Chapter 9: Memory and Mayhem
Akane was in the Kami plane. Ranma now knew where she was, and a small spark of hope lanced through the despair that filled him as he felt himself painfully wrenched and twisted by the fighting spells - one sending him to Akane's side, the other forcing the two of them apart.
He thought at first that perhaps Cologne's spell would win. He could see Akane; hear her. She had spoken to him and said words he thought he'd never hear. Words that filled him with an unexpected joy that overwhelmed the physical pain of being torn between two dimensions.
But suddenly, the tide turned and now the blood spell was winning. Akane's beautiful, tear-stained face was fading from his sight. No! he thought fiercely, fighting to stay. But it was no use. Akane reached out to him, her face a pale mask of anguish. Her look of despair pierced Ranma to the heart.
"I-I'll f-find you." Ranma sobbed the promise with all his strength through the blinding pain that engulfed him. The blood spell was pulling him back, he was losing her again. He couldn't lose her again! Not when he had found her! He reached out desperately. "Akane..."
And then, as quickly as it had come, the tearing, soul-wrenching pain left him. Ranma gasped and collapsed forward onto the floor of the Nekohanten.
He lay still for a moment, his chest heaving as he gulped air into his now-solid lungs. Then, slowly, shakily, as if afraid the shattering pain might return, he pushed himself up to his hands and knees. His head hung limply against his chest, and tears ran unheeded down his face to splatter lightly on the floor.
Cologne, Tofu, and the others looked on in stunned silence. They had pulled Ranma back by nullifying the effects of the True Love spell, allowing the blood spell to once again pull him back through the dimensional barrier.
Now, watching Ranma, Tofu wondered if they'd done the right thing. The True Love spell had worked, albeit in reverse. Instead of summoning Akane to Ranma's side, Ranma had been pulled to her instead. They had all watched in amazed silence as a transparent Ranma spoke with an unseen, unheard Akane. Watching his suffering - both physical as the dimensional forces threatened to tear him apart, and emotional as he lost Akane once again - left each of them feeling hollow in a different way. Some in sympathy. Some in self-pity.
Ukyo didn't know what to feel. Tears ran down her cheeks as she moved hesitantly towards Ranma's shaking form. "R...Ranchan? Are... are you okay?"
"I saw her, Ucchan," he whispered, his eyes closed. "She was right there, in front of me, and I couldn't do anything."
A small, almost silent sob escaped Ukyo's throat. She couldn't tell if it was because she hated seeing Ranchan suffer, or because, once again, she had seen him display unvoiced love...for Akane.
Shampoo stood numbly as she looked at Ranma. Mousse stood behind her. She could feel his myopic gaze on her back; could feel his almost tangible desire to reach out and comfort her. But he did nothing. Shampoo didn't know whether to feel relieved or... sad. Her eyes still burned from watching the scene that had unfolded a moment before; watching as her dreams of having strong, handsome Ranma as her willing husband crumble to dust. Her hands tingled, and her heart felt frozen in her chest.
Ryoga swallowed audibly and knelt down next to Ukyo. "So...so you talked to... to Akane?" he asked Ranma, not willing to think about... anything else. "Is she okay? What did she say?"
Ranma leaned back and sat on his heels, wiping his eyes with the back of his hand, not meeting anyone's gaze. "She..."
She told me that she... loves me.
Akane loves me.
The thought sent such a mixed surge of happiness and grief through him that his chest felt tight and the tears threatened again. He swallowed hard and turned to face the others.
"She told me where she is."
"What?!" Ryoga reached out and grabbed Ranma by the front of his shirt, his eyes wide and anxious. "Where?! Where is she?!"
Ranma didn't even react to Ryoga's manhandling. "She's in the Kami Plane," he said softly.
The room fell into stunned silence. Cologne's eyes went wide.
"The... Kami Plane?" whispered Ryoga, releasing Ranma's shirt.
Ranma nodded, but his eyes were unfocused as he stared past Ryoga's shoulder at nothing. "I have to find a way to get there..."
Unnoticed by all, Cologne's amazement dissolved into a slow, wicked smile. The Kami Plane, she thought with a mental chuckle. Well. Who would have thought that the blood spell would send her there. All may not be lost after all. She cast a subversive glance at Nabiki, who was staring at Ranma in disbelief, and her eyes lit with triumph. Akane is well and truly beyond their reach if she's in the Kami plane. And soon...
"Ranma, I think I can help you," she said. Everyone turned to Cologne with hope on their faces, except for Nabiki. She regarded the crone with open hostility burning in her eyes.
You didn't fulfill your part of the bargain, you old witch, Nabiki thought, glaring directly at Cologne. Not only that, but now I know you sent Akane to the Kami Plane. This had better be good, or you know what the consequences will be.
Cologne simply nodded slightly, as if acknowledging the unspoken, yet clearly understood threat without any real worry.
Ranma looked at Cologne, his face serious. "Can you try and cast that spell again? It almost worked. I almost made it."
"Are you crazy, Ranchan?!" shouted Ukyo. "That thing almost killed you!"
Ranma looked at her and smiled slightly. "Aw, come on, Ucchan. You know I'm tougher than that."
"I'm afraid she's right," said Cologne. "The blood spell reacted much more violently to my magic than I thought it would. It's a good thing that the spell tried to send you instead of summoning Akane. She doesn't have your constitution, and might not have fared as well, even had we stopped the spell in time."
