Chapter 13: Souls in the Balance, Part 1
"Akane." Masakazu reached out a soft, feathered hand and placed it on the girl's shoulder as she knelt, her sobs gradually subsiding as she smiled at him.
Akane stood and wiped the tears from her eyes with the back of her fingers, facing the tengu, relief and hope flickering in her brown eyes. "Thank you, sensei," she said, her voice tremulous and full of gratitude. "You don't know how much this means to me. I know you can help Ranma, whatever's happened to him..."
Masakazu gazed at her, his inhuman black eyes unblinking. "I appreciate your confidence in me, child," he said, his voice quiet and serious. "But..."
Akane frowned as the tengu trailed off uncertainly. "What is it?" she asked, the knot of dread in her stomach tightening. "You can help Ranma, can't you?"
The tengu closed his eyes. "That's not it, Akane. I will do what I can to find out what has happened to him, and fix it if possible. It's just that..." He raised his head and looked at her. "You must know that if I leave you now... If I go to the mortal plane to help your fiance, it may be... some time... before I will be able to return."
Akane paled. "Wh-what?" Masakazu, her sole friend in a hostile realm, unable to return to her? "But... why?"
The tengu closed his eyes. "Do you remember, a week or so ago, when I explained about the time dilation between the planes?"
Akane's eyes widened with understanding... and horror.
The revelation that she had been trapped in the Kami Plane for over two years while only a single week had passed in the mortal realm had left her reeling. Her first thought, as she recovered from the shock, was for Ranma.
And all this time I thought that, when he used that strange spell to try and come for me, he'd been searching for me for two whole years. But really, for him at least, I've only been missing a few days. That idiot.
It had bothered her a great deal to think that Ranma's feelings for her weren't as tested by time as hers were for him. He was just acting on the fiery impulse of the moment, as usual - a fiery impulse that could fade and die out as time eventually passed for him as it had passed for her. Once again, visions of him marrying Ukyo or Shampoo filled her head... and filled her soul with an almost unbearable grief and anger at the imagined betrayal.
Until Masakazu pointed out that, while everyone else, including her family, had succumbed to the spell of forgetfulness cast by the Kami Plane, Ranma had not. He remembered her when no ne else, not even her own father, could even recall her name.
"Do not assume," the tengu had said, "that just because he does not have the burden of two years separation weighing on his soul as you have, his love is less than yours. You witnessed a mere glimpse of the intensity of his suffering when you caught Yuki-onna spying on him through her mirror. Believe me, though but a week has passed in the mortal realm since you left, it seems like an eternity for him."
His words had eased her fears at the time, and left her aching with sympathy for Ranma's pain, as well as aching for his company once again.
Now the knowledge of the time dilation sent a whole new surge of fears to the surface of her thoughts. If Masakazu left her, and spent even a single day in the mortal realm trying to save Ranma from whatever it was that sent instinctive terror spiking through her soul on his behalf...
Weeks... even months might pass in the Kami realm before he returned. Months that she would have to spend alone; a sole human in a realm of spirits, gods and demons, the majority of whom were indifferent to her. Worse, some were openly hostile.
Akane looked behind her at the swirling blanket of dark mist she had just emerged from, her hand nervously reaching up to play with a lock of her dark hair that now fell well past her shoulders. She could probably manage on her own. Heck, she'd been winning battles against demons for over two years now, thanks to the tengu's training. Still, it was a lot different, fighting demons in the relative safety of the Snow Woman's domain, and fighting demons on their own turf as she continued her search to find someone who might have power enough - and compassion enough - to lift the blood spell from her. There had been some awfully close calls with demons the past few weeks since she and Masakazu-sensei had ventured out on their own, and she had been grateful that the tengu warrior had been fighting by her side.
Akane shuddered. She didn't want to be alone in this strange, frightening place. Yet she couldn't shake the terrified feeling that if Masakazu didn't go to the mortal realm to find out what was wrong, Ranma would be lost to her forever. Something terrible had happened to him, she could feel it.
Tears welled in her eyes and slid silently down her cheeks as she looked at the mist-covered ground. That idiot... It figures he'd somehow manage to get himself in trouble instead of finding a way to rescue me, she thought. Her blue-black hair fell in soft wisps around her face and she brushed them back with one slender but strong hand. Swallowing, she looked up into the bird face of the tengu. "I... I'll be fine on my own, sensei. Please... go to him. I don't think I could bear it if..." Her throat closed off, and she couldn't finish the thought.
Masakazu's black eyes gazed at her sadly over his expressionless beak. She forced a small, scared smile. "It's okay. Really. I'll keep looking for a way to break the blood spell by myself. Just... hurry back when you can, okay?"
The tengu closed his eyes and bowed. "I will."
And with that, he disappeared.
Akane wrapped her arms around herself and shuddered. She looked around at the bleak, grey stretch of landscape in front of her, the trailing wisps of the Mists of Kami curling about her ankles behind her.
She was alone. Alone, and more frightened than she had ever been in her life.
For herself, and her uncertain future.
But mostly, as the strange hollowness grew within her... for Ranma.
The Snow Woman crumpled to the floor with a gasp of pain as the last of her mirror portal spell faded behind her.
In spite of the pain, a faint smile touched her lips.
But no time to celebrate. As her body gradually solidified into material existence, the searing agony of the blackened, blistering ki burns on her face, chest and arms flared mercilessly. She cried out, and icy tears of pain fell from her closed eyes to shatter on the hard floor of her quarters. She knelt, her slim body trembling, her shimmering white mane of hair, scorched in places, spilling on the floor around her.
Carefully, she lifted her head and began to soak up the healing cold of her realm, soothing the pain of the blackened ki burns that marred the smooth white surface of her skin.
