A Gift by Starlight
by Mina Martin
Chapter 5: You’ve Never Actually Heard The Monster Mash
* Warning for violence in this chapter that some may consider borderline rated R/M, and some strong language.
* * * * * * * *
A long time ago (when we were young), in a universe far, far away (the 1990s), there was a girl who fought monsters, and she had to do it alone.
Although, that’s not exactly the full story. Maybe it should be: teens are the center of their own universes, and teenage girls all have their own demons to fight.
Sometimes the monster is a mental one, like the fixed dread of your own inevitable and violent death, date and time unknown but creeping closer every sunset to steal whatever life you have left.
Sometimes it’s an emotional one, a grief hot and strong like a lightning bolt without an outlet, nothing to do but quietly wait out the agony until it wanes to nothing more than static electricity.
And sometimes the monster really is an actual physical being, like a two-meter tall creature attacking and hurting innocent people with crazy weaponized toy cranes, as haphazardly as its human counterpart hurt a young girl's heart.
The fight doesn’t ever stop. But it is starting to change.
* * * * * * * *
The first rainbow crystal carrier was nothing more than a mundane human man. A boy, really. The resonant process of magically opening his body to take the rainbow crystal was clearly painful, going by all the screaming.
He almost got away after their little encounter at the café, and if Zoisite wasn’t such an excellent tracker it could have been hours before he found the boy again. But now it looked like he’d be able to finish the job and return to the Dark Kingdom – to Kunzite - long before dusk fell.
Then again, even as pathetic as humans were, there was something to be said for watching the sunset from an Earthly vantage point. Somewhere high up and delightfully chilly, that would require sharing a broad, heavy cape.
While the screaming went on, Zoisite mused that he didn’t remember anything about the Seven Great Monsters, as Queen Beryl had called them. He was curious to see what the first one would be like after awakening it, as a side effect of his main mission, which was to retrieve the first rainbow crystal hidden in the monster’s human form. How would it compare with the finest warrior youma of the Dark Kingdom? Would it want to rejoin the Dark Kingdom in its glorious mission right away? Would it be corrupted from being dormant a thousand years and trapped in human form? Or would the Sailor Soldiers somehow manage to kill it, like they had done to so many youma before? Hopefully it would have the same level of intelligence as a youma. Zoisite had only just gotten rid of a longstanding rival and placed himself as foremost among Beryl’s agents. He didn’t need any new trouble.
There – front and center in the black hole Zoisite had twisted open in the boy’s chest. The first rainbow crystal had a brilliant red shade. The bright, bloody color and position of it made Zoisite think of pulling a heart out from behind a ribcage. But this was a far neater process; more like plucking a full rose bloom off the vine.
“Stop that, you’re hurting him!”
Zoisite grimaced – it was that same brunette girl from hardly half an hour earlier. The one who had somehow managed to land a blow on his face, the bitch. How did she even find him again? They were in some random public walkway no different than the dozens of other pedestrian spaces and parking lots in Tokyo. Zoisite had been forced to stop his first attempt at crystal extraction thanks to her, and now she was delaying his mission again?
No, no, no. After all he had finally accomplished, now he was considering letting some teenage girl stop him? Jadeite and Nephrite were recreant failures but not him.
“Still bullying people weaker than yourself? I’ll take you on mys-AHHHHHHH!”
Zoisite sent out a blast of his signature sakura blossoms from his right hand. Each blushing petal could be as soft as the delicate stroke of a fingertip, or as hard and sharp as diamond-tipped hira-shuriken. They mutated depending on the situation and his mood, and for now, Zoisite just wanted her out of the way. His blossom blast was mostly wind, and it sent the girl back head over heels. She hit one of the concrete bollards on the way down, and a random black cat padded around her body as she struggled to get back up.
And then he collapsed to a knee. With his left hand, Zoisite continued to hold the Dark Crystal aloft, using its resonating magical waves to pull on the colorful rainbow crystal stuck inside the human boy, almost like a magnet. But it was a precarious and strenuous task.
There was a reason Zoisite wanted to attack his target while the boy was alone; it had less to do with him not wanting to engage with measly humans in fight he’d surely win, and more with the intense concentration and strength needed to perform such an important magical ritual.
The crystal wobbled forward, not completely phased with the physical dimension at first. Then floated in a straight line to Zoisite’s waiting hand, where it pulsed with a neon glow in his grasp. Yes!
“Hold it right there!”
Zoisite turned to the infamous Sailor Moon, smirking. “You’re too late, Sailor Moon!”
“I don’t know who you are, but I won’t let you get away with attacking innocent girls and the terrible mean stupid irresponsible jerkface boys they have a crush on!”
Zoisite stared at the first and absolute most ridiculous of the Sailor Soldiers, the smirk stuck on his face while he fought off an exasperated tic in one eye.
The boy was still alive, gasping for breath in a growing halo of red light. It wouldn’t be long before his true self emerged.
“I suppose if you’re going to be upset over your own failure to retrieve the first rainbow crystal, you should at least know who bested you. I am Zoisite, one of the Dark Kingdom’s Four Kings of Heaven!”
“Rainbow crystal?” Sailor Moon repeated, confused. Then she narrowed her eyes and threw out an open palm. “You hand that over right now!”
“Oh, this little thing?” Zoisite held up the red rainbow crystal between his thumb and first two fingers, catching the afternoon sunlight and filtering it out in rays of deep red.
She leapt for it with all the grace of a brain-damaged flying squirrel, and Zoisite laughed as he nimbly floated back at each one of her attempts.
This is what Jadeite and Nephrite had lost to?
A whirlwind started to form around the boy.
“You know what I’ve decided? I’m not interested in seeing the first Great Monster anymore. I’ll leave you to deal with whatever mess it makes! Zoi!”
Sailor Moon shrieked as she was blown backwards. This was too easy - she couldn’t even touch him! It was almost a shame the other two Sailor Soldiers weren’t there; he would have liked the opportunity to show them all what a true King was capable of.
If this Great Monster ended up slaughtering her in battle, he could track it down afterwards and re-recruit it for the Dark Kingdom. And claim credit for the kills, of course. Zoisite could always find leverage in the leeway he was given. Or the opportunity in an opening - Beryl hadn’t given any instructions about the Great Monsters, only that she wanted the rainbow crystals.
Beryl only cared about the legendary silver crystal: its power, its energy, to keep it all for herself. Her talk about their Great Ruler was just that, pharisaic tribute and rituals. All of them in the Dark Kingdom, each one of them only cared for one single person. Altruism was not a survival trait.
Zoisite only truly cared for one single person as well.
He laughed again, giddy on his success, and leisurely rose up in the air. All the better to look down on the pathetic Sailor Moon who dared challenge him before he would teleport away.
Until he felt a tug on his ankle that stopped him.
Zoisite looked down into the bruised but defiant face of the teen girl from earlier; the tall girl. Her already strong grip on him tightened.
Makoto Kino slapped her other hand up to lock his ankle in both of her hands.
She moved her feet just a little, the better to position herself securely.
Zoisite snarled and readied a deadlier blast, how dare she—
The Dark Kingdom’s latest agent sent out a wild sakura blossom blast seconds too late. Makoto pulled and then swung him like a living baseball bat right into the ground. The arc of his magic blast caught her as it veered wide and threw her back again, but the new welts and shredded skin all over her body were worth it. She’d seen it, and even felt it – the evil man had eaten asphalt at, oh, she’d guess a cool 113km/h. Face. First.
Sailor Moon started running towards her friend – her amazing, Amazonian friend! – but stopped at the wordless scream from Zoisite, still face down on the gritty pavement. It put her own occasional screaming-into-her-pillow to shame. He finally picked himself up and started staggering towards Makoto.
“My face!” he seethed. He looked like he’d been sandblasted, the gravel having scraped deep into his skin. What wasn’t already bleeding from cuts was red like a sunburn. The literal blow to his beauty enraged him so much it never crossed his mind that a normal human would have also broken their nose or cracked their jaw. “I’ll kill you for this I thwear — thw—” Zoisite stopped and brought a hand to his mouth.
“Oh my gosh, did you lose a tooth?” Sailor Moon goggled.
Zoisite sent out another sakura blast, and his hatred fueled it into a deluge of razor-like hits. When Sailor Moon fell back yet again, this time she bled from dozens of tiny scrapings and her cries of pain were music in his ears. The cherry blossom blast came most naturally to him, something both beautiful and deadly, but now he was going to use one of his ice attacks on these humans. He would kill both of them, he would. Zoisite didn’t leave survivors. He’d make Sailor Moon watch as she got an innocent civilian executed, then it would be her turn, and he would scour at their skin and their flesh until it was nothing but a bloody, red visage – red. Red.
Zoisite spun around. “No! Where is it?! You made me drop it!” The abuse of his magnificent face was suddenly least important in his mind. A true bone-renewing spell would have to wait, but he formed a patch of a healing spell in the meantime.
Zoisite vaulted in the air for a better view. He turned his head every which way, desperately searching for the crystal – it couldn’t have gone far! – and he didn’t hear a small, feline voice on the ground instructing Sailor Moon to ready her own signature attack.
He’d just had the thought to use his old friend’s dark crystal to summon it when Zoisite noticed the movement of a black cat darting across the ground. Running from something? No, he realized – running to the red crystal, up ahead of the animal, no longer glowing but still recognizably red.
“Oh no you don’t,” he hissed, and dove towards the crystal.
The whirlwind shot up around the boy like a tornado column.
If Zoisite had been a superhero, he might have flown down headfirst or with arms out in front as if he were swimming. But as a King of the Dark Kingdom he didn’t really fly so much as have the ability to hover and leap tall buildings in a single bound. When he dove down, he did so feet first and landed in a crouch not far from the prize. Then he stood and held out an arm to simply blast the small Earth creature away from his red crystal.
Or he would have, if not for the three most dreaded words for a Dark Kingdom denizen: “Moon – Tiara – Action!”
“No!” Zoisite yelled. The warm yellow light seemed to surround him on all sides, and the glittering disc bearing down on him was enchanting and terrifying at the same time. A King was nothing more than a deer in headlights in the face of that lunar magic. Zoisite summoned all of his willpower, his rage, and he snapped out of whatever hold the magical tiara had on him at just the last second, jumping out of the way.
