It was a dream more vivid than most, filled with the sense of a place; musty and dark, warm and confined. The weight of the earth above was bereft of forgiveness, and had to be so. Not even the amazons – she knew them to be amazons – though noble their intent, were granted quarter in this oppressive chamber; the cost of freedom being too great for mortals to bear.
Two by two, they lined the cavern leading to the gates, and watched without blinking. The smell was more pungent here, almost rank, acrid, like spoiled eggs, enough to turn most stomachs. But the warriors did not flinch. They were resolute, and chiseled like the pillars along the confines of the cave.
Behind the doors stood flame and torment. Its name all but hissed at them through the cracks; ‘Tartarus’ – home of the wretched, plunging as far beneath the ground as Olympus reached high. It was there that the wicked tasted the fruits of their deeds a thousand times over, and from which a few, irrepressible spirits sometimes returned, dragging damnation with them.
After a millenia, one such spirit was on the cusp of freedom. A cosmic sickness called to her, and would not be denied.
The tallest of the amazons, a woman with hair blazing like fire, thumbed the locket of her scabbard. Though doom was set to meet them halfway, she wished at the very least it would be punctual.
At her side was a woman, barely more than a girl – not born of Themyscira, but by heart an amazon – who might have been just as happy to face no trial at all. Artemis stole a glance, however brief, at the golden hair and puffed cheeks more fitting of a priestess or poet than a warrior.
She smirked sideways at the girl. “You’re shaking.”
Cassandra bristled. “Am not.”
“If I’m shaking,” she said, “it’s with excitement.”
And, she didn’t say, a cocktail of adrenaline, anticipation and the million thoughts of damnation pressed in the back of her mind. The moment called for her to be still, to be alert, to react as needed – not to spring at the horrors cooked by her imagination.
“Leave her alone,” said another; a sister, in spirit if not blood.
“I’m only teasing,” said Artemis. “My sword thirsts, and I would slake it before death by boredom.”
The third amazon, whose name was Donna, neither smirked nor grimaced at the remark, though her expression did harden.
“Time enough for that when our duty is served,” she said. “Cassandra, remember your training. Be vigilant, never complacent, but be at peace until called to raise arms.”
Easy for her to say, thought the girl, for Donna was made of the same stuff as another hero of legend. She, like her sister, was raised in a crucible of combat, wisdom, and intellect. Cassandra, on the other hand, was six months shy of senior year in suburban hell. What strange fate it was that she should be here, at the gates of Tarturus.
The dream’s eye shifted down the length of the corridor, past the eight amazons, to a mysterious ninth approaching from the rear. She made no attempt to hide her steps, nor did she falter when the flank guards snapped in her direction. What manner of individual wandered without a care in a place that amazons feared to tread?
“Halt! Identify yourself!”
She paused, but did not emerge into the flickering torchlight.
Artemis scowled. “I’m accustomed to evil emerging from the gates; not entering from above!”
Donna had no such desire for banter. “Who are you, and what do you want? Answer, or by the gods we will run you through!” The caves bore no forgiveness, and by necessity, nor did they.
The clink of glass echoed through the chamber, followed by choking. The amazons redoubled their stance, knowing better than to lower their guard.
Through the bile welling in her throat, the stranger finally addressed them.
“In… a past l-life… my n-name was… H-Hatsuko… Sato…” she said. “That name… d-dies… with m-my hum… humanity!”
On an island of immortals, where gods and amazon oft walked side by side, all were accustomed to the ways of magic in both its horror and majesty; which was why the warriors switched formation, arms at the ready, same as they would when confronting the underworld. They had trained all their lives for such an event.
Flesh twisted and bone snapped, rearranging the remnants of a woman into something bestial with horns, scales, claws, and a mane flowing down to its haunches. Gone was the shape of Hatsuko Sato, whoever she was. In her place was a beast, more rage than reason, whose sickly breath filled the cave.
Artemis twitched. Donna steadied her breathing. Cassandra stole a fleeting moment to let terror run its course, and was then calm. They had come for battle, no matter its form; thus they were prepared.
It was a blessing that the dream’s eye glossed over the combat, along with the blood spilt against the ancient pillars. The monster knelt in front of the gates, lowering her head in reverence as the doors came open.
Burning and rot blew into the room, dominating the senses, followed by a naked figure with tangles of silver hair. Howling and torment clung to her flesh, which she did not appear to notice until shrugging them off. The doors slammed closed behind with finality. A grave sin had transpired, though only one appreciated the fact.
