Space warped, rippling and shimmering like the dance of heat at the edge of a desert horizon, bursting outward on itself and distorting the surroundings. For the first time in centuries, something disturbed the quiet stillness of that hallway. White-veined green marble lined the hallway, the illumination of the area low, adding to the sense of abandonment. Dust swirled in the wake of the spatial origami as a trio of figures was disgorged there before the tin-plated doors.

Antique-gold eyes scanned over the corridor, every sense on the alert for any unexpected or hidden dangers. Sailor Draco flexed her fingers, the mental command to unsheathe the Dragon Claws at the ready while she took a swift moment to take in their surroundings.

Nothing. The place seemed as deserted as it looked.

Violet eyes made a cursory inspection. To Raye, this place where she found herself was slightly familiar, being very similar to the area outside the chamber of the Sacred Flame back in Phobos Deimos Castle. They were standing within a wide corridor lined with green marble and adorned with faded tapestries showing the glories of the history of the Jovian kingdom, dimmed light casting weak rays of illumination from faintly glowing fixtures high up on the white-veined green walls. To their right, prominently placed within the stone-lined wall, was an ornate pair of enormous doors, the high-relief sculptures decorating it showing regal scenes of justice, dominion and everyday Jovian life. In the center of the doors, within a circle bisected by the joint between the two halves of the double door, the stylized symbol of the planet of Jupiter dominated the tin-gilded surface.

She had come home. Lita stood there, staring at the tin-covered entry, her forest-green eyes shimmering too brightly in the dim light, the sense of peace and joy at being here momentarily overwhelming her. No matter that she was now a human, an Earthling in this lifetime--this is where she truly belonged. Her breath catching in her throat, she reached up and lightly stroked her fingertips along the shiny, metallic surface, tracing the edge of the astrological symbol.

"Hey, I'm glad you're happy to be here, but we did come here for a reason," Draco growled, noticing how caught up the ponytailed brunette was getting in the moment.

A curl of anger unfurled within the girl, triggered by the interruption of the older Scout. Forest-green eyes narrowing, Lita sighed and reluctantly lifted her hand from the surface she had been touching so reverently. Turning her focus to the current problem, the athletic teen took a step back from the entryway and looked it over for a long moment. Realizing that she didn't have the first idea where to start, she turned her verdant gaze upon her friend. "Raye, how exactly did you get the doors to open in your castle?"

"I'm not sure. I was under Obsidian's control at the time," the raven-haired priestess replied, her expression becoming one of thoughtfulness. "Somehow, he managed to trigger something within me . . ."

Lita frowned in disappointment, her focus returning to the tin-covered doors. "That's not a lot of help . . ."

"I do remember having a need to open the doors, though," Raye continued, pulling the hazy memories from her mind. "I had my transformation pen in my hand, and had a feeling that it was important to go inside and see the Sacred Flame."

"Well, let's try something, ladies, before this Lord Obsidian decides to take another stab at grabbing Jupiter," Draco said, folding her arms over her chest. It's a wonder that these girls can get anything done, the redheaded Senshi thought to herself, her golden gaze scanning over their surroundings again.

Ignoring the flame-haired woman, Lita slipped a hand into her pocket and pulled out the slender, gold and green pen that was her key to the Jovian powers. At the moment, the orb within the golden ring that topped the verdant-shafted object was quiescent, the green sphere dark with potential. Holding the item between clasped hands, the pen resting against the center of her chest, the tall brunette closed her eyes and focused her mind on a single thought. I wish to go inside and see the Sacred Oak . . .

The place was almost too quiet, even for a castle that was, by all indications, abandoned for at least a thousand years. The Dragon Senshi frowned, her senses on the alert, her lithe body carried in a relaxed but ready stance. That the marble-lined corridor and its decorations showed no signs of having seen the visit of anyone for a long period of time made Draco feel slightly better. However, she was well aware of at least Kunzite's and Zoisite's ability to teleport. That alone made the black-bodysuited woman on edge. At least she'd managed to pick up a sort of a second-sense in her long years in the Negaverse, discovering an ability to get a slight warning when one of the other generals was about to pop into existence near her. Relying upon that innate ability, Draco turned her attention back to watching the taller teenager stand before the ornate doors, one of the Dragon Senshi's green-gloved fingers tapping against a forearm.

Lita continued to focus on her thought, the outside world slipping away. Somewhere from deep within, something stirred, something that struggled upward like a seedling pushing up through the cool embrace of the soil to greet the warmth of the sun. Emerald light began to glow around the transformation pen, spreading to dance around the girl's athletic body, its verdant illumination lighting up the once dimly-lit corridor.

Raye watched in amazement, violet eyes going wide, as the other teenager began changing within that aura of green light. Lita grew just a bit taller, her visage becoming older, more mature. Her clothing changed, from jeans and a T-shirt to an elegant gown of emerald green silk, the hem brushing against the white-veined marble floor, the skirt slit to allow for movement as well as showing a flash of her well-proportioned legs and the plunging neckline only accentuating the beauty of the grown woman standing there. Gold and emeralds glittered against her fair skin, part of an ornate necklace that now encircled her neck, and more emeralds sparkled within the intricate hairstyle her rich, brunette tresses were now in. Instead of her usual topknot ponytail, her hair was piled on top of her head, a thick braid encircling the rest. More gold and emeralds glimmered from a bracelet around her right wrist.

The sight brought a feeling of bittersweet melancholy with it for the Shinto priestess. Here was her friend, the princess of Jupiter, someone she'd not seen in so very long. The vision of the elegant beauty made Raye smile brightly, even as unshed tears welled up within her violet eyes. Memories came back, fond ones, of the court of princesses sharing so many fun times within the confines of both the Moon Palace and their own home castles. To see her again was almost miraculous.

Forest-green eyes opened as the aura of green light faded away; Princess Jupiter looked up at the center of the double doors while she transferred her transformation pen to the grip of her right hand. Slender fingers curled around the green shaft, she stepped forward and stretched her arm out, touching the golden cap to the middle of the planetary symbol carved upon the tin-gilded doors. The words came to her easily enough, pushed upward by the same forces that had awakened this part of her now manifest. "By the power and in the name of Jupiter, I ask that you open to me, your mistress. Allow me passage to the Sacred Oak beyond."