She had underestimated the boy. Even after all her careful preparation, after all the precautions she had taken, she had not been prepared for the strength of Ranma's ki attack. Using her precious magic to transport herself and the Shadowcat demon to the mortal realm, and then casting the cold spell on Ranma, had drained her. She nearly lacked the power to save herself from the boy's unexpectedly vicious retaliation. After such a close call, it took all her remaining strength to draw the cold out of the chill spring night just so that she could return home.
Now, though, back in the center of her domain, she was in her element. With a bright blue flash, her icy power flared, engulfing her in a cold aura, soothing the pain of the ki burns. She sagged in relief, her fingers splaying out against the cold marble floor. Moments later, a thin sheen of shining ice formed over the skin of her fingers. The ice slowly began to spread up her arms and over her chest and face, then down her back and legs until the Snow Woman had completely encased herself in a bright cocoon of ice.
The ice pulsed with power, and the ugly wounds beneath began to heal.
After a moment, the glow faded. The ice cracked and fell from the Snow Woman's skin in gleaming shards. Slowly, she pushed herself to her feet and tossed her hair, shaking out the remaining ice crystals. She stood before her mirror to examine her reflection.
The worst of the damage was gone. Still, she could see tiny blackened burn fissures scattered across the white surface of her skin like cracks in a baked desert floor. She frowned slightly, her frost-blue eyes narrowing. They would heal with time. Until then...
She stepped towards the mirror.
She'd only caught the briefest, tantalizing glimpse of the fruits of her labor before she was forced of necessity to return. Now she had to make sure.
Leaning towards her reflection, she breathed. The frost magic swirled on the reflective surface, then cleared to show...
...a flash of red, pigtailed hair, and the slim silhouette of a distinctly female form moving with impossible speed on all fours through dark suburban streets, past houses, over walls, towards trees and mountains...
Ranma was still running. The Snow Woman looked through her mirror at the boy, trapped in female guise thanks to her ice magic. As the mirror focused on his face, she could see, even in the darkness, that the blue of his eyes was lost in the wild whiteness of the Nekoken that had overcome him. Human in body, but in mind no longer, he ran with swift feline ease through the moonless night, his wide eyes sparking with a primal fear as the unseen presence of the Shadowcat demon drove him further and further away from his home and friends...
But, though it was extremely satisfying to see the boy reduced to such a state, it wasn't what she was looking for.
She concentrated on his ki.
The blood spell. There, woven deep within the dragon blood that permeated his ki, was that stubborn wisp of dragon blood - the other end of the same strand she'd spent so long trying to reach and destroy in Akane's ki so that she would forget.
It was fading.
The Snow Woman clasped her thin white fingers underneath her chin and smiled slowly.
The tiny wisp of dragon blood that linked Ranma and Akane, though they were separated by dimensions, was fading.
Yet... it was fighting to exist, though it was never meant to be. It was a mere fluke of the blood spell; an unnatural side effect never intended by the caster. The result of Ranma's tremendous ki blast that shattered the threatening spell into pieces, only for it to re-form moments later - smaller, weaker, altered.
Still, the blood spell managed to accomplish its purpose. Akane was spirited away to the Kami Plane. And Ranma was left alone with the spell-voices in his head, promising him that he would never find her.
Though, in his current state, Ranma could no longer hear those spell voices. Or if he did, the words no longer had meaning for him.
The Snow Woman's eyes narrowed as she watched the fading wisp of dragon blood. "Disappear," she whispered, as if by doing so, her will would help destroy it.
But it did not need her help. The demon Shadowcat's disruption, as it fed delicately and continuously on Ranma's powerful ki, had shattered the tenuous link that kept Ranma and Akane in constant, though unconscious contact in spite of the dimensions and the time dilations that separated them.
The tiny wisp of dragon blood flickered weakly.
Then, without preamble or fanfare, it dissolved.
Disappeared. Snuffed out like a tiny candle flame in a fierce, cold wind.
Ranma continued to run, driven by blind animal instinct, into the dark night.
The Snow Woman closed her eyes in satisfaction.
The mirror darkened. She did not want to look at the boy any longer. Her revenge against him was complete. Not only that, but now that the boy's mind was gone, and the connection between him and Akane dissolved, there was nothing to prevent the Kami Plane from extending its subtle magic to make Akane forget him. Forget home. She would, at last, become a true denizen of the Kami Plane.
Most importantly, with her ties to both her home and her worthless fiance erased from her mind, the misunderstanding between them would soften. And she would come back.
Yuki-onna opened her eyes and smiled. The first genuine smile to light her face in the weeks since Akane left.
Akane would come back.
All she had to do now was wait.
A moment of nothingness. The bodiless, black void between the planes.
Masakazu waited patiently for the void to disappear, to form itself into the mortal realm as his transportation spell completed its cycle.
The moment of nothingness stretched into a longer moment. Then, even longer.
The bodiless intelligence that formed the tengu's identity in the non-existence between planes began to get worried. What was taking so long? It never took this long to travel...
A voice, that sounded like an infinitely vast multitude speaking in unison, pierced his mind.
In the void, the tengu had no physical presence, no solid body to react to the voice that penetrated his mind, yet he found himself trembling just the same.
I was afraid of this...
