The story of Sailor Moon's final battle, and the origin of the New Moon Kingdom.
A General Time Paradox sidestory
Chapter 2: The Tree of Death
The jungle was quiet. Deathly quiet, some might say, and they'd be more correct than they realized. The usual background of insects chirping and animals shuffling about on the forest floor had been absent for several months, although not a single human had set foot in the jungle in that time and lived to tell about it. Any sound made by the trees that fell was a matter of philosophical debate.
Then, abruptly, five pairs of feet appeared in the mess of dried leaves that littered what was otherwise the largest clearing near the northern edge of the island. The women stood in a circle, holding hands, as the light that had accompanied their appearance faded, leaving only the light of the setting sun filtering through the thick foliage to illuminate them. They opened their eyes simultaneously as if they'd been rehearsing the trivial motion for weeks and let their hands fall to their sides.
"Borneo," Jupiter observed darkly.
Mercury nodded. "Indeed. I should have suspected from the beginning that the Tree of Death would be here. This island is known for producing some of the most unusual species ever seen on Earth. Especially considering its size, only the Galapagos Islands can come close to rivaling the amount of evidence of natural selection and -"
Sailor Moon cut her off as she heard Mars gurgling. "Oh, no! Mars!"
The Sailor Scout of Fire had covered her mouth as soon as they'd arrived, and now failed to suppress a grimace as she swallowed the contents of her bulging cheeks. "I'm all right," she groaned. "But the aura of this place... it reeks. I don't know if I can take much more of it."
Venus pointed at the top of a nearby tree and took careful aim. "VENUS BINDING HOLD!" she shouted. A thin beam of yellow energy stretched from her finger to the leaves above, wrapped around one of them, and carefully plucked it from the tree, then deposited it in her hand.
Mars gratefully took the leaf and let a tiny flame burst into life on her fingertip. She traced the character for "clean" on its surface in light ash and held it over her mouth. A few deep breaths brought the color back to her face. "Thanks, Venus."
Sailor Moon gulped. "The Tree of Death must be incredibly powerful. Everyone be on your guard. Even if there are no people here for the spores to infect, there are probably animals that have been infected... and maybe other things that are under the Death Tree's control."
The other Scouts nodded, and Mercury pointed toward the center of the island. "The center of the miasma is there," she reported. "But it's very thick even this far away, and closer to the tree...."
Mars held her free hand out, creating a much larger fireball than the last one. She took the lead, lighting their path into the deeper jungle. The trees seemed to press in on them from all sides as they left the stifling but relatively open clearing. If anything were to attack them here, they'd be hard pressed to find room to maneuver.
Jupiter's keen senses picked up the sound first. She stepped away from the group and pointed her open palms into the darkness. "JUPITER ELECTRIC WEB!" she shouted. Lightning arced from her hands, weaving around the trees and forming a tight grid of deadly energy. There was a series of pops as the swarm of insects that were closing in on them fried and exploded. Jupiter kept the web up for a few more seconds of silence before releasing her breath and heaving a satisfied sigh. "If that's the most danger this place has got, we'll be in and out in no time."
"The insects aren't under the Tree of Death's control," said Mercury. "They're merely being affected by its power and driven to dangerous behavior. And the toxins they're producing are deadlier than even a scorpion's venom."
Venus shivered. "I know I wouldn't want an injection of evil power."
Mercury stiffened and spun around. "Larger animals are coming from that direction! I think they're orangutans!"
Jupiter stepped forward to attack, but Sailor Moon held her back. "Jupiter, no! Not orangutans! Killing bugs is one thing, but...."
"Let me handle this," Mercury requested. She retracted her visor and stepped away from the group. "MERCURY FLASH FREEZE!" she shouted, sending a blast of frigid air through the jungle. The trunks of the trees in its path crystallized instantly, and the thunder of the approaching primates ceased. "They'll thaw out once we defeat the Tree of Death," she announced. "But we should hurry."
They stepped up their pace, making rapid progress toward the Tree of Death as the attacks continued to come from all sides. Jupiter electrocuted dozens of insect swarms, Mercury froze several more packs of orangutans and other animals, and Venus used her own power to send an elephant flying when it managed to surprise them from behind. Surprisingly, the attacks became less and less frequent as they advanced, but nobody questioned why. They could all see the trees becoming more withered and lifeless as they closed in on the Death Tree, and even Mars' impromptu mask could barely hold off the overpowering evil aura.
Then, as they passed through a final line of rotten, yellowing trunks, the Tree of Death came into view. It towered over them in the middle of a wide space filled with dead trees and the corpses of animals that had strayed too close. Its trunk was covered in purple moss that emitted a dull glow in a rhythm that resembled a heartbeat, and its branches were covered with thick leaves and dangling pods that pulsated irregularly.
Mars turned around and threw up at the base of one of the dead trees.
"That's it," said Sailor Moon, filling in the silence with her own voice. "The Tree of Death."
"It's horrible," whispered Mercury. "This tree... it's responsible for everything we've had to face. All the people Serena had to purify, and the unfortunate ones who were lost before we could reach them... it all came from this tree."
"It's in pain," said Jupiter. "It's that dark energy... the moss, I think. It's turned the tree evil. If we can just get rid of it...."
"I'll take care of it," said Mars. She stood up and took aim at the tree. "MARS RAGING INFERNO!" she shouted, sending a thin line of fire toward the tree. As the fire struck, it became a tower of flame surrounding the trunk, spiraling upward to engulf the leaves and branches in an instant.
"No!" shouted Sailor Moon. "You can't just kill it!"
"We have to do something!" Mars shouted back. "It's killed so many people!"
"It's not the tree's fault!"
