Categories > Anime/Manga > Sailor Moon > A General Time Paradox

Chapter 11: Through the Pain

by Nidoking 0 Reviews

Separated from each other, the Sailor Scouts each find themselves facing seemingly insurmountable challenges.

Category: Sailor Moon - Rating: R - Genres: Action/Adventure, Crossover - Characters: Ami (Mercury), Beryl, Haruka (Uranus), Makoto (Jupiter), Michiru (Neptune), Minako (Venus), Pluto, Rei (Mars), Tuxedo Kamen, Usagi (Moon) - Warnings: [!!!] [V] - Published: 2007/05/03 - Updated: 2007/05/04 - 10667 words

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A General Time Paradox
Chapter 11: Through the Pain

It was rather fortunate for Sailor Mercury that news tended to travel quickly through the Juuban district, particularly when it concerned monsters attacking anyone who failed to find a safe place to hide. As she ran from the scene of the battle with one eye on her visor, watching the data her computer flashed across the tiny screen, she barely paid enough attention to the rest of the world to avoid running into buildings. Had there been any pedestrians in the streets, she would most likely have run several of them over without even realizing it. She didn't miss the buildings by much, either, as every word that crossed her display seemed to create more questions than it answered....
"It has very powerful psychic energy," she recapped aloud to herself as she slowed to a walk to read the latest calculation, "and it can use that energy to create a barrier impenetrable by any physical object or any form of energy attack. It can also project that energy in the form of telekinesis, lifting objects and manipulating them at will without having to weaken its own protective barrier." All this from a few minutes and a single attack to base the analysis on... at times, Mercury wanted to worship her former self for having created such a useful computer. Still, it had its limits. For all that it had determined about the creature's power, it had not yet come up with a reasonable solution. Every so often, her fingers tapped at the keyboard, posting a new query that invariably met with the same result: NO MATCH.
"There must be a solution!" shouted Mercury, directing her exclamation at the device in her hand.
NO MATCH remained resolutely on the display.
"What about its armor?" she asked, tapping a sequence of keys that would instruct the computer to analyze further the data it had collected on the creature's armor.
"Constructed by humans as a means of controlling the creature's power," replied the computer. "Apparently created specifically for this creature, although parts of the armor seem to be older than the creature itself."
"That's not very helpful," Mercury said aloud, adding the word WEAKNESSES to the query.
NO MATCH was the reply.
"But there must be something we can do!" Mercury stopped to catch her breath, searching for a more fruitful line of inquiry. "What about those incredible new powers we've seen? The boulders, the water... are they really the Sailor Scouts of the Outer Planets?"
"The limited available data seems to match the profile," assented the computer. "However, not enough information is available on the Sailor Scouts of the Outer Planets for an accurate comparison."
"Don't you have any information on them from the Silver Millennium?" asked Mercury.
There was a dauntingly long pause. Finally, the words SILVER MILLENNIUM DATA ARCHIVE ACCESSING... INDEXING... crossed the screen. Sailor Mercury heaved a sigh of relief. "I never realized that the computer had access to these records," she said aloud as she watched the progress meter fill up with the accumulated knowledge of the centuries-gone civilization of the Moon Kingdom.
DATA INDEX COMPLETE, announced the screen. COMPLETE PREVIOUS QUERY? (Y/N)
Mercury's finger slid toward the 'y' key, then stopped. "I have a better idea," she said, tapping in a new command. "Search the archive for any abilities that might be able to penetrate that barrier."
SEARCHING... 62 MATCHES.
"I don't have time to read them all!" Her fingers flew across the keyboard. "Search through those results for techniques that we can perform at our current power level."
SEARCHING... 2 MATCHES.
"That's more like it," said Mercury, pulling up the first file.
"Sailor Box," the article began. "This technique allows the four Sailor Scouts of the Inner Planets to create a barrier through which no enemy force can penetrate, neither to enter nor to leave the box."
Mercury sighed. "It has all the right keywords, but in the wrong order.... I suppose not even the Mercury Computer's search engine is perfect." Despite its inapplicability to the current situation, the technique did sound useful. Mercury transferred it to her own data directory and opened the other file, hoping for the best.
The second file appeared to be an excerpt from a journal written by Sailor Mercury herself on Planet Power. "It seems that many types of enemy barriers have proven effective in guarding against the attacks based on Planet Power. However, we have observed a greater degree of success at penetrating these barriers when two or more elements of Planet Power are combined. Even so, a recent battle (as of this writing) saw my partners and myself fighting an enemy whose protection seemed impenetrable even by all of our techniques combined. Our victory was as much a matter of blind luck as of skill and strategy. Therefore, it is imperative that I discover some means of penetrating the most powerful barrier using the skills that we possess. I shudder to think what the result would be should we find ourselves in a battle the likes of that again without the necessary technique...."
Mercury quickly scanned through the rest of the file, searching for any sign that her predecessor had managed to complete her research, but it seemed to be nothing more than a catalogue of failures - until she got about two-thirds of the way down the file. At that point, the layout of the data changed, becoming a narrow columnar list rather than paragraphs of description. Mercury quickly scrolled back up to see what had brought on the sudden shift.
"Research has been slow recently because the other Scouts are beginning to think that this research is futile," said the final full entry, "but I think I've finally found a solution. Even Mars, who has protested this project from the beginning, seems hopeful about this latest development. It was while we were experimenting with the practice barrier that Venus suggested concentrating a prolonged unified attack against a single point on the barrier. We all chose a spot, marked it, and fired, keeping our energy focused on the same spot. After about ten seconds, a globe of white light formed at the intersection of the beams, and the barrier's computer recorded a penetration. However, not one of the beams actually passed through the barrier. Apparently, the combined beam is capable of weakening the barrier enough to allow penetration in that spot, but some additional element will be required in order to reach the enemy with an attack. What that element might be, however, has yet to be determined.
"Clearly, this result presents an entirely new direction for my research. Unfortunately, there are several problems with the technique that will have to be overcome before it would be effective in battle. Probably the greatest of these concerns is the range at which it is useable. Specifically, we were unable to produce the penetration effect even from a distance of one and a half meters from the barrier. It would be impossible to remain at that range for the ten seconds required for the technique to work. In addition, the targeting of the energy beams must be precise, which is difficult to do without a visual cue as a guide. Furthermore, the technique will still be completely useless if I cannot make it affect a target within the barrier. It is highly unlikely that all of these problems will be overcome through the course of my research, in which case any further experimentation on this result will simply be a waste of effort better spent elsewhere. However, I cannot afford to dismiss out of hand the only result I have yet found. The others already grow impatient with my lack of results... if this turns out to be another blind alley, I fear that they may not be willing to continue contributing their time and power, and I will never find my answer."
