by Moon Momma

Chapter 14

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It was boring and frustrating, being stuck back in the tent with the three stern old women. Naru knew she needed to practice the Sunspot Flare Devastation, but it was impossible in the confined quarters. She could practice gathering and compressing her power, but that was only part of it. She needed to learn how to control the attack once she had it formed, and practice aim and distance. "I've got to go back out and practice this with Nephrite," she begged repeatedly. "I know how to prepare it, but I've got to practice actually using it." But no matter how much she pled, the priestesses refused her request. She wondered how much of their stubbornness was because they were afraid she wouldn't come back, and how much was anger that she had discovered their secret, and how much was just plain stubbornness.

The argument went on for what must have been several days until finally, one day, there was a disturbance in the atmosphere of the tent, and a dark portal opened to reveal Nephrite. The three priestesses stared at him. "Nephrite!" Naru exclaimed. Then she saw who was with him. "Usagi-chan!" The two girls flung their arms around each other.

"I came to help you, Naru-chan," Usagi said. "Nephrite explained everything to me, about freeing those poor people's souls before you destroy the Sun Eater thing."

"Well, what about it?" Nephrite asked the priestesses. "Sailor Moon is willing to help Naru free the souls that were devoured by the Star Swallower. But if you don't let Naru out to train properly, so that she doesn't kill herself along with the rest of us with her attack, there's no point in continuing. Isn't that right, Sailor Moon?"

"That's right," Sailor Moon said defiantly. "You're going to let Naru-chan do this right, without killing herself and the rest of us, or we aren't going to do it at all."

Sifabi closed her eyes, looking exasperated. "Very well," she finally said, though she didn't sound very happy about it. "Nephrite, you may take Princess Solaris back out to complete her training. In the meantime, Sailor Moon will stay here. We'd like to get to know her better." The smile Sifabi directed at Sailor Moon was far from friendly.

So Sailor Moon was going to be held hostage to ensure her and Nephrite's cooperation, Naru realized. That was fine, she didn't plan on escaping anyway. After all, for all her reluctance to destroy the souls it had devoured, the Star Swallower was still dangerous and had to be destroyed. "That's fine," she said.

The priestesses made a portal to the training yard. "We'll be back soon," Naru said to Sailor Moon. Then she and Nephrite stepped through the portal, leaving an unhappy-looking Sailor Moon behind them.

In the training yard, Naru began gathering her power and compressing it the way she had practiced. A little more, then more, then when she thought she had gathered every particle of power she possessed she dug a little deeper and found more. She compressed the power into a hot, glowing mass. The harder she pressed, the hotter it became, and the more she could feel the pent-up energy ready to explode.

"Are you ready?" Nephrite asked.

She nodded, concentrating on the barely-controlled mass of power.

"Fix your target in your mind," he said. "If it's moving, let your mind follow it. Don't focus on the surroundings, just on the target."

Eyes closed, Naru imagined a dark, sinuous shadow moving back and forth in front of her.

"Point to where you want the attack to hit," Nephrite instructed her.

Her eyes still closed, Naru pointed a finger ahead and somewhat to the right.

"Okay," he said. "When you're ready..."

Naru cupped the intensely hot and bright ball of energy in her hands. "Sunspot Flare Devastation!" she cried, and flung the energy at her imagined target.

The noise was deafening. The percussions in the air rocked Naru back and forth. The light was blinding even through her closed eyelids. She dropped to her knees, crouching over and burying her head in her hands, curled up against the buffeting force of the energy she had unleashed.

When everything was finally still and dark again, she opened her eyes. The whole corner of the yard where she had been aiming was just... gone. It dropped off into nothing, beyond which was the shimmering boundary of the hideout.

"That was... pretty good," Nephrite said. Dirt and what looked like ash had settled on his hair, face, and clothing. "I think this attack is an exception to the rule about not expecting a single attack to take down your opponent. If this attack doesn't do it in one shot, then you're going to be left pretty much defenseless, so you'd better make sure you only need to use it one time." He looked at the area of destruction again. "And if this attack doesn't destroy the Star Swallower, I don't think anything will."

Naru nodded. "I think you're right."

"Do you want to go inside and rest for a bit? Get something to eat?"

Naru's legs felt wobbly, and she would have liked to collapse on her comfortable bed and not get up for hours. But she didn't only have herself to think about. "We'd better get back to Usagi. I don't want to leave her alone with the priestesses any longer than we have to. I don't think they'd hurt her, but... Poor Usagi. They hate her, and I'm sure they're not trying to hide it." A thought occurred to her. "Let's take some food with us. If Usagi doesn't get anything to eat but that glop they've been feeding me, she isn't going to be very happy."

