Sailor Mercury's first thought when she opened her eyes was thank goodness there's plenty of light. As they had rehearsed, the sailor senshi immediately let go their hands and turned around, facing outwards from their circle. Ami took in her surroundings. She was facing what she knew to be the south side of the cave. The illumination was coming from blue-green phosphorescence emanating from moss growing on the walls and ceiling, in occasional small pools of liquid in low spots in the smooth but irregular stone floor and from within translucent crystals embedded in the ground near the walls. It was dim, but sufficient to clearly show the outline of the cave, a rough circle about forty meters across with small tunnels piercing the walls in three places.
Mercury wasn't sure which came as more of a relief, the fact that the cave's size and shape were more or less the way she had predicted or the fact that they were alone in the cave.
Mars, Venus and Jupiter each crept towards the tunnel entrance closest to them. Meanwhile, Mercury prepared to pinpoint the energy source. She reached up and touched her tiara, and the transparent blue visor materialized over her eyes. She flipped open her computer and started scanning. When she was done, she looked up to see Sailor Moon watching her anxiously. Unconsciously speaking very softly, she said "It's not very distinct, so I still can't say for sure which cave it's in. But it's definitely that way." She pointed to the tunnel Sailor Venus was now standing in front of, alternately looking down the tunnel and back at them. Sailor Moon waved to Jupiter and Mars, and pointed to where Venus stood. They all made their way over there.
As they approached, Mars and Jupiter both shook their heads, indicating they had seen and heard nothing. Without a word, Mercury took the lead and entered the tunnel, the others close on her heels. She walked slowly, splitting her attention between the tunnel ahead and the nebulous energy readings flashing across her visor. This was as far as rehearsal could take them, from here on they were winging it.
Like the cave, the tunnel had the same smooth but irregular floor that suggested centuries of wear. The walls and ceiling formed a very rough stone arch over their heads that made it look like a natural cavern, but like the perfectly round cave behind them it's relatively straight course suggested an artificial source. The glowing crystals low in the walls were also just regular enough to have been put there deliberately.
A few minutes later, Mercury was relieved to see the tunnel open up ahead more or less where she had expected. She slowed down even more, then crouched down and hugged the right wall as they approached the entrance to the next cave. The other sailor senshi did likewise.
As more of the cave became visible, Sailor Mercury's heart sank. She had been secretly harbouring a hope, however slim, that they were approaching a naturally occurring or abandoned source of magical energy, and would find the caves long since abandoned. But it was becoming more and more obvious that they were approaching a well maintained larder. Crouching at the entrance, Mercury looked about. It was another roundish cave, about ten meters across. The furniture was an odd assortment of stone tables and stools, and shelves of wicker and what looked for all the world like petrified bamboo. All sorts of odd fruits and vegetables were piled on the shelves. What looked like strips of dried meat was hung on racks along one wall. There were also an assortment of large clay urns, mostly lined against the walls.
"Nobody home," Sailor Mars murmured. Mercury nodded. She stood up and they entered the room. There was only one other entrance, almost directly across, another open tunnel entrance much like the one they just left.
"I guess we lucked out and came in the back way," Jupiter said. "No guards, no nothing."
"We still have at least a couple of more caves to go through," Mercury cautioned.
Sailor Moon picked one of the fruits off a shelf and sniffed at it. "This smells kind of like a pear. Where could they grow them down here?"
"Don't eat that! It could be poison to us!" Mars hissed.
"I wasn't going to!" Sailor Moon said in a huff, replacing the fruit. "Say, what if the next room is a big dining hall or something and there are hundreds of them having dinner?" she asked nervously.
"Only one way to find out," Venus said. She walked to the far entrance.
"Wait, let me scan it first," Mercury said. She headed towards where Venus was, then stopped dead when Venus abruptly put up her hand to stop them. They all froze for a few seconds. Then Jupiter, who was almost as close to the entrance as Venus, turned back to the rest of them and briskly waved them back. Someone's coming. She and Venus crept to either side of the entrance with their backs to the wall, while the others frantically hid behind whatever was handy. Now they could all hear footsteps from the tunnel, coming closer.
A strange boy came into the room. He had sickly grey skin and a mop of tangled black hair. He wore a simple tunic of rough brown fabric like burlap, tied at the waist with a cord. He was carrying a basket of what may have been potatoes. His bare feet slapping on the stone broke the silence. Peeking from behind a large urn, Mercury absently thought he must be cold. His rather homely, big-nosed face bore the grim resignation that spoke of some harsh taskmaster goading him to greater efforts. He put the basket down on a table, picked up a small knife and started cleaning it, no doubt preparing to peel the vegetables.