The cat picked up the crystal in its mouth and dashed into the nearby bushes. Unbeknownst to Zoisite, Luna dropped the crystal in a pocket dimension – and readied a certain green transformation pen in its place. The whirlwind was starting to die down, and so she started to run towards Makoto, who was bravely pushing herself back up and stumbling towards the fight yet again. She hadn’t felt the symbol that had flared in green on her forehead, but Luna had seen it, confirming her earlier guess.
“You stupid cat!” Zoisite sent out blasts with both hands, one after the other, making the cat dodge and twist. Everything was going wrong! Its feline yowls of fright weren’t nearly enough to placate him, even when he landed a hit. A pitiful non-fatal one, though.
Why, why, of all the rainbow crystals to be stolen from him, did it have to be the very first one? Beryl would be furious and worse, Kunzite would be disappointed! He started blasting away the hedge bushes in a frenzy. He’d destroy the entire area if he needed to. “Where’d you drop the rainbow crystal?! Where is it?!”
“Leave her alone! And those plants never did anything to you!”
Zoisite turned to Sailor Moon. She limped toward him, with shallow cuts on her legs that clearly still stung at every movement, but had mostly stopped bleeding.
He should fix that.
Sailor Moon screeched when Zoisite turned his attacks on her. Dodging magical attacks made for the worst workout ever. She hopped about as he made small craters in the ground and pitted benches and a rare trashcan with the force of his tiny, deadly sakura blossoms. “I didn’t mean start attacking me instead!” she wailed.
One of his blasts finally caught her in the legs and she tumbled down. Zoisite let out a “Ha!” and vaulted the distance with a single, magically-powered high jump.
He didn’t lift her by the throat. Even though he had the power to magically ‘lighten’ someone for better handling, Zoisite sometimes liked to hear whatever his targets had to beg and babble. Instead he grabbed the gold locket at her chest, his fingers digging into the red ribbon of her bow and some of the white fabric underneath, and yanked her up to his eye level. Behind him the tall girl yelled something he didn’t catch, and then she was cut off. No doubt succumbing to her wounds as fragile humans were meant to do.
Sailor Moon brought a hand up to her head, probably to get at her tiara again, and Zoisite backslapped it away.
“No! Let me go!”
“If I can’t deliver the rainbow crystal,” he hissed, “maybe your mangled corpse will do!”
She kicked at him with both legs and shouted at him, but Zoisite just laughed and put his other hand inches away from her eyes.
They both stopped at the noise.
It wasn’t a single noise, but some kind of repeating one that didn’t make sense. A base, bestial sound, coupled with something metallic.
Something like the heavy breathing of a grizzly bear, huffing air through nostrils the size of a child’s two fists. Clink. Or open-mouthed and shaking its salivating jowls. Something animalistic, meaty-wet and warm. Clink. Yes; it smelled of meat, still fresh with hot blood. And very close behind them.
Both Zoisite and Sailor Moon slowly turned their heads from each other to the noise, looking up and up and up at something heavily armored and taller than anything to ever come out of the Dark Kingdom.
Sailor Moon went deathly pale and for the first time ever couldn’t make a sound, while Zoisite tensed and used a Dark Kingdom epithet that Kunzite had once disciplined youma for using in his presence.
The monster’s dense forearm, moving much faster than something of its size should have been able to, sent them both flying with a solid hit.
And then it roared, sending the birds from the trees, the invertebrates from the earth, and the safety glass from every car, storefront, and traffic light in a shattering five-block radius.
The first Great Monster had awoken.
* * * * * * * *
A girl was about to finish this fight.
India Cohen stalked through the halls wielding a consecrated chokutō. She listened and watched for the tiniest of hints. She wore old tennis sneakers, having ditched her good school shoes in Kit’s van along with her blazer. New sneakers would squeak, but her old ones made no sound.
It was a kind of ghost called an onryō according to Kit, not a demon after all. Anytime India made contact with it using the chokutō it seemed to hurt the ghost. And each time she managed to hack off some of the onryō’s long black hair from her head, that weakened it. At least in the sense that it made the onryō more physical and less ectoplasmic. India was getting tired of having medical equipment telekinetically thrown at her, the rapid blinking lights trying their best to give her a seizure or at least a headache.
But the worst was when the onryō actually made an abrupt appearance. Croaking and floating and using her hair like thread to sew up the walls. She blocked out the light from the windows, the air from the vents, plugging up light sockets and phone jacks, all with her otherworldly hair. Sometimes entire walls appeared and disappeared. The ghost had probably infected the hidden infrastructure of the whole building like jellyfish tentacles. It wasn’t the goriest thing India had ever dealt with, but it was definitely the creepiest so far. And she’d gotten lost and trapped in sudden dead ends and closed up rooms more than once, at least before kicking her way out through a wall. Her knee-high socks were itchy with plaster dust.
She’d chased the weirdo ghost from the basement to the ground floor and on up, fighting and wearing it down on each level. Guess nobody told this ghost about horror movie rules; never run upstairs to escape.
At first India had tried slashing at everything with the ancient Japanese sword, like it was a well-made and freshly sharpened katana. That worked fine on flying clipboards and file holders. But she wasn’t trained at all in east Asian weapons, and one hit to the face with a Commodore 64 made it clear she needed to change tactics. (The chokutō had cut just deep enough into the plastic casing and electronic innards that she didn’t slice her own face when it all came back at her.) After that she used one of those hard-plastic, stackable office chairs as a shield, at least until it too was telekinetically ripped away and thrown right back at her.
It was like a very painful game of dodgeball, where kicks and punches to the ball were allowed. India longed for computer technology that was small and easily breakable.
Three scratches sounded from the small walkie-talkie India had clipped to her skirt waistband. It was the signal from Kit, asking in code from his basement location if she was still there and okay. Still holding the chokutō, she used her other hand to reach down and blip three scratches back, letting him know yes, but the onryō is still around otherwise she’d answer by talking.
She heard footsteps ahead. That didn’t make sense; the onryō floated, and India was the only person in the hospital.
The lights flickered, again. Just around the corner an unknown staggered forward on what sounded like four uneven legs. Was the onryō weakened enough to crawl, or had it manifested something equally nasty?
A girl waited in the dark.
The footsteps came right to the corner. India briefly wished for a second weapon, even though she had agreed with Kit earlier: against a telekinetic ghost any weapon could easily be turned back against her, so it was safer with just the one. Just as the unknown was about to turn, and in between the flickers of light, India curved her arm and threw the whole chokutō at what she hoped was the middle of its torso or head –
* * * * * * * *
This was all wrong!
Naru felt it in every step she took away from Nephrite’s room. But it made no sense, and she had her instructions from him. She kept hurrying from room to room looking for a phone. There was one on the wall, far around the corner from the hallway she started on. But it was all for nothing, because Naru couldn’t figure out how to reach outside of the building.
Dialing 100 didn’t reach the NTT operator like normal; dialing 104 didn’t get a result either. She even tried her own home phone number, with a 1 and then 9 in front. But all Naru got was a continuous dial tone. It was nothing but dial tones with nobody on the other end.
Then Naru heard a voice, not from the phone at all. A frightening, familiar cackle, right before a cacophony of medical alarms all sounded at once.
So many times before, she’d never even gotten to the fight or flight response. Naru would be at a new store, at a new gym that let in teenagers, outside at an event or just on the street, and she would suddenly realize she felt utterly exhausted. Then both the area and maybe an otherwise normal looking person would start to warp and transform. Even if she could still move – and sometimes it would be too late for that, too – Naru could only reach a state of fear before something drained the very consciousness out of her. There was just never any point in trying to fight back.
This time she didn’t freeze in place, or desperately wish she could move only to run away. Nephrite was in danger – something rushed through her body, something adrenal and excited for once. Something primal that merged with the instinct to protect him.
Naru tossed the phone and raced back to Nephrite.
The ceiling lights flickered behind her and the faint dial tone abruptly cut off.
The scene of Nephrite’s small, private hospital room had filled Naru with such happiness only a little while ago. But he wasn’t alone anymore, and he wasn’t safe anymore. The machines crowded at the back wall in line with Nephrite’s head - the only other things in the room beside a sink and some cupboards – each rang with their own individual and dysphonic alarms. A youma loomed over Nephrite, standing at his right side where he couldn’t lift his arm, and using an ironclad hold to crush his airway. It was killing him right before her eyes.
And it took her back to when that first youma had almost killed Naru in her mother’s jewelry shop just months ago, when supernatural evil first entered her life. The memory of that other monster’s squeezing grip made a phantom ache around her neck, but it didn’t take her voice.
“Get away from him!” she yelled. Actually yelled at the monster, like she was Sailor Moon.
But then, seconds later, she was vocalizing a low and frightened mantra of, “No-no-no, oh no—”
Because in response to Naru’s righteous declaration the youma did the thing, the thing that had featured in her nightmares for weeks after the jewelry shop attack, the thing with its head that not even a corpse should be able to do. Its body stayed perfectly still while the neck rotated, its leathery skin folding over and over on itself, far past the point a human neck would have stopped, would have snapped, and it looked at her.
Naru clutched the doorframe until her knuckles were white and the wood started to splinter apart. The youma had a stretched goblin face, with large pointed ears and a flattened nose, a spiky shape on its forehead that could have been anything from a birthmark to a burnmark, and a mouth that grinned far too wide. But the worst were the huge black eyes – they looked into Naru’s and never blinked, like dark bottomless pits, windows to the twisted remnant of a soul that stared right back at her.
“Hello there, little human thing,” the monster greeted. It never stopped smiling.
And then it let go of Nephrite. The youma threw out an arm to Naru instead. It stretched its arm out like a rotting tree branch, lengthening in fast-forward time to catch her - but it had to release Nephrite first in order to do so.
It was different than that first youma’s grip. Or the plant youma’s arm that had almost killed Nephrite. Or any of the other youma that had caught and shoved and drained Naru over the past year. This time the monster’s attack was, honestly, kind of slow in comparison. Naru could see it coming, and there was enough time for her to dodge under it and rush forward.