**Were you, now?** The voice was mild, yet cold. **And yet you attempt to interfere with the mortal plane even so.**
**It's not what you think-**
**Oh?** A touch of wry amusement. **We think it is. You tengu have a reputation for meddling in mortal affairs. We have seen you with the girl. You have bent the rules too often. You should not interfere. She is ours by right. As punishment for your meddling, we shall leave you here, in the void between the planes.**
**I haven't interfered!** Masakazu forced himself to be calm, in spite of the terrifying nothingness of the void. **I have gone to the mortal plane merely to undo the damage caused by others who travel between the planes to cause mischief. And as for the girl-**
**You are not one to speak of mischief, tengu. Your kind has a long record of creating trouble on all sides of the dimensional barriers. You, personally, Masakazu, have been warned time and again against interfering. And now you would prevent the natural order of things from working on this mortal girl in the Kami Plane.**
Masakazu heaved a mental sigh, disguising his fear. Eternity was a long time to be trapped in nothingness, and he was old enough that he knew a little of eternity... **I have not done anything, one way or the other, to help Akane find her way back home. I am not responsible for the blood spell strand that keeps her memory of the mortal plane intact. I have not encouraged her to find a way home. She initiated her search for a cure through her own power and determination. If I have done anything, I have merely taught her the skills she needs to survive among those who would use her or harm her, so that the Kami Plane might enjoy the feel of her human presence within its boundaries a little longer.**
**You interfered and saved the mortal boy from the Snow Woman, she who has the right to transcend the barriers...**
**She may be have the right and the ability to transcend the barriers at will, having domain in both the Kami and mortal realms,** Masakazu responded fiercely, **but she had no right to harm that boy. It was spring, with summer on the way. Not even a frost on the ground. He was in no danger of freezing to death, and she had no right to take his life. It was an act of pure vengeance on her part, having nothing to do with her normal realm of jurisdiction.**
The voice was silent a moment. Masakazu felt the hollow, gnawing nothingness of the void pressing against his mind as he awaited a response.
**You summoned the mortal boy to you as a dream presence, and warned him of the Kami Plane's spell of Forgetfulness...**
Masakazu groaned silently in frustration. **That was completely incidental. The boy is inflicted with the same blood spell that prevents Akane from forgetting the mortal world. As I said, I had nothing to do with that, or the result that both of them seem to be immune to the spell of Forgetfulness. I merely felt sorry for him, and locked the blood spell voices away from his mind, which in no way interfered with anything related to the Kami realm.**
Were they... actually listening? Or were they simply toying with him?
**Please,** Masakazu said, hoping that their silence was a good sign. **I'm not going to the mortal realm to interfere with anything in relation to the workings of the Kami Plane. I am not giving Akane undue aid in her quest to escape the Kami Plane. I am merely going to check on her fiance, perhaps to fix an injustice inflicted upon him by one of our own, as before. Surely you can allow me that.**
The voice was silent. Then, **You seem to have a great deal of interest in this mortal pair.**
Masakazu paused. **Yes,** he admitted hesitantly. **Well... I suppose I'm just a hopeless romantic.**
**Typical of your race.** The voice was slightly derisive, yet held a touch of amusement.
The tengu was silent. There was nothing more to say. Perhaps he had said too much.
The hollow ache of being in the void too long was starting to wear against his mind. An eternity of this?
**You may go,** the voice said at last. **But be warned, tengu. Do not overstep your boundaries. We know how you delight in twisting and bending the laws to suit yourself. We will not be so lenient next time.**
The relief that flooded Masakazu's mind was almost embarrassing in its intensity. Focusing, he found a semblance of his ancient dignity again. **Thank you,** he replied soberly.
And then he felt his body solidifying as the mortal plane flared into existence around him, filling the void.
Shampoo stood, looking out the windows of the Nekohanten, squinting against the brightness of the early morning sun as it rose higher into the sky. Mousse stood behind her silently, next to their travel packs.
Finally he spoke. "I don't think he's coming, Shampoo," he said softly.
She stiffened, but her eyes didn't leave the street. "Stupid Mousse," she said, but her voice was low, and there was no force behind the words. "Ranma no can find Ancient One by himself. He need Shampoo to lead him to dragon."
Mousse shook his head, even though Shampoo couldn't see him. "If Ranma decided to find the dragon without us, he would do it," he replied. "He said he would be here at first light. That was over an hour ago." Mousse sighed as he saw her tremble a little. "Face it, Shampoo. He's gone without us."
Shampoo didn't respond. She stood silently, gazing out the window. Then her shoulders shook with a low sob, and her head bowed as she fought back the wetness in her eyes.
"Is no fair," she whispered after a moment. "Ranma no even give Shampoo chance to fix... He no let me prove I... sorry..."
Mousse closed his eyes briefly behind his glasses. He gave you every chance to prove you were sorry, he thought, remembering the trust Ranma had placed in Shampoo when she first returned from China. You just never took the opportunity to act until after you were caught red-handed.
Shampoo turned away from the window suddenly, her gaze lowered, her face set and determined though her eyes were still wet, and walked over to grab her huge pack off the floor. She shouldered it easily.
"Shampoo... What are you doing?" asked Mousse, though he already knew.
She didn't look at him. "I go to find Ranma," she said. "He no find Ancient One without Amazon guide. No Amazon in China help him, except Shampoo."
Mousse reached down with a resigned sigh and shouldered his own pack. "Then I'm coming with you, Shampoo." He knew that, as usual, wherever she went, he would follow. The fact that Cologne was expected to return home later that day also helped motivate him. He had no desire to face the old ghoul alone when she discovered that all her plans had gone awry.
He suppressed a shudder and looked down at Shampoo. "But if you're going to run off looking for Ranma, I suggest you start at the Tendo Dojo. Then you might be able to find out which way he's going, and who he's traveling with. It will make him easier to track down."
Shampoo tensed with anger in that way Mousse was so familiar with. He half-expected her to turn and kick him across the room, or throw a glass of water in his face to turn him into a duck again. But instead, slowly, she relaxed, raised her head, and looked at him for the first time that morning.
Mousse blinked. In her eyes was something akin to fear.
"Tendos," she said softly. "Ranma maybe tell them what I do to Akane..."
Mousse let out a breath he didn't realize he'd been holding. "Probably," he said.
Shampoo's countenance darkened with shame, and she looked at the floor.
Mousse swallowed. He wanted to put his arms around her, but held himself back. "But... if you really want to make up for... for what you've done," he said, "you need to find Ranma fast. And that's the best way I can think of; to ask the Tendos. At least it's better than blindly charging off to China and hoping to run into him along the way."
Shampoo nodded silently and turned towards the door. "I..." She paused, as if considering. "We... go ask Tendos." It was almost a question.