He had not turned around, so he had not noticed Venus and Jupiter still frozen against the wall behind him. But there was no way the others spread across the room could leave without him knowing.
Jupiter waited long enough to convince herself that the boy was probably alone, then made her move. In one bound, she was on him. Her momentum threw him against the table and his breath was knocked out of him with little more than a grunt. She threw him down on his back and was on him again, one hand over his mouth the other on his shoulder.
Venus stayed where she was against the wall, alternately peering anxiously around the corner down the tunnel and looking back at where Jupiter had the boy pinned down. The other senshi emerged from their hiding places and converged on Jupiter and the boy.
Jupiter was panting from her effort and from the released tension. She quickly caught her breath and said to the boy in a low voice, "I won't hurt you but you have to promise not to make any noise, okay?"
The boy was offering no resistance, but even firmly pinned down he was shaking uncontrollably. He looked back at Sailor Jupiter with what looked like real terror. He caught sight of the other three sailor senshi as they approached, and impossibly seemed to become even more horrified. His breathing became irregular, and his eyes now saucer like darted wildly between the four of them.
"Is he going into a seizure or something?" Mars asked, worried.
Sailor Mercury knelt down next to him. "No, I think he's really that terrified. Jupiter..."
Sailor Jupiter nodded. She released him, and stood over him, still watching him warily. But all he did was meekly raise his arms up a bit, protectively, still shaking. If anything, her standing over him like that seemed to terrify him all the more.
Sailor Moon kneeled down at his other side. "Poor kid. Jupiter, did you really need to be so rough?"
"I didn't really hurt him," Jupiter insisted.
"We must look like monsters to him," Ami suggested. But there was something more to this, she thought to herself. She leaned forward and smiled. "I'm sorry we hurt you. What's your name?"
The boy looked at her, and with what seemed like great effort he got his breathing under control and worked up the courage to speak. "Oh... Oh Great Mercury, I am called Ren."
The sailor senshi all regarded him with surprise. I knew it, Mercury thought. He recognized us. He knows who we are.
"How do you know us?" Sailor Moon asked, more to herself than to him. Very slowly and carefully, as if mortally afraid of showing offense or appearing as a threat, the boy rose up off his back and assumed a kneeling position, bowing formally towards Sailor Moon. "Oh great and terrible Princess of the Moon, even the lowest subjects of our kingdom are taught to know and fear the Sailor Senshi."
"Fine, whatever," Jupiter said impatiently. "So what now? We've got to keep moving, but what do we do with him?"
"That cave behind us looked unused," Mars suggested. "If we take him far enough back that way and leave him tied, he probably won't be found until after we're gone."
"That would take time," Jupiter said.
"It's probably easiest to just take him with us," Sailor Moon suggested. "If we can make it to the energy source without being spotted by anyone else, we can let him go. If we're attacked, I don't think he'll be a threat to us."
Jupiter looked sceptical. "Well, I don't like it, but I guess you're right." She crouched down beside where the boy knelt, still bowing toward Usagi. "Okay Ren, listen up. We're here to get something done, but there are people here who don't like us and will probably attack us on sight. We're going to try to avoid them, and if we can do that we'll just let you go when we're done. If we're attacked, it will be very dangerous for you, so you just run and hide somewhere and we'll go on without you. Until then, you just stick close to me and don't make any noise. Okay?" Ren straightened his back and nodded, eyes still cast down. He slowly got to his feet and stood shivering, his shoulders hunched, his hands clasped before him.
Mercury regarded him sadly. Whatever could they have taught him about us that makes him fear us so, she wondered.
They all walked over to the tunnel entrance where Venus was waiting, and continued on their way, Mercury in the lead again and Jupiter taking up the rear with Ren in tow. Jupiter was afraid he would slow them down or expose them somehow, but their pace was checked by their desire for stealth, and he continued to meekly plod along beside her.
As they walked, in low voices, Sailor Moon and Sailor Mars told Venus what little Ren had said. "He might know how we can avoid running into other people," Venus suggested.
"I wouldn't want to trust anything he tells us," Mars said flatly.
Ahead, Mercury could see that the tunnel widened ahead. She was worried since it seemed too soon for them to have reached the next cave, but as they walked it appeared that this slightly wider and higher tunnel simply continued on without becoming a cave as such. There were large niches carved into the walls at regular intervals here, and as they approached it became clear that each contained a life-sized stone statue, each on a low, wide dias.