The verdant sphere within the golden ring atop the transformation pen flared to life, the Jovian symbol shimmering in its depths. The emerald light reached outward, spreading over the larger astrological symbol carved upon the doors like wildfire. The green light from the now brightly glowing Jupiter symbol on the doorway cast its emerald hue over the princess, the Senshi and the priestess standing there for a moment. Then the massive doors swung silently inwards, parting to allow the castle's mistress into the chamber at the very center of the structure.

Lowering her hand and turning to give her companions an excited smile, Princess Jupiter made a "follow me" gesture with an expansive wave of her left arm. "Come on! Let's take a look inside." Gracefully turning, the young woman strode forward, stepping through the now-open doorway.

"It's about time," Draco muttered under her breath as she lowered her arms and walked after the disappearing form of the princess. Her keen hearing picking up the footfalls of the black-haired teen behind her, the Dragon Senshi glanced around at the room beyond the fancy, metallic doors.

The room was surprisingly bare, being a large chamber devoid of anything save the highly-polished, white-veined, green-colored marble that lined the floor, walls and ceiling of the room. The soft sound of a breeze rustling the leaves of a tree greeted the trio of females, their footsteps on the shiny, almost reflective surface of the floor echoing in the vast chamber. The feeling of power filled the space and made their skin tingle, the energy making it seem as if the entire room was softly glowing with a green light.

Dominating the chamber, however, was a sight that left the trio feeling awed as they gazed upon it, their steps taking them slowly closer to it. From a square-shaped dais of three steps rose an enormous, ancient oak tree, a massive specimen of the species. Rough bark thrust gnarled branches up into the heights of the chamber, the limbs festooned with the gloriously healthy dark green of the massive, broad leaves. The Oak seemed strong, sturdy, the epitome of everything such trees symbolized, its foliage full and looking to be at the height of the summer growing season.

Looking upon it, Draco couldn't help but think of Nephrite. In many ways, he and this tree felt very similar. He did mention that he was the 'Earth Warrior, the Commander of the North', whatever that was supposed to mean . . .

Both the older redhead and the younger, raven-haired priestess stopped a respectful distance away. As Raye continued to watch the graceful figure of the princess approach the holy tree in the center of the chamber, Draco took a moment to glance back over her shoulder. Habit, more than anything, kept her wary. Seeing nothing but the still-open, tin-covered doors in the marble-covered walls, the Dragon Senshi turned her attention back to the huge tree and the emerald-clad woman striding toward it.

Princess Jupiter gazed upon the Sacred Oak reverently, her heart joyful to see it in such perfect health after all this time. Though the kingdom may have fallen and Io Castle abandoned to the winds of time, the Oak remained, as strong and sturdy as ever. And she was here now, doing what she could to keep it safe. A fierce protectiveness welled up within her as she thought about Obsidian and his cronies tampering with her beloved Oak like they had the Flame of Mars and the Fountain of Mercury; no, never would she allow anyone to do something that would harm this precious tree.

They'd have to kill her first.

Come on, princess . . . What's taking you so long? the black- and green-clad Senshi mentally growled. Obsidian and his Gemlords could be preparing even now and it seemed as if the emerald-adorned woman was taking her own sweet time to get over to the Oak and get the stone from it. It didn't help her mood any to realize that this was the one that had held Nephrite's affections before the Negaverse--another detail he'd mentioned in telling everyone there in the Shinto temple's sanctum his story. She had to admit that the Jovian princess was beautiful.

The brunette female walked up the trio of steps, standing on the narrow walkway of marble that surrounded the rich earth into which the Oak had its roots deeply sunk. Forest-green eyes scanning over the dark, rough bark that covered the massive trunk, Princess Jupiter searched for a hollow she knew was there. Stepping to the right, still searching, she couldn't help but reach out with a hand and gently caress the tree in a moment of affection for the focus of her planetary powers.

Though the bark was slightly raspy beneath the stroke of her fingertips, the feeling of power and goodwill made her smile. A couple more steps around the solid Oak and her smile widened, her gaze falling upon the very thing for which she was searching. "Ah hah . . ." she murmured to herself, leaning forward and sticking her free hand into the hollow, her other hand continuing to clutch her transformation pen.

At first, only empty air met the touch of her questing fingers. Scooting forward a bit more and stretching upward, Princess Jupiter moved her hand, feeling around in the space beyond the opening. Just as she was about to give up for a moment, regroup and try again, she felt a sudden hard coolness against her fingertips. Lifting herself up and supporting her weight on the balls of her feet, the hand still clasping the Jupiter pen coming up to rest against the trunk of the Oak to give her something to brace against, the Jovian woman snatched at the object. Feeling the form of it within her grasp, she pulled back, taking it from the hollow.

Her heart suddenly pounding in her chest, she turned her hand over and uncurled her fingers, forest-green eyes going wide at the sight. She held a jewel in her hand, a large emerald of absolute perfect hue, luster and clarity, faceted in the classic emerald cut. The gem glittered darkly in the light of the sacred chamber, ripe with the secrets of the Earth Element. It was absolutely gorgeous . . . and apparently just as powerful.

Excitement flowing through her, she turned to face the others, holding up her hand so that they could see the stone glimmering there in her grasp. "I have it!" Princess Jupiter called out to her companions. "I have the Emerald of Forests!"

"Then give it here, quickly," Draco shouted back. She'd see to it that the stone was kept safe from Obsidian's greedy hands. She hadn't been one of the best in the Draconian Empire and in the Negaverse for nothing. Compared to these children who were the current crop of planetary Senshi for this system, she was far more experienced and capable than they were.

Frowning slightly at the older Scout's imperious tone, Princess Jupiter lowered her hand and started down the dais, heading back towards her friend and the slightly abrasive woman. She only got as far as the bottom step there underneath the spread of the Oak's mighty limbs before suddenly stopping, her forest-green eyes going wide in abrupt astonishment.

A tall, dark form appeared seemingly out of nowhere right behind the gold-caped Scout, looming slightly over the redhead like a shadow of doom. Even as Princess Jupiter's surprised mind tried to process that information, she could see a black, formidable-appearing staff suddenly there in the newcomer's hands. Curling her hands around both gem and transformation pen, the green-clad woman shouted out a warning and started running toward Draco and the stranger menacing her. "Look out!"