Josi, the youma, was surprised that a human could duck her attack, especially a normal one that wasn’t even a Sailor Soldier. But she barely had time to consider the thought because the girl rammed her with both hands to the chest and sent her straight back into the wall with a single shove. A mere human cracked a youma-sized dent into the hospital drywall and took down the cardiac monitor in one strike.
Her monstrous arm retracted by itself, in equal time to Josi’s growing anger – the nerve of that girl! She hadn’t done the youma any real damage, of course. As if she could actually knock Josi out.
And if she killed both the traitor and human, no one would ever find out a human had so easily managed to knock the wind out of her.
Meanwhile, Nephrite coughed and wheezed, gulping in air even though it felt like swallowing knives. He leaned far over the left rail of the hospital bed, trying to gain even a little bit of distance away from his latest attacker. The weight of his body made it tilt up on the right side, and the rubber wheels squeaked and lifted up, going further up and up until finally the bedframe sloped past its critical tipping point and went airborne for just a moment. Then, almost 300 pounds of industrial metal and dense medical-grade plastic promptly crashed to the ground with a catastrophic BANG. Less audible was the thump of Nephrite’s battered self along with it.
The hefty bedframe thankfully landed on its side – if it had completely turned over Nephrite probably would’ve been trapped underneath it. He groaned at the newest hit to leave bruises on him, the bars of the rails having knocked all his ribs in perpendicular fashion. But he finally kicked off all his blankets, kicked away the standard pillow and the long, flat cushion that had gone under his prone body, and crawled away on his single hand and knees. He only made it to the plain wall across from Josi, but on the ground was still better than literally under her thumb and stuck in the humans’ rectangle contraption.
Naru cried out his name. She sprinted around to reach him, her patent black Mary-Janes tapping fast on the linoleum tiles, and knelt down by his side. The medical bed bisected the stark hospital room, with her and Nephrite crouched at the wall on one side of it, and Josi shaking off drywall dust up on the other side.
And directly in line with the hospital bedframe was the door, the only way out of the window-less room, an equally distant length away from all of them. Naru and Nephrite would never make it out before the youma caught up and grabbed them, at least not together.
Nephrite grabbed Naru’s shoulder, and she went to help him stand up, but instead he put his face to the side of her head and she froze in place.
“Please run,” he rasped in her ear. His breath was sleep-sour and warm on the skin of her neck.
“A lucky shot!” sneered Josi. She came over to the stocky bedframe, tipped over on its side. Josi raised a single foot to step on the railing, just resting a sharp elbow on her propped-up knee instead of climbing over right away. She surveyed the two of them, a smile still on her mouth but gone from her eyes. “Your pet human has some fight in her, Nephrite. This ought to be fun.”
Nephrite used his teeth to rip out the needle of the IV line in his left hand, and bit down on the plastic end to keep himself from crying out. The tiny, concentrated sting of it hurt just as much as crashing down with the bulky bedframe had. A few drops of blood spattered out over his skin.
“You think you can succeed where three of Zoisite’s assassins failed?” he sneered back at her, stalling. His voice was still hoarse. He knocked over the IV stand with his left hand and the metal clang of it rang through the room.
“I think I’m tired of being one of your kept flunkies and waiting for it to pay off. Time to try my chances on a King of a different direction.”
Nephrite started unscrewing the top loupe of the IV stand, one-handed. Naru stared at the small drops of green blood on the back of his hand.
How could this happen again?
It wasn’t fair! Nephrite didn’t deserve to keep getting attacked like this, and for that matter neither did she! But what could Naru do? What could she possibly do?
Well, there was always one thing. Naru jumped to her feet, standing in front of Nephrite, and threw her arms out wide. The crisp white fabric of her school uniform blouse fluttered once in place with the motion. “Stay back!” she ordered Josi. “I won’t let you hurt him!”
Behind her, Nephrite worked on unscrewing the bottom platform attachment of the IV stand.
Josi took a moment to study her sharp nails. They were more like talons than human fingernails. “Is that a human I hear trying to order me around? How annoying and stupid. You’ll turn to begging me for mercy soon enough.”
Naru felt herself shaking, just a little. She kept her arms out.
The youma then looked her in the eye, and Naru wanted to skitter back at those black hollows watching her. “Don’t believe me? Humans like to think they’re special, but you’re not. I’ll just have to prove it to you.”
Josi lengthened out one of her disgusting stretch-arms to Naru’s face. She uncurled a too-long finger, and slowly dragged the flat back of her thick, pointed talon across Naru’s cheek. It felt like it took everything Naru had to stay still and not shrink back.
And then in a flash, Josi clawed a line in Naru’s human skin. It was just a few centimeters long but deep enough to draw blood. She made a high-pitched noise at the pain, and had to fight off the instinct to bring a hand to her face, because she wanted to stay spread out to cover Nephrite. Oh, but it stung.
“Aw, did that hurt? It’s just a teeny little cut, but you can’t even handle that, can you. You wouldn’t survive a day in the Dark Kingdom. Why don’t you step aside, little girl – if you let me kill Nephrite first you can have a running start.”
“Never!” stated Naru, and her voice cracked on the last syllable of the word. She would protect him with her life if necessary. She really hoped she wouldn’t have to.
“Nephrite,” she said, “Stay behind me and make for the door!”
In seconds, Josi’s arm elongated the length of the room and slammed the door shut, hard enough to break the glass in the rectangular window. Naru couldn’t help making an “Eeep!” at the noise. The youma even broke off the doorknob.
It covered the sound of the base of the IV stand finally clattering off.
A bizarre thought popped up in Naru’s mind: the youma was like an evil Tsukuda stretch toy come to life. The thought wasn’t at all helpful.
“So, if I want to get to the traitor, I’ll have to go through you first. But I already know I’m going to slice right through you,” Josi derided. “I wonder how much you’ll put up with before giving up?”
Her outstretched hand made a snap in front of Naru’s face, and Naru flinched and blinked.
“And if I try and go around...?”
The goblin-like limb started to curve around her, and Naru smacked it away from reaching anywhere near Nephrite.
Josi punched her in the stomach.
Naru curved right over, and it was so, so hard to keep her arms out. She trembled in place. She couldn’t hear anything for a few moments. Her wide eyes stared at the floor ahead and she gasped for breath like a fish out of water. She had never been hit before in her life. In all her previous experiences with these monsters, they’d only wanted to drain her energy.
Her stomach felt like a weak punching bag that would eventually tear open, after a monster finally got angry enough. It wouldn’t be stuffing that fell out to the floor.
When Naru could speak again she pleaded, “Why won’t you just leave us alone? Just tell everyone back at the Dark Kingdom you killed us!”
The youma tilted her head.
She slapped Naru across the face, smearing red blood over freckles.
“That’s enough!” Nephrite’s attempt at a shout was ragged and too quiet. But the fury in his voice was clear. He’d wounded another youma for less, back in Sankaku plaza. If Sailor Moon hadn’t been there to do his work for him, Nephrite would have gone ahead and killed Zoisite’s pet that night. “You came to kill me, youma, so get on with it.”
“Oh, but I’m just warming up. What do you think it will take to finally bring her down?”
Josi tightly wrapped a hand around one of Naru’s ankles. She dug her nail-points through a prim white and scallop-edged cotton sock, piercing the skin underneath. Naru whimpered when she could feel her own blood start to wet and weigh down the fabric.
“You aren’t even one of those Sailor Soldiers, with their unnatural powers,” taunted Josi. “All you can do is bleed and die. Move aside, and I promise I’ll just drain your energy instead of slicing your throat.”
“No! I won’t move!”
Unseen by either Naru or Josi, Nephrite grasped the metal pole on the ground next to him. He finally had a secure grip for something he’d only get once chance at – but now, how to get Naru to move out of the way without giving away his strategy?
“Naru,” he started. “She’s... she’s right. You should give up now while you still can.”
She stilled and wilted in place. “What? Nephrite...”
Naru was ashamed of how hurt and betrayed she sounded. But was she really that surprised? The only reason she was still alive was because this youma wanted to play. Did Nephrite think that youma would kill him first after all? Did he not want Naru to see him die? She was just prolonging the inevitable. Maybe drawing it out was dishonorable to him.
“Just go, Naru. You’re no match for her.”
Naru felt a tremor build in her right hand. She knew all of that already, after months of being attacked and trapped and drained of energy. That wasn’t the point. “No! I won’t just leave you to face her unprotected!”
Amazing. After a thousand years Nephrite had finally found someone as stubborn as he was, and she was nothing like him.
How many times now had she defended him with no thought to her own life? “Do as I say!”
She finally turned her head to look at him, dangerously not keeping Josi in her eyesight, and when Naru saw into his face and those wonderful blue eyes – she knew.
He was lying.
“Even your boyfriend doesn’t want you around!” Josi laughed. “So much for true love, you idiot!”
Without thinking, Naru quickly bent down to scoop up the five-legged base of the IV stand and then threw it with all her might at the youma’s face. The thing struck Josi’s head with enough force to spin it 3/4ths of the way around her gristly neck.
Naru had never experienced dread before, yet she knew it was exactly what that white-hot, pressure-cooker sensation over her whole body was. What had she done?
Josi very slowly swiveled her head back around, her neck crackling with the same sound that stepping over dead leaves made. There was a mottled, darkening bruise over her cheekbone that hadn’t been there before. The look on her face had changed too, to something cold and hard and no longer playful. Instead of running around the bedframe like Naru had, she started to just scale the thing instead, coming straight for them.
It took a few seconds for Naru to process what happened next. One moment she was upright, facing Josi as a human barrier between the youma and Nephrite, and the next she was slamming down into the linoleum. The chill of the floor made no difference to the ache in her jarred limbs.
Nephrite had kicked her legs out from under her so she would fall down.
There was a muted twang, and Naru pulled her head up to see the youma pinned against the far wall. A long metal pole pierced through part of her torso, and she was looking down at it with a confused expression.
Nephrite had thrown the pole of the IV stand like a spear, Naru realized. But it had landed off-center, not at the youma’s head or throat or wherever her heart was, if she even had one. He had missed.
Josi started to laugh, low at first and then more and more like a stereotypically evil cartoon villain, full-bellied and with her eyes closed. “Ouch!” she said giddily. Youma innards apparently worked very differently than human ones. She grabbed the pole and started pulling herself forward and off it, laughing maniacally the entire time.
