Lina confronts her first victim, but it's a case of mistaken identity. Now she must kill a girl who has nothing to do with the battle.
Chapter 3: The Innocent Shall Suffer
Amarah stared at the battleground before her, searching for weaknesses in the enemy lines. Unfortunately, the defense looked quite sound. Amarah's troops were lined up for the attack, but there were no vulnerabilities to exploit. The maneuver would take careful strategy to pull off correctly, and Amarah would be leaving herself open to attack in the meantime. However, if she kept advancing toward her objective, her opponent would have to maintain her defense or risk certain failure. Amarah seized the opportunity to strike first.
She slid her bishop up the board. "Check," she announced.
Michelle nodded. "Going for the king a bit early, aren't you?"
"Why not?" asked Amarah, radiating false confidence. "I think I'm in a winning situation here."
"Hmm. Perhaps." Michelle moved her king to safety behind a wall of pawns. "But you can never be too careful."
"Maybe I've just been playing this game too much," said Amarah. "I've seen just about every strategy in existence."
"You certainly are a chess veteran," agreed Michelle, resting her elbows on the table and her chin on the backs of her hands.
Amarah re-examined the situation. Michelle's king was trapped behind the pawn wall, and all of her pieces were defensively arranged, quite a few in the back rank. Amarah was a rook and a knight up, and that knight was attacking two of the pawns in front of Michelle's king. She pushed her queen up to the seventh rank, right next to Michelle's queen. With the bishop defending that square and the knight defending the adjacent square, it was mate in one, and if Michelle took the attacking queen, the exchange would work out in Amarah's favor. "I think this game is over," announced Amarah.
"That it is," replied Michelle. She pushed her queen right past Amarah's pieces, to the back rank. "I believe that's checkmate."
Amarah's eyes goggled. "What? That's impossible!"
"You were playing for the back rank mate, weren't you? Well, you forgot to give your own king an avenue of escape."
Amarah pounded her fist on the table, knocking most of the pieces over. "Damn! How could I have missed that?"
"It's my innocence," said Michelle. "My poker face is a smile. That way, my opponent never knows what I'm thinking."
"I suppose this game should teach me a lesson. Never try to attack until you're sure that your defenses are solid."
"A good lesson," agreed Michelle. "You can benefit from it in life as well as on the chessboard."
"It's strange, how such an ordinary game can be so relevant in one's life," said Amarah.
"Chess is far from being an ordinary game," said Michelle. "Just as love is far from being an ordinary emotion."
"Where did that comparison come from?"
Michelle simply smiled. "Care for another game?"
"What else have we got to do?" Amarah started to right the pieces that had fallen. "It's been too quiet around here lately."
Michelle hummed her consent. "I'd like to see some action, as horrible as it may sound. The problem with being a hero is that your job is to try to put yourself out of business."
"There's no danger of that any time soon," said Amarah. "They'll be attacking the solar system for as long as we live, and probably even longer."
"Are you suggesting that we see about having children?" asked Michelle innocently.
Amarah snorted. "Not likely! Even if there were any men around, I wouldn't have anything to do with them! Why do you think only women can have Sailor Scout powers?"
"Because men don't look as pretty in miniskirts," Michelle replied seriously.
Amarah sighed. "That's why you beat me so often. You can keep a straight face through anything."
"I'm sure you could find a way to get a rise out of me," teased Michelle.
"Does that mean you don't want to play another game?" asked Amarah, leaning over the chessboard and smiling cockily.
"We could probably find a better way to occupy our time, if we put our minds and bodies to it." The two stared into each other's eyes and saw even more stars than in the night sky.
The sound of a throat clearing caught their attention. "I hope I'm not interrupting anything," said the woman who was now standing beside the table.
"If it's worth the trouble of coming all the way out here, I'm sure it must be more important than what we were doing," Michelle said quickly, before Amarah could say something undiplomatic.
Amarah laid her forehead in her hand and stared sideways at their visitor. "Sure. Must be important. So what's up, Sailor Pluto?"
Sailor Pluto bowed her head. "The Inner Scouts are in trouble. They are facing new opponents with far more power than they are prepared to face at this time."
"But we already saw them safely to the start of the Crystal Millennium!" said Amarah.
"That is why the problem they are facing is so grave," said Pluto. "The new enemy is attacking them during the invasion of the Negaverse."
"An enemy in the past?" asked Michelle. "How is that possible?"
Sailor Pluto shook her head. "I do not know how it could have happened, but Queen Beryl has discovered a way to release part of Chronite's power."
"I don't understand," said Michelle. "Who is Chronite?"
"Beryl's fifth general," replied Pluto. "He has the power to manipulate time, just as I do. However, his power also allows him to reach parallel dimensions."
"Parallel dimensions?" asked Amarah.