From that point, the journal simply began to list the various variations of the technique that Sailor Mercury had tried, not even bothering to list the results of each trial. Apparently, it was a rapid-fire succession of trials that had produced no results. Mercury scrolled down the list quickly, hoping to find good news at the bottom.
Suddenly, an invisible force struck the Mercury Computer, knocking it out of Mercury's hand. She stopped abruptly and looked up, letting the visor retract into her headband as she came face-to-helmet with her armored foe. A single reflexive step backwards was all she could manage before her legs gave out under her from the shock. "Y-you..." she stuttered.
"Why would you be surprised to see me?" asked the creature. "Did you honestly think that you could escape from me?" The blue lights in its visor seemed to bore into her soul as it stared at her.
Mercury swallowed and steeled her nerves. "What are you?" she asked. "What kind of monster are you?"
Surprisingly, the creature shook its head. "I am not a monster. I merely have the misfortune to be employed by one." Before Mercury could parse the unexpected declaration, the creature extended a hand toward the fallen computer, which rose into the air. "As for what I am," the creature continued, "I am Mew Two, greater and more powerful successor to the most powerful Pokémon ever to exist."
'More powerful than the most powerful?' thought Mercury. The oxymoron aside, "Mew Two" seemed to consider this quite an accomplishment. 'Whatever "Pokémon" are, they must be powerful....'
"Pathetic creatures, all of them," said Mewtwo, as if in response to Mercury's thought. "They are willing slaves to humans. Mindless. I now understand what it means to be free, and will nevermore serve any master but myself." With a gesture, Mewtwo brought the computer floating toward it, but hastily drew its hand back as if in fear of touching the device as it approached. Instead, it turned its hand around, causing the unit to spin and tilt in midair so that it could admire the device from all angles. "Still, humans do have their talents. This is quite an interesting little contraption, for a human invention." It stared down at its own armored arm disdainfully. "I'm afraid it has to go." Mewtwo swung its arm quickly to the side, hurling the computer into a brick wall and shattering it into hundreds of tiny pieces.
The sound of exploding metal jolted Mercury back to her senses. Now that Mewtwo was no longer distracted by her computer, it would be coming after her. She had to escape! She raised her trembling hands. "MERCURY BUBBLES SPLASH!" As the thick fog covered the street, Mercury leapt to her feet and prepared to run. Mewtwo would probably expect her to run away from it, she decided, so she carefully waited until the right moment, and then ran toward the spot where Mewtwo had been, darting to the side at the last second to duck into an alley that she had noticed earlier. Safely hidden from Mewtwo's eyes, Mercury kept her steps as light as she could to prevent any sound from reaching its ears either.
Several steps beyond the mouth of the alley, she smacked face first into something hard and metallic which knocked her down again. A pair of cold blue eyes glared out of the fringe of the fog in front of her. "Did you think you could run away?" asked Mewtwo. "I know exactly where you are at every moment! It is impossible to hide from me!"
Panicked, Mercury jumped to her feet again, unsure of where to run but certain that she had to run somewhere. Anywhere. As long as she could get away from Mewtwo....
An invisible force lifted her off the ground before she could take a single step, rotating her into a prone position in midair. She couldn't feel anything supporting her as she floated who-knew-how-far above the ground - the dense fog around her gave her no visual cues to guess at her height - but whatever held her in place prevented her from moving a muscle. Her breathing quickened in fear, but she refused to cry out. She would not give her captor that satisfaction! She simply had to keep her thoughts calm and try to figure out how to escape....
The fog to her left parted, and the tall, shadowy form of Mewtwo stepped into view through the gap. "Somehow, I had expected fighting humans to be... enjoyable. Instead, I find it even more tedious than fighting Pokémon!" It raised a paw, holding it mere inches from Mercury's body. "I could crush you right now, and you could do nothing to stop me!" The stubby fingers flexed, then clenched hard. At that moment, Mercury felt an enormous pressure on her entire torso that pinned her arms to her sides and squeezed the air out of her lungs. Panic set in again, and she fought against the force with all of her strength, causing her head to thrash back and forth as her legs kicked at the air; but the rest of her body remained completely rigid in Mewtwo's grip, the crushing pressure unchanged by her effort.
Realizing the futility of struggling, Mercury quickly calmed herself and focused on the upper half of her body, trying to match Mewtwo's power with her own, but it was like pushing against a brick wall. Mewtwo's mental hold didn't budge an inch, no matter how hard she fought against it. She simply didn't have the physical prowess to resist Mewtwo's mind - maybe someone like Jupiter could overcome such force with pure strength, but Mercury's strength had always been her intellect, and none of the thoughts racing through her mind was of any use to her.
As Mercury felt her eyes begin to bulge out of their sockets, her mouth opened of its own accord to attempt to draw in a breath, but that only gave the last of her air supply an outlet, emptying her lungs completely. Her chest began to collapse under the continued pressure, and her slowing heartbeat echoed in her ears as the world blurred before her eyes. Her diaphragm spasmed repeatedly, trying to force her to breathe, but it caused nothing aside from a great deal of abdominal pain. Her legs began to kick weakly in a final effort to escape, but she was helpless to prevent the continued torture.
Suddenly, the pressure ended. Mercury gasped, then coughed at the abruptness of her inhalation. Her aching lungs simply couldn't get enough air; as much as it hurt to breathe, it was a wonderful sensation... shadowed by the fact that she was still captive in Mewtwo's telekinetic hold.
"That was... interesting," said Mewtwo over Mercury's coughing fit. "A Pokémon would have fainted long before now and suffered no further harm, but your body fights to remain conscious even if it leads to death."
Mercury turned her head to respond, but another bout of coughing pre-empted her speech faculty.
"I wonder," continued Mewtwo; "how will you respond to a different kind of pain?" It held its paws in front of its body, palms down, and closed its fingers. Mercury's legs and arms stiffened, held perfectly horizontal in the psychic extension of Mewtwo's hands. She tried once again to kick free of its grip, but her legs refused to move at her command.