She wasn't swift enough. The low sound of energy hummed within the echoing chamber, the staff made a perfectly-executed swing. Dark blood spattered against the white-veined marble floor, staining the green stone's polished surface.

Aware of how swiftly he would lose the element of surprise and of the fact that the one running toward him held the very thing his lord needed, Adamant set his jaw and mentally solidified back to stone the one end of his gemstone staff that he had energized. Recalling the Elementals' tale of this Senshi shrugging off hard blows to her body, the raven-haired warrior made sure to make his next strike hit hard and heavy. A thrust to the left sent the top end of his weapon slamming hard into the Senshi's side, just under the ribs and with an upward-driving force. His body moving with a nearly feline grace, he reversed the swing of his six-foot staff, lowering his left hand while driving his right up and forward. The now-solid end of his weapon connected hard, slamming the side of the bodysuited woman's red-haired head. All this before her body fell to the floor, unable to carry her weight any longer on her feet. Hard to stand when someone's cut the hamstring of one leg.

Draco had barely enough time to register the fact that the princess had shouted out a warning before the redhead's right ankle exploded in searing pain. Taken by surprise--there had been no warning, no sound, no sense of anything wrong--she had only a sense of falling to the floor before two nearly crushing blows slammed into her. Though not quite winded by the hit that had attempted to rob her of her breath, the resounding smack against the side of her cranium left her somewhat stunned. Whatever had whacked her had done so with more force than she'd hit the tombstones in the cemetery.

Standing over his prey, the raven-haired Gemlord impassively watched as the gold-caped soldier laid crumpled on the sacred chamber's floor. Turning his gemstone staff in his sure, controlled grip, he lowered an end of the weapon, simultaneously giving it a mental command. In response, the lowermost two feet of the staff energized, the stone giving way to a construct of softly humming, concentrated power of a hue as dark as night.

Even as she hit the green stone floor, the Dragon Senshi did her best to shake off the effects of the attack. Rolling over, ignoring the burning agony that indicated something was seriously wrong with her right leg, she was about to make an attempt to rise to her feet when the hum of energy and a feeling of heat near her neck forced her to pause. Antique-gold eyes glancing down, she found herself confronting a weapon that appeared to be a beam of black radiance; scanning upward, she saw that it was only partially made of energy, the rest being a darkly glittering stone. Pale hands were holding the six-foot-long staff in a deceptively relaxed hold, hands that belonged to a formidable-appearing man dressed in silver, slate gray and sable.

Seeing the dark stranger--Princess Jupiter was sure she had never seen this particular man before--holding his eerily glowing weapon virtually at Sailor Draco's neck, the emerald-adorned woman came to a stop, hesitating. Should she hold her ground and wait to see what the man wanted, or should she transform?

Antique-gold eyes narrowed; Draco made a couple of quick mental calculations. If this bozo thinks he's got me beat, he's got another think coming. A silent command and the tines of the Dragon Claws extended, the redhead concentrating on that and ignoring the burning pain in her right ankle. Her left arm darted out; mystic powers clashed with a sound and a mental sense that left everyone's ears ringing as Senshi energy and Gemlord energy fought with one another to slash through the other. The Claw on her left hand sparking against the energized part of the stranger's staff, keeping the deadly weapon from her neck, she snarled and lashed out with the Claw on her right hand.

The sound of shredding cloth gave her some sense of satisfaction--until the silvery blades met with an unexpected resistance. Her gaze darting over to look, Draco felt a sudden fear as she realized that not even the planetary powers of her artifact could cut the skin of this newest foe. Eyes wide in astonishment, she watched as the Claw skidded across the surface of the man's knee and lower thigh without making so much as a mark.

Adamant's expression turned grim indeed. Just as he was about to pull his staff away from the silvery blades holding it in check, however, a sudden telepathed command momentarily imposed itself upon his consciousness. In a matter of seconds, the plans changed and the raven-haired warrior responded accordingly. A swift spin of his weapon and a perfect aim, taking advantage of the Senshi's momentary surprise at her discovery of one of his unique attributes as a Gemlord. The still-solid end of his adamant staff cracked down decisively against Draco's right temple. Seeing the black-clad body go slack, Adamant turned and dashed into action, running straight at the emerald-clad woman holding the green stone desired by Lord Obsidian.

Raye had retreated a couple of steps away from Draco the moment the dark stranger had launched his attack. Without her powers, there wasn't much she could do, and she knew that her ofuda--her Shinto charms to ward off evil spirits--wouldn't work on this one. There wasn't anything evil she could read off his presence. Her slim body held in a fearful stance of ready action, all she really could do was stand there and hope that Sailor Draco and Princess Jupiter would be able to handle the aggressor.

Emerald eyes darkened in determination. Seeing the raven-haired man rapidly closing the distance between them, the Jovian princess lifted her hand in the air, holding her transformation pen aloft. "Jupiter--"

Four auras suddenly appeared, even as the black- and gray-clad man abruptly vanished. A double-helix of deep, violet-tinged red, a glimmer of violet-pink, a swirl of cherry blossom petals and a flash of orange-yellow light, they heralded the arrival of three men and a lone woman. Two of them Princess Jupiter recognized. Kunzite and Zoisite each taking up a position around the fallen Sailor Draco, along with the yellow- and orange-clad man with short blond hair, was the last thing the emerald-eyed woman saw before the whole world exploded in pain and went dark.

The the one aura that really caught the redheaded Senshi's attention was the swirl of cherry blossom petals. Apparently the little brat wasn't as broken as first thought. Trying to get to her feet and finding her right foot unresponsive to commands, Draco did her best to prepare for what was to come next. Light glittering along the silvery blades, a soft growl sounding from deep within her throat, she looked around herself as the three former Negaverse generals surrounded her. Each one of the trio looked hostile, cold . . . distant . . . much as they had in the depths of that sunless kingdom. Normally she'd be inclined to taunt the blue-clad woman, but something about them put her on edge, made her more cautious than was her usual wont. She was already at a disadvantage and in pain, though that was fading with the rush of an upcoming confrontation.

A nod from Kunzite and Jadeite held his hands in front of his athletic form. "Air Energy Electrify," the Eastern Commander intoned, his voice controlled, clipped. At the verbal trigger, a dome of yellow light sprang to life around the golden-caped Senshi, effectively caging her like one would a wild animal.