"Some dimensions are created by choices that are made... choices large enough to affect the outcome of a timeline. They are merely different possibilities of what might happen under different circumstances within a universe. Those are oblique dimensions. Other dimensions are completely disconnected from each other, and contain very different worlds. Those are called parallel dimensions, for they never meet. Each parallel dimension contains many oblique dimensions. Do you understand?"
Michelle nodded thoughtfully. "So Chronite doesn't have the power to change the outcome of the timeline... but he does have the power to reach other universes?"
"Correct. Within our own dimension, Chronite's powers are limited by a seal which I have placed on this universe. That is why he cannot control time. However, in other universes, he has full control of his powers."
"Then why is he such a threat to the Sailor Scouts?" asked Amarah.
"He is using his power to draw powerful fighters from parallel dimensions," explained Pluto. "These people are not of our world, and as such, their effect on the timeline cannot be predicted. It is entirely possible that these new adversaries could destroy the Sailor Scouts and prevent the coming of the Crystal Millennium, destroying this entire set of oblique dimensions."
Amarah glanced at the chessboard and gulped. "If the timeline shifts... we'd be wiped out!"
"The effects could be even worse," said Sailor Pluto. "If history as we know it is changed within that oblique dimension, it could create a paradox. The power of paradoxes is beyond even my control. It could easily wipe out all oblique dimensions, and possibly even affect other parallel dimensions as well."
"That probably sounds worse than it is," said Amarah.
"No, I'm afraid it's quite likely exactly the opposite. A sufficiently large paradox could destroy all of existence, if allowed to fester in the timeline."
"Then there's hope to correct the paradox?" asked Michelle.
Pluto nodded. "If the events that shape history proceed as they must, then what happens in the meantime doesn't matter. In this case, the Sailor Scouts are known to have sacrificed their lives so that Sailor Moon could defeat Queen Beryl. If any of them dies before her time, that will create a paradox."
"Then it's up to us to protect them," said Michelle.
"It's not quite that easy," said Pluto. "The Sailor Scouts met you for the first time during the period of Mistress 9's invasion."
"That's right," said Amarah. "So if they find out about us then, it would be another paradox."
"But it would be better than leaving the Sailor Scouts to die!" put in Michelle. "There must be some way to help them without revealing ourselves."
"Sailor Uranus, Sailor Neptune; I have faith that you can do this. The Sailor Scouts haven't yet realized their full potential, so their powers are not as strong as they would be when you first met them. It will be your power that turns the tide in their new battle."
"If Queen Beryl is summoning the most powerful fighters from other worlds, will even our power be enough to stop them?" asked Michelle.
"Especially if we have to act without the Inner Scouts finding out about us," added Amarah. "That will make it tough to fight."
"I'm sorry," said Sailor Pluto, "but you are the highest power I can safely turn to. Believe me, I'm taking a great risk even in bringing you back. If anything does happen, then your presence at that time can only make matters worse. But it is a risk I must take. I have run out of other options."
"Can't you use your own power to help them?" asked Michelle.
"No," Pluto replied sadly. "It is forbidden."
"But you can bring us back in time, and that's okay?" asked Amarah.
"I really don't have time to explain at the moment," said Pluto quickly. "I can't even use my powers to halt my own timeline while I visit other points in it. Time is still passing, and the next battle is rapidly approaching. You must decide quickly."
"Decide? You mean we have a choice?"
"I cannot force you to help me, Sailor Uranus. I do have other resources at my disposal. However, the risks associated with them are far greater. I have come to you because you have the greatest chance of succeeding at the least risk. However, it is still not certain that you can win."
"Not my favorite odds," said Amarah.
"But we'll take the job," said Michelle.
"Thank you so much," breathed Pluto with a bow. "I will send you there when you are ready." She backed away and vanished, sending a chill wind through the windowless room. A few chess pieces fell over, clunking loudly on the chessboard.
"Well, shall we get changed?" asked Amarah.
Michelle gasped. "Uranus... look at the board!" Amarah looked. Of all the pieces which had been replaced, only the two kings had fallen when the wind had blown.
"A bad omen," said Amarah.
"Yes. I hope this doesn't mean the worst."
"Hoping is all we can do, right now," said Amarah, clutching her transformation wand to her chest. "Ready?" She glanced at Michelle, who was bent over the chessboard, leaning heavily on the table with her head down. "What's wrong? Are you sick?"
"I just have such a bad feeling about this... Maybe we shouldn't go back. We can just tell Pluto that we can't do it. I know she'll understand..."
Amarah wrapped her arm around Michelle. "It's okay. I know you're scared. I am too. But we promised to help, and you know Pluto wouldn't have come to us if she had any better options."
Michelle nodded and held Amarah's hand, squeezing it gently. "You're right. The Inner Scouts are depending on us." She stood up and grasped her transformation wand firmly. "Let's do it."
"So, are we on for tonight at 8?" asked Lita as she and Ranko left school together.
