After a quick shower and a good drying off with fluffy terrycloth towels, Hotaru put on the pink skirt, red turtleneck, and knee-high striped socks Sweetie Belle had provided for her. Wearing another girl's panties was a new and embarrassing experience for her, but under the present circumstances, there wasn't much choice. "Thank you," Hotaru said as she sat down in one of the armchairs in the room. "Umm...for everything. You saved me at the pool, right?"
Sweetie Belle smiled. "I'm just glad I remembered how to do CPR," she said. "Are you okay? Do the clothes fit alright?"
"I'm fine," Hotaru said. "Just...a little confused."
There was a knock on the door. "Room service!"
"Coming!" Sweetie Belle called. She rushed over to the door and unlocked it; Hotaru blinked as a gangly man in his twenties with flannel grey skin and cobalt blue hair brought a tray into the room and set it on the table. On the tray were a large carafe, two mugs, a bowl of little round marshmallows, a handful of wrapped chocolate mints, and a plate of warm gingerbread cookies.
"Very confused," Hotaru whispered to herself as she stared at the grey-skinned bellhop.
"Anything else I can get for you girls?" the bellhop asked.
"No thank you, we're good," Sweetie Belle said. The bellhop tipped his hat and left; Sweetie Belle locked the door behind him and sat down at the table. Hotaru got up shakily and crossed over to the table, taking the seat opposite her. Sweetie Belle poured a cup of cocoa for Hotaru and added some marshmallows and a chocolate mint; Hotaru accepted it gratefully and took a sip.
"Mmm," Hotaru said.
As Sweetie Belle prepared her own cocoa, she asked, "So, umm...how'd you end up in the pool like that? I mean, that was...a little freaky."
"I have no idea," Hotaru said. She frowned. "Last thing I remember was lying down for a nap. I used to be sick a lot...anemia, a weak constitution. I'm not as frail as I used to be, but I still get fatigued easily if I'm not careful. I was tired, I decided to take a nap before doing my homework, and..." She sighed and sipped her cocoa. "Next thing I knew, I was drowning."
"You brought your homework to the hotel with you?"
"Hotel? N-no, I was at...I was at home," Hotaru said, shaking her head. "Actually, how did I end up at this hotel?" She glanced at Sweetie Belle. "Anou...what hotel is this again? And where?"
"The Manefair Hotel, in Manehattan," Sweetie Belle said.
Hotaru frowned. "I'm...sorry, did you say Manehattan?"
"Don't you mean Manhattan?"
Sweetie Belle frowned. "No, it's Manehattan. Trust me."
"Huh," Hotaru said, blinking.
"I've been waiting my whole life to come here," Sweetie Belle said as she added more marshmallows to her cocoa. "School let out for a while because of some trouble back home in Canterlot, and my big sister's right in the middle of it all, so Mom and Dad decided it'd be a good time to take a vacation." She frowned. "I hope Rarity's alright. I mean, I know she can take care of herself and her friends are looking out for her and all, but things are a real mess back home."
"How so?" Hotaru asked curiously.
"Hmm..." Sweetie Belle pulled out her phone, opened her web browser, and searched through some articles, then handed the phone to Hotaru. After reading for a few minutes, Hotaru gasped.
"Masaka...! But that's..."
"I know, it's pretty weird, right?"
Hotaru shook her head. "None of this makes any sense..." She stood up and began pacing.
"Uhh...Hotaru? Are you alright?"
"No, no I'm not," Hotaru said, shaking her head. "Do you mind if I, umm...if I share your room? At least for tonight? I have a lot of thinking to do."
"Of course," Sweetie Belle said. "Umm...there's only one bed in this room, though." She ducked her head. "I mean, I don't mind sharing, but..."
Hotaru blushed. "I...I don't mind sharing either. I mean, we're both girls, right?"
* * * * *
Arlong sat on the Dazzlings' sofa, eyes narrowed and sharp as he intently watched the television mounted on the wall. "I can't believe something like this exists," Arlong said. "Where I come from, if you want to know what's happening in the world, you either talk to someone over a Dendenmushi or you wait for the newspaper to make it to your ship or island." He gestured at the screen, which displayed an aerial view of roving packs of shiny, maggot-like white monsters in the streets of a city. "And you say this is happening even now, as we sit here?"