"Good idea," Nephrite said. He put an arm around her shoulders to help her to the house. Naru thought it was probably just to support her, since she had drained all her strength using the Sunspot Flare Devastation, but she hoped it was also because he liked holding her close. That night at the triangle park, when he had tried to convince her to give him the Silver Crystal and he had started to lead her away with an arm around her shoulders, it had almost felt like he was doing that because he wanted to. Of course, looking back, she knew that his plan was to do whatever he had to do to get the Crystal from her. Still, she couldn't quite convince herself that there hadn't been more to it, that he hadn't just enjoyed being with her.

Some shopping bags had mysteriously and conveniently appeared in the kitchen. Naru and Nephrite filled some of them with bread, sandwich meat, fruit, cookies, boxes of breakfast cereal, and cans of soda and juice. Finally, Naru looked around the kitchen; there was more food in the bags than was left in the cupboards. "That's probably enough," she said. "Let's --"

Suddenly the atmosphere went dark, as though a shadow had descended over the hideout. The house shook as though struck by a powerful earthquake, almost as if something had picked it up and was shaking it back and forth. Naru's earthquake safety training from school kicked in, and she dove under the table as the food and dishes in the cupboards tumbled out and crashed to the floor. It felt like the house was going to come apart around her.

All at once the shaking stopped. She became aware that Nephrite had followed her example and taken refuge under the table with her. "What happened?" Her voice was hoarse and tight from fear. "Is this place coming apart?"

He was silent for a moment, his face furrowed in concentration. "No," he said, "but it's been breached again... Damn." He scrambled out from under the table and stood amidst the wreckage on the kitchen floor. "I think it's here."

"The Star Swallower? Here? How did it find us?" Naru asked.

"It could have followed the portal from the tent. Damn!" He ran outside. Naru followed him. "Stay close by me. You still need to regenerate your power," he said. "If it went to the priestesses' tent first, they must know it's here, and will bring Sailor Moon soon."

"Unless it ate them already." That didn't bear thinking about.

Outside in the yard, the massive, sinuous shadow from Naru's memory hovered over the ground. Its shifting movements stirred up a howling wind that tore the leaves from the trees and whipped them up into swirling masses that blew against Naru's face, stinging her eyes and skin and threatening to clog her nose and mouth so that she couldn't breathe.

"Don't attack it," Nephrite told her. "Save all your power for the Sunspot Flare Devastation. I'll hold it off for now. Hopefully Sailor Moon will get here soon." He fired off a Starlight attack that made the massive shadow pull back a bit.

Beyond the Star Swallower, Naru saw the dark opening of a portal. In it, looking like holograms in a science fiction movie, stood the three priestesses. Issoril was holding a slumped and unconscious Sailor Moon. "Usagi-chan!" Naru cried out. "What did you do to her?" she demanded.

"There is no time for your foolish concern about the souls this monster has devoured. The Star Swallower will destroy you and then the rest of us, including your lover and your friend. It must be destroyed immediately, and the souls must be destroyed along with it!"

"Why?" Naru cried. And then she realized why. "It's because they're still alive, and they know the truth, and you're afraid that if they're freed some of them might come back to life somehow, or be reborn and remember, and they'll tell everyone what the Sun People did. You don't just want me to destroy the Star Swallower, you want me to destroy the truth and all the evidence!"

Nephrite was still fending off the Star Swallower. His attacks were carefully timed and aimed to keep the Star Swallower back without doing any real damage. So far he showed no signs of weakening, but Naru knew he would eventually start to wear down.

"Think of the honor of your people!" Sifabi shouted back over the howling of the wind. "Do you want their reputation, their history, their pride besmirched by this one single mistake?"

"I don't care about that. All I ever was to you was someone who would sacrifice herself to cover up what those priestesses and eldren did a long time ago! I wanted friends, I wanted a family, I wanted to belong with all the other people no matter where they were from. If I'm going to do this at all, I'm going to do it my way. Usagi-chan!" she screamed at her friend. "Wake up! You have to wake up and help me!"

Sailor Moon stirred and murmured a little in Issoril's grip, but she didn't wake up. Naru knew she couldn't use magic to help her; she had to save all of it for the Star Swallower. But Nephrite had given her other skills. She launched herself running at the portal, ducked Sifabi's grab, and barrelled into Issoril to loosen her grasp on Sailor Moon. She forced Issoril to twist away, then she and Sailor Moon dropped out of the portal to the ground.

"No!" Sifabi screamed. Naru dodged a long whip of flame that flew out towards her. She couldn't believe the priestess would attack her, when she still had to destroy the Star Swallower for them. Nephrite, who was starting to breathe hard and lag in his attacks, fired some bursts of Starlight towards the priestesses.