"I don't think it will matter anyway," Mercury said flatly. "The trunk is covered with a flame-retardant sap. Fire won't harm it."
Mars bit her lip and let the fire burn out. The Tree of Death was unharmed, but its branches shook as if in anger.
"Look out!" shouted Jupiter, leaping backward. Sharp roots shot out of the ground, scratching deep cuts into the Sailor Scouts' skin as they barely dodged. Mercury was a moment slower, and one of the roots pierced her lower leg, pinning her in place. Thinking quickly, she grabbed it and froze it solid, then pulled on it sharply until it shattered. She limped out of the way as Venus stepped in front of her.
"VENUS CARING BARRIER!"
A dome of light surrounded the pair, deflecting the roots that sought to penetrate it.
"Mercury, are you okay?" asked Sailor Moon.
Mercury clutched her leg tightly. "I don't know... there's no telling what might have been in that root. But I won't be walking anywhere for a while."
"I'd heal you, but I don't think the tree's going to give us that kind of time," said Venus.
"What can we do if my fire won't hurt it?" asked Mars.
"Something that doesn't make it any angrier," suggested Jupiter. "Mercury, any chance you could freeze it?"
"It wouldn't last long," replied Mercury. "The tree's metabolism is incredibly fast. It's mutating at an incredible rate."
"So are the seed pods," said Jupiter. "Look!"
They all did so. The pods had grown noticeably in the short time they'd been fighting the tree, and a few of the larger ones were beginning to show bulges as the spores within threatened to burst the sacs that contained them.
"It took us months to cleanse the spores it released last time," said Sailor Moon. "If it releases another wave, we might never be able to control it."
"Then we'd better hurry up and destroy them," said Mars. She glanced at Sailor Moon for approval and received an emphatic nod. "Mercury, do we have anything that can hurt those pods?"
Mercury shook her head. "Any sudden change in temperature could cause them to burst prematurely... but they're already mature enough to spread and infect the world all over again."
"There's only one way," said Sailor Moon as she raised the Moon Crystal Wand.
"No, you can't!" protested Jupiter. "The Death Tree's too strong! There's no way you could produce enough power to heal it without killing yourself!"
"If that's what I have to do...."
The branches of the Tree of Death shuddered, and two of the smaller seed pods fell to the Earth. Sailor Jupiter pushed Sailor Moon out of the way as the first landed at her feet, exploding in a thick cloud of black gas. The second pod landed on Venus' shield, and the gas that poured out of it rolled quickly over the impenetrable dome and spread across the jungle floor.
Sailor Moon turned around as she managed to break her fall and quickly redirected her energy toward Jupiter. "CLEANSING MOON CRYSTAL WAVE!" she shouted, whirling the wand around as she gathered the power of the Silver Crystal within herself. The energy flowed from the Crystal embedded within the wand's ornament, washing over Jupiter and thinning the black mist. Jupiter was on her knees, hacking violently as her lungs sought to expel the foul poison she'd already inhaled.
"CLEANSING MOON CRYSTAL WAVE!" Sailor Moon shouted again, blowing the mist away from Venus and Mercury. Venus relaxed as the immediate threat vanished, but kept the shield up lest anything else try to attack the defenseless Mercury.
"Incoming!" shouted Mars as she raised her hands toward another falling seed pod. "MARS FIRE IGNITE!" A plume of flame shot upward and engulfed the sac of spores.
"Don't!" Mercury tried to warn her, too late.
The flaming mass broke into pieces as it continued to fall. The rushing wind quickly extinguished the last of the flames, revealing dozens of undamaged spores. Mars could only cover her face with her arms as they landed on and around her. Tiny plumes of black mist wound upward from the ones that had hit the ground, but the spores that had touched Mars' body had attached themselves to her flesh and quickly dug their way in, leaving no wounds as they sealed their entrances behind them. She clawed frantically at her arms, trying to pry the spores loose, but they were already inside her. She screamed in terror.
"She's been infected!" cried Mercury.
Sailor Moon lifted her wand and performed the move that had cleansed the other victims of the Tree of Death. "CLEANSING MOON CRYSTAL WAVE!" The light from the Crystal flowed over Mars, but it didn't stop her screams, which were no longer spurred by terror, but had become screams of agony as the spores began their infection, mutating her body into a Treespawn. The Sailor Scouts had seen the process several times before, when they'd managed to reach one of the Tree's victims before the mutation took place, but what was happening to Mars was far more gruesome. Each part of her body hosted a different spore, and each spore bred a different kind of monster... all of them in the same hideous package. Mars' left arm elongated like a rubber band, the hand becoming a misshapen lump, while her right arm bulged into a scaly mass of muscle with four twisted, clawed fingers. Her torso expanded, tearing her fuku into pieces as thick, shaggy fur covered her from neck to waist. Her right leg snapped as her knee changed direction, turning into a squat bird's leg, and her left leg shifted upward until it grew out of the side of her hip, becoming long and thin like a spider's leg. Three new legs grew to match that one, giving her a clumsy but functional center of balance. And her head....
Her head remained as it had always been, a lurid reminder of the woman who had become the beast. Only her cold, lifeless eyes showed any trace of the change that had consumed the rest of her body.
Sailor Moon's eyes darted back and forth between Sailor Mars and her wand. "I don't understand. Why didn't it work?"
"She's been infected by more than one spore," said Mercury. "The infection is too strong, even though she hadn't finished changing yet. I'm afraid we'll have to fight her."
Sailor Moon gasped. "No! We can't! Not Sailor Mars!"
"We don't have a choice!" Mercury shouted back. "You saw the effect that the miasma has on her. Now it's inside her body! If we don't cleanse it quickly, it could kill her!"
Sailor Moon choked back a sob. "But... I can't...!"