“Damn it,” Nephrite muttered, and he slumped down. He hadn’t had the energy to use the pole like a sword, and that was his last shot.
“I’m sorry,” whispered Naru. Nephrite didn’t answer, and that made it worse. She was so stupid. She made it worse. What was she good for, if being willing to die for him meant nothing in a real fight?
Tears blurred her vision. “I’m so sorry,” she whispered again, and she couldn’t look at Nephrite.
“Try...” he trailed off, truly and completely exhausted. He’d just undone all the healing he’d accomplished over his half-day in the hospital. He didn’t have the energy to finish telling Naru to run for the door, because she might have enough time to get it open and escape while Josi took her time killing him. Her arms were still free – even temporarily stuck to the wall, she could grab Naru and drag her back in, wrapping limberly around her neck and killing like a massive boa constrictor. Unless Josi took the time to kill him first.
Naru wiped at her eyes, still kneeling on the floor. What could Nephrite possibly want her to try at this point? She was a failure. There was nowhere to go. Nothing she could do. No way she could help him after all.
Naru glanced over at the tipped over hospital bed. She desperately wanted to get under it, grab the rails and tip it all the way over, and hide under the covers.
But not as much as she wanted to save Nephrite.
She pushed herself up.
“I changed my mind!” Naru said loudly, stalling for time, for an idea, a distraction, anything. “I want to surrender and die super quickly after all!”
“Of course you do,” said Josi. She pulled herself another couple of inches forward on the IV pole. “It’s your human nature.”
“No,” rasped Nephrite from behind her, and Josi told him to shut up. The small top of the IV stand that he’d unscrewed was less than a meter away from Naru’s feet. It wasn’t a spear, but the length of it was almost like a thin dagger. Something like the barest hint of an idea half-formed in the back of Naru’s mind.
“I’ll help!” she said, grabbing it by the X-shaped top with its metal loops, and ran around the bed to Josi.
“I don’t need your help, stupid human,” said the youma, and she brought up a hand to push Naru away.
In just a few seconds, Naru grabbed the youma’s wrist, pinned it to the wall, and then drove the point of the IV top right through the palm of Josi’s hand until the metal rods of the X were almost flush with the wall, painfully crushing Josi’s flesh underneath it.
“You spittling bitch!” the youma hollered, and she back-punched the human with her free arm with enough force that Naru slammed into the bedframe and still went flying over it, head over heels.
Nephrite had to turn his head to avoid getting kicked in the face, not to mention an eyeful of Naru’s undergarments. What the hell was she doing? Why did she never just run away?
But he would have been wide-eyed if he could see the look on Naru’s face when she got up once more, single-mindedly focused on Josi, now trapped in two places, and the bedframe still in the middle of it all. Naru was sore from her knees to her chin from smacking into the floor, and it felt like someone had hit a home run on her lower back with an iron bat. She stumbled forward in a painful gait.
Then she grabbed the bars of the bedframe’s handrails, one in the air and one touching the floor.
Josi snarled as she tried to pry the IV top out of her hand, fully concentrating on the task and not understanding why it wasn’t coming out, like something from the other side of the wall was holding it in place. Certainly not understanding that she should’ve pulled it straight out of the wall by all four metal end loops at once, instead of pulling on one at a time. And so, she wasn’t paying attention to the human chit at all when she heard a curious, deep metallic grind of a noise, and a curt squeal of rubber. The youma had never heard anything like it before in her long life. So Josi turned her head to see, and all her violent intentions died for good.
Naru Osaka stood in the middle of the room, her thin arms stretched high and steady, and she held the entire bedframe up over her head. It was much longer and far wider than the girl herself, like an ant carrying a watermelon. The metal groaned under its own crushing weight, because it hadn’t been built to rest all of its immense bulk on a tiny fulcrum. Even a youma like Josi would have struggled to lift it up and then keep it up, but Naru herself stood firm and unmoving.
No, Josi realized, in the seconds she had left. The teenage girl was moving, rearing back with the entire thing to strike.
“Uh oh,” she said.
This hadn’t been worth quitting her day job after all.
With momentum and determination and a shout, Naru slammed the blunt end of the industrial bedframe right into that evil, scary, hateful face – hammering all the way through thickened skin and bony cartilage to the lump of demonic brain matter behind it, and through that to the wall and the wooden support beam behind what had been Josi’s head, and though that into the thin wall insulation material, and finally bursting through the wall of the room next door, where it hit a file cabinet in there and stopped.
Neither she nor Nephrite spoke.
Naru’s breathing was overexerted and her blood was pumping – she could especially feel it throbbing painfully in her lower back. It was a strange silence she could feel. In the stark aftermath of the fight everything was somehow a little empty.
She stepped to the side while letting go of the bedframe, and the other end of the thing crashed down a couple feet away from her with another BANG. It reverberated through the room and out the door. A few different chunks of the wall, which had been precariously holding on, fell down to join the rubble already collecting on the floor.
Even with the end of the bedframe still stuck in the wall, there was enough of a gap around it to see into the next room without difficulty.
Naru slowly turned to Nephrite, tired and battered but still alive, who simply looked up at her from where he was half-collapsed on the floor. There was a small and freshly wet green stain on his hospital gown, right over where he’d originally been skewered. She felt – what did she feel? Relief, first and foremost. She’d been able to keep Nephrite safe after all, the danger was gone. But it had taken so much. She felt a kind of mind fatigue, like her head was spiraling without thoughts and she should sit down soon.
Under the bedframe, one leg and part of a hand were still visible from where she stood. Naru thought of the Wicked Witch of the East, killed by a tornado dropping a house on her. How Dorothy was accused by the sister-witch of being responsible.
“Aren’t they supposed to dissolve into dust?” she wondered out loud. Curl up into nothingness? Dissolve into vapor? They always had before.
Nephrite only grunted. He didn’t feel up to explaining his theories on the pulverizing, hypnotizing power of Sailor Moon’s pretty gold tiara.
A smudge of something black, like too-thick ink, seeped out from under the bedframe. Where the body was. The smell of something metallic and brackish filled the air.
Naru clapped both hands to her mouth.
After a minute, she finally unclasped her palms to speak.
“I killed her,” she said, voice wavering high.
“Yes, you did,” Nephrite got out, with not a little bit of wonder in his tone.
“I killed her,” Naru said again. “I’ve never – taken a life – she was just – she was alive – and now she’s not – and I did that. I killed her.”
“It’s just a youma,” said Nephrite, in the same tone that youma used to describe humans.
”But she was a living person. Is... is that murder?” The rational facts of there being no Japanese laws on killing supernatural creatures, or even how she’d acted in self-defense, wouldn’t break through her tumultuous thoughts. She was alive, and the other person was dead. “Am I a murderer?”
Nephrite narrowed his eyes. “You’re a survivor,” he stated, and he was glad to hear an element of command in himself despite sounding like he’d swallowed sandpaper.
Naru brought her hands to her upper arms, suddenly cold. She looked at the shadows under the bedframe. “Should we say something? What are we supposed to do?”
He drew in a steadying breath, to answer her question with a question. “What do you mean?”
“Well she’s from your... territory.” Naru didn’t want to say home. “Do youma have funerals? Do you cremate them like we do? How does her family find out?” All her hate had drained away, now that this youma would never be a threat again, now that he was safe.
Nephrite was so tired. The right side of his chest throbbed in pain where some of his stitches had burst. The left side of his chest where he hadn’t been plant-stabbed oddly ached. The light was too bright in his eyes, the tiles too stinging-cold under his bare legs, and he just murmured out loud exactly what he was thinking. “You really are a wonderful girl, Naru. I don’t understand you.”
Naru drew in a few more pronounced breaths. His mind was tired and blank as he watched her gather herself together. At some point he should crawl over and take what little energy remained from the body’s cellular and electrical activity. Any minute now. And while he remained against the wall, Naru set to work.
She marched over to the door, still unsteady from being hit right in her center of gravity, glass crunching under her shoes. She carefully put an arm through the rectangle window to get to the doorknob on the outside. Naru was mindful of the glass shards still around the frame, somewhat dazedly thankful that she’d worn her long-sleeved school blouse that day. The door was strangely reluctant to move, and the shards scraped at her white sleeve when she finally brute-forced it open.
“What the...” Naru looked closer at the edges of the door. It looked like black threads were coming out of it, as if it had been sewn to the wall to seal up the room.
She called Nephrite’s name as a warning, but he was looking over to where the metal bedframe had punched a jagged hole through the wall. That opening was getting smaller as he watched – something fibrous was closing it up, like a wound healing itself.
With the youma threat completely gone, he finally felt the sense of wrongness Naru had been ignoring the whole time. It felt a lot like his heart dropping to his stomach. Son of a—
“You have to get out of here,” he instructed her. He couldn’t stand on his own, but maybe she would finally run.
“I won’t leave you,” said Naru. It wasn’t a declaration, just a statement of fact, as if to say the shinkansen trains are always on time, the sun will come up tomorrow, and I love you.
She threw the blankets and the long, thin cushion over the glass fragments still scattered about the room’s threshold.
When she knelt down to help Nephrite stand, she took a moment that they probably didn’t have time for to grasp his left hand. Naru thumbed over the tiny needle-prick wound, and the green drops of blood that had dried on his skin. The pressure was enough to give Nephrite real relief from the pain, if only for a moment.
He let Naru put his arm around her neck, and she put both of hers around his waist and pulled him up to stand. If he put all his weight on her, he was able to walk after all.
The dead youma and the costly destruction of the hospital room weren’t Naru’s concern anymore. Her only concern was safe in her arms, for now. Half-carrying Nephrite, she simply left the entire scene behind.
It only took a few minutes of wandering the halls to realize they’d stepped from a gory monster movie into a supernatural horror film. The two of them stumbled around the corridors, now re-arranged and blackened in sick overlapping hairlines, open doors slamming shut as they came close, and every corner turn hoping they wouldn’t run into a new monster –
* * * * * * * *
- only for India to shriek in horror and bring a hand to her mouth as the chokutō flew just over the space of two human heads, both of whom only just managed to jerk down in time so the weapon would miss them.