"Yeah, it's a live news feed," Aria said, frowning. "Looks like things are way crazier up in Canterlot than they are down here."
On the screen, two monsters exploded violently as an armored man sliced through them with an orange sword. Another was hauled off its feet with a long, sticky strand of what looked like spider webbing by a small figure in a black costume. Two other small figures—one dressed in black leather, the other a girl in a skintight red outfit—darted to and fro, delivering precision strikes that knocked the white creatures down.
//Superheroes such as these have begun appearing all over the city,// the reporter said. //The invading monsters are being hunted down by what seem to be unconnected packs of heroes, many of which arrived in Canterlot in almost the same way as these monsters. As of now, we have no official word on what exactly is happening, but for your own safety, all citizens are encouraged to stay in your homes, lock your doors, and keep the telephone lines clear. The emergency services need to be able to receive emergency calls—//
Adagio changed the channel, then leaned back and sighed. "Okay, so the world's more or less gone to hell," she said with a yawn. "As far as I'm concerned, these worthless humans are getting what they deserve."
"I don't know-geso," Ikamusume said. "I'm getting a strange feeling about these monster bugs-geso. Like..." She shuddered. "The same feeling I get when a killer whale gets too close to my home."
"Killer whale? You mean those things everybody likes to watch do tricks at the sea park until suddenly one rapes its trainer in front of a crowd of kiddies?" Sonata asked.
"Ugh, thanks for that mental image, you ditz," Aria groaned.
"You're welcome!" Sonata said cheerfully.
"They can't be that dangerous if mere humans are dispatching them in droves," Arlong said dismissively.
* * * * *
"Don't go for knockdown hits!" Gaim called to Ladybug as she yanked another Inves to the ground. "Take them out!"
"But...!" Ladybug protested.
"Hey, back off! We're heroes, not...not killers!" Chat Noir said hotly as he landed beside Ladybug and slammed his baton over the Inves' head as it struggled to stand.
"These things aren't human!" Gaim said as he cleaved another Inves in half. "They're monsters without conscience! They only exist to eat and destroy! They can't be reasoned with! There's nothing you can do with them but this!" He cut down another Inves; four more surrounded him. He stowed his weapons and pulled out a grape Lock Seed. He removed the orange Lock Seed from his Sengoku Driver and swapped it for the grape Lock Seed.
RYU! HOU! HA HA HA!
Gaim's orange-themed armor was replaced by ornate grape-themed armor with a dragon-masked helm; he crossed his arms before his chest, and a pair of pistols appeared in his hands. Each pistol had detailing resembling a bunch of grapes on the sides, a pull hammer resembling grape leaves, and a six-barreled muzzle. Letting out a battle cry, he opened fire on the Inves with both guns, the barrels spinning and roaring as they unleashed deadly blast after deadly blast. The Inves screamed as they sparked, smoked, and exploded under Gaim's barrage.
Ladybug's yo-yo fell limp. "I don't know if I can do this, minou," she said. "This isn't the kind of fight I..."
Chat Noir wrapped his arms around her soothingly. "I know," he said.
In the wake of Gaim's ballistic onslaught, a brief lull ensued. Kim Possible landed next to them, a frown on her face. "You two don't have much experience with battles to the death, do you?"
"Not where we're expected to kill, no," Chat Noir said.
Kim grimaced. "Me neither," she admitted. "I know sometimes it's necessary, but I've only ever actually fought with the intent to kill once in my life."
"She damn near did, too," Shego said from the French duo's other side. "It took me a week to recover from that beating." She frowned. "Still, sometimes you run into things like this and you've only got one option. If you can't hack the hard fight, maybe you'd better stick to crowd control. Keep innocents out of the way."
Ladybug sighed. "Yeah..." Her eyes shone with unshed tears. "I just...I think I'm in a little over my head here. For the first time since I became Ladybug, I don't know if I'm up to..."
"Shh," Chat Noir said. "It's okay, Bugaboo. I'm here. I'll keep you safe, no matter what it takes." He looked around, his leather tail lashing slowly. "Seems like it's over."