They came up to the first pair of statues. On the left was a tall, slender woman in an elegant long gown that went down to her feet and spread out to flow over the surface of the dias. Her arms were spread out as if to embrace them. Her mouth was open in a devilish grin, and here eyes stared wildly. Upon her forehead had been carved a large star, whose points reached down between her eyes, to her temples and up to her short curly hair. On the right was another tall, willowy woman with longer hair and in a simple knee-length tunic, who grinned and looked out at them with slitted, lupin eyes. She held a long sceptre with a deadly looking blade on top of it.
Mercury stopped and regarded one, then the other. The others came up behind her. "What's wrong?" Venus asked her.
Mercury pointed to the one on the right. "That one looks familiar."
"That one too," Sailor Moon said, pointing to the one on the left. She suddenly gasped. "I know! It looks... something like the first demon I ever fought. Naru's mother was possessed by a demon dressed like this, with that same star on her forehead, but... then she was withered, ugly!"
Mercury turned back to the other statue. "Sailor Moon, I think the two of us fought this one too. The one who could manipulate time and our sense of time."
Sailor Moon looked at the other statue. "You're right. But she was different too. She didn't look as horrible as that first one, but here she's almost beautiful."
"Ren, what is this place?" Jupiter asked casually.
Startled at suddenly having been addressed by his captors, Ren managed to keep his composure. With averted eyes, he said, "Oh Great Jupiter, this is called the Hall of Heroes."
Mercury walked closer to him. "Ren, do you know who this is?" She pointed to the statue on the left.
Ren glanced at the statue, then looked down again. "Oh Great Mercury, that is Morga, who long ago took upon herself the spirits of her clan and ascended to serve the great Queen Beryl."
Mercury shivered, suddenly uneasy. "Ren, what do you mean taken the spirits of her clan?"
Before he could answer, Mars said, "Mercury, do we really have time for this?"
"It might help us understand what's happening here." Mercury insisted.
"How much do we need to understand?" Jupiter asked. "We know where the energy source is, right?"
"I'd like to hear this too," Sailor Moon said.
Jupiter shrugged. "Fine, just try to keep it short."
Ren glanced briefly at Mercury, apparently to confirm that she was once again awaiting an answer. He hesitated, as if unsure how to answer. He seemed to suddenly draw resolve from somewhere, and incredibly worked up the courage to look Sailor Mercury in the eye. "Oh Great Mercury, the clans live only to serve the great Queen Beryl. The clans draw strength from the light at the top of the Earth."
"You mean the light in the garden?" Mercury asked. He might mean that odd light they saw illuminating the plants in Rei's vision, she thought. It may be the energy source.
"Yes, Oh Great Mercury. The clans train long and hard to become warriors who can take the energy into them and use it. Each year, the great Queen Beryl will send her servants to us and they will call forth the greatest warrior from each clan. On occasion, one will be found worthy. That clan will rejoice greatly, for their warrior will absorb their spirits and ascend to serve our Queen forever."
Mercury was astonished at how the frightened young boy had so suddenly turned into a well spoken young man, still no doubt frightened but heroically trying to bear himself with dignity. "Have you ever seen one of the heroes ascend?" Mercury asked.
Amazingly, the boy smiled with pride. "Yes, Oh Great Mercury, I am old enough to have seen a hero ascend. Three years ago, Faraya of clan Rothim was chosen to ascend. My clan had many blood relations with clan Rothim, so I was allowed the honour of attending the ceremony. It was glorious, Great Mercury! The servant of Beryl called the clan before him, and with a word we could see their spirits fly from their bodies and join with Faraya. She glowed with the power of their spirits! With another word of power, the servant of Beryl bore her through the gates to Queen Beryl's palace."
"What happened to the rest of the clan?" Venus asked in a way that suggested she wasn't expecting to like the answer she got.
Ren looked at her as if he did not understand the question, then realization came across his face. "Oh Great Venus, the empty vessels that were the bodies of clan Rothim dissolved before our eyes, and became smoke."
Venus drew in her breath, looked over at Mercury. "Oh, Ami!"
Mercury nodded. They both realized the same thing. Every demon they had defeated had been built with the lives of a whole family of these people. This was the breeding ground for the Dark Kingdom's spirit warriors. "We should go," Mercury said, suddenly regretting having stopped here.
They slowly walked down the hall. Among the statues they recognized many of the other demons the Dark Kingdom had sent against them. But they could only be identified by having a few distinct features in common. Either these severe figures of dark nobility were hopeless idealizations, or the ludicrously flamboyant demons that the sailor senshi had faced on the surface had been fashioned as parodies of their original form. Ami tended to believe the latter: Queen Beryl's despite could easily have moved her to shape her demons into travesties that mocked their own forms. If only these people knew how contemptuously Beryl and her generals had thrown away the lives of their revered heroes, she thought.
