Shades of Darkness
Sailor Moon Fanfic
By: Aaron Nowack
Chapter 2: Twilight of the Age
"History is a relentless master. It has no present, only the past rushing into the future. To try to hold fast is to be swept aside."
- John Fitzgerald Kennedy
Disclaimer: Sailor Moon is owned by Naoko Takeuchi, whose creative talents far exceed my most humble own. Distribution and other rights to Sailor Moon belong to lots of different companies that I do not own. I make or imply no claim to ownership of Sailor Moon or its characters. However, the text of this fanfic is mine, and should not be used without permission. Thank you.
Tokyo, like most cities large enough to be worthy of the name, never slept. Even at the very darkest moment, the deepest part of the night, Tokyo was awake, a fearsome hive of activity even at its calmest. The city's numerous lights far outshone the distant stars, and even the silver light of a full moon was at best a close rival to their brilliance.
But not tonight. Tonight, Juuban district was a dark, gaping hole in Tokyo's sea of light. Tonight, even the most hardened of criminals, masters of the night, ventured out warily if at all. Tonight, a fearful quiet - though not quite a silence - hung over the vast city. Tonight, the city of Tokyo relearnt a lesson that had been forgotten over the decades and centuries of human progress.
There was evil in the darkness. Though their numbers were far reduced from the thousand-strong legion they had been earlier in the day, monsters still walked the streets of Juuban, and ever farther abroad. They were creatures of nightmare, of fangs and claws, of fire and shadow, of terror and despair. The mere sight of one of the demons was enough to shake even the most battle-hardened of soldiers. In the darkness, the effect was multiplied a hundredfold. The night belonged to the enemy.
Very, very few dared to walk the streets of Juuban tonight. Few would have at this hour, even had the night been ordinary. Almost none of those felt it worth risking life and limb. Fewer still were willing to ignore the military-ordered curfew that had been broadcast on all radio stations almost continuously since the attack began.
Sailor Moon did not know that curfew existed, but it was doubtful that she would have cared if she had. At the moment, the only thought her mind could hold was worry over her family. She constantly imagined and reimagined scenarios that alternately left her house safely outside the limit of the youma's rampage or far behind those lines.
Few could have survived walking the streets in such a distracted state, but Sailor Moon was one of them. The vast majority of the remaining youma were more than intelligent enough to know how poorly they would fare in single combat against perhaps the most powerful of their foes. It was far easier to give her a wide berth and instead focus on picking off military patrols.
Thus, Sailor Moon was able to make her way through the streets, made unfamiliar through darkness, with no more difficulty than the occasional need to hide in one of the many dark shadows to avoid a nearby patrol. Even so, it took her almost a full hour to reach her home.
She breathed a sigh of relief when she found her house not only intact, but with several candles in the windows. She barely remembered to detransform before racing forward. She tried the front door, and was not surprised to find it locked. She pulled out her key and opened the lock.
Before she could open the door herself, it was almost flung open, and Usagi stood face to face with her father. He stood almost unnaturally still for the barest of instants, then almost fell forward, grabbing Usagi and pulling her close to him.
"Usagi," he breathed, his voice full of emotion, and Usagi could see tears of relief shining in his eyes. "Thank God!"
The throne room was not full. The vast chamber could hold several thousand, though not very comfortably. Though gatherings large enough to require such had been unusually frequent since Metallia's return, this was not one of them. Still, throngs of youma were scattered about the throne room, messengers darting from group to group or through the gargantuan main entrance, the metal doors of which were, as almost always, flung wide open.
The largest cluster of youma was on the far side of the room from those doors, around the dais on which the throne rested. Here the most powerful beings in the Dark Kingdom could be found, gathered around their unchallenged Goddess and Queen. The throne itself was given a wide berth, though how much of this was out of respect for Metallia and how much was out of fear of the silent Senshi who knelt by her side could not be easily determined.
Jadeite did not have the option of avoiding the Senshi, as his own humble, kneeling position left him almost staring directly at her. For the barest instant, their eyes met, and Jadeite shivered. At that moment, he was very, very glad that Saturn had been far from Awakening during his first battles with the Senshi. With a slight shake of his head, he forced the idle thought aside. He had far more important things to be worrying about.
"Rise, Jadeite." Metallia's voice was soft, but there was no doubting the iron hidden in it. Jadeite shuddered as he stood. Standing here like this, he could feel the dark goddess's claws sinking into his mind. Deep inside, he swore for the thousandth time since his encounter with the strange presence that he would have vengeance for this. He somehow managed to keep the rest of his mind placid, untroubled.
"You summoned me, my Queen," he said after waiting a moment to see if Metallia would speak.
"So I did." Metallia paused, her eyes meeting Jadeite's. For an instant, Jadeite felt as though he were naked, her gaze able to pierce his innermost being and lay bare his secrets. Yet, if she did, Metallia showed no reaction. "Why did you travel to Terra?"
Jadeite's throat was dry. Somehow, he was certain that Metallia would detect even the slightest attempt to lie. "Great Metallia," he began, then had to pause to swallow nervously. "I was eager… overeager, perhaps, to make war on your enemies." All true. "If this displeases you, I beg forgiveness."
Metallia made no reply. After a long moment, Jadeite decided to risk pressing his luck. "Great Metallia. Of all your Generals, it is I who have had the most experience dealing with the Terrans of this age. Please, allow me to use that experience in your service."
For an instant, he was certain he saw suspicion in Metallia's eyes, but then she merely dismissed him with a wordless gesture. He bowed once, then stepped back into the throng of youma surrounding the throne.
"General Ishamanar." The other general stepped forward at Metallia's words, bowing deeply.
"You have done well, my servant. Tell me. How many youma do you believe it would take to raze this Tokyo to the ground?" Metallia rested one hand on Sailor Saturn's head as Ishamanar thought. The Senshi showed no reaction to the discussion of the utter destruction of her home city.
"Great Metallia. It is hard to say with any great certainty." Ishamanar thought a moment longer. "No less than ten thousand, no more than three times that."
Metallia smiled. "Then three times ten thousand youma it shall be. Jadeite." Jadeite again stood before the Queen. "Select your youma. It seems you have no small desire to avenge yourself on this city. It is my gift to you, should you serve me loyally."
It took Jadeite a moment to find words. "My Queen, it shall be done."
