Copyright 2001, Stefan Gagne
I have a boyfriend.
I have friends who care about me.
But I know it's not going to last.
It's all coming to an end soon. Don't ask me how I know this, I just know this. I feel it in my dreams...
I could say that in my dreams, I'm held down in chains made from the cloth of sailor uniforms. Shadows laugh at me and pull me in, reminding me they'll always be there, in every corner, in every dark place. Waiting for a moment to strike when I'm happiest, when I think it might actually be over. The black heart pendant (it used to be white it used to be pure but then it changed and i became nothing) hanging heavy around my neck, pulling my head down so I can never stand tall. And then one day they'll kill me, when they're done playing with the cute sailor who can never, ever escape them.
I wish I could say that, because that would make sense. It'd have lots of meaningful symbols and things that would be easy to point out as signs of doom. I could be comfortable with that. But when I dream, I don't dream anything that acts like a foretelling. What I dream seems to have no connection to anything at all. And somehow, from these images, I can feel the doom. I can feel forces closing in while the others celebrate the way our enemy has been shoved to his knees and made to pay for everything that's happened to us.
But the enemy isn't dead, and neither are we. He's only hurt, and he's licking his wounds so far away we can't touch him. He'll be back. This isn't going to end until the Yamiko are gone, or we are dead.
My dream was of me walking down the path, going to Seiki's house with joy in my heart. (And I could feel doom. Joy in my heart and doom around me. I hate this, it makes no sense, it makes no) and I was careful not to snag my uniform on any of the bushes outside Seiki's house, because they haven't been trimmed properly since he...
He was sitting on a stool outside his house, working with the canvas. Broad brushstrokes; he always managed to use sweeping lines of color to make shapes without being precise about it. The imprecise strokes somehow added up to a precise image.
"What are you doing out here?" I asked him, walking up. "You should be resting--"
"Just a minute," he said, cutting me off as he dabbed his brush in a blue paint pot. One more stroke... and he was done. He leaned back not to appreciate his own work, but to wave me over from behind the canvas, to see what he had done.
I walked over, and looked... at myself. Standing in a forest, a full orchard in bloom. Pink sakura petals, tiny dabs of paint that I knew were petals in my heart, fluttering on the breeze of a sunny day... and I was dancing in the center, in a beautiful kimono. Laughing and happy.
"I know I should be resting," he answered belatedly, setting his brush down. "But I felt compelled to paint. I can't deny my muse. I can't deny you."
"It's.. it's beautiful," I said, unable to take my eyes off it. "But I don't own a kimono like that... why don't you ever paint me in my uniform?"
"That's not the real you," he said, turning to look in my eyes even if mine were unwavering from the picture. "You're not your role. You're you, and you're beautiful already. Besides, I... I--"
The doom pulses behind my eyes as he bursts into a fresh coughing fit. He didn't want to get my robe dirty, so he turned his head -- and accidentally spattered his own painting with blood. The blood from his lungs.
I had a cloth ready quickly, holding it to his mouth until the fit passed. I wanted to tell him to go lie down. To rest, to save his strength. But I knew that wouldn't really make a difference. Nothing would.
Somehow, he knew what I was thinking, as he looked up at me. He pushed the bloodied cloth away.
"I'm glad I have these last few days with you," he said... a smile, despite the red stained lips. Sad eyes... "We have to live as long as we can live, and be happy."
I wasn't glad to have only a few days. I had to be able to do something. I couldn't accept that things would just end -- even if it was the natural course of things, I knew it was selfish, but I didn't want to let him go, I had to do something. I'd tried so many prayers, so many wards, and nothing had healed him. I wasn't pure enough. That had to be it, I wasn't pure enough to fight his consumption.
That night I started my research and I found a forbidden ritual which, if done correctly, would purify me completely. Then he could be healed and we could be happy. So Aoshi and I could be happy...
I didn't waste any time. I gathered what was needed, and performed the rite immediately.
In the process of pulling out my darkness, the Dark Queen was made.
She looked into my eyes with her coal black sockets, and laughed and laughed, as her darkness swept over Edo, sucking the darkness from it to become the raw material that formed her palace and her mirror world, a world of darkness, the Yami-gaia... pulled into doom, despair, and pain forever...
Then I woke up screaming so loud I made no sound at all.
I was in my bedroom. My plushies in my comfortable cot with me, twisted up in the quilt I had tangled around me. It was dark, but I could see my television, my calendar, my DDR mat. My home.
I didn't feel the need to run to the bathroom for the razor anymore, but the fear was there. Not a fear of myself, but a fear of death from outside. From the Yamiko. If one had burst in to tear me apart right there, I wouldn't have been surprised. Only scared.
But above all, above the fear, above the encroaching doom, I felt a desperate need. A need for Dusty. Dusty was at the animal hospital, and they didn't know if he'd live. I was alone in my room with the fear and nobody would comfort me and nobody could help me, and soon, I would be dead at the hands of monsters.
I used one of my plushies to soak up the tears, so my pillow would be dry and comfortable.
The drops hitting the floor weren't audible over the ambient noise outside. But three drops did fall, as the woman clenched her hands, bracing them against her knees. The pain could be felt. Her pain...
A clank sounded, as the metal sheet that covered the tunnel into this hiding place was moved. She froze in place, tears halting -- and unfroze when she heard the special knock.
Cobalt half-crawled, half-walked into the hidden chamber beneath the ruins of a Yami-gaia echoed building from Tokyo. He carried a flashlight with him, shining it around to check on her.
He ignored greetings, getting right to business. "Any progress?" he asked, as he knelt down in front of her.
"I've... made contact, of a sort," the priestess who was not the Dark Queen replied. "But all I can do is share memory, and even that is difficult. I can't get an original message to her yet, but in a few days--"
"We might not have a few more days," Cobalt replied. "Things are about to get hot in the Yami-gaia. The Queen ordered the world sealed tomorrow. We're going to hole up as she picks out replacement Dark Generals, which means they'll be competing to out-evil each other and win her favor. We're fresh out of humans to torture after Radon's week-long ban, but she's going to get a fresh load this morning to prepare for the 'games'... and I wouldn't doubt a few of them will try to get a leg up by stalking down the quasi-traitor Cobalt. They also might go after you..."
"...enough of them know she likes for me to be hurt," the priestess said, knowing the hard truth. "It's the curse she put on my head, to be trapped in her world for her children to toy with... I've been captured by the roving bands before--"
Cobalt punched a wall, despite the echo of metal sounding from his act of frustration. "Dammit, this is NOT fair! I had them. I HAD them on the ropes! Everything was going so right for Ohta and I. Two generals dead! The girls even annihilated Radon without our help! And now the Queen's going to be cautious instead of arrogant? She's never been reasonable and cautious before. This has got to be Argon's doing; he's the one who actually organizes things. I swear, that guy is SUCH a suckup..."
"You.. you can't fault him for that. He's simply being what he is..."
"And unfortunately... he's our best bet right now," Cobalt said, deflated in defeat. "I'm gonna have to go beg him to lift my lock so I can get to earth. We can't do anything from here."
"I can keep trying," the priestess reminded him. "You don't have to risk that. I might be able to break through and contact Himei--"
"In days, yes. I'm an impatient bastard, however, and I want this taken care of before the Queen's antics begin," Cobalt said. "Definitely keep trying... but I--"
A single metal bolt rattled down the tunnel into the hidden chamber, knocked loose from the rusting metal building's walls. Cobalt whirled towards the source of the sound like a cat, his eyes studying the shadows... he knew shadows. And he knew when they moved on their own, it was not good...
