Mercury sat on the edge of a little stone arch bridge that spanned an irregular pool, her dangling feet almost touching the water. She watched colourful carp swimming about below her. They had come across this particularly lovely walled garden of fruit trees, flowers and fish ponds. After slaking their thirst at a gurgling fountain, they had decided this was as good a place as any to rest. Jupiter paced back and forth, edgy and impatient, glancing repeatedly at the cave entrances above them. Mars was equally restless, making a production of scouting the perimeter of the little garden. Sailor Moon and Venus seemed content to just sit together on the grass at the edge of the pool.
They had already agreed to when and how they would destroy the crystal, but had danced delicately around the why of it. Mercury well understood why that was. Never before had they been forced to hurt the innocent, not like this. It was the right thing to do, no doubt about that. This place represented a threat to the surface world that could not be allowed to remain standing. Under the direction of a resurrected Beryl, these Clans would be forged into another army of monstrosities.
She could think of many other reasons why this should not hurt so much. The Clans were imprisoned here, utterly dependent upon the Dark Kingdom's unnatural concentration of the Earth's power, with no hope for freedom regardless of what the sailor senshi did. Their lives were a continuous process of Jihad, the ultimate perversion of religion. They worshipped a false goddess, and would go on doing so forever; the only alternative for them was to be told the truth and be shattered by it. They were born and bred to be twisted mystical warriors.
And yet they had been sinned upon. They were innocent. It wasn't their fault.
Mercury glanced over at Sailor Moon and Venus, whose murmured conversation had now lapsed into silence. She could see the same dilemma, the same hurt in their faces. Sailor Moon glanced over at Mercury, and after a moment just smiled sadly and looked away. They're hoping I can find a way out of this, Mercury thought. Why can't I find a better way? I'm letting them down.
"Everybody!" Sailor Mars called from the other side of the bridge. They all turned to look, instantly alert. She had called out clearly, but with no sense of urgency. She was standing faced almost away from them, her head turned back towards them just long enough to know that she had gotten their attention before turning back again to look down the stone path that led to the gate they had entered the garden by.
A small boy was walking towards them. When he saw that they were all looking at him, he stopped, bowed down low, then stood with hands clasped before him, his eyes cast down.
It was Ren.
All the sailor senshi were soon gathered around him. "I don't believe it." Jupiter said. "Ren, what are you doing here?"
"Oh Great Jupiter, I am honoured that you have remembered this humble one's name," Ren said formally, making only brief eye contact with her before looking down again.
"Oh never mind that," Jupiter said as gently as she could manage. "I told you it was dangerous to be around us, why didn't you go hide like I said?"
"Oh Great Jupiter, I..." Ren's formality faded, as he struggled for words. He boldly looked straight at Jupiter, looking so desperate to be understood. "I have seen the truth. They told me that on Judgement Day Queen Beryl and her Warriors would do battle with the great and terrible Sailor Senshi and defeat them. But they lied." He looked over to Sailor Moon. "Victory went to the great Princess of the Moon. This can only mean that Beryl is the unholy one and the Princess of the Moon is the true saviour." He abruptly knelt down, one fist held down on the ground. "Oh Great and Terrible Princess, this humble one has sinned against you by following the false one. Though I am unworthy, I beg your forgiveness and ask that I be allowed to serve you all my days."
"Now wait a minute.." Jupiter began, but a gesture and a stern look from Sailor Moon made her stop. Usagi walked over to Ren and kneeled down. She took his hand, and he looked up at her awestruck. She kissed his cheek, and he seemed to be in rapture.
"Ren, there's nothing to forgive," Sailor Moon said to him. "You didn't do anything wrong. None of you really did. You're right, Beryl is the... the unholy one. She tricked you all, so it wasn't your fault. We're not here to punish you. But there is something we have to do here, Ren. The crystal that lights up this room is a great evil, and we have to destroy it."
Ren's jaw dropped down in utter shock. His goddess had just told him she was about to strike the sun from the sky. "Oh Great Princess.... please, take me with you, let me serve you!"
Sailor Moon shook her head. "I'm sorry, where we are going, you can't follow us."
Ren fought valiantly with his growing fear. "Oh Great Princess... can you, can you tell me what will happen to us?"
Sailor Moon had to take a moment to fight back tears. "Ren, I... I think when this place is gone, you will be going to a much, much nicer place. Can you believe that?"
Ren smiled. "Yes, Great Princess."
* * * * *
The sailor senshi stood in a row, facing towards the great crystal far over their heads. Ren had assured them that the surviving Clansmen were cowering in the furthest caves, no threat to them at all. The grim task at hand would not be interrupted. He stood in front of the senshi, watching them.