The silver-haired Fire Elemental was next, hands coming up in the same gesture the other Gemlord had used. "Fire Energy Electrify."

Sailor Draco blinked, looking from first Jadeite to Kunzite and then to Zoisite. This was something new, something . . . unexpected. They were working together, and weaving something that was more than she'd ever sensed from any of them before. What in the nine hells are they doing?

The moment the princess's unconscious body hit the marble floor of the sacred chamber, Adamant knelt down and plucked the darkly shimmering Emerald from her slack grasp. Sable eyes looked it over for just a moment before he slid the stone into a pocket of his black pants. Feeling the build up of power from the Elementals as they worked quickly to contain the Dragon Senshi, he lifted his gaze to stare at the fourth Gemlord that had come to help with the mission given to them all by their ruler.

It was all damned distasteful. The redheaded spy grit his teeth as he heard the calls of the Elementals, saw the commander of the Overt Operations Corps of Lithos bending over the princess he'd just smacked into a hopefully temporary oblivion with that adamant staff of his. And there wasn't a thing he could do but go along. Violet eyes scanning over the scene, he sighed as his gaze fell upon the raven-haired girl standing in uneasy readiness, her body clad in a white and red, loose-fitting outfit. Cosmos, I have to beat up on kids . . . Sighing heavily, Garnet took a couple of steps toward the girl.

"Stay away from me, or you'll regret it," Raye called out in challenge, violet eyes flashing fire.

Garnet crossed the rest of the distance in a quick sprint, reaching out to grab the teenager. "I already regret it," he hissed. Feeling the fiery girl try to grab him in a hold designed to throw him, the redheaded spy fluidly reversed it, ending up behind her and locking down a very effective sleeper hold against her. Damned if he was going to hurt her any more than was necessary, and damned if he was going to let himself get hurt in the process.

The look in Zoisite's violet-blue eyes was almost gleeful, though the seriousness of her expression kept it from being obnoxiously so. "Water Energy Electrify," she softly said, raising her hands and adding her energy to the dome that surrounded the crippled Senshi. Violet-blue energy blended into the yellow and violet-pink already making up the shielding.

Determined to get the hell out of whatever trap this must be, the golden-caped Senshi lunged as best she could toward a side of the shining dome, lashing out with one set of silvery blades even as the other set scraped against the green marble, cutting furrows in the white-veined stone. Like the raven-haired man's skin, the Claws merely slid across the energy's surface, not even making a ripple in the matrix. Draco growled again, a sinking feeling washing over her. This was going from bad to worse.

Off to the side from the swirling dome of energy trapping the formidable Senshi, Garnet winced as the teenaged girl kept trying to claw at the arm squeezing the column of her neck, her well-manicured fingernails needling into his skin through his leather jacket. That she was actually hurting him through his clothing was a testament to how desperate she was to slip from his choking grasp. Narrowing his violet eyes, he tightened the sleeper on her, feeling her struggles starting to fade.

Things looked like they were being handled very well; Adamant mentally nodded. Still kneeling next to the unmoving, brunette-haired woman, the tall Gemlord laid his weapon down on the marble floor and then slipped his arms under his downed foe's green-clad form. Scooping her up to cradle her against his breast, he rose to his feet, his gemstone staff fading back into nothingness, ready for him to call it into being again.

She had to do something. The Dragons only knew if the former generals and their two friends had already swooped down on Nephrite and the pair of Senshi in his company. There was still hope that they had come here first. If so, she had to get out of this and go to his help. They'd want that other stone . . .

Only two attacks could possibly work against the power she senses surrounding her. Turning the possibilities in her mind, Draco reluctantly discarded her most intense manifestation of planetary power. That one required a target to rend and tear, and all she was facing at the moment was a shield of energy entrapping her. Half-crouched, half-kneeling, the best position she could achieve with her one foot not working, the Dragon Senshi began to marshal her attack. "Draco Star--"

Working together, their minds linked and focused on what they had created, the trio of Elementals gestured in an almost perfect synchronous motion, Kunzite, Jadeite and Zoisite mentally bracing for whatever their trapped foe would throw at them.

"Incineration!" The moment the final syllable was voiced, the redheaded Senshi straightened and arched back, her humanoid body taking on a position as close as it could to the classic image of a dragon breathing fire. Antique-gold eyes suddenly glowed with a white-hot light, that same heated radiance forming within her still-open mouth. The light grew brighter, building, casting rays of brightest white throughout the chamber, even through the shifting dome of amber, violet-pink and violet-blue energy. Draco jerked forward then, the attack bursting forth as fountains of blazing, white-hot power from her eyes and mouth.

"Steady," Kunzite softly intoned, flicking his gaze from the construct to look over at Zoisite for a moment. Echoes of a long-ago event ran through his mind, of a time when the four of them were united in the containment of a dying star; at that time, it had been the first major mission of the newly appointed Western Commander. The growing energy trapped within their dome was similar, though at lesser power levels than that, but the Fire Warrior wasn't sure if the memory of that would interfere. Then again, Zoisite had matured since then.

Violet-blue eyes remained focused on the shielding; Zoisite fought back the sense of déjà vu that threatened to disrupt her equilibrium. This was almost like that other time . . . No, this is different. I can do this . . . she told herself even as the Senshi's turbulent energy slammed against the shifting dome being projected by the three Gemlords. Sensing Jadeite and then Kunzite shoring up their parts of the matrix, the Western Commander poured more power into the dome.

Garnet closed his eyes, shielding them from the white brilliance that filled the sacred chamber there in the heart of Io Castle. Even so, the afterimage of the warrioress's star-like attack danced behind his eyelids. Holding steady on the sleeper, he was gratified to feel the raven-haired girl finally go limp in his grasp. His forearm stung just a bit, but it was a small price to pay. Besides, he needed something to assuage his guilt at having to take the Terran prisoner.

The star-core heat and light faded away, the illumination levels in the green-marble chamber falling back to normal. Draco glanced around herself--and saw that the energy dome had held. Eyes back to their antique-gold hue opened wide as she realized that her attack hadn't worked. A feeling a true hopelessness momentary settled in her heart as she turned her gaze to the tall, silver-haired man that seemed to be in charge of the trio.