"Yes." Metallia rose from her throne. "When I give you the word, you shall take your youma, and this Tokyo will be no more." She raised her voice, now addressing the whole assembly. "It is time. Now, I shall do as I have promised. The accursed wards that keep you from your prey shall be lifted. Prepare yourselves." For a moment, the throne room darkened to a pitch black, and when the darkness lifted, Metallia and Saturn were no longer present.
When Metallia and her Senshi reappeared, it was far below the throne room, in the hidden sanctum from which the Queen had been summoned. Here, her power was raised to even greater heights, the thick darkness caressing her slim form like a lover. Here, there were no rules, save those formed from her own will. Here, all was as it should be.
And here waited her two most powerful servants, who knelt a bare instant after her arrival. Metallia smiled at the quick obeisance, but soon gestured for the two Dragons to rise. She did not waste time with any polite words, for there was no need for such with these two, bound to serve her since before the oldest histories of the Silver Millennium had been written. "Long ago, I forged two great magics to lay waste to all my foes held dear. One of them has been returned to me." Any ordinary being would have missed it, but to the other three in the chamber, Sailor Saturn's slight tightening of her grip on the Silence Glaive was blindingly obvious. Metallia, however, continued as though she had not noticed. "I would have you seek the other."
"The Gates of Time?" Loriel asked.
"To Pluto, then," Scalae said.
"Yes," Metallia said. The darkness thickened around her, somehow twisting and turning as though it were moved by a strong whirlwind. "And while you are there… destroy the castle. Leave not a single stone atop another."
"And Senshi Pluto?" the Dragon of Water asked.
Again, the darkness stirred. "All of the Senshi will kneel to me or die." Saturn shifted her stance slightly, but Metallia did not comment on it and the Dragons followed her lead.
"So may it be," Scalae said, and Loriel followed suit a moment after.
"So it will be," Metallia replied.
Scalae turned to the other Dragon. "This should not prove overly difficult. One Senshi should be no match for us."
"Better to be cautious," Loriel replied. "I will prepare some of my youma."
Scalae nodded. "I, as well." She turned again to the Queen. "By your leave, Great Metallia?"
The dark goddess nodded in reply. The two Dragons bowed, and an instant later Metallia was alone in her sanctum, save for the voiceless, motionless Senshi of Silence.
With one last shriek, the youma fell, its soulless body rapidly becoming no more than a tiny pile of dust. A moment later, Ares allowed his sword's flames to die out. This was the fourth youma the patrol group had encountered since they had set out from the Hikawa Shrine, and he was not sure whether that was a good thing. It was good that those youma were defeated, but if they had discovered this many already, how many more must walk the streets of Juuban this night?
"We're not going to be able to cover the whole area if we don't split up." Ares turned at the voice, and Hermes continued. "The youma have almost certainly spread far and wide by now."
"There are too many youma to split up," Sailor Neptune interjected. "If one of us gets ambushed by a whole group, help might not arrive in time."
"She's right," Poseidon said. "Splitting up would be too risky."
Ares glanced at the only member of the patrol who had not spoken yet. "Cyrene?"
"That isn't my name," Uranus said curtly, but there was no real heat in it. She glanced thoughtfully down the abandoned street. "I wonder…" she said softly, then continued in a louder tone. "We have all the soldiers crawling all over the place. If we use them, we won't need to split up."
Ares quickly understood her gist. "They'll react to any large incidents, so we can just follow them to anything major."
Uranus nodded. "It would help if we could listen in on their radios."
"Hermes?" Poseidon asked.
The other Champion pulled out his small computer. "Maybe. It depends on how secure their communications are."
"Try," Ares said after a moment. "Until then… maybe if we split into two groups?"
Before anyone could respond, there was a loud explosion. Poseidon's hands tightened on his sword. "That sounded like it was only a couple blocks from here."
Almost as one, the whole group leapt to the top of the closest building and began to race across the rooftops to the source of the blast. A thin plume of smoke could be seen rising in the distance, and soon the sound of screams reached their keen ears. When they arrived, they found a group of ten youma huddled around an overturned, smoking army jeep. One youma, an almost ten-foot-tall wolfman, seemed to hear their arrival. Its head swiveled to meet them, and even in the poor light they could see the blood dripping from its fanged maw. The monster's mouth gaped open as it prepared to utter a howl of warning.
Ares leapt down even as the youma roared. His blazing sword sliced out as he landed, separating one furred arm from the youma. Uranus wasn't far behind him, her golden blade driving up through the demon's jaw into its head. The wolf youma let out a pained yelp before it perished.
Soon, the battle was joined in earnest. Neptune had remained atop the building, but fired Deep Submerges at the monsters below with deadly accuracy. A winged, almost amphibian-seeming youma rose from the melee to face her. It dodged a Deep Submerge with surprising speed. Before Neptune could manage a second, it was upon her. Forked lightning spat out from its mouth. Neptune grit her teeth from the pain of the shock. A hard, fast punch forced the youma back.
Neptune took advantage of the brief reprieve this gave her. Her Deep Aqua Mirror appeared in her hands, pointed at the monster. "Submarine Reflection!" The youma didn't even have a chance to scream as it died.
Below her, Uranus and the three Champions had finished off the remaining youma. After taking a moment to catch her breath, she joined them on the ground. She glanced at the still burning jeep. "Any survivors?"
Ares shook his head grimly. "The youma worked fast."
Uranus kicked over one of the piles of dust that the youma had left behind. "So do we."
Poseidon frowned. "But not fast enough." No one answered him.
Hermes cocked his head slightly. "I think I hear some more jeeps coming."
"Then let's move," Uranus said. "We've still got a lot of ground to cover. And a lot of youma to kill."
However, they encountered only a handful more youma, each of whom was easily dispatched. When the time came, they headed back to the Hikawa Shrine. They found Medea waiting for them, sitting on the stairs of the shrine.
"Are you all right, Sachiko?" Poseidon asked her.
"N…" Medea trailed off before she even finished the word, shaking her head. "I mean, yes, I'm fine. I just couldn't sleep, so I figured I might as well guard the others."
"Will you be all right out there?" Ares asked.
Medea nodded. "I'll be fine."
Poseidon shook his head. "No way. Not if you haven't gotten any rest. Deinas?"
Ares seemed to think a moment. "Will you really be all right?" he asked. "Things seem to be quieting down, there's no need to push yourself too hard."
After a moment, Medea yawned and was forced to shake her head. "No. I guess I wouldn't be much use out there like this. I can still keep watch here, though. Come on, let's go wake the others so you five can get some sleep."
No one was able, or willing, to argue with that.