"Sure thing," said Ranko. "I'm looking forward to seeing your fighting style." They waved to each other, and Lita ran to join her two friends. Once she was out of earshot, Ranko continued talking to herself. "I should be able to compare your style to Sailor Jupiter's next time we fight. That will tell me for sure whether or not you're really her." A stream of hot water poured onto Ranko's head from the heavens, turning her into her male form. "Hey, what gives?" shouted Ranma.
"You don't want to fight the Sailor Scouts as a girl, do you?" asked Ryoko. She floated down next to Ranma and dropped her empty thermos. "Lina's picked a target."
"Already? All I've got is suspects so far. I want to investigate a bit more."
"Boring! Lina and I both want to see some action!"
"How can she be so sure she's got the right girl?" asked Ranma.
"Who cares? It's something to do. You wouldn't believe how boring it is, having to sit there in the Negaverse, staring into that globe at you two putzing around in class..."
"I'M the one who has to endure those classes!" Ranma pointed out. "It's okay for you; you're safe in another universe entirely! Why don't you try sitting in on Mr. Haneda's history class in person sometime?"
Ryoko grabbed Ranma under the arms and took to the sky. "Whatever. If we don't hurry, we'll miss all the best fighting!"
"Fine by me," said Ranma under his breath as they rose into the air.
"Excellent," said Beryl to herself. "All the players are in position. Now the fun begins."
The girl in black watched silently, saying nothing.
Stephanie hummed to herself as she headed for home. The great thing about band practice was the way the songs stuck in your head afterwards. The lively beat set her at a brisk pace toward home. Tonight was sushi night. Stephanie's mom made the best sushi in the city, as far as Stephanie was concerned. Her hyperactive energy was nearly at the bursting point, and she felt like skipping, but kept herself in check. There was no point in drawing attention to herself.
"Hey, Stephanie!" called a friendly-sounding voice from the park. Stephanie turned to see a woman standing in the shadow of a tree, resting her back against the tall trunk. As she leaned forward, her red hair caught Stephanie's eye.
"Amelia! Is that you?" Stephanie started to wave, but her hand fell to her side as the woman stepped out of the shadow. Jewelry all over the woman's clothing caught the sunlight, and her cape trailed behind her as she walked. "You're not Amelia! Who are you?"
"I'm Lina Inverse," replied the woman. "I'm disappointed you don't recognize me."
"Recognize you? From where? I don't believe we've met!"
"Of course we have, Stephanie," said Lina. "Or should I call you... Sailor Mars?"
Stephanie's eyes widened. "What are you talking about? I'm not Sailor Mars!"
"Oh, come now," said Lina, gathering energy in her hand. "You don't need to pretend any more. I already know your true identity, so just transform into Sailor Mars so I can get this over with."
"I told you, I'm not Sailor Mars!" shouted Stephanie.
"Methinks the lady doth protest too much," said Lina with a smile. "If you don't transform, you'll be completely defenseless. Isn't there a point at which keeping your identity secret just isn't worth the trouble any more?"
"Why won't you believe me?" sobbed Stephanie. "I'm not a Sailor Scout at all!"
"So what was all that talk about fiery hearts and truth and justice?" asked Lina.
"How did you know about that?" asked Stephanie.
"You ran away to warn the other Scouts when I let my plan slip, just like I thought you would," Lina continued.
"I don't understand! What plan? I really don't know what you're talking about!"
Lina sweatdropped. "Geez, how dense can you get? I know Beryl said that people in this universe can't recognize anyone wearing a bit of jewelry, but this is just ridiculous!"
Stephanie took a careful step backward, staring at the energy collecting in Lina's hand. "Please, I don't want any trouble!"
"It's too late for that," said Lina. "If you really are Sailor Mars, then I have to kill you because you're a threat to my employer; not that I really care what she thinks, but I've got a pretty big stake invested in this mission. And if you're telling the truth, then you know too much for me to let you live."
Stephanie shook her head emphatically, continuing to back away. "I don't know anything about you! Really!" As Lina began to advance on Stephanie, keeping their distance constant, Stephanie raised her voice. "Somebody help me! I'm being attacked!"
"Nobody's going to rescue you, Sailor Mars," said Lina. The energy collected into a fireball. "By the time anyone finds you, you'll be nothing more than a pile of ash. That is, unless you defend yourself now."
Stephanie's foot came down on a smooth rock, tripping her. She fell flat on her back, but quickly caught her breath, snatched up the rock, and threw it at Lina. The sorceress closed her eyes and snapped her fingers, and the rock shattered in midair.
When Lina opened her eyes again, the reflection of the flames in her eyes was even brighter than the fire in her hand. "Dammit, transform already! I'm losing my patience here!" Stephanie's mouth moved, but all that emerged from her throat was a strangled gasp. "I really don't want to kill you when you're helpless, but you're leaving me no choice!" Lina shouted furiously. She aimed her hand at Stephanie. "You've got one more chance before I let you have it!"