Mewtwo's eyes glowed as it turned its paws so that their palms faced each other in a swift motion that bent Mercury over backwards in mid-cough. The cough caught in her throat, choking her, as her legs and arms were yanked toward the ground while her torso remained in place. Her hips, back, and shoulders dissolved in an explosion of intense tearing pain, and the screams that she had been holding back burst out of her all at once. With a grunt from Mewtwo, the force increased, until Mercury felt as if her body was about to break in half. Yet again, she found herself expending her energy in a futile attempt to break Mewtwo's hold on her, or at least to move at all; but if anything, her efforts only made the pain greater.
Since struggling only seemed to be making the situation worse, Mercury let her muscles relax as best they could under the pressure Mewtwo was applying, hoping to minimize both the pain and the chance of sustaining permanent injury. If she was lucky, her legs or arms would break before her spine did; but until something gave, the pain would continue to mount indefinitely. Of course, there was always the possibility that Mewtwo would again grow bored, but once it was finished torturing her, it would undoubtedly kill her. There had to be a way to escape. There had to be....
She simultaneously felt and heard the sickening snap in her left hip as the pain flared to an instantaneous climax, and her left leg curled under her at an impossible angle. Bile rose in her throat, but she choked it back and bit her lip to keep from screaming in pain and terror. If she screamed, Mewtwo would only enjoy itself even more, but every reflex in her body seemed intent on forcing her mouth open and her voice to full volume despite the uselessness of the act.
Her concentration on not panicking was so intense that it was several seconds before she realized that Mewtwo had once again released the pressure and was examining her. Her left hip was still in agony, but the rest of her body was relieved, however temporarily. She breathed heavily and irregularly, and it wasn't until she felt the tears running down her cheeks that she realized she was crying.
Mewtwo let go of her right leg to grab her left ankle. "Broken?" it asked, turning and pulling her leg to inspect it from all sides. "Do you break so easily? What is the point?" Mercury cried out as each movement sent more pain shooting up the length of her leg, making her sick to her stomach. Before long, even her cries weakened as the nausea drained her beyond the capacity to resist, and it was all she could do to keep from throwing up all over herself.
Finally, Mewtwo let Mercury's leg go slack. It hung straight down at a right angle to the rest of her body, again making her feel sick as it pulled her thigh muscles taut. This time, she really did have to swallow a mouthful of vomit that left a sour aftertaste. It did little to ease the dryness in her mouth. "Please," she croaked. "No more...."
"I have seen humans subject Pokémon to atrocities that you would not believe, in order to learn from them," Mewtwo replied, sounding almost remorseful at this treatment of its fellow creatures. "I wish to learn from you, Sailor Mercury. If this causes you pain, then you must endure it."
"I can teach you!" she cried out desperately. "Anything you want to -" She was cut off by a jolt of pain in her hip as Mewtwo once again grabbed her in both of its intangible hands and forced her legs straight. Before she could restate her offer, the upper and lower halves of her body twisted in opposite directions, upsetting her stomach further and threatening to tear her in two at the waist. Once again, she screamed uncontrollably in agony as Mewtwo applied more and more pressure, despite her effort to remain silent. All she had to do was hold out until Mewtwo grew bored, and then the sweet relief would come again.... She clamped her jaw shut and bit back her screams, doing her best to shut out the pain.
However, this time, it was only seconds before Mewtwo shifted its grip, twisting her in the opposite direction and drawing out fresh screams again. Then, it reversed the force again, and again, wringing her like a wet dishtowel; and each time, the pain seemed to double as her body was twisted in a different, more uncomfortable way. The base of her spine in particular felt like it was about to crack, and Mercury knew that if that were to happen, she would be lucky if losing her legs was the worst that happened to her. But fighting would only turn that possibility into a certainty. There was nothing she could do to stop Mewtwo from having its way with her, a frustration that hurt nearly as much as the pain. Even if Mewtwo were to strip off all of her clothes, she doubted she could feel any more naked.
By the time Mewtwo stopped the wringing torture, Mercury could barely feel the lower half of her body, aside from the fire in her left hip, and her breath came out in halted gasps. Her muscles contracted as if to curl herself up into a ball, but her floating body didn't move. She turned her head to stare up into Mewtwo's cold, unfeeling eyes through the blanket of her own uncontrollable tears. "Please, just finish this," she begged, sobbing despite her best effort to keep her voice strong. "Kill me if you must.... Make the pain stop...."
"This 'pain' causes you to desire death?" asked Mewtwo. "How can that be? Death is final, is it not? From what little I understand of humans, death is the one thing that they fear most. What about pain makes it worse than death?" It raised its hands once again. "It seems I must study further to understand."
"No!" begged Mercury. "Please, no more!" But once again, the pain turned her words into screams as her legs curled over her body, thrusting her ankles under her armpits without allowing her knees to bend. This time, it was her stomach and right hip that felt most of the pain, since no position was any less uncomfortable for her dislocated left leg. Sailor Mercury didn't even bother trying to hold back her screams, since it was obvious that whether or not she screamed, the outcome would be the same. Endless torture that she was powerless to stop, until Mewtwo finally went too far and killed her....
But it was becoming more difficult to think as the constant contortions weakened her body, tiring her until all of the sensations around her became a mere haze. Only the pain kept her awake, depriving her of the relief of unconsciousness and forcing her to experience every second of her torture. Relentless pain... screaming uncontrollably, even though her throat burned and she had no more energy or breath to scream with... Mewtwo's words burrowing directly into her mind... the fog that hung in the air sealing her away from the rest of the world... screaming... shudders running up her spine... cold... afraid... pain... screaming and screaming... endlessly, helplessly, hopelessly screaming....
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Sailor Mars wiped the sweat from her brow yet again, but her entire forehead was soaked again even before she could flick the armful of droplets onto the desert sand to be instantly vaporized by the burning silicon crystals. Even without the wound in her side that had plagued her trek across Tokyo, the hours of direct sunlight and radiating sand were beginning to make her wish she were bleeding to death in a filthy gutter somewhere.
"I was," she moaned through her parched throat. "I was as good as dead, as soon as I ran out of energy... so how did I get to this desert?" She fingered her formerly wounded side. "I'm completely healed too... what's going on?" Shielding her eyes from the glare as best she could, Mars searched in all directions for any sign of something that wasn't sand. The same boring, bone-dry sand piled in windswept dunes, covering a wide enough area to have swallowed Tokyo several times over. Another gust of that hot wind blew past her, further irritating the sunburns that covered every inch of exposed flesh.