But the shadows stopped moving just as soon as they had started.
"The sooner the better," he said to himself. "This has got to end before it's too late to end it."
I was getting worked up over nothing. We had them on the ropes. We'd killed three of the generals and the fourth was on our side. They couldn't make a move against us.
Of course they could make a move against us. Nothing was really stopping them. The Generals had escaped me every other time we fought them; only when they were manipulated into being in the path of an oncoming train were we able to have a shot at beating them, and even then it came at a high cost. A high cost...
My mind was moving too fast to be able to sleep. I wasn't crying anymore but I couldn't help it, I kept thinking. I couldn't stop thinking about it. All my friends were so happy; we had beaten the worst of the worst, Magnificent Kamen himself. Seiki told me that night he felt happy he could destroy him. It wasn't like killing a person. It was like payback for everything the bastard had done to me.
Seiki wanted to save me. He seemed to feel I still needed to be saved when he's saved me already from myself even if he thinks he's the one who destroyed me. But I was happy. I wasn't going to kill myself. I had not only chosen life, because I chose life before, but I was able to keep a hold onto my life until it was taken from me.
They could take it from me any day now. Before, Sailor Salvation was a nuisance. I was destroying any Yamiko they left on Earth. Maybe I was a potential stumbling block that kept them from executing any larger scale plans, but I still wasn't important enough for them to focus on, to really focus their hate on. Now we had killed off all their top men and they would want revenge. It could come at any time. There wouldn't be any more new friends jumping to the rescue, not with Dusty near death. It would just be us, and we were nothing before that kind of force. It could come at any time.
Thinking about it wasn't going to change anything. Hiding with my face under the quilt like I was doing wouldn't do anything except maybe keep me warm when all I could think of was how cold I felt.
Even if I didn't die anytime soon, I'd eventually be killed. It was an eventuality, since we could never win the war, we could never put an end to it. We'd have to keep on fighting and fighting. Would we really be wearing sailor costumes and fighting monsters as sixty year old women? Fifty or more years of fighting evil monsters. That's an eternity to a young girl. That's your entire life. Everything you'll ever be will be tainted by it, assuming you live long enough to suffer for fifty years.
I won't kill myself. Magnificent Kamen told me I'd be cursed to do this for the rest of my life and I should end my life and find peace and I will not do that. I'm not even tempted to anymore. But if I am killed, maybe, just maybe, I'd find that peace.
I don't want to think that I don't want to think that I DON'T WANT TO DIE
We have to live as long as we can live, and be happy.
I'm very tired. I wish I could sleep.
The Yami-gaia is cloaked in shadow, soot and decay. Gray tumbling buildings that are born to rot, echoes of the world they were spawned from. Monsters lurking in the shadows trying to do something thrilling with their boring lives by tormenting any hapless humans they're tossed, like mice to cats.
The Palace is a jeweled beast rising like an impossible fantasy castle in the middle of the city wreckage. Every part of it bursts with colors -- gold, silver, pearl, sapphire, emerald, and ruby. Lots of ruby. Its hallways are made of crystal and colored marble, a visual feast of rainbow light for the eyes to see, especially if the bloodstains are cleaned off by the palace staff.
The central spire of the Palace holds the royal throne room, true, but it also holds a large room of perfectly polished white ivory. A single set of doors lead into this room. Those doors were pushed open by Dark General Cobalt in an irate manner.
In the center of the large gallery stood a similarly dressed man, albeit taller, slimmer, and more handsome. He was busy drawing a white curtain around a central dais, whispering soft words to whoever was being concealed by the curtain. Ignoring the sobbing...
"This place looks empty," Cobalt commented, as his near-stomp into the gallery halted. "Didn't you have it filled with your 'masterpieces' before?"
"Mmmm, I cleared out most of the older works," Dark General Argon said, tugging the circular curtain shut. "They were boring me, so I disposed of them. We'll be getting fresh material to work with tomorrow and I'll need the room for more projects... although I must confess, I've decided to dabble a bit tonight to pass the time--"
"Actually, I was just making smalltalk. I don't give a rat's ass about your hobbies."
"Yes, I know. I was simply being friendly and returning your banter. I do know the opinions you hold, Cobalt. What I do not know... is why you are here. So, speak your mind, and leave me to my work. I'm not mad, mind you, simply a bit busy in preparation for the Queen's glorious games..."
"That's what I wanted to talk to you about," Cobalt said, switching to lying mode. "You know I'm under the gun here. Radon, may he not rest in peace, slapped down some nasty lies about me... I figure the upcoming fun will be a good way to clear my name. But I need your help."
Argon smiled, summoning a a small ivory table and a pair of delicate chairs. He sat, and poured himself a cup of tea that was not there previously. "Go on," he urged, before sipping.
"I've been spending all my time on that ridiculous city renovation project when I could've been enjoying myself," Cobalt continued. "Enjoying myself and flying the Yamiko colors. You know I think we're a bit stale. Pedantic. Lame. I want to show the Queen I can be something special -- a Yamiko above Yamiko. None of the standard red hot poker and psychosexual torture crap, that's tired. You understand, right? I mean, you're striving every day to be fresh and new in your work. I want to do the same, and get into the Queen's good graces again in the process."
"Sooooo..." Argon chimed musically, setting his empty teacup down. "The mean-spirited little upstart has decided to come around to the true cause. You seek to join the pantheon of devils rather than simply wear our uniform and hairstyle?"
"Bingo," Cobalt said, grinning with the best mean-spirited smile he could muster. "'course, I can't do jack if I can't go to Earth, can I? We need humans to really express what we are. That's where you come in. I need you to lift the ban on me going to Earth."
"Sorry, no," Argon said immediately. "That's the Queen's decision. I am not going to defy her direct orders."
"That's fine, that's fine. My alternate plan is for you to go fetch a few specific humans for me," Cobalt said, shifting to Plan B. "I still have my files. We all have files, don't we? Potential victims we could sink our teeth into. I know of a few cute little girls who would be a TON of fun to play with. If you could grab them for me, unharmed, I could work with them--"
The teacup was crushed to fine powder in Argon's hand. The rest of his body remained calm and at ease, even the light smile he typically wore.
"Cobalt... I thought you understood," he said, voice softer than before, soft enough to send real worry in Cobalt's direction. "I told you, the day the others were angered at your questionable projects. I said I respected you. And here you are, deliberately disrespecting me..."
"Are you kidding? This is ultimate respect. I want to be more like you! You can dig that, yes? So--"
"I find no respect in your lies, young man," Argon said... standing up, flicking his hand to the left -- and sending the tea table and chairs hurtling into the distant wall at great velocity. "You have no intention of being like us. Radon was correct. You conspire to seek our destruction, and now you are trying to trick me into aiding you."
Cobalt took a step back before realizing he was showing visible sign of guilt. "Look, I'm going out of my way here to prove he was screwing me over with that accu--"
"I saw you today," Argon informed him. "I saw you with her. The priestess. The Queen's favorite pet. I heard you discussing your plans with her."
You don't know what you think you thought you saw, Cobalt didn't say. You're mistaken. I have an explanation for that. This is all a big misunderstanding...
No. I'm caught, he thought instead. He knows me and I know him and we both know I'm caught. There's no weaseling out of Argon's grasp.