Stephanie closed her eyes and her chest began to heave with her sobs. Lina's teeth clenched in anger. "I hate you!" shouted Lina. "You make me sick!" The fireball began to grow in intensity as Lina worked herself into a frenzy. Killing was never easy, particularly when the target was human, but Lina knew that if she could become angry enough, she could get the job done and the misery wouldn't come until her target was long dead. "You really are Sailor Mars, no matter what you say, and that means you have to die!"
Lina paused, the fireball fully primed and ready for casting. Stephanie, confused by the silence, looked up into Lina's eyes, and the sorceress swallowed hard. Could the pure innocence she saw really belong to the fiery Sailor Mars? The fireball flickered. Lina clenched the fist of her free hand and turned away. Not having to look helped her muster her determination. "This is for Gourry!" she shouted, and the flames burned brighter than they ever had before. "Now! FIREBALL!"
Lina felt rather than heard the explosion as her fireball struck home, tearing a hole in the street where it had impacted. She turned to where Stephanie had been, reminding herself that not looking wouldn't change anything at this point. To her surprise, she saw only an empty crater where she had expected an assortment of body parts.
"Are you okay, Stephanie?" asked a soft voice from off to Lina's left. She turned to a girl in an orange sailor fuku carefully laying Stephanie down beside a tree. Stephanie groaned weakly in response. "That was a close one! I thought we were both dead!"
Lina growled. "You moved her before I cast my Fireball spell, didn't you?"
"That's right!" shouted the Sailor Scout, striking a defiant pose. "I'm Sailor Venus, defender of love! Stephanie is a kind girl with a pure heart full of love! How dare you try to kill such a wonderful person!"
Lina quickly shut out Venus' words, reminding herself that her temper was the only thing that would keep her mind on the fight and prevent her from losing her nerve. "My mission is to kill all of you, but right now I'm only after her. If you leave now, you'll live to fight another day."
"Never! I will defend the lives of the innocent with my own life if I have to!"
"You asked for it! FIREBALL!"
Venus took an offensive stance and pointed her finger at the incoming fireball. "VENUS CRESCENT BEAM SMASH!" The fireball exploded just short of Venus, throwing her backwards. She tripped over Stephanie and landed hard on her butt. "Ouch! That's some power!" she said as she stood up, rubbing her aching posterior.
"Get ready," warned Lina, "because here comes another just like it!" She raised her arm, and a sharp pain lanced through her wrist. She stared at her hand as a trickle of blood began to run through a long slit in her white glove. "How did that happen?"
"VENUS CRESCENT BEAM SMASH!" shouted Sailor Venus, taking advantage of Lina's distraction to launch her own attack. The beam struck Lina in the chest and knocked her backwards. Lina's foot crushed a rose that appeared to have been thrust into the ground as she stumbled.
"A rose?" asked Lina. "That must have come from that Mask guy!"
"That's Tuxedo Mask to you, evildoer!" said Tuxedo Mask, leaping down from his perch on a tree branch. "Those who attack the innocent must pay for their crimes!"
"Tuxedo Mask, get Stephanie to safety!" shouted Venus. "I'll keep her busy!"
"I don't think so," said Lina. "FREEZE ARROW!" She raised her hands as if holding a bow and arrow, and a crystal of ice formed where the arrow would be. She released the crystal at Sailor Venus, who couldn't react quickly enough as it flew toward its mark. It was only Tuxedo Mask's quick reflexes that saved her, as he leapt in front of the projectile and protected Sailor Venus with his own body. The ice covered him from head to toe as the crystal struck him, imprisoning him in a cocoon of ice.
"Tuxedo Mask, no!" shouted Sailor Venus. "Don't worry! Sailor Mars will thaw you out soon, I promise!"
"That's the idea," said Lina, marveling at how perfectly the details had fallen into place. "The only way you can save him is for your friend there to turn into Sailor Mars."
Venus looked down at Stephanie, then back to Lina. "What? She's not Sailor Mars!"
Lina laughed, suddenly understanding why Naga had always tortured her with that annoying whiny laugh. There was no better way to shut out your opponent's words and keep your temper in the killing zone. "You're lying!"
"Please," moaned Stephanie as she stood up, using the rough trunk of the tree to pull herself to her feet. "Don't fight over me..."
Sailor Venus spread her arms wide. "If you want to hurt Stephanie, you'll have to get through me first!"
"My pleasure," said Lina, flashing her teeth evilly. "FIREBALL!"
Venus stood her ground as the fireball approached, pointing a single finger at the incoming projectile. "VENUS CRESCENT BEAM SMASH!" This time, the fireball exploded far enough from both combatants to avoid damaging either of them.
"Okay, is that the way you want it?" asked Lina, rolling up her sleeves. "Then try this on for size! BURST RONDO!" This spell launched hundreds of tiny glowing discs at Venus. Venus' first impulse was to dive out of the way, but that would expose the still-weak Stephanie to the attack, and there was no time to move her out of the way. Gritting her teeth, Venus braced herself for the impact.