"I wonder why it did that," said Tofu, looking down at the smeared remnants of the spell on the floor. "Sending Ranma instead of bringing Akane."
"I'm not completely sure," answered Cologne, "but I suspect there was some interference from the Kami Plane."
Ranma's head jerked up. "Interference?" he asked. "What do you mean?"
Cologne frowned. "I mean that if Akane really is in the Kami Plane, some kind of spirit or demon may have altered the spell."
"What?!" yelled Ranma. He jumped to his feet and looked down at the old Amazon. "Whaddya mean 'demon?!'" Fear gripped his heart at the thought of Akane being in the hands of some evil supernatural entity. No way could that clumsy slowpoke tomboy stand up to something like that!
Then he blinked in surprise, and the fear in his heart seemed to spread through his body. His eyes went wide in horror as realization hit him. "The Snow Woman," whispered Ranma, remembering Akane's last words to him.
"What was that?" asked Cologne.
Ranma didn't hear her. An image came to his mind, an image from his dream from the night before - his dream of a ghastly white Akane freezing him to death, cold seeping from her long white fingers into his chest. His dream where, when he had forced the words "I love you" from his frozen lungs, she had changed. Changed into a strange white-skinned woman with flowing white hair and ice-blue eyes...
He had seen that same woman standing behind Akane.
Ryoga saw the look on Ranma's face, and felt a hard core of dread settle in his stomach. "What? What is it, Ranma? You know something, don't you?!"
"Akane," said Ranma, turning to face his rival as his voice rose in panic. "She's with some weird lady in the Kami Plane called the Snow Woman. I... I think she's a spirit or a demon or something."
"What?!" A faint flicker of blue-green ki began to glow around Ryoga's form. Ukyo, Mousse, Shampoo and the others began to back away from him in alarm. "Ranma! How could you leave Akane in the hands of a demon?!"
Ranma's eyes sparked with anger, his own ki blazing in response. "Hey, pig-boy! I didn't have much of a choice! You guys were the ones who screwed up the spell on this end, remember?" He gestured to the smeared floor. "I didn't want to leave her!" he yelled, his throat thickening. Ranma began to tremble with emotion, and his eyes moistened as the ache of grief joined his anger. His fists clenched at his sides, and his ki burned bluer than Ryoga's.
"I didn't WANT to leave her!"
The force of Ranma's emotion made Ryoga blink in surprise, and he realized he had overstepped his boundaries. He took a step back in shock as he recognized a despair equal to if not greater than his own in his rival's face. "H-hey, Ranma, I... I didn't mean..."
Fortunately, Tofu stepped in before Ranma could incinerate them all with a Shishi Houkodan. "Hey, none of that!" he said firmly, stepping forward, yet not quite between the two combatants. "Ranma, Ryoga, settle down. I know you're both very upset. We all are. But now is not the time or place for a fight." He stood there, his hands gesturing for peace, looking Ranma in the eyes, practically willing the boy to calm down.
Ranma returned the gaze, trembling in anger, his brow furrowed over glistening eyes as he fought back tears. But Tofu was like Kasumi in that it was difficult to refuse either of them anything. Finally, Ranma relaxed slightly and blinked, the glow of his ki fading.
Tofu breathed a sigh of relief that was echoed by the others in the room, especially Ryoga. "That's better," he said. "Now what was it that you said before? Did you say Akane was with the Snow Woman?" Tofu raised his eyebrows inquisitively. "Not the Snow Woman from the old fairy tales?"
Ranma looked at him blankly. His father hadn't read many fairy tales to him while he was growing up on the road. He drew a shaky breath and tried to focus himself as he fought to reign in his emotions. "I don't know," he replied at last, "but I think I saw her. She had really white skin and long white hair. She was standing behind Akane."
And... I think she tried to kill me last night, he added silently, not wanting to voice that particular fear. After all, it was only a dream, right? Surely he would have been able to tell if he'd actually nearly frozen to death during the night. He turned to Cologne. "You said you can help me. If we can't do that spell again, isn't there something else you can do? Do you know how to get me to the Kami Plane?"
Cologne glanced at Nabiki from the corner of her eye. The Tendo girl had her arms folded severely across her chest, and her expression was full of the unspoken threat she had every intention of fulfilling if Cologne didn't do everything possible to save her sister. Cologne closed her eyes briefly.
This would have to be good.
She raised her head and looked at Ranma. "There is an ancient treasure among my people known as the Eye of Spirit, or Eye of Kami. It is a stone of great power which has been passed down through our tribe since the time of the first Amazon. Its power is such that it may be able to overcome the blood spell and send you to the Kami Plane to retrieve Akane safely."
Ranma blinked. So did Shampoo. She'd never heard of any "Eye of Kami" before... What was great-grandmother up to?
"Why didn't you say so?" said Ranma anxiously. "Let's go get it!"
"Unfortunately, it's in China." Cologne turned and met Nabiki's narrowed gaze. "And I must retrieve it alone," she said before Ranma had the chance to start an expedition. Both Ranma and Ryoga deflated at her words.
"The other elders of the tribe will not be happy to relinquish such a sacred treasure into my care to help outsiders, but I believe I can persuade them. Give me five days. Five days and I will return with the stone. Then we will get Akane back."
"Five days?!" Ranma groaned. Who knew what horrible things the Snow Woman would do to Akane in five days?