"For now," Gaim said as he removed the Lock Seed from his Driver. His armor and Ride Wear vanished, leaving behind Kazuraba Kouta. He stood in front of Ladybug, his face solemn. "Gomen," he said. "I've been doing this for so long now I've forgotten what it's like. I..." He frowned. "I still hesitate when I'm fighting another Rider or...or an Inves that used to be human."
Chat Noir's eyes turned sharp. "Used to be human?"
Kouta grimaced. "Inves are born from any lifeform that eats the dark fruit of Helheim. The Inves we've been fighting today used to be ordinary animals. I've seen what happens when a human eats the fruit. It's..." He squeezed his eyes shut and shuddered. "It's worse than you can imagine."
Ladybug whimpered. "You mean...all those things you just killed, they were...they were helpless animals?"
"Were," Kouta emphasized. "Once they ate the fruit, they became Inves." His eyes softened. "Believe me when I say that killing them is the kindest thing you can do for them."
Trunks landed softly nearby. "I think we got them all," he said. "I'm going to patrol the city, but I wanted to show you something first." He held up a plastic bag containing an odd-looking fruit. Its outer covering was thick and shaggy, a dark red that progressed to a muted purple-black near the bottom, where the covering tapered. Inside this hairy, leathery shell sat what looked like a translucent peach. At the top of the fruit was a gnarled golden-brown loop of vine.
"Wow, that looks tasty," Kim said, licking her lips.
"Yeah," Shego agreed.
Ladybug and Chat Noir stared at them, then at the fruit. "Seriously?" Ladybug asked. "It looks...diseased."
"It's a Helheim fruit," Kouta said sourly. "Without some form of protection from its pull, most people are compelled to eat it."
"Gross," Ladybug opined.
Chat Noir stroked his chin. "Our Miraculous must be protecting us."
Trunks frowned. "I felt the compulsion too, but I sensed a dark aura around this fruit. I had to go Super Saiyajin to completely break its pull on me."
Kouta took it from him, holding it by the corner of the sample bag. "Where'd you find it?"
"There are clusters of these fruits growing all over town. Mostly in out of the way places; I wouldn't have even noticed them if the Inves weren't fighting each other over them."
"Aa," Kouta said, nodding. "Yes, these fruits are their main food source. They also make Inves stronger." His face hardened. "We need to destroy any of these fruits that are growing here."
Trunks nodded. "I remember where they were, and I can sense the aura of any more that turn up. I'll take care of it." He flew off.
Kouta opened the sample bag and took out the fruit inside; it began to glow, then transformed into a Lock Seed with a flat black-and-white picture of a sunflower seed on the front, stamped L.S.-00.
Kim shook her head, blinked, and stared. "Whoa," she said.
"Don't see that every day," Shego commented.
Kouta frowned. "Well, this one's useless," he said, tossing it on the ground. He glanced at Chat Noir. "Can that stick of yours destroy it?"
"Let's find out," Chat Noir said, stepping away from Ladybug. The others gave him space as he spun his baton over his head, then struck with full force. The Lock Seed cracked in half, showering sparks and smoke as its face blackened and dented.
Kouta nodded grimly. "Good."
"So wait, these fruits turn into those lock thingies you use to transform?" Kim asked.
"If picked by someone wearing a Sengoku Driver, yes," Kouta said. "I'm actually surprised that one changed at all. It had already been picked." He sighed. "I'm tired...we should go someplace safe and rest up."
"Yeah, sounds like a good idea," Kim agreed. She glanced at Ladybug. "You gonna be okay?"
Ladybug nodded. "I think so."
* * * * *
Rodimus Prime had left early in the afternoon to run an errand of his own that neither Enzan nor Blues completely understood. Enzan had taken the opportunity to explore the forest near the river for more fruits, berries, or nuts he could stock up on. Blues had accompanied him as his protector, of course, remaining silent but vigilant.
After a few hours of searching, Enzan happened upon a small group of unusual vines which bore reddish-purple fruits with shaggy, leathery, unhealthy-looking coverings. As soon as Enzan espied the fruits, his mouth began to water. He crept toward them, reaching out to pick one.