Mars held her arms close to her body to minimize her exposure and thanked the gods that she was wearing shoes, even if the high heels tended to dig their way into the sand and threaten to trip her at every step. Trying to cross this desert in bare feet would have been the death of her long before now. "What did I do to deserve this?" she wondered aloud. "And how much longer do I have to endure...?" She looked up again and realized that she had lost her way. "It all looks the same. How do I know I haven't just been walking in circles all this time or something?" She turned to look at her footprints in the sand, expecting to see a graceful curve that vanished into the distance; but there were only five prints there, quite visible, and before that a perfectly smooth expanse of sand.
"That's impossible!" protested Mars as she stared at the high-heeled shoeprints as if the remainder would appear if she glared hard enough. "I know I've walked more than five steps! I've been here for...." How long? She couldn't remember anything earlier than a few minutes ago... yet it felt as if she'd been walking forever! "What's going on?" she asked again. "What am I doing here?"
As Mars contemplated her situation, the wind blew by again, reminding her of the danger of remaining where she was for too long. She hunched down and started to walk again, keeping the footprints to her back. The dry desert air scratched the inside of her lungs, sucking what little moisture remained right out of her body. The sand appeared red to her burning eyes as she progressed, despite the fact that the sun was still at its highest and showed no sign of setting. Her head began to throb in pain, causing her entire body to shudder uncontrollably. One of her shoes spun on its heel, sending her sprawling to the ground. As she fell onto the sand, her entire front felt as if it were on fire, even through the layer of clothing she was wearing. With a cry of pain, she quickly got to her feet and brushed the sand from her arms and legs, producing a relaxing coolness that lasted less than a second before the sun reasserted its influence.
When she tried to take another step, Mars found herself staggering dizzily, nearly falling face first into the sand again. Her vision swam so much that she couldn't even see her own footprints, and had to content herself with choosing a random direction to walk. On the fifth step, her foot went right through the surface of the sand, and she quickly fell backward to avoid plunging into the unstable ground in front of her. The sand burned her rump as she sat down to pull her foot free of the desert floor, but she ignored that in favor of wiping the grit and sweat from her eyes enough to see what lay in front of her. The relatively flat ground behind her and to the sides sloped slightly downward starting at the spot where her foot had sunk, forming a giant funnel. The sand at the sides of the funnel slid down toward the center, where there was apparently a hole of some kind for it to drain out the bottom.
"That was close," Mars panted, still short of breath from the shock of stepping into the shifting sand. "If I'd fallen in there, I'd never have gotten out." As she caught her breath, the warmth of the sand she was sitting on finally registered, and she quickly stood up and brushed herself off again. "Guess I can't go forward," she decided, with a last glance toward the pit.
With a sigh, she turned to skirt the edge of the pit, unwilling to retrace her steps and more afraid of losing the only landmark she had found than of slipping and falling into the deadly funnel. The wind blew at her face now, but she lowered her head and forged onward, trying her best to keep her balance. The shifting sand hissed as the wind whistled past, and Mars' tired ears heard sibilant whispers in the sound. "Yessssss... blissssss...." the pit seemed to call to her.
Mars shook her head and covered her ears. She was NOT going crazy and hearing voices in the sand, and she was definitely not going to let those nonexistent voices entice her to her death! She turned reluctantly away from the pit and turned her eyes to the impossibly distant horizon, wondering whether the desert even HAD an end... but the desert was no longer as empty as it had been. Somewhere in front of her loomed an object whose features she couldn't quite discern; even when she squinted, all she could make out was a tall black blob. She tentatively took a few steps toward the figure, bringing it only slightly into focus. Now it appeared to be roughly human in shape, but so anorexically thin that it was little more than a skeleton.
"Hello?" she called to the figure. "Are you human?" The figure didn't respond, and Mars sighed in exasperation. "I guess it was too much to hope for. It must be just a mirage, or maybe a cactus or something." Curious, she continued her halting walk toward the shape, anxious to determine exactly what it was. But even as she approached arm's length from the figure, it was still no more than a skeletal shadow to her eyes - a shadow that cast no shadow on the floor of the desert beneath it. Mars looked down to verify that she had a shadow - a nearly imperceptible noon shadow, but it was there - and then back to the sand below the shadowed figure in front of her, which was just as bright as the rest of the desert. There were no marks in the sand at its feet, either - no footprints, tire tracks, or any other indication of how it had come to be there. Then again, Mars still had no idea how SHE had come to be there.
As she continued to contemplate the existence of the strange object, its right arm suddenly moved, provoking a startled shriek from Sailor Mars. The arm slowly rose until it was pointing straight at her face, and Mars quickly backed away from it until she was sure that she was out of reach. "Hello?" she said again, hoping that the now-animate figure might respond. "What are you?"
The shadow gave no indication that it had heard Mars. It merely stood still for a few seconds with its arm aimed at her face as if preparing to fire a pistol between her eyes, then raised one leg to take a slow, deliberate step forward. A chill ran up Mars' spine as she watched the figure move toward her, leaving no footprints as it advanced. Something about it set her senses on edge, particularly the way it seemed to want to touch her. As little as she knew about it, she was pretty sure that coming into contact with it couldn't be a good thing. She took another step backward, but the shadow seemed to be moving more quickly as it picked up speed. "Stay back!" she shouted as she retreated from the gaunt figure. She stepped to the side, hoping that it would mindlessly continue on its straight course and pass her by, but it smoothly turned to follow her, advancing as quickly as she was backing away. She wanted to turn and run, but some primal conditioning forced her to keep her gaze fixed on the figure as if in fear that it would leap forward to touch her the instant she looked away.