"That's better," Argon spoke, reading Cobalt's expression... smiling at the young general in return. "I've suspected you for a long time. I had no proof, but I knew you couldn't be one of us. Not in your heart. You've come very far, Cobalt, but your lone rebellion ends now... and the way it's ending, that I am disappointed in. I thought you had respect for me as well, enough to be honest with me. But I still respect you, Cobalt. I respect your burning desires. They differ from mine, true, but I haven't seen one with such a passion for his goals in years... Neon, Xenon, they were nothing. You had the makings of a fine Dark General, but that's all over now, isn't it?"
"...guess so," Cobalt admitted. "Well, that's great. I'm fucked now, huh? The Queen is gonna slap me in irons and drop me into an acid pit or some shit like that? And you'll help her all the way, you bastard... I'm not sure I DO respect you, Argon. You're just like the other stupid monsters, aren't you?"
"I am something else entirely," Argon said, his smile curving upward at both ends. "You'll soon see. But first... you are going to tell me the names of the sailors. The true names. Radon didn't divulge the information, keen on hogging the glory, but you have been in contact with them. You know all of them. Who are they, Cobalt?"
Cobalt crossed his arms, determined not to wuss out, even if he was officially doomed. "Har. No. It's not going to be that easy, Argon. You say you respect my passion? Well, that passion is gonna protect them as long as I can. They're the solution to the problem of you and this entire damn world."
"I could torture you myself, Cobalt. You know that. You'd break eventually and tell me what I want to know. Everybody breaks eventually."
"How kind. I thought you respected me?" Cobalt asked, mocking.
"I do... which is why I know why you'll tell me what I need to know without any of that unpleasantness. Do you know why you're going to tell me?"
And Argon did.
In Japan, four is the number of death. It's a bit like thirteen is to Americans.
404 is the error code for a missing webpage. If you try to access Wazaru High's homepage for me, that's what you'll get. I haven't set one up yet.
I couldn't sleep, so I was reading. Aki had loaned me some shoujo manga. Not magical girls, just girls and boys, and love. I noticed that things were a lot smoother in the manga... oh, there were awkward moments and misunderstandings, little clumsy times and jokes. But I hadn't read yet a story where the handsome boy is cloned, hurts the girl, then there's a suicide attempt and the girl does her best to date the nervous boy and THEN they get along in a clumsy way. Maybe I wasn't going about this the right way with Seiki--
There was a flash of darkness when the clock reached 4:04. The noise of traffic in the distant city silenced. Time seemed to stop even if it really didn't.
I didn't bother finding out what was the cause of this -- I instinctively reached for the black heart pendant I wore around my neck. Sailor Nothing's coldness would embrace me, and even if there wasn't anything lurking in the shadow, it would numb me and I could calm down after my heart had skipped three beats...
But before I could clasp my hand around the transformation pendant, it was jerked off my neck by an invisible force. A red mark swelled where the string snapped against the back of my neck.
The heart flew to Dark General Argon's hand. The white glove closed around the black heart.
"Hello... Sailor Nothing," he greeted.
Death was coming...
It wasn't fair.
It wasn't fair!
I grabbed at my head, and curled up, waiting for whatever horrible death was coming. Unless he was going to steal me away to torture me. It wasn't fair...
"Not now..." I whispered to anybody who was listening. "Not after I've come so close to what I want. I don't want to die now!"
Dark General Argon knelt down in front of me... reaching forward, nudging my chin up, to look in my eyes. "That's a bold statement," he told me, calm as a spring breeze. "I respect that sort of burning desire. You don't want to die. You're certain of this?"
I could run. I couldn't run. This wasn't like Neon, it wasn't like Xenon. He had the drop on me instead of the other way around, and he could stop me just as easily as we stopped them...
I wasn't Sailor Nothing, but I tried to be. I tried to be cold. I didn't want to be afraid even if I was so afraid I couldn't feel my heartbeat.
"You're going to kill me anyway, aren't you?" I asked him. "What I want doesn't matter."
"You are a bit powerless at the moment, that I'll admit," he continued, smiling softly at me, like a father to a child. "Yes, killing you is one option. Killing all of you. I know who your friends are as well, and you can't warn them in time. I think I've managed to illustrate why you could never possibly win this war on your own; we have your number. You're four against an empire completely beyond your reach. If you'd like to die right now and get it over with, I can make it happen. Or... I can give you a fighting chance."
I shouldn't feel hope. He was tricking me. I'd be dead anyway.
"I'm listening," I told him.
"Good, good. I have an art gallery opening tonight," he said, standing again. "It's not much, just one piece. But I've crafted what may be my true masterwork, and I'd like you and your friends to see it... I think you'll find it uniquely interesting. It's something you have all wanted to see for some time, in fact."
"You're inviting me to an art show?"
"Yes... at my studio, in the Yami-gaia. I hope you see the advantage to this invitation," he said. "After all, after you cross the threshold into our world, what you do is entirely up to you. I'm giving you access to the empire beyond your reach, because I respect you. You will never get a second chance at this; your war is a losing cause and you know it. Do you accept?"
Think. Think now. Think fast. I would never get a second chance. There was only one option.
I nodded. And added, "On one condition."
I should have gone right there. I shouldn't have made a detour. This was a mistake...
Maybe it was the sappy manga I was reading. The realist would have done the right thing. But faced with that prospect, my knees got weak. I couldn't do this without seeing him again...
He slept with the television on. He sometimes worried he was too clingy to me because he was afraid of being alone. He wanted to work on that, but had no time to seek therapy. He might not hear the doorbell.
He heard the doorbell and was at the front door before I had a chance to turn and run.
"Himei?" Seiki asked, rubbing sleep from his eyes. "It's four in the morning... what's wrong? Is there something wrong?"
Have strength. If I was going to see him again, I had to be strong enough to follow through.
"I came to say goodbye," I told him.
I had to stand on my toes to kiss him, because he was much taller than me. It was my second kiss. I had kissed him the first time right before going into battle, and I was kissing him now for the same reasons. He had the same look of cute surprise when I opened my eyes this second time, too...
"You don't have to be scared ever again," I told him. "I promise. Goodbye."
Timing was critical. I turned, ran as I grabbed the handlebars of my bike, then swung one leg over and started pedaling as fast as I could.
My feet and heart pounded as I rode the bike hard. It jumped a curb and hit the street; I could outpace him on asphalt. I thought I could. He was a champion runner but I had a cause, I had to get there before he did, so he didn't do anything stupid like follow me.
The path was burned into my mind; I walked it every morning one way, and every afternoon the other. The path to school. Every turn was clear to me even in the darkness of night, even at high speed on my new bike. I rounded corners like an Olympic pro. I leaned into the turns, I weaved through intersections even when the light was red. If I was going to be killed in traffic, that might have been preferable.
The school gate lie ahead, as I slowed my pedaling. A quick look behind me showed no Seiki. I had beat him here.
I dumped the bike on the grass next to the gate, and looked around. Argon said there'd be a portal. Where was it? I had to get in before--
Seiki stepped out of the shadows near the gate in the least threatening way he could, but I still stumbled backwards in surprise. I caught myself on the gate before I could fall down.
"...I know a lot of shortcuts," Seiki explained. "And I can run really quiet when I need to."
"G-Go home, Seiki," I said, all the strength I had gathered for our meeting long since gone. "Just go home..."
"You're going to do something dangerous, aren't you? Something you might not come back from."
"Seiki... I have to do this. I made a deal with him. He'll leave you all alone if I--"
"If you what?"
Seiki didn't say that. Shin said that, as she casually rolled up on her bike. She hopped off, and let it roll to a halt and fall down on top of my own bike. She waggled a cellular phone as if in answer for how she got here.