"I'm sorry, Ranma." Cologne once again glanced at Nabiki, who looked slightly mollified, yet still angry. "If I can be back sooner, I will. In the meantime, you must be patient."
Ranma grit his teeth. Patience had never been his strong suit.
"Five days," said Nabiki. She stood outside the doors of the Nekohanten in the cool spring evening and gazed at the old ghoul with barely subdued fury. The others had left a few minutes earlier, since it seemed nothing else could be done. Mousse and Shampoo were inside cleaning up the smeared spell mess on the floor. "That's it. If you're not back in five days, Ranma hears the tape. And if this so-called 'Eye of Kami' doesn't work, Ranma hears the tape. This is your last chance."
Cologne's mouth twitched into a slight half smile. "And what if, by some chance, it does fail? You play the tape for Ranma, and poor Akane is still trapped in the Kami Plane without any way to save her."
Nabiki smirked. "I think it's a pretty safe guess after what we saw tonight that Ranma will never give up until he finds a way to bring Akane back. If you can't do it, we'll find someone who can. As I said before, it doesn't matter to me whether or not Ranma hears that tape. I don't care if he hates you and Shampoo or not. He's a big boy, he can take care of himself."
Nabiki leaned forward and looked down at the withered Amazon. "Five days. This is your last chance to stay on Ranma's good side. After that, if Akane's not back, you can wave goodbye to... well, mortal existence probably. After his demonstration this evening, I'd place the odds 50 to 1 that Ranma could produce a depression ki blast that would make anything Ryoga's done look like a measly firecracker."
Cologne nodded, much to Nabiki's surprise. "You're quite right," she replied. "Which is why you should believe me when I tell you that when I come back in five days, you will be much happier. I expect you will then fulfill your end of our little bargain, and take all the necessary precautions to make sure Ranma never finds out that Shampoo and I were responsible for the blood spell." She smiled. "I have no intention of giving up on Son-in-law just yet."
Nabiki's eyes narrowed. "Fine," she said, even though something in her gut told her something was wrong, that she was missing something. But what? She'd examined all the loopholes thoroughly... "Just be sure you don't try to pull anything. Any sign of anything out of the ordinary, and-"
"Yes, yes, and Ranma hears the tape." Cologne sighed. "Fear not, Nabiki Tendo. You will be pleased when I come back from China."
"I hope so. For your sake." Nabiki favored Cologne with one last half-lidded glare before turning and heading for home.
Cologne watched her go.
A minute later, a sullen, confused Shampoo came out and joined her in front of the restaurant. Cologne motioned with her staff, and then they were jumping along the rooftops, leaving Nerima district behind.
Ten minutes later they returned. Cologne gave the girl some brief instructions on how to handle the business while she was gone. Then, without fuss or fanfare, she left for China.
Shampoo went back into the restaurant, smiling from ear to ear.
Unforgivable. Death was too good for him.
Yuki-onna stood in front of her frosted mirror gazing at the object of her hatred as he entered the dojo and began performing difficult katas with intense ferocity. Her frost-blue eyes narrowed.
Yes, he was frustrated. He had come so close...
The boy's feelings paled in comparison to what she felt. She had come so far with Akane. Akane liked it here, liked being with her. True, she had yet to forget... that boy... but she had been almost happy...
And now he had ruined it all. Akane would never be content to stay knowing that he was looking for her. Not as long as that blasted wisp of dragon blood connected them, at least.
She was getting closer to removing it. After almost two years of daily work, she was finally feeling a weakening in the blood spell. It wouldn't be long now...
But it might not be soon enough. Especially if the boy intended to live up to his parting promise.
Yuki-onna frowned. Something must be done about him. He needed to be dealt with; eliminated from the picture... somehow. And he needed to be punished for Akane's pain. Yet she couldn't kill him. If she did, Masakazu would know, and then...
But... there were fates worse than death.
All she had to do was find one that was... appropriate.
Yuki-onna reached out her hands and placed them on either side of the image showing in her mirror. This was the present, the "now" of the mortal plane.
"Back..." she whispered, and her icy breath flowed across the reflective surface.
Ranma's image froze in mid-movement. Then, slowly, the frost swirling with magic, the image began to move again. But this time in reverse. Slowly, eerily, Ranma performed his fluid katas backwards, his jumps and flips smooth and faultless and seemingly without impact so that it was almost impossible to tell that time was moving in the opposite direction.
"Faster," she breathed. "Show me the past. Show me his past that I may find a punishment suitable for his crimes against my little Akane-chan."
The image blurred and sped up, moving faster and faster. Yuki-onna pressed her white palms against the frosted glass and closed her eyes, seeing the images in her mind with a hundred times the clarity of her eyes.
Ranma, reaching out for Akane as the blood spell pulled him back...
Ranma, glowing with red ki amidst the shattered ruin of the Nekohanten door as he screamed Cologne's name in fury...
"Further," she whispered. "Before the blood spell."
Ranma, running along the top of a fence while Akane ran next to him on the sidewalk. He calls her a cruel name and she sends him flying into the drainage ditch to emerge a moment later as a red-headed woman...
Yuki-onna smiled. Akane had told her of his Jusenkyo curse, of course. It was amusing to say the least. Perhaps she could use it to her advantage as part of his punishment. "Further," she whispered.
Images of Ranma's life flashed before her. Ranma sleeping, eating, fighting. The entire fiancée fiasco. Her fury grew as she saw how this boy not only made Akane suffer, but other women as well. The lonely girl, Ukyo. The desperate Shampoo, and even the crazed Kodachi.