"Mars! You can fight it!" shouted Venus. "I know you can beat the evil!"
Mars' aborted cries resumed, but they had become mere yelps as she finally regained her senses enough to look down and see for the first time the thing she had become. Then large veins bulged from her face as the spores began to work their way up to her brain, fighting each other for control of her mind. Mars bit her lip and shut her eyes tightly, drawing her claws across her chest. As she tore her breasts open, the blood that poured forth was pitch black, and dark smoke rose from the fur that it touched.
"What's she doing?" asked Venus.
"She knows she can't hold off the infection forever," replied Mercury. "She's trying to weaken herself so that Sailor Moon can change her back."
"But if she does that, the spores will take over her mind! She'll be a real Treespawn!"
Mars' jaw jutted outward, and she threw her head back in a scream of rage.
"You have to do something, Sailor Moon!" shouted Venus. "I can't let go of my barrier, or -"
"Go. Help her," commanded Mercury. "I'll be fine."
"But -!" Venus turned to look at Jupiter, who was still trying to get to her feet. Every time she started to rise, another bout of coughing wracked her so violently that she fell back to the ground.
"After Mars is cleansed, she'll be very weak," warned Mercury. "You'll need to use your healing powers to keep her alive until she regains her strength. I won't be able to fight with my leg in this condition anyway, so whether I'm conscious or not won't matter."
Venus started to protest that her concern wasn't for Mercury's consciousness, but for her life. However, before she could get out a single word, Mars growled again, this time a deep, echoing sound from within her gut. Her eyes popped open, bright circles of red that bored into the souls of the other Scouts as they helplessly stared back.
Then, she charged, scuttling toward Sailor Moon with incredible speed that belied the clumsy appearance of her lopsided legs. Even before she'd closed the distance, her elongated arm swung around, forcing Sailor Moon to duck as it passed through the space where her head had been. Letting the upper half of her body swivel with the motion, Mars spun easily around and brought her claws down, nearly slicing Sailor Moon's head off. It was only Sailor Moon's quick reaction that saved her as she parried with the Moon Crystal Wand. Sparks flew as Mars' claws scraped against the handle of the wand, sliding down until they came to rest against Sailor Moon's fingers. Sailor Moon knocked the clawed hand away and pulled her arms in close, squeezing her left hand to control the flow of blood trickling from the wound. And that had only been from a brief touch....
Mars' mouth opened, and she coughed up black blood, singeing a large hole in Sailor Moon's shoulder. Sailor Moon frantically kicked the beast away, pressing a hand to the wound. It came away burnt.
"The dark aura is killing her from within," Mercury sobbed, feeling the first tears in the corners of her eyes. "She can't go on like that." She gasped as she felt Venus' lips on her calf. The healing power took effect instantly, slowly sealing up the wound. "Venus, what are you doing? You must help Sailor Mars!"
The ground shook, and Mercury quickly pressed her palm to the ground in the direction of the tree. "MERCURY FLASH FREEZE!" she shouted. The ground frosted and shattered into thousands of shards, revealing the frozen ends of the roots that had been about to attack while Venus' barrier was down.
Venus didn't flinch, keeping the Healing Kiss active despite all that was going on around her.
Mercury pried Venus away from her leg. "Don't worry about me!" she shouted. "If anything, go heal Sailor Jupiter so she can help fight! You have to defeat Sailor Mars quickly, or the spores will kill her from within!"
"What if it drops more seed pods?" asked Venus, wiping the blood from her mouth on the back of her arm. Mercury's wound still went clear through her leg, and she wouldn't be able to stand without snapping her tibia. "You won't be able to get away!"
"I don't think it will," replied Mercury. "It needs those spores to spread. If it wastes them all attacking us, we'll be able to dispense with the tree itself, take our time healing, then track down the few spores that remain before they have a chance to take root."
"Well, I'm at least healing this until you can stand on it," Venus insisted. She bent down and returned to her healing work. Mercury sighed and resigned to let her finish uninterrupted so that she could get on to healing the others who needed her help.
Meanwhile, Mars had gotten back to her feet. She charged toward the nearest living target, Sailor Jupiter, who was still grappling with her tainted air supply. Sailor Moon tackled her before she could strike, and the two wrestled for a few seconds until Mars' long arm wrapped around Sailor Moon's throat and started to choke her.
Mercury gasped. "Venus, I know you're concerned about me, but Sailor Moon's in trouble!"
Venus sat up and examined Mercury's wound again. It didn't look much better than it had before, but the bone was starting to heal at last. She didn't like the thought of leaving a half-healed wound open, but at least the parts that had originally been exposed had healed over. "Keep that clean," she advised. "I'll be right back to finish healing it."
"Don't worry about me," Mercury repeated. "I can take care of myself." She placed her hands over each side of the wound and sprayed water liberally over the exposed tissues, wincing at the sudden sting.
Venus took aim while she ran across the battlefield and launched a single attack at Mars. "VENUS CRESCENT BEAM SMASH!" The beam of light struck Mars in the face with enough force to make her lose her grip just long enough to allow Sailor Moon to slip away. Without stopping to see her success, Venus slid to a stop in front of Jupiter and planted a kiss right on her lips, forcing her healing power into Jupiter's lungs before she could cough again.
It only took a few seconds for Jupiter to push Venus away and stand up, red-faced but as strong as ever. "So what do we do about Sailor Mars?" she asked.
"You'll have to weaken her until Sailor Moon's healing power will work," replied Venus.
"Aren't you going to help?" asked Jupiter.
"I have to finish healing Sailor Mercury," said Venus. "And then I'll have to heal Mars as well, once she's back to normal. I don't know how much energy that'll take, but I don't want to run out."