Kunzite was calm, unruffled . . . as icy as ever. A corner of his mouth quirked up in a half-smile as he noticed the Dragon Senshi staring at him through the dome. A swift, telepathed command, and the three members of the Elemental Guard of Lithos spoke as one, their hands simultaneously executing the same gesture.

"Elemental Energy Shrink."

The half-sphere of swirling energy started to collapse in on itself. Under the direction of the trio of the Elemental Guard, its margins grew rapidly smaller, the space within it shrinking. Throwing her arms out to either side and feeling both pairs of silvery blades only scrape ineffectively against the surface closing in on her, Draco turned her hands and pressed her gloved palms up against the solid-seeming wall of light. Bowing her head and putting all her formidable strength--a strength born from her dense muscular structure adapted by the millennia of evolution of her species to a world with a much higher gravity field than that of Terra--into an attempt to keep that dome from collapsing in and crushing her, the redheaded Senshi groaned in effort.

For just a moment, she thought she might have actually stopped the movement of the energy sphere. Though her muscles were quivering with the strain, she felt a hot flash of triumph at that. Then the energy shifted subtly--more than likely at the behest of the former generals controlling it--and the resulting pressure was too much for her to hold back any longer. An agonized cry of loss and desperation burst forth from her as the futility of it all sank in. There was nothing she could do, no way she could get out of this and rejoin her beloved Nephrite.

Nephrite, I'm sorry . . . I don't want to leave you . . . Those were the Dragon Senshi's final thoughts before the pressure from the power encasing her constricted her into unconsciousness, a mental image of the gorgeous, green-eyed and auburn-haired man vividly there in her mind as she finally passed out from the lack of oxygen reaching her system.

Certain that the girl he'd subdued would be out for a while, Garnet eased up on his hold. Supporting the priestess's dead weight against his muscular form, the redheaded spy scooped the teenager up into his arms almost as if she was as light as a feather. He shot a quick glance of his violet eyes to Adamant, noting that the other had the emerald-dressed brunette in his arms. Then he looked over at where the Elemental Guard stood in a triangle around the glowing energy field trapping the mercenary that had once been in Nephrite's Negaverse forces. It was well-executed, efficiently done. And he hated every second of it.

"She's out of it, sir," Zoisite finally pronounced, her sensitive empathy picking up the final flash of emotion before the nothingness characteristic of a loss of consciousness swept over her senses.

"Confirmed," Jadeite seconded, his telepathy giving him a reading consistent with a state of unconsciousness.

"Very well then," Kunzite acknowledged, "dismiss the energy and let's take her home."

The other two nodded, each one making a cutting gesture with a hand. Doing so as well, the Fire Warrior watched impassively as the matrix dissolved, the glowing field dissipating and leaving behind the crumpled body of the gold-caped warrioress lying there on the stone floor of the castle's chamber. A quick scan of the room with his pale-lavender gaze, and he allowed himself just a bit of a smile. Their objectives had been achieved, and efficiently so. While the pair of Elementals stood there and watched, Kunzite stepped up to the fallen Senshi and held a hand over her, levitating her from off the floor. The moment Draco's body was up about chest-high to him, the silver-haired Southern Commander closed his eyes and bowed his head, his violet-pink aura flaring around both himself and the floating woman. Three words formed in his mind, the mental command to teleport back through the Mirror to the Tower beyond it. With a flash of the rosy light, Gemlord and Senshi were gone.

The remaining Lithosians followed suit, the various energy fields of their teleporting manifesting around them as they returned home, taking with them the princess of Jupiter and the Shinto priestess. In the chamber now undisturbed again, the Sacred Oak remained vibrant and healthy, the stone lining the chamber as full of polish and the sense of green-hued energy as before.

"Well done," the Guardian of Space said, his rich baritone voice sounding quite pleased. Stepping back, he looked over the sight in satisfaction.

Six chairs had been taken from the various sitting areas set up within the confines of the large, circular Hall of the Mirror and lined up near the table that contained the open-air grave of the remaining Gemlords. Oddly enough, it seemed as if he had arranged them in such a way as to prepare for an audience; the chairs had a perfect, unobstructed view of the center of the Zodiac carpet there in the middle of the chamber.

Four of those seats were now filled, the unconscious forms of two women and two girls perched there. From left to right, Adamant recognized them as the girl he had menaced in the temple, the Shinto priestess, the Jovian princess and finally Sailor Draco. The remaining two chairs--both mahogany ones upholstered in green velvet--were the two on the end closest to the low table on which the soulstones rested.

Sable eyes flicking back to the blond with the two bun-topped ponytails, Adamant murmured, "Had I known you wanted her, I would have brought her, my lord."

"You were already gone when I changed my mind, Lord Adamant," Obsidian replied. "She was still unconscious when I teleported there, though Prince Endymion had begun to recover." The Guardian of Space softly chuckled. "I must admit, it gave me a sense of pleasure to blast the Terran prince to keep him from interfering."

Prince Endymion? the raven-haired Gemlord thought in wonderment. The tuxedo-clad man had been the Terran prince? Consternation came next, as Adamant realized how lucky he had been in taking the strangely-dressed man so easily. Even among the Lithosians, the black-haired prince had had the reputation of a warrior of surpassing skill.

That chuckle put the hairs on the back of Garnet's head on edge, a chill going down his spine. Standing there in the background with the three members of the Elemental Guard as their ruler stood before the lined-up chairs and spoke to the other dark-haired Gemlord, the young spy shot the ponytailed blond a sharp look.

While Jadeite frowned thoughtfully and Kunzite stared at the Guardian of Space, his pale-lavender eyes narrowing imperceptively, Zoisite looked to her right, meeting her brother's gaze. Paling slightly, she shook her head just a bit. Even if Garnet was right and there was something wrong with this entire situation, none of them were truly in the position to challenge their ruler. Besides, if this was the only way to right what had been torn asunder . . .

Adamant's consternation deepened with the realization that the other man actually enjoyed pitting his formidable weaponry against a foe that, by all determination, wasn't ready to defend himself. Lord Obsidian was usually a more honorable man.

"So what are you going to do with them, sir?" Garnet asked, his voice sounding both sullen and cold.

Obsidian turned, his gold-trimmed, ebony cape flaring out gently as he did so. Meeting the younger Gemlord's seething, violet stare, the dark lord gave the man a chilling smile. "At the moment, nothing. I'm going to keep them telekinetically bound to those chairs until I have the other two Senshi."

