Chapter 7: Evil By Moonlight
Through the endless tunnels they ran, like their lives depended on it. Which, it could be easily argued, was true enough.
It was not entirely clear where they actually were. They had been lost in this maze of subterranean passages for what seemed like ages; only able to see at all because the jagged, crystalline material these tunnels apparently were dug through gave off a muted light of their own. In the end it didn't matter. Any direction but back was the correct choice.
There were five of them -- pardon, five of them now -- and they fled as if the devil was nipping at their heels.
At the front of the pack, and by far the least composed, was a blonde girl with giant pigtails. While the panicked flailings of Usagi Tsukino (also known as Sailor Moon) kept her the furthest ahead, this may be easier attributed to no one behind her wanting to risk a collision than any athletic talent on her part. Second in line was a tall girl in green. This girl, known as Makoto Kino or Sailor Jupiter, was clearly refraining from her top speed in order to stay with with the others. She personally could keep up this pace for ages, but knew that she was the only one present who could do so. Just barely keeping astride with Jupiter was a raven-haired lady in red. Rei Hino, the Sailor Guardian of Mars, was only holding back further shouts at their "leader" to watch where she was going because she had no spare breath left to do so. Behind her, lagging by a significantly wider margin, was a Sailor Guardian in blue. Taking occasional glances back and then looking down to type into a handheld device, the Mercury Guardian Ami Mizuno would probably have fallen completely behind of the pack by now it it wasn't for the pushes and goadings of her current companion. With magnificent golden locks and orange trim to her outfit, the Venus Guardian Minako Aino was trying her best to remind Ami why they were currently fleeing.
Not that Ami needed it. In fact, she knew more than the rest of them combined.
Risking another glance back, Sailor Mercury gave her special visor another chance to scan the woman behind them for more data. This lady -- no, this creature -- was clearly toying with them. Every time Mercury looked behind them the woman was only walking, being left behind even, but as soon as Mercury turned away and then back she had unfailingly closed the gap once more.
This woman had taken them off guard in their first encounter, and wasted no time in making her intentions clear. They had only managed to break off from that intact with the timely intervention of a familiar savior; proof of which could be seen in a now clotting cut across the purple-clad woman's cheek.
In one of her hands, twirling around an extended finger, was a ruined, smoldering top hat. This was proof of what had happened to said savior immediately afterwards. There would be no encores tonight.
"Where are you all going?" the monster behind them asked, her sarcasm-drenched voice echoing throughout the tunnels. "I'm right here. You can't let all those pretty speeches of yours go to waste now."
Letting the hat drop and leaving it behind, the woman -- who's face Mercury's visor had just finished connecting to an old domestic terrorism database -- brought her hands in and rested them palms-down on her collarbone.
"Come on. Punish me."
Having had quite enough of that view, Mercury turned back forward just in time to avoid the trainwreck playing out in front of her. Sailor Moon, finally pushing her dumb luck to the absolute limit, had slipped on debris and fallen to the ground. Due to the pace they were running her sprawled form had passed Mars and Jupiter before either could react, and all Mercury could do in time was move out of the way to avoid making the situation even worse.
As the clumsy guardian tumbled past and rolled to a stop, Venus realized what she had to do. She was the only one now with even a theoretical chance of pulling this off, and leaving anyone behind was simply unthinkable.
Giving one last push to Mercury, to let her know that she really meant it this time, Venus spun and dashed back to the fallen guardian.
"Get up, Usagi."
"Ten more minutes", Sailor Moon mumbled, her gripe mostly muffled by the ground her face was pressed against.
Feeling hands upon her, she was firmly but gently hoisted up by the armpits. As the world came back into focus, Usagi was not met with the usual flustered face of her mother.
"Minako?" Usagi asked, still more than a little confused. "Why are you-"
"No time." Sailor Venus replied as quickly as she could. "Run."
Half shoving and half throwing the still woozy guardian, Venus managed to get Moon facing the right direction and moving. For a few steps it seemed like she was going to just fall over again, but soon her shakiness diminished and she was well on her way to catching up with the rest.
Minako had done it. Against all odds, she got that klutz up and running in no time flat.
"Heart of gold, huh?"
It did not come without a price, however.
Frozen with shock, Minako turned her head to fully accept what she knew was there. Standing by her shoulder was the woman they were fleeing from, apparently having stopped herself to watch.
"Mind if I double-check?"
Before Minako could react, a sidewards elbow hit her temple and everything went fuzzy.
Usagi was told to run, so run she did. What she didn't understand, though, was why the others in front of her had skidded to a stop. Sliding to a halt herself, she followed their aghast stares and the memories of what was actually happening finally flooded back.
There was a woman after them. A terrible, vicious, bloodthirsty woman. And now there she was, standing triumphantly over the crumpled form of yet another one of her friends.
Sailor Mars clasped her hands together, with her index fingers pointed outwards, and concentrated as a small ball of fire bloomed at the tip. Both Moon and Jupiter moved to grab her, but Mars herself had apparently thought better of it and let the flame fizzle out. They all knew that their opponent would just use her captive as a shield against anything flung her way. It was a tactic she had favored during their first scuffle, and not heeding that had already cost them far too much.
"Ami." Mars growled through gritted teeth. "Tell me that you have something. Anything."
Arcane symbols danced across Mercury's visor as stored information was rapidly brought up and discarded within fractions of seconds.
"I do have some intel on her..." Mercury began, "...but I'm not sure how much you will like it."
Juri looked up, from the trembling prey at her feet to the ones keeping what they thought was a "safe" distance from her. She had the bait, so now it was time to set the hook.
Locking eyes with the one she considered the best prospect -- the one with those huge, rabbit-ear pigtails -- Juri raised her arms up as if she was a ringmaster in a circus and began her spiel.
"Oh no! A defender of justice and love has fallen! Is there anyone who could step in and save the beautiful Sailor... uh, Guardian?"
Juri examined the reactions so far. The bunny-girl was paying close attention, but the other three seemed to be more preoccupied with some sort of discussion.
That was alright. This was going to be hard to ignore soon enough.
Still staring directly at her 'audience', Juri stooped down to seize her plaything.
"Her name is Juri Han," Mercury elaborated to Jupiter and Mars. she was slightly annoyed by the fact that Moon was obviously not listening, but time was of the essence and someone could fill her in later.
"She's a normal human, but was a test subject in studies to enhance fighting capabilities. Her left eye is a cybernetic implant."
"That's neat and all," Jupiter butted in, "but what can we use?"
"The implant is the source of her powers, and it's an experimental prototype. Bound to have at least a couple flaws. The only problem is-"
The rest would have to wait. Priorities had just been... shuffled.
Sailor Venus regained consciousness face down on the ground. She knew where she was, and what that meant, but for an agonizing few seconds she simply did not have enough control yet to try and escape. Once the wooziness dispersed well enough for at least an attempt, she started to push herself up just in time to be shoved back to the floor by a knee in her back.
She flopped back down with a groan, but soon felt fingers grab hold of her scalp and lift. She was greeted with the sight of her friends just a few feet away, frozen in indecision.
"You see that?" The woman in purple asked her. Although she was close enough for even a whisper to be audible to Minako, kneeling on her back and all, she still said it much louder than needed.
"They aren't lifting a finger to help you, blondie. Such great friends."
Minako realized what was happening here. Her captor was using her as a lure. The others would have to come in to save her, at which point the slaughter would begin again.
Minako drew in a breath, readying a shout to leave her behind, but it was stolen by an unwilling gasp as the purple woman pulled her head further back and applied more pressure to her spine.
"True friends would come running to help, tight? They must think you're not in any actual trouble."
The hold on her hair was released, only to be replaced by a hand gripping each of her shoulders. She could so little but whimper and quiver as her increasingly taxed back muscles spasmed and her spine creaked.
"Let's give 'em a little incentive."