Even the boy's own mother. Tears of ice slid down Yuki-onna's face as she witnessed how desperately Ranma's mother wanted to see him, to love him. And yet he spurned that love, mocked it by hiding in female guise right in front of her; enjoying the pleasure of her company, yet denying her the joy and comfort that would come with the revelation that he was her son. The tears Ranma's mother shed for her lost son, not knowing he was mocking her grief right in front of her, pierced Yuki-onna to the heart.
How dare he...
"Back..." she choked.
Time sped backwards in her mirror.
She witnessed Ranma's encounter with Herb. Yes, being trapped as a female certainly seemed to cause the boy enough anguish. That was a definite possibility, yet still didn't seem like quite enough justice for her tastes.
She reached out with her mind as Ranma's life rewound itself in her mind's eye, reaching out with tendrils of magic, amplifying the images to include emotions, trying to sense his greatest moments of anguish or pain or... fear...?
She paused. There was something interesting. She had only sensed a brief flicker or two of real fear from Ranma as his life sped past, but here, in his early youth, was a concentrated clump of sheer terror. Her mouth quirked at the corner. "Show me," she whispered. "From the beginning."
A young Ranma, not more than 10 years old, knelt in front of his father in a dojo.
"Ranma, today I will train you in the secret art of the invincible Cat Fist. The Nekoken."
The child Ranma looked up, his blue eyes puzzled. Cats? What was so special about cats? Oh well. Pop was always teaching him strange new techniques.
"Stand up, Ranma. Hold out your arms. Good."
"What are you doing, Pop?" Ranma wrinkled his nose as his dad pulled out a length of fish sausage from a package he'd bought earlier.
"Just hold still while I tie this around you, son."
Ranma looked at his dad, disgusted. "What good is this gonna do?" he asked.
"Trust me, son. This is going to help teach you one of the most powerful techniques in all of the martial arts."
Ranma's eyes went wide. "Really? Wow! How does it work?"
Genma spun Ranma around and picked him up by the scruff of his gi. It was then that Ranma noticed the open trap door in the floor. "Huh? Pop, whaaaAAAHH!" Ranma yelled as his father flung him into the dark hole.
He landed on something soft. It let out an inhuman screech that pierced his hearing. Startled, he leaped into the air, but not before he felt the pain of claws raking the flesh of his arm, leaving hot bleeding wounds in its wake. Shocked, he landed on his feet, only to have the experience repeated. He jumped in panic, landing on more cats, who began biting and clawing in defense.
"Ouch! Aughh!" Ranma looked up to see his father looking down at him from the square of light of the trap door above him. "P-pop, get me out! The cats are - ow! - biting me!"
Genma looked at him for a moment. Then he closed the trap door, leaving Ranma in a writhing cat-filled darkness.
Ranma stared at the ceiling in disbelief. "Pop?" He wasn't actually going to leave him down here, was he? He stood perfectly still, his eyes straining to see in the absolute darkness, afraid to move for fear of tripping and falling on a cat again. "Daddy?"
But soon his fear of not moving was moot. The cats, catching the scent of the fish sausage, began to converge on him.
He couldn't see them, but he could hear them yowling as they pressed against his legs. The cats fought and hissed and climbed over each other, raking Ranma's bare feet with their claws as they began to devour the sausage around his legs. They reached up with their clawed paws to get a better purchase on him in an attempt to reach the first food they'd been given in days.
Ranma's dark-blinded eyes widened in fear. "Ow!" Claws and teeth dug deep into his skin and he stumbled back at the sharp pain, falling onto his rump. The cats swarmed around him then, jumping onto his chest, clawing and biting indiscriminately at the sausage he was bound with, the haste of starvation fueling the fury of their hunger.
"D-daddy!" he called. He knew it was unmanly to be scared, but there were so many of these cats, and it was so dark, but he could feel them, and their inhuman yowls surrounded him and filled his ears as they nibbled at his flesh and scratched at his arms and face, and why did his father throw him down here to be eaten, didn't he want him anymore, was he a failure as a student, why wasn't he answering and opening the door to get him out...?
"Daddy, p-please!" the little boy called desperately as he was slowly buried under a living mound of hissing and yowling and scratching. His voice rose in desperate panic. "Please! L-let me out!"
But his father didn't answer. And soon the fish sausage was all eaten, but the cats were still hungry, and the scent of fish was all over him, and the cats clawed and fought and bit in frustration...
Ranma lay trembling, his arms thrown protectively over his eyes, blood seeping from hundreds of scratches and bites all over his body. He didn't know how long he lay there, sobbing quietly, until his father finally opened the trap door to pull him out.
"Well." His father held him in front of him, cleansing his wounds with stinging antiseptic. "You learn anything?" He looked narrowly at Ranma's puffy red eyes and sunken expression. "What's wrong with you, boy? You're supposed to be learning the Cat-Fist down there! Don't tell me you just curled up in a corner and cried?!"
"I couldn't see," Ranma answered quietly. "And there were... so many of them..."
"Feh! That's no excuse! I'm ashamed of you, boy. How can you be the heir of the Saotome School of Indiscriminate Grappling Martial Arts if you -"
Just then, a cat, who had somehow managed to escape the pit, walked into the dojo.
Ranma gasped and cringed away, the fire of his wounds flaring in both body and mind.
