Echoes of a Distant Demon

by Sailor Doc

 

~ Chapter One ~

It was dark in the great room. The only source of light the flickering flames of the fire, burning in it's brazier at the center of the room.  Shadows danced and played along the walls in strange and oddly mesmerizing patterns, and it would have been easy to see how this could all be perceived as eerie or even scary to the uninitiated. The lone, dark haired girl at the center of the room though, was no stranger here. To the contrary, she found she was often more relaxed and at ease here than at any other place she could think of.

A priestess at this shrine, with a growing recognition for her gifted readings of the fire, Hino Rei, at age 20, had become a great asset to the temple.  Over the course of just a few years, her fame had spread, to a modest degree, and it was not entirely unknown for people to fly into town just to petition the somewhat reclusive shrine maiden to consult the flames on their behalf. Rei often found this presumptive and a bit annoying, but it was a tremendous draw and thus a benefit to the temple, so she fulfilled her duties, albeit reluctantly.

In an odd twist of fate, her reluctant, almost cold treatment of those visitors only drew more in. Stories of the haughty, yet beautiful young priestess with the uncanny ability to see the future fed the imaginations of the public, some even bold enough to stake out the shrine, just to get a glimpse of her as she swept the walkway, fed her crows, or ministered to the shrine's children.

Rei had eventually learned to take it all in stride. She had grown to love her position at the shrine, and had found great comfort in helping those that came there in need of something they just couldn't seem to find any place else. She enjoyed the children in her group, and she had found a great deal of pleasure in, of all things, archery. She knew it was all about centering herself, and concentrating on a single point, a single goal. Secretly though, and for reasons she didn't totally understand, it made her feel closer to her other self.

The now dormant Sailormars.

Realizing belatedly that her concentration was now totally shot, Rei sighed and allowed her mind to drift a little.

It had been almost two years since Usagi's wedding. Though they had all drifted off in different directions, they had still managed to keep tabs on each other, occasionally calling to check up on one another. Usagi, of course, was the main one to pick up the phone and call. Having everyone back in Tokyo for the first time in years helped a good deal too. Even Rei could be enticed to come out from time to time for lunch, or a girl's night out of dinner and a movie or concert.

Rei grinned into the fire, its light picking up the glints of amusement in her dark eyes. 'All work and no play made for really mean and grumpy priestess', after all,' she thought. 'Can't let that happen, right?'

They usually got together at least twice a month, and it was fun to let her hair down, so to speak, with her closest friends. 'If only...'

But no.  Rei blocked that thought. She wouldn't go there.

For awhile, just after Usagi and Mamoru's wedding, they had all lost contact again. Only Usagi and Makoto had still been around, Usagi learning how to be a wife, and Makoto finishing up her studies and establishing her own floral business. She had been refining her gifts with the fire kami in a distant shrine in the north. Ami was back at medical school in The States, and Minako was...well Minako was always busy. Most of the news they got of her was not through the tabloids, which they all knew could not be trusted, but via Luna, through Artemis, who tried his best to keep them up-to-date on their jet-setting leader. Six months later, they had all gotten together again for Makoto's wedding to Motoki. They had been able to pull that one off without all the theatrics of the earlier one, and Rei couldn't help but grin as she remembered how the groom had cried more tears of happiness than the Bride! Usagi had been pretty teary eyed too, but Ami had chalked that all up to 'baby hormones', as both she and Minako had picked on Usagi mercilessly about the speed with which she had been able to conceive. Snorting softly, she remember how both she and Minako had refused to catch the bouquet, swatting it back and forth between them, as Ami just watched in confusion, until Naru had finally stepped in and snagged in out of midair.

Rei sighed. Minako had looked absolutely stunning, in a tea length dress, that...

'No.' Rei stopped herself again. 'I said I wasn't going there, and I meant it.' Grimly, she clamped down on her thoughts once again.

Ami had, once more, gone back to The States to complete her studies. And complete them, she did. In record time. Her mother had been astonished.  Her fellow senshi, however, had not. They knew she was still Mercury, even if it was at a different level now. Some things, after all, are eternal.

Then there was Minako. With a tight rein on her emotions, Rei opened that door just a little.

Unlike so many young idols who flash brilliantly across the human stage, only to flame out early and disappear all together, Minako had continued to ride the top of the pop charts. Her popularity had tripled, and she seemed more visible than ever, her work with charities doing nothing to diminish her brilliance. She was loved world-wide, and was more often than not, found on any and all 'most beautiful' lists in print on any given day.

She was Venus after all.

Rei sighed heavily and glowered a bit at the brazier.

"'Nuff said," she mumbled aloud to the shadows in the room.

Raising her eyes back to the comfort of her flames, Rei settled in to 'see what she could see' today. Though most of her visions did not affect those closest to her, it had been known to happen.

Though far away, back after Makoto's wedding in that secluded, northern shrine, she had known the instant Chibiusa was born. She had at once sent flowers to Usagi, and a soft, plush, white pegasus to the baby. To Mamoru she had sent congratulations, and a small bottle of sake with a note that read, "Trust me. You'll need this," much to the amusement of Ami, Makoto and Motoki, who were visiting the new parents at the time.