The world jerked upwards, and her entire body burst into agony. Minako finally found enough breath to shriek as half of her body alit in searing pain while the rest sunk into icy numbness.
It seemed like screams were coming from everywhere.
Usagi, having a front-row view of what had just happened, had fallen to her knees and was desperately calling for Venus between the gaps in her fingers. Venus herself was screaming, having been essentially broken in two. The maniac they now knew as Juri Han let out a few whoops of her own, if only to add to the noise.
The three that were left wanted to scream as well, more than almost anything, but knew that succumbing to it would doom them. Channeling their despair into rage, Mars and Venus turned to face Juri.
"Don't!" Ami shouted, grabbing each by the shoulder. "It's what she wants!"
"What do we do then?" Rei shot back. "Watch Minako die?"
"We need Juri to exert herself. If I can achieve a scan of her cybernetic attachment while it's in opera-"
"Get to the point!", Jupiter yelled.
"Goad her into to doing her... magic stuff."
"On it!" Rei replied, already on her way toward Juri. One way or another, she wasn't going to watch another loved one die tonight.
For better or for worse, Juri was aiming to please.
Rei did not bother slowing as she approached, instead committing to a running punt directly into that smirking face. As Juri disappeared in a blur, and the kick meant for her sailed through empty air, Rei lost balance and landed on top of Minako's shattered back.
Trying to ignore the fresh shrieks that she had accidentally caused, Rei scrambled to her knees just in time to earn a knee to the forehead. A few more strikes to the face and a kick to the stomach doubled her over, gagging and heaving.
Trying her best to will the spots in her vision away, Rei could hear the muted padding of Juri's bare footsteps moving away from her.
She was leaving? Why?
Minako, finally, had started coming to terms with what had happened to her. Although she was still hitching with sobs, the Guardian had made it through the wall of mindless thrashing and was now in full survival mode. Through a veil of tears she could make out Usagi in the distance, and began to drag herself towards possible salvation.
She was so focused on this tiny glimmer of hope that she did not even notice the form which now stood over her.
Minako could tell that something was wrong when Usagi screamed again and started shaking her head. But what Usagi actually saw -- Juri's foot hovering over Minako's head and glowing steadily brighter with charged energy -- would forever remain a mystery to her.
Juri's stomp came down upon Minako's head like an industrial-grade piston, embedding her face in the crystalline ground and cracking both it and her skull in equal measures. Her body flopped once from the impact then fell and lay perfectly still; the massive trauma to her brain being too severe for even a death twitch. The only motion afterwards was the steady spread of blood from the impact crater, which even then soon came to a halt as her heart wound down.
Her murderer did not give her corpse so much as a second glance as she turned back to other matters. She was an afterthought, and would be treated as such.
Rei had no idea what was happening, but by the sounds of Usagi it was clearly nothing good. Her suspicions were all but confirmed as she was dragged upright by that monster Han.
Juri held the weakened Mars from behind; her right arm wrapped around Rei's neck in a chokehold, while her left arm grabbed hold of Rei's wrist and outstretched them both to the side. The end result was more of a pose than a bind, as if they were in the middle of a dance step with Juri as the lead.
Once again locking eyes with the pigtailed one, Juri started once again.
"Oh, no! Another defender of justice and love has fallen! Is there anyone who can save the beautiful Sailor..."
Pausing for a moment, Juri whispered into Rei's ear.
"Which planet are you again?"
Rei mumbled back an answer, and Juri turned once more to her "audience".
"Can anyone save the beautiful Sailor Uranus?"
A beat passed. A shoe dropped.
Sailor Jupiter just couldn't look away. Every second that passed was another step further into madness. She was afraid to blink, worried at the prospect of what could be there when her eyes opened again.
"Ami. Please, please tell me that you got something out of that."
"I think I have," Ami replied, switching between the displays on her visor and her pocket computer. "It's a very complex device, but they apparently had to leave some precautions out of something that small. Little to no surge protection."
For the first time today, Jupiter managed something approaching a bitter grin.
"So if I give her a shock that thing goes offline?"
"Correct. The only problem is, well..."
She motioned towards Juri, now slowly testing the limits of Rei's lung capacity with her chokehold.
"...Getting her by herself." Jupiter concluded.
A moment passed, both deep in thought. Eventually, it was Ami which came up with a plan.
"Makoto, get Usagi and pull her together. I'm going lay down a cloud of mist so you can both dash in and snatch back Rei before Juri can react. If Juri starts using her engine I should be able to track her energy readings through the haze and update you on her position."
"And if she doesn't?" Jupiter asked.
"We've outrun her so far." Mercury replied with a shrug.
Well, it was a plan. It wasn't perfect, but it was reasonable and there was no time to hash out anything better.
Jupiter moved to gather up Usagi, while Mercury made her own preparations.
While she did her best to put on a strong face, Ami was torn.
Sure, it was her plan, but it was still far too fast and loose for her liking. Too many possible variables, too many last-second doubts. Was she sending the rest of her friends into a grinder? Should she have planned to go in as well? She was the least fit of their group for a fight -- being the only Guardian lacking a direct combat ability -- but maybe she could still do just enough to tip the scales?
Oh well. Makoto had already filled in Usagi on what to do, and there were more ways she could help than with brute force.
Bringing her hand up in front of her, Ami concentrated until a small, blue orb of energy appeared between them.
Ami drew back her hands, but the orb remained floating in front of her. She then crossed her wrists between herself and the orb.
In one fluid motion she cut through the orb with twin chops, dispersing the energy throughout the room and obscuring everything in a deep, chilly mist.
She had now done her major part. It was now up to Makoto and Usagi.
At the very least, let them come out of this okay.
Sailor Jupiter crept through the fog, trying her best to tread lightly while scanning all around her for suspicious silhouettes. She was coming in on the left of Juri while Usagi approached on the right; the thought being that they would hopefully catch her in something approaching a pincer attack and divide her attention.
That was the idea at least. Three shapes finally appeared, but none of them were Juri herself.
Usagi had apparently made it here first, and was slinging one of Rei's arms over her shoulder to help her up. Rei was still mostly out of it, but besides some bruising and battering seemed to be okay. The same could not be said for Minako. It took little more than a cursory examination to verify that nothing could be done there.
Still, Makoto couldn't help but feel a traitorous twinge of relief. Juri had apparently fallen back to wait for a more advantageous situation, which would also give them time to recover and come up with a real plan to put her down.
Filled with hopeful optimism and bitter despair in equal measures, Makoto draped Rei's other arm over her shoulders and the three of them set off to reunite with Ami. Maybe, just maybe, this was doable.
Ami had kept her eyes on Juri as her mist filled the room, but so far her visor had no readings from that location or anywhere around it. Was she standing her ground? That seemed rather unlikely, since she wouldn't be able to see anything until an attacker was right on top o-
As an arm snaked around her throat and a hand covered her mouth, Ami realized that she was not the only one who considered this. Juri did not need her Feng Shui Engine to get the drop on her in these conditions.
"You look like you're the brains of this outfit," Juri whispered into her ear.
"We need to talk."
As the mist thinned, it dawned on the two conscious guardians that their antagonist may not have beat a straight retreat.
"Ami?" Makoto asked into the thinning haze. "You can come out now, Ami."
Pulling herself away from the others, Makoto left Usagi to sit down and stay with Rei while she wandered further about.
"Ami. Ami! Say something! Anything!"
When the fog finally cleared, there was no longer any denying it: Mercury was gone. While they circled in on Juri to take back Rei, she had done the same to steal Ami.
Biting her lower lip, and clenching her hands into fists hard enough to make them tremble, Makoto did her best not to explode then and there.
The first thing Rei saw when she opened her stinging eyes was Usagi's big dopey face. Not her first choice, but she'd still take it.
"How..." she managed to get out through her aching throat "...did you save me?"
"It was more Ami than me, actually."
That... wasn't an answer to her question, but she really should have expected as much considering who she was asking. Rei looked around for Ami, to get an actual explanation, but she was nowhere to be seen.