A small, almost-hopeful smile touched Mousse's lips as he understood. "Yes," he said. "We'll go ask them together."
A ghost of a smile flickered across Shampoo's face, and she straightened. As she did, Mousse thought he saw a small spark of her old, pure Amazon honor and fighting spirit, untainted by twisted desires, flicker deep within her, seeming to pierce a tiny hole in the gloom and darkness that had settled on her.
And the spark of hope within his own heart flared brighter.
Kasumi answered the door. "Oh my," she said, as she saw the lavender-haired Amazon and her tall bespectacled companion standing on her doorstep. "Shampoo, Mousse, what a pleasant surprise. Please come in. Would you like some breakfast?"
The two Chinese teenagers, expecting a much more hostile reception, were struck speechless by the welcome, and they cast befuddled glances at each other as the eldest Tendo girl led them into the dining area.
"I made breakfast a little while ago," said Kasumi, gesturing to the table, "but no one has come back yet. It may be a little cold, but I can heat it up in the microwave if you like."
Shampoo looked around nervously. No one else seemed to be around, much to her relief. She especially didn't want to run into Nabiki, although she had steeled herself to face the entire family if necessary... "A...Arigato," she said hesitantly, "but... no can stay."
Kasumi looked at her inquisitively. As she did, Shampoo noticed that the older girl's expression, though pleasant as usual, was lined with worry. Dark circles stood out against pale skin under her eyes, and her eyes were red from lack of sleep. Still, Kasumi smiled. "Ah, I understand," she said. "You've come to look for Ranma too. That's so kind of you."
Shampoo and Mousse blinked. "'Look for Ranma too?'" asked Mousse. "You... you mean, he left alone, without telling anyone?"
Kasumi tilted her head and gave him a puzzled look. "Well," she said hesitantly, "he wasn't exactly in any condition to talk when he ran off last night."
Shampoo and Mousse blinked again.
"Huh?" said Mousse brightly.
At that moment, the sound of someone coming through the front door reached their ears. "Kasumi." Nabiki's voice, cracking with exhaustion. "Have you heard anything?" She staggered wearily into the dining area...
...and froze when she saw Shampoo and Mousse standing next to Kasumi. Her tired, blood-shot eyes immediately narrowed to angry slits. Shampoo's eyes widened, but she stood her ground.
"I'm afraid not, Nabiki," said Kasumi gently. "Father and Uncle Saotome are still out looking, and I haven't heard anything from Ryoga or Ukyo. You are the first to return."
Nabiki wasn't listening. "You..." she said, her tired voice low and dripping venom as she glared daggers at Shampoo. "You did this to him. How'd you do it? Did you get help from that stupid white ghost cat in the jingle-bell who's always following you around? Or did you did you just dip back into your bag of black magic again to summon that cat demon?"
Shampoo looked at Nabiki blankly, expecting a verbal attack of a completely different nature. Then, the angry girl's words slowly began to penetrate the stunned fog in her brain. Cat demon? What was going on here?
"Shampoo not know what you talking," she said honestly, gazing directly into Nabiki's eyes. "We come look for Ranma because he no find Ancient One without Amazon guide."
"That's right," added Mousse. "We waited and waited for him to show up at the Nekohanten like he said he would, but he never came, so we came here thinking he might have left without us. Kasumi just told us that he wasn't here. What's going on?"
"Oh my," said Kasumi, holding a hand to her cheek. "I'm so sorry about the confusion. I thought you knew. No wonder..."
"Know what?" asked Shampoo.
Nabiki looked back and forth between Shampoo and Mousse, peering at them intently. She had naturally assumed that the purple-haired bimbo was behind the creature that attacked Ranma. After all, Ranma had just utterly destroyed Shampoo's hopes of catching him for her husband mere hours before that thing attacked him. And she figured that Shampoo thought if she couldn't have him, she'd make sure no one else would. Not to mention that Shampoo knew first hand about Ranma's cat weakness.
At least, that was the explanation Nabiki came up with as she spent the night searching the dark streets of Nerima, her mind burning with worry as she called out Ranma's name, along with the occasional, humiliating "here, kitty kitty," until she was hoarse, her hope of finding him dwindling by the minute as her anger against Shampoo grew.
Now though... She cast a critical, measuring look at the Amazon, who was gazing back at her levelly, not quite able to disguise the small spark of fear in her eyes. Nabiki had an instinct for people, for knowing when they were lying. And right now, in spite of her night of frustration, fear and fury, her instincts were telling her that Shampoo was innocent - of last night's crime, at least. There was just a feel about her. Not to mention that Mousse was there to back her up, and he was easy to read. The myopic Chinese boy probably couldn't get away with a lie if his life depended on it, since he perpetually wore his heart on his sleeve.
Finally Nabiki sighed, looking Shampoo in the eye. "Last night, we were all packing to go to China," she said, "when we suddenly heard Ranma release a ki blast in his room that took out the wall. When we ran up to see what was going on, we couldn't get in and so Ryoga broke the door down. And there was Ranma, with this huge black demon cat leaning over him-"
Mousse gasped, and Shampoo's eyes went wide. "Demon cat?" she asked, horrified. "What happen to Ranma?!"
Nabiki watched her closely, looking for the tell-tale signs of pseudo-surprise, yet, to her great amazement, she found none. She frowned. Did that mean Shampoo really had no idea what had happened last night? She wasn't responsible for the demon cat that sent Ranma over the edge?
But if Shampoo wasn't the one to blame, then who... or what... was? And why? Why now, just when they were so close to finding a solution to the blood spell?
She sighed. She was so tired, it was hard to think straight, but she forced herself to focus anyway. "Ryoga tried to ki-blast the demon," she said, "but it just faded away, and by then it was... too late." Her heart tightened in her chest at the memory of Ranma's unearthly yowling, the feral look of terror in his eyes... "Ryoga's ki blast scared Ranma, and he turned and hissed at us before running off."