"Thanks for dropping the dime, Seiki," she said, while my boyfriend looked a bit sheepish. "I told you buying a cellphone would be a smart investment... now. Himei. You're off to fight Dark General Argon, aren't you? Only 'he' who this could be. And here you are leaving your comrades in arms behind? If I didn't know any better I'd guess you wanted to hog the glory, Himei."
"It's not like that!" I replied, looking around quickly. Where was that portal?! "I don't.. if I can help you lead normal lives again, at least as normal as I can, I'd--"
"I can't let you go alone, Himei."
And that would be Aki... I don't know where she came from. But there she was.
"I promised I'd protect you with my life. If you're going to fight, I am too," Aki replied, smiling in a supportive way.
My head hung low, in frustration. "...you're all... you're all being silly. You don't have to do this."
"No... we do," Seiki corrected. "For you. For us."
"I guess Kotashi will be along any minute now, too?"
Shin coughed, and looked away. "Ah... I kinda handcuffed him to my bed. If he wakes up anytime soon, he'll understand why. I need him to stay behind to publish my book if... you know. A cheap trick, but it's a dirty war. If we're lucky, I just get to be chewed out about when we get back. If we're not lucky..."
Maybe Argon was waiting for all of us to gather -- the portal I was looking for opened promptly, a swirling black and purple shadow that floated just in front of the closed gates of the school. Inviting us into Wazaru. Into the Yami-gaia.
"This is your last chance to back out," I warned them... even if it was pointless. "But... you're not going to back out. ...okay. We have one chance to get our lives back. One chance to be happy. And.. I just wanted to say... thank you. I.. I love you all."
There were nods all around, except from Seiki. The look in his eyes was enough. We understood each other.
I grasped the black heart pendant Argon had dropped before leaving, and transformed. The coldness overtook me, but inside that coldness, I could feel a flame. It burned with a desire for victory, not for vanquishing my enemy, but for the life I would be able to have once this was over...
Dusty, protect me.
I walked into the portal.
I had never seen the Yami-gaia. Magnificent Kamen never told me what to expect.
In my dreams, it was dark, scary, and damp with blood. There would be screaming everywhere and you'd only see it for four seconds before something grabbed you from behind and tore you apart. (I had been having more creative dreams lately, and this wasn't a good thing.)
I wasn't expecting it to be so... ordinary. The portal led to a large white room, with a high ceiling and almost nothing else. There were double doors behind us, and a curtained off cylinder ahead of us. And of course, Argon was waiting for us, sitting at a small table and drinking from a teacup as he played with a small spool of a silvery wire for some reason.
Since we had been turning into quite the crack fighting unit, the moment all four of us were in, we took back to back positions so nothing could jump us from any side. I faced down Argon, with Seiki having my back in case anything came through the door...
"So much for your one condition to leave your friends alone, not that I was expecting them to stay out of it," Argon said, setting down his teacup. "I suppose it's better this way. Welcome, my friends! Welcome to my gallery--"
I flexed my fingers, ready with the attack. "NOTHING--"
The 'ness' never sounded, as Argon made a single gesture with his index finger which somehow silenced me for just the right moment. The Dark Generals had strange powers, Magnificent Kamen had told me once. Each had their own bag of magic tricks learned over years of 'living'...
"Please, let's be civil for now," Argon requested. "There's no need for that; we have time for hostility later. We have time for words now. It's very important we talk first. You can stand right there -- you don't have to approach if it makes you feel safe. Agreed?"
Shin glanced sideways to me, frowning. "Traaaaap..." she warned with a mocking little tone. "The devil you know, and all..."
"The devil we don't know," I said. It was true; I had no idea what Argon was up to. My hope was still flickering somewhere in the cold, no matter how stupid it was to have hope... as I turned back to address him. "You said you had something to show us that we'd find interesting?"
The Dark General lifted his cup, and took a final draught from it before willing it away. "Ahh... always my favorite blend, even in days long past. Good to the last drop," he praised, before starting his explanation. "Sailors... you see this war as your own personal war. I know this. It's about your lives, your happiness. Admirable things to protect, but I don't think you appreciate the scope of our goals."
"Your kind want to destroy everything," I told him. "That's a big scope."
"Mmm, yes and no. And you can say it's a big scope all you want, I don't think you have an adequate understanding of what it FEELS like... but you will. The Queen is about to dig in and fortify before her next push. With 'Magnificent Kamen' gone, there will be no more sailors after you. Once you are gone, she is free to proceed. You don't know what that means, do you?"
"Fuckin' obvious, I should say," Shin said, turning slightly from her flanking position to glare at him. "Like Himei said, big nasty monsters take over the earth. We've seen enough movies to--"
"Movies," Argon chewed on, losing his smile for a
moment. "You think you know what it will be like from movies? Here you
fight for your selfish little happiness and you dismiss the rest as a fairy
tale future. Let me SHOW you what it will be like..."
The uniformed monster stepped back, and tugged on a silken rope that was attached to the curtains. They slid apart, to reveal his artwork.
I don't want to describe it, but I will.
It was something like a combination of a music box dancer and a marionette. A ballerina, spinning in place and posing elegantly, but the motions of her body were controlled by taut wires attached to a machine. Beyond that, it got specific...
The machine was made of human bones, fused together and hanging impossibly in the air. They spun and whirled, makeshift gears of human teeth cranking along to tug the wires up and down, repeating endless patterns that made the puppet dance with grace... the metal wires attached to razor hooks, which were embedded in the dancer's flesh at key places. The arms, the legs, even the cheeks spread apart so that the pretty little doll would always smile -- hooks pulling back the makeup-encrusted eyelids to reveal the vacant stare of her complete insanity.
She wore a demented parody of a tutu blended with the latest fashions from key designers in New York City. Her hair was teased beautifully into twin ponytails also attached to the wires to ensure they twirled in time with her dancing. The expensive fabrics were ripped in selective places, to allow hook placement in her nipples, and in her genitals. They tugged viciously as she danced endlessly...
And it was Ami from the Fashion Club.
Her laugher could be heard once she saw us. Tears dripped from the aching sockets down cheeks stained with blood. Whatever was left of Ami in that shell wasn't fully in touch with what was going on anymore, and probably never would be again. Laughing forever inside her head and feeling only painful sorrow...
"A.. Ami... Oh my god..." Aki spoke, afraid to close her eyes or pull them away from the horror of her former best friend's torture... and her reaction was minor compared to Shin's. Shin, who couldn't even bring herself to speak. Who couldn't express anything on her face because she was going into shock...
"I did a bit of research, and it seems I picked a good subject for my masterwork," Argon said, evaluating his art with an appraising eye. "She's a contemptible creature, universally disliked, worshipping surface beauty like none other. Now all she has left is surface beauty..."
He turned to face our group, his smile starting to flicker. Eyes narrowing.
"You never liked this one, am I correct?" he asked. "I bet you even wished something horrible would happen to her. Something horrible has happened to her. Do you feel happy now? Has justice been served? I'd call it a fitting punishment... but it's not. Nobody deserves this, no matter how 'bad' they are. That's what makes the act evil. But I bet you wished this evil upon her, a fellow human being. Didn't you?!"
All the blood ran from Shin's face, as she confessed her sin. "I... I wished..."