"Good call," agreed Jupiter. "In that case, leave it to me!" She charged into battle, electricity crackling around her. "JUPITER STUN SHOCK!" A high-voltage blast of electricity surged into Mars, throwing her away from Sailor Moon and pinning her to the ground.
Venus raced back across the clearing toward Sailor Mercury, but the fallen Scout shouted a warning. "Venus, more pods are falling!"
Venus turned her eyes to the sky and spotted the pods bearing down on her and the others. She pointed at the nearest one. "VENUS BINDING HOLD!" she shouted, shooting a beam of light that wrapped around the pod and held it in place, preventing it from hitting the ground and releasing its toxin. She quickly swept the beam through the sky, snagging all of the falling pods.
"Well done, Sailor Venus!" cheered Mercury. "Now, just get rid of them!"
Venus hauled back and hurled the seed pods over the tops of the distant trees, far enough that their poisonous gas wouldn't be able to harm the fighters. She waited, but the Tree of Death didn't seem inclined to waste any more of its precious children in such a futile attack. Feeling edgy but concerned about her partner, Venus bent down and returned to healing Mercury's wound.
Jupiter stood over Mars' fallen form as she tried to stand up. "I'm sorry, but I have to do this." She dealt Mars a swift kick, flipping her onto her front, then planted a boot firmly in Mars' back. "JUPITER THUNDER CRASH!" Lightning shot through Mars, frying her from the inside out. Smoke began to rise from her body, and she screamed until her throat convulsed and disgorged nearly a gallon of black blood all over the ground in front of her.
"Stop it!" shouted Sailor Moon, rubbing her own throat where Mars had nearly crushed it. "You're killing her!"
"It has to be done," said Jupiter. "Just a little more. Until you can restore her to normal...."
"That's enough! My power won't do anything if she dies!"
"I'm not gonna kill her. Just making sure she can't fight back anymore." She broke her attack and stepped back, leaving Mars prone and unmoving. "Do it now. If she's not weak enough now...."
Sailor Moon drew the Moon Crystal Wand before Jupiter could finish her thought. "CLEANSING MOON CRYSTAL WAVE!" she shouted, sending the power of the Silver Crystal into Sailor Mars once again. Spouts of blood shot up as Mars' body began to shrink in on itself.
Mercury heaved a sigh of relief. "It's working."
"Just a little longer," said Venus.
Mars screamed and writhed in pain.
"Something's wrong!" said Jupiter. "It never did that before!"
Sailor Moon quickly broke off her attack. "Sailor Mars!" she shouted. "What's happening to you?"
Mars stumbled to her feet, spilling blood everywhere as she rose into an unsteady stance, preparing to attack as soon as she could gather the energy.
"The spores are too strong," said Mercury. "Even in her weakened state, Sailor Moon's power can't heal her."
"Well, I can't weaken her any more than she is already," said Jupiter. "She may be on her feet now, but you could probably kill her with a feather."
Venus sat up. "Done!"
Mercury pulled her healed leg in and let Venus help her to her feet. "Thank you. But I don't think it matters anymore. We've lost Sailor Mars."
Venus shook her head. "No, there has to be a way to save her!"
Mars lurched forward, brandishing her claw threateningly and roaring.
Jupiter charged up an electric blast and prepared to meet Mars head-on. "Well, if we can't heal her...."
"No!" shouted Sailor Moon, leaping in front with her arms spread wide, as if inviting Mars to attack her. "Even if she's become a Treespawn, she's still Sailor Mars! As long as she's alive, there's still hope! I won't let her die!"
Seeing her cue, Mars charged at her in a berserk fury. Sailor Moon stood still as Mars bore down on her, trusting the humanity still in Mars to stop her at the last minute. It always worked that way. There was always that last vestige of something in the minds of the humans-turned-Treespawn that held them back when they were about to kill a loved one. She'd only seen it fail once, in a woman whose husband had been abusing her through their entire marriage... or so she'd been told. The knowledge hadn't made it any easier to bear. But Mars would overcome the power within her. Her spirit had always been strong. Then again, she'd shown an unusual vulnerability to the aura of the Tree of Death, and her body was weak from all the fighting earlier. Perhaps... she wouldn't make it.
As the claws of death bore down on her and she stared into the soulless eyes of the monster that had once been her trusted companion, for the first time in her life, Sailor Moon truly experienced doubt. Her knees started to buckle, and it was all she could do to remain standing as the truth became clear. Her faith in her friend had failed her; Sailor Mars would not stop.
It was then, as she prepared to face her final moment, that she felt the rainbow energy washing over her. Mars charged blindly through it, but Sailor Moon ignored that threat as her blood froze with a completely different kind of horror. "No... it couldn't be...."
"RAINBOW CRYSTAL MOON ENERGY!" came the familiar battle cry of Sailor Crystal Moon, sending a powerful rainbow-colored wave through the clearing. It threw Mars to the ground, and she screamed yet again, but this time her body quickly shrank and returned to its normal shape, her body and hair matted with blood. The black pools in the clearing where she had bled turned bright red as even the tainted blood was purified.
Sailor Venus wasted no time in charging to Mars' aid. She threw herself on top of the dying Scout to maximize their body contact and planted a Healing Kiss on her lips, abandoning all reserve in her haste to pump as much healing energy through Mars as she could. Mercury kept her eyes on the Tree of Death and her hands on the ground, hoping to anticipate any attacks while their guard was otherwise down. Jupiter prepared to face whatever danger might come their way next - the battle had proven wildly unpredictable so far.
Sailor Moon, however, seemed to have forgotten about the battle entirely. She ran to the edge of the clearing, calling the name of the one who had rescued them. "Rini!"