Well, technically, he was a "she," thought Nabiki, frowning. Which is another strange piece to this puzzle, because I don't remember him getting wet before he went upstairs. And there wasn't any water in the room...
Then she noticed that Shampoo had gone very pale.
Mousse noticed her pallor as well. "What's wrong, Shampoo?" he asked, his voice worried. He'd been with her all night, packing and getting ready for the trip. She couldn't be responsible.
Shampoo looked up at him, her eyes wide and scared, then back at Nabiki. "I... I... Shadowcat not my fault..."
Nabiki's eyes narrowed at Shampoo's usage of the obvious title. "That may be so," she said reluctantly. "But you apparently recognize what I'm talking about. All right, spill it, Shampoo. What was that thing, and why did it come after Ranma last night?"
Shampoo swallowed and nodded. She was here to help Ranma, to try and atone for the blood spell. She would do whatever was necessary... "After Ranma defeat Great-grandmother to get Phoenix Pill using Nekoken, I ask her about why Ranma act like cat. I never see anyone be like that before. She tell me Ranma train in very dangerous, forbidden technique. Ranma act like cat because, when first train, his fear summon demon Shadowcat. Shadowcat take piece of his soul and replace it with cat soul. From then on, when Ranma too afraid of cats, the cat soul in him take over."
Nabiki and Mousse both blinked, stunned.
"Are you telling me," said Nabiki, her voice low with disbelief and shock, "that ever since Ranma was tossed into that pit of cats when he was ten years old, he's been walking around with a dormant cat soul inside him? That all these times Ranma has flipped out, thinking he was a cat, he was actually possessed by this cat demon?!" Nabiki had the sudden urge to track down Genma and strangle him for what he'd done to his son.
Shampoo shook her head quickly. "No, no, is not possessed by demon. Ranma still Ranma, just... Ranma cat." She frowned in frustration as she tried to explain. "Shadowcat use times when Ranma have cat-soul to feed on his ki from Kami realm. Shadowcat no can come to mortal world except when summoned by Nekoken training. All other times, it stay in Kami realm."
Nabiki blinked. "The Kami Realm," she said coldly. "The Shadowcat comes from the Kami realm?"
Shampoo nodded weakly and looked at the floor.
"The place where you sent my sister. The place that made us all forget her, is full of demons, like the Shadowcat."
It wasn't a question, but Shampoo nodded miserably just the same, her gaze not leaving the floor.
"I see." Nabiki was silent a moment, her carefully blank expression covering her internal struggle to quell the rage that was boiling within her. Rage leads to rashness and muddled thinking, she reminded herself forcibly. Now is not a good time to lose control.
"Well," she said at last. "You say the Shadowcat can't come into the mortal world except when its been summoned by the initial Cat Fist training? I've got news for you, Shampoo." Her voice was ice. "Nobody in this house, especially Ranma, was doing any Nekoken training last night, and the Shadowcat came."
Shampoo closed her eyes, yet stood firm against the accusing tone. "Shampoo not know why Shadowcat come," she replied grimly. "It not supposed to after first time. It no has power to do that."
"Well, whether or not it's supposed to, it did." Nabiki's normal calm demeanor was worn thin from exhaustion and worry, yet somehow she managed to keep it intact. "I'm beginning to suspect there's a hell of a lot more to this than either you or I realize. But that's not what's important right now." She sighed heavily, her weariness showing in spite of herself. "Ranma is gone. We can't find him. We've been looking for him all night."
Shampoo opened her eyes and looked at Nabiki. Perhaps it was because of exhaustion, but Nabiki's calm mask couldn't hide the worry and fear for Ranma that flickered brightly in her eyes. "Shampoo help you find Ranma," she said quietly. "We help find him and then we go to China to cure blood spell."
Nabiki looked at her for a long moment. Then she nodded slowly. "Sounds like a plan," she said.
Shampoo smiled hesitantly. She didn't even flinch when she felt Mousse tentatively lay his hand on her shoulder to give it an encouraging squeeze.
Nabiki noticed and raised an eyebrow, but said nothing.
Masakazu blinked as he felt the warm sun beat down on his ruddy, feathered head. The sharp scent of pine needles and new spring growth, and the sound of a rushing stream filled the air. The tengu felt slightly giddy as he gazed around at the forested mountains in the brief moment of unsteadiness that followed his materialization from the void.
Masakazu liked the mortal realm. There was a feel to it, a heady earthiness like a bouquet of a fine aged wine, that was missing from the Kami Plane. The Kami Plane could be so intangible at times.
He heaved a great sigh as he took a moment to enjoy the feel of his flesh around him, his feathers ruffling in the slight wind. That had been a close one. He was fortunate that the Council seemed to be in a relatively good mood, especially since They had a reputation of being extremely fickle in Their execution of "justice" sometimes.
But he didn't want to dwell on that. It was time to get down to business. He had to fix whatever had happened to Ranma and get back to Akane as soon as possible.
The tengu extended his senses, reaching out with his mind and soul, searching...
Ah. There. At least his aim wasn't too far off. Ranma was close by.
Masakazu blinked in surprise as his mind touched Ranma's. Then his black eyes narrowed, and he began moving towards the boy with a swift and silent urgency.
Ranma's mind was full of chaos. No words or coherent thoughts at all, just instincts and feelings - mostly exhaustion and hunger, and a faint feeling of terror, as if he was on the edge of...
Something was horribly wrong.
The tengu came over the rise of a small hill, blending in with the trees and shadows so effortlessly that even the natural forest inhabitants were unaware of his presence. At the bottom of the hill was a rushing stream, and on the opposite bank, facing his direction, but staring intently down into the water, was Ranma.
The boy was in his cursed female form, kneeling with curled hands in front of him on the bank of the stream. His flaming red hair was in disarray, sticking out of the braided pigtail. His white, sleeveless Chinese shirt and black pants were smeared with dirt and mud, as were his face and arms. His knuckles and the palms of his hands were scratched and bloody...