"Where is she?"
"Well..." Usagi began, looking away and nervously playing with her fingers, "...we can't find her."
Translation: Juri had a new hostage. It was basically high-stakes musical chairs at this point.
Speaking of which, one was still unaccounted for. Rei bolted up to attention once she realized that the other captive wasn't present either.
"And Minako? How bad off is she? Did you get her too?"
Usagi's watery, remorseful eyes stopped just short of meeting hers, and Rei knew the answer before the words came out.
"Minako... didn't make it."
It was all Rei could manage. An icy chill crawled up her spine and spread out through the rest of her body. She hadn't felt this cold since... well...
Rei rose to her feet, unsteadily but mechanically. Usagi moved to help her, but Rei batted her hands away.
"So Minako is dead." Rei repeated, her brow furrowing as she glowered at Usagi. "Minako is dead and you've traded in Ami to get me. What do we do now?"
"Y-you're asking me?" Usagi asked.
"Yes.", Rei replied, her voice calm but her stare focusing like a magnifying glass preparing to fry ants. "I am. You're the leader. Lead us."
"Well, uh..." Usagi stalled. Quickly coming up with an idea, she brought out a short, pink 'wand' with a crystal cradled by a crescent moon sitting on the end.
"If that girl's possessed I can use the Moon Stick to-"
"She has no evil inside her that she didn't make herself." Rei replied firmly.
Usagi faltered and stammered. After another moment of worried ruffling she held out a stubby, pink pen with a large ruby on the tip.
"Maybe if I used my pen to disguise as a-"
The back of Rei's hand collided with Usagi's, sending the Disguise Pen flying out of her grip and clattering across the ground. Usagi began to protest, but was silenced as Rei's hand reversed direction to slap her across the cheek.
"Do you think this is a game?" Rei asked, her voice rising in volume. "Do you think playing dress-up will help us?"
"I don't- I just-" Usagi stammered, on the verge of tears. "I don't know what you want from me!"
Rei placed her hands on Usagi's shoulders, and brought herself in so they were staring eye to eye.
"What do I want from you?"
Her grip tightened.
"I want you to be a leader."
Slowly, she began to rock Usagi back and forth.
"I want you to come up with ideas. I want you to pull your weight. I want you to rally us, hold us together."
Now shaking Usagi wildly, Rei's voice rose to a furious roar.
"I want you to prove your worth! I want you to do anything, anything but cry and get in the way!"
Forcing herself between the two, Makoto pushed them apart. Turning her head towards Rei, she asked:
"Is this helping?"
Rei glared at Makoto for a few heated moments, her eyes full of fire and brimstone. But then the tears came, and it all collapsed.
"I... I know it isn't. But what can I do? What can any of us do?"
"Communicator" Usagi managed to squeak out between sniffles.
Surprised by the interjection, both Rei and Makoto turned to her.
"Our Sailor Communicators" Usagi continued, bringing up hers. Each Sailor Guardian had one, which they used to talk with each other across long distances. "We should be able to track down Ami's, with ours, right? And Ami will probably be right there with it, right?"
They were both silent, but Makoto's nudging of Rei with her elbow said enough. Against all odds, Mars may actually be getting what she wanted.
Makoto and Rei trailed behind Usagi as she wandered, Communicator in hand. They had all agreed to have her lead this time. It only seemed fair.
They had quickly discovered several peculiarities of this place which both hindered and aided their search. To start with, the energy in the crystals all around them created a sort of white noise which drowned out their signals. On one hand, it meant that they could not immediately connect with Ami. On the other, they could also work out a decent enough route to Ami's location by comparing levels of static in each branching path and taking whichever had the lowest amount.
As they carried on, and the signal grew better, it soon became clear that Ami's Communicator was sending as well as receiving. There was nothing decipherable yet, but rustling and low murmurs were definitely present.
"Ami," Usagi half whispered into the Communicator. "Ami, are you there?"
The noises stopped for a beat, but then were followed by much more energetic rustles.
"Ami, can you speak?"
The three Sailor Guardians huddled around the Communicator, waiting for any sort of reply.
"... The hell is this?"
Any sort of reply except that one.
They now had someone on the other end, but it wasn't Ami.
Their fears realized, they picked up the pace while they listened.
"Hey now, this is actually kind of cool. It's got portraits and everything! Here's the big girl, here's the hothead, here's... ah... not going to need that one any more..."
"You shut your mouth!" Rei growled into the speaker.
"Oh, so you are there! How's the hunt going? I'd put Blue on the phone, but she's all tied up right now."
"If you've done anything to Mercury, we'll make you regret it."
"Promises, promises. See you-"
As they rounded another corner, Juri cut herself off.
"...well damn, now."
It was clear that Juri had been hard at work. And hell, maybe from her point of view it actually made sense.
The maniac herself stood next to Mercury, almost posing to show off her handiwork. Mercury was several feet off the ground, standing on a makeshift platform made by breaking a crystalline stalagmite in half. Mercury herself had clearly been put through the wringer -- her outfit torn to tatters, her exposed skin covered in bruises, and a segment of what was once her her skirt shoved into her mouth -- but she was still good enough to stand. With an aid, at least.
Partially holding her up, for the moment, was a glimmering, golden length of rope. It began knotted around her wrists, then traveled back to wrap around her neck a few times for an adequate noose before ending in a small hole in the roof of the cave Juri must have carved out specifically to loop through.
"You like?" Juri asked. "It's kind of a rush-job, but I think it gets the idea across."
"You're a monster." Jupiter muttered.
"Oh come on," Juri chided, "I just wanted to have a talk in private with Ami here."
Perhaps it was because the other two were too busy thinking about what to do, but it was Sailor Moon who first noticed the slip.
"She told you her name?"
Visibly pleased that someone was paying attention, Juri chuckled and continued.
"Oh, Ami was very talkative. Lemme see here..."
Juri pointed at Sailor Moon, then moved from her to each other Guardian.
"Usagi. Rei. Makoto. And the pancake was Minako. Did I get that right?"
"That's enough!" Jupiter bellowed, tensing up for the imminent fight.
"Quite right," Juri replied, and with a powered kick shattered the platform Ami was standing upon.
There was no time to coordinate, but with the speed that the three Guardians leapt into action it would have been reasonable to guess otherwise. Rei and Makoto made a beeline for Juri, while Usagi hooked off to the side to help the now strangling Ami.
The next few minutes would be interesting, to say the least.
Juri easily dodged Makoto's opening attack, a shoulder tackle straight out of a football play, by simply moving to the side. That was okay. The first priority was to get some distance between her and Ami, so Usagi could get her down uninterrupted.
Rei was up next, going low with a sweep. Juri also leapt away from this, widening the gap further.
Now with a Guardian on either side of Juri, things got a bit... hectic. The two laid into her as hard as they could -- well, as hard as they could without hitting each other in the crossfire -- but Juri was always a fraction of an inch out of reach. As she danced and swayed through every attempted strike, it seemed like she was playing a game.
Of course, they knew, it was because she was.
Sometimes the only way to track her blurring form properly was to follow the purple dot of light; in truth Juri's artificial eye, glowing with energy no doubt being pumped through the rest of her body. It was clear that something had to be done about that, and soon if they were to have a chance.
How could they achieve this goal? Good question.
Here's hoping that Usagi was doing better with her own dilemma.
Usagi, par the course, had no idea what she was doing.
Ami swung in front of her, slowly strangling to death on the rope wrapped around her neck. Her kicking feet and muffled gagging proved that the drop did not kill her, but it would take no time at all for the current situation to rectify that.
How was she supposed to get Ami free? She was too high up for Usagi to have any chance at reaching her throat, and fiddling around with the rope around Ami's wrists while the life was throttled out of her seemed like several shades of stupid.
First thing's first: Get Ami some air.