Not all of her visions were happy ones though, she reminded herself.

She had known the moment Ami had lost her first patient. Through the fire's haze, she could see her friend talking with kindness and compassion to the grieving family, offering what solace she could before turning to walk with quiet dignity to her office, where she shut the door, walked to her desk and in solitude, finally allowed herself to fall to pieces. Rei could actually feel her pain, and by the time the young doctor had arrived home to her small apartment, the priestess was waiting for her by the front door. As Ami had looked up into those deep, brown eyes, she had seen an understanding in their intensity that had pulled her wounded soul in like a magnet. Without a word, she had moved forward into Rei's waiting embrace, and for the first time in hours, found peace.

She didn't always need the fire's reflection to see what was already happening.

She had known the instant Makoto had been hit by a car. She had been sweeping in the courtyard of the shrine when the vision had come to her out of nowhere, with an intensity that had brought her to her knees. Makoto was close. Very close. Rei had risen quickly and raced down the steps and out into the street. Allowing her instinct to guide her, she had been at Makoto's side even before an ambulance had arrived on the scene. Keeping her friend calm with gentle hands and firm resolve, she had stayed with Makoto all the way to the hospital, and then held Motoki's hand as they waited for her to come out of surgery. "She's strong, Motoki," Rei had reminded her friend's husband. "That's a vital part of what makes her who she is. You must believe that!"

Motoki had looked at her, tears streaming down his cheeks, his eyes begging her to give him hope.

"Remember who she was, Motoki" Rei had reminded him. "I know you saw her back then, right? Saw who she really was?" At his nod she had continued.  "She is Jupiter! She is the embodiment of strength and courage! That still dwells within her, so you must believe! Believe in her! Believe!"

She had stayed with him the whole evening and into the night, and together they had cried tears of joy when Ami had finally been able to come and tell them that Mako-chan would be okay.

Even with Minako. She knew. But knowing just seemed to bring confusion and frustration, because there was so much she didn't know and because... well, just because it was Minako.

She had known when Minako had won the most prestigious award for young actors in the country. Even before the tabloids had spread it all over the airways and the print media, she had known. She had felt the idol's joy, her utter elation at receiving the honor. As much as she had wanted to forget about it and just let it go, she hadn't been able to. She had sent her a note of congratulations and a couple of long stemmed roses, neither expecting or receiving a reply from the busy young woman who haunted her visions on a daily basis. On a nightly basis too, if she were honest, but mercifully she seemed unable to recall most of her dreams. Only vague shadows remained of those, leaving her without any feelings. Just a strange and unexplained regret, a loneliness she knew would never leave.

With another a heavy sigh, the young priestess settled once again before her fire, and started the process of centering herself on its sacred flame. Humbly, she beseeched the fire kami to show her that which she must know. That which had been strangely troubling her heart for the last several days. Experience had taught her that she could not rush this process. When the time was right, the answers she sought would be revealed to her, and not a moment before. And so she waited.

Gazing intently into the blaze, Rei was totally unaware of the small beads of sweat that began to form on her brow and back. She could see a figure.  It appeared to be Minako. Her image flickered and flashed with the flames that seemed to bathe her in a warm, comfortable light. The image seemed rather benign, but Rei could sense a presence. Squinting into the fire,
Rei was totally unaware that the beads of sweat had now started to pour down her back and face.

'What is it? What is this feeling?'

Rei could sense danger, but the flames showed her no such thing. Minako appeared to be fine, even more beautiful than the last time Rei had seen her, she thought with an unconscious stab of pain.

Unknowingly, she flexed her hands into fists, then out again as she took a deep breath and forced herself to relax.

"Kami. Please! Show me what is wrong!"

Centering her energies on the image, Rei focused once again on Minako's image. As she watched, a dark, malformed figure appeared directly behind the performer.

"Youma," Rei whispered

Completely oblivious to its presence, Minako continued to sing her heart out, pouring all she could into her delivery, and appearing to be having the time of her life. Behind her, the apparition seemed to be growing as it danced behind her, mocking her moves like a malevolent shadow.

"Venus!"

Soon, it towered over her, topping her height at least twice. At last, she seemed to sense something, as she turned and looked up in horror at the ugly blackness looming over her.

"VENUS!"

Minako screamed, and with a triumphant chortle of glee, the hideous presence seemed to dive directly into the startled idol singer's head, vanishing inside as if rooted there. Then, there was silence.

Minako stood for a moment, as if stunned. Then, she closed her eyes, a look of intense pain flashing over her delicate features, and slowly collapsed, crumbling to the ground like a broken doll. In the blink of an eye, she turned to dust, and before Rei's startled gaze, was blown away in a rogue breeze, leaving not even the slightest particle behind to show it's passing.

"MI-NA-KO!" Rei screamed...

...and snapped out of her trance. Drenched in sweat, and breathing as if she had just run a marathon, she sat trembling before the flickering warmth of the first, and oldest friend she had ever had.

"Kamisama," she whispered, her voice rough and course. A cold shiver of dread shook her dampened form, and she drew her robes closer against the sudden chill. "Her brain tumor. It's come back."

END PART ONE