At a nod from Sailor Moon, Mars brought her hands together in front of her. She cried out "Fire Soul!" and sent a pillar of flame arcing up to the crystal. The flame spread out and engulfed the crystal, instantly casting the whole cave into a dancing orange-red shadows. It was a strong, steady flame that went on for several seconds, its intent being to deliver heat instead of shock.
When her flame finally flickered out, they waited in silence for a few moments, as the heat of Mars' flame worked its way into the crystal. Far away, they could hear goats bleating in fear, and fowl clucking and honking in alarm. Presently, Sailor Mercury raised her hands over her head and brought forth the Shiny Aqua Illusion. The ice storm splashed across the crystal, and the room seemed suddenly to be underwater, as if the ocean far above had poured in. Even from this far away they could hear the snapping and crackling of the crystal as its complex structure laboured under the strain of the immense temperature gradient that had been forced upon it.
A few seconds later, Venus raised her arm straight up and cried out "Venus Crescent Beam!" Just as the golden beam shot upwards, Jupiter was ready with the Supreme Thunder, which enveloped the beam, lending it further strength. The slanted golden-silver pillar struck the crystal. With a blinding flash and deafening thunderclap, it exploded. A silver cloud spread out in all directions, and a shower of larger crystal shards came raining down on the cave floor. The five senshi took up defensive positions, and the resulting shield deflected the fragments away from them and Ren, sending them to embed themselves into the soil or be shattered against stone paths and walls. For a few seconds, a din worse than any hailstorm assailed them. This was gradually replaced by the barely audible tinkling of the tiniest crystals falling to the ground, as the cloud of silver flakes fell like snow over the garden. The senshi lowered their guard and let the gentle shower come down on them. Mercury caught a few in her hand, they were light and delicate as snowflakes. She looked around her, struck by the unearthly beauty of the garden suddenly plunged into twilight. The trees and grass were covered in these glowing silver flakes, and everything was bathed in the soft silver light of the shards that lay everywhere.
"Ren!" Jupiter suddenly cried out. They all looked at the boy. Sailor Moon gasped. "Oh, No!" Ren was looking down at his hands, which like the rest of his skin seemed to be dissolving into the air, turning into grey-silver mist. He suddenly looked up to them and smiled. His expression was a mix of awe and gratitude. He spread out his arms as if to embrace Heaven, and in a few seconds he was only mist.
The senshi stared at the spot where he had disappeared in stunned silence. Hesitantly, Venus said, "They must.... they must have all..."
"Yes," Mars said firmly. "They must all be gone."
"But gone where?" Sailor Moon asked her.
Mars looked at her and smiled sadly. "Ask me an easy one, why don't you. To some place better. We have to believe that."
They were startled by a sound like an avalanche, and looked up to see the part of the ceiling where the crystal had been embedded cave in. In a sudden panic, Mercury thought the cave was about to collapse on them. But the rest of the cave remained intact, and the shower of rocks that fell down on the centre of the cave floor was suddenly replaced by a huge stream of water. Soon a deafening waterfall fell in a stream shimmering in the silvery glow of the slowly fading crystal shards. It whipped up a cloud of steam that crept up to where the senshi stood. Mercury shivered in the sudden chill, and could smell the salt air. The ocean was reclaiming what had been taken from it by unnatural magic. In a matter of minutes, the cave would be flooded.
Sailor Moon stepped out in front of the other senshi, turned to face them and held out her hands. The din of the waterfall made talking almost impossible, but her intent was clear. Let's go home. Without a word, they formed a circle and joined hands. Within seconds, they were embedded in the soft glow of the gathering magical energy. In a flash, they were gone. Minutes later, the advancing seawater extinguished the last of the glowing shards, and the cave was plunged into eternal darkness.
* * * * *
Ami walked into Rei's room to find Rei and Usagi arguing about whether the water was warm enough to make the tea yet. Makoto, who was at the low table reading a magazine, smiled and waved at Ami. "Seems like you brought more than usual."
Ami sat down on the floor beside the table and put the two boxes of roll sushi down. "I felt inspired today," she said. In fact, she was really not in the mood for the Sunday lunch they had planned, but she was determined not to let that show. Everyone was trying their best to get over what had happened, and Ami wanted so much to help them. She could at least do that right.
It had been a week since they returned from the Dark Kingdom. Ami had of course called Urawa to fill him in on what had happened. His words stuck in her mind. "I wish I had the power to take all your pain away and make it my own instead, only I know you wouldn't give it to me." He was right about her not wanting to share the pain, but was partly wrong about his ability to make it go away.