The figure held Mars' attention so intently that she didn't even feel the ground give way beneath her until she had stepped into the pit of shifting sand with both feet. The ground swallowed her to her knees in the instant it took her to throw her weight forward and brace her arms on the sand in front of her. The sand beneath the surface was soothingly cool, but she couldn't let herself be deceived - it was not a relief, but a deadly force, dragging her downward to her doom. She pushed with her arms, trying to pull her legs out of the sand, but the force that held her in place was too strong to overcome without leverage. However, she seemed to at least be balancing the downward force enough to prevent herself from sinking any deeper, at least for the moment. Satisfied that the quicksand posed no immediate threat to her life, Mars returned her attention to the approaching entity and saw to her horror that it was advancing even more rapidly, as if spurred onward by the promise of its entrapped, helpless prey. Within seconds, it would be upon her, and she doubted that it would hesitate at all to approach the quicksand and exact whatever horrible fate it had planned for her. She had only seconds in which to act, to extract herself from the deathtrap and resume her flight from the specter. But as she tried to focus on her surroundings, searching for a glimmer of hope, the torturous heat that she had ignored in her panic began to take its toll once again. The rays of sunlight beating down on her were so harsh that they felt solid, like massive weights pressing down on her, pushing her deeper into the sand, and the effort of fighting it made her arm muscles ache. It hurt so much.... She didn't want to have to fight anymore. She wanted to just let go and sink into the sand, let it take her down into its depths and smother her, ending her suffering forever. At least it would be a painless death, while she knew nothing of what awaited her if the shadow managed to lay its hands on her. It was a choice between two deaths, neither of which was at all pleasant, but if there was no other option, the quicksand certainly had its appeal. "Yes, bliss," indeed.
"No! I'm not beaten yet!" she shouted, simultaneously directing the exclamation at her own thoughts and the shadow. The shadow paid her words no more heed than it had in the past, walking forward until it was almost close enough to touch her. It stretched its arm toward her until she could feel its cold aura on her face. The chill was a welcome escape from the sun's heat, and she suddenly felt much safer in the presence of the mysterious figure. But as her headache faded to the background and her senses returned, she remembered her initial impression of the shadow, and her blood froze. It was trying to lure her into a fatal calm so that it could take her! Panicked, Mars did the first thing that came to mind. She clasped her hands together with the index fingers pointed outward and aimed them at what appeared to be the figure's chest. "MARS FIRE IGNITE!"
She hadn't expected the apparition to be affected by her attack, but to her amazement, the flames caught. The shadow stumbled backwards, waving its arms in a vain attempt to beat out the fire, but the tongues of flame resisted its efforts, feeding on whatever material its body was made of. Writhing in apparent pain, it dropped to the desert floor and rolled, covering itself in sand, but even as the flames died down completely, the black corpse fell still. Mars heaved an elated sigh of relief, her chest pressing against the sand beneath her as she inhaled.
"Damn!" she shouted, suddenly remembering how much danger she was still in. "The quicksand!" She pressed her palms to the ground and pushed herself up, surprised at how little effort the action took. She turned her head to see how much deeper she'd sunk while watching the shadow burn to death, but to her amazement, the sand was still only up to her knees as she lay nearly horizontal on the solid ground at the pit's edge. Letting the sand hold her weight, she experimentally tried to bend her knees and felt enough resistance to prevent her from extricating her legs, but much less than there had been before. She stretched out her arms and dug her hands into the sand, then pulled with all of her might. For the most part, her effort served only to scoop the sand toward her, but she also felt her legs sliding out of the quicksand. Slowly, she worked her way onto firm ground little by little until she was able to bend her knees and pull herself completely out of the pit. She didn't rest, though, until she had crawled far enough to stretch out and collapse in exhaustion a safe distance from the deadly pit, exhilarated enough that even the burning sand no longer bothered her.
It was, however, a tragically short celebration. The dry desert air did little to invigorate her, and the still-smoldering figure not ten feet away didn't help her calm down either. Within a minute, Sailor Mars had forced herself to her feet and started walking yet again, leaving both the quicksand and the shadow behind as she set off into the endless wasteland in her increasingly futile search for salvation.
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Jupiter lifted Tuxedo Mask's arm from her shoulders, letting him sit down on one of the smaller crates in the warehouse she had selected to be his hiding place. "You sure you'll be okay by yourself?" she asked.
"I told you; don't worry about me," Tuxedo Mask repeated for the umpteenth time. "You've been away from the others for too long already."
Jupiter nodded. "I know. I just had to make sure that you'd be safe."
"I'll be fine," he assured her. "Now, go make sure the other Scouts will be safe."
"And you stay right here until the fighting is over," Jupiter admonished him. "Don't try to be a hero any more today."
"No worries there," said Tuxedo Mask, rubbing his chest. "My ribs have taken enough of a pounding for one day. I'm perfectly willing to sit this one out."
"Good," replied Jupiter with a smile. "I'll be back as soon as I can, I promise." She quickly made her way back to the entrance, pausing every few seconds to turn back and reassure herself that nothing had happened to Tuxedo Mask. 'You're being paranoid,' she told herself. 'Nothing's going to happen to him. The enemy doesn't even know where he is.'
Jupiter pushed the side door open just enough to peer both ways down the alley, convincing herself that she wasn't being observed as she slipped out. She closed the door firmly, leaving no sign of her entry, and left the alley en route to the site of the group's first encounter with their latest foe.
"Hey, where do you think you're off to?" asked a familiar voice. Jupiter turned to see Ryoko leaning casually against the wall of the warehouse where Tuxedo Mask was hiding. "You sure took long enough in there," Ryoko continued, pushing herself away from the wall and casually striding toward Jupiter. "What were you doing with that guy? Giving him a goodbye kiss and then some?"
Jupiter raised her fists defensively. "I'm warning you, if you lay so much as a finger on him, I'll -"
"Relax," said Ryoko. "I don't care about your precious Tuxedo Ass, or whatever he calls himself." She raised a hand, summoning her energy blade and pointing it at Jupiter. "I'm here for you."
Jupiter defiantly gritted her teeth. "What's the matter, can't you fight fair?"
Ryoko shrugged. "What are you talking about? It's one on one this time. Can't get much fairer than that, can you?"
"You've got that sword and shield," Jupiter pointed out. "I'd call that an unfair advantage."
Ryoko looked down at the hand that was holding her sword. "Maybe you've got a point," she admitted. "All right. We'll play it your way." The sword vanished. "No sword, then. And as long as you don't use that lightning move of yours, I won't fire any energy blasts. Fair?"
Jupiter's jaw nearly dropped in shock. "Are you sure?" she asked, then mentally berated herself for wasting the precious opportunity.
Fortunately, Ryoko merely laughed at Jupiter's hesitation. "It's not like I need any of it to beat you. We'll just duke it out hand to hand."
"All right," Jupiter agreed. "I accept!"