Under the cover of Nephrite's protective attacks, Naru knelt beside Sailor Moon. "Usagi-chan," she said, shaking her friend's shoulder. "Usagi-chan, hang in there, you have to wake up and help me." Gently, she slapped Sailor Moon's face and pulled at her hair.

"Mmm, Luna, I don't want to go to school," Sailor Moon muttered, pushing Naru's hand away.

Naru bent down and put her mouth to Sailor Moon's ear. "Wake up, Sailor Moon, I need you to help me!"

Usagi yelped and sat up, clapping one hand over her ear. "Naru-chan! What did you --" She looked around. "That's the -- the Whatsit, that you needed me to help you fight, isn't it?"

"Yes. Get up, Sailor Moon. I need you to free the souls trapped in it so I can destroy it. Hurry, before Nephrite gets too tired to keep protecting us."

"Right." Sailor Moon got to her feet. She extended her arms, and an elaborate staff, topped with a gleaming, multifacted jewel, appeared in one hand. "What's it called again?" she whispered to Naru.

"The Star Swallower," Naru answered.

"Got it. Star Swallower!" she called to the shadow. "I know you're confused! This was all a mistake. You weren't meant to be like this. It's time for you to stop now, and let the souls you devoured go free!" Her voice changed, sounding more mature and resonant.

"No!" Sifabi fired another explosion of Sunlight at Sailor Moon. Nephrite saw the attack just in time and threw himself in front of it. It knocked him to the ground.

"Nephrite!" Naru cried.

"I'm okay," he gasped. "Hurry up, Sailor Moon." He struggled to his feet, placing himself between Sailor Moon and the Sun Priestess.

Holding the staff out at arm's length, Sailor Moon made a large, circular gesture and called out, "Moon Healing Escalation!"

Light shot out from the jewel and surrounded the vast shadow. A horrible groaning sound came from the Star Swallower, and it writhed wildly. Sailor Moon held her staff steady, eyes closed in concentration as the power of the Silver Crystal bathed the Star Swallower in light. The groaning took on a different timbre, as though it was composed of many voices. Slowly the different voices became more individual and discernable, the voices of men and women and even children. I'm sorry I can't give you back your lives, Naru thought. At least not right now. But at least you'll be free to go on to whatever comes next.

Sailor Moon groaned through gritted teeth and clenched jaw as she bore down in concentration. The voices arose to a scream, and then light burst out from the Star Swallower. There was a rushing noise like wind, and Naru thought she could see translucent human forms floating above the ground.

"Go on!" Sailor Moon cried to them. An opening filled with light appeared in the hazy artificial sky. "You're free to go through now!" The shimmering mass composed of all the souls that had been trapped in the Star Swallower shifted and turned, then flowed to the opening and through it. Naru watched them go, wondering what would happen to them next. That was a mystery that only those who had travelled through death and beyond would know the answer to.

A furious roar from the Star Swallower interrupted her thoughts. Nephrite fired another Starlight attack at it, but this attack was noticably weaker than the others had been, and the darkness of the shadow slammed against Naru's mind. The Star Swallower was ravenous. All the sustenance it had taken in over countless centuries was gone. Naru could feel its desperation to feed again. Even though her power hadn't completely regenerated yet, she knew she couldn't wait any longer to attack. Naru gathered her power and compressed it into an intense mass. She scraped every part of her being, searching for every particle of power she could find, not even reserving any as a defense against the Star Swallower's attack on her mind. The heavy weight of darkness made it a struggle to stay focused on forming the attack and eroded her will to keep fighting.

From a distance Nephrite's voice called out, "Starlight Destruction!"

Light shook loose the darkness that was pressing down on Naru's mind. She only had this one chance, and it might not last long. Nephrite might not have the strength to help her again. She cupped the dense mass of power in her hands. "Sunspot Flare Devastation!" she shouted, and flung the attack at the Star Swallower.

The shadow absorbed the brilliant sphere. No explosion followed. Naru watched, appalled. She had missed her only chance to destroy the Star Swallower before it consumed her and Nephrite and Usagi.

The shadow drew inwards, becoming denser and darker. It shrank and darkened until Naru thought there had never been anything as dark as the shape she saw in front of her. She fought to keep her mind from being pulled into the clot of absolute blackness.

Then it winked out of sight. An instant later, blinding light burst out from where the shadow had disappeared, along with a wave of brutal force that knocked Naru to her knees and heat that tore at her until she felt like the whole world had ended in flames and ashes.

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return to Index / go to Chapter 15

The Nephrite and Naru Treasury