Sailor Pluto stared at the gap in the courtyard wall where the Gates of Time had once rested. It was not the only spot at which the wall was broken - in fact it would be easier to list the few places where it was whole than the many where it was not. Yet, this gap seemed emptier somehow. It wasn't that there was now nothing there, it was that there was now an… absence, something that hadn't been there before.
Pluto cursed an ancient curse from her long-dead birth language. She paused, then let out another, much more modern curse. This was no time for her to be just staring at empty air. But then… what was this the time to do? Something told her that it would not be wise to abandon her post now, even if there seemed to be nothing left to guard. She had searched the ruins of Castle Charon a dozen times over for even the slightest trace of either the Gates or the Seal, and found nothing. And after every search, she found herself here, staring at this thrice-cursed… absence.
The spot where the Seal had been did not disturb her so. Perhaps it was the fact that its absence was more easily explained. She had seen the Seal crack as Metallia's power grew, then seen it shatter under Saturn's attack. If she searched hard enough - and she had, several times - she could find pieces of the dais that had been the Seal's focus, some of them large enough to make out pieces of the mural that had decorated it.
The Gates of Time, though… they had simply been missing when the darkness that had consumed the castle on the Seal's breaking lifted. She had not foreseen it; she could find no explanation for it. She could not even begin to guess what might have had the power to destroy or steal the Gates, much less why or how it could have been done. The only saving grace was that, whatever had happened to them, they were not being used. She would surely have felt that.
In fact she almost wished that they would be used. Then, she thought, she would almost certainly be able to find them. She could deal with whoever had taken them, and then set about fixing whatever damage had been done. With a shake of her head, Pluto dismissed the line of thought. She was not so certain that she would, in fact, be strong enough to reclaim the Gates from whatever force could have taken them, and there was certainly nothing she could do on that front unless she could find the Gates.
But that again turned her mind to what had first disturbed her. She could not think of anything more productive to do. She still felt she had to remain here, but even had she gone to Earth… what would she do? She knew all too well how fragile the future of Crystal Tokyo was, and without access to the Gates her foresight was too limited to reach so far. Her future self had told her she knew what she must do, but she feared that she knew no such thing. Any action she took could shatter the future she sought forever, dooming the world to an eternal darkness. Better to do nothing.
Pluto blinked as a new feeling intruded on her consciousness. Something was coming. Something dark, something powerful. She could guess its goal and mistress, even if she could not decipher its form or identity. It was coming to search for the Gates of Time, and it almost certainly served Metallia. Pluto rose. This force seemed too strong to stand against openly. She would have to hide, and wait for an opportunity to strike.
She shifted slightly through time, and the courtyard around her took on an unreal quality. Even its ordinary quiet was more silent when she did this. She was now ever so slightly out of phase with the timestream - close enough to observe, but not close enough to be seen. Thus prepared, she waited, and tried to concentrate on the coming threat.
But however hard she tried, she could not silence the voice in the back of her mind that reminded her that not acting was also an action.
Eighteen thousand years ago…
Scalae, the Dragon of Fire, one of the most powerful beings in the known universe, was a slave. Down the sides of her long, serpentine form were twisted, dark scars, the brands marking her servitude. She knew this, but it did not make her loyalty to her mistress any less real. She could no more disobey her than she could quench the fires of her own soul. Even when what she was ordered to do was terrible.
She was no great friend to the humans; she had long ago lost count of the number she had slain since she first discovered them. But nor did she count herself among their enemies. So long as the humans did not set foot in the fiery wasteland she called home without good reason, she had been more than content to allow them dominion over the rest of the world they had named Mars. Over the countless years, vast cities had grown and the dry deserts had become full of green, growing things.
Now they all burned at her command. She had been ordered to become an instrument of vengeance, and so she had. Even this she could not deny her mistress, even though she knew that, had any part of her been free, it would have cried out in utmost despair. The humans had been unprepared for her, and now loyalist and rebel alike perished in her flames as she scoured the world.
The capital city drew near, the last outpost of mankind on this world. Ancient, terrible weapons launched powerful magics at her, and perhaps in the back of her mind, unknown even to her, she wished them strong enough to destroy her. Instead, she wove through the beams of magic, sending fire down to devour both the weapons and their wielders without even a thought. The few attacks that struck her did no more than delay her. There was only one power on the ten worlds that could stop her from completing her task, and it belonged to the one who had set her at it.
Flames rained down as she approached the center of the city, countless thousands dying with every second. A squadron of mages atop the palace walls responded with a torrent of magic, but it paled beside the magics she had already faced. Scalae concentrated for the barest instant to overcome the palace's strong defenses. Then the building vanished in a terrible inferno, and she knew that those valiant mages had died in seconds. She turned to finish off the remnant of the city.
And stopped, a call sounding in the depths of her soul. Instantly, she vanished from the skies of Mars. She reappeared, in human guise, in a large, though nearly empty, throne room on Luna. She silently stepped forward and knelt before the throne. She did not need to look to know that her three siblings knelt beside her.
A woman stood on either side of the throne. On the throne's left stood Senshi Saturn. There was something eerie, some strange madness, in her violet eyes, and in her gloved hands the Time Staff glowed softly. On the right stood Senshi Pluto. Her eyes were dead, and she held a silvery polearm Scalae did not recognize. It too glowed, and in its harsh light Scalae saw the death of worlds.
Still, she had eyes only for the woman who sat on the throne. Serenity, daughter of Serenity, called the Great to her face, and the Dark behind her back. The Queen of the Golden Millennium, heir to a dynasty that ruled all the inhabited worlds. A lineage that once had been honored beyond any other. Scalae knew that even the least of her crimes had been enough to darken that name, much less the entirety of them. Still, Scalae could do naught but serve her.
A strange thing caught her attention. The Ginzuishou was nowhere to be seen. Never had she known the Queen to not have it on her person. Perhaps those strange rumors she had heard that the Princess had stolen the Ginzuishou and fled Luna were true. Scalae shifted. What could this mean, that the very artifact that had bound her to this service now rested in the hands of another?
She was clearly not the only one to notice this, as Mordrangar, the Dragon of Earth, spoke from his place beside her. "My Queen," he said. "Were the rumors true then? That the Ginzuishou was stolen? That your daughter and your Senshi have joined the rebels?" Scalae did not think she was imagining the slight tone of triumph in his words. It was a thought that stirred something deep within her, that their bonds could be pressed even that much.