Crouching down and turning her back to Ami, Usagi reached back and grabbed hold of Ami's flailing legs. Resting them across her shoulders, she then rose back up to full height with Ami on top of her.
This "piggyback" was not enough to free Ami from her makeshift noose, but judging from the raspy breaths Usagi could now hear above her it was enough to get some weight off of her windpipe. The time limit to get her out was now not quite as bad.
Happy that she had made at least some progress, Usagi turned her attention to the knots holding Ami's hands together.
Now Juri was having fun, playing with her two toys like this, but it was about time to get down to business. After all, there was another couple to go through right after them.
Juri leaned back to just barely avoid a frustrated punch from each side. Then, grabbing hold of their outstretched hands with her opposite arms, she pulled them crashing in against each other.
As the two recoiled Juri took the opportunity to clonk Rei over the head with an axe kick. Rei buckled and collapsed with only a stammered urk in protest, but Juri had already turned back to the remaining fighter. She hadn't got to really try out this not-so-jolly green giant yet, and was more than ready for a taste.
What kind of tie was this? What kind of knots were these? How would you undo them?
Usagi quietly fumed to herself as she pulled and prodded, furious that of all the things a life could hinge on it had to be how well she paid attention in Home Ec class. Granted, her grades weren't exactly stellar in any other area, but that was a subject for another day.
Growing in frustration she tried biting through the rope, and from the feel of it may have chipped a tooth in the process.
Good grief. Where would you even go to buy something like this?
Makoto was far from a stranger to fighting, but with the Feng Shui engine in full swing the odds were more than stacked against her. She tried to grab Juri and lock her into a bearhug, but all that did was open her up for a headbutt to the chest. Juri followed up with a few quick knees into Makoto's gut while she was down there, and came back up with a rising elbow that snapped the Guardian's head back and briefly lifted her to her tiptoes.
Makoto, to her credit, did not fall; instead taking advantage of Juri's advance to lock them both up in a clinch. It was not nearly as advantageous as what she was originally aiming for, and she had to soak up a lot to get even this, but beggars couldn't be choosers.
Far from being worried, Juri took this as an opportunity to go to town. Juri listened intently to Makoto's breathless gags as she alternated more knee strikes into the Guardian's already abused stomach.
Still, the girl managed to hold on. This was a hardy one, and Juri couldn't wait to test just how far she could go.
Perhaps Juri was getting too into this for her own good. As something hit the back of her head, and her vision burst into fireworks, Juri remembered that this was not a one-on-one.
Juri's sudden lurch forward caused Makoto to lose her already straining grip, falling down into a seated sprawl. When she looked back up she saw her opponent clutching her head while trying her best to stay standing, and Rei behind her holding a chunk of crystal in one hand.
It was apparently a very solid blow, judging by the blood splattered on the rock and trickling down Juri's scalp. But Rei nonetheless let her bludgeon drop to the ground, instead choosing to come up behind Juri and wrap her arms around the purple woman.
"Now!" Rei shouted to Makoto. "Short her out!"
"Don't care! Do it!"
Alright. No checking twice here.
Crossing her arms in front of her and closing her eyes, Makoto focused on gathering energy. The tiara on her forehead reacted to her concentration, mechanically raising a small antenna from somewhere inside it to jut up above her head.
A cloud of juttering electricity came into existence above Makoto, and was drawn down instantly into the impromptu lightning rod that was her tiara. She tensed up as electricity coursed across her body, ready to be discharged.
Spreading her arms wide, Jupiter flung the lightning in a bolt which landed square on Juri and Rei. Both of them were for an instant turned to twitching, smoking shadows as the brilliant energy crackled around and through them.
Makoto was fairly sure that the blast wouldn't kill them. Fairly.
But, in the case of one of the victims, that was what she was here for.
Usagi saw the flash of light in her peripheral vision, but did not pay it any heed besides that. The fact that Jupiter was even able to get off her attack was assuring enough.
What she was interested in were the groans above her, proving that Ami was starting to regain full consciousness.
"Don't worry," she called up, "We'll have you down soon."
As soon as she could find out where the hell this rope started and ended, of course.
As the lightning afterimages faded, Makoto could see the two expected figures just beginning to come out of their shock.
Rei slid down her former captive and splayed out onto the floor, apparently jolted into unconsciousness.
Juri was a bit more of a mixed bag.
Panting heavily and hunched over, Juri looked up at Makoto with one eye. The other one -- the cybernetic fake -- continued staring straight ahead at nothing. It took a couple tries, but the spidery woman eventually managed to raise the corners of her mouth into a shaky, leery smile.
"Looks like you got me, kiddo."
She took a step forward, clearly a test to see if she could.
"My eye's on the fritz; I'm just my old helpless self."
"My old, tournament fighting, special operative self."
Rising to full height, Juri locked her good eye with Makoto's
"Tell me, kiddo, how many fighting styles are you practiced in?"
Not waiting for a response, Juri lowered herself again and dashed forwards with a shoulder rush. She connected cleanly but could not manage to knock her opponent over, only pushing her back a few steps. She then tried to withdraw to switch up her tactics but found that her opponent had reached over her to grip her hips.
Everything spun for a moment, and Juri had just long enough to realize that she was seated on her opponent's shoulders before she was brought hurling back down to finish the powerbomb.
"A little karate," Makoto replied to her now twice-shocked opponent, "a little judo, a little kung-fu. You can't go wrong with a bit of wrestling, either. But really..."
Makoto wiped her brow with the back of her hand, and assumed a ready position as Juri finally rolled to her feet.
"...All of that is just window dressing to good old fashioned streetfighting."
Mistakes may have been made.
Juri Han eyed up her opponent -- with her one working eye -- and made a mental tally of the issues she now had to face down. Her Feng Shui engine had been knocked offline, putting her back at base level. This normally wouldn't be too much of an issue, but it just so happened that one of these schoolgirls was a legitimate scrapper on top of being a pretty princess.
Her opponent had the height advantage. Her opponent had the reach advantage. And, after literally being hit by lightning, her opponent probably had more stamina to work with as well.
This was bad. She knew that her luck would one day run out, but she'd be damned if she'd bite it against someone who would have to rush home afterwards to cram for a math test.
She wanted a street fight? She'd get one.
Makoto got ready for another grapple as Juri leaned down and charged, apparently thinking that a second round of the same would be any less humiliating for some reason. She was thus blindsided -- figuratively and literally -- as the handful of crystalline pebbles Juri scooped up on the way was thrown into her face.
Clutching at her eyes and trying to blink the dirt away, she briefly left the ground as Juri landed a punt into her crotch with as much force as she could muster.
Makoto fell to her knees, but had enough sense left to wrap her arms around Juri's legs and pull them out from under her. With the lower half of her body shrieking in agony she could not move herself up to lock in a good hold, so she settled on stressing Juri's ankle with a quick series of two-handed twists.
Juri delivered a kick to Makoto's jaw with her free foot, then rolled back only to pounce back on top of the Guardian. Locking her hands around Makoto's throat, she clamped down and squeezed.
Juri felt a bit of the old spirit coming back to her as her opponent writhed and struggled underneath her, her own hands pawing ineffectually at Juri's face.
That is, until they dug in around the clotted gash on Juri's cheek and pulled apart.
Juri let out a small shriek and recoiled, releasing the choke to check the refreshed damage to her face. Makoto took this opportunity to reach up, clutch Juri by the head, and slam her skull into the ground at her side.
Makoto stumbled to her feet as Juri remained sprawled face down on the floor; also trying to rise but not making much progress. This was it. She had an opening for another blast, and if that didn't finish this maniac she would be in no shape to do anything about a mop-up job afterwards.
Closing her eyes, Makoto focused once more.
Makoto concentrated the most intensely she ever had, intending to fry her foe so hard she'd register on weather monitors. As she drew all the energy she could, and prepared for this final blast, she felt...
She felt nothing.
Something was wrong.
