above the elbow but still using what mobility she had to keep the blade between herself and Tomoyo. Tomoyo held back, afraid that if she got too close, Sakura would manage to cut her. As soon as she stopped, Sakura resumed her struggles, freeing her entire left side as she rolled over, snapping the arrows on her right side in half. Without hesitating, Tomoyo leapt onto her while her sword arm was pinned and threw her body across Sakura's. She felt the blade trace a slash across her back, but she doggedly held on with both arms.
"Please wake up, Sakura!" she shouted, reaching blindly for Sakura's sword hand. She closed her hand tightly around the handle and pushed it away, hoping to at least prevent Sakura from using it, if she couldn't dislodge it from her grip. But Sakura fought back with inhuman strength, making Tomoyo's arm ache after only a few seconds of wrestling. She stared directly into Sakura's blank eyes, searching for any clue that would tell her how to break the spell. All she saw was her own reflection, her face tall and narrow with deep worry, for Sakura as much as for herself. It reminded her of a fairy tale, and the idea struck her as foolish, but it was still an idea. If it didn't work, she wouldn't be any worse off for trying it.
Lowering her head until their noses touched, Tomoyo closed her eyes, whispered "I love you, Sakura, even if you run me through," and pressed her lips to Sakura's in a kiss. The sword clattered noisily to the ground beside her, and she quickly kicked it out of Sakura's reach, just in case.
As the sword scraped across the pavement stones, Sakura groaned and turned her head, breaking the kiss. Tomoyo pushed herself up, but kept enough of her weight on Sakura that the other girl wouldn't be able to get up, if she was still bewitched. But when Sakura finally opened her eyes, they had returned to normal. "Tomoyo?"
Tomoyo saw a tear fall onto Sakura's cheek and realized that she was crying. "Oh, Sakura!" she breathed joyfully, pulling Sakura up into the warmest hug of the evening. "I'm so glad you're all right!"
"What happened?" asked Sakura. "I remember picking up the sword...."
"You were possessed by the sword!" explained Tomoyo. "You tried to kill me, but I snapped you out of it."
"Oh no! Did I hurt you?"
Tomoyo's back gave a twinge as Sakura mentioned pain, but she shook her head emphatically. "No. I'm fine," she lied, hoping to spare Sakura as much guilt as she could.
"I'm sorry," Sakura apologized. "It was my fault."
"It's all right," replied Tomoyo. "We're okay now. That's all that matters."
"Yep," said Sakura with a nod. "We survived another challenge." She lifted her head and looked around. "Say, where's Kero?"
Tomoyo's heart skipped a beat. "Kero?" She gasped and climbed to her feet, scanning the ground. "I must have dropped him somewhere!"
"Dropped him?" Sakura asked as she sat up. "What do you mean, dropped him?"
"I was holding him, and then -" She quickly broke off, remembering her resolve to shield Sakura from knowledge of her actions under SWORD's control. She couldn't tell Sakura that she'd hurt Kero!
"Why were you holding Kero?" Sakura asked as she stood up and brushed herself off.
"Um, I..." Tomoyo stalled, trying to think of a plausible explanation. Her heart sank again as she realized that she was planning to lie to Sakura. But she had to. She was lying to protect Sakura.
When Sakura failed to ask again, Tomoyo looked up, wondering whether Sakura had figured out why she wasn't answering. But Sakura's mouth hung wide open, and her entire body was shaking as she stared at something behind Tomoyo. Her lips moved, trying to form words, but no sound came out. Gripped by fear, Tomoyo spun around and found herself looking up into a tiny but intense ball of light. It was much brighter than GLOW, and unlike the harmless light-type card, it gave Tomoyo chills just to look at it.
Before she could remember where she'd seen the light before, it pulsed quickly and emitted a tiny spark, aimed directly at her heart. Her muscles froze in shock, and she was paralyzed, helpless to do anything but watch as SHOT's attack closed the distance.
Sakura's shout of "Tomoyo!" pierced the silence as a pair of hands roughly pounded Tomoyo's side, pushing her out of the way of the projectile. She lost her balance and fell to the ground, landing in a sitting position as Sakura fell into her lap. She wrapped her arms protectively around Sakura, not taking her eyes off the ball of light until it vanished. She released the breath she'd been holding and gave Sakura a grateful squeeze.
"Thank you, Sakura," she said to the girl in her arms. "You saved me again."
Sakura didn't respond. She lay unmoving across Tomoyo's legs, so still that Tomoyo couldn't even feel her body moving as she breathed. That was when she felt the warm moisture seeping into her dress, and knew what it was even before she looked down and saw the dark red stain spreading over her lap. Horrified, her throat seized up, and she couldn't get out the scream that was trapped in her chest. When she finally did manage to get the words out, they came as a mere whisper. "S-Sakura?"
She clutched Sakura's body tightly to her chest as she felt the tears begin to pour freely from her eyes, and she repeated Sakura's name over and over, louder and louder as her voice returned. But nothing she could do would change what had happened. Without even a chance to say her heroic last words, Sakura Kinomoto had given her precious life to save her friend.