She was concentrating more on the energy readings of her visor and the implications of Ren's words than on the road ahead, so by the time she spotted the two men far down the tunnel one of them was already pointing her out to his companion.
Suddenly in panic, Mercury stopped dead. A moment later she realized this was a mistake. The two men, no doubt realizing they had been spotted, exchanged brief words and turned to run back down the tunnel.
"We've been spotted!" Mercury shouted. She touched her temple to withdraw her visor and broke into a run. She heard Mars cursing behind her and what sounded like Jupiter telling Ren to get back to his kitchen. The others followed behind Mercury at a dead run, none questioning her move. She thought furiously as she ran. If they could catch and overpower these two before they warned anyone else maybe they could still avoid a fight. That would still leave Ren, who could very well be running to warn his people even now. They might still do it if they hurried the rest of the way.
Though the two men were also running hard, the senshi were rapidly gaining on them. One of the men broke his stride to glance back. She could now see that he was very much an adult counterpart of Ren, a stocky man with tousled black hair and grey skin wearing a simple tunic and going barefoot. He shouted something incoherent to his companion, who was now several paces ahead. He then came to an abrupt stop, spun around, and assumed a defensive stance. The sailor senshi would be upon him in seconds.
The safest course would have been to stop and take him out with the Shiny Aqua Illusion, but that would delay them enough to put the lead man out of their reach. She ran on, intending to knock him down with a flying kick. When she was still several meters away he suddenly shouted and thrust his hand out in front of him. His hand seemed to shimmer as if it came at her from under water. Something invisible slammed into her chest and she went sprawling. She fell helplessly on the ground in front of the man, shocked less by the pain than by the fact that she hadn't even considered the possibility of his being telekinitic.
"Venus Crescent Beam!" The ray of brilliant golden light shot over where Mercury lay on the floor and drilled straight through the man's abdomen. The result was spectacular. Blue-white incandescent fire exploded from his body and raced up his head, arms and legs all in an instant. Then he was gone. Venus blinked, staring in disbelief. There was nothing left but the after-image in her eyes.
Sailor Mars, having been running right beside Venus, helped Mercury sit up against the tunnel wall, and the others gathered around. Wincing with pain, Mercury spoke with shallow breaths. "Okay soon... Just wind knocked out... wasn't watching... my fault... sorry..."
"It's okay," Sailor Moon said, putting a comforting hand on Mercury's shoulder, though the glance they exchanged showed they both knew full well it was not okay. Now they were very unlikely to avoid a serious fight.
Venus was still staring down the tunnel where the man disappeared. "They can't be just regular humans, the way he... disappeared like that," she said, as if struggling to understand what happened.
"They may have been human long ago, but it's like they've been shaped by strange magic," Mercury said, sounding much better than moments ago. She found that much of her pain had been shock from the unexpected attack and stress pain from her anxiety over having blundered their sneak attack, and was quickly fading. She looked down the tunnel, where an irregular little pile of grey ash marked the spot of the man's demise. "They don't have the concentration of power we saw in the demons they sent to the surface, that's why they're harder to detect on my visor. His attack really wasn't that strong, if I'd been on my guard I could have blocked it easily."
"I don't sense a strong aura in them either," Mars said. "I didn't get any warning of those two at all. And the way that one... collapsed, they can't have very strong defense against our attacks."
"But there's no telling how many of them there are," Jupiter reminded her. "And those two may not have been their strongest."
"What if there are a lot of them around the energy source?" Venus asked. "We'll probably have to combine our powers to destroy it, but we can't do that as long as they're attacking us!"
Mercury looked over to Sailor Moon, who was still kneeling beside her. She could sense Usagi's anxiety, the same sick fear Mercury had been feeling, fear that her mistakes were putting her friends in danger. She hated to burden Usagi further, but they needed to make a decision. "Do we go on, or leave now?"
"They'll only be stronger when we come back," Sailor Moon said. "We should go on. As fast as we can."
Mercury got up, having almost fully recovered. "I'm ready."
They continued down the corridor, running not at the same breakneck speed as before but at a pace they could easily maintain. By unspoken agreement they now took up a defensive formation, with Mars and Mercury running side by side in front, and Venus and Jupiter taking up the rear. Shortly, they came upon a spot where the tunnel branched left and right, more or less where they had expected it basis the map they had memorized. They paused just long enough for Mercury to confirm that the energy source was on the right, then continued down that tunnel.