Opening her eyes once more, Makoto raised up a hand to touch her tiara. Her stained, grimy glove only met skin and sweat.
Looking back down at her opponent, she found where it went. It was resting on Juri Han's forehead, her opponent having pilfered it during their hectic ground struggle.
Juri Han shot Makoto a cheeky smile, then closed her eyes and began to concentrate herself. Today this youngster was going to learn some really dirty tricks.
Juri focused, and felt energy begin to form around her as the tiara's antenna once again extended. This wasn't so hard. Kind of worked like her Feng Shui Engine, actually. Hell, she had already figured out how to use it!
Juri was right, in much the same way that a man pulling a pin has learned how to use a grenade.
She had accomplished step one of the tiara's special attack with no issue. Unfortunately, step one was being struck by lightning.
The ball lightning formed and shot down to Juri, but it had not been properly focused and directed. Lacking this, it spiraled out and pulsed through the entire room.
Juri herself was not immune to this, but the tiara had a natural buffer which blocked an amount of energy feedback equivalent to what would have been needed to safely handle a normal attack. The end result being that she was shocked once again, but not nearly as badly as the first time around.
Makoto was hit the hardest, being the closest unprotected conduit. As the energy ran up and down her she fell to her knees and elbows, trying as hard as she could not to black out.
Rei's body jerked and writhed, punctuated with gasps as she was jolted in and out of consciousness. In the moments that she was capable of thought, she prayed for the ordeal to end one way or another.
Usagi's muscles seized up and her vision went dark. Her knees giving out and her fingers clamping down like vices, she unconsciously hung on for dear life to whatever she could as the lightning surged through her.
When it was all over, there was no one left standing.
The first one up, though, was Juri.
And as she limped towards the bent over Makoto -- who was still blinking away stars and remembering how to breathe -- it was clear that she was ready to wrap things up.
Juri was moving slowly, due to her bad ankle, but steadily. She did not even stop when she arrived at Makoto, only reaching down to seize her by the ponytail and drag the girl along behind her.
She only halted when they reached the wall of the room. Hoisting up Makoto fully, Juri gave her but a moment to recognize the crystalline, jagged surface before her face was slammed into it.
As Makoto was repeatedly drawn back only to be dashed once again against the crystals, her features began to pulp and flatten. The first thing to go was her nose, the cartilage inside it being pulverized and smashed back into the skull. Teeth jostled loose one after the other as the assault continued, either falling out to lay at the convulsing Guardian's feet or being driven deeper into the jawbone like a rail spike being pounded down. If she wasn't the only brown haired member of their group, one would be hard pressed to even hazard a guess at who this used to be.
Juri stopped for a moment with her victim against the wall; partially to catch her breath, partially to listen to the gurgles. Then, once she was ready to start up again, she started scraping what was left of her foe's face against the crystals.
The effect of this was similar to what happens when someone attempts to clean a cheese grater with a sponge, or a biker sliding across asphalt after flying off his machine at top speed. Soon there was a massive swathe of red painted across a segment of the crystals, excess blood and other bits dripping down to fill in the cracks underneath.
Satisfied with her work, Juri withdrew her victim and allowed her to fall onto her back.
What was left of Makoto writhed and wheezed; amazingly still conscious, but the trauma having forced her higher brain functions into hiding. That was good, but not good enough.
Her smile returning, despite the aches, Juri mounted her prey and got to work on her coup de gras.
"We have to go."
Usagi came to on her knees, still holding onto something to stay upright. A hand was on her shoulder, which she soon discovered to belong to Rei.
Rei...was not looking too well. She was on her knees as well, having apparently crawled over on all fours, and had a new set of bruises and burns to go along with her previous collection.
"We can't leave yet," Usagi replied once she could control her tongue again. "Ami is-"
"Dead." Rei interjected.
Filled with a whole new level of dread. Usagi looked up to verify what exactly she was holding onto. She was greeted by Ami's bulging, empty eyes; her head tilted downwards as if asking Usagi why as her body swayed in the air. Usagi had lost her ability to stand during the shock but still instinctively clung onto Ami, putting both of their full weights onto her neck and finishing the job Juri began.
Unable to bear the sight any more, Usagi looked down at the ground and squeezed her eyes shut as the tears started to flow.
"What about Makoto? She's-"
"Dying." Rei cut in again. "Dying in order to give us a head start. We have to move, Usagi."
Usagi did not reply, but also did not resist as Rei helped her up. Leaning on each other for support, they stumbled away from the killing floor and tried their best to ignore the wet crunching noises behind them.
Juri laid further into Makoto's face with her fists. It was pretty pointless at this point, being knuckles against bone for the most part, but she liked how the Guardian's head bounced against the floor and snapped from side to side.
Juri ramped up the intensity, savoring the occasional nervous twitches caused by an especially good blow. The tiara still on Juri's forehead reacted to her rising mood, whirring as it once again raised its antenna.
Grasping Makoto's head with her hands, she switched to slamming the back of her skull against the ground. She could feel Makoto's fluttery heartbeat through her thighs, it having gone into overtime in a last ditch attempt to make any sort of difference.
When the new ball of energy hit, Juri was ready. Taking the pain and making it hers, she rode the lightning metaphorically and the involuntarily bucking form underneath her literally.
As the electricity dissipated Juri leaned back and opened her mouth, letting a wisp of smoke escape and float away.
"Oh yeah. That hit the spot."
Looking back down at her foe, Juri examined her steaming, seared body. She still trembled from time to time, but it was clear that these were just the final spasms of individual muscles reacting to the aftereffects of electrocution. Makoto's chest lay still, and the jackhammer Juri had felt between her legs mere seconds ago had sputtered to a halt. Jupiter, as large as it was, was a dead planet.
"Good match, kid." Juri sighed contentedly. "Good match."
The two remaining Guardians held each other up as they stumbled through the tunnel system, silent except for Usagi's barely contained sobbing.
Rei wanted to say something, but at the same time dreaded the inevitable conversation. Usagi was a wreck, and was no doubt going to fully break down crying at the slightest provocation. She believed that she was responsible for the deaths so far, and as far as Rei was concerned... well, she pretty much was.
That wouldn't help to say, however. In fact, the last chance they had to set things right was probably tied directly to the blubbering mess she was currently propping up. As terrible as today was, it still was not the first time they had been brought so low. The only important thing was that Usagi made it. As long as Sailor Moon survived, she cou-
The silence was finally broken, but by neither of them. Usagi's Sailor Communicator had gone off. There was apparently a call waiting for her.
Against Rei's protests, Usagi fished out her Communicator and checked who it was.
The call was apparently from Makoto's Communicator, but even with the worsening static interference it was clear who the voice on the other line belonged to.
"Run rabbit - run rabbit - Run! Run! Run!
Run rabbit - run rabbit - Run! Run! Run!
Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang!
Goes the farmer's gun.
Run, rabbit, run, rabbit, run."
They watched in horror an another portrait lit up, Ami's Communicator now connected to the call as well. Although the same voice came through both, the multiple signals made it as if a second singer had joined the chorus.
"Run rabbit - run rabbit - Run! Run! Run!
Don't give the farmer his fun! Fun! Fun!
He'll get by
Without his rabbit pie
So run rabbit - run rabbit - Run! Run! Run!"
Rei seized the communicator and flung it at the tunnel wall, shattering it into pieces. Usagi, predictably, fell to a sitting position and began bawling her eyes out.
"Usagi." Rei pleaded, trying her best to keep a level tone. "We don't have time for this, Usagi."
The guardian may have tried to reply, but nothing legible was ever getting through that wall of tears and snot.
They really didn't have time for this. Clearly, drastic actions needed to be taken.
Steadying herself, Rei crouched down to Usagi's level and reached out to...
...embrace her in a hug.
"It's okay." Rei whispered as Usagi sobbed into her shoulder. "Let it out. It's okay."