"Enzan-sama, you mustn't," Blues said sharply, rushing forward and slapping Enzan's hand away from the fruit. Yanking it roughly from the vine, he continued, "My sensors tell me this unknown plant life is unsafe for human consum—"
The bruised, half-crushed fruit in Blues' hand suddenly glowed brightly; in a flash of light, it transformed into a silver-white metallic padlock whose front surface resembled a brilliant golden durian stamped with L.S.-12 in black lettering.
Enzan and Blues both stared at it.
"R-right," Enzan said. "Don't eat the tempting fruit."
Two Inves suddenly rushed out of the trees, tackled Blues, and began fighting over the padlock; one hurled the other across the ground, then crammed the lock into its face. Its entire body began to glow; Blues and Enzan were pushed back by a stirring wind and a shower of sparks and smoke. "Ittai nani kore...?!" Enzan gasped.
The Inves grew and changed, unleashing a terrific roar to the sky. When the light faded, the creature had mutated. It now stood seven feet tall on broad feet with serrated claws; its torso, shins, shoulders, and forearms were a dull orange-red and covered in short, thick spikes. Its hands ended in long, wickedly sharp talons. Its head looked like a cross between a gorilla and an echidna, with beady eyes set beneath a low, sloping brow, a long, narrow proboscis, and dozens of thick, back-swept red spines forming a "mane" atop its head.
Blues took a protective step closer to Enzan. "Enzan-sama," he said gravely, "my threat assessment of this creature tells me that without access to Battle Chips, my onboard weapons and defensive systems..."
The Inves spat a massive red spark at Blues; an explosion of sparks and smoke filled the air as his armor was scorched by the attack.
Blues gritted his teeth. "Run," he spat. He unlimbered his shield and held it ready against the next volley from the Inves as Enzan turned and ran; Blues covered his retreat, finally turning and breaking into an even pace with Enzan once they'd put some distance between themselves and the Inves. It seemed ready to give chase, but the white Inves it had thrown chose to protest its rough treatment; the ten seconds it took for the Echidna Inves to kill the other Inves gave them all the time they needed to escape. They had just cleared the woods when Rodimus Prime rounded the bend and pulled up.
"We're getting out of here!" Enzan yelled. "It's not safe!"
Rodimus opened his cab; Enzan jumped in, with Blues climbing in once he stowed his shield. "What happened?" Rodimus asked as he closed his canopy.
"A creature," Enzan said. "Attacked us...Blues, are you alright?"
Blues nodded stiffly. "I suffered...seventeen percent system damage," he grunted. "I'm more worried about my energy reserves than the system damage," he added. "In this form, I'm not even sure what I'm being powered by or how much reserve power I have. In any case, I can't effect self-repairs unless I have a reliable and quantifiable means of replenishing my energy reserves."
"Yeah, about that," Rodimus said. A panel on his dashboard beeped twice, and a small compartment dropped open, revealing a metal cylinder not unlike a thermos. "Try drinking this."
Blues frowned. "I can't eat or drink," he said. "However human I appear, I have no internal—"
"Just trust me."
Blues glanced at Enzan, who shrugged. Blues hesitantly took the thermos from the dashboard, opened the top, and chugged down its contents. A faint pinkish-blue glow washed over his body; the damage he'd suffered from the Inves instantly repaired itself. Blues let out a startled gasp. "What was—?!"
"Energon," Rodimus said. "While I was processing enough for my own needs, I started wondering if perhaps you could function on Energon like a Cybertronian." He chuckled. "Looks like I was right. There's a whole tank in the back of low-concentration Energon just for you."
Enzan chuckled. "An Energon energy drink," he said.
"I...thank you," Blues said. His visor flashed as he ran a self-diagnostic. "I am now operating at one hundred percent, all systems repaired." He bowed his head. "I am in your debt, Rodimus Prime."
"Think nothing of it," Rodimus said. Two lights flashed red on his console. "Uh-oh. We've got company." The Echidna Inves burst through the tree line, roaring at them. "Wow, he's an ugly sucker. Hang on."