Argon's smile was gone... a lot of grave seriousness wiping over his face. "Now you understand. You think in terms of movies where bad guys are punished and everything is well. But it'll never be as cute as that once the Yamiko hold your kind in their fist. Once you four are dead, the entire human race will only exist to suffer. Your kind have written about Hell, but never truly experienced it in the flesh. Now they will. Starting tomorrow, they will suffer as this one suffers. Everybody you hate AND everybody you love will become objects for our ridiculously single-minded desires and lusts. THAT is what you are truly fighting. And if you seek to save yourselves and your entire world from the abyss, you will destroy us NOW, or fail forever!"
The form of Dark General Argon blurred to shadow, and the shadow rushed us at the speed of darkness.
"Scatter!" I screamed, diving to the side to avoid the onslaught.
It wasn't like I could run away from something that fast. My legs pumped for four long strides before the shadow twisted its arc, sliding in front of me. It reformed in an instant, like a jump in the film as Argon stood before me, a handful of razor hooks in one hand, much like the ones embedded into Ami's flesh. I tried to stop, but I had momentum... I would run right into his swiping hand. No power I had would stop that...
Time didn't slow down, even if it felt like it did. I saw Seiki hurl himself in front of me, arms spread wide, trying to deflect the attack. I didn't see his face; he didn't offer me any last smile, no last words...
And then Aki shoved him out of the way from the other side, saving us both from the Yamiko. But not saving herself.
The hooks flashed with impossible speed and strength, a spray of blood and torn fabric clouding the air in front of her as she screamed... and the shadow blurred away again, attack having failed, as it sought a new angle to strike me from.
Aki hit the floor hard, her sailor costume shredded, multiple gouges across her chest like claw marks from a terrible beast welling up with her life's blood.
The void tightened.
Even when I was Sailor Salvation, I had it in me. If pushed too far, the fear would go away. Everything would go away. All I would have is the rage. The desire to kill. Argon had hurt one of my friends. He'd never hurt anyone else for as long as he lived, which I was going to make sure lasted no longer than ten more seconds.
I became a shadow and hunted the shadow.
Somewhere far away, I could feel them gathering around Aki, checking on her. I didn't have time for such luxury. He was fast, but I was faster. I was more determined. I moved at the speed of darkness, fingers flexing, ready to tear into him as I had torn into Yamiko previous.
If time only seemed to slow down before, it definitely slowed down now. I was standing in front of Argon. Neither of us were moving even if we were both moving all over the room, hunting each other.
"Do you feel it?" Argon asked me, smiling in wonder. "I can feel it... you feel that rage, don't you? That's your willpower, given wings by the power of the Yamiko. You fight us with our own powers, given to you by Magnificent Kamen. You can tear me apart with that power if you focus your hate. But against the Queen? Will that cold void you embrace get you what you truly want? What is it you want, Shoutan Himei?"
My eyes were burning from the air buffeting against them in the still wind. My claws made a fist, as I spoke my declaration.
"I want to live!"
Argon slipped out of his casual stance... ready to attack me at last. "Then prove it. Attack me and see what side will live," he said quietly. "We both have things we want. Who will get what they want? One or the other, or..."
Time resumed, and he rushed me. The only thing I could see were his eyes, and his hands coming for me, fingers like hooks and knives, smile like a blade he turned on himself...
I took one swipe with my own hand. It was too wild. He'd block it easily.
He didn't bother to block it. His smile tightened, as my hand passed through him, and we crossed each other on the floor of the gallery. Both stopping, facing away from each other...
He collapsed to the floor, his cape still fluttering a second after his fall as if it hadn't caught up with the rest of him. I turned and quickly moved to his side, rolling him over, not to deliver the final blow because I had already delivered it. Now, I had to know why it worked.
Argon was already starting to fade, parts of his body wriggling away into vague and uncontained shadow. But his smile was still there. "We both have things we want," he repeated, even as he dissolved before my eyes. "And... we both can get what we want. I never wanted to live on as a monster, Himei. I became one, but it wasn't my choice... now, I just want to the peace he was ready to accept. I want all of this to end, for her and for me. Thank you, Himei... when you see her, tell her... tell her Aoshi forgave her..."
The shadows slipped through my fingers, and Argon was gone forever.
Somehow, I felt sorry for him. Despite all he had done...
Shin was anything but sympathetic, as she watched him die. "That's it? He gave up?" she asked. "He fucked over Ami and Aki, and he was planning on giving up all along?! Why the hell didn't he just--"
"Because of what he was," I explained, as I turned to walk over to Aki. "Because he was turned into a monster, and that's what a monster does. That's why we must stop them... Aki? Aki, can you hear me? Please, can--"
Aki's eyelids fluttered, as Seiki held her head in his lap, trying to press his torn-off cape to her wounds. She looked up at me... then at Seiki... and was smiling.
"I protected you," she mumbled to me, looking proud and happy of herself, with a distant gaze of victory. "I wasn't sure if I could do it... if I could give my life to make you happy. I did it. I made a difference, I wasn't useless... now you can be happy, you and Seiki... it's... it's better that way..."
Her eyelids fluttered again, and not in the opening way. Her breathing started to fade... fading like Argon's long, winding death... my head throbbing at the thought. My best friend. My best friend in the whole world dying...
The slap echoed in the empty gallery, and Aki's eyes flew open again.
"Now who watches too many movies?" Shin asked, shaking some life back into her hand. "You'll live through this, Aki. Don't buy into some martyr complex. You're pretty hurt, but this is not going to kill you if we finish this and get you some help soon."
Aki seemed more surprised than anyone. "I'm.. I'm not going to...?"
"No. Sorry. So you stay awake... and Himei, you and Seiki go do what needs to be done," Shin said, taking the bloodstained cloak from Seiki, and cutting it into strips with a pocket knife to tie around Aki properly. "Handle this. Aki can't go with you, and she needs someone to protect her if they find us. I'll stay here with her... and with Ami..."
Once the bandages were tied in place, Shin got to her feet... and switched to the scissors on her pocket knife. She approached Ami, trying to avoid her eyes, as she started clipping the wires holding her up, one by one.
I don't think she knew I could hear her whisper.
"You don't know how much I hate myself for hating you right now," Shin was telling Ami.
When the last wire was cut and Ami's tortured body fell limp into Shin's arms, she turned to face me again. "End this, Himei. And you better give me a FULL fucking report when you get back. My book is not gonna have a crap ending just because I wasn't there to see it. Now go! The sooner you beat the Queen, the sooner we can get these two to a hospital!"
I was ready. I spared a glance at Seiki... who was glancing back at the same time. He had felt fear before. But he knew when it was time to be determined as well as afraid. We turned, and ran for the doors leading out of the gallery hall.
We had no idea where to run to. This was the Dark Queen's palace; the place I had seen in my nightmares. It was a lot brighter and more colorful, but I felt the same fear. How would we ever find the Queen? When we did, how could we defeat her? Was this really a suicide mission?
No. Suicide is giving up. We would fight until we were murdered. The end result was the same, but at least we could fight for what we believed in to the last...
Stop that, I told myself. That's pessimism. I couldn't afford to be demoralized. Even after Aki hung at death's door, even after what he did to Ami, Ami who hated me, Ami who wanted me to be unhappy but I didn't care, I was hurt once and nobody should be hurt like that and the Yamiko would do that to everybody and they had to be stopped and--
Yamiko, five of them. There they were. Of course the palace wouldn't be empty. They looked just like normal people, but weren't normal people. And they were running at us from the opposite end of the long hallway, armed with weapons, bats, crowbars, knives. I let the cold overtake me, the hate. Nothingness would handle one or two of them. Seiki could get another two, if he remembered how to use his attack. Which meant the last one would get us, but no plan was perfect. It was entirely possible to die lost and confused in the palace but I had to--
Three monsters came roaring through a cross hallway, and intercepted the Yamiko. Monsters, because they WERE monsters; mutant figures with the wrong number of limbs and hideous deformations. Super Yamiko...