Genma scowled as he looked back and forth between the cat and his son. "So that's the way it is, eh? Well, no son of mine is going to be afraid of a silly thing like a cat!"
Ranma looked at the floor, his face flushing with humiliation.
And so it was that he didn't protest when his father tied him with dried sardines the next day.
The cats converged a few moments after he hit the floor, their eyes glowing like demonic lamps in the light from the trap door just before it slammed shut above him, sealing him in darkness. Then the yowling and the hissing and the hot fire of sharpened claws doused his spark of determination to not be afraid. Ranma cried in fear and pain.
The next day, Ranma stood before his father, trying to hide his trembling. "Please, daddy, don't throw me in again. I... I promise, I'm not scared of cats no more."
"Good. Then you won't mind another go at it. You'll master that Cat-Fist yet, boy."
The next day, Ranma couldn't hide his trembling. Tears streamed from his eyes uncontrollably, and he tried to push them back with his hands, ashamed at his weakness. His father stood over him, glowering in disapproval. "P-please, daddy," he cried. "I don't wanna go in the pit again. The cats, t-they -"
"Look at yourself, boy! I didn't raise you to be a sniveling coward! Now you're going down there, and you're not coming out until you learn to master your fear! Or the Cat-Fist, whichever comes first. Now go!" And with a shove, Genma pushed his son back into the pit.
By this time, the cats knew that food was coming. Ranma was covered with clawing, biting felines before he even hit the floor. The door slammed shut above him, leaving him in darkness with the terror and the pain, and no hope of getting out any time soon. These cats were demons who wanted to claw his eyes out, who wanted to eat his flesh down to the bone. They would devour him before he ever learned the Cat-Fist...
His father would never let him out. He was trapped there forever. There was no escape...
The words were a low growling hiss in his mind. Ranma was too terrified to open his eyes. But he found he didn't need to open his eyes to see the Shadowcat that had just appeared in the room. The supernatural animal glowed with black ki and padded silently towards him through the thick mass of yowling, hissing cats that were trying to tear him to pieces.
If the cats were demons, then this was their master.
**You dare try to learn the Cat-Fist, eh? For that there is a price. You have almost paid it. Your delicious fear has summoned me to collect the rest. Just a bit more now...**
The Shadowcat reached out with a paw and extended its needle-sharp claws. Ranma saw them coming towards his face, even with his eyes clenched shut, even with his arms thrown over his face. A terrified whimper escaped his throat.
**Good. Just a bit more...**
"D-daddy! Help m-me!"
The Shadowcat's claws flashed out towards his face.
Ranma screamed. And kept screaming.
**Yessss.** The Shadowcat rumbled in contentment. **That's the sound I like to hear. Now just one more thing.** The Shadowcat leaned over and pressed its forehead against Ranma's.
As the Shadowcat's forehead touched his own, something in Ranma's young mind snapped. His eyes flew open and glazed over. And his scream turned into a yowl.
The Shadowcat chuckled; a strange purring growl. **There now, all done. Enjoy my... gift.** The words entered Ranma's uncomprehending mind as the Shadowcat faded away, returning to the netherworld.
Genma sat quietly in a lotus position just outside the trap door, burning with shame as he listened to his son whimpering below. Oh, that this should happen, after all his dedication and hard work in training the boy. He heard his son's begging pleas to be pulled out, but he ignored them. For his son's own good.
Then Ranma began to scream. Genma's eyes flew open, and he moved towards the trap door. But no... He hesitated. If he pulled his son out now, how would Ranma ever learn to overcome his fears? He couldn't allow Ranma to believe that his father would be there to save him every time something got a little scary...
Genma froze in shock as he heard Ranma's voice change from a cry of terror to an inhuman yowling, like an animal in pain.
"Ranma!" Without another thought, he threw open the trap door.
Ranma burst through the opening in a single leap, still yowling, and landed on all fours. The boy turned, hissing, to face Genma, who knelt about ten feet away.
Genma paled. Ranma's hair stood on end and there was a wildness glinting like a high fever in his eyes. An inhuman growl issued from his throat. He raised a hand, curled paw-like, and swiped in the direction of his father from across the room.
Genma gasped in pain as he felt his clothes and the flesh beneath shred with the force of Ranma's casual bat of the hand. He collapsed backwards onto the floor, the air knocked out of him as well. The Cat Fist! He did it! But... what has happened to him? My son..! He raised himself up on one elbow to see Ranma fleeing with unnatural speed on all fours out the window. "Ranma! Wait!"
But his son was gone.
He grunted as he pushed himself painfully to his feet, and noticed that he was bleeding through the gashes on his arms and chest. I have to find Ranma...
Blocks away, Ranma curled himself up on the branch of a tree. He was shaking, and his heart thumped swiftly in his chest. His mind seemed incapable of forming words, but feelings and instincts overwhelmed him, and he knew he had to get away - get away from the source of his fear and pain.
Pain. He hurt. He was covered all over in scratches and bites. He looked, listened, smelled. The big cruel one was nowhere around. He was safe. Feeling a little more secure, he carefully, methodically began to clean the wounds on his paws and forelegs with his tongue.
"Here now, boy, what are you doing in my tree?" Akemi Fujisami brushed a strand of grey hair from her eyes with a wrinkled hand as she stood on her back porch looking up into the branches of her huge shade tree. "Come down this instant."
The boy, who didn't look a day over ten, was wearing a tattered, blood-stained white gi. He looked down at her through the leaves from his odd position, and she could see that his face and arms were covered with bloody scratches.