Queen Serenity rose, dark lightning crackling in her fists. There was a large crack, and Mordrangar was sent flying back to land against one of the gargantuan, golden pillars that littered the throne room. "You will never mention them again, Earth Dragon," she said. "With the Ginzuishou or without it, the rebels will be destroyed. I swear it."
Mordrangar muttered an apology, and slowly rose. After standing unsteadily for a moment, he walked back to his place in the line and knelt again.
"My Queen!" It was the Dragon of Water who spoke, rising and stepping forward. Scalae glanced up at him, and saw that he looked strangely sickly. "I feel I must beg this of you. I know not what your purpose is, but no good can come of it. I am no Time mage, but even I know that the flow of time is best left undisturbed. This hole you have bored -"
"Silence!" It was Senshi Saturn who spoke. "You know the Queen's will!" She laughed, and that laughter chilled Scalae to the bone. "With the Gates of Time, I will make all as it should always have been!"
"My reign will last forever," Serenity said. She stared down at the Water Dragon. "Your advice has been considered, and rejected." After a moment, she addressed all four Dragons. "These so-called Champions draw near. You will delay them, so I may finish my work."
Kyrien, the Dragon of Air, was the first to answer, and it was the only answer he could give. It was the same answer Scalae found herself giving the barest instant later, along with the other two Dragons. "Your will, my Queen."
Serenity nodded. "Then, go."
That was then…
…and this is now.
Fire and water poured from the center of the courtyard, forming massive clouds of deadly hot steam. Anything alive and unprotected in this vortex of magic would have died instantly and painfully. Even the ancient, shattered stones began to bubble and melt under the onslaught. A few, tattered remnants of only slightly less ancient defensive magics were utterly destroyed, not even the slightest thread of mana left to show they had been there.
Slowly, the attack died down. No more flame burst into being, no more water poured forth. Still, clouds of steam hovered over the now-unrecognizable courtyard, which was littered with shallow pools of boiling water. For the merest moment longer, the hissing and steaming of these pools was the only sound that disturbed the ruined courtyard.
Then there was the distinctive snap-hiss of a portal opening, a sound that few humans left alive could recognize. From the shimmering gateway poured a menagerie of strange creatures, ranging from humanoid figures seemingly formed of pure fire to scuttling crabmen who clutched spears that, though crude to the eye, radiated a deadly magic. Dozens followed dozens, until more than a hundred of the youma filled the courtyard.
Then, two ordinary seeming beings emerged from the gateway. If one did not look too closely, it would be possible to think them human, but their eyes were enough to prove them far from that. The woman, a simple red dress covering her slim frame, glanced about the courtyard with featureless red eyes, pools of flame that lacked white and pupil. Her companion, a larger man who toyed absently with his ornate robes, had deep blue eyes to match her red ones.
He spoke. "Somehow I expected there would be more resistance, Scalae." The snap-hiss sounded again, as the portal closed behind the two.
"As did I, but I am not so surprised, Loriel." The woman waved one hand. "Look, the Gates are not here. The Senshi must have moved them when our Queen struck here."
Loriel sniffed at the humid air. "Perhaps. But I still sense powerful magic here."
"You are right," Scalae said. She glanced at the youma that surrounded the pair. "Search the ruins. I don't want a stone left unturned." About half the youma moved to comply, but another half hesitated, glancing uncertainly to the Water Dragon. Scalae's eyes began to glow faintly. "In Great Metallia's name, move," she snapped. The hesitating youma wavered for a second, then raced to join their fellows.
"That was hardly necessary," Loriel said. "They only waited for my word."
Scalae snorted. "And what if they waited for your word in the midst of a battle? We all serve only one ruler again, Best they learn now."
"I suppose you may be right." Loriel sniffed again. "I do not sense anything here. Not even the Senshi."
"This courtyard is heavily warded to protect the Gates," Scalae explained. "It does not surprise me that the warding works in both directions."
"Warded?" Loriel paused a moment. "I do not think so."
Now, Scalae hesitated as her own senses probed the castle. "You are right. There are no wardings left here." She paused again. "They must have been destroyed by our Queen's arrival."
The two were silent for some time. Around them, the sounds of their youma tearing the ruined castle apart filled the air. Absent were any sounds of fighting or resistance. Scalae frowned. "It seems there truly is nothing left here."
Loriel did not respond, and the Fire Dragon glanced at him to see that his eyes were closed. "What is it?" she asked.
"There is… something here; I can feel it now. Hidden away, in a pocket of time."
"Can you find it?" Scalae asked.
"Time may not be my domain, but it should be close enough," Loriel said. "Now, be quiet while I work."
For once, despite the late hour of her return home, Tsukino Usagi woke without need for either alarm clock or cat. She could not say whether she had dreamed during the night. So much of what had occurred the previous day seemed so unreal that, still half-asleep, she was not sure how much of what she remembered was true and how much was merely nightmare. As she returned to awareness, she despaired at just how much was revealed to be reality. In the bright light of the morning sun, it seemed impossible that the last day could have been real. However, she knew that it was. To think otherwise would be worse than madness.
Usagi shook her head to clear it of the dark thoughts, and glanced around her room. She saw Luna still sleeping, and smiled softly. The poor cat had worried as much as, if not more than, her parents, and had refused to sleep until Usagi had told her what had happened. Usagi briefly considered waking the moon cat, but after a moment decided against it, however delicious the irony might have been on a happier day.
Hearing movement from the kitchen, Usagi dressed and made her way downstairs. Any hope she might have had that the events of the previous day had been a nightmare was shattered by the images displayed on the television, which her father was watching from his place at the kitchen table.
"Usagi, you're up," her mother said, looking at her as though she didn't quite believe her presence. Usagi was not sure how much of that was due to the events of the previous day and how much was due simply to the early hour. "What would you like for breakfast, dear?"
Usagi muttered some unthinking reply and seated herself across the kitchen table from her father. Her eyes returned to the television, the images bringing back the feeling of yesterday all too well. She could remember the terror, the despair, the helplessness. Usagi shook her head firmly. She would not, could not, go down that path. If she was certain of anything, it was that yesterday had only been the beginning.
Some noise sounded from the stairs, and Usagi's father glanced up from the television. "Shingo's up early, too, I see."
"Mm-hmm," was all her mother said in reply.
Usagi's eye was drawn to a line of text scrolling across the bottom of the television screen. Maybe on some other day it would have merited a brief mention by the anchors, but not today. There were far more pressing matters than unexplained high levels of sunspot activity. Usagi, however, knew what, or rather who, was the cause. Metallia. Just like the first time.