"Good choice," said Ryoko. She leapt into the air and came down with her fist aimed at Jupiter's head. Jupiter leapt backwards to avoid the crushing punch, then sprang forward to deliver a punch of her own, which Ryoko nimbly slid sideways to evade. Jupiter followed with a kick at Ryoko's head, but Ryoko grabbed her ankle and twisted it hard. Jupiter spun with the force, using Ryoko's aid to deal her a swift kick in the face with her free leg. She had expected the blow to break Ryoko's grip, but Ryoko managed to hold on to Jupiter's ankle, quickly twisting it the other way. This time, Jupiter had no way to react, and the knee that had been injured the night before gave a twinge of pain as it twisted from the combined force of Ryoko's grip and her own momentum. She lost her balance and fell, landing flat on her face.
Seizing the advantage, Ryoko took to the air, still firmly holding Jupiter's right ankle. Jupiter swung her left leg upwards, hitting Ryoko's arm just above the wrist. The blow was enough to finally break Ryoko's grip, and Jupiter fell the several feet to the ground, athletically rolling with her landing to avoid smashing her head open. She stopped on her feet and looked up to see Ryoko still floating in the air and smiling down at her. There was something in that smile that Jupiter didn't like - something almost evil. Something that told her quite clearly that whatever Ryoko was about to do, she wouldn't like.
Still wearing the same evil grin, Ryoko dropped straight down to the ground, and Jupiter braced herself for the next attack. However, to her surprise, Ryoko continued to descend, rapidly vanishing beneath the surface of the street. Jupiter stared for a while at the spot where Ryoko had disappeared, waiting for her to emerge, but there was no sign of her opponent. As she watched for Ryoko to return, however, a horrifying thought occurred to her: Ryoko could likely move anywhere invisibly under the cover of the street's surface. She scanned the ground for signs of Ryoko's presence, stepping nervously with both feet as if trying to have as little contact with it as possible.
Suddenly, a hand closed around her left ankle and pulled her foot beneath the asphalt. Her right foot came down hard on the street, only to be swallowed in the same way. She tried to pull her feet free of Ryoko's grip as she went down, but Ryoko held her too firmly. Jupiter stuck her arms out in an attempt to find a handhold, but her hands went through the street as if it were made of air. There was something there - she could feel the sensation of solid matter all around her - but she couldn't touch it, much less hold herself up or prevent Ryoko from dragging her completely into the ground.
As her head went under the surface, she took a deep breath and clapped her legs together, pinning one of Ryoko's wrists between her feet. She felt Ryoko's arm wiggle in her grasp as Ryoko tried to fight her way free, but she doggedly held on as she bent down to grab Ryoko with her hands. With a final sharp tug, Ryoko's hand popped free, and for a single terrifying moment, Jupiter hung in the cold, lightless void with no connection to the surface and no hope of escape. Then her hand closed on Ryoko's arm, and to her amazement, she felt relief at the cold-hearted killer's touch. The fact that she wasn't alone in the void, even if her company was an enemy, helped her calm down enough to collect her thoughts. Fighting off panic, she clung to Ryoko's arm, the only solid object in reach.
A foot slammed into Jupiter's chest, nearly costing her her grip as it forced the air out of her lungs in a single gasp. Having dealt its initial kick, the foot remained, pressing into her chest with enough force to push her away despite her firm hold on Ryoko. As Ryoko's arm began to slide through her fingers, she realized that Ryoko was trying to force her to let go, leaving her trapped forever beneath the ground. Her lungs were already aching from the combination of the blow to the chest and her lack of oxygen, making it that much more difficult to hold on. Frantically, she scrabbled for a better grip, but was left holding only Ryoko's wrist, and her sweaty palms were so slippery that she doubted she could prevent Ryoko's hand from sliding completely out of her grasp. Jupiter's entire body was convulsing now from lack of oxygen, and she was so dizzy that she couldn't even tell which way was up. She tried to focus all of her energy into her fingers, but her lungs threatened to force her to inhale, and she didn't dare imagine what would happen if she gave in to that urge.
Still, her fingers were slipping as she willed herself not to succumb to her body's need for oxygen, and she was fighting a losing battle on both fronts. But it was her lungs that gave in first, and she gasped sharply, instantly easing the pain in her chest a bit. The pressure that Ryoko was applying still made breathing difficult, but to her amazement, there was air underground - or at least, a close enough semblance that she could breathe. Another surge of energy shot through her as she realized that her biggest problem was over, and even as Ryoko managed to free her arm from Jupiter's grip, Jupiter wrapped her legs around Ryoko's waist and squeezed with all of her might to avoid being dislodged.
With most of her lower body in contact with Ryoko, Jupiter could feel the subtle shifting of Ryoko's muscles as Ryoko moved, so she was no longer fighting completely blindly. She anticipated Ryoko's series of punches and deflected each one with ease until she noticed a slight change in the way Ryoko held her right arm. She had less than a second to bring both arms up and grab Ryoko's wrist as she swung her arm down, and the subtle hum of Ryoko's energy blade millimeters from her face confirmed her guess. Before she could recover from the shock, she felt Ryoko's left fist slam into her gut, knocking the wind out of her, and her legs loosened their grip of their own accord. Ryoko swung herself around to Jupiter's back, wrapping her left arm around Jupiter's throat and squeezing, cutting off Jupiter's air supply before she could inhale again. Still dizzy from having held her breath earlier, Jupiter felt the black curtain descending over her mind again as she reached up with her right hand to try to pry Ryoko's arm away, still keeping Ryoko's sword arm at bay with her left.
With a bit of cursory struggling, Jupiter managed to buy herself enough room to breathe, and sucked in air in huge gasps. For the moment, it was a standoff, but Jupiter's muscles were tired, and Ryoko had the advantage of maneuverability underground. It was up to Jupiter to take the initiative. She swung her legs up, flipping over Ryoko's head to end up behind her, still holding both arms firmly. Once again, she wrapped her legs around Ryoko's waist, this time from behind. Ryoko immediately twisted from side to side, trying to tear her arms from Jupiter's grip, but Jupiter held on with adrenaline-boosted tenacity, preventing Ryoko from moving her arms or bringing her sword to bear. Still, it was no more than a waiting move, buying Jupiter time to recover from the near-asphyxiation but not helping her defeat Ryoko at all.
She hadn't had long to recover, however, before Ryoko started to move again, this time straight up toward the surface. They emerged into the open air together, Jupiter still clinging for dear life to Ryoko's back. "Not bad," Ryoko said admiringly as she flew into the sky. "I didn't expect you to be able to survive this long."
"You cheated!" Jupiter panted. "You said you wouldn't use your sword!"