A force that had destroyed many walls slammed into Venus, throwing her backwards to land on top of Stephanie. Venus quickly arranged herself to protect her charge from the flying discs, feeling them pound into her back like stones from a sling. She lowered her head and covered it with her hands, knowing that if even one of the discs found its mark in the wrong spot, she could be paralyzed or even killed instantly by the force.
Fortunately, Lina soon let up her spell. "Too bad you didn't run when you had the chance," she said, raising her arm for one final attack. "FIREBALL!"
Venus turned to face the incoming fireball, but as soon as she shifted position, the damage done by the Burst Rondo took its toll. Intense pain shot through the top half of her body, forcing her to curl into a ball. She did her best to shield Stephanie from the blast, but every inch she moved caused the pain to double. Unable to move any more, Sailor Venus closed her eyes and waited for the end.
"MERCURY BUBBLES SPLASH!" came the timely shout from the far end of the park. Bubbles filled the air between the fireball and Sailor Venus, dissipating the flames on contact. Sailor Venus stared gratefully through tear-streaked eyes at her rescuers. Sailors Moon, Mercury, and Jupiter stood atop the statue in the center of the park.
"Thanks, guys," she whispered. "You got here just in time." Having said this, Sailor Venus lost consciousness, collapsing onto Stephanie.
"Sailor Venus!" shouted the Sailor Scouts as they ran through the park to kneel beside their unconscious comrade.
"She's okay," said Sailor Jupiter. "She'll survive, as long as she isn't hurt any worse until we can get her out of here." The three Scouts took up protective positions between Lina and Sailor Venus.
"We are the Sailor Scouts!" said Sailor Moon. "We stand for love and justice! You've not only attacked an innocent girl, but you've hurt Sailor Venus as well! And for that," she finished, striking her familiar pose, "we shall punish you!"
Lina took a quick mental count. "What a coincidence... the only one who's missing is Sailor Mars."
"She's just running a little late today!" said Sailor Moon.
Lina pointed to Stephanie. "Well, she's about to be late in another sense. The late Sailor Mars!"
"What's she talking about?" asked Mercury. "Do you know who that girl is, Jupiter?"
"A friend of Venus'?" guessed Sailor Jupiter. "I don't think I've seen her before."
"Lies! All lies!" shouted Lina, her fury reaching fever pitch as she drew on all the magical power she could handle. "BURST RONDO!"
As the discs spun their way toward the Sailor Scouts, Sailor Mercury spread her arms in front of her body. "MERCURY BUBBLES SPLASH!" The bubbles floated from her hands to intercept the discs, canceling out the magical power.
"FLARE ARROW!" shouted Lina, launching an arrow of light at the Sailor Scouts.
"JUPITER THUNDER CRASH!" countered Sailor Jupiter, crossing her arms in front of her chest and extending her index and pinky fingers. Lightning crackled, absorbing the power of Lina's attack.
Lina growled. "You're not leaving me any choice! I didn't want to have to use the Dragon Slave and destroy the whole city just to kill you!"
"Well, that's a pleasant change," said Sailor Moon speculatively. "Normally the bad guys are trying to kill everyone else and we show up to save them!"
"She's gathering a lot of power!" shouted Sailor Mercury. "We have to escape!"
"But we can't leave Venus and her friend here!" protested Jupiter.
"You're right," said Mercury. "We have to hold her off until Sailor Mars gets here to thaw out Tuxedo Mask."
"Tuxedo Mask?" asked Sailor Moon. "Where's my Tuxedo Mask?" Her head whipped around as she searched the park for her future husband until her eyes fell on the block of ice beside her. "Oh no! Tuxedo Mask!" She knelt beside the ice crystal and leaned against it, her breath misting on its surface. "Don't worry, Tuxedo Mask! We'll get you out of there, I promise!"
Lina raised her hand to launch the spell that would destroy Sailor Moon, but as the dark power gathered, her vision swam. She saw herself in Sailor Moon's place, crying against the crystal in which Gourry was imprisoned. As she watched, the crystal shattered, each fragment splitting into smaller and smaller pieces until there was nothing at all left but the cuts on her hands from the shards that had broken off under her palms. Her hand dropped to her side as she watched the vision unfold. The rage was gone. She couldn't bring herself to destroy Sailor Moon now, even for Gourry's sake.
A fireball landed at Sailor Moon's feet, throwing her and the block of ice in opposite directions. "Hey, looks like most of them are still alive!" cheered Ryoko as she and Ranma landed beside Lina. "Now it's time to clean up!"
"I can't," choked Lina inaudibly.
Ranma pointed to Sailor Jupiter. "You and me, one on one!" he shouted, stepping away from his teammates.
Ryoko clapped her hands together. "All right, Lina. Do you want Mercury, or the leader?" Lina didn't respond. Ryoko waved her hand in front of Lina's face. "Hello?" Ryoko shrugged. "I guess I'll take care of the rest of them."