The buxom pink-haired woman leapt down from the treetops to stand in front of her mother. "Before you say anything, remember that I just saved your life again."
The visions flashed through Sailor Moon's mind in rapid succession, all the horrible images that had haunted her dreams. "I told you not to come here."
Rini put her hands on her hips. "Yeah, I caught that. I was wondering why you kept encouraging me to go on missions with you all this month, and why you suddenly wanted me to be Sailor Crystal Moon when you usually keep telling me to go home and never get involved in your battles again. Then I figured it out... you wanted me to waste my power so I wouldn't be able to get here. Well, I wasn't going to miss the big battle for anything. You NEED me."
Sailor Moon glared at her yet-to-be-born daughter with equal parts love and venom. "Rini, I did that to protect you. Don't you understand? Uranus and Neptune told me that something horrible would happen if you came to this place!"
Rini met Sailor Moon's gaze without flinching. "I don't care what Sailor Pluto told them to tell you. You're the one who taught me to have faith in every situation. I believe in Planet Power, and I believe in destiny. Everything's going to be fine."
"Everything will NOT be fine!" shouted Sailor Moon. "Don't you understand that? You're going to die!"
"Like you were about to before I saved you?" countered Rini. "Look, we've been through this speech a hundred times before. I know you don't care what happens to you as long as I'm safe. BUT I DO. I know exactly how you feel about me risking my life all the time, because I feel the same way about you. You may not have given birth to me yet, but you're still my mother, and every day, you remind me more and more of the woman who sent me to the past to become who I am now."
"And you're like a daughter to me," said Sailor Moon, raising her hands to Rini's cheeks. "I couldn't bear it if anything happened to you."
"But the world needs you... a lot more than it needs me. I can only be Sailor Crystal Moon once a month. If I was the only one who could heal Treespawn, there'd be hundreds of Tree of Death seedlings in every country in the world, getting ready to spread millions of spores and infect every living thing on Earth. The world needs YOUR power."
Sailor Moon shook her head vigorously. "I'll never accept that anyone should have to sacrifice their lives, even for the good of the world! You know that!"
"I don't intend to die here," Rini asserted. "But it happens to everyone someday... except you guys. I can't stay a Sailor Scout forever like you guys can. At least, not anymore. I'll live a really long time, but even I'm not immortal. I know I'll be dead by the time I'm born in the future, or else there'd have been two of me. But right here, and right now, you needed my power, and I was here to use it. That's all that matters."
Sailor Moon started to say something else, but Rini threw her aside as several roots burst out of the ground where they'd been standing. Sailor Moon gasped in shock, fearing that Rini had been impaled, but the younger girl was lying on top of her, completely unharmed. She had to take a deep breath and remind herself that Rini wasn't dead yet, and another to remind herself that Rini was NOT going to die. She'd prepared too carefully for this day to let Uranus and Neptune's warning be in vain.
"You'd better snap out of it, Mom," said Rini. "That tree's not going to wait forever to start spreading its spores again, and if you're not paying attention, it'll kill all of us first."
"MERCURY FLASH FREEZE!" shouted Mercury, freezing the roots that threatened Venus and Mars. "Sailor Moon, hurry! Those seed pods could burst at any moment!"
Sailor Moon stood up, quickly brushed off her fuku, and raised the Moon Crystal Wand. "Rini, get out of here now! There's no telling what might happen, and you're out of power!"
"I'm four hundred years old," Rini reminded her. "Even if I've still got the body of a teenager, I'm old enough to take care of myself."
Sailor Moon didn't have time to argue. "CLEANSING MOON CRYSTAL WAVE!" Bright light poured out of the crystal and washed over the tree, making the dark moss pulsate even more sporadically.
Mercury heaved a sigh of relief. "Finally, it's over."
Mars turned, dislodging Venus from her perch, and groaned. "No... it's still...."
As the light from Sailor Moon's attack faded, the moss darkened even more until it was black with deep purple undertones. It began to spread as they watched, covering what little bare bark remained until the tree could no longer be seen beneath the thick coating of evil.
"Impossible!" cried Mercury. "It's growing stronger!"
Mars sat up. "It's feeding on the tree.... You have to destroy the moss all at once, or it'll just keep growing."
Sailor Moon slumped. "I don't have that much energy in me!"
There was a loud CRACK from the top of the Tree of Death. Everyone looked up to see that one of the larger seed pods had split open.
"We're too late!" shouted Sailor Moon.
"Not yet!" Mercury shouted back. "Quickly! Use your power to hold it at bay!"
Sailor Moon nodded and braced herself for a difficult battle. "CLEANSING MOON CRYSTAL WAVE!"
Once again, the light flowed forth, bathing the tree in its harsh glow. The Sailor Scouts watched with bated breath, waiting for the moss to recede. But there was no change as the seconds passed. The seed pods remained intact, not discharging their deadly payload, but the tree showed no other sign of the influence of Sailor Moon's power.
"How long can she keep that up?" asked Mars, as Venus returned to applying her Healing Kiss to the various wounds that remained on her body. Mars pushed her away. "That's really disturbing."
"You're still badly injured," said Venus. "You were on the brink of death just then."
"I'll be fine," replied Mars, forcing herself to her feet.
Jupiter shook her head. "She's never going to beat it on her own. She's just stalling for time now... and I don't know what good that's going to do. Any word from Uranus and Neptune?"
"We're right here," said Uranus as the Gate opened at the edge of the clearing. "We barely got to the last one in time, but we destroyed it before it could take root. Once you're done getting rid of the spores that are still on the tree, it's all over."
"Is Sailor Moon all right?" asked Neptune. "Her power doesn't appear to be having any effect."