Eventually the crying wound down, the Guardian only occasionally whimpering now and again. When she judged it time, Rei drew back to speak with the recovering girl.
"Are you alright?"
"A-as much as I can be..." Usagi supposed, wiping her nose with her wrist. "What do we do now, though?"
"You need to keep moving." Rei replied slowly, trying her best to put on a motherly voice. "I need to buy you time to do that."
Tears once again welled up, and Usagi buried her head in Rei's chest for another round of sobs, but this time they had a tinge of anger to them.
"No! You can't! You have to come with me!"
Weakly beating her fists against Rei's shoulders in a fit of impotent rage, Usagi's tantrum carried on.
"You're not leaving! You're not-"
Usagi was halted mid swing as Rei's hands came up to cup her face, forcing her head up to lock eyes.
"Usagi. We've done this before. I won't leave you, even if I stay behind. All of us will be right by your side. You know that better than any of us."
"I know.... but..."
"But nothing. You can save all of us later; right now the only thing you have to do is save yourself."
Usagi was still sniffling, but nodding along. They both helped each other up, and Sailor Moon made her way onwards while Rei stood her ground.
The Guardian looked back, at her disheveled, ragged friend.
"Watch your step, meatball head."
Smiling in spite of it all, Usagi turned back around and began her trek anew. Rei always knew just what to say.
Left by herself, Rei waited. She waited and worried, feeling how little she could do at the moment.
Would Juri actually come down this path? There were many branches throughout this underground labyrinth, and there was nothing ruling out a different route circumventing her entirely on it's way to Usagi. But deep down, she felt that outcome unlikely. This place seemed to somehow favor bloodshed, and now that she'd dug in it was only a matter of time until it threw what it needed at her for an uprooting.
After what seemed like an eternity, she heard a humming off in the distance. She recognized the beat; it was that rabbit song they heard over the Communicator. It was only when Juri shuffled into view that the humming died down and ceased.
Juri first scanned the 'room' Rei had chosen for her stand, then eventually settled on the Guardian in question.
"All by yourself? Pretty gutsy."
Juri took another step forward, and Rei fought the urge to take an equal step back.
"It took two of you to have a chance earlier, and your better half is too busy lying in a puddle of her own teeth to help out this time."
Rei involuntarily gulped, but did not falter. Juri was not the only one who could talk big.
"You were fresh back then, and we didn't know how you fought. Your bag of tricks is empty now, and you look more ready for a burial than a brawl."
Rei was not wrong in this regard. Juri was walking with a shuffling limp due to her ankle, had her own fair share of burns from repeated shocks, her head was positively covered with drying blood from multiple wounds, and her cybernetic eye still blankly stared at nothing at all.
"You're no spring chicken yourself," Juri, replied as she advanced.
"Still gonna snap your wishbone, though."
As both combatants were running on fumes, this fight opened and ran at a much slower pace. Rei was the first to strike, attempting a cross chop to the side of Juri's neck, but Juri caught the arm and pulled herself up the outside of it. Snaking around the back of Rei's neck and pulling her down, Juri locked the Guardian into a standing headlock.
"I've been waiting to get my hands on you again since that joke you pulled earlier," Juri confided to the struggling girl. "You're a fiery one. Always liked my food spicy."
Rei replied by stomping down on Juri's bad ankle, making sure that her high heel ground deep into it. Juri's hold loosening from the surge of pain, Rei managed to break free and shot an elbow back into her former captor's chest for good measure.
Reaching out on instinct for a new hold on the withdrawing Guardian, Juri grabbed a handful of Rei's hair. She pulled back as soon as she felt purchase, but the uncontrolled movement combined with her own partial buckling as she tried to get her ankle back under control only led to both combatant's crashing their skulls together. This left the two of them groggy, and they stumbled away from each other.
When Juri regained her own bearings, she found her opponent hunched over murmuring some unintelligible nonsense. Taking advantage of her early recovery, she grabbed Rei by the throat with her left hand and reared back her right for a sloppy-but-sufficient haymaker.
Before she could finish the attack, however, a gust blew through the room and her vision was obscured by something.
Reaching up to her face with her free hand, Juri pried the object off. It was a long, thin strip of paper covered in kanji symbols on one side. She didn't know the name of it, but she knew that they were used for sealing away evil spirits or some nonsense like that. As she glanced around, it became clear that similar slips of paper were fluttering all around them.
"Do you think I'm a demon?" Juri jestingly asked the girl in her grasp.
"No...", she answered through the chokehold. "...I think you burn."
Rei made a motion with her hands, and the papers began to glow a vivid shade of red. Deducing what was about to happen, but entirely powerless to stop it, Juri pulled herself into Rei and shielded as much as she could from the imminent inferno.
It was a bit ironic, from a certain point of view. Rei was a trained shrine maiden long before she even knew she was a Sailor Guardian, but because of her and her wards this room could have easily passed as a snapshot into hell.
The air shimmered in the intense, white-hot heat. Both of them held their breath, correctly assuming that taking in air like this would boil the inside of their lungs and doom them to minutes of excruciating asphyxiation. Clothes smoldered, hair singed, and exposed skin cracked. It was not enough to outright incinerate them, but that did not stop it from trying.
It was only a flash fire, though, and soon the room dimmed as it plummeted back to normal heat. Their partially crisped backs felt oddly chilly in the normalizing room, their internal temperature regulators still haplessly playing catch-up.
Juri drew back slightly from Rei, still holding her in her arms, and shuddered.
She brought her tongue out to moisten her now dry lips before continuing.
"If you had... just a little more left in the tank... I think that could have done it."
It wasn't quite enough, though. While Juri would be wincing for ages, and probably sport quite a few unflattering scars afterwards, it was not enough to kill either of them.
Surprisingly, the scorched Guardian was still beaming regardless.
"Doesn't matter." Rei replied with a hint of pride. "You're not chasing down anyone in that shape. Your rabbit is home free."
Rei's smirk of triumph wavered slightly in confusion as Juri brought a hand up to playfully ruffle the still slightly smoking hair on her head.
"Clever kid. Banking on her to wish you all back with her crystal, eh?"
"...How did y-"
"Ami was very talkative."
Juri brought Rei back in, essentially embracing her in a tight hug.
"Cute, but pointless. If you think she can get away you still haven't figured out how this place works. I'll have my stew in due time. But for now..."
Juri leaned in on Rei, their faces almost touching.
"...I want something a little hotter."
Rei opened her mouth to reply, but was muffled as Juri caught her in a kiss. She tried to back away, but Juri responded by going in further and deeper with every attempt. She struggled to break free, but she was entirely spent and after all was said and done Juri was still the stronger of the two.
Realizing that she could do nothing against it, Rei relaxed as Juri explored her. Somehow, this depravity was the worst she had suffered through so far. Rei had stayed behind expecting to be beaten -- killed even -- but she did not give a single thought to being conquered.
Rei had begun to retreat into a place inside of herself when a sharp stab of pain brought her back to the here and now. Juri had fished her tongue out of her mouth, and it now was clamped down between her teeth.
Juri obviously could not say anything, but the message was clear. This was in no way a pause to her suffering.
Rei had only begun to shake her head in the start of a desperate plea as Juri bit clean through her tongue.
Usagi moved as fast as she could without risking another fall, choosing tunnels at random whenever she came to a fork. She had no way of telling which was better than the others, so she didn't even try. If she discovered some type of landmark, maybe then she could play this a little smarter.
Entering yet another tunnel, she got her wish. But whatever force granted it clearly had a nasty sense of humor.
In the middle of the path, still partially embedded, was Minako's body. The puddle of blood had long dried and she had begun to stiffen, but there was no denying it. Somehow, Usagi had run a complete loop.
How? How? There were many branching paths, but none of them ever turned around. They were going straight! It didn't make sense!
Falling into a panic, Usagi dashed past the remains of her friend and raced down the further passages. Soon she found herself at the entrance of a wider room; one she was also familiar with. The damned rope was gone, but the two bodies sprawled inside were more than enough verification.