They had not encountered another soul. But they would soon be approaching one of the largest caves.
"There it is!" Mars said, and moments later the rest of the senshi could also see where the tunnel opened up ahead. It was clearly visible, since the cave beyond seemed somewhat brighter than the tunnel. Also clearly visible was a figure silhouetted in the opening. It appeared to be gesticulating wildly. As they drew nearer, they could see it was a man facing away from them. He was standing on what looked like a ledge that extended a little ways beyond the tunnel entrance. He was shouting something.
Either he had been checking the tunnel periodically or he heard the footfalls of the approaching sailor senshi, for when they were a few meters from him he suddenly looked back towards them. It was the other man they had encountered, more than likely. He froze for an instant, his face in a rictus of fear and shock. He turned back again, and they heard him shriek "They're here!" Sailor Jupiter cursed, and the senshi stepped up their pace. The man stepped over the edge and ran down what was apparently a stairway below it not yet visible to them. As they followed him into the cave, a multitude of other voices, many raised in alarm, could be heard.
The sailor senshi stopped dead on the ledge just inside the cave, and took in the astonishing sight before them.
The almost perfectly circular cave had been fashioned into an amphitheatre. The nearer half of the bowl-shaped stone floor below them had been carved into benches, concentric semicircles descending down to a circular stage at the bottom. They had emerged near the right hand side of these benches. The ledge they were on curved around to their left, going all the way around to the other side of the cave, the wall punctuated along the way by two more tunnel entrances. The further half of the bowl floor off to their right was utterly different, an unassailable jumble of rocks, fissures and stalagmites. Beyond it, against the wall on their right almost level with them, was the altar that dominated the room. A large statue of Queen Beryl stood on an immense smooth stone dais. The front face of the dais was pierced by a large circular gate, apparently sealed by a featureless door of black obsidian. Arrayed against the wall on each side of it were smaller statues of her four generals, all with swords upraised. On all sides, not far above their heads the walls gave way to a great dome encrusted with glowing crystals of all colours.
This they all had to absorb in an instant, for of more Immediate concern was the hundreds of people gathered below them.
Clearly a gathering of some sort had been interrupted. The people were spread out along the lower benches, though most of them were now standing and facing the man running down the stairs and the sailor senshi above him. Many of them now cried out and pointed to where the sailor senshi had appeared. There were men, women and children, all dressed in naught but a short rough tunic and rope belt. They were all of the same sickly grey pallor. On the stage were several men, all in long black robes, looking just as shocked and bewildered as the rest.
When the man had descended close to the crowd he spun around and pointed back up the stairs. "There, what did I tell you?" he shrieked. "We are assailed by the unholy ones!"
The tone of the crowd was swiftly changing from alarm to anger and hatred. No doubt finely attuned to the mood of his mob, one of the men on stage seized the moment. He drew himself up and with a clear voice that carried throughout the room he shouted, "The final conflict is upon us! Do not flinch! Destroy the unholy ones!"
The result was utter pandemonium, as people in the crowd reacted in a dozen different ways. Many simply began clambering up the stone benches towards the sailor senshi, some with grim determination, others howling with battle lust, others simply following their one source of courage, the mob. Many, mostly women, were getting in their way by carrying or dragging terrified children in the opposite direction, fighting to reach the stairways that truncated the stone benches and led to the other two exits. Many stood paralyzed, seemingly agonizing over whether to choose fight or flight.
One of the black robed men on the stage, an old man with long white hair and beard, raised his arms out before him and a stream of orange-red flame shot from his fingertips, heading straight for the sailor senshi. Either he misjudged the distance or only intended his attack to help galvanize his flock, for the flame had mostly dissipated by the time it reached its target. The five senshi, standing in a row and on their guard, projected a magical barrier that deflected the harmless flame easily.
Harmless or no, Jupiter reacted to the attack instinctively. Her arms shot up before her, her tiara crackled with energy, and she called forth the Supreme Thunder. A writhing tangle of lightning shot across the room, and the old man and two of his comrades were consumed by the same white incandescent flame that had incinerated the man in the tunnel earlier. The other men on the stage fell to the ground screaming, their skin, hair and robes charred and smoking.
A few among the crowd seemed to possess almost supernatural nimbleness, bounding up the benches as easily as if they were stairs, crossing the distance to the ledge in seconds. But the senshi were ready for them. Almost simultaneously, Fire Soul, Venus Crescent Beam and Shiny Aqua Illusion shot out into the running attackers left, right, and centre. They mostly went down in an instant, either incinerated with fire, or frozen and shattered into a million ice crystals, or hit by the golden beam and flashing out of existence. A few here and there seemed to have the ability and the presence of mind to stop and put up some sort of defense. But even these staggered under the attacks and fell dazed to the floor.