“Atama okashiin janai?!” one of them loudly berated her. It was another girl, wide-eyed and in a traditional schoolgirl uniform just like India. The ubiquitous sailor fuku of all junior high girls meant they were about the same age.
India and this new girl (who had the reddest, curliest hair she’d ever seen in Japan) were both wearing their long-sleeved white blouses for the cooling season. The other girl’s skirt was a nice deep blue instead of India’s brown-grey, and even better, it was a decent length that almost reached her knees. Because naturally a Catholic school would preach against sexuality as a sin and then make the schoolgirls wear miniskirts.
India put her hands up, but also peered around the pair, and then behind herself. She’d lost the element of stealth.
It had actually been the girl who had moved, ducking down low and pulling the man down with her. Pretty good reflexes, thankfully. He was obviously a patient, since he was barefoot and in a hospital gown, not to mention leaning on the much smaller girl for support as he struggled to get back up. India wondered how they knew each other.
“Betsu no sūpā mesukōsei?” said the man. Despite his tone of voice, he was leaning heavily on the smaller girl. One of his arms hung limp and useless by his side, to go with the shallow cut on one side of the girl’s face. They’d met the onryō already, then.
“What are you doing here?” India asked. There shouldn’t be any people left in the building!
“What are you doing here, throwing around swords like a drunk circus act,” the man answered in English. “Don’t you know there are dangerous supernatural creatures in this building?”
India marched past them to yank the chokutō out of the wall. She took a few moments to examine it, and to wait for the burn in her cheeks to fade. She shouldn’t have thrown the weapon before making sure she was aiming at an actual monster. She’d almost shish-kabob-ed a couple of regular civilians. “It’s just one ghost. She can appear and disappear.”
“Anata wa Sērā Mūn de wa arimasen?” the girl said. She sounded unsure.
“Iya, kurīchā wa youma de wa arimasen,” he answered. He seemed to be correcting her.
A throaty, off-pitched moan came from behind all of them.
India cursed. Break time was over. “Get out of here!” she shouted at them.
“What the hell do you think we’re trying to do,” the man snapped, “Tango down the hallways for first prize and a free dinner? The stairwells are blocked and I know firsthand not to try escaping in an elevator.”
The onryō moaned even louder, the sound coming from all directions. Black hair like thin tentacles dripped out from the tiny crevices of space between the closest light fixture and the ceiling. It began wrapping itself around the light just over their heads. In seconds it was completely covered and no light could be seen from the bulb.
The next light in the hall began to dim.
The girl whispered something India didn’t catch, but by the pained look on the man’s face either she was gripping him very tightly or he was just as afraid. Maybe both. The two of them hobbled back to the hallway they came from, but it was already closed off by a new wall, threaded and infected with black sutures.
India held up her sword. Keeping an eye on the two people, she slowly stepped backwards while they walked forwards.
The redheaded girl suddenly screamed, her eyes looking at something behind India.
India whirled around. If she were anyone else, she’d be surprised to be looking at nothing at all. But things that lurked in the shadows had their tricks.
What’s the phrase – takes one to know one?
So as India turned around, she gripped her sword and trusted her instincts, thrusting the chokutō at what was now behind her.
The onryō shrieked in pain, the blessed sword burning where it touched malevolent, non-corporeal flesh. With jerky, in-human movements, it started wriggling back and off of the sword.
The man said something in Japanese, and he and the girl frantically ran – as much as they could – around and past the onryō while it was still somewhat stuck and incapacitated.
The body of the vengeful spirit was still writhing, but its hair floated free. Thick strands of it shot out towards the innocent couple, catching the man on his lame arm and just above one of the girl’s knees. It started to drag them in.
“Yamete!” the girl shrieked, over and over. She kicked at the biological yoke with her other foot. But the hundred individual strands of hair together were like hard rubber.
India jerked the chokutō in a sweep to free it from the ghost’s body, then stepped back and to the side to make a lightning-quick cut. The black hair fell away from the man and the young girl, and India further positioned herself in between them and the croaking onryō.
“Stay behind me and don’t go far,” she said, but they weren’t listening. Only one of them even understood her. When the onryō suddenly vanished, free from the only thing that could stop or hurt it, India paced towards the couple with her weapon still up and ready. They all moved together down the hallway. And at the first open doorway they came across, the girl practically threw the man inside and slammed the door shut behind her.
“Wait, no!” India cried.
It was too late. Black strands of hair crisscrossed the outline of the doorway, sealing it up, and spreading out to infect the wall beside it.
“Fine, just leave me to deal with it alone,” India grumbled. But that was the whole point of her, wasn’t it? She was the best person for the job. Destiny, fate, and providence all said so. And they said she worked alone, too.
A corridor later she made a mistake.
She nimbly dodged broken medical equipment, broken pieces of furniture, and falling ceiling squares of popcorn plaster, all of it hovering silently until each item shot out and hit a wall or the floor. With her eyes up and roving for a floating vengeful spirit, India didn’t notice the thin, taut strands that were just a few centimeters above the floor. Not until they cut into the cotton of her school socks and welted her shins, and she tripped forward in a spectacular belly flop.
It would have been funny, if her head hadn’t ended up right next to a floor vent. Black strands rose up and out, like they were dozens of little snakes and the onryō was their snake charmer.
India only had a split second to try and heave herself up, because she did not want to be face down on the floor for whatever happened next.
She managed to roll over and get her butt and elbows on the floor to push off, and that was as far as she got.
Still holding the chokutō in her dominant hand, individual black hairs protruded and grew through the cracks around the tiles in the floor. They stitched in sewing-machine speed through the fabric of her sleeves around her arms, both sides of her shirt around her stomach, the brown-grey of her skirt, and up and down the cotton sides of her socks. She could even feel hair that wasn’t her own winding about her scalp and plaiting her head still and fixed in place. All of it tightly pinned her torso and limbs right to the floor.
Nothing like a needle actually pierced her skin, but where the ghost hair touched her body she could feel hairline welts.
The first thing that came into view, while she was trapped in place on the floor, was thick, black hair that moved as if underwater. Next were sunken-in eyelids stitched shut. Finally a mouth that stretched, and stretched against the black sutures holding its lips together while the throat behind it moaned.
India spit in its face.
Whether the onryō stopped out of confusion or disgust, she never knew or cared. A moment was all India needed to heave up her arm as hard as she could, ripping out of her pinned-down cotton sleeve entirely, and she slammed her weapon into the crown of the ghost’s head.
It was upside down, but it was a kill shot nonetheless. Kanji characters on the blade of the chokutō lit up. The onryō made a tired and very human-sounding groan. The hair on its head quivered, and then – like a tree in late autumn under a strong wind – it all fell out. The strands faded out of existence as they slowly fell, never reaching India or the ground. The now bald ghost shivered and started to grow fuzzy and fade out, its limbs and face withering as it did so. It seemed like the mouth was the last to go, closed and frowning slightly beneath its stitches.
It was a little different than what she was used to; it was quiet, and unilluminating.
After a minute India realized that unlike the ghost, the hair-thread holding her down was not going to helpfully disappear on its own. Using the chokutō in a way it had never been designed for, and hoping its original owner or blesser or whatever wouldn’t mind, she slowly and carefully cut the rest of herself out without cutting (too much) into her clothes. She hardly felt like going home – or seeing Kit – in a ripped up, barely held-together schoolgirl uniform. Finally, she put a hand to her head to just yank it away from the floor. A little of her own hair getting pulled out shouldn’t be a big deal.
Bigger deal than she thought.
Sitting up, she scooted over to sit down with her back to the wall opposite of where those two people had gotten trapped, and unclipped her walkie-talkie. India breathed deep, in and out, and massaged at her head. After a few moments, she clicked it to speak.
“India! I suppose this means the onryō is gone?”
“Gone and ghostbusted.”
She didn’t hear him chuckle before pressing down the button on his own walkie-talkie. “Any injuries that require the services of staffed hospital, or god forbid, me if it’s serious and needs care right away?”
India had a long, crusting cut under her hair and was bruised and welted all over both arms and legs. It would all be gone by tomorrow morning and her new school’s first bell, as if it had never happened. If there were any justice in the world, a Watcher would also be like a sports therapist, and Kit would have to rub muscle relief cream into her limbs. And her shoulders. Then her back muscles. And then—
“Nope.” If there were any justice in the world, she wouldn’t be sitting by a magically-closed wall holding a thousand-year-old sword in the first place.
Her ripped-up sleeve was very floppy and uncomfortable. Somehow even more uncomfortable than her bruises.
“Excellent. Come on down so I can drive you home. We don’t have to write up a report until you’ve gotten a well-deserved shower and supper.”
“I don’t suppose with everything you have packed in your trunk, there’s a chainsaw in there too?”
There was a long pause. “Why?”
“Your spell didn’t work. There were people still in the building. They got themselves trapped in a closet.” And she didn’t feel like smashing through any more creepy drywall. Why shouldn’t he get physical for once? She’d like to sit there and wallow in her soreness and lost afternoon, thank you.
Kit pressed the button so fast she caught the tail end of his exclamation, “—at? I mastered Ignis Metum before anyone else in class; I could cast it in my sleep. The only human in the building should be me!”
“Oh, well y-yes of course,” he stammered, “and – and you too, as you are also human. Of a sort.”
India didn’t suddenly have the urge to chuck the walkie-talkie down the hall and let it break, but she wished she did. Maybe the vengeful spirit had been just as emotionally flat as she was when it was still alive, unable to really feel rage until it was dead and too late to matter.
“I’ve already extinguished the spell. The authorities will be arriving soon and we don’t want to be around for their questions. Can you take care of it? It’ll be faster if I just prepare the ‘getaway car’, as it were.”
India sighed, her grudging acceptance of orders.
Leaving the chokutō on the ground, she pushed herself up and walked the few steps across the hall to the sealed-up closet door. She gave it a few knocks and asked, “You guys okay in there?”
There was no answer. They probably couldn’t hear her very well, and if the lights in there had gone dark, they might be afraid she was the onryō again.
She’d probably never see them again after this, but India hoped the redheaded girl wouldn’t be too traumatized. The man – who had spoken with something like a standard American accent – seemed kind of battle-hardened. Maybe he was in-the-know about magic and monsters. But his young friend had definitely been frightened. Poor girl; hopefully this would be the first and last time she got caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.