Usagi backed out to the last split and chose a different route. After a few minutes of travel forward the was once again standing above Minako's broken corpse.
This was not a maze.
Mazes played fair. Mazes had exits.
This was a deathtrap.
Usagi now realized that, if she had any chance of surviving, she would have to take out Juri Han. Running would just mean that one of them would die tired.
Without a word, Usagi reached up and pulled off her tiara. With a little bit of concentration the tiara turned into a disc of light hovering slightly above her open palm, waiting to be thrown at a moment's notice.
Cautiously, but with determination, the last Sailor Guardian crept on for a final showdown.
Usagi tried to be a silent as she could as she moved, but even then the figure she came across almost took her by surprise.
It wasn't that it was being stealthy or anything. You just don't make much noise when you're dead on your feet.
Bracing herself on one of the walls as she stumbled along, Juri inched her way towards Usagi. Rei apparently did quite a number on her. She was covered in all kinds of nasty burns where her skin was exposed, and her hair and clothing had their fair share of scorch marks to go along with it. Her face was absolutely caked in dried blood, to the point that only her unfocused eyes betrayed that there might be a human under all of it.
Well, technically a human.
It seemed like luck was finally on the Sailor's side. Juri simply did not have enough to go through so many opponents straight.
It may be anticlimactic, but Usagi was definitely not complaining. Happy that this nightmare was finally coming to a close, the moon princess prepared to end this lunacy.
Usagi bent slightly at the waist and crossed over the hand "holding" her energy disc, preparing it in a manner similar to how one would a frisbee.
She couldn't see too well, but she knew that something was there. Shapes were moving, and there was a light much more focused than the soft glow she had been surrounded with so far.
With an uncannily expert swing, Usagi flung her disc forward.
The light was getting clearer now, and even through the haze in her mind she had come to understand what it was.
She attempted to raise a hand -- a pointless gesture on so many levels now -- but the signal had just reached her arm when the disc of energy hit her square in the chest and made everything moot.
Usagi watched the results in a mix of horror and regretful relief. Although she knew that her special technique was the most powerful out of their group, it had always been used on abstract demons or former humans corrupted until little remained of what they once were. Even the ones which looked like people -- otherworldly generals keeping their more bestial brethren in line -- fell and dissipated upon death in ways that were... well, clean.
Witnessing what it could do to a basic, unremarkable human was a learning experience.
Her body rocked twice; once from the impact, and once as the "payload" exploded through her and out of her back. She had begun a unintelligible shriek as it first connected, but it was brutally silenced as there were no longer any lungs left to carry it.
Her face clearly wracked in agony even through the layers of viscera, she slid down the wall and collapsed to her knees. She looked up at Usagi one last time and shakily reached towards her, as if even now still trying to catch her prey, before her hand dropped back to her side and her head drooped downwards.
Sitting there, perfectly balanced in death, she meekly met her end at the hands of the final Guardian.
Usagi couldn't believe it. She did it.
It all was finally over. She -- no, they, had won.
She was so overcome with waves of relief and joy that -- for a while -- she did not realize that the chuckles reaching her ears was not hers.
But when the realization finally hit home, the source of the giggles finally rounded the corner. Against all reason there stood Juri Han again, a spitting image for the first besides her being doubled over in laughter.
It quickly degenerated into coughs, with her still being in such terrible shape, and she wiped her good eye free of tears as she struggled to compose herself.
"I- chh - I'm sorry," Juri number 2 wheezed, "that was just too good."
Usagi stared at the Jolly Juri, then down at the Juri she had just defeated.
"Think about it for a moment," the second Juri responded as she caught her breath and started regaining her composure. "You can figure this out. I believe in you."
Usagi looked back down at the dead Juri, then up at the live one. To the holy Juri. Then to the happy one.
"I... don't... what?"
With a little sigh -- but a gleeful one -- Juri shuffled forward while rifling through her pockets. "I stand corrected. Let me help."
Juri 2 found what she needed right as she reached Juri 1, and held it out for the last Guardian to identify. It was Usagi's Disguise Pen; the one Rei had batted out of her hand what felt like centuries ago.
"You really have to keep better track of your stuff, airhead."
Bringing it down to her deceased duplicate, Juri tapped her on the scalp and for a moment the tunnel was filled with a flash of light.
When the tunnel returned to normal, there remained only one Juri. Unfortunately. Backing off to let Usagi advance -- and naturally to get a better view -- the very much living Han watched and waited.
Usagi, every fiber of her being screaming in protest, couldn't help but move towards the slumped form in front of her. The body was now no longer mocked up like Han, and her long, black hair had fallen down across her downturned face once freed from the replica of their tormentor's style. Usagi knew who she was. Her real uniform was in tatters, but still recognizable. She didn't have to do this. But at the same time yes, yes she did.
Usagi brushed the hair back, and out stared the vacant, hollow eyes of Rei Hino. Her jaw hung open in death, showing in full detail the blood-filled mouth which could not have spoken a warning even if it had the time. Even though she had passed her face still had a slightly sad expression to it, as if the realization of how she was dying was too great for even the reaper to fully steal.
"So what's that; two, three?" Juri asked. "I think you might actually be beating my score here."
Usagi wrapped her arms around Rei's body, cradling her as delicately as she could, and began to cry. It was not her usual loud, childish wailing, but a quiet flow of tears and sobs. It was the sadness of one who had been through much that they had nothing left to weep with, but still needed to try.
Juri began moving in to put the cherry on top, but stopped in her tracks and looked around as things... changed.
It would not be accurate to say that the world brightened, as that would imply some sort of new light source. It was instead as if some all-powerful being had taken reality and fiddled with the contrast settings. Whites grew whiter, darks shriveled, and shadows were simply overwhelmed and defeated by the lighter tones around them. A beautiful, low chorus of chimes and bells filled what used to be silence like background noise from heaven. Juri didn't understand what was happening until she turned back towards her target and everything fell into place.
Gone was Usagi's frilly little costume; the skirt, the boots, the tiara. She was now clothed in a pure-white royal dress, positively glowing in the intensity of this new world. There was a yellow crescent moon across her forehead, apparently a natural mark instead of makeup or an accessory. But perhaps most striking at all was not so much any change in clothing as her change in spirit. The unsure, fragile Usagi was nowhere to be found; instead this figure positively radiated an odd sort of serene confidence.
Juri recognized parts of this from the "talk" she had with Ami. Certainly enough to realize that she may have just pulled defeat from the jaws of victory.
Juri moved in to try and cut things off, but found her progress blocked. There was some sort of barrier around the two Guardians, and all that Juri's pounding against it did was send sparkling ripples across its translucent surface.
She watched as Usagi brought out her little moon-stick thing, now with the rock seated at the end glowing as bright as a small sun. That must be the Silver Crystal. If Juri couldn't stop her right this second the serene princess was going to wish all of them back, and she was in no shape for a second round.
But there was no way to reach her.
Not physically, at least.
Princess Serenity looked up from her crystal, just now remembering that she was not alone. There, pressed up against the barrier, was the source of all this suffering.
"Go ahead, bring them back!", it shouted. "I'll kill 'em again! As many times as you want!"
Serenity for a moment was lost in deep thought. Then, gently laying aside her dearest friend and rising to her feet, she turned and addressed the broken soul.
"You would, wouldn't you? I don't think you could, but you would try."
The barrier disappeared, and it's unexpected removal caused the one leaning on it to fall forward. She was halfway back up before she noticed the Moon Stick inches away from her face.
"The world has done you wrong, and you did wrong the world right back. Maybe all you need is something from outside of all that."
Juri squinted her one good eye to peer through the blinding glow and get a good view of the oh-so-important crystal. It looked like a cheap Halloween prop to her, but she couldn't argue with the power she felt gathering around it. The light was not actually hurting her -- at least not in the same way that the fire and lightning from her compatriots did -- but as it intensified she could almost feel parts of her soul writhe and thrash.