Akemi gasped. The black of his pupils and the blue of his irises seemed small and lost in the wild whiteness that filled his eyes. He blinked at her. Then he went back to calmly licking his curled fingers.
"Oh my," she said. The old woman peered at him with wide eyes. Her husband had been a great martial artist before he passed away. Because of him, she had seen things, heard things in her lifetime... Could it be..? But no, that's just a legend. And who would do such a thing to a child?
She looked at him piercingly and frowned. Still...
She went inside and emerged a moment later with a bowl of cream. She set it on the porch, and looked back up at the young dark-haired boy. Clearing her throat a little in embarrassment, she reached out a beckoning hand. "Here kitty kitty," she called softly. "Come on now. I've got some cream for you. Here kitty kitty."
Ranma paused, blinked at her, then continued his task.
Akemi realized that he wouldn't come down until he was finished, and quite possibly would simply wait until she left. Sighing, she went inside the house and slid the screen door closed. Then she sat on the other side of the door and waited patiently.
Ranma watched cautiously as the strange big one went into the house. After a few minutes, he leaped softly to the grass below and padded carefully to the porch, sniffing the bowl. The white liquid smelled good, and his stomach hurt with hunger. He began to lap it up.
The door slid open, and Ranma tensed and paused. It was the strange big one. She slowly reached out a hand. "Easy now," she cooed. "Nice kitty. I'm not going to hurt you." Her voice was soothing, relaxing, her body language carefully non-threatening as she knelt next to him. Ranma relaxed and continued to lap at the cream.
He didn't even flinch when she cautiously stroked his head. It felt good. He nuzzled against her hand and began to purr.
Akemi stifled a gasp. Human vocal cords weren't designed to make the sound this boy was making. And yet he was doing it. This was definitely unnatural... She drew her hand away in alarm.
The boy looked at her, cream dripping from his chin, and meowed. It sounded almost like a question, as if he was wondering why she stopped.
She smiled. In spite of her misgivings, she reached out again to stroke his head, and he arched his back in pleasure, rubbing up against her side. She laughed lightly. "Hmm. Looks to me like someone is a little starved for affection."
She gasped a little in surprise as he suddenly climbed into her lap and curled up. Tucking his arms and legs under him, he took one paw-like hand and began to wash the cream from his face.
She grinned, increasing the smile wrinkles on her face. He was a cute boy. She could tell that he would be a real heart-breaker when he grew up.
If he ever regained his senses, that is.
Her smile turned sad. "How do I snap you out of this, child?" she whispered. "You can't stay like this forever." She sat quietly, stroking his hair as he purred in her lap, his eyes closed in contentment. She began to hum absently, and eventually she felt the boy's breathing deepen as he fell asleep.
Her legs began to tingle from kneeling so long with the weight of the boy in her lap. She sighed and shifted her position, trying to get comfortable. Her movement woke up her young visitor.
Ranma blinked groggily. That's weird, he thought. I don't remember falling asleep. He yawned hugely, then heard a soft chuckle. It was then, as he looked around, that he realized that he had no idea where he was. Or why he was kneeling on an old woman's lap.
"Gahh!" he yelled, backpedaling off the woman's lap and tumbling off the back porch, landing hard on his rump.
Akemi smiled in relief as she saw the boy's eyes, large and blue, the wildness replaced with confusion. His fingers were splayed on the grass rather than curled into paws.
"Welcome back to humanity," she said wryly.
"Huh?" Ranma blinked. "Where am I? Who are you?" He looked around at the unfamiliar surroundings and frowned. "How did I get here?" he asked.
"You don't remember anything?" Akemi asked.
Ranma shook his head as he looked at her, his eyes narrowing in suspicion. Then he paused. "I remember..." A shadow passed over his face and he shuddered. "...cats," he finished.
Akemi nodded. "I thought so." She stood and bowed deeply. "I am Fujisami Akemi. You are a welcome guest in my home."
Ranma blinked again in shock as he tried to comprehend what was going on. Plus, no one had ever bowed like that to him before. He got to his feet and bowed back. "I am Saotome Ranma," he said.
Akemi smiled. Such a sweet boy. "Pleased to make your acquaintance. It appears you have been studying the Nekoken."
"How did you know?" Ranma looked at her with wide eyes.
"Your battle scars, for one thing," she replied, "and as for the other-"
"Rannmaaaa!" The call was faint, as if from a block or so away.
Ranma jumped in his skin, as if caught doing something he wasn't supposed to do. "It's my Pop," he said, glancing guiltily at Akemi. "I'm sorry, I... I gotta go." And with an agility that surprised her, he leaped to the lowest branch of her tree, a good 10 feet off the ground, and clambered over to the wall that surrounded her house.
"Ranma, wait," said Akemi.
He paused, looking back at her.
Stay with me, she wanted to say. I'll take care of you better than he can. Instead, she took a deep breath and smiled. "Remember where I live," she said. "Tell your father about me, and let him know that if he ever has trouble with... with the Nekoken, that I can help him. You promise you'll tell him for me?"
Ranma didn't understand the strange request, but he smiled at the old woman. "Okay," he said. "I promise. Domo arigato, Fujisami-san!" And with that, he disappeared over the wall.
The Snow Woman let her hands fall from the mirror to her sides, the images and feelings from Ranma's past fading from her mind.
This... This was interesting. Definitely priceless knowledge.