"She's used a lot of it recently," said Mars. "And that moss is full of evil."
"Are you breathing okay now?" asked Jupiter.
Mars nodded. "I think Sailor Moon's containing the aura, for now. But after she's spent that much energy keeping the aura at bay, there's not enough energy left to purify the tree. She's losing ground, and it's only a matter of time before it overpowers her and breaks free."
"And with it, the spores..." added Mercury.
"Is there anything we can do?" asked Neptune, staring up at the Tree of Death. "Would our powers even affect it?"
"No," said Rini determinedly. "But mine would."
"You just used your power to heal Sailor Mars," Venus reminded her. "You can't transform into Sailor Crystal Moon again for another month."
"That's just because using the Rainbow Crystal takes all of my energy," explained Rini. "But what if you guys all gave me your energy, like you did when we made the Rainbow Crystal? That might be enough to let me change one more time."
"Will that work?" asked Mars, turning to Mercury.
Mercury considered it. "Well, if it does, it would leave all of us as powerless as Rini for one month. We'd all revert to our mortal forms, and we'd age during that time... and we could die very easily. But I don't think we have a choice. Sailor Crystal Moon's power may be the only thing that can heal the Tree of Death."
Sailor Moon tried to protest, to order Uranus and Neptune to get Rini to a safe place, but it was all she could do to keep her waning energy focused on the tree.
"Well, you can't hurt what you don't try," said Venus.
Uranus sighed. "What she said. Let's do it."
The Sailor Scouts gathered around Rini and linked hands. Rini held the Rainbow Crystal Scepter aloft and focused all of her thoughts on it. "Rainbow Crystal, Activate!" she chanted. "CRYSTAL MOON RAINBOW POWER!" Ribbons of rainbow-colored light fountained from the crystal and surrounded her while she transformed. The Sailor Scouts felt the power drain from their bodies as the Rainbow Crystal drew it out of them to fuel Rini's transformation. When the light vanished, Sailor Crystal Moon stood in the center of the ring of mortal women, filling the uniform exactly as her mother had so many centuries ago. Amarah caught herself wondering how the girl would look once she had finally passed through puberty and developed the hourglass figure that all the others had... but for a split second, Pluto's message came back to her, and she remembered that this was destined to be Rini's last battle. She hung her head and waited to see what would come of the cruel inevitability of fate.
Sailor Moon shrieked as the energy surrounding the Tree of Death flared, throwing her to the ground. Raye collapsed as the dark aura slammed into her, but the others were more concerned with the seed pods. Free of Sailor Moon's influence, the containers burst, and their hundreds of spores flew into the sky in all directions, slowly making their way toward as many living beings as they could infect.
Mina raised her arm. "Venus Binding Hold!" she shouted. Nothing happened. She stared at her finger and blushed. "Oh, yeah. I'm not a Sailor Scout anymore!"
Sailor Crystal Moon fidgeted nervously, looking up into the sky, then at the Tree of Death. "What do I do? If I purify the spores, I won't have enough energy left to heal the tree!"
"Get the spores!" ordered Amarah. "It'll take the tree more than a month to make more spores, but if the ones it's already made get out into the world, we can't heal them in this state!"
Sailor Crystal Moon nodded and aimed the Rainbow Crystal Scepter into the sky. "RAINBOW CRYSTAL MOON ENERGY!" she shouted, sending waves of rainbow energy into the atmosphere. The light quickly filled the sky, enveloping all of the floating spores in its warmth. The spores crumbled to dust within seconds.
Rini quickly lowered the scepter and pointed it at the Tree of Death, but the light faded quickly, and her uniform became her casual jumper. She quickly backed away from the tree and returned to the group.
The moss glowed brightly, and the former Sailor Scouts heard a deep voice in their heads. "FOOLS! YOU HAVE PLAYED BRILLIANTLY INTO MY PLAN."
"Was that the Tree of Death?" asked Michelle, scanning the clearing for any sign of another entity from which the voice could have come.
"POWERLESS... I CAN MAKE MORE SPORES AT MY LEISURE, AN ARMY TO CONSUME THE WORLD, ONCE I HAVE DEALT WITH THOSE WHO WOULD HAVE HAD THE POWER TO STOP ME."
Sailor Moon weakly sat up and looked up at the tree. "Is it talking to me? Did we beat it?" she asked deliriously.
"YOU WILL GO FIRST," said the Tree of Death, "WHILE THE OTHERS WATCH."
Roots rose from the ground, wrapping around the arms and legs of each woman before she could react. Only Rini managed to escape their clutches, as she was already running across the clearing toward her helpless mother. She rolled and shoved Sailor Moon aside as a root shot up where she had been, just missing them both, but the rough wood curved and snaked downward, aiming at Sailor Moon again. Rini barely had time to stand up before it impaled her back. She grabbed the root as it burst through her chest from behind, holding it tightly to prevent it from reaching its intended target. Only the shower of blood from the exit wound got past her guard, spraying all over her horrified mother.
Sailor Moon screamed. "RINI!"
Rini smiled. "It's okay. You're safe. I wouldn't let it hurt you."
"No! Please, God, no! Don't let this happen!" She shook her daughter's body. "Rini, I told you not to come here! I did everything I could! Don't tell me it wasn't enough!"
Rini coughed up blood, turning her head so she wouldn't stain her mother's face with it. "You're right. I disobeyed you again, and this is my punishment." She stared into Sailor Moon's eyes as the sparkle in her own eyes began to fade. "But if it means you can live... then it's worth it. Everything's worth it."
"No! I won't let you die for me! I won't let you!" Sailor Moon took Rini in her arms and pulled her down, driving the sharp tip of the root into her breast. She held Rini close in a hug, squeezing her tighter and tighter. "I won't let you go! I won't let you go!"