A panel on the top of Rodimus' camper slid open, and a double-barreled silver-and-black cannon rose into place. With an electric rumble that shook the cab, two massive plasma bolts lanced out, slamming into the Inves and tearing it in half. It roared in pain and rage as it exploded violently, raining sparks and smoke all over the road.
Enzan's jaw dropped. "Whoa," he gasped.
"We'd better get moving," Rodimus said as he put himself in gear and drove off. "Where did that thing come from?"
"We're not sure, but we discovered something very strange..."
* * * * *
Mango Chutney could think of worse ways to work his way through culinary school than being the desk clerk for the Manefair Hotel in Manehattan.
He could also think of better ways, such as working in the hotel restaurant, but that was neither here nor there.
Today, in particular, was not one of his more enjoyable days on the job, largely due to the two girls who had made a tremendous mess in the lobby by walking through soaking wet and dripping all over everything. He'd had to call housekeeping to deal with it before it set, set up traffic routing around it while late guests were checking in, and confer with the manager as to whether or not to bill damages to the guests' parents. In the end, they had decided to simply post more strict rules about exiting the pool area. By the time it was all sorted out, Mango was half an hour over the end of his shift, his replacement hadn't bothered to show up yet, and his plans for the evening had fallen through.
With the determination firmly in mind to give those girls a stern talking-to if he ever saw them again, Mango made his way through the staff exit to the hotel parking garage. As he walked through the stuffy, overly hot, dimly lit concrete tunnel, he became aware of something seriously amiss:
Dozens of thick, leafy vines were snaking their way through the service exit. Strange-looking kudzu covered the walls, and vein-like growths of a ropy red moss spread out across the ceiling, with dangling clumps hanging like earthy stalactites from the light fixtures.
Mango frowned as he took in the plant growth which had certainly not been present when he'd arrived for his shift. "What in the world...?" He was prepared to turn right around and march up to the manager's office when his eyes fell upon a cluster of low-hanging fruits that resembled clear, pearly peaches embedded in hairy, leathery reddish-purple husks.
Curiously, he picked one...
* * * * *
Driving snow and biting wind pressed against the group of heavily cloaked, blanketed ponies as they trudged through deep drifts. "We're almost there," Shining Armor said through his muffler, pointing a booted hoof at a massive crystal peak. "The entrance to the mines is at the base of Mount Yermommalot."
"That's still a good hour's hike," a crystal pony said.
"We'll set up base camp once we reach the mountain," Twilight said. "We'll rest for a little while before we begin the excavation." She yawned. "We can't afford a long delay, but—"
A swirl of colored smoke drifted to a stop in front of her, winking into the shape of a scroll. She caught it in her magic and unrolled it. As she read the letter, she gasped.
"What's wrong, Twilight?" Shining Armor asked.
Twilight's face became grim. "As I was saying," she said as her eyes and horn glowed a brilliant white...
The entire group suddenly found themselves at the foot of Mount Yermommalot.
"Set up base camp," Twilight said as things began flying out of her packs. "We're taking a four hour rest break, then we're going in."
"Twiley? What's going on?" Shining Armor asked nervously as the other ponies adjusted to the reality that they'd just been mass-teleported across an hour's hiking distance.
"Our timetable's changed," Twilight said, addressing the entire group. "We need to mine and refine the bulfecium in less than two weeks."
"Is that even possible?" Sunburst asked over the startled gasps and mutters that followed this pronouncement.
"We'll have to make it possible," Twilight said. "The other world will be irreversibly damaged in three weeks unless we succeed, and I need time to build, test, and apply the containment device." She looked around at the expedition. "I know I'm asking a lot of you all, but the fate of all worlds hangs in the balance."
A heavy silence fell.
"You heard her, ponies!" Shining Armor barked. "Get camp up! Four hour break! We're on a tight timetable!"
As the assembled group began erecting camp, Pinkie Pie sidled up to Twilight and wrapped a reassuring hoof around her. "Don't worry, Twilight," she said in an unusually serious tone. "We'll save your friends. That's a Pinkie Promise."
"Cross my heart, hope to fly, stick a cupcake in my eye," Maud intoned flatly from her other side.