"JUPITER THUNDER CRASH!" shouted Jupiter, launching her electric attack at Ranma. Ranma screamed in pain as the electricity lanced through his body, but the shock was momentary. He fell to one knee and glared up at Jupiter.
"Is that the best you've got?" he asked. Before Jupiter could strike again, he darted in to close range and began a simple combination of attacks, watching carefully as Jupiter blocked them. He gave Jupiter an opening and was pleased to see that she took it, pressing the offensive and forcing Ranma to defend himself. The pattern was simple, but Ranma took in the details of her form and technique as he easily dodged the blows.
Meanwhile, Ryoko slowly advanced on Sailor Mercury and the still-dazed Sailor Moon, drawing her energy sword. Sailor Mercury raised her hands. "MERCURY BUBBLES -"
"Oh, no you don't!" shouted Ryoko, charging at Mercury. Mercury had to halt her attack as she barely ducked under Ryoko's sword swing. A second swing narrowly missed its mark as Mercury fell backwards, but the blade sliced the front of her skirt apart. Ryoko raised her sword above her head, point down, and prepared to thrust it down into the Sailor Scout's chest.
"MARS FIRE IGNITE!" Ryoko turned toward the voice, but the attack had caught her off guard. Before she could focus her energy into her shield, the flames rolled over her body, charring her.
Lina snapped to attention. "Sailor Mars?" She looked down at Stephanie, who was still lying under Sailor Venus, and then to the girl in the red skirt at the park entrance. "Then... she really isn't...?"
"Sailor Mars!" cheered Sailor Mercury.
"Sorry I'm late," said Mars. "I got over here as soon as Artemis told me what was going on!"
"Sailor Venus and Sailor Moon are both down," said the white cat beside her. "I think it's probably time for a retreat!"
Ranma froze. "Is that a c-c-c-c-c-" Jupiter's fist landed in Ranma's face, sending him stumbling backwards. He quickly focused as best he could on his opponent, but his spine tingled every time his eyes returned to the tiny white form at the park entrance, weakening his defenses.
"We're not going to be able to escape this time," said Mars. "We'd have to leave somebody behind. This fight is for real!" She aimed her fingers at the nearest target, which happened to be Lina. "MARS FIRE IGNITE!" Lina made no move to avoid the blast.
"Hey, watch it!" shouted Ryoko, interposing herself between Lina and the fire and using her own shield to block the blast. "What's wrong with you?"
"I can't do it," said Lina. "I can't fight them."
"You were doing fine a few minutes ago!" said Ryoko.
"They're fighting the same battle as we are."
Ryoko shrugged. "That's the point, isn't it? There are two sides. That's what makes it a battle!"
"No!" shouted Lina. "We're all on the same side! Queen Beryl's got something that's important to each of us. She's got the people we love trapped in crystals... and she's taking over their world."
"And if we don't fight them, she'll destroy the crystals AND take over the world! We're just facilitators, you know! She doesn't feel like wasting her power, so she's hired us to do the dirty work."
"I know," whispered Lina. "I just can't fight them any more. Not right now."
"Fine!" snapped Ryoko. "At least Ranma's doing something." She watched Ranma fight for a few seconds. "Hey, Saotome! You slacker! You're not even fighting back!"
"Huh?" asked Sailor Jupiter as she continued to keep Ranma on the defensive. She'd assumed that her fighting skill was simply too good for her opponent to match, but if he was just holding back... He certainly didn't seem to have any trouble keeping up with her, while her arms and legs were beginning to ache. Yet she didn't dare let up, or he would certainly be able to overpower her.
"What a useless bunch of wimps!" shouted Ryoko. "I have to do everything myself!" She raised her arms and began to launch fireballs in all directions, forcing the conscious Sailor Scouts to dodge the blasts. Sailor Venus awoke as a fireball exploded nearby and leapt to her feet, only to be sent flying by the force of the next impact. Another fireball sent Mars flying headlong into a block of ice near the park entrance.
"This is no good," said Ryoko. "They're too damned agile! I'll just have to find a stationary target." She aimed her arm at Sailor Moon and charged up a fireball. Before she could launch it, however, she was swept off her feet by a giant stone that glowed with such intensity that it appeared to be made entirely of light, surrounded by a ring of energy.
"What was that?" asked Sailor Mercury, searching for the source of the benevolent attack.
Lina turned toward the direction from which the stone had come, only to be struck in the back by a ball of water surrounded by a similar ring. She fell to her hands and knees, shaking the droplets from her hair.
"That one came from that building!" shouted Sailor Venus, pointing.
"Wherever they came from, somebody's helping us!" said Artemis.
A deep voice boomed throughout the park. "SAILOR SCOUTS, YOU MUST FLEE. YOU CANNOT WIN THIS BATTLE."