The Super Yamiko immediately pounced the normal Yamiko, and started to take them apart. The crystal mosaics on the wall turned blood red in no time, as Seiki and I jogged to a halt, not sure what to do next.
"Back the way we came?" Seiki asked. "There were a few doors back there... that'd be better than going through that mess--"
"You PASSED it! You passed it, you morons!"
Ducking around the fray... Dark General Cobalt ran up to meet us. Him, and another woman. She felt so familiar to me...
"Turn around!" Cobalt signaled, waving his hand in a circle. "The hall to your left, back there, and hurry! My Super Yamiko are tearing this world to bits inside and outside the palace, so you'd better act fast!"
The second to last piece of puzzle clicked into place. How Argon got our names. Why he invited us here, and wasn't worried about the palace security...
"You.. You worked with Argon to get us to the Queen--?" I asked, before Cobalt cut me off.
"What part of 'hurry' don't you understand, Himei?" he asked. "Talk later, survive now! MOVE!"
End this, Shin had said. End this. Everybody wanted this over, even the monsters...
Seiki kicked in the doors to the throne room. Both of us were running on pure adrenaline, so the silly entrance was forgivable.
There she was -- the source of all our problems. The Dark Queen. She looked a lot like the woman who was with Cobalt, actually... perhaps the hair was a bit more red, and her robes more royal, as she sat on a throne of stained gold and blood red cushions. But this wasn't a good time to soak in visual details beyond "there were no other Yamiko to stop us." It was a time to attack.
I flexed my hands, took my stance, and pumped everything I had into the single word that gave Sailor Nothing her power...
The void flew from my hands, engulfing the prone Queen. It crushed her, it pulled her into itself and broke her in half. The Queen's body slumped onto the floor, pale and dead. The throne itself fell over and cracked, the royal seat crumpled slightly by the forces.
That was that.
Seiki rubbed his eyes once through his mask, just to make sure he wasn't seeing things. "...that wasn't very hard, was it?" he asked. "There has to be a catch here--"
I was expecting a catch, myself. Sure enough, the Queen's body jerked into the air... but not to life. It folded onto itself much as the throne was... a wad of flesh and fancy clothing, but not hovering unsupported... it was connected. Shadows from the dark tunnel behind the throne were linked to the body...
The shadows pulled it down that dark tunnel, into its bleak and unknown depths. The floor started to rumble, a soundless cry echoing from whatever truly lie inside the depths of the palace...
"I think... I think the real Queen is back there," I explained, adapting on the fly. "The human shaped thing we attacked was just an extension of her..."
"This is about to get real ugly, isn't it?" Seiki asked, feeling his teeth rattle from the vibrations through the floor. "Can we kill something that big..?"
"...Argon said I might not be able to kill her..." I recalled, the doom of my dreams starting to return full force, despite the tiny candle of hope I was somehow still holding. The cold of the void wasn't a comfort anymore. It was just cold, and it seeped into my voice as I laid it down for Seiki. "We're likely to die. I'm sorry..."
I felt a tiny echo of warmth. It wasn't the candle. It was Seiki's lips, pressing to mine... and then it was his gentle smile.
"Okay," he said, accepting it with open arms. "Okay. We'll do what we can. We have to live as long as we can live, and be happy. Let's go."
Just as I had kissed him before rushing into battle, he did the same. He was the first one down that hall, regardless of whatever might lie at the other end...
Maybe it wasn't a candle of hope anymore. The words echoed in my memory. Seiki in my dream had said the same thing...
I rushed in right after him. I would live as long as I could.
The inner core of the palace did not resemble the rest of it. There was no crystal, no brilliant glamour and sparkle. There was only darkness.
I think the chamber was spherical in shape, but it was hard to tell; the Queen herself took up most of the space. Black on black on black, a shadow swirling in the darkness... a figure draped in anti-light in the center. A woman who looked much like the puppet we had crushed, who looked much like the priestess with Cobalt. Her eyes were black with black irises, and they glowed in the darkness, staring at us as we entered the heart of her lair...
The shapeless shape lashed out as us somehow, and there had to be a wall, because I hit it pretty hard. My torn uniform smoked from the spots where the shape touched me; it was like burning ice. We had to destroy her, and destroy her fast before it could attack again...
Seiki was still fumbling with his cane as I poised my hands. It probably wouldn't do anything, but it was worth a shot...
Shadow fed into shadow. The Queen howled... not with pain, but with rage at my action. I was thrown against the wall again, the darkness touching my cheek briefly just below my left eye... and the pain I wish I had inflicted on her, she inflicted on me. I could smell the burning flesh as her ice so briefly brushed against my actual skin. The screams in my ears were mine...
And my vision caught Seiki just as he snapped. He turned into a blur, and rushed the Queen head on, hands outstretched... doing the same thing I did with Argon, the thing I did to all the Yamiko who pushed me too far. Which the Queen had just done.
I joined him, focusing the void, focusing the hate. I passed through the Queen's shadow no matter how much it would burn me -- and this time, it didn't burn. It felt like nothing. I tore through her like a knife through the air...
I felt some sort of pain as I passed through her, but it wasn't mine. It wasn't Seiki's. It was hers. Not pain from my attack. Where was the pain coming from...?
The shadows parted before us, as Seiki and I landed on the other side of the chamber on our feet. I turned... and saw the shapeless mass reform itself, what was two halves becoming one whole again. The Queen's hate built like a tower of flame in her eyes. Her next attempt to destroy us would succeed; she would will it to... and we couldn't stop her.
That was it. I had two attacks; Nothingness, and whatever it was when I couldn't take anymore. I briefly considered trying to access Sailor Salvation, but I doubted any of her tricks would help. It was all Yamiko power.
"Do you feel it?" Argon had asked me, his knowing smile so warm in hindsight.... "I can feel it... you feel that rage, don't you? That's your willpower, given wings by the power of the Yamiko. You fight us with our own powers, given to you by Magnificent Kamen. You can tear me apart with that power if you focus your hate. But against the Queen? Will that cold void you embrace get you what you truly want?"
It wouldn't. The realization felt like a heavy weight on my back.
The Queen had no weakness, and we would pay for daring to challenge her--
"...Aoshi," Dusty had wheezed, his good eye looking up at me in desperation. Trying to talk despite his wounds... "Aoshi. The Queen... and Aoshi... her weakness..."
"...I just want to the peace he was ready to accept," Argon told me, trying to talk despite his wounds. "I want all of this to end, for her and for me. Thank you, Himei... when you see her, tell her... tell her Aoshi forgave her..."
The wish of a dying man, who wanted no comfort for himself. He only wanted comfort for the one he loved...
The weight on my back went away, as I grasped for the only chance I had left.
"He forgave you!" I shouted out loud, as the darkness reached for us again.
...the darkness paused.
"Aoshi!" I called out. "Aoshi forgives you for turning him into Argon! You couldn't help it. You're a monster, and that's what monsters do. But he forgave you! You don't have to do this!"
There was pain, when we passed through her. Not physical pain. It was emotional pain...
The shadows wobbled, and the screams of rage she previously was howling with turned into screams of despair. Darkness lashed out not at us, but at the walls around her... stone crumbling, cracking and shattering. Seiki jumped over to cover me, to keep me from being injured in the Queen's thrashing fit... but she never struck us. A minute after it started, it was over.