Rini's lips brushed Sailor Moon's cheek. "Don't be sad. This is the way I wanted it to be. You'll beat the Tree of Death, and you'll be okay, and everyone I love will be saved." Her arms fell to Sailor Moon's sides in the closest thing to a hug that she could manage. "To be like this... at the end... in your arms... I'm so happy...."
Sailor Moon felt her arms sink into Rini's body as it began to fade, and she frantically grasped at Rini's clothes as if to hold her in place. "Don't go! Rini, don't you die! I want you to live!" But her fingers closed around nothing more than a memory. Within seconds, there was nothing left of her daughter but a thousand tiny spots of light floating into the air, and the blood running down the root and into the wound in her chest. The warmth of that blood and the energy in it ran through her body, filling her with the beauty and love of the lost young life. It was disgusting to her. Sailor Moon's arms slowly lowered until her hands met, right atop the wound. "Rini...."
Mina sobbed, finally breaking the silence of horror that had descended on the others. "If only I were still Sailor Venus... I could have healed her!"
"You've got to move, Sailor Moon!" shouted Amarah. "It's going to attack you again!"
Sailor Moon's fingers closed around the bloody root that had claimed her daughter's life. She blinked away her tears and had to force herself to breathe. "This thing... this monstrosity, even too low to be called a thing... what gives you the right?" Emotions stirred within her, a torrential force, and her fingers clenched, snapping the root like a toothpick. The severed tip crumbled into black ash, settling into her wound. She could feel what was welling up inside her, and she fought vainly to hold it back, but the emotions were too powerful. She couldn't stop herself, especially not for its sake. For the one that had destroyed her daughter, even death was too kind a fate. There was nothing she could do to punish it enough. What little retribution she had would not so much as scar the horrid mass of its sin, but she would give it everything she had. It seethed, then boiled, then exploded within her, every second doubling its intensity without bound. The Moon Crystal Wand was in her hands, and it became the outlet for her rage... a tiny tap in a universe-sized keg. The force of the gushing emotion would be more powerful than the fabric of reality could allow. Not even Sailor Moon herself could stand in its wake.
She opened her eyes and saw the crystal in front of her face, its normally gleaming surface light-absorbing black. But she had already released the energy. "DARK MOON ANNIHILATION!" shouted a voice that was not hers but came from deep within her. A column of darkness descended upon the Tree of Death, and its voice didn't have time to scream as the darkness consumed it. The column flared over and over, emitting prominences of darkness as it devoured everything within. It drew the very life out of the clearing, and the huddled women curled into balls as the darkness tore and sucked at them, swallowing their souls without coming close. The roots that bound them died, shriveled, and disintegrated as the Tree of Death absorbed the full force of the terrifying power: the torture of Sailor Moon's soul multiplied and multiplied again and exacted upon the Tree of Death for an eternity.
And then it was over. The darkness lifted, and the Silver Crystal returned to normal. Sailor Moon let her arms fall to the ground, completely exhausted. She didn't even have the energy to throw up, but if she had, she would have done it a thousand times and still not felt clean. She didn't have the energy to cry, but the tears poured forth anyway, washing away the last of Rini's energy that had remained within her. It was gone, now... spent in that burst of rage that had eradicated the Tree of Death and Sailor Crystal Moon with it. She would never see her daughter again, and now she would never feel her love again either. She shivered and wrapped her arms around herself, full of a filth that could never be washed away.
Mina was the first one to make it to Sailor Moon's side. She fell to her knees and embraced Sailor Moon warmly. "I'm so sorry.... Are you all right?"
"Let go of me," ordered Sailor Moon, without a trace of sorrow.
Mina sat up quickly. "I know. It hurts. I loved Rini too... but she was so much more than that to you."
Sailor Moon shook her head. "No. That's not it at all." She sat up, and Mina could see how much she was shaking. "I just lashed out with the power of the Moon... in anger."
Mina sat down next to Sailor Moon. Something told her that she was about to say something she shouldn't, but it wasn't Rini's death that had Sailor Moon so upset. "Anyone would be angry. The tree killed your daughter."
"But Planet Power isn't a tool of anger. It's a tool for love." She cast her eyes to the ground. "Look at the Moon, Sailor Venus."
Mina looked up, and heard the startled gasps as the others did the same. The Moon was in its waning gibbous phase, but the shadowed crescent wasn't the only part of the Moon that was dark. The large black spot along the circular curve of the Moon's left side was even darker than the surrounding night sky, and pulsated just as the moss on the Tree of Death had.
"W-what is that?" stammered Mina, unable to take her eyes off it.
"It is the taint of anger upon the Moon," replied Sailor Moon. "A pool of hatred that will forever breed darkness. A cesspit from which monsters are born."
Mina looked down at Sailor Moon and blinked in surprise. "You can tell all that?"
"The Moon weeps. I can feel its pain." Sailor Moon clasped her hands over her heart, and a tiny droplet of water landed on them. "I should never have... but it is too late. The damage cannot be undone." She stood up, and her clothing flickered for an instant before becoming a long, flowing white dress. "The Moon has lost two warriors this day."
Raye ran to her side. "Sailor Moon, what do you -?"
"I am Sailor Moon no more," she replied darkly.
She shook her head. "That one was pure and wholesome. This taint is not hers; she should not have to bear it. I, Serenity, will be the one to live under its curse."
Amy gasped. "Are you... a new personality?"
Serenity nodded slowly. "Indeed. The shock of losing her daughter has caused Serena's mind to repress itself. I do not know whether she will ever be able to return."
"Idiots!" snapped Amarah. The others turned around to see her on one knee with her head bowed. "She's our queen! Show some respect!"