A cane came down on Ranma's head, knocking him aside. Tuxedo Mask stepped between Ranma and Sailor Jupiter. "Sailor Scouts, it's time to go! I'll take care of Stephanie and Sailor Moon!"
"Are you okay?" asked Jupiter. "You're dripping wet, and you're shivering!"
"Sailor Mars just thawed me out of a block of ice," replied Tuxedo Mask. "Now, Sailor Mercury! Hide us!"
Mercury nodded. "MERCURY BUBBLES SPLASH!" The entire park filled with fog. Ranma quickly scrambled up a nearby tree to get above the moisture before it could trigger his curse.
"Oh, no you don't!" shouted Ryoko. She teleported to the spot where Stephanie lay and drew her sword. "This girl knows too much to live!"
"DIEM WING!" shouted Lina. Wind swept through the park, blowing the fog away. Ranma looked down from his perch to see Sailor Jupiter lift Sailor Moon onto her shoulders. He leapt down to attack her, but a ball of dark energy exploded at his feet, sending him flying backwards into the tree trunk.
"Damn!" said Ryoko. "Who's shooting at us?" She looked around, trying to determine where the shots were coming from, but there was no sign of life outside of the park. She raised her energy sword barely in time to block Tuxedo Mask's swing as he charged at her.
"Tuxedo Mask, no!" shouted Sailor Moon, wriggling free of Jupiter's grip.
"Run, Sailor Moon!" ordered Tuxedo Mask. "I'll protect Stephanie!"
"I won't leave you, Tuxedo Mask!" shouted Sailor Moon.
"LEAVE THIS PLACE NOW, ALL OF YOU!" commanded the disembodied voice.
"Who is that?" asked Venus.
"Never mind who it is," said Jupiter. "I think we should do what they say! They're probably the one helping us!"
"But what about Stephanie and Tuxedo Mask?" asked Sailor Moon.
"I hate to say it, but until we can come up with a plan, we're just putting ourselves in danger by being here!" said Mars. "Sailor Moon, it's time to face facts. Sometimes, we have to make sacrifices!"
"No! I won't just stand here and let innocent people die!" Sailor Moon pulled her tiara off her head and let it float above her hand. "MOON TIARA MAGIC!" The tiara turned into a glowing discus. Sailor Moon threw the discus at Ryoko, who blocked it with her sword. While she was distracted, a glowing stone projectile smashed into her from the side, knocking her down.
"Now's our chance!" shouted Tuxedo Mask, hefting Stephanie onto his shoulder. "Let's go!" He leapt into the air, and the Sailor Scouts all ran for the park entrance.
"You're not getting away from me!" shouted Ryoko, teleporting in front of Tuxedo Mask. She swung her sword, knocking Tuxedo Mask out of the air. He fell to the ground, losing his grip on Stephanie, who rolled for several feet before stopping. As Tuxedo Mask regained his feet, Ryoko's sword was at his throat. "One move, and I'll kill you!"
"Tuxedo Mask!" shouted Sailor Moon.
Ryoko whirled Tuxedo Mask around and wrapped her arm around his chin, holding the sword at his throat with her other hand. "Anyone moves, and I slit his throat! And just in case you're thinking of using any fancy powers, think again! I can kill him before you even say your own name." Raising her voice, she added, "That goes for you other cowards who can't even show yourselves too! Do you think you can hit me without hurting him as well?"
Sailor Mars clenched her fists. "I can't believe there's nothing we can do!"
Ryoko jerked her head toward Stephanie, who was already groaning and starting to get to her hands and knees. "Hurry up! One of you kill her!"
"She's your victim, Lina," said Ranma, making a sweeping gesture toward the girl.
"But she's not a Sailor Scout!" protested Lina.
"You should have done some more research," replied Ranma. "You dug the grave... you have to fill it."
"She's an innocent girl! Why does she have to suffer for my mistake?"
"I don't like it any more than you do, but it's what Queen Beryl ordered."
"That's not an excuse," said Lina, less forcefully.
"Well, one of you hurry up and kill her!" snapped Ryoko. Her words fell on deaf ears, as Ranma and Lina had already stopped arguing and were staring open-mouthed at the new arrival in the park. Ryoko followed their gaze to see the girl in black standing between the now-silent pair and their intended victim. The girl in black strode smoothly over to where Stephanie was and knelt beside her.
"Who is that?" asked Sailor Mars.
"Stay away from her!" shouted Venus.
Sailor Moon took a quick step forward, but Ryoko raised her sword arm threateningly, and she was forced to back away. "Please, don't hurt her!" she pleaded helplessly.
The girl in black knelt beside Stephanie and put a gloved hand under her chin, lifting Stephanie's head until she was staring into the shadowed face. The dark one slowly lowered her own head until her face was right above Stephanie's, and then pressed her lips to the other girl's in a kiss. The kiss lasted less than a second before the girl in black stood up and turned to her comrades.