Twilight smiled. "Thanks, girls," she said. She sighed and looked out into the snowy distance. "Hang in there, Sunset..."
* * * * *
As the early morning sun broke through the closed curtains, Sweetie Belle's eyes cracked open. She let out a yawn, then glanced over beside her. Hotaru was curled up on her side under the blankets, clad in a borrowed pink nightgown. Sweetie Belle blushed faintly but smiled at the dainty, dark-haired girl as she slipped out of bed, wearing her lavender flannel pajamas. They were a bit warm for the weather, but she didn't mind.
"Hmm...I think I'll order us breakfast. Have it here by the time she wakes up," Sweetie Belle mused quietly to herself. She padded over to the phone, picked up the menu, and studied it. She idly wondered what her parents would think of this strange girl unexpectedly crashing their vacation (and their room service bill) as she picked up the phone and dialed room service.
She frowned and checked the time, then glanced at the menu again. "Huh. They should be open by now..."
After ten rings, she hung up and dialed the front desk.
The phone rang again and again with no answer.
"Something wrong?" Hotaru asked sleepily.
Sweetie Belle hung up the phone and glanced over at the sleepy-eyed, bedheaded girl. "I don't know," she said. "Nobody's answering the phone in the kitchen or at the front desk..."
Hotaru frowned. "What time is it?"
"It's seven thirty," Sweetie Belle replied.
"That's...not normal," Hotaru said slowly. "Is it?"
Sweetie Belle shook her head.
A sudden frantic pounding at the door filled the room. "SWEETIE! SWEETIE, HONEY, IT'S MOMMY!"
Sweetie Belle rushed to the door and opened it to find her mother standing outside, breathless, red in the face, and sweating profusely. "Mom? What's wrong?"
"Pack your things, dear, we're leaving. We're leaving right now." She bustled into the room. "Get dressed, I'll help you pack, I—" She broke off as she espied Hotaru. She tilted her head curiously. "Sweetie, who's your friend?"
"This is Hotaru," Sweetie Belle said distractedly. "I met her at the pool last night. We slept together."
Her mother blinked at that, then shook her head. "Well, you're old enough to make those choices, I suppose...we'll talk about it later, when we're out of this madhouse."
"What's happening?" Hotaru asked. "Sweetie Belle tried to call room service and the front desk and didn't get anybody."
"They're all dead," Sweetie's mother said.
Sweetie Belle gasped. "D-DEAD?!"
"W-well, we think so," her mother said fretfully, wringing her hands. "The ones that didn't manage to run away screaming are all spread out all over the lobby and everywhere else downstairs, all cut up and...oh, it's terrible!"
"But...but how?" Sweetie Belle asked.
"Some kind of monster," her mother said. "I know how crazy it sounds, but your dad saw it himself! It was tearing up the kitchens! It's throwing pots and pans everywhere!"
Hotaru's eyes hardened. "Excuse me," she said. She ran for the open door and pelted down the hall.
"HOTARU! WAIT!" Sweetie Belle yelled, rushing to the door. "It's dangerous! It...at least get dressed first!" She swore under her breath and took off after her new friend.
"SWEETIE BELLE! GET BACK HERE!" Sweetie's mother yelled frantically. "Oh, that girl...!"
Sweetie Belle saw a flash of pink as Hotaru disappeared through the stairwell entrance. She frowned. "But we're on the sixth floor, why didn't she use the elevator?" Shaking her head, she pelted barefoot down the hall to the stairs, throwing the door open and chasing after her. "Hotaru, wait—"
She was drowned out by a loud, clear, echoing shout from below:
The stairwell flooded with intense violet light for a brief moment. Surprised, Sweetie Belle tripped on the edge of a step and fell, crying out as she tumbled down the stairs, banging and scraping herself up. Her heart hammered in her chest as she flailed around, trying to arrest her wild fall; she collided with a soft yet solid body, who let out a surprised whoof. Sweetie Belle felt herself land painfully, butt-first, on the concrete landing. Dazedly blinking lavender spots out of her eyes, she looked up...
She shrieked as she saw the deadly-sharp point of a curved-bladed halberd a mere inch from her face.