"You should count yourself lucky you lived long enough to complain about it," said Ryoko. "I've gotta admit, I can understand why Ranma had such a hard time killing you."
"I'm a lot harder to kill than you think!" retorted Jupiter, as she felt the fresh air revitalizing her and giving her a second wind. She gave Ryoko's arms a sharp tug, knocking Ryoko slightly off course as she flew, but Ryoko quickly straightened out and turned her head to glare at Jupiter.
"So that's the way you want to play it, eh?" She stopped in midair and turned to face away from the building alongside which she was floating. "Then we'll do it the hard way!" She suddenly rocketed backwards, giving Jupiter only seconds in which to act before she would be slammed into the wall with deadly force. She hastily disentangled herself from Ryoko's back and threw herself downward, turning as she fell so that she could cling to the side of the building with her fingers and feet, slowing herself down a bit before continuing her plummet to the ground. Her right knee twisted as she landed on her feet, curling her leg under her just in time to take the entire weight of her body as she fell on top of it. Fire shot up and down the length of her leg, intense burning heat that drew a cry of pain from her throat even before it had peaked. She blinked away the tears that welled up in her eyes and sat up, wondering whether she could stand without putting any weight on the damaged leg.
Ryoko landed beside Jupiter and stared down at her without a touch of concern on her face. "Bet you broke a few bones in that fall, eh?" she asked tauntingly. "Maybe that'll slow you down a bit." She licked her lips as she drew her energy blade, its glow playing eerily across her face. "Let's see you dodge this!" she shouted as she stabbed downward. Jupiter quickly rolled out of the way, much relieved to notice that the pain in her leg faded slightly as she moved. At least it wasn't broken.
More confident now that she knew she wasn't too badly injured, Jupiter rolled away from Ryoko's follow-up sword swings and got to her hands and knees, then launched herself at Ryoko like a spear, catching the space pirate completely off guard. Ryoko had no time to react as Jupiter's shoulder slammed into her gut, but Jupiter wasn't finished yet. She wrapped her arms around Ryoko's waist and shouted "JUPITER THUNDER CRASH!"
"What the -?" was all Ryoko had time to get out before the electricity surged through her body. Now it was Ryoko's turn to scream in pain as she took to the air, forcing Jupiter to let go or be at Ryoko's mercy again. From a safe height, Ryoko glared down at Jupiter, putting a hand to her charred face. "You... you bitch! You weren't supposed to use that attack!"
"That was payback for the sword," replied Jupiter. "Now, are you going to come down here and fight fair or not?"
"Oh, we'll fight," Ryoko assured her with a venomous tone. "I've toyed with you long enough! No more holding back this time! You're going to die!" She drew her sword once again and set her sights on Jupiter, and Jupiter could see the burning rage in her eyes even from a distance. Jupiter took a step backwards to dodge the attack that she knew was coming, but her bad leg twisted again and she lost her balance, landing in a sitting position as Ryoko swooped down at such an incredible speed that Jupiter had no chance to react.
'Now I've gone WAY too far,' was about all that had time to run through her mind as she watched Ryoko approach, that same luster in her eyes promising that this time, she would not miss. Time seemed to have slowed to a crawl once again, but Jupiter couldn't have moved if Ryoko had been frozen in place. She could only sit still and wait for the energy beam in Ryoko's hand to swing down and slice her skull apart. 'I really pissed her off... and now I'm going to die for it.'
*****************
"Haven't we run far enough?" asked Sailor Moon as she and Sailor Venus emerged onto another busy city street. "We've obviously left them way behind. There are still people here!" In fact, pedestrians were hastily moving aside as they passed, well aware of the circumstance that would have led the Sailor Scouts to appear and not anxious to meet whatever monster they were fighting. When Venus failed to respond, Sailor Moon lunged forward to grab her by the shoulder. "Hey, Venus!"
Venus gasped at Sailor Moon's touch and whirled to face her with fire in her eyes. "Oh, it's just you," she said once she had calmed down.
"Of course it's just me!" said Sailor Moon indignantly. "Who did you think it was?"
"Sorry," Venus apologized. "I wasn't thinking." She shook her head. "I mean, I was thinking about something else. I forgot you were even here."
"How could you forget ME?" whined Sailor Moon. "We're best friends! We're partners!"
"I know, I know," said Venus. "I just have a lot on my mind right now."
"You mean, about our enemies?" asked Sailor Moon.
Venus nodded. "I guess what it comes down to is... I'm scared to fight again. I know if we go back there, we're going to lose. That's why I was running away."
"We were just splitting up so that we could regroup later," Sailor Moon reminded her.
"That's how it started," Venus agreed. "But the more I thought about it, the more I thought about how it felt to be stuck in midair, totally helpless... I realized that I felt safer running away. I wasn't thinking about going back at all."
"You won't be alone this time," Sailor Moon said comfortingly. "I'm here with you, and Mercury and Jupiter will be there too. We'll fight that thing together, and we'll beat it together, right?"
A persistent background noise was tugging at Venus' ear, but she ignored it. "I don't know.... There was really nothing I could do. Even if all four of us are there, will it make a difference?"
"It has to!" Sailor Moon put in. "There's no such thing as an unbeatable enemy."
"Maybe we just haven't met one until now," Venus returned darkly.
"Ohhhh!" Sailor Moon groaned. "Don't be such a grumpy-skirt! Mercury's working on a plan that'll knock that guy right out of his armor! You said so yourself, in the alley. We can't just give up!"
Venus sighed. The noise that she'd noticed before was gone now, which only made her feel certain that it had been important somehow. "I said that to cheer you up... but once I've thought about it, I really don't know if I meant it." The street was deserted now, too... had everyone suddenly vanished? Was that what the noise had been about?
"I'm sure you probably -" Sailor Moon began.
"DUCK!" shouted Venus, throwing herself and Sailor Moon to the ground as a fireball sailed just overhead and exploded harmlessly on the sidewalk. Seconds later, two pairs of feet hit the street nearby with quite a bit of force.
"Hey, watch what you're doing!" said Ranma. "We were almost pancakes!"
"Sorry," replied Lina, her voice sounding a bit tired and weak as she sat down in the middle of the street with her hand on her forehead. "I felt a little dizzy."
"I warned you about using your magic!" Ranma admonished her. "I'm telling you, there's something wrong with it!"
"I think you might be right," Lina agreed. "I guess it's up to you, Ranma."