...from running on all fours, Masakazu realized with a sick sensation suddenly building in his stomach.
Ranma's hand flashed out towards the water, faster than even the tengu's sharp eyes could follow, and suddenly there was a wriggling, silver fish on the bank. With a feral noise of hunger, Ranma pounced on the fish with delicate, curled fingers, and picked it up in his mouth. He then went a little ways from the stream, and began to devour the delicacy with the fervor of a starving animal.
Masakazu shuddered slightly in horror as he realized... The Nekoken. That means the Shadowcat's involved in this.
Oh, Yuki-onna, what have you done?
That explained the chaotic state of the boy's mind. Ranma's human intellect had been forcibly submerged as the symbiotic cat soul, joined to him by the Shadowcat when he was a child, merged with his own soul, overwhelming it. Altering it until Ranma's humanity was practically nonexistent.
Akane was right. Ranma was in serious danger if that demon was feeding off of him. Normally, the Shadowcat merely supped delicately from its victims' ki. The demon wanted its victims to live long and healthy lives, physically if not mentally, and thus provide it with a small, but continuous supply of energy.
But Masakazu knew of a few rare instances through the centuries where the Shadowcat, needing power for some confrontation or battle in the Kami Plane, had drained its mortal victims dry, leaving nothing but an empty husk of a body in the mortal plane as a testament to the danger of the Cat Fist.
This took place long ago, however, when many a young boy was sacrificed to the Nekoken training to build up strength of conquering armies. And they were truly sacrificed, since only an infinitely few number of boys were ever strong enough have their humanity coaxed back to the surface by their grief-stricken mothers. The rest were fated to live out their lives with their minds and souls irretrievably feline, providing the Shadowcat with a luxurious supply of energy in return for the fury and power of the Nekoken.
But the technique had been banned centuries ago, and since few were foolish enough to risk the danger to their sanity and their souls these days, the Shadowcat had been deprived of its usual quota of victims.
Until Genma unthinkingly threw Ranma into the pit of starving cats seven years ago. Masakazu narrowed his eyes angrily. The boy's idiot father was fortunate that Ranma was so strong in both soul and body, and that the kindly old woman who discovered Ranma in his early minutes of his cat delirium was able to reach the part of the boy's heart and mind that missed and needed his real mother so terribly. If she had not been able to do so, Genma would have lost his son that day.
The tengu's black eyes sparked as he watched Ranma carefully strip the fish meat from the bones with his teeth. This was going to be tricky. Ranma's supernaturally enhanced feline senses would make sneaking up on him almost an impossibility, and he needed to get close enough to get a good look at his ki, as well as see if he could discover a way to get the boy back to normal.
He knew from his explorations of both Akane's and Ranma's memories that, since the old woman's death, only Akane, the person Ranma loved and trusted the most, could unwittingly coax his humanity back to the surface. That, and the shock of his body shifting with the Jusenkyo curse. Masakazu's eyes blinked in dark amusement. In that respect, Ranma's curse was a blessing. It would aid him now, since Akane was beyond his reach.
Carefully, silently, the tengu moved from tree to tree, descending down the hill towards the stream. On the other side of the bank, Ranma suddenly looked up from the fish, his lithe feminine body tensing, and glanced around sharply, eyes wide and alert.
Masakazu froze, cursing silently. Damn, this boy is perceptive. Even with the Nekoken, I should have been able to get a lot closer before he sensed me.
He reached out mentally and touched Ranma's mind, trying to gauge his emotions. He was closer now, he could feel more...
The exhaustion was still there; the hunger partially sated. The edge of fear was still there as well. But on top of all that, raw curiosity; curiosity that overwhelmed the strange edge of fear, as Ranma looked around, trying to figure out what was sneaking up on him and where it was coming from.
If the tengu were human, he would have smiled. As it was, his bird eyes glinted in amazement. Though Ranma's humanity was gone, his underlying personality was still there, still strong, albeit twisted with his new feline perspective. In spite of suffering both a physical and mental identity crisis, the very base elements of Ranma, the pieces of him that made him who he was without all the magic and curses inflicted upon him, were still there.
Yes, this boy was strong. Stronger than any who had lived for decades, perhaps centuries, in the mortal realm. It was no wonder, then, that Fate seemed to have singled him out for experiences above and beyond the human norm. Masakazu considered this silently, as well as the potential consequences of what he was planning. He didn't want to hurt Ranma, but if the boy was frightened of him enough to attack him with the cat fist, things might get messy.
The tengu stepped out into the open.
Ranma's head jerked towards Masakazu as he sensed the movement, and his wide blue eyes stared at the tengu from a delicate feminine face that was smudged with dirt and blood. Ranma didn't appear afraid, but his slender female body was taut, ready to run from the strange creature that had just stepped from the shadows of the trees.
"It's okay, Ranma," Masakazu said quietly, approaching him slowly. "You know me, deep down. You know I'm a friend. I've helped you before, and I'm here to help you now."
Ranma flattened himself against the ground at the sound of the tengu's voice, not taking his eyes off him, a low alto growl issuing from deep in his throat as his delicate curled hands wrapped protectively around the remains of the fish.
The tengu stifled a chirping chuckle. "I'm not going to take your food away," he said gently. He stopped on the opposite bank of the stream and looked over at him. "I just need to get a good look at your ki, that's all." And then douse you with a little water from that stream, after treating it with a simple heat spell...
Ranma watched him warily, unmoving. The tengu narrowed his eyes and peered at him intently, looking beyond the normal spectrum to examine the cursed boy's ki...
And felt cold tendrils of dread and despair wrap around his ancient avian heart as he saw several things at once.
He saw the Snow Woman's cold spell that seemed to hover just over the surface of Ranma's skin. Masakazu could immediately tell what Yuki-onna had done, and why. No hot water would be touching Ranma as long as that spell was in place. And trapping Ranma in female form essentially trapped him in the Nekoken. She had intentionally eliminated the one thing, other than Akane, that could jar him out of his symbiosis with the cat soul within him, and break his link to the Shadowcat.