The girl holding it was her age, with expressive violet eyes and short raven hair. She was slender, with long, slim legs. She wore a bizarre outfit consisting of a white bodysuit with flared sheer decorative shoulderpads, a dark purple skirt with matching naval collar flap, and large wine red bows at her chest and the small of her back. She also wore knee-length purple boots, elbow-length white gloves with ribbed purple cuffs, and a purple choker with a six-pointed crystal star at her throat. A brooch shaped like a many-pointed crystal starburst was affixed to the bow on her chest. A slim gold tiara rested upon her brow.
And in her hands, she held a halberd that was easily as long as she was tall, with a dark haft and a curved, deadly-looking double blade.
The girl blinked, then withdrew her weapon. "Sorry," she said. "Umm...are you alright?"
Sweetie Belle tried to stand up, but winced when she put weight on her ankle. "I think I..."
"Here, let me," the strange girl said gently as she placed one hand on Sweetie Belle's injured ankle and the other on her shoulder. A gentle white light filled the narrow stairwell; when it faded, all the pain from the fall was gone. Sweetie Belle blinked as she stood up, testing her ankle.
"Wow. Thanks," she said. She looked the girl over. "Did you see a girl run this way? Looked kinda like you, except she was in her nightgown?"
The girl pinched the bridge of her nose and sighed. "Sweetie Belle, it's me," she said.
"Huh?" Sweetie Belle looked her over again. Her eyes widened. "H-Hotaru?!" she gasped.
"Yeah," Hotaru said. "You didn't recognize me because there's this magic protection in the Senshi transformation, it keeps people from...nevermind. You need to go back upstairs, it isn't safe—"
"Yeah, and it's safe for you to...and what even is this? And where'd you get the spear?"
"Glaive," Hotaru corrected. "It's a glaive." She sighed. "Look, I'll explain it all later. Normally I wouldn't even reveal my identity, but under the circumstances..." She shook her head. "Just...don't leave the stairwell, alright? Whatever's down there, I'll kill it and then we can let the police and the fire department handle the rest."
"Oh, what, you're a monster hunter?" Sweetie Belle asked skeptically.
"Sort of," Hotaru said. Drawing herself up, she said, "I am Sailor Saturn, the Senshi of Destruction. And I'm probably a lot more firepower than this situation calls for."
* * * * *
For most, waking up to an absence of unbearable pain is normal.
For him, waking up to an absence of unbearable pain was cause for confusion.
A dawn sky hung above him, stars fading into the pale curtain of daybreak and a waxing gibbous moon shining serenely above the silhouettes of trees. Beneath him, cool, fragrant grass rippled in a light breeze.
"This is a dream," he decided in a young, strong voice. Stormy, brooding eyes squeezed shut, leaking tears. "Why must my dreams torment me so?"
"'Ey, you there!" a male voice called out. "'Ere's no larkin' about naked in public 'ere! C'mon then, up you get!"
His eyes opened in confusion. He sat up.
A portly, tan-skinned man in a blue uniform stood over him, a large flashlight in one hand and a nightstick in the other.
He looked to his right. A pile of folded robes lay on the ground next to a pair of boots and a familiar silver cylinder.
He looked down at himself. At his naked body, long and toned, muscular...all four limbs intact.
He reached up to his head and found long, curled tresses rippling in the early morning breeze.
"Definitely a dream then," he decided with a sigh.
"Oi! You deaf, man? 'Ere now, off yer duff, it's the pokey with you!"
"You don't belong in this dream," he said darkly, glowering up at the uniformed man. He reached out with his right hand, slowly clenching it. The rude officer's eyes bulged out; he dropped his nightstick and flashlight and clutched at his throat, gurgling. The naked man stood up, his eyes burning into the policeman as he sank to his knees, struggling to breathe.
It took over a minute for the officer to die. The naked man watched calmly, patiently, as the life seeped from him.
When at last the rude, insignificant man was dead, the naked man gathered up the folded robes and got dressed, taking a moment to examine the cylinder reverently before attaching it to his belt. "If this is a dream, then you're here," he said to himself, "and I will find you. It has been too long, Padme."
With that, he disappeared into the breaking day.