"And after that?" the redheaded spy queried.

"You'll see," the Lord of Lithos curtly replied. Turning back to face the raven-haired warrior, he held out a hand. "I believe you have the gem, Lord Adamant?"

As Garnet bit back anything else he had in mind to say, not willing to repeat his earlier mistake, the trio of Elementals looked to one another; though the older ones' expressions were unreadable, it was easy to see that Zoisite was bothered by the developing situation. At least she had the brains to see that the ends didn't justify the means. That made Garnet feel just a tiny bit better.

"Right here, my lord," the dark-clad warrior responded, pulling the deep green stone from the pocket of his black pants. Without hesitation, he dropped the Emerald of Forests into the older man's hand.

"Good. Now only the Amber of Winds remains," Obsidian murmured to himself, holding up the darkly-glittering jewel and admiring the play of light within the deep green stone. "Soon . . . So soon . . ." Lowering his deep-brown eyes, he swept his gaze over the Gemlords standing there. "Go!"

Kunzite blinked at the harshness of the order, lowering his arms to his sides. "My lord?" he questioned, not sure what it was their ruler wanted. Around him, the other Lithosians all glanced to one another.

"Go to Magellan Castle and get the Amber, get the remaining Senshi and get Nephrite," the Guardian of Space elaborated, dark eyes narrowing. "Work together as you did before. You know what I want. I expect it to be done. Now go."

None of them wanted to question him further, not with that tone in his rich baritone voice. Even as he turned to head for the reflective surface of the Mirror, Garnet shot Adamant a look that practically shouted "I told you so."

What bothered the raven-haired Gemlord the most was that it looked like the young spy was right after all. Still, it didn't excuse his methods from earlier. No, he had no place publicly questioning the authority of his ruler. And at the moment, they had another mission to carry out. Misgiving in his heart, Adamant walked toward the Mirror, his tall form between the redheaded spy and the Elemental Guard.

Jade-green eyes remained focused on the shifting, glimmering, faintly glowing statue in the center of the chamber. The sculpture was one of the most fascinating things Nephrite had ever seen, an ever-changing, kinetic structure that looked like molten gold and flowed as elegantly as quicksilver. Even more interestingly, it shifted between being an amorphous blob to geometric designs that were both simple and complex in design, freezing there in that seemingly solid pattern for a moment before undoing the beauty it had created to restructure itself into another.

He had continued to watch the fascinating structure, ignoring the rest of the faintly glowing chamber lined with highly-polished, orange-streaked yellow marble, while the beautiful and graceful Princess Venus had walked toward the object. Perched upon a circular base of what looked to be solid gold, at the top of a three-stepped dais that was equally round in shape, the Mystic Sculpture dominated the otherwise empty and bare chamber.

And though it had come close to repeating certain patterns in those moments it stopped in a solid form, the Earth Warrior could see that no two sculptures were precisely alike, no matter their similarities. In many ways, the Mystic Sculpture reminded him of the dance of the stars and the music of the spheres, but this had more of a fluid pattern set in the possibilities of probability rather than a structured, always repeating sequence.

While Nephrite had taken a watchful stance there near the still-open double, copper-gilt doors, his back to the dust-covered, low-lit corridor that ran to this, the innermost chamber of Magellan Castle, Amy had walked forward in the wake of the blond princess until they had reached a point about halfway between the impressive entryway and the fluid, glimmering Statue. At that point, the blue-haired genius had come to a halt, her sapphire eyes wide in interested awe while Princess Venus had continued on alone.

It was utterly fascinating, this yellow-marble, essentially-bare chamber that housed the ever-mobile Statue and seemed to be filled with a swirling energy that almost tinted the very air with a pale golden light. In many ways, this chamber felt much like the one that now sat cold and lifeless back in her home castle. That thought dampened Amy's mood, reminding her of all that was lost, the Fountain of Mercury no longer dancing with the humid energy of her planetary patron. Even so, there was hope. Nephrite, seemingly truly reformed from his previous ways, was waiting there to help her restore both Fountain and focus.

But first they needed to recover the Amber of Winds from the Sculpture.

Her graceful, feminine form clad in a long gown of gold-colored satin that shimmered in flattering ways, the skirt slit to allow an ease of movement, the bodice sleeveless and the neckline one that tastefully showed off her cleavage, the Venusian princess was a vision of golden loveliness. Her sunshine-blond hair swept up in an intricate style atop her head, glimmering little jewels of amber and yellow topaz accenting her look in her silky mane, at her neck, her ears, wrists and waist in golden pieces of jewelry, Princess Venus looked just as she had those long-past days when the four Elementals were given the task to keep the Senshi busy.

It was a sight that left both Nephrite and Amy feeling bittersweet, this glimpse into a long ago that had come to a crashing halt.

The liquid gold flowed around her hand, the Statue continuing its endless expression of Beauty around its Senshi's presence within it, the feel against her skin one that was an energetic tingle as much as it was a warm silken softness. Her fingertips brushing against something hard and inert in the center of that flowing mass, Princess Venus stretched forward, her other hand tightening its grip on her gold and orange transformation pen. She wrapped her digits around that unyielding lump, pulling back and taking a step backwards down the first small stair of the round dais.

Turning and walking down the next couple of levels, her golden sandals making faint steps that echoed slightly in the power-charged hush, the blond woman made her way over to her waiting friend, a bright smile on her beautiful face. For just a moment, the fun-loving Terran girl the princess had become broke through her royal demeanor; giving Amy a patented Mina-style wink, the young woman held up the glimmering Amber for both the blue-haired teenager and the waiting Gemlord a glimpse at the stone. A deep golden-yellow hue, the interior of the tone glimmmered with the swirl of restless energy associated with its Element.

"Impressive," Amy softly said, her voice a nearly breathless whisper. Looking it over, it seemed to be a flawless example of its type, though intellectually she had to wonder why the condensation of the Air Element took the form of petrified tree sap. Then again, most things mystic in nature ignored the laws and theorems of science.

"Yes, it is," Princess Venus replied, gesturing for her friend to join her in returning to where the auburn-haired man stood watching near the copper-covered, double doors. "Now, let's go fix your Fountain, Amy."

The moment the two females returned to his side, Nephrite held out a hand. "It's probably best if you let me hang onto the gem," he suggested, "Lord Obsidian and the others are my people. From what I understand, his interest only lies in the Amber."