Ami had hardly heard from her friends other than seeing Usagi at school, until Rei called her to say she was arranging a pot luck lunch for them. They had been rather awkward on the phone. She was beginning to understand why. They were all wondering whether it could ever be the same between them, whether they could be as close as they were before, knowing what they had done. More than anything else, Ami feared losing the friendship that had brought meaning to her life.
The door slid open, and Minako stepped inside. She smiled shyly. "Hi everyone."
Ami regarded Minako sadly as she walked over to sit at the table. Of all of them, she had seemed most visibly affected by what had happened. She had seemed almost in despair when they parted company at the temple after teleporting back there. Even now, her usual vivacity was gone. She was even dressing plainly, usually going out for Sunday lunch would be an excuse to put on one of her shocking pink dresses that you could see coming a mile away.
Usagi brought in the sweet potatoes that had been cooking in the fire outside. "Okay everyone, get 'em while they're hot!"
Rei batted her playfully across the head. "The way you announce yourself, you'd think you had prepared those yourself, lazybones."
"Well, what can I say, I slept in but Rei saved the day by doing it all herself!" She placed them on the table. "Dig in."
They all started eating and talking. When they had just about finished off the batch that Usagi had brought in, Ami noticed that Minako hadn't taken any for herself, she had just been sipping tea. Ami picked up another sweet potato and put it in front of Minako. "Here, don't use your diet as an excuse, we have at least two more courses to get through."
Minako just regarded it expressionlessly. "Down in the caves, those things that Ren was bringing into the kitchen, they looked something like this. I remember wondering how they would taste. I guess I'll never find out. They must all be frozen in seawater now, or maybe dissolved into mist like Ren." She had been talking absently, almost to herself, but suddenly realized that everyone was staring at her. "Oh...! I'm sorry. Me and my big mouth, I'm ruining it for the rest of you."
Makoto put a comforting hand on Minako's arm. "It's okay Minako. There's no use pretending that we all haven't been thinking about it."
Minako tried to put on a brave face. "Still, I'm sorry to bring everyone down, I... I'm just having trouble dealing with it, that's all."
Ami clasped her hands tightly, almost painfully in front of her, fighting her own feeling of guilt. "I almost wish I had never even started looking for the Dark Kingdom."
"Ami, you know you don't mean that," Usagi insisted. "You did what you had to, just like the rest of us."
Ami simply continued to contemplate her clasped hands. "I still can't help feeling that I should have been able to find a better way."
"Ami..." Usagi reached across the table, covering Ami's hands in her own. She looked at each of her friends in turn. "Rei. Minako. Makoto. Everybody, let's make a promise to ourselves. Let's promise that if we ever have to hurt anybody again, if we ever have to hurt the innocent, even if we think we have no choice... that we'll stop and try to find a better way. Just that, nothing more. We'll just try to find another way. Even if we can't find one, if we know that we really tried... won't that be enough?"
Ami looked back at Usagi, and suddenly wanted to leap across the table and give her a big hug. Overcome with emotion, all she could manage was to breathe "Yes."
Makoto put her own hand over Usagi's. "You're right, we can't expect to do any more than that. It's enough for me."
"Me too," Minako said brightly, putting her own hand over Makoto's. The sparkle was back in her eye, as if the spirit of Venus flowed through her veins once again.
Rei smiled, suddenly reminded of why she loved Usagi so much. She gently put her own hand on top Minako's. "Okay, promise."
"Promise!" the others cried out in unison.
"Speaking of promises, I recall mention of a dozen octopus balls that somebody was going to be bringing for us," Makoto said, glancing over at Minako.
Minako suddenly covered her mouth with both hands, her eyes wide. In a tiny voice from behind her hands she mumbled, "... guess ... forgot at home..."
"What!?" Makoto sat bolt upright. "Jeez, did part of your brain miss being teleported back here?"
Minako's hands came up defensively, "Makoto, it's nothing to get upset about..."
"Didn't you ever hear the phrase 'Matters of food run deep'?" Makoto said and unceremoniously launched herself at Minako. They went rolling over and over each other, squealing in mock rage.
"Honestly, those two are getting almost as bad as you," Ami said, looking at Usagi and then at Rei.
Rei beamed at her. "Almost." But right now she just couldn't get mad at anything, even Makoto and Minako over there grappling and turning her carefully piled manga collection into a disaster area. Right now she really felt that no matter what happened, it would all work out. Even the apocalyptic nightmares she had started to have regularly in the past few days seemed like just another case to solve. The visions were more frightening than any she had ever seen, a raging holocaust that devoured her friends and her world while she pleaded with an unmoved and uncaring saviour to help them. But in time the visions would yield their secrets, and the sailor senshi would be ready. She got up and pulled a protesting Usagi to her feet. "Come on, let's see if we can't pry those two apart before they trash my room."
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