The link to the Shadowcat. Ranma had an extremely powerful ki, and he could see it flicker slightly in response to the small, yet continuous drain the demon was exacting. The blood spell, entwined deep within Ranma's ki, also flickered...
The blood spell... Masakazu's black eyes widened slightly as he saw... He then closed his eyes and sank to his knees abruptly on the bank of the river, causing Ranma to startle and jump away a few paces on the opposite side. The tengu didn't notice.
He was too late. The tiny, fluke dragon blood wisp, the unintentional transdimensional link between Ranma and Akane, was gone. It had dissolved. The only thing that was holding back the Kami Plane's spell of Forgetfulness from Ranma and Akane's minds had been extinguished. The Kami Plane was probably altering their memories at that very moment, anxious to complete its work after having been staved off for so long.
If Ranma had been in his right state of mind, he might have been able to fight it, to hang on to Akane's memory, but now... Masakazu reached out and touched Ranma's mind, just to be sure.
Nothing. Just feline impulse and raw emotion. Not a human memory to be found.
"Akane-chan," the tengu whispered, "I'm... so sorry. I didn't make it in time."
Akane had been correct in her guess that she was in danger of losing Ranma. But to lose him this way, to have the Kami Plane's spell erase everything she held dear from her mind... To not even have the bittersweet comfort of her own memories... What would she be like when he returned, with her true past gone from her?
Would she even be the same person? Her love for Ranma had been such an integral part of her personality, even when she was in denial. Without it...
He felt small drops of wetness fall into the rust-colored feathers on the back of his hands, and knew it wasn't the spray from the rushing stream.
Odd. He hadn't wept in centuries.
But then this discovery seemed to be the culmination of proof of how he had failed his friends. All of them.
Yuki-chan... I'm sorry I didn't do more to help you. Perhaps if I had eased your loneliness a bit more... you wouldn't have resorted to such desperate measures to claim Akane as your own, to fill the emptiness left by the loss of your own daughters... Now you have destroyed both Akane, and the one she loves in your attempt to own her...
Masakazu heard the soft thud of something landing on his side of the stream. He froze, keeping his eyes closed, and waited... A minute passed, then another. Then the tengu felt a nudge against his leg. He opened his eyes and looked down to see a mop of tangled red hair, and wide blue eyes staring up at him from a dirty, feminine face.
Masakazu shook his head, partly in amazement that Ranma had found the courage to approach him, but mostly in sadness. "I'm sorry, Ranma," he said softly. "I did what I could, but it wasn't enough. I didn't get here in time..." The Council probably did it on purpose, he thought darkly. Time in the void is non-existent. They probably held me there without me realizing, until it was too late. So perhaps they were toying with me after all.
Ranma blinked, then leaned over and nudged the tengu's arm with his nose. Masakazu's eyes softened. He reached out a hand to stroke Ranma's head, but the cursed boy jerked back, wanting to sniff the strange, feathered fingers instead. Then he nipped playfully at Masakazu's index finger.
The tengu pulled his hand back, and eyed Ranma in surprise. "Well, aren't you brazen." He cocked a feathered brow and blinked. "But I suppose that's a part of you that will never change." Ranma nipped at his fingers again, and raised a paw-like hand to bat the longer feathers of his arms. Masakazu sighed, and stood, causing Ranma to jump away nervously. "I hate to tell you this, Ranma, but, contrary to appearance, I am not a bird. So don't get any ideas."
Masakazu looked at Ranma for a moment. Ranma sat on all fours, looking up at him inquisitively. The tengu sighed and knelt down again, reaching out a feathered hand. "Come here, Ranma," he said gently. "Let's see if I can do anything about that cold spell."
Ranma cocked his head slightly, looking very kittenish in his female body, then started to come towards the tengu's outstretched hand. But before he had taken two steps, he froze. Ranma's eyes went wide and wild, his slender back arched, his red hair stood on end, and he hissed violently.
Masakazu blinked in surprise as he felt Ranma's surge of terror. "Wha-" He broke off as he felt it a moment later, a suffocating heavy feeling, slowly building...
With blinding speed, the tengu turned to see the Shadowcat materialize behind him. He swiftly maneuvered himself between the demon and Ranma, who was still hissing.
The Shadowcat looked at the tengu through narrowed yellow eyes, its ki glowing blackly, seeming to dampen the light of the spring sun in the forest around them. **Tengu,** it said in a low, growling voice that echoed in his head. **What are you doing here?**
**I could ask the same of you,** he replied, his own eyes narrowed to black slits over his beak. **Aren't you supposed to be in the Kami Plane?**
**That is no business of yours.**
**But it is. You see, the young mortal behind me, who is currently hissing at you, happens to be a friend of mine. I'd like to see him return to normal.**
The Shadowcat chuckled. **I'm sure you would. Unfortunately, I happen to like him the way he is.**
The tengu's eyes sparked angrily. **You are acting out of the boundaries of your jurisdiction by being here.**
**Perhaps,** the demon answered nonchalantly. **But after so long of going without an extra supply of energy, I decided to take a more direct approach.**
**Release him, and return to your domain, or I will send you there myself.**
The Shadowcat bared its teeth, then lifted a huge paw and extended its needle-sharp claws. **Absolutely not. As for the first, he is mine by right. He paid the price and accepted my gift-**
**Gift? It is a curse. And the price was paid unwillingly.**
**No matter. He belongs to me. He has belonged to me since his tenth year, yet it is only now that our link is well and truly established. As for the second, I will not return. For if I do, I cannot come back unless I am summoned again, and fools like this boy's father are rare. This way, I can ensure that he stays mine. He is strong, this one; stronger than any I've had. I do not intend to give him up.**
And that was it. The time for words was through. Masakazu's eyes narrowed, and he began to build up his power, mentally running through his transportation spell, altering its parameters so that it would send the Shadowcat back to the Kami Plane. Less than a moment later, he attacked.