Reluctantly nodding--a part of her still wasn't entirely willing to trust someone who had not only been a Negaverse general but had actively participated in the downfall of the Silver Millennium as well had ties to the ones wanting the jewel in the first place--the Venusian princess dropped the Amber into Nephrite's waiting hand. "Just don't make me sorry about being willing to trust you," she warned, her normally pleasantly cheerful voice taking on a hard tone.

Dark-fire highlights glimmered in the Earth Warrior's dark auburn mane as he nodded his head in acknowledgment. "I realize that no amount of telling you I'm sorry for my past mistakes can completely erase the mistrust I've earned. I can only hope that my actions can speak loud enough for me, Your Highness." Softly sighing, Nephrite curled his fingers around the golden-yellow stone, then slipped it into an interior pocket of his emerald-trimmed, ebony-hued jacket.

"We'll see, Commander Nephrite of Lithos," the young woman replied. Giving the black-clad man a stern look for a moment, Princess Venus then turned her attention to her blue-haired friend.

Just like that, he could sense them, their distinctive auras moving through that odd not-space between realities. Two of them were expected, a third was acknowledged with a bittersweet feeling, and two more were a complete surprise. Stepping closer to his two feminine companions, the press of his body against them giving him what contact he needed in case he was forced to yank them out of there through his teleportation, Nephrite hissed out a warning. "Look out! They're coming!"

"Who?" Princess Venus asked, twisting enough to swiftly look back at the ebony-clad man standing up against her yellow-clad form, her blue eyes wide in startlement.

That question was swiftly answered by the four distinctive auras that suddenly surrounding the trio. The manifestations faded, leaving Nephrite, Amy and Princess Venus staring at five grim-looking people--four men and a single woman--surrounding them in a loose circle.

Even as they took up positions around their prey, the quintet of Gemlords could sense with whom they were dealing. The Earth Elemental was there, his emerald-hued aura hard to miss, while the golden power of the planet of Venus glimmered next to him. The third presence was weak, hardly of any consequence, though the five knew better than that.

The moment he was once more solidly back into physical reality, Adamant called his gemstone staff into existence. Of the ones there, the Northern Commander would be the largest threat; a part of the very thing that defined the center of Lithosian society, Nephrite would truly be a formidable opponent. Preparing to spring in an action calculated to make this confrontation as swift as possible, the raven-haired Gemlord found himself suddenly looking at Kunzite's arm, the Fire Warrior's mental touch brushing against his awareness.

A conference at the speed of thought, and Adamant relaxed, his stone staff held in both hands in a posture of watchful wariness. The Southern Commander had asked for a chance to talk Nephrite into joining them, giving the younger Gemlord the sense that it was a point of honor. Understanding, Adamant had agreed.

Body still touching the two females, his mind poised to make the leap from here to the relative safety of his mansion, Nephrite took a moment to look at the familiar forms confronting him. He could sense them all, though the ones he could actually see without turning around were Kunzite, Adamant and Jadeite. Perhaps it was just as well that his emerald gaze didn't land upon the slender Water Elemental. On his forehead, he felt a slight warmth from his circlet; the emerald must have been reacting to the others, just as he could see the diamond and the circle glyphs glowing in the heart of the gems of Kunzite and Jadeite's circlets. Even so, Nephrite felt . . . detached, not a part of the delicate web of mental and spiritual bonds that had tied him to the others of the Cornerstone Binding.

Another quick exchange of thought, the sense of the Northern Commander being there but not a part of the Binding unexpected and commented upon. Zoisite's own thoughts mirrored Kunzite's surprise at seeing Nephrite full-grown, in full control of his Gemlord powers and clad in the ebony uniform of the Elemental Guard. However, their mission was clear enough.

"We need the stone, Nephrite. And we need you," Kunzite said, pale-lavender eyes remaining focused on the auburn-haired man. True, he had noticed the golden-haired beauty there next to the other Gemlord, a woman for whom he'd once felt a warm affection, but now wasn't the time to dwell upon that.

Azure eyes wide, Princess Venus looked from Nephrite to the silver-haired man that had spoken. She remembered him now, from those long-ago parties and quiet moments, those romantic interludes and just how well she thought they went together, him with his pale hair and white uniform and she with her blond hair and affinity for golden-colored clothing. Remembered now the bitter heartache at seeing him and the other three fighting with the enemy as the Moon Kingdom crumbled around them, feelings that became mixed with more recent memories of him, cold and aloof, continuing to be a general of the enemy forces as she fought against him in the here and now as Sailor Venus. Her beautiful face taking on an angry expression, she narrowed her eyes as the hand that still held her transformation pen began to rise.

Ever watchful, the raven-haired Gemlord noticed the change in the Venusian princess's stance. A mental whisper and the top two feet of his adamant staff flared to life, a low hum sounding in the hushed stillness of the chamber of the Mystic Statue as stone was converted to a beam of concentrated black energy. In a movement almost as fast and fluid as thought, Adamant pointed the force-imbued weapon a scant distance from the joint of neck and shoulder. "If I were you, I'd not do anything at all, Your Highness."

As Amy glanced around at the five surrounding them, her quick mind trying to think of various possible avenues of escape that would result in a less-than-sure risk of being killed, Nephrite's only reaction was to give Adamant a cool stare before turning his attention back to Kunzite. "Just what's going on? Why are the stone and I needed?"

"Lord Obsidian wishes to restore our planet and our people," Jadeite replied, low voice supplying the answer.

"And we can't do it without you," added the Western Commander, her usually strident voice soft. It was obvious that she was on edge, slightly nervous.

"Odd way of showing that, dear Zoisite," Nephrite remarked, his emerald eyes remaining focused on the lavender-clad form of the commander of the Elemental Guard. "After all, you could have killed me with that poke of your sword."

"I wasn't aiming for you," the female Gemlord said, jumping swiftly to defend herself. "You got in the way."