Link or no link... Perhaps there was a way to make Ranma forget Akane after all...
"Hey, Ryoga! Wake up!"
Ryoga clenched his eyes shut and groaned. "Go away, Ranma. It's too early. It's not even light out yet."
Ranma snorted and unzipped the front flap of the tent to stick his head in. "Since when have you been concerned about getting beauty sleep, Mister I-can-walk-across-an-entire-continent-and-not-realize-it-because-I-don't-get-tired? Besides, it's not like you've never gotten me up in the middle of the night to fight."
Ryoga sighed heavily and sat up. "Fine, Ranma. I'll spar with you. And then tonight I'll borrow some sleeping potion from Kodachi and drug your food so that you'll sleep through the night. Got it?"
Ranma scowled. "Not funny, Ryoga."
"Who's trying to be funny? Come on. Maybe if I beat you unconscious I can get some decent sleep."
Ranma chuckled. "Not likely."
Then he frowned. He did feel slightly guilty for waking Ryoga in the middle of the night. It certainly wasn't Ryoga's fault that he wasn't sleeping well. It was just that whenever he fell asleep he would have... such horrible nightmares...
Some were about Akane. He would see the look on her face as he was pulled away from her, hear her crying out his name in desperation, see the glint of cold, shimmering light on her tears as she reached out for him...
He always woke from those nightmares finding himself tangled up in the blankets, his eyes red and swollen, and his pillow soaked through.
Not all dreams were just about Akane, though. Sometimes he would dream of the cold, emotionless face of the Snow Woman as she stood behind Akane, looking at him with thinly-veiled hate in her eyes...
Ranma shuddered slightly.
But what woke him up this night was not a dream about Akane or the strange Snow Woman. Tonight he dreamed about... cats. Two huge cats with fur the color of fresh blood, both with red eyes and gaping, fang-filled mouths, each yowling with blood thirst as they leaped at him...
Ranma stood frozen in terror, unable to move but to throw his arms over his face and wait for the feel of their claws and teeth in his skin...
Yet nothing happened. And when he found the courage to look up, he saw the cats, clawing and scratching ineffectually at an invisible barrier a foot or so away from him.
At the base of the barrier lay a single feather, the color of burnt umber.
Relieved, yet still unnerved by the sight of the cats, Ranma cautiously stooped to pick up the feather to examine it. There seemed something... familiar about it...
Then his blood froze, and the feather fell from numb fingers, his eyes widening in horror. One of the cats had stopped clawing at the invisible barrier. It pressed its face against the barrier and began to... push. Slowly, as if it were moving through clay, it began to squeeze itself through. After a moment, the other cat imitated its companion, pressing its face against and pushing through the only thing that separated it from its intended prey.
Terrified beyond words, Ranma looked for a place to run, but found he couldn't move. He could only watch helplessly as the blood cats slowly worked their way through the barrier...
"Well, Ranma? You just gonna stand there, or are we gonna fight?"
Ranma blinked and realized that he had walked into the dojo without realizing it. Ryoga stood across from him, crouched in a ready stance.
"Jeeze, Ranma, you're really out of it. I'm gonna wipe the floor with you."
"Heh. You wish." Ranma shook his head, forcing the dream from his mind, and dropped into an attack stance. This is what he woke Ryoga up for in the first place. To fight. And forget...
At some unseen signal, the young men attacked each other simultaneously. There was a flurry of mid-air kicks and punches, and Ryoga was sent flying into the dojo wall.
Ranma grinned as he landed lightly. "Come on, Ryoga. That was pathetic. I know you can do better than that."
Ryoga staggered to his feet, wiping blood from his mouth. "Shut up, Ranma. I'm still half asleep anyway. I don't see why you have to take it out on me just because you can't handle waiting another two days for Cologne to get back from China."
Ranma glared hard at his friend/rival. He sure was acting casual about the whole situation. "Well, I don't see how you can sleep at all, P-Chan, especially knowing that Akane's in trouble, and there's nothing we can do about it!"
Ryoga bristled at the "P-Chan" remark and was about to retaliate, when suddenly he paused and blinked.
Ranma froze. He stared at Ryoga in disbelief.
"What did you say?"
Ryoga gave Ranma a puzzled look and scratched his head. "Well, you said... Who is in trouble?"
"Who do you think, idiot? Akane's in trouble! I would think that you of all people would be worried about her!"
Understanding suddenly lit in Ryoga's eyes. "Oh," he said. "That Akane. That girl that the spell voices put into your head, right?" He cast a sympathetic look at Ranma. "Look, Ranma, I know this is hard to believe, but there is no Akane. That's just the blood spell talking. Just concentrate, you'll remember."
Ranma's blue eyes flashed. A sick feeling was building in his stomach. "That's not funny, Ryoga," he said hoarsely.
Ryoga held up his hands. "Hey, I'm not trying to be funny, Ranma! What's with you tonight, anyway?" Suddenly his brow furrowed in concern. "The spell voices... Have they come back? Is that why you're so worked up?"
"No," Ranma snapped irritably, "that's not it, I..." Wait... Ranma paused as the image of two blood-red cats pushing through an invisible wall came into his mind. Spell voices...
Suddenly, a sharp, blinding pain lanced through Ranma's head. "Ungggh..." Ranma clutched at his temples and sank to his knees.
"Ranma! Are you okay? What's wrong?"
"R... Ryoga..." he gasped. He cried out as another blinding pain, worse than the first, threatened to split his head in two. And then...