I peeked out from under Seiki's arm... and I could see the woman in the darkness. No longer a figure of rage, but of sorrow. She hung limp in the center of the sphere... exhausted.
"...he wanted this to end," I told her, as we both stood again to face her. "Aoshi wanted it to end. Cobalt wants it to end. All of this, this was a mistake, and you know it. It didn't cure Aoshi. All it's done is spread the hurt even more... but he doesn't blame you. You did what you could..."
The woman was no longer black on black. There were dark grays there. Shadows on a real form, fuzzy and indistinct, like a dream that had forgotten it was once human.
Seiki leaned in, to whisper. "Now... now what do we do?"
"We can't use her own power against her," I whispered back. "But Argon told me what I was using was my own willpower, focused through her because I'm a sailor..."
"Magnificent Kamen said the same thing to me," Seiki realized. "He said I had the same will as you. Do you think if we--"
..... ... .. . .. . ... .. .........i'm very tired.
I wasn't the one saying that. I looked up at the one who spoke.
.... . ..i don't want to be this monster anymore, the Queen's mind spoke. i've lost him forever. all i feel is hurt. all i can do is hurt. please... please... . .....
We didn't need her power. We had our own.
On unspoken agreement, Seiki and I transformed back to our normal selves. No longer Sailor Nothing and her Kamen. Just Himei and Seiki. We didn't have to charge at her, to swipe at her, to attack her. All we had to do was step forward, and touch her together, and make it happen...
The void was gone. I didn't need it anymore; that candle was burning brightly. The will to live. I think the Queen understood that. When our hands touched her, we focused our hearts... and set her free.
The darkness of the Queen became ordinary absence of light, her Yamiko form fading away... it was smiling ever so slightly as it passed on.
One moment. One heartbeat to breathe and reflect.
Then everything was sucked inward, in the absence of her presence. The world she had created and all her children were going away with her... and we were at the heart of the vortex.
I felt the void pulled from me... I had a brief glimpse of Sailor Nothing's tattered uniform, the garment she wore as she was hurt and hurt others, fluttering away in the winds. Then, darkness. Comforting and warm, with Seiki never leaving my side...
I landed on soft grass. It was dark, but that's only because it was the time of night just before sunrise. Street lamps were visible. Shadows were softened.
All of us touched down easily just outside the gates of Wazaru High. The portal which took us into the heart of the darkness was no more. I looked around quickly to confirm things -- Seiki, Aki, Shin, Ami. Even Cobalt and the priestess responsible for all of this, both of which were sneaking off quickly now that it was over... why Cobalt survived, I wasn't sure... but we had other matters to attend to.
"...mission complete?" Shin guessed, quickly taking out her cellular phone. She was a bit panicked, but trying to look cool and in control. "Great. Good. Good timing. They were about to bust into the room. This is exactly what I was hoping would happen -- Wazaru is where the Yami-gaia started, like I told you guys. So, with the Queen gone, it all collapsed--"
"Aki?" I asked, moving to her side. The paranormal explanations could wait. "Is Aki...?"
"She's bad. She lost consciousness, but there's still a good chance... 110, emergency?" Shin spoke into her phone... adopting a frightened voice. It wasn't much of a stretch for her. "Wazaru High, I have... I found two of my friends. I think they were attacked, it's awful, please hurry. We're at the gates! Hurry!..."
Seiki put a hand on my shoulder, whispering to not be heard by the phone. "Is it over?" he asked me. "Did you get the life you wanted? Is everything going to be okay now..?"
I only knew one way to check.
I reached into my shirt, and withdrew the heart pendant.
It was a cheap looking trinket on a cheaper looking string. It was leaning more towards being a purple heart-shaped pendant than pink heart-shaped pendant due to a blending error in the plastics at the factory...
More importantly, it was neither the white of Sailor Salvation, nor the black of Sailor Nothing.
I closed my hand tightly on the pendant, feeling something drain out of me. Everything letting go. All the tension, the doom, the sorrow, the horror... everything bleeding away, leaving only me behind. Ordinary me.
A normal girl named Shoutan Himei.
"It's over," I whispered. "It's finally over. ...I'm very tired. I think I'm going to..."
The sirens wailed in the distance, but I didn't care. I slept soundly and safely, resting in Seiki's arms.
The sunlight felt good on her face, as she sat on her cot and watched the clouds outside her window.
She stroked her fingers through Dusty's fur, letting the cat snooze away in her lap. He was content to take little naps like this; she could always read how he felt, even if he didn't talk anymore. Despite his limp, despite his bad eye, he was a happy cat. Perhaps happier now...
Himei should have been reading from her notes, but it was too nice a morning to worry about that. She wanted to enjoy the sunlight just a bit longer. Just until it was time to go...
The sound of sneakers thumping against the sidewalk outside said it was time to go.
She carefully lifted Dusty off her lap, and set him on the cot. He curled up immediately, napping uninterrupted. Himei pulled on her light coat, and slid the door quietly closed behind herself.
The pen tapped irritably on the table. She flicked her wrist around to check the time again. Then she tapped her pen more. Then she tossed her pen down in frustration.
"I should have known better, you know," Shin said, grumbling as she straightened a pile of freshly printed books. "The publishing house is owned by the same media conglomerate that he's employed by. It's a conspiracy. They're trying to keep the Truth suppressed by scheduling my book signings at stupid hours..."
Kotashi had heard this a thousand times, and supplied his ready-made rebuttal as he flipped through an issue of Newsweek. "Mmhmmm. Except your uncle isn't employed by them anymore, Shin."
"It still makes them look bad that he was working for 'em. That's what those corporate running dog lackeys do, they corner you and jerk away your rights in clever and subtle ways," Shin said, picking up a copy of her book and dusting the jacket off... the gold embossed letters of THE NEW EMPERORS shining under the overhead lights of the book store. "At least the book is selling well. Better than 'Mahou Shoujo' sold, even..."
"We could have sold more copies if you took the publisher's advice and filed it under fiction," Kotashi noted. (Then he coughed and turned away from the dirty look Shin cast upon him for using the F-word.) "Anyway, you want to pack it in? We've got to get out of here soon, and--"
The book wasn't slammed down on the table, only set down. The heavy Thump from that light impact spoke instead of how many pages Shin had managed to write about corporate abuse of the legal system in The New Emperors.
Shin turned to the customer, all bright eyed and pleasant. "Hello! Autograph, right? That's what I'm here for..." She flipped the book open, and fetched her pen. "Who should I make it out to.....?"
The girl watched Shin carefully, as she autographed. "Make it out to Emi," she said.
"Right, Em....." Shin paused, looking up. "Emi? Familiar... don't I know you? Did I know you?"
"I was in the Fashion Club, before it broke up two years ago," Emi explained... not sounding cold. Sounding a bit weak, as if she had been wanting to bring this up before but couldn't work up the nerve. "I read your first book... Mahou Shoujo. You said in the introduction that it wasn't fiction... was it all true? Did all of that really happen? The girl who you found in the Dark World... that was Ami, wasn't it?"
"My publisher says I shouldn't confirm any identities," Shin said... "But yes. You could say that was her. It's all true, no matter what the book critics claim. It's not just allegory for the hell of modern high school."
"My.. my life really changed around when I read your book, Shin-san. I hadn't looked at things like that... and it scared me. It really did. And your new one, I already have a copy, um, I bought this one awhile back but is it okay if you sign it anyway? I had no idea that sort of thing was going on in Japan..."