By this time, Shingo had arrived, and soon the whole family was seated around the table, eating breakfast. There was little sound, save for that of the television, and almost no talking. The news program was almost nothing but repetition and speculation, with only the occasional new fact - that the center of the incident had been the same as the first time the sky had turned red, that the Americans were going to ship troops over from South Korea, that there were reports that both attacks had been preceded by UFO sightings the night before. Usagi had to resist the urge to snicker at the last.
Shortly after breakfast was finished, Usagi was at the door, slipping into her shoes. Her father glanced up from the kitchen table, where he was still reading the paper. "Usagi?" he asked. "Where are you going?"
"I need to go to Rei's," Usagi answered truthfully.
Her father blinked. "Are you kidding? Usagi, there are still monsters out there! You're staying home!"
"But -" Usagi began, then stopped. After a moment, she started over. "I'm sorry. I wasn't thinking."
"Apparently not," her father replied. As she headed upstairs, she could hear him mutter to himself, "Honestly…"
A few moments later, Usagi shut the door to her room behind her. Luna was awake and waiting for her. "Good," the cat said. "I was afraid you'd already left for the Shrine."
"You want to come?" Usagi asked.
"Of course I'm coming!" Luna replied. "I might not be as much help as I used to be, but I'm not useless!"
Usagi nodded and walked over to the window, quietly sliding it open. Luna hopped out of it, onto a nearby tree limb. The cat glanced back at Usagi. "Well? What are you waiting for?"
Usagi looked back at her closed bedroom door. "Sorry, Dad, Mom," she whispered. Then she clutched her brooch and whispered five more words. A few seconds later, Sailor Moon leapt out the window and began to make her way to the Hikawa Shrine.
The throne room, vast though it was, was not the largest room in Beryl's - now Metallia's - palace. That honor went to the immense antechamber that adjoined it. At the height of Beryl's reign, it had served as both an informal, neutral meeting ground and as a place to hold those who could not fit into the throne room proper when too many attended the Queen. During Jadeite's brief reign, it had been rarely used, the throne room itself being more than large enough to accommodate the Overlords who served him.
Since Metallia's return, it had rarely been less than half-full. Nearly all youma of any power and their retinues were gathered in and around the palace. Even when the dark Queen herself was not holding court, one or more of her Generals was almost always about either the throne room or the antechamber, and power attracted youma like flies. And, as always when so many youma gathered, the antechamber had quickly become the nexus of a web of intrigue, countless plots and counter-plots always in motion.
The most powerful stood above and outside these petty struggles, their main interest simply in seeing which youma emerged as cunning and strong enough to be offered a place in their service. Only rarely would one of the Generals or their near-equals stoop to interfere in these intrigues, and when they did they could ruin even the most promising upstart with barely an effort… or just as easily raise them up to unheard-of heights. It was this twin fear and desire that ensured that the antechamber was always crowded.
Now, it was Jadeite who moved through the crowds, and word of his purpose spread like wildfire before him. The Queen had granted him leave to choose thirty thousand youma to take and raze the human city of Tokyo to the ground. Youma who only minutes before would have spit at the General; who, however powerful, all knew was out of Metallia's favor; now were effusive in their flattery to him, if not quite as verbose as they were when describing the merits of the forces they could give to his army.
Jadeite was impeccably polite to even the weakest youma who approached him, suitably impressed by descriptions of even the smallest, weakest units offered him. Even the most blatant attempts to curry favor were met only with smiles. In his wake, almost every minor Overlord was convinced that he was the General's first choice. More than one altercation had already broken out between rival claimants to that title.
Asphara, consort to General Ishamanar, watched the proceedings with some amusement. It was obvious that Jadeite had planned almost every one of those fights. He was using Metallia's mandate as an excuse to have his most loyal servants punish those who had abandoned him at the end of his reign. Had he dared, he might have struck at the other Generals' minions, but it was clear he did not want to provoke such a conflict.
Asphara was glad when Jadeite chose to come here, for it made her task much easier. Here, it was of no note that a youma such as herself would watch Jadeite's every move. Even if the General were to notice her, it would mean nothing to him. At worst, he would think Ishamanar was keeping an eye on him. More likely, he would simply think her a curious onlooker, just like the countless other Overlords who had observed his progress through the antechamber.
With these thoughts in mind, Asphara showed no sign of distress as Jadeite approached her. When the General arrived before her, he bowed deeply, a too-friendly smile on his face. "My lady Asphara, it is always a pleasure to see you."
Asphara gave a deep bow of her own. "Likewise, General." Overlords began to gather around the pair like vultures around carrion. Asphara was by far the most powerful, and the least friendly, youma Jadeite had yet approached.
Jadeite's smile widened. "I understand that you too are familiar with the city of Tokyo, my lady." Indeed she was: masquerading as a human for quite some time, she had gathered much of the energy that had gone to resurrect Metallia. Jadeite continued. "I would be most honored if you would consent to join me in my return to that city."
Asphara smiled politely. "I'm afraid not. It seems I have developed a distaste for the stench of human."
A nearby youma snickered, and a flash of irritation appeared on Jadeite's face before it smoothed again. "I am most sorry to hear that, my lady," he said. "But perhaps you could still perform a small favor for me?"
Asphara couldn't stop herself from raising an eyebrow. "You may ask."
Jadeite bowed again. "I would deeply appreciate it if you would carry my invitation to your consort's thousand." He smiled a smile that this time made no pretense of being polite. "Or at least whatever is left of it." Another youma snickered, and this time Jadeite's smile merely widened.
Asphara nodded her head, acknowledging the counterblow. "I will pass your request to my consort, General. I am pleased to see that you seek experienced youma for your strike." Asphara cocked her head, as though thinking. "Particularly since relying your own experience might not be the wisest of plans. How many of the youma you took to Terra survived?" There were more than a few laughs this time - perhaps unfairly, given the similar lack of success the other Generals had experienced.
Jadeite opened his mouth to reply, but before he could a strange quiet fell over the antechamber. Both Jadeite and Asphara's heads turned, and they watched as the crowds of youma parted. Through the gaps in the crowd strode Sailor Saturn, her dull eyes focused directly on the two. When she arrived, she bowed shallowly and stiffly to each in turn. "General Jadeite, Overlord Asphara."
"Senshi," Jadeite said, a bitter tone in his voice as he uttered the title. "What do you wish of me?"