A monster attack was no way to spend your afternoon. Every other schoolgirl was having a better afternoon than the two of them were.
What would someone like Rei Hino be up to at that moment? T.A. Girls Academy had its own cram school, but maybe Rei went to a different one. Maybe spending a few hours away from girls like Chizuru was the best learning and studying she got done all day.
Or maybe she was already at home, at that shrine she lived at. Lived near? India was just some dumb gaijin, she didn’t know how it worked. But she could picture Rei in one of those traditional red-and-white priestess outfits, sweeping leaves and selling little charms. Not perfectly carefree, as one uncomfortable but revealing school lunch had shown, but free to worry about normal teenage things. Reading lots of manga or snacking, listening to terrible music and putting off studying as far as possible, and swooning over cute boys. From a band or a TV show or real life; boys were interchangeable like that right now.
India knew, intellectually, there were girls out there who were worse off than her. Girls who lived in third-world warzones, or who had abusive parents, or had congenital diseases. Still. They usually had hope for their futures, for a way out.
She made a fist that could easily crack concrete, and pulled back into a rooted stance.
Only one girl in all the world had India’s kind of life.
* * * * * * * *
The fight between the Sailor Soldiers and the First Great Monster, the vessel of the red rainbow crystal, came to an end shortly after Sailor Mercury and Sailor Mars entered the fray. But not in a way any of the girls wanted.
“I’m sorry you had to miss cram school!” said Mars, puffing air as she ran at full speed.
“It’s all right!” Mercury replied, simultaneously out of breath. They had each taken the bus to meet at this part of Tokyo, but still had to make their way to where the battle was. How long ago had it been since Luna called them over their communicators, frantic and injured? Ten minutes? They were lucky to have already been close by in that part of the city. “This is more important!”
She tripped on a large piece of glass that had exploded outwards from a restaurant window, but Mars grabbed her arm and pulled so she wouldn’t fall over. Mars wondered, not for the first time, how her bright red heels were so stunning but also one of the most comfortable pairs of shoes she’d ever worn. Both of them kept running.
“Where are they?”
Mercury went to press an earring for her visor, but a second later it was unnecessary. The very ground they stood on vibrated from a thunderous, beastly yell up ahead.
“That doesn’t sound good,” said Mars. They ran towards the danger, passing innocent people fleeing in the opposite direction and away from the source of the sound.
The fight was taking place over an odd-to-define section of the city, where a park met a crosswalk and a parking lot. At the first glance of someone else in a sailor suit, Mars started her opening. “This park is supposed to be a safe retreat for friends and families! A public disturbance is not accept-AAAAAAAAUGH!”
The monster cared nothing at all for speeches and charged on all fours right at Mars. Her thoughts shrank in fear to nothing but BEAR?! - giant! – armored! – BEAR! – MOVE! - and she instinctively leapt out of the way of a single colossal, clawed arm that seemed to be the same size as all of her. When it struck the ground the asphalt cracked and cratered from the blow with a resounding BOOM and a billow of industrial dust.
Tuxedo Mask dashed to her side, and helped Mars to her feet. “Are you all right?” His top hat and cape were gone and his normally gallant suit was all torn up and bloody. Besides his cane, which he held like a baton, only his white cat-eye mask remained. Apparently that was all that needed for his magic to blur the identity of his face.
Mars even didn’t stop to swoon over Tuxedo Mask doting on her instead of Sailor Moon for once.
It had all happened in just a few seconds! Just a few seconds for the grizzly beast to charge from a decent distance away, to all the way over to where Mars had entered. She had barely moved in time! If not for the extra speed and agility she had in her Sailor Soldier form, she’d be a human pancake.
A bolt of green lightning descended from the sky, commanded by a new voice. “Supreme – Thunder!”
The Bear was engulfed in a bright, crackling cage of lightning strikes, which held it for an audibly painful minute.
Mercury took a step back, careful not to trip on all the broken pieces of pavement. “What kind of youma is that!”
Logically, the thing that charged at Sailor Mars wasn’t that much bigger than a normal, non-magical Kodiak or polar bear. But those normal, non-magical animals were terrifying enough on their own. Every one of Mercury’s senses buzzed in fear at such an animal, huge and supernatural and barely affected after being struck with lightning! Even her amazing brain could only process the scene in short bursts while she focused on staying alive.
Estimated 3.5 meters high. Estimated 550 kilograms heavy, without the armor. Metal unknown; some kind of long, split lamellar tunic, with separate shin and forearm guards, and even a fitted helmet. All of it was an unrusted, true black color that barely reflected the waning sunlight and stood out against the Bear’s light golden-brown fur.
The remnant of one of Tuxedo Mask’s trademark attack flowers was stuck in one of the Bear’s eyes, only partially blinded – a lucky hit. The red bloom itself had been ferociously swiped off leaving only the stem.
A broken fire hydrant over to one side gushed out water, making that area of the landscape slippery and more dangerous. Mercury observed that the sound of the rushing water had been covered by the Bear’s roaring.
Closer to Mercury was a severely bent over lamppost, the lightbulb head of it having crashed into the ground. The bend wasn’t sharp either, but curved as if something the size of a person had been thrown into it, although the person would have to be made of equally strong stuff to make such a dent in the metal post. The broken lamp had showered a small radius with glass fragments and orange, electric sparks, and there were dark red splotches splattered over the glass pieces and the ground. A low retaining wall to the other side and across from the lamp was pitted as if there’d been a severe hailstorm, and covered with some – cherry blossoms? That didn’t make sense; it was the wrong time of year for them.
Mars stood a little straighter at the powerful lightning. “Who is that?” she yelled over the noise.
“It must be Sailor Jupiter,” Mercury deduced, from the nature of her attack. She also saw that the newest Sailor Soldier had a cluster of puncture wounds on one of her biceps and a dislocated shoulder. Whenever Jupiter vocalized her attack, she used one hand to hold up the wrist of her injured arm, probably making an approximation of whatever proper hand signs she originally made to call forth her Supreme Thunder.
A familiar lunar glow began blooming at one edge of the area, trigonally spaced across from both Jupiter and Tuxedo Mask, but Mercury’s mouth dropped open when she saw the sorry state of her dear friend.
“Moon – Tiara —”
Then nothing. Sailor Moon dropped her arms and swayed in place. The golden disc rotated in place in the air, and the other girls could see it start to slow down and become a tiara again.
For once, they couldn’t blame her battle performance on being sleepy or lazy or timid. Sailor Moon had some superficial gashes, the kind that bled more than they truly wounded, but she also had five deep gouges across the white torso of her uniform. There was a still-purpling bruise that started at one of her cheekbones, swelled over her eye, and went into her hairline.
Tuxedo Mask cried out her name and started to run towards her.
“Sailor Moon, now!” yelled Jupiter. She ran in front of the Bear, trying to catch its attention, but it turned towards the easier prey of love and justice.
“Fire – Soul!”
Sailor Mars entered the fight. Her blistering attack surrounded the Bear, stopping it in its tracks. It roared again in pain and the momentary loss of sight and smell, but when the flames died down they all saw its smoking fur was unburnt. Only the bits of plant material and dirt on its body had caught fire.
Tuxedo Mask reached Sailor Moon, and held her in his arms so she could lean on him. The extra few seconds were enough for her to catch her breath. “Moon – Tiara – Stardust!”
A pressure against the side of Mercury’s boot made her jump, but it was only Luna. She picked up the cat, who winced in her hands and slowly climbed to Mercury’s shoulder. Then the blue-haired Sailor Soldier scrambled back.
From a distance she saw the attempt of a strategy – what she thought might explain how they could all possibly still be alive against such a monster. It was nothing more than a non-stop moving barrage of wide Sailor Soldier attacks, helped somewhat by Tuxedo Mask, to keep it in one area. They never stayed in one place either, but ran around the general perimeter to escape the Bear’s anger: its claws and fangs and muscle.
Jupiter’s and Mars’s elemental attacks landed their hits, and Sailor Moon’s new tiara attack sprinkled destructive power from high over the Bear like a shower of heat sparks. This Bear must be able to dodge her traditional tiara attack, unlike all the youma they’d faced before.
It was a miracle that the monster hadn’t seriously hurt or killed anyone yet. One stray swipe or bite could hit a major artery; even a small nick could be deadly. The Bear would charge on all fours, mouth open and roaring, but it also swung with its paws, almost human-like.
“It’s not a youma,” Luna said into Mercury’s ear. The little cat was still bruised and tender from Zoisite’s attack. The agent of the Dark Kingdom had lingered just long enough to throw out a defensive strike on the Bear, the first attack of the fight, and then promptly disappeared. It was left to the Sailor Soldiers (and later Tuxedo Mask) to keep the monster from getting away and hurting anyone else.
“It’s a human who’s been transformed!” Luna continued. “I’ve given Sailor Moon the Moon Stick, which can heal him, but he’s not going to stand still and wait for her to do it without attacking.
Luna stopped to take a shaky breath; she was still quite sore from Zoisite’s attack. “We need to weaken him to slow him down, which will also make it easier for the Moon Stick to work. But I’ve never come across a creature so strong before!”
Mercury brought her visor up. The Bear’s remaining eye was a weak spot, but even if Tuxedo Mask landed another hit and blinded it completely, that wouldn’t stop it from rampaging.
It just confirmed what her teammates’ injuries had already proven: this thing, unlike every youma they’d fought before, seemed to be near invulnerable. To both their magical attacks and physical ones – the Bear could probably withstand an entire tank ramming into it.
But what did that mean for her friends, out there fighting it now, and losing?
“I have to do something,” she said to herself.
Mercury carefully put Luna on the ground, and then stepped in as close as she dared, shifting between cracked bumper blocks. When one Sailor Soldier finished crossing in front her, she used the opening to call out her attack.
“Bubble – Spray!” She didn’t bother using it for a dense fog. A bear’s sense of smell was seven times greater than even a bloodhound’s, so there was no point trying to obscure this Bear’s vision. Instead she went for the bubbles’ freezing effect. Regular bears went into hibernation, or at least torpor, so her freezing attack might be able to slow it down. And it would put a stop to the flow from the broken hydrant as well.