"She will not talk," said the girl in black. She looked up at Ranma and Lina, who saw just a faint glimmer of white where the girl's eyes should have been before she vanished once again.
Tuxedo Mask took advantage of Ryoko's surprise to elbow her in the stomach and run to kneel beside Stephanie. "Are you all right?" he asked.
Stephanie nodded and opened her mouth to reply, but no sound came out. Shocked, she soundlessly opened and closed her mouth, her alarm increasing as her continued efforts produced no noise at all. "What's wrong with me?" she seemed to ask, and then she burst into silent tears, crying into Tuxedo Mask's shoulder. Sailor Moon stepped forward with an angry expression on her face, but Sailor Jupiter held her back.
"Now isn't the time to be jealous," said Jupiter.
Ryoko stared at Ranma and Lina, who stared back. Feeling that something more needed to be said, Ryoko floated nearer and stood over the crying girl. "You're lucky we've let you off so easy," she said, pausing to allow Stephanie to look up at her. "But if you ever tell anyone about what happened here today, we'll come back, and we will kill you. Understand?" Stephanie nodded, and Ryoko turned around to join Ranma and Lina. "Let's go. We'll take care of the rest of them another time." The portal to the Negaverse opened, and they stepped through it.
The Sailor Scouts all breathed a sigh of relief. "Stephanie, are you okay?" asked Venus.
Stephanie stood and ran to Sailor Venus, throwing her arms around the Scout. She looked up at Venus and mouthed the words "Thank you," before the tears began again. The other Sailor Scouts stood in a circle around the silenced girl, wrapping their arms around her in a consoling group hug.
Sailor Mercury raised her head. "Thank you for helping us..." she called to their invisible assistants. "Whoever you are..." She bowed her head and joined in the group prayer that Sailor Mars was leading. She knew that they hadn't won the fight; it had been a draw at best, and it was only the outside interference in their favor that had saved their lives. Although the words of Mars' prayer were for Stephanie's recovery from her condition, the Sailor Scouts all knew the real intent of her plea to the spirits. It was a prayer of gratitude that they were all still alive, and a prayer for the strength to survive the rest of their battles.
"Just keep hoping," whispered Mercury, as much to herself and the other Scouts as to Stephanie. "Everything will work out if we keep believing." That said, she closed her eyes and let the peaceful mantra of Mars' prayer push the memory of the battle out of her mind and calm her nerves, confident that when the time came to fight again, they would be ready to rise to the challenge.
Once she was sure that the Inner Scouts were out of earshot, Sailor Uranus kicked the alley wall in disgust. "Why? Why couldn't we just have finished them off right here? That girl wouldn't have to suffer if we'd gotten the job done!"
"Because we would certainly have been discovered," replied Pluto. "Although the lives of the Inner Scouts are our top priority, we must not them find out about us."
Uranus groaned in frustration. "So we're reduced to occasional shots from the sidelines? We'll never win that way!"
"I had hoped that the Sailor Scouts would have heeded my warning and left," said Pluto. "Once they were gone, we would have been able to confront their enemies directly. Unfortunately, they failed to escape."
"We could probably have won the battle if we'd gotten there just a bit sooner, before the other Scouts showed up," said Neptune.
"Unfortunately," countered Pluto, "'ifs' are the building blocks of the past. The future is made of 'therefores.'"
"I've seen more comprehensible proverbs in fortune cookies," said Uranus.
Neptune sighed. "She means that it's no good to sit around brooding about what we could have done. We have to decide what to do next. IF we had gotten there earlier, we could have done more, but we didn't. THEREFORE, we have to plan for our next battle."
"Exactly," agreed Pluto. "The enemy will be alert to our presence the next time we fight, and that will make our task more difficult."
"If they discover us, they could betray us to the Inner Scouts," said Neptune.
"Then we're even worse off than before!" shouted Uranus.
"I never said that this battle would be easy," replied Pluto. "We are fighting powers that could destroy the universe, even without the power of a paradox."
"Then you know something about them?" asked Neptune.
Pluto nodded slowly. "I do. But because of the nature of one of them, I cannot tell you about them. The knowledge belongs to the Gate of Time, and for me to divulge it, even to you, could cause a paradox."
"These damn paradoxes keep popping up everywhere!" fumed Uranus. "We can't get anything done without destroying the fabric of the universe!"
"Do not lose hope," urged Pluto. "I think I may have a plan that will allow us to defeat our enemies the next time we meet."
"That's a relief," said Neptune. "What is it?"
"If you can tell us without causing a paradox," added Uranus.
"I don't think that will be a problem," said Pluto with a smile.
"A non-paradoxical plan that will work?" Uranus smirked. "It's too good to be true."
"Just have faith in Pluto, Uranus," chided Sailor Neptune. "After all, she placed her faith in us."
"All right. I'll go along with it. But this plan had better work!"
Pluto stared into the sky. "I hope so," she replied. "I truly hope so."