"Nothing," Saturn replied, turning to Asphara. "Overlord Asphara. Great Metallia requests that you attend her." A low mutter ran through the crowd.
"Her will," Asphara said unthinkingly.
Saturn nodded curtly. "Then follow me." She turned away.
Asphara bowed to Jadeite. "I am afraid you must excuse me, General."
Jadeite nodded absently, already deep in thought, considering the implications of this summons. "Of course. Our Queen is not to be kept waiting."
Soon, Asphara and Saturn were walking alone through the labyrinth beneath the palace. As they neared Metallia's hidden sanctum, the darkness thickened until it was almost a solid thing. Strange movements could be seen out of the corner of one's eye, but it was impossible to get a good look at them.
Suddenly, Saturn spoke. "Do you truly hate the smell of humans?"
Asphara froze. "You… you were listening?"
"Yes." Saturn's pace did not slow, and she did not elaborate further on how she had eavesdropped on the conversation without being noticed prematurely by the throngs of youma. Asphara had to race to catch up with her before answering.
"No," she said after a moment. "I do not. It was merely to embarrass Jadeite." Asphara briefly wondered why she bothered to answer the Senshi's question. The question of why the Senshi had asked seemed so far beyond her as to be useless to pursue. She had not thought Saturn had that much free will.
"That is good," Saturn said, and she stopped before the door to Metallia's sanctum. Asphara would have been willing to swear that she saw a slight smile on the Senshi's face, which quickly vanished as the door slid open.
When the two were inside and the door closed behind them, Metallia spoke with no preamble. "Child. You lived on Terra for a time, correct?"
Asphara knelt. "To gather the energy for your return, my Queen."
Metallia nodded and for a moment her eyes met Asphara's. The youma felt every part of her laid bare, her entire existence measured and weighed out. Then the dark goddess nodded. "You will do," she said, and Asphara was unable to contain a sigh of relief.
"My Queen?" she asked after a moment.
"To sunder the barriers between this world and Terra forever, I need two things. A being of that world who has made its home here and a being of this realm that has lived on Terra." Metallia glanced to Saturn, who stood silently watching. "Hotaru here provides the one; you will provide the other."
Asphara nodded. "What must I do, my Queen?"
Metallia smiled, and began to explain.
Usagi was, perhaps predictably, the last to make it the Hikawa Shrine. Even Luna beat her to the shrine, as she paused at the threshold to change back to her normal self while the cat went on ahead. When she did arrive, a crowded room awaited her. The group that had taken the first patrol had awakened, while both the second patrol and those who had gone home the previous night had returned. It made for quite the chaotic scene, particularly since Usagi was so used to being here with just her four closest companions.
Luna had already found Artemis on Minako's lap, and the two cats were already deep in conversation. Meno and Ami were huddled together over their computers not far away. In a corner Medea - Sachiko - sat yawning, looking as though she had gotten even less sleep than the rest. All in all, the Shrine seemed more like the aftermath of a large slumber party than a war room.
Until one decided to look more closely at the people, that is. It would be a rather brutal slumber party that would produce the many bruises and minor wounds scattered among the crowd, and a very strange slumber party where those attending would start at every sudden noise from outside. And none would wake from any ordinary slumber party with the shell-shocked expressions that still adorned many faces after the previous day.
Mamoru rose as soon as Usagi entered and walked over to greet her. "Are you all right?" he asked after a moment.
It took Usagi several seconds to find an answer. "About as well as can be expected," she finally said. It was unlike her to give such an answer, she knew, but somehow it seemed the only thing that could be said.
"Your family was all right then?" Mamoru continued
Usagi nodded, but a sad look passed over her face. At Mamoru's questioning look, she shook her head. "It's nothing. How was last night?"
"Ikawa and the first group had a worse time of it, it seems," Mamoru said. "By the time we went out on patrol, things had mostly calmed down."
Usagi frowned. She remembered all too well how many youma she had felt remaining in Tokyo after she had forced the connection to the Dark Kingdom closed. "They can't all be dead," she said.
"I guess even youma have to rest sometime," Mamoru replied.
Someone nearby cleared his throat. Both Mamoru and Usagi started, then turned to see Motoki standing close by with Unazuki a half step behind. "Did you manage to meet your family?" Motoki asked after a moment. Usagi nodded. "That's good," Motoki continued, then his face turned serious. "Since we're all here, should we get moving, Princess?" he asked.
It was so strange to hear Motoki call her Princess, but Usagi couldn't argue with the suggestion. She nodded, glancing over to Minako and Ami. The other two Senshi noticed her attention, and rose to leave.
"Do you want me to come?" Mamoru asked. "I'm not too -"
"You just came off of, what, four hours of patrolling?" Motoki interrupted. "After yesterday?"
Mamoru sighed. "You're right, Motoki." He turned back to Usagi. "Take care," he said, after a moment spent seemingly searching for some other words.
Usagi nodded, and Mamoru took a step away, leaving her with the four she would soon be patrolling with. "Are we ready?" she asked after a moment.
Motoki and Ami simply nodded, while Unazuki and Minako almost simultaneously replied "Yes."
"Then there's no reason to wait," Usagi said, placing one hand over her brooch. The other four nodded, and soon two small rods and two much larger swords had appeared from nowhere in their hands. Usagi opened her mouth, but before she could utter even a single word, something unexpected happened.
Not far outside the shrine, a youma roared.
Pluto smiled grimly as she happened across a lone youma. It was an eel-like creature, a being that looked hopelessly out of place out of the water. Still, she knew that impression belied the dark strength she could feel it radiate. None of the youma the Dragons had brought along were weak. With the barriers of the Dark Kingdom falling away, there was no need for them to limit the power of those they brought over. She snorted. As though the fact that the Dragons themselves could pass through was not proof enough of how much the barrier had weakened.
Pluto wasted no more time on thought. She positioned herself behind the youma, and allowed the bubble of time she had surrounded herself in to fall away. The youma started as it felt her staff on the back of its neck. "Dead scream," Pluto whispered, and the youma vanished into dust without even a chance to cry out. In less than fifteen seconds, Pluto had shifted herself out of time again.
This was the fifth youma she had killed, but she knew that it was futile. The youma were not the problem; they would find nothing in the ruined castle. It was the Dragons that concerned her. It was possible, however unlikely, that there was some clue to the Gates' location left behind that she had not noticed. If any could find such a thing, it would be the Dragons.