The silver haired woman blinked with a heavy, dour expression.
“Who,” she asked the monster, “are you?”
The beast drew a sharp breath. “I am she who is Lady Chimera,” she said. “I am your servant. I am your slave!”
She furrowed her brow at the creature. “My… slave?”
Lady Chimera prostrated so low her snout pressed the dirt. “All hail Larisa, exile of the amazons! All hail Larisa, guardian of Nibiru! All hail Larisa, the shadow destroyer, Sailor X!”
Realisation washed over her pale eyes. Larisa – that was her name, once, perhaps, before it was scrubbed from her with fire and iron. In the hollows of her chest, something reached for the light, though it was too distant, too far gone.
She fell to her knees, bereft of the will to stand. She was ‘alive’ by technicality, but still somehow lesser than the dead. Her resemblance to humanity ran skin deep.
From the shreds of her clothes the chimera removed a smooth, black stone, deeper than obsidian, that did the opposite of shimmer, whatever that was. She placed it in Larisa’s hands, and folded the woman’s fingers around it. There was only a hint of resistance, too bare for even the most attentive to notice.
Somewhere in the chasm of her spirit she screamed in less than a whisper. What was once now was again. The nightmare repeated, ad infinitum.
Something stirred inside Larisa – something other than the remnants of personhood; something buried, sleeping, seeded in her spirit and waiting for conditions to be right. It was an ugly, alien thing, put there by one who had no right to her heart. Still, it stoked a fire inside that was not her own, and prompted the amazon to her feet.
The weight of the title struck to the beat of a war drum. Destruction was coming like thunder over the mountains. Who was this woman if not death; not just for the amazons, but for all of planet Earth?
Usagi whined under her duvet. Why – why, why, why did she have to wake up when her bed was so soft, so warm, so safe? She resisted for as long as she could, fixing her eyes shut and balling the covers in her fists, but the day would not be kept waiting.
“Wake up, Usagi! It’s time for breakfast!”
A pint-sized cannonball crashed into her stomach, shaking away the peace of slumber. Usagi darted up, threw her sheets over the pink haired child, and roared at the top of her lungs.
“You little brat! You can’t jump on your own bed, so you jump on mine instead?”
Chibi-Usa pulled the bedding free, and frowned at her supposed ‘older sister’.
“You slept in, again,” she declared with royal cadence which, in another time, she was – princess of the Neo Moon Kingdom, one thousand years in the future; daughter of the woman Sailor Moon had yet to become.
In the meantime, however…
“Mama’s already upset about your English scores-”
Usagi boiled. “You don’t get to lecture me as well!”
In a fit she bundled the girl, her pillows and blankets together, and heaved them with slender arms into the hallway. She slammed the door and seethed, still fresh with the shock of waking.
It wasn’t that she hated Chibi-Usa, or even disliked her – but why did she always have to be such a brat?
Usagi wondered, was she like that at her age? No way, she decided; she was mature and reasonable, despite what Mamo and her friends told her. Really, Chibi-Usa could stand to be more like her!
Mama’s voice murmured through the floorboards. “How many times do I have to tell you not to slam the door?”
She deflated. ‘It’s not my fault,’ she wanted to say; ‘Chibi-Usa was being a brat, and-’
Even if she had the chance to plead her case, it would have fallen on deaf ears. After all, her sister was a kid who didn’t know better, and she was an underachiever desperate to catch up.
Usagi snatched a teddy bear into her arms, threw herself against the mattress, and kicked.
“It’s not fair,” she whined. “Not fair! Not fair! Not fair!” She flailed until she could flail no more, til her energy ran down and all she could do was pout.
The little black cat on her desk turned up her nose. “You won’t get very far with that attitude,” she said.
Not every girl gets to have a conversation with a cat – or at least a conversation that went two ways – but for Usagi it happened every other day. Such was being a moon princess, she supposed.
Where would she be without Luna’s guidance and friendship? It was a gift Usagi failed to appreciate more often, though she knew that she should.
This was one of those occasions.
“Luna!” She drew out the name in a long, irritated sob.
Why did everyone always give her a hard time? And so early in the morning, at the crack of – Usagi looked to her clock – seven nineteen! Less than an hour to get to school! No wonder everyone was crabby.