Michelle had also genuflected already, but the others were quick to follow, expecting to hear Serenity tell them to rise at any moment. After a few seconds of silence, they looked up expectantly, but she kept her regal gaze on them without flinching. Finally, she bade them stand with a slight wave and turned to the gaping crater where the Tree of Death had stood. With a quick underhand toss, she threw the Moon Crystal Scepter into the crater, where it vanished into a column of silver light.
"What's going to happen now?" asked Lita.
"The decay began here," replied Serenity. "So, too, the healing must begin here." She turned her eyes to the sky and looked at the Moon for the first time since she'd unleashed her dark power. "Then we must go there. We must always be prepared to protect the world from the monsters I created."
"Go there?" repeated Mina. "You mean to the Moon?"
"In one month," confirmed Serenity. "When you have all recovered your powers, we will all go to the Moon together. The power gathered here will restore the Moon Kingdom to its former glory. We will create a New Moon Kingdom on the ruins of what once was."
Raye gasped. "But if you do that...!"
"I no longer deserve to be Sailor Moon." Serenity turned around and looked up at the Moon again. "It seems that the only evil I could not defeat... was the evil within myself." She cast her eyes downward and shook her head. "No, the New Moon Kingdom will be a haven of peace. I will make sure of that. We will strike down the monsters as soon as they form, and the Moon will be open to any who seek a peaceful life. My kingdom will prosper as the Earth always has... and to do that, the Planet Power of the Moon must return to the Moon."
"You're serious," said Amarah. "You're seriously going to give up being Sailor Moon forever?"
"That... was not my decision," said Serenity, staring into the column of light. "It was Serena's."
"Serena's? But she -"
"It was her last thought. Her final wish." A single tear fell from her eye. "But I, too, dreamed of a world where the Sailor Scouts would no longer be needed. Yet after three hundred years, we are no closer to that goal. I think she and I both realized that it will never happen. She does not wish to see that world."
"That's not true!" shouted Amy. "Serena would never give up like that!"
Serenity did not reply. Instead, she clasped her hands in prayer. "One month," she said again. "And may the Moon have mercy on our souls."
Serenity awoke abruptly, sitting up in bed with her mouth wide open in a silent scream. Darien was already awake, gently rubbing her back. "That dream again?"
"I know. It hasn't been easy for me either.... I wish I'd realized back then that it was the only chance I'd ever have to see my daughter grow up."
Serenity would have burst into tears if she'd had any left in her. Instead, she had to content herself with throwing her arms around him and holding him tight.
"You don't have to be ashamed," he said soothingly, mistaking her intentions. "We all loved her very much, and I know you loved her more than anyone else. I can only imagine how much it must have hurt you, having to make that decision on your own. I don't even know whether I could have done it myself. I've always known you were strong, but... I don't know if all the strength in the Moon Kingdom could add up to what it must have taken you."
He paused, giving way to an uncomfortable silence.
"I'm sorry," he said at last. "I'm a horrible husband. You need my support, and I have no idea what to say."
Serenity pulled away from him and stared up into his face, her eyes wide open. She slowly shook her head no before returning to his warm embrace. He wasn't a horrible husband at all, and there was nothing she needed him to say. Even if she had lost her voice, she could communicate that much.
"Your people are worried about you," said Darien. "I'm worried too, but at least I understand what's happened. They don't know why you've shut yourself in. I think we need to tell them the truth."
Serenity nodded. It would not be the full truth, of course; they could never speak of what had really happened to Rini, but they had a story prepared for when this moment inevitably came. Serenity had always believed that she would be the one to deliver it, but nobody could have foreseen that the shock would have made her lose her voice. At a time like this, she was grateful for Darien's strength to do what she could not.
It wasn't just her voice that she'd lost, though. There was one other thing she couldn't do. She'd lived for centuries unable to forgive her future self for having left Rini in the past to die. Now, she finally understood why she had done it - to spare Rini from what the future would have in store for her - but she still couldn't forgive herself. In that respect, too, it was only Darien's support that held her together. She wanted so much to tell him that, tell him why she needed him so much at that moment, but it wasn't enough to bring her voice back.
Mute, emotionally torn, and so full of self-loathing that, were her husband to release her too soon, she might well kill herself with the first thing she could lay her hands on. What kind of Queen was she?
Sailor Mars stretched her hands out to either side, just to feel the reassuring pressure as Jupiter and Mercury took them. It was a brief pause while the monsters regrouped to renew their attack, and it wouldn't last long. They had to take advantage of it while they could.
Mercury raised her free hand, and rain poured from above, washing from their uniforms the blood and bile that hadn't yet caked into stains. They turned their faces to the sky and let the water fall on them, but mere water couldn't scrub away the ravages of the battle that would never end.
Jupiter reached up to wipe some of the congealed crud from her face and stared down into the ooze that continued to produce new monsters even as the survivors of the previous attacks bided their time, waiting for more of their infinite supply of reinforcements to rise from the sludge. "Are you guys ready?" she asked.
"I sure hope the queen gets herself together soon," said Mars. "We can't keep holding this perimeter forever."
"I can't imagine what she must be going through for the Sea of Rage to be this active," said Mercury. "She has a terrible burden to bear. We must shoulder ours as best we can and support her until she can defeat the monsters within herself."
Mars nodded solemnly.
With a roar, the monsters surged toward the edge of the crater, and without another word, the three Sailor Scouts spread out to fight them back once again. Fire, lightning, and ice tore through the sea of monsters, and every kind of darkness imaginable continued to swarm out of it, seeking escape into the world of light to sow more of the fear and hatred that sustained them.
But it was all nothing compared to the war that was soon to begin on Earth.