Juri wasn't sure if what was about to happen could even kill her, and that terrified her more than anything else.
While the broken woman was fixated on the crystal, Princess Serenity herself had her mind on other matters. For one, her friends had finally come out.
Sure, if the woman before her were to look around she would find nothing, but they were not there for her. Ami, Minako, Makoto, Rei... they were all taken, but they had not left. They had remained to help, and in this moment of truth she could see their spirits in full gathered around her.
Serenity adjusted her grip on her Moon Stick, and four transparent hands covered hers to lend their strength.
She was losing it. That was the only explanation. There was no way Juri just heard those.
She definitely heard that one, though. Shit.
Alright. What did she learn about this crystal from the blue one? Super powerful, could blow up an entire planet. They use it to "purify", i.e. destroy, evil energy. But there was a huge fight over not letting evil get it and use it.
Therefore it is not inherently "good". It just has a "destroy evil" setting.
Praying that this last trump card wasn't a joker, Juri also took hold of the Moon Stick.
Zoom in, enhance, explain.
Juri was correct in her assumption that the Silver Crystal could theoretically be used by anyone capable enough to do so, and that it was regarded as a mighty force specifically against evil only because that is how it's traditional wielders utilized its massive power. If a sufficiently competent user had a thing against cows they could probably use it to purge and destroy beef, but that would be significantly less poetic.
Thing is, wresting control away from the rightful owner is a massive undertaking. Far greater forces have tried and utterly, miserably failed.
So she didn't.
Instead, she gave a bit of her own power and then drew back.
It was in the grand scheme of things nothing at all -- a drop in the ocean of the Silver Crystal's reserves -- but what is important here is context. Moments before the Silver Crystal was given the command to purge and destroy taint, a package of certifiably tainted energy was "injected" deep into it. Thus when it scanned for what to destroy, the first target was on the inside.
And as more energy rushed in to attack, it mingled with the tainted supply and became a new target. And all the energy which responded to that energy also became taint which needed destroying
This is how, through the tiniest of modifications at just the right time, the mighty Silver Crystal was convinced to eat itself.
Princess Serenity could see and hear the spirits of her friends around her.
Oh how she wish she couldn't.
Something had gone wrong. Something had gone as badly as it ever possibly could. The staff in her hand shook and jerked as the Silver Crystal pulsed with a now sickening light.
Her friends were screaming. Whatever happened had poisoned the Silver Crystal's energy for their spiritual forms, and the corrosive venom had snaked its way back up and into them.
Ami clutched her head and wailed as she fell to a seated position, trying to keep everything intact and ultimately failing. Her spiritual body was just as useless by itself as a flesh-and blood counterpart would be, and sat there limply as it was slowly consumed. Makoto bent over coughing and gurgling before crumpling to the ground, only spasming occasionally as she finished dissolving away. Minako, seeing what was happening all around her, chose go quick and actively drew more from the crystal; the end result being that she went up and fell apart like she was thrown into the center of the sun. And Rei... well, she hung on. Slumped against Serenity, the last thing to fade away was the literal deathgrip on her shoulder.
No time was given for Serenity to mourn, however. The Silver Crystal, finally reaching it's own breaking point, exploded into light and shrapnel.
When the world finally came back, it did so under the old rules. Well, for the most part.
The chimes and bells were gone, and everything had lost it's divine whiteness. But, in it's own way, the aftermath was even more beautiful. Microscopic particles of the former crystal floated through the air, giving everything a flowing, shimmering sparkle. Larger fragments buried in the walls, ceiling, floor, and even the two women were also still glowing; turning craters and wounds into pinprick stars.
Speaking of the two, they had made it through the explosion relatively unscathed. While they were peppered with fragments, and had the twinkle to show for it, not enough was left intact to really tear through them. But still, it was damaging in far more ways than just physical.
When Juri's already compromised vision cleared up well enough, she saw the princess right where she was before it all blew up. She had fallen to her knees, and the jagged remains of her stick lay in front of her. One could say that Serenity was not mortally wounded; but the flat, thousand yard stare she had would beg to differ.
Juri steadied herself and stood up. Serenity did nothing.
Juri lurched over to her and picked up what remained of her wand. Serenity did nothing.
Juri rounded behind the comatose princess and tilted her head back, presenting her neck. Serenity blankly looked up at her with no sign of comprehension.
As Juri brought the jagged edge of the broken wand up to Serenity's jugular, and prepared herself, the princess finally spoke.
"This was not my choice."
It was a soft voice, robotic in its lack of emotion.
"I should be sleeping in, rushing late to school, chatting with my friends over lunch. I should be getting chewed out by my mom over grades and fighting with my little brother over who gets the remote."
Her expression remained unchanged, but a single tear rolled down her cheek.
"I want my old life back."
Juri stared down at her for a long, long while.
Finally, apparently coming to a conclusion, she leaned down and whispered:
"Join the club."
With a powerful jab and a vicious yank, Juri stabbed what remained of Serenity's Moon Stick deep into the princess' jugular and pulled it across to the other. Pulses of blood flowed down from the crimson crescent below Serenity's jawline, gradually painting her beautiful white dress red. Serenity winced, but did not react besides that. She was already defeated; this was merely a formality.
Juri stared intently into those wide, blank eyes, but even she could not tell when the woman below her actually died. Eventually she just had to back off and let her drop, staring just as unknowingly at the crystalline ceiling.
Juri lurched over to the nearest wall, slid down it, and wrapped her arms around her legs. Watching sparkles dance in the air, she finally let exhaustion claim her and fell into a dreamless sleep.
It was hard to tell how much time had passed when she awoke. In fact, the only way she could tell that any time passed at all was the lack of sparkles in the air and the fact that Serenity's "red" dress had faded to a rustic brown.
The first thing she did was inspect herself in the wall's reflection. She was no longer spattered with glowing wounds, much to her relief. She did not need to look like she just stepped out of a trashy preteen romance. Her eye was also functioning again, as to be expected. It was built with full knowledge that it could be easily knocked offline, and had several reboot and repair protocols to help it eventually bounce back.
But as she stared more deeply into her reflection, she noticed... other things.
She looked down at her forearms, which had been badly cracked and blistered during her scrap with the Mars. They were an angry red, like a bad sunburn, but were unmarred besides that.
She put her full weight on the ankle Jupiter tried her best to break, and felt only a small amount of soreness.
She was okay. Not perfect, but also not crippled and maimed. She couldn't even find any signs of the punctures from those crystal shards.
...Heeey, that was probably it. She was peppered with healing crystal bits and breathing in the same type of dust while she slept. Whatever good juice they had left probably leaked out and patched up what it could before they ran dry.
Juri stopped and thought about that for a second.
Juri stood over what used to be the princess of the moon. She still stared blankly at the ceiling, perfectly still.
Juri began to sing a little tune to herself as she grasped both of the late girl's pigtails in one hand and hoisted her up for a closer inspection.
"Little Bunny Foo Foo..."
Not much had changed, besides what one would expect. The flow had stopped, and the gash was now covered in congealed blood. Clotted, one could even say.
"...Hoppin' through the forest..."
Juri grabbed the front of Serenity's blouse with her free hand and pulled the princess further in. Her gaze was just as blank as before. So blank, in fact, that Juri didn't even notice her die.
"Pickin' up the field mice..."
Juri trailed off and stood in silence with what remained of Serenity. Then, without warning, she puckered her lips and blew a puff of air into the princess' eyes.
"Nice try, kid", Juri said with a smile, and then pulled back on Serenity's pigtails as hard as she could.
Serenity let out a small Guh as her throat gash tore open again under the stress and her neck broke. Her body spasmed as her head hung down her back, and Juri threw her down and forward so that her now legitimate corpse came to rest on her own skull.
"Nice try." Juri repeated, as she turned and left for her next morsel.