The temperature dropped ten, twenty, thirty degrees. Milky-colored rime ice formed over the short-circuiting lamppost and cold-killed the electric sparks. The geyser of water from the busted fire hydrant started to slow and freeze over. It made that space of their makeshift fighting arena icy and dangerous in a different way. But if it could slow down the Bear it’d be worth it. Nothing else seemed to be working.
“Wait, no!” yelled Tuxedo Mask. “Not the water!”
Mercury gasped, realizing their plan too late. Of course; they were trying to get the monster to the water and then electrocute him with Jupiter’s attack.
“Ah, stop! Undo! Luna, how do I unfreeze my Bubble Spray attack?” She’d never had to undo an attack before, none of them had. Only Sailor Moon had done it before, and just once - when Naru Osaka had stepped in front of Nephrite to protect him. But the tiara was a physical item, and she and Mars had more elemental attacks. Mercury couldn’t exactly ask the water vapor to stop freezing – could she?
“I don’t know!” Luna despaired. She’d never considered such a thing before, even after hearing about Naru’s stand-up. “I don’t think you can!”
Three Sailor Soldiers and one magically enhanced man in a tuxedo continued encircling the Bear, pelting it with attacks and keeping it in the general area. They tried their best to dodge giant paw swipes and the deep, cracking snaps of a jaw as big as any of their heads. They were tired and frustrated and frightened.
It was only a matter of time before one of them slipped up.
The terrain near the fire hydrant was slipperier than ever. Sailor Moon attempted to run through the middle of it and found herself stuck in a running loop like a glitch from the Sonic the Hedgehog video game. But it felt like something out of a nightmare, because no matter how fast she ran – and Sailor Moon was a great sprinter, if nothing else – the ice under her boots kept her in one place.
“AI YI YI-AM-NOT-GOING-ANYWHERE!” she shouted for help.
“How come you always need my help!?” Mars shouted back. She aimed her attack at Sailor Moon’s ankles, and then fired off another one to the Bear in rapid succession.
Sailor Moon flailed her arms at a fire too close for her liking as the ice under her boots melted to the pavement beneath. “You don’t need to be so mean about it! Just what kind of teammate are you? Moon – Tiara —”
She stepped awkwardly on a chunky broken rock and crashed to the ground. Between the new wails and the way Sailor Moon clutched at her ankle, it was obvious what had happened.
The Bear gave another earth-shattering roar and pawed at the ground. Its head and body were in line with Sailor Moon, ready to charge at the girl suddenly down for the count.
There was no time for thought, only action, and Mars was physically closest. She didn’t hesitate.
In the seconds it took for the Bear to charge the whole length of the walkway area to them, Mars had closed the distance to Sailor Moon first and shoved her friend away. The smallest Sailor Soldier was away and in the clear when the Bear bit down into human flesh with a deep, guttural chomp.
Sailor Mars screamed loud and bright. The sound rang out in the air for a moment and gurgled off when the Bear thrashed her like a dog with a toy in its mouth. Her limbs whipped back and forth in a blur and the white trunk of her sailor uniform became saturated with red blood to match her skirt.
Sailor Moon cried out her friend’s name. Tuxedo Mask appeared at her side and she clutched at him, trying to hobble forward. Luna, Mercury, and Jupiter all gasped. How could they attack the Bear now? Why was this new monster so much more deadly than any youma they’d faced before? It wasn’t fair!
The Bear slammed his prey on the ground and brought down a massive paw to help hold her there. Only seconds before the girl had stood strong and proud, and now she was down on the ground and terribly, terribly defeated. Everything was happening so fast.
“He’s going to eat her!” shrieked Sailor Moon, and even with a twisted ankle Tuxedo Mask struggled to hold her back from running up to the Bear.
Everyone else, Sailor girls and felines alike, were paralyzed in place, shock rendering them unable to move. It was a nightmare, and all they could do was watch.
Mars raised a shaking forearm. Her whole body burned with pain, not just where the Bear’s head was still fixed on her torso, a dozen centimeters away from her free hand.
The world didn’t make sense anymore. It felt like she could hear wet fur and could taste broken gravel, and she hallucinated another Sailor Soldier with long green hair very far back and watching the whole spectacle stoically. Only the pain was real.
She only knew that she was going to die. Despite the all-consuming pain, Sailor Mars felt calm and strong – sad to leave her Grandfather, who would have to bury his daughter’s daughter after first outliving his only child, and sad to leave the good friends she had finally made - but determined to fulfill her duty and take this beast with her to the underworld.
She couldn’t move to bring her other arm up and clasp hands for her signature attack, so this would have to be done one-handed. Behind the Bear’s front fangs its back teeth were flatter, and its jaw more curved than any regular bear’s – some kind of primordial ursine feature. But it worked in her favor.
Sailor Mars jammed her hand in its mouth. The flatter back-teeth scraped off a layer of skin at her knuckles, and it hurt just as much as everything else. “Fire—”
The Bear started to open its mouth, and its teeth made suctioning pops as they came out of her body. Mars could feel her own blood coating the smooth meat of its tongue on her still-gloved wrist, like human barbeque sauce.
She’d make a barbeque, all right.
Every attack before then had hit the armor, the supernaturally thickened and magically resistant skin and fur, all with little success. Not this time.
A true Martian fireball exploded in the Bear’s mouth. It blazed upwards and back out through its nostrils, and burned its way down the throat and esophagus, and then settled at the base of the Bear’s stomach to finish searing the tender flesh on the inside of its body.
The Bear reared up and stumbled back, away from Sailor Mars, and let loose a flaming howl. The flames were clear against the darkening sky, and when the Bear dropped to the ground, it hit with such a force that all the Sailor Soldiers were buoyed into the air.
It was still thrashing about, but on its back and properly stunned. “Sailor Moon!” directed Luna. “Use the Moon Stick and shout, ‘Moon - Healing - Escalation!’”
A glow the color of moonlight surrounded the Bear, reaching a dazzling bright level, until it dropped to reveal an ordinary human: Crane Game Joe. He collapsed, unconscious and completely unharmed. He wasn’t marked by any burn marks from fire or lightning. Even the rose stem to the eye had just fallen away.
In the sudden quiet, it was easier to hear the little half-gasp, half-cries of Sailor Mars. The shock had already worn off for her.
All her friends staggered and limped to where she lay. Sailor Moon slipped on some blood and fell down, but she’d started crying already – quietly, not like her normal ear-piercing ones - and the latest clumsy scrape to her knees didn’t register.
Then, in a surprising and very gentle display for the typical teenage ditz, she slowly laid over Mars’ prone frame without putting any weight on her. It was more like a mime of a hug than the real thing, because Sailor Moon had to at least try and embrace her hot-headed friend. The strands of her two hair buns touched the ground, and became soaked in places with cold, dirty water and not a little bit of blood.
“You shouldn’t have done that,” she said, in between tears. “It’s my fault you got hurt. Why did you do that?”
The sound of Sailor Moon crying and Sailor Mars’ soft wails of pain echoed around them. There were no birds chirping or animals moving, not even a skitter of insects. They were no bystanders. The only background sound to their triumph over evil was the wind blowing through the leaves of some trees.
Mercury reached out a hand, but then pulled back. It was her fault, not Sailor Moon’s. Why couldn’t she have been smart enough to see their plan from the beginning? It should have been Mercury that got injured, by her own hubris, and not the marvelous Mars.
It took too long for Dr. Mizuno’s voice to sound off in her head: the most critical element when a patient is injured is time.
Mercury called forward her visor, and her eyes widened at the strange information only she could see on the blue HUD. “She – she’s going to live! But she has to receive treatment, quickly.”
A quick scan with her visor confirmed no one was in the near vicinity, so she de-transformed to Ami Mizuno and continued: “I’m going to call for an ambulance. And I’ll go with her to the hospital – again, I guess. Luna, make sure the others stay in their Sailor forms as long as possible.”
“Again?” Jupiter whispered, but Ami was already running towards the nearest payphone.
Being a Sailor Soldier was nothing like she thought it would be. Not that Makoto Kino was naïve enough to think battling monsters wouldn’t be dangerous, but everything she’d heard about Sailor Moon and her superhero friends seemed more like something out of a Saturday morning cartoon, with fights that ended quickly and triumphantly.
Instead, she was exhausted and dirty and hurt in ways that were shocking. Makoto had been hit before, in karate class as part of supervised training, in alleyways by would-be muggers harassing her or anyone in her presence, and even schoolyard corners by boys who thought being taller meant older and girls who thought strength was an invitation to throw down. Usually over said boys, but sometimes over other stupid stuff too. People had definitely tried to hurt Makoto in the past. But nothing had ever tried to kill her before.
She could tell that her shoulder was healing much faster than normal, and something like strong intuition had Jupiter raise her injured arm. Her shoulder popped back into place with a dulled sensation, like a tooth being drilled after being shot with copious Novocain. It wasn’t painful, but it wasn’t comfortable either.
As Makoto she had wanted to make friends so badly, and not be the weird giantess in her new school all over again. Now she had three girls who were tied to her more deeply than any normal friendship could make, but was it worth it? She tried to be feminine, she really did, but was it just her destiny to be a great fighter instead?
Tuxedo Mask was gone; he’d disappeared while Mercury de-transformed, and Jupiter would learn that was totally normal for him since he wasn’t really part of their team. But it didn’t feel normal – he’d fought and bled with them for the same mission, why couldn’t he stick around to help with the cleanup?
She took his place in comforting Sailor Moon, eventually pulling her back so the ambulance workers could safely load Rei into the vehicle. One of them checked on Joe, who was finally coming around. There were police sirens in the distance, different from the more polite noise of the ambulance. The remaining Sailor Soldiers in uniform would have to disappear soon too. Reporting to the police wasn’t exactly their modus operandi – then again, the authorities had never bothered to show up before.
The ice around the fire hydrant, warmed by Mars’ fire attack, finally broke from the pressure of the water underneath. It started flooding out everywhere again.
* * * * * * * *
Everything was pitch-black.
Naru couldn’t see a single thing, and she almost tripped over Nephrite while banging around the closet room. She touched the metal rods and grates of the shelving units, and knocked off plastic spray bottles. She made her way back to the door and yanked on the knob of the door she had slammed shut not 20 seconds ago.