The black cat jumped onto the bed and prodded her with a paw. “Usagi. Are you alright?”
She thought about it, and only then realised that no, she wasn’t alright. Her thoughts were filled with dread and foreboding, heavier than they would be on a normal day. Usagi blinked tears from her eyes, which fell to the bed with a soft thud.
“I had a bad dream,” she said.
Perhaps it was in spite of her feelings that the sun continued to shine. Usagi clutched her schoolbag, allowing gravity to guide her on the declining road to school. How could it be that a day was so warm and pleasant while the hollow in her chest was anything but?
She wandered down the footpath, oblivious to the stream of other students flowing toward campus. It wasn’t until hearing her name that Usagi lifted from her reverie.
For the first time that day, Usagi found reason to smile. Her friends waved from the bottom of the hill, beckoning her come.
There was Naru, Usagi’s best friend for longer than she could remember; Ami, shy and studious, but gentle and sweet in equal measure; Mako, the giantess with a heart to match her stature; and Mina, whose outgoing smile glistened like the stars. Never was there a more welcome sight.
The girls flocked together like birds and greeted each other with delight. Usagi sighed. Their morning ritual, innocuous though it was, meant the world.
Of course, it was not to last.
Ami smiled at her. “How did you do on your English exam, Usagi?”
She needn’t have said anything. Usagi slumped under the weight of the score stamped on her soul. She cried, Mama yelled, and so did Chibi-Usa; Shingo laughed, and Papa shook his head. He wasn’t upset, just ‘very disappointed’.
Naru patted her shoulder. “Come on, Usagi. It couldn’t be that bad, could it?”
The girl whimpered. “Can we change the subject, please?”
Ami flushed and looked away. Maybe she should have known better than to ask.
Poor Ami. Even the mildest misstep caused her to double back. The girl genius was better with facts and figures than she was with people, after all. Not that it made her any less of a friend, for beneath that brain beat as gentle a heart as anyone could dream of – a heart she offered to Usagi in everything from heroism to homework.
Mina, however, never one to be dulled by a mood, threw her blond hair back and beamed. “It’s really no surprise,” she said, matter of factly. “There’s been a rash of bad luck going around. It’s all to do with the mysterious ‘Planet X’ putting the constellations out of alignment.”
Of course Mina knew all about that. The aspiring idol was all over the horoscopes from at least a dozen magazines, covering the Western zodiac, Chinese, as well as blood type. Whether or not she believed it, who could say? Only that it was fun for her to think about.
The girl blinked, and latched onto the change of subject. “‘Planet X’?”
“You’ve not heard of it, Usagi?” Ami asked.
Usagi shook her head.
“Planet X is a rogue planetary body that crosses our solar system every thousand years,” she said. “Sages once ascribed destruction and misfortune to it, though whether that’s any more than legend is hard to say. Some call it ‘Nibiru’, but Usagi, I doubt it has any bearing on your-”
“That’s it!” Usagi stomped resolutely. “It’s not my fault I’m bad at English! It’s that alphabet planet that’s thrown me out of whack!”
Naru groaned, and glared at Mina. “I can’t believe you gave her a scapegoat.”
Mina paid her no attention. Her focus was on their other friend, who in turn appeared distracted. She hooked arms with Mako and gave her a playful nudge.
“Earth to Mako,” she sang. “Are you still with us?”
Perhaps it was out of self-consciousness that Mako’s thoughts were elsewhere. She was, quite literally, a head above her peers. Other students talked, and not always kindly, about the middle school giantess who could level them with judo skill. Though Usagi knew her to be tender and thoughtful, she was not often afforded that benefit.
The tall girl narrowed her gaze. “That man over there…”
Mina looked around her friend to the side street by the school. Under the shade of a white pine tree stood a large, muscular man in a leather jacket with a baseball cap pulled over his eyes. A man like that was more than a little out of place, especially next to a school. Students thought twice about their steps whenever he looked up.
“Who is that?” she asked.
Naru tilted her head. “European, or American?” she wondered.
“American,” said Ami. “He’s wearing a US Air Force bomber jacket.”
Usagi frowned. “What would some weirdo from the US Air Force be doing outside a middle school?”
Mina shrugged. “Maybe he’s a spy.”
“That’s better than what I was thinking,” Naru said.
Mako’s gaze didn’t waver, and neither did Usagi’s. First that weird dream, then Planet X, and now this guy? It had to be more than coincidence.