"And another one experiences the enlightenment of the Truth," Shin said with pride, as she finished the autograph. "Listen, Kotashi and I got this thing we need to do... will you be free tonight? I can tell you the stuff His Editorial Highness trimmed from the book because of a silly page limit..."
Emi brightened slightly. "I'd like that. Thank you..."
Kotashi tapped his watch. "Shiiiin..."
"Yes yes, I hear you. See you around, Emi My bold and brilliant future apparently waits for no one, not even me."
Her motorized scooter rounded a corner, as she made proper turn signals and glanced in her rear views. This was much easier to use than a bike; she could get anywhere she needed to, fast... handy when you're late, like she was now...
Aki rolled up to the building, and hopped the curb. She rolled to a careful halt next to the bike rack, and dismounted. The helmet had mussed up her perfect hair (recently styled by a fashion expert, a birthday gift from her significant other) but she had other worries right now...
Two bikes rolled up to join her.
"Aki?" Shin asked, as she hopped off and began setting up her bike lock. (Not that theft was a big issue in the city, but Shin felt paranoia was a survival trait.) "Hey! I haven't seen you in awhile now... how's it going?"
"Stressed," Aki replied. "Stressed, stressed. I've been studying for weeks now, and I still don't think I'm ready for the entrance exams... hello, Kotashi. Have either of you seen Himei lately?"
Kotashi flipped to the second page in his last-minute booklet of test notes. "She and Seiki went on a vacation to America before the tests," he explained. "She just got back yesterday. A bit of a risk, with the college entrance exams right around the corner, but it was either that or Seiki's free tickets would expire..."
"So... she'll be taking this test too?" Aki asked. "That's a relief... I was worried she'd be in the afternoon one. Keiko is going to be there, and you know they don't get along..."
Shin snatched the notes from Kotashi's hands, to study herself. "I don't see what Keiko's so jealous of... you're in love with her, not Himei. I thought you guys had worked through that?"
"We're... having issues," Aki said, head drooping slightly. "It hasn't been easy lately. I'm doing my best, but she gets so paranoid sometimes... it's pretty bad right now for me."
"It could be worse," Kotashi noted.
The three considered how it could be worse. Memories long past, almost of another life...
"We're lucky to be alive at all, aren't we?" Shin said, half in her memory, half in the present. "Everything converged to give us a chance to escape. Everything rolled to a natural end. But it could have gone wrong at any time... I think about that, some nights. About how we might not have the lives we have now. Even if my publisher screws me, even if Kotashi excises my favorite passage because I'm 'ranting', even if you're having relationship problems... we're all lucky. We're very, very lucky compared to others..."
Ami, the unspoken word.
The sound of approaching footsteps broke the dark memory.
"Hello," Himei said, smiling. "It's good to see you all again... are you ready?"
Looks were exchanged around... looks that carried a smile that spread like an infectious happiness. They were lucky. But they were alive, and friends forever, and had a chance at the future they wanted...
Seiki opened the door to the testing facility, and waved the group in.
"Let's do this," he said.
The broom swept away the few leaves that had fallen from the trees. Keeping the walkway clear was crucial. Everything about upkeep of the temple was crucial -- it was purity, a temple that was in good repair.
When she showed on their doorstep, nearly dying of thirst, they took her in. She refused to leave ever since. Penance had to be paid. She had to live up to her previous role, before her mistake...
But she made sure that in the very back of the temple, in a disused corner, there was still a crack in the wall that she had deliberately not repaired and never would repair. A reminder that there was no such thing as total purity. All people have flaws.
The curse of immortal life had been lifted with the death of the Queen, and she'd join Aoshi one day. But not yet. She still had work to do until she felt ready to join him again -- but knowing he forgave her lifted her heart from what could have been a torturous penance. It gave her the wings she needed to live her life in joy and redemption.
The sweeping continued until it was done, and then priestess returned to the temple for her routine prayer.
He ran his hand through the mixture, letting the sloppy gray putty drip loosely between his fingers. If he could whack the guy with his clipboard without risking an assault lawsuit, he would have.
"Okay, what part of 'two hundred pounds of gravel' did you not understand?" Project Director Cobalt asked his underling. "Huh? Was it the two? Maybe the units threw you off. Or maybe you just really wanted to try to pour what amounts of cheap oatmeal into the building foundations so you could recreate the Leaning Tower of Pisa on company time?"
The workman fidgeted. "Uh--"
"You're fired," Cobalt told him. "Go to the office and collect your last paycheck. Honestly, how do they expect me to get the municipal building built on time if they're going to hire the most slack-ass morons that ever walked the face of the Earth?! ARGHH!!... that's it. Lunch break. I need a drink..."
One of his many workers hurried to join him as he tried to make his way out of the construction site and to a local bar. "Sir! Sir, you know your eleven o'clock interview?"
"It's ten," Cobalt reminded him, flashing his watch as he marched towards the exit.
"He's early. He's right over there, do you want me to call him over? Or should I ask him to come back?"
Cobalt glanced up from his angry stomp, to take a gander of the latest moron to apply...
"He's hired," Cobalt said without a second thought. "Get him to work immediately supervising the new cement mixtures."
"Uh... sir? I haven't even given you his resume yet--"
"His name is Ohta, he has a wife and kids to feed, he's the most efficient worker I'll ever meet and I owe him one," Cobalt said. "Now handle it. I could murder a bloody mary about now."
My name is Shoutan Himei. I'm seventeen years old, going on eighteen in two months, and I'm very tired.
I like popular music and I like shoujo anime. I watch a lot of television, but I also read romance novels and I go to see movies with my boyfriend Seiki whenever I have a chance; I'm a bit of a media hound, I guess, but that's normal for a girl my age and my allowance. I cry at the end of really emotional movies, or books, or shows, or whatever; so I make sure I bring hankies with me, just in case. That's normal too.
I'm a perfectly ordinary girl and I have an ordinary life. I fought hard to earn that ordinary life. I faced horrors you will never comprehend. I was hurt in ways few people will ever understand. It was the most miserable time in my life... I still have a small teardrop shaped scar below my right eye, where the Queen touched me. A reminder of what I used to be...
But now it's over, and it'll never come back. I'm free. Free to be Shoutan Himei.
I'm free to go home and sleep after probably failing my college entrance exam, too. But that's okay. I think Seiki failed too.
A little sleep makes everything better.
Thank you. Thank you for following along in my wildest experiment yet, thank you for supporting me. Thank you for reading and thank you for commenting in my journal. I would not be writing this if not for you; I write for an audience, not only for myself. Knowing that audience is behind me is what keeps me going.
I think I achieved what I set out to do with Sailor Nothing -- write a complete original work, experiment with form, and prove that I could return to my roots and not rely on fanfic. That wasn't the only reason I did this, I had plenty of reasons, but that one sticks out to me right now. I'm proud of this and I can't really come up with anything else grand to say.
But now I'd like to fill a time honored tradition of the traveling storyteller, and 'pass the hat' after my performance. What you've read could easily sell in a book store for four to six dollars in paperback or an inflated twenty in hardbound, but I've chosen to release it for free. If you'd like to voluntarily donate money to support my work, don't forget my virtual tip jar on your way out the door. We thank you for your patronizing. Err, patronage.
Stay tuned to the codex. Stay tuned to the journal. More things are afoot; obviously I won't stop writing. It only gets better from here...
August 25, 2001
nothing copyright 2001 stefan gagne
unauthorized use prohibited