For Sailor Mercury, what came after this was a jumble of horrific images and a cacophony of screams. As each new wave of attackers climbed towards her, she called forth another ice storm to sweep them away. Most had no defense, and were shattered by being flash frozen colder than deep space. The few who could put up a defense mostly lay shivering and convulsing on the ground, covered in white frost, their very breath now clouds of ice. And still they came, and still they wouldn't stop! She was vaguely aware of a group of men on the ledge to their left advancing slowly in a tight wedge formation, the man in the lead holding a glowing stave before him and chanting. A roiling, incandescent ball lightning suddenly shot in front of her, arced back in towards the ledge, and the Sparkling Wide Pressure slammed into the formation and sent them to oblivion. A woman with great bat-wings and talons for fingers swooped at them from above, apparently having just shape changed. The shimmering golden rings of Mars' Burning Mandala sailed out at her, and she was gone. A few of those in front of them, having deflected the attacks and now recovered, tried to leap up and grapple with the senshi, but Venus called forth her golden chain and sent it arcing left and right, a shimmering buzz-saw that sliced through them, incinerating them.
Mercury suddenly fell to one knee, arms shaking, breathing in gasps, head swimming, her strength utterly spent. Everything went quiet, and she thought she was passing out. But when her dizzy spell passed, the silence remained. She blinked hard to clear her swimming vision, and looked up again.
The attack had ended as quickly as it had begun. The survivors, who seemed pathetically few, were utterly routed, running or limping or crawling away, many leading injured comrades. Through a haze of mist and smoke, they could see people converging on the other two exits. In moments, they would be gone. Other than those injured who simply could not move, the few left behind were mostly down on their knees, either wailing or sobbing or babbling or simply dazed. Some of it sounded like desperate prayer.
Sailor Moon came and knelt beside Mercury. Her tiara was held absently in her hand, no doubt having just been used. She looked as dazed as many of the people scattered below them. In silence they both looked out over the devastation they had wrought.
Mars, Venus and Jupiter were still standing, scanning the room for new threats. They were all breathing in gasps and shaking almost as badly as Mercury. Every nerve in their bodies was screaming at having been made the conduit for such an extravagant outpouring of energy. Gradually it dawned on them that the battle was over.
"Ami, I..." Sailor Moon choked, swallowed and continued in a hoarse voice. "I'm not sure if I can go on."
Mercury turned to look at her. "Are you hurt?"
She shook her head, still staring out into the room. "They're not demons, they're people. How could we have done this?"
Ami had no idea what she could say.
"We shouldn't have come," Sailor Moon continued. "I was wrong, we shouldn't have come."
Mars came up behind Sailor Moon, bent over and put her hands on her friend's shoulders. "Usagi... don't." She pointed over Sailor Moon's shoulder down at the benches below. "Look, and you'll understand."
A stout, bearded middle aged man lay just two benches below them, motionless except for shallow, convulsive breathing. It looked as if he had just missed being frozen solid. Ami, also looking, suddenly understood what was about to happen. The man's fight for life ended, he breathed his last, and his eyes closed. Almost immediately, he was engulfed in grey mist, and there was a gentle hissing as his very flesh seemed to sublimate right into the atmosphere. In seconds there was only the mist, which rose a little ways and dissipated.
"They're held together by magic," Mars said. "When their life ends, the spell is broken. Beryl, or somebody even older than her, must have turned people into these magic-spawned creatures long ago. They live and breathe, but they aren't human."
Sailor Moon shook her head. "What difference does it make?" she said in a hoarse whisper.
"They were created by and for the Dark Kingdom," Mars said gently. "When it is gone, they will be gone too. It can't be helped." She bowed down and closed her eyes. "I'm sorry."
Jupiter and Venus had also gathered around. They were silent for a moment. Presently, Sailor Jupiter said "We should get going. There may be more of them on the way."
Ami shook her head, unable to imagine the survivors of this holocaust being any threat to them. But Jupiter was right, there could be others. However soundly they had defeated this group, the senshi were in no condition for another fight. She stood up and offered a hand to Sailor Moon, who took it and also stood. Without another word, they made their way along the ledge.
They came to the first exit. A couple of steps below them, an old woman knelt on the staircase, facing away from them. She was bowing repeatedly towards Beryl's statue. As they approached, they could hear her softly sobbing "Queen Beryl, why have you forsaken us?" with each breath.