The only silver lining to their presence was that they proved that it was not Metallia who had taken the Gates. If there was one thing she and the Champions could agree on, it was that the Gates could never again fall into the Dark Queen's hands. She had been less than a handful of years old when last Metallia had held them, and those days still gave her nightmares, an unthinkable number of years later. She had no use for the oaths Chronus, her so-called father, had made her swear, but that was one oath she had made to herself. She would never let the… the abomination was all she could use to describe it, as much as she hated to use Chronus's term. Still, regardless of the word, the oath was the same. Never again.
But, her troubled mind reminded her, if it was not Metallia who had taken the Gates… then who? No answers presented themselves, and her wanderings brought her back to the central courtyard, where the Dragons now stood alone.
"There is… something here; I can feel it now. Hidden away, in a pocket of time." It was the Water Dragon who spoke, and Pluto started. The Gates? Then she cursed her stupidity. Not the Gates… it was herself the Dragon sensed. The Fire Dragon said something she missed, but Pluto was forced to laugh at the male Dragon's reply.
"Time may not be my domain, but it should be close enough."
True, there was a reason many spoke of Time as a river. However, no water mage, however powerful, was going to best Pluto at her own game. She easily evaded the Water Dragon's clumsy probings as she prepared her response. She wove time back on itself, and placed it in the Dragon's path. There; that would keep the Water Dragon occupied for quite some time.
Pluto turned to the Fire Dragon, who stood silently watching the other Dragon, and pursed her lips. The Water Dragon would be all but dead to the world. One Dragon… she might be able to handle that. If she could, it would be a great victory. Not allowing herself to hesitate, Pluto stepped back into the time stream. "Dead -"
Fire burst into being around Pluto. "Scream," the Fire Dragon finished helpfully, and Pluto complied.
After a moment, the Senshi regained control, and the fire died out. Still, she swayed unsteadily on her feet as she faced the Dragon, and her teeth were gritted in pain.
"I was wondering when you would make an appearance," the other woman said mockingly. "Did you really think yourself a match for me, girl? I remember seeing you as a babe in your father's arms, at the court of Serenity the Peacemaker."
"I am surprised your mistress lets you utter that name," Pluto said, and the Dragon laughed.
"Her daughter is dead, and she still lives and reigns. That is revenge enough for my Queen. At least so far as the Peacemaker is concerned."
"But the Peacemaker's heir lives on," Pluto responded, silently cursing the pained weakness she heard in her own voice.
Scalae waved a hand negligently. "If she cannot even slay Ishamanar, my Queen will sweep her aside like nothing when the time comes."
"Yet it was not my Princess who fled this castle," Pluto responded.
Scalae snarled. "Enough of this. Burn." This time, Pluto was ready for the flames, and her staff forced them aside. Yet, she was still pushed back under the onslaught.
"So, Senshi," the Dragon said. "Where are the Gates? Perhaps if you tell me, I will convince the Queen to let you join Saturn as her slave."
Pluto pushed a smirk to her face. "The Gates will never be Metallia's."
Scalae cocked her head, and smiled. "But you will be." The flames suddenly closed in on Pluto, and the Senshi screamed again. "It was Saturn and Pluto who served to the end before. It should please my Queen that they would serve her again."
Pluto slumped to the ground, too weak to move, and Scalae let the flames die down, but only for a moment. They reformed themselves into bands of fire, surrounding her tightly and preventing any escape. Scalae turned to the Water Dragon. "Loriel." He did not respond, and after a moment the Fire Dragon lay a hand on him. He started and turned to Scalae, then saw Pluto.
He quickly realized how he had been tricked and cursed the Senshi. Pluto smiled softly. At least she had that small victory.
Scalae called for the youma to return. And nothing came. Scalae called again.
Loriel frowned. "There's something here. Something powerful."
Scalae called a third time, then staggered back as though struck. "The youma… I cannot feel them. Not a one."
"What could do this without us noticing?" Loriel asked worriedly.
Before Scalae could reply, black lightning descended from the dark sky, slamming into the two Dragons. Pluto's bonds vanished, and the Dragons wavered on their feet.
Scalae fired a burst of flame into the heavens, and another bolt of darkness descended from the sky in answer. Almost simultaneously, a beam of ethereal, purple light appeared from midair and stuck Loriel in the chest, sending him flying back to smash against a still standing stone wall. He rose unsteadily, searching for the attacker.
Pluto rose, taking hold of her staff and pointing it at the Water Dragon. "Dead Scream!" The Dragon blocked the attack with his hand, but he wavered again afterward.
Scalae gestured, sending a wave of fire at the Senshi, but Pluto easily sidestepped the attack. Even as she prepared to attack again, another purple beam appeared, this time striking Scalae. The Fire Dragon cursed, flinging white flame at the empty air the beam had come from, to no apparent effect.
Another bolt of darkness descended. This time Loriel deflected it, sending it crashing into a pile of rubble, sending heavy stones flying. "Come out and face me!" the Dragon shouted, but he received only harsh, mocking laughter in response.
Pluto launched a Dead Scream at the Fire Dragon, and landed a solid hit. Scalae whirled around to face her again, but even as flame gathered in her hands the purple light struck her again. This time she fell to her knees. Darkness gathered over her, lancing downward for the finishing blow.
And was again forced aside by Loriel, who stood protectively over the fallen Dragon of Fire. Scalae rose, and together the two Dragons began to pour out both fire and water, a vortex of magic that made the one that had preceded their arrival seem weak. Pluto barely had a chance to slip out of the timestream before the storm of magic reached her.
When the magic cleared, even the ruins of Castle Charon were gone, and the Dragons were nowhere to be seen. Pluto returned to the timestream and waited until her exhaustion left her no choice but to rest, but her rescuer did not emerge.
The full assortment of Senshi and Champions raced out of the Hikawa Shrine mere moments after the roar. The youma outside seemed to be ready for them, however. Dark blades of energy met the warriors' charge, forcing them to take cover. As the blades struck the ground, huge clouds of dust were kicked up, preventing anyone from getting a good view of the monster.
Sailor Uranus launched a World Shaking in the general direction of where she thought the youma had to be. There was a loud explosion, but no sign the attack had actually hit the monster. Hers was not the only attack to go off, but none of the others seemed to have any more effect.
Even before the dust from its opening strike had died down, the youma was among the warriors. It seemed like a dark shadow in the dusty air, effortlessly slipping through the attempts to stop it. It flung more energy blades from its hands. One hit Hades in the chest. He flew back, slamming loudly against the shrine wall.