Sailor Moon and Sailor Venus quickly climbed to their feet as Lina began to crawl toward the opposite sidewalk. "There's something wrong with her," said Venus.
"Then maybe we have a fighting chance," replied Sailor Moon. She pointed at Ranma. "I don't know how you managed to find us way out here," she said, "but we won't run away from you any more!"
Ranma crouched into a fighting stance. "Then bring it on!"
Sailor Moon removed her tiara and held it in one hand. "MOON TIARA MAGIC!"
Ranma laughed inwardly. "Like I haven't seen that trick a hundred times."
Ignoring Ranma's remark, Sailor Moon hurled the tiara at him. Ranma easily leaned aside to dodge the projectile, then leapt forward and thrust his palm into Sailor Moon's stomach, knocking her to the ground.
"Sailor Moon!" Venus jabbed her finger toward Ranma, her earlier reluctance no match for the strength of her friendship. "VENUS CRESCENT BEAM SMASH!"
Ranma leaned back, letting the beam pass in front of his face. "You need to work on your aim. Or maybe it's the fact that you always shout before you -"
"Ranma, look out!" shouted Lina. Ranma felt the incoming attack and ducked just in time as Sailor Moon's tiara whizzed through the space where his head had been, slicing a few millimeters off the end of his pigtail.
"VENUS CRESCENT BEAM SMASH!" This time, Ranma was too focused on Sailor Moon's tiara to hear Venus' attack. The beam hit the side of his head squarely with the force of a thrown brick, nearly concussing him. Still reeling, he stood up, only to feel Sailor Moon's clenched hands smack into his gut, knocking the air out of him.
"Why, you...." He brought his hands in front of his body without even bothering to look. "MOUKO TAKABISHA!" The ball of energy formed with Sailor Moon at its center, and he heard her satisfying scream of pain even before he released the attack toward Sailor Venus, not caring what would happen to the girl within. The ball of light exploded right in front of his face, blinding him and sending him flying backward.
"Sailor Moon!" Venus shouted as she ran to her fallen comrade's side. Sailor Moon's face and clothes were covered in dark soot, dotted with the occasional spot of oozing blood for color. While Venus dropped to her knees, hesitant to touch Sailor Moon but certain that she had to do something about her injuries, the burnt girl sat up on her own and coughed up a mouthful of black dust. "Are you okay, Sailor Moon?" asked Venus, putting her arm behind Sailor Moon's back to support her.
"I think so," Sailor Moon replied between painful-sounding coughs. "But that really hurt!" she added in her whiniest tone.
"You're fine," diagnosed Venus, letting go of Sailor Moon to turn her most furious glare on Ranma as he also rose to a sitting position. "You...."
Ranma rubbed his head and groaned. Opening his eyes revealed nothing but bright light, and for a few seconds he thought he was dead... except for the pain. He felt like his skin had been torn from his body, but at least his hair still seemed to be intact. "What the -" Before he could finish his question, something heavy fell on top of him and knocked him on his back again. The person sitting on his chest was barely visible through the spots swimming in his eyes, and he couldn't make out any details at all. He felt a pair of feminine legs pressing against his sides, the bent knees at his ribcage, and a pair of fists pounded his face several times before he could raise his arms to ward them off.
"You monster!" screamed Venus as she clawed at Ranma's face. Ranma reached up to grab her arms, but pure adrenaline gave her the strength to force her way to his throat and gouge her thumbs into his windpipe. He pushed at her arms, trying to break her grip, but her fingers curled around the back of his neck and held on with a force that his weary, aching muscles couldn't overcome. He gasped for air, but the pressure cut off his air supply, making him even dizzier.
Suddenly, with another bright flash and a shriek from Sailor Venus, the pressure on his throat and chest disappeared, replaced by the lingering heat from whatever had dislodged his attacker. He heard her land just to his right, and turned his head to the left to see Lina sitting up with her arm extended toward him. "Get up, Ranma!" she shouted, sounding very out of breath.
It took Ranma less than two seconds to figure out what had happened. "Lina? Did you use your magic again?" She didn't respond. "Are you okay?"
"Watch out! FIREBALL!" Ranma felt the rush of hot air as the fireball passed over him, forcing Sailor Venus to dodge. He rubbed his eyes, finally clearing them enough to make out the details of Lina's face. Her intense pain was easy to see in her expression, and there was no mistaking the way she was hunched over, her left hand clutching her stomach.
"Cut it out!" he yelled at her. "You're going to hurt yourself like that!"
"Until you can fight, I won't let her touch you," said Lina, taking aim for another spell.
"I'm fine!" snapped Ranma. "But you have to stop using your magic!"
"FIREBALL!" Lina shouted again, crying out as the flames left her hand. Her arm jerked involuntarily, sending the projectile wide of its target. She coughed, spraying droplets of blood onto the street. "That was... most of it. But I think I have one good Fireball left in me...."
"Stop it!" Ranma shouted, leaping to his feet. "You're gonna die!"
"Without my magic, I'm no good to you anyway," Lina pointed out morosely. "But maybe I can take one of them out with me...." She glanced meaningfully at Sailor Moon, who was once again lying unmoving in the street where Venus had left her.
"I said cut it out! They're not worth it!"
Lina looked up at Ranma and smiled, the blood dribbling down her chin casting the otherwise peaceful gesture into a grim light. "Ranma... promise me you won't let Queen Beryl hurt Gourry."
"Quit talking like you're giving up!" spat Ranma, swinging his arm emphatically.
Lina's smile widened. "Good enough." She turned her arm toward Sailor Moon's still form. "FIREBALL!"
"NO!" Ranma screamed as he leapt forward, but he was too late to stop her from trying to cast the spell. The fireball exploded in Lina's hand, throwing her brutally to the street. Ranma landed just short of her as she hit the asphalt and crawled to her side to cradle her limp body in his arms. "Lina..." he whispered as he felt the first tears forming in his eyes. "Why?"
"Why?" echoed Venus, her own tears falling onto the folds of her skirt as she watched the scene unfold. "Amelia... you didn't even want to kill us. Why did you sacrifice yourself this way?" Her hands involuntarily rose to her chest and clenched into fists as if trying to hold her breaking heart in one piece. The emotions within her, a combination of Ranma's and Lina's, were so strong that she instantly forgot how many times they had tried to kill her. "Please..." she pleaded silently. "Don't let it end this way...."
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