Ami gazed at the statue. The obsidian gate below it must have been a portal to Beryl's palace, she thought. Before the sailor senshi had destroyed her stronghold and everything in it. She touched her tiara and her visor materialized. The portal was dead. The energy source seemed much more diffuse now, as if it spanned a wide area and they were now much closer. It was far to the left of the statues, so Mercury led them to the next and last exit. Nobody challenged them, and the tunnel was deserted as far as they could see, so they entered.
The tunnel was much the same as the one they had entered the amphitheatre by. Ami told herself that she set a rapid pace in order to reach their goal quickly and avoid another confrontation. But in fact she was anxious to put as much distance as possible between herself and the scene of those horrors. They continued in silence at a brisk walk.
The tunnel branched again, and they went right. The energy readings were becoming so overwhelming that Mercury withdrew her visor. It was pretty much irrelevant at this point. Down this corridor should be a small cave and then a very large one. The energy source had to be in the latter.
Presently they came upon the entrance to the first cave. Mercury was concerned to see that it seemed to be much darker than any of the caves they had seen yet. Mars and Jupiter, also noticing this, had advanced to either side of her. They all approached cautiously, all too aware that they would be perfect targets for anyone waiting in the darkened room.
The three of them walked into the room, then stopped. Sailor Moon and Sailor Venus, still in the corridor, were surprised to see them relax their guard and look in astonishment from one corner of the room to the other. The two of them came up behind their friends, and soon their eyes adjusted to the gloom. Venus looked to one corner and gasped. "It's..."
"Us." Jupiter completed for her.
Indeed, at each corner of the square room was a life size statue of one of Serenity's four guardians. Each was atop a massive pedestal that went above the girls' heads. The top of each dais must have been covered with the ubiquitous glowing crystals, for each statue was underlit by an eerie greenish glow that provided the room's only illumination. The pretty sailor senshi were depicted with uncanny realism, yet they looked more frightening than any gargoyle. Mars' face was twisted into a berserker rage, her arms thrust forward as if to strangle the life out of all comers. Venus seemed to laugh with maniacal glee as she pointed down to them, eager to unleash her power. Jupiter seemed ready to foam at the mouth, consumed with blind, animal hatred, her arms raised over her head and her hands curled into claws, ready to rain destruction upon them. Mercury, perhaps most ominously, simply radiated cold malevolence, as if dealing out deadly ice storms with her casually outstretched hand came as easily and naturally to her as breathing.
As their eyes adjusted further, they could see that the walls were all carved in bas-relief. They depicted apocalyptic scenes of destruction, with people running madly as they were assailed by flood, fire, storm and meteor swarm, the myriad stylized carved faces twisted in fear and pain.
"Look!" They all turned to Sailor Moon, who was staring up and pointing to the ceiling. They followed her gaze, and gasped in unison. Barely visible in the gloom, they could see that an image of Queen Serenity had been carved into the middle of the ceiling. She seemed to be floating in space, her unnaturally long gown and hair floating all about her. Eyes closed, her face was a picture of stoic calm, as if utterly oblivious to the holocaust going on around her.
"What is this?" Venus finally asked, to nobody in particular.
"The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse," Mercury said absently. "That's how they picture us."
Jupiter shook her head in disbelief. "This is in between that garden- their energy source -and their... church. They must have passed through here every day."
"To remind themselves who they were fighting." Mars suggested.
Sailor Moon was looking at one of the horrific wall carvings. "No wonder they were so terrified. They must have really thought it was the end of the world."
"It was." They all looked to see Sailor Mercury gazing sadly at her own statue. "It's the end of their world."
"I hate this place," Venus said in a shrill voice, suddenly shivering. She was already near the far exit to the room, looking impatient. "Let's get out of here."
Sailor Mercury walked over to her, which Venus took as a cue to turn around and continue down the tunnel. The others followed wordlessly. Mercury came up beside Venus, and glanced at her as they walked. Minako was putting on a brave face, but it was easy to see how upset she was. Ami thought she understood what Minako was feeling; it was about finally truly seeing her own image through her enemies' eyes, about knowing what those people felt as the Sailor Senshi shattered their world. She wanted to comfort Minako somehow, but had no idea what she could say. Almost unconsciously, she took Venus' hand. Sailor Venus simply squeezed Mercury's had briefly in acknowledgement, and they continued on hand in hand. The other senshi walked very closely together, as if they too were trying to derive some comfort from each others' presence.
In just a few minutes, they could see the tunnel opening up into the next cave. Far from being another dark shrine, it was already clear that this cave was bathed in light.
"I smell flowers," Venus said.