And then he stood, facing the barrier. The cats were almost all the way through, yowling and screeching in delight.
He held out his shaking hands, palms outward. "N-no," he stammered in fear. "G-go away, I don't want you in my head again!"
The cats kept coming.
Ryoga watched in shock as Ranma crumpled to the floor, clutching his head in agony.
"Ranma!" Ryoga stood, looking on helplessly, not knowing what to do to ease his friend's pain. The spell voices were back. That hadto be it. Ranma had been acting so strange the past couple of days, he suspected that the spell voices were working their way back from wherever they'd disappeared to. Ever since Cologne had left for China to get that stone to remove the blood spell, Ranma's behavior had become more and more erratic...
"N-no," Ranma moaned from the floor, rocking back and forth in pain. "G-go away, I don't want you in my head again..."
That did it. Ryoga ran for the house. "Kasumi-san! Nabiki-san!"
He burst into the house just as the girls stepped groggily from their rooms. Nabiki looked down the stairs at Ryoga. "What is it, Ryoga-kun? This had better be good. It's not even three a.m."
"It's Ranma. He and I were sparring in the dojo and he collapsed. I... I think the spell voices are back."
"What?" shouted Nabiki, heading quickly down the stairs."And you just left him there?"
"What was I supposed to do?" Ryoga snapped back. "Stand there and do nothing?"
A hand flew to Kasumi's cheek. "Oh dear! I'll call Doctor Tofu."
Genma-panda stuck his head out of his bedroom door and held up a sign. [What's going on?] But no one was there to answer him.
With twin screeches of glee, the blood-spell cats leaped free from the barrier that had confined them for too long. Without pausing, they leaped straight for Ranma's face.
Ranma screamed as, with an explosion of pain, the cats passed ghostlike into his head.
And the whispering began again, increasing in intensity...
**Akane is alive Akane is alive Akaneisalive Akaneisaliveakaneisaliveakaneis...**
**You'll never see her again, you're doomed to fail, you already have, you should give up you'll never see her again you're doomed to fail you already haveyoushouldgive upyou'llneverseeheragainyou'redoomedtofailyoualreadyhave...**
Ranma bolted upright, clutching his head as the dark, thick spell voices filled his mind once again.
"Ranma!" Nabiki was there, grasping his shoulders to steady him.
Ryoga knelt on the other side. "Hang in there, Ranma. Doctor Tofu's on his way."
Ranma clenched his teeth, his eyes squeezed shut as he struggled for focus. The spell voices were back, but he'd controlled them once before so that they weren't so overwhelming. He could do it again, if he could just...
There. He found his center. He forced himself to relax, and as he did, he concentrated on pushing the spell voices to the back of his mind, where he'd held them until they'd mysteriously disappeared a few days ago.
The spell voices retreated reluctantly. If Ranma were unconscious or asleep, they would have been able to find greater purchase against his will. But with him awake, using all his martial arts ability to focus his will, they were pushed slowly to the back of his mind until they were but a low, constant murmur.
Ranma slowly opened his eyes. He was drenched in sweat. Nabiki and Ryoga were watching him in concern.
"Hey," said Ryoga. "You okay?"
Ranma nodded shakily and swallowed. "I guess you were right, Ryoga. The spell voices are back. But I think I've got them under control again."
Nabiki sank back on her heels and sighed. "That's a relief. You had us going there for a moment, Ranma." She cocked a critical eyebrow at him. "Do me a favor and don't do that again, okay?"
Ranma pushed himself to his feet. "Yeah, sure." He sighed heavily. "I just wish Cologne would get back with that Eye of Kami so I can go get Akane back. Then maybe these stupid spell voices wouldn't be so damn annoying."
Ryoga and Nabiki cast nervous glances at each other.
"Akane?" asked Nabiki.
Ryoga shrugged helplessly. "Don't look at me, Nabiki-san. I figured that she's the girl the blood spell put in his head. You know, the one that was supposed to get him to hate Shampoo?"
"Ah." Nabiki nodded understandingly. "So her name's Akane, is it? That's new."
Ranma stood frozen, looking back and forth between the two. Then his eyes narrowed to slits of blue fire. "This had better be your idea of a sick joke, you guys," he said in a low voice.
Nabiki looked at him, startled. Then her expression went grim. "Hmm," she said, looking Ranma in the eyes. "Looks like the spell voices really came back with a vengeance. You'd better work harder on pushing them back, Saotome. That is if you don't want everyone thinking you're ready for the loony bin until Cologne can cure you."
Ranma blinked, taken aback by Nabiki's tone. "W-what? Cure me? You... you mean... you guys are serious?"
Ryoga and Nabiki just looked at him in sympathy.
Ranma thought that, after what he'd been through, nothing else could phase him. He was wrong. He felt the strength trickling out of his legs and he sat down hard. "But... but what about Akane?"
"Look, Ranma," said Nabiki, "this Akane person you're so obsessed with is just a figment that the blood spell stuck in your brain."
"Figment..." Ranma felt his world crumbling around him.
"Hey, don't worry about it, Ranma," said Ryoga, coming over to clap him comfortingly on the shoulder. "Hang in there. Cologne will be back soon with that whatchamacallit stone, and those voices will be gone in no time. Things will be back to normal before you know it."
"Somehow," whispered Ranma hollowly, "I doubt it."
The spell voices in his mind echoed the sentiment happily.