“It won’t open!” she shrieked, and she slapped at the walls for any kind of opening. A stray light switch didn’t work, either.
Nephrite slowly and gingerly moved off of something stringy and rectangular on the floor. He rested against the wall, which was pockmarked with flakes of paint coming off. “All the grates or openings seem to be closed off by that ghost’s power.”
“The air is closed off?! We’re trapped! We’re going to suffocate!”
Well, that was a mistake to mention. “Naru, you’re having a panic attack,” Nephrite said.
“Of course I’m panicking, why aren’t you?!”
He was, but only on the inside, as befitted a King of the Dark Kingdom.
Then again, this wasn’t the first time he’d been close to death. Something about having Naru close by was calming, even if she herself was far from it.
“This is it, we’re finally going to die, I’ve failed us both!”
“You need to sit down and just breathe.”
He heard Naru start to half-choke, half-cry. “The last time I spoke to my mother she was still angry with me! I’ll never see Usagi again! I’ll never graduate school! I’ll never see an R18+ rated movie or drink a special daiquiri with one of those cute umbrellas! I’ll never go on a date! These monsters will never leave me alone!”
Nephrite drew in a breath. He was about to use a tactic he didn’t think he’d go back to, but it was for the best.
“Would you come give me a hug, Naru?”
Her wheezing started to slow down at the diversion. “Wha...? Nephrite, you want a...?”
That did it. She had to stumble around to find Nephrite, but then she knelt down next to him. He put an arm around her shoulders, like when he had used Naru as a crutch to walk, but this time she lay her opposing arm across his chest and put her head by his uninjured shoulder. Nephrite pulled her in, and if she concentrated she could hear his heartbeat.
It was... not that comfortable, actually. But wonderful all the same.
“Breathe with me.” It wasn’t difficult for Nephrite to make loud, exaggerated breaths for Naru to emulate. He was still winded.
She tried to match her breathing to his. Naru’s heart rate was skipping along for a different reason now, but her panic was subsiding.
Except they were still trapped in a room slowly losing breathable air with no light source and a vengeful spirit still out there somewhere. Also, the wound on his shoulder had reopened and the stars-powered painkiller effect granted hours earlier had worn off. Fantastic.
Nephrite tried to think of a way out. If Naru could lift more than 100 kilograms and punch it through a wall, could she do the same with her bare hands? But they might be at the edge of the building, and steel beams were far tougher than drywall and wood supports. If they made it into the next room, who’s to say that wouldn’t be just as closed up? If they escaped back to the hallway, they could run into the ghost again. Or it might just appear in the room with them anyway, and they’d hear croaking in the dark before something got them. The crazy American schoolgirl was probably dead.
“If only I could still teleport,” he grumbled.
Naru’s mouth dropped open against the fabric of his hospital gown. Nephrite had actually mentioned the ability in their conversation earlier, but it was only now really registering in her brain. “You can teleport?”
If the Dark Kingdom had broken through their containment just one hundred years earlier, nobody would have understood what Nephrite meant. Their dialect used a different word than the English ‘teleport’ and its translations, but the concept was basically the same. Human science fiction had added to it, actually – it meant the people who could move from place to place under their own power, and the use of a device or technology that could do the moving for them.
The ingenuity of it mattered little to Nephrite now. “I could before. I don’t have the energy for it, now.”
There was a beat, and then Naru gradually leaned back from him. His arm slipped until just his hand cupped her shoulder. If the lights worked, she would have been looking him in the eye. “I do.”
“You do what?”
“I still have energy. Take it from me.”
The hand on her shoulder tensed.
“That’s what you do, right? I... don’t remember everything from the mall in Shinjuku, but after having my energy drained so many times... that’s what you did to me, isn’t it?”
Nephrite found he couldn’t speak.
“Well, what are you waiting for? We need to get out of here! Or – will it not be enough? I’m just one person, after all.”
What was he waiting for?
Countless schemes to steal it from humans, and here was Naru offering it freely. Did she think so little of herself, of her sacred lifeforce? No, he couldn’t lie to himself about her that way. It was because she thought so highly of him.
A faint, undead groan came from outside of the room. The ghost wasn’t far.
“Nephrite, you have to at least try!” she said.
What was wrong with him? He’d done it before. He’d done it to her before, with amazing results that had even placated Queen Beryl.
Something thumped on the wall from outside and it made Naru jump in turn.
“Nephrite, please! Why won’t you answer me? Don’t you want to live through this?”
The last time he’d been at full strength, able to drain Naru’s loving energy from her body to a point well before injury or even death. But now he was, in a way, starving. Once he started draining her energy he might not be able to stop. And there was something unspeakably horrific at the thought of surviving at the cost of Naru’s life.
Then again, it was theoretically possible to send someone else through teleportation instead of himself. If it came down to it—
Naru made a subtle gasp when he moved his hand to her neck, although to her it sounded embarrassingly loud. His fingers flexed against the tendons of her neck, dipping a little underneath the collar of her blouse. The palm of his hand went flat on her sternum, and his thumb rested in the little center hollow of her neck that she could never remember the proper name for. He felt sweaty-warm from a fever, and he could surely tell how fast her heart was racing.
“Remember to keep breathing,” he told her. In the dark, she nodded once.
At first, Naru didn’t feel any different. All she could sense was Nephrite’s hand on her body, and the sounds of their breathing. Even the bangs and noises from outside the closet had quieted down. In the moment, this was the only thing she wanted to live for. It made her so woozy that her head dropped, like she was about to take a nap, before snapping back up with red cheeks that Nephrite couldn’t see.
Her head and even her hair felt heavier than normal. Naru’s whole body started to feel heavy and immovable, like a doll made out of lead. It seemed like it should be the opposite – wouldn’t draining something from her make her feel lighter?
She kept quiet despite her thoughts – Naru didn’t want to break his concentration.
This was taking a lot longer than normal. Usually she felt extremely fatigued right away, in body and spirit, and then listless enough that she couldn’t stay conscious. Over and done with in the time it took to clap one game of omochio tsukimasho.
Not that Naru was complaining about helping Nephrite, she was lucky to stay so close in his presence for so long. Was he breathing harder? Was she? She needed to be as quiet and still as possible so Nephrite could focus.
The room became very cold. The heat of her body leeched out, bit by bit – first in her extremities, then her arms and legs, and up her torso. Like the circulation had been cut off, but the pins and needles sensation never came. Nephrite’s hand was still hot where it touched her skin, even through her blouse, but somehow that made the cold worse. It was hard not to shiver in place.
How long had he been pressing on her – draining her? It had to have been just a few minutes, but it felt much longer.
And then she heard him laugh, low and deep.
Through the stuffed-cotton feel in her head, Naru felt him shift, cradling an arm her behind her back since she was too dizzy to sit up on her own anymore. He called her name, and she managed a, “Hm?” in response.
“Hold on just a little longer,” he said. She wondered what for.
Still propping her up, Nephrite’s other hand – for his right shoulder was no longer injured – made a gesture above her forehead. Light suddenly flared, like electricity was coming out of her, to gather in a sphere in his hand.
Through the buzzing light she could just barely make out the expression on Nephrite’s face, the way he looked at her energy and not at Naru, and she didn’t want to understand what it meant. The static sound of her own lifeforce leaving her body was too close and too loud, and it hurt her ears.
The simulacrum of a tension headache spread upwards from her ears to pound at her temples, and downwards to her mouth that she could feel in each individual tooth. Still, Nephrite kept drawing out that electric energy.
She had to hold on for as long as possible.
At some point, Nephrite finally looked in her eyes and held her gaze. Naru’s tired eyelids kept blinking, wanting to shut, but now that he was looking back at her she never wanted him to stop. There were so many girls in the world, but he was only looking at her.
One of her legs kicked out in a tremor. Something like a quick jolt of the nervous system, because Naru couldn’t feel her limbs anymore. What she did feel was some kind of optical illusion come to life: like she was falling backwards over and over, with Nephrite hovering above so close, and she thought: why can’t you kiss me instead? A reverse Prince Charming to put me to sweetest sleep?
It was her last thought before finally fainting.
Naru slumped in his arms, and Nephrite immediately stopped the draining process. He could only look at the sphere of her energy out of the corner of his eye; it was that bright and powerful. Like a star. It took him three tries to carefully fold it away in a pocket dimension. If Naru’s energy from their encounter in the mall had greatly satisfied Beryl, this would earn him commendation and favor beyond his wildest dreams.
Nephrite gathered his salvation in his arms. She was light as a feather to him again. Standing on his own two feet, a transfiguring shimmer went over his body, and then he was wearing his sturdy grey uniform once more. He let the glare of his teleportation grow more luminous than usual to lay bare the simple janitor’s closet that had been their dark shelter.
Then, in a red radiance, they were gone.
* * * * * * * *
to be continued...
* * * * * * * *
The following was written in summer of 2020 [original notes as posted elsewhere edited by Moon Momma per site guidelines].
Buffy has rightly been criticized for being racist (no main/recurring black or non-white characters even in modern day America; the first slayer and Kendra were coded as savage and killed off) and there were just no black characters in Sailor Moon at all, although you can argue that Setsuna is Ainu. Japan has it's own history with racism. I mentioned earlier than my prequel about the Earth Kingdom is naturally diverse (what else could it be, when you have representatives from all over the world at the magical capital of Earth?) but that doesn't exactly reflect on this current fic. I plan to not just insert characters for diversity, but be mindful in my writing and be more diverse where I can.
In more fannish news, whenever I got writer's block on this chapter I just skipped ahead to work on the next one, so it shouldn't take another 7 months for a chapter to be posted. :)
“Atama okashiin janai?!” (The hell is wrong with you?!)
“Betsu no supa mesukosei?” (Another super schoolgirl?)
“Anata wa Sera Mun de wa arimasen?” (You are not Sailor Moon?")
"Iya, kuricha wa youma de wa arimasen.” (Well no, that creature isn't a youma.")
"Yamete!" ("Get off!")
I am using Google translate and random pages on Japanese slang, so please feel free to correct my translations. And as always, I love being pestered with questions and comments!
return to Index / go to Chapter 6
The Nephrite and Naru Treasury