"Like a greenhouse," Mars said. "It must be that garden in the vision."
They warily hugged the walls of the tunnel as they came to the entrance. Mercury stopped and shaded her eyes, letting her eyes become accustomed. It was in fact no brighter than a day with light cloud cover, but after the relative gloom of the tunnels it was dazzling. Mercury looked from one end of the cave to the other, watching for movement, but very soon she was simply taking in the breathtaking beauty of the place. The round cave was at least twice as big as the amphitheatre they had left, with a rough domed ceiling and a shallow bowl shaped floor. Spread out below them was a wondrous garden. Hedges of various sorts split up the cave into little groves of fruit trees, vegetable gardens, and fields of what looked something like corn. There were even small pens where goats with flamboyantly curved horns grazed, and others where some unearthly, brightly feathered fowl pecked about. It was clearly a functional garden, but pains had been taken to make it look as natural as the confined space would allow. Splashes of colour here and there showed that flowers were also grown here. There were pools of water here and there, and in the nearest one Mercury was sure she could see fish swimming about just under the surface.
At the apex of the dome was a huge glowing crystal that bathed the cave in its unnatural light. It was just bright enough to make it uncomfortable to look directly at it. Mercury could feel only a bare hint of warmth as she moved into the light. Yet inexplicably she felt as if she were standing under a tropical sun, as if this globe far outshone the temperate sun of her homeland.
Other than the animals, the cave appeared to be deserted. They emerged out onto a stone path that led down among the gardens.
"Mars, what's wrong?" Mercury suddenly heard Sailor Moon say behind her. Alarmed, she spun around to see Sailor Mars staring up at the glowing crystal with a look of overwhelming anxiety. Sailor Moon was beside her, holding on to her as if afraid she was about to collapse.
Sailor Mars shook her head in disbelief, and looked down to the ground, blinking. "Such power... it's incredible. It's like tapping into the psychic energy flow of the planet itself, focusing it on that one point. The light, that's just a small part, it's..." she looked up at Sailor Moon. "It's feeding life energy right into everything here, not just the plants." She suddenly put her hands to her temples and closed her eyes. "I can feel it. Like I'm a flower, drawing life from the sun. But it's... twisting everything." She opened her eyes and looked around her. The other senshi were gathered around, their faces all pictures of confusion and worry, but she was looking beyond them. "They're all infused with magic, it's what keeps them alive. If we were to stay here, maybe for a few days, or a few weeks, we would start to look like them." She pointed vaguely back the way they had come. "They eat what's in here not for physical nourishment, but for its concentrated magical energy."
"Mars, take it easy," Sailor Jupiter said, placing a hand on her shoulder. "Why has it got you so spooked?"
Mars looked at her. "I sense a presence, like the crystal is not just a blind energy conduit, like it has a consciousness."
Sailor Moon suddenly stepped away from Mars, and glanced briefly up at the crystal. "I thought it was just my nerves but... that presence, I feel it too. It's familiar. It's like... Beryl," she said, as if the last word almost stuck in her throat.
The other senshi all gasped. "You mean... she's in there?" Venus said, pointing up at the crystal.
"I don't know. I don't think so. It's more like, I don't know, an aftertaste, like that crystal once housed her soul, or still holds part of it, or..." she shook her head, at a loss for words.
"Or could hold it again," Mars completed for her.
"Beryl, or somebody before her, may have put some of their own living magic into the crystal when they made it so long ago," Mercury said. "It's such an incredible concentration of life energy, my visor was completely overloaded even before we came into the cave. In time it could be enough to..." she suddenly trailed off, realizing what she was about to say.
"To resurrect Beryl all by itself," Sailor Moon said. Mercury didn't respond, but it was clear to everybody that Usagi had hit the mark. There was no use in Mercury denying it.
"We have to destroy it," Jupiter said, breaking the silence. They all nodded in solemn agreement.
"Should we do it now?" Venus asked hesitantly.
"No." Sailor Moon said, and they all turned to her. "We need a little while to rebuild our strength after that fight. We don't know what effect destroying the crystal might have on this place, we might have to teleport out of here quickly. I don't know if we're strong enough to do that yet."
"I don't like just sitting here," Jupiter said sceptically. "We routed them, but that doesn't mean they can't rally and come after us again."
"Let's at least move away from the entrance, so that we can't be taken by surprise," Mars suggested.
Sailor Moon nodded. "Okay, but we shouldn't be right under the crystal either." She pointed off to their left, where a branch in the stone path snaked off between the various pens, gardens and little groves. "Let's find a place somewhere over there to rest."
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