Next to her, Garnet reached out and laid a hand on her shoulder. Now wasn't the time to hash this out, not if it meant another argument between the two. Concentrating his thoughts, the redheaded spy mentally reached out to the black-clad warrior, his mind's voice meant only for Nephrite and the other Lithosians. **Commander, there's something very odd going on with Lord Obsidian. I'm beginning to get very worried.**

He turned then, a puzzled expression on his face, fixing the younger man with his emerald gaze. **What do you mean, wrong?**

**He's captured the Senshi, including Sailor Draco,** Garnet replied. From his nightmarish exile in the Negaverse, watching the Elemental Guard become twisted caricatures of themselves, he knew how much the fiery redhead had meant to the Northern Commander at one time. **He's holding them prisoner in the Hall itself.**

**What?** Nephrite blinked, turning again to glance at Kunzite.

The Fire Elemental gravely nodded. **There is a distance within him I've not sensed the like before. He seems . . . rushed, driven to complete this . . .**

**We have lost a thousand years to Chaos,** Adamant replied, low voice cutting through the others' thoughts. **More than anyone, our lord is well aware of the amount of damage Chaos can wreak upon the Cosmos in even that short of a time.**

**Excuse me, Lord Adamant, but I don't see that as an excuse for what he's doing,** Garnet shot back, an irritated light shining in his violet eyes.

"Nephrite?" Amy tentatively began, sapphire gaze flitting from one imposing Gemlord to another as she looked over the people surrounding them, "what exactly is going on?"

"We're discussing something," the auburn-haired man softly said, his voice taking on a reassuring tone.

**We're immortals, Adamant,** the redheaded spy stated, countering the older Gemlord's words. **No matter how screwed up things get by Chaos, we have the time and the opportunity to fix it, but only if we plan well. Don't get me wrong; it'll be great seeing our world back and everyone alive again, but something this important shouldn't be rushed.**

**I must admit, I am slightly bothered by the compressed timeframe our lord wishes us to meet,** Jadeite said, his expression thoughtful. **Normally, I would be willing to take his word that all we need are these gemstones and ourselves, but . . .**

**Something is missing,** Kunzite finished. **And so we either trust his word--**

**Or we figure something's wrong and fix it first,** Garnet cut in.

**I'm willing to return to Lord Obsidian and hand over the Amber of Winds to him,** the auburn-haired Gemlord began, jade-green gaze shifting from Kunzite to Adamant and then finally settling on the blond-haired Air Warrior. "But only on the condition that you allow Princess Venus and the Terran girl their freedom back on Terra," Nephrite added, shifting to verbal speech so that the two females in question would know what was being planned for them.

"We can't do that, Nephrite," Kunzite softly responded, his expression one that was cool and unyielding.

"We have to drag them along," Garnet spat, his very tone betraying his disgust at the entire thing. "That's part of what's wrong."

"What? But before--"

Jadeite shook his head emphatically, his low voice cutting through the Northern Commander's words of astonished outrage. "He's changed his mind. He wants them all."

"What for?" Princess Venus snapped, her azure gaze switching from staring at the glowing weapon of dark energy that hovered far too close to her neck for comfort to glaring at the blond Air Warrior.

"Shut up, Venus," Zoisite growled, violet-blue eyes blazing in irritation. Despite suddenly getting a withering look from her brother, the slender Water Warrior kept her attention on the golden-gowned princess. "Lord Obsidian wants you and that's all you need to know."

**Dammit, 'Zo! Behave!** the redheaded spy telepathed, his projection a tightly focused one, meant only for his sibling.

While Garnet continued to glare at the blue-clad Gemlord woman and Zoisite paled slightly at her brother's mental reprimand, Kunzite gave the Venusian royal a faintly apologetic expression. "We don't know. We only know that you must be returned to the Tower, with Nephrite and the Amber."

"If you think I'm going--" Venus began, only to feel her friend's hand on her shoulder, Amy giving the other girl a slight squeeze as a gesture of warning.

"There's nothing we can do," the blue-haired genius quietly stated. "At best, we can just pretend to be prisoners and hope for an opportunity to escape."

"What did he do with the others, with Draco?" Nephrite asked, his voice a low growl.

"Last we saw, they were all unconscious and being held in chairs by Lord Obsidian's telekinesis," Garnet replied, still sounding quite disgusted though he did turn his violet gaze from his sibling's willowy form to look at the tall Northern Commander.

"As for what he plans on doing with them, that is something still unknown," Adamant responded, his sable eyes remaining trained on the princess who was stubbornly holding onto her transformation pen.

"He said we'd see, when we asked him," Zoisite added. "I think it might have something to do with energy. The Mirror itself seems sluggish where it's at."

"He's already sucked Sailor Andromeda dry," the redheaded spy growled, feeling slightly ill at the memory. "Though he did sent Ametrine out to drop the senshi off at her homeworld afterwards."

"If you think I'm just going to let--" Princess Venus started again, her expression furious.

"Your Highness, it would be a favor to us all if you would keep your opinions to yourself," the raven-haired warrior calmly stated, bringing his energized adamant staff closer to her neck.

Feeling the slight heat of the weapon and hearing the buzz of its potentially lethal energy, the blond Venusian royal pressed her lips together, falling silent.

"So apparently he's only interested in their energy?" Nephrite asked, glancing down at the two females pressed against his athletic form.

"Yes," Jadeite confirmed. "He did order Andromeda released."

"Return with us, Nephrite," Kunzite quietly said, pale lavender eyes focused on the black-uniformed Gemlord. "We are not whole without you. Nor may we set things right without your power."

The auburn-haired man sighed, then nodded. Duty called; though he could sense he was somehow separate from the delicate web of psychic ties now, he was still the Earth Warrior. And the lack of those ties left him feeling less than whole, he realized. Something truly seemed wrong with the Guardian of Space; perhaps by the very nature of what he was, Nephrite could help stabilize the situation. Everything that he had heard so far pointed to Obsidian working in desperation for a noble goal. Were he in the other's place, he probably would be doing much the same, distasteful as those actions may be. Glancing down at the two females again, Nephrite put a hand on each of their shoulders. "Obsidian Mirror Return," the Northern Commander intoned aloud, giving the other Gemlords there his response. Silvery-green starlight swirled around the three forms as Nephrite willingly returned to the Hall of the Mirror . . . and to Lord Obsidian.

The others followed behind, their various teleportational auras manifesting then fading away, leaving the Mystic Statue to continue its infinite expressions of beauty in abandoned silence.

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"The Silverlands", "The Obsidian Tower", and "The Rose Garden" all © 1997 - by Dianna Silver. All Rights Reserved