By now the dust had begun to settle, and it was possible to get a good look at the youma. It seemed to be nothing more than an empty suit of dark green, almost black, armor. Yet, malevolent red eyes shown from its shadowed helm. It raised one arm, and the Senshi saw that it had no hands. An energy blade emerged from the dark hole at its wrist.
"Shine Aqua Illusion!"
The youma sidestepped Mercury's attack, then wove under a Venus Love-Me Chain. Ares leapt at the youma's back, but it spun around with almost impossible speed. It parried Ares's flaming sword with one arm. Simultaneously, it plunged the dark blade at the end of its other arm into Ares's chest. The Champion's armor held, but he was forced back.
Sailor Moon raised her scepter. "Moon Spiral -"
The youma turned from Ares and hurled itself at Sailor Moon. It flung an energy blade at her. It went wide, and Sailor Moon continued her own attack.
"- Heart -"
The youma reached Sailor Moon, swinging its other blade at her. The Senshi was forced to break off her attack to dodge. The youma swung again, and this time Sailor Moon stumbled. She fell, and the youma raised its weapon for the finishing blow.
And it was hit by a stunning number of attacks from all directions. It wavered, and Sailor Moon scrambled out of the way before it toppled over, raising another huge cloud of dust.
When the dust cleared, the figure that was revealed was human. The young boy coughed weakly, before speaking. "I'm sorry. It was all I could do to come here."
Ryo looked at Hermes and Mercury for a moment before turning away. "Sorry," he repeated.
"What… what are you doing?" Mercury asked.
Ryo smiled sadly. "Dying. I hope."
"We'll -" Sailor Moon began.
"Kill me," Ryo interrupted.
"No!" Mercury almost yelled. "We already went through this!"
"I can heal you, like before," Sailor Moon said.
Ryo shook his head as he rose to a kneeling position. "No. It is not that simple, Usagi." He paused, as though searching for words to use. After a long moment, his eyes sought out another member of the group facing him. "Prince Endymion," he said.
Endymion took a step forward almost unthinkingly.
"Can you feel it?" Ryo asked.
"Her call," Ryo said. "Once, you too served her. Without even thinking of it, she calls all her creatures back to serve her." There was no need to explain who 'she' was. "The others, the rest of the Seven Great Youma… they are safe, I think. She believes them dead, and with them sealed by the Ginzuishou they are deaf to her call."
"But then you -" Sailor Mars said.
Ryo shook his head. "I know what I really am. The darkness in my soul is closer to the surface. That is enough." He reached down, picking up a small, sharp stone. With a sudden movement, he drew it across his palm, and held out his hand. The blood that dripped from the gash he had made was black. Only a few seconds later, the wound had completely healed.
"I cannot resist Metallia's call for long. If I live, I will go to her, and she will learn that Seven Great Youma still survive." His eyes turned to Sailor Mars. "Would you be able to fight your grandfather, Rei?" Then, to Zeus. "Your old girlfriend, Furuhata?"
"Reika," Zeus breathed. Meno had told him, but it was hard to believe.
"The Seven Great Youma," Jupiter said. "They weren't so tough, though."
Ryo smiled bitterly. "You saw how much I have changed since then. What you faced then were only shadows of what we truly can be. And never did you face the power we could be together."
"I remember," Poseidon said harshly. "We saw on Luna."
"The odds are against you already," Ryo said. "You cannot afford to grant Metallia another weapon. I must die."
"We'll find another way," Sailor Moon said.
"You will try," Ryo said. "I do not think it will work."
Hermes finally spoke. "Have you seen -"
Ryo shook his head. "I have not. But I know how far gone I am."
"I must still try," Sailor Moon said, and she slowly pulled the Ginzuishou from its place in her brooch, and it began to glow with a soft silver light.
Ryo recoiled, hissing in pain, and Sailor Moon let the light die. "No!" Ryo said. "Do it quickly. Don't listen to anything I say. I won't be able to keep control much longer."
Sailor Moon raised the Ginzuishou again, and soon it shone like a tiny sun in her hands. The light bathed Ryo, and he snarled at her, his voice becoming twisted and guttural. "Let me go, Serenity."
She didn't respond, and the light strengthened. Ryo rose, shouting in more human tones "Stop! Please!" As the words left his mouth, he collapsed back as though some terrible force was assaulting him. "Metallia take you all!" he hissed, moments before the silver light around him became so bright that he could not be seen.
Then the light died down, and there was nothing left where Ryo had knelt but a thin smear of white ash. "Ryo…" Mercury whispered, falling to her own knees. Hermes continued to stand, a cold look on his face.
"Thank you." Everyone started at the still, small voice. A tiny spark of silver light rose from the ash, then grew, becoming an almost transparent image of Ryo. "Meno," he said, looking at his brother.
Hermes said nothing.
"I'm sorry I never told you the truth."
Hermes looked away. "Ryo," he said after a moment, and his voice was full of unshed tears.
His brother smiled faintly then glanced to Mercury. "I'm sorry, Ami," he said after a moment. "I didn't want it to end like this, but it was the only way." He whispered three more words, that somehow only reached her ears, and Mercury sobbed. "Don't cry," he said more loudly. "I am free, now."
His eyes turned to Sailor Moon, but he addressed the whole group. "Some of you already know that I sometimes see the future. Soon, darkness will fall. The Ice will come. But before you despair, remember this: Metallia's victory is not yet written in the book of the future. She can be defeated. This war can still be won."
Ryo's image began to waver, and he closed his eyes. "It is time," he whispered. "I wish you all luck. I fear you will need it." He paused a moment longer, and no one spoke. Finally, Ryo found one last word, moments before his image vanished entirely. "Goodbye."
Author's Random Ramblings
1) And that's two chapters down. At this rate… well, I don't want to calculate how long it will take to finish this. Though, this one gets something of a pass since I wrote Fallen Chapter 5 while working on it.
2) The previous chapter of this story can be found at my website, http://www.mimiru.net
3) Many thanks to Angus MacSpon for his pre-reading, as is ever the case. Thanks also to Michael Chase, David McMillan, and Aondehafka for their corrections on the draft release.
4) Any and all comments of any sort are most welcome, as is also ever the case.
5) And be sure to tune in next chapter, wherein the proverbial fecal matter really hits the air circulation device.
Started: January 26, 2004
Draft Finished: March 23, 2004
Draft Released: April 07, 2004
Final Released: October 06, 2004