Though the Shadowcat was expecting this from a tengu, the speed and strength of Masakazu's attack caught it off guard. The demon saw the tengu turn into a blur of reddish movement, and it lashed out with its claws, connecting with nothing, yet shredding the trees behind where the tengu had been a moment ago. It twisted, trying to avoid the fiery ki blows that landed on its head and flanks, yowling in pain, to no avail. The Shadowcat fell on its side under the barrage, black ki leaking from numerous wounds.
**Do you yield? Will you go back peacefully, or do you want me to continue?** Masakazu stalled for time as the first stage of his transportation spell flickered invisibly to life right under the Shadowcat's nose.
The Shadowcat pushed itself to its feet, growling low. **I will not.** The demon grimaced painfully. **It has been a while since I have fought.** The grimace turned into a sharp-toothed grin. **Fortunately, I believe our mutual friend has some experience...** The demon cat's eyes narrowed and flashed brightly.
And Ranma's angry, terrified hissing, turned into a yowl of pain, as he suddenly collapsed.
Masakazu whirled to see Ranma writhing on the ground, his ki fluxing strangely as the flow on the demon's ki link suddenly reversed itself. The tengu turned on the Shadowcat, furious. "Stop it!" he yelled out loud. "You can't do that to him!" Damn it, the transportation spell! First level complete, I have to start the second! Ranma...
**Today seems to be a day for breaking rules. I certainly couldn't do this from the Kami Plane.** The demon smirked, its yellow eyes dimming to a deep, pulsing red. **You surprise me, tengu. I thought that you, of all creatures, would understand. Too late,** said the demon smugly, as Masakazu made to attack it.
The tengu turned to see Ranma, standing on all fours, growling low; wild, empty eyes gleaming a dull red as the cursed boy stalked slowly towards him. "Ranma..."
**Terribly sorry, but why should I fight my own battles when I have one of this world's greatest martial artists under my control?**
Masakazu turned to face Ranma, dropping into a defensive stance. I can't hurt him. He's damaged enough as it is. And I've got to finish that spell. He started working on the second level just as Ranma pounced, fingers outstretched like claws.
**Oh my, this is going to be more entertaining than I thought.** The Shadowcat watched as the tengu, and the boy with the female body and the feline mind, faded into blurs of impossibly swift movement.
Masakazu ignored the demon, dodging the shredding swipe of Ranma's hands that tore up deep gouges in the ground behind him. The boy was fast, that was a sure thing. But not as fast as he was. Sleep points... I'll hit his sleep points, and then I can get on with this. He jumped and dodged as Ranma came after him with inhuman speed, tearing up the landscape with furious clawing motions, reading his movements with increasingly surprising accuracy.
Yow! That was a close one. The tengu didn't stop moving to see the tips of the feathers on his left arm flutter to the ground, severed. Okay, maybe I won't be able to get his sleep points. This kid's incredible. Time to get serious. But not too serious...
Masakazu focused. As ancient as he was, he was very good at focusing. But at the moment, his focus was a bit divided. He focused on completing stage two of the transportation spell. He focused on dodging Ranma's increasingly furious attacks. And he focused on creating a small, but powerful ball of strangely charged ki in the palm of his hand...
He turned in mid-air leap to face Ranma's attack. Ranma flew at him, yowling, eyes gleaming red. But instead of dodging, Masakazu held up his hand and released the ki blast at Ranma, just as the cursed boy swiped clawed fingers in his direction.
The ki blast hit Ranma in the chest...
The tengu twisted in the air, but not far enough, and he felt the sharp pain of feathers and flesh shredding down to the bone.
Ranma flew backwards to smack into a very solid tree, shattering the trunk, toppling it. He collapsed unconscious to the ground among the splinters of wood, twitching silently as the energy from the tiny ki blast arced over his petite female body.
Masakazu landed on his taloned feet, blood seeping from four perfectly parallel gashes in his right forearm. A millisecond slower, and he would have lost his arm completely.
The tengu blinked in pain, looking over at Ranma's still form. "I like to call that my 'Tazer Ki Blast,'" he muttered. Hopefully it hadn't harmed him too severely, and yet had been strong enough to shatter the demon's control. Just to be sure...
Yes. The Shadowcat's link in Ranma's ki was back to normal, if such a thing could be called normal. As for Ranma himself...
Masakazu reached out and touched his mind briefly just to be sure the demon was no longer in there...
In Ranma's unconscious mind, the demon was gone. The Nekoken link was still there, unfortunately, but the feline instincts had faded to background noise. And there, right in the forefront of Ranma's thoughts; in his mind that, at the moment, could no longer form even the simplest of words... were images.
Images of Akane.
No... Memories of Akane.
There she was, sparring with Ranma-onna the first night they met... And there she was carrying Ranma home on her back after Doctor Tofu made his legs go out... And there she was running below him on the sidewalk, sticking her tongue out at him as he ran on the fence... And there she was, lying in a glass coffin on a school stage with her eyes closed, tugging on his pigtail as he leaned over her, his face turning seven different shades of red as she asked him, Couldn't you just pretend? And there she was holding his hand on the way home from Ryoganzawa as Ranma struggled uselessly to work up the courage to tell her how he felt...
Masakazu couldn't believe it. It was all there. All of Ranma's experiences with Akane, all his memories of her, were all there in the boy's mind.
The Kami Plane's magic was there too. He could sense it, trying to steal away Ranma's memories as it had been doing since Akane was first spirited away...
But it wasn't working.
Even without the fluke blood spell strand; even with his humanity submerged irretrievably in his soul... It wasn't working.
Ranma remembered Akane.
It was unheard of. Was the bond between them that strong?
The tengu was astonished beyond belief. Throughout the millennia of his existence, he'd never seen such a thing.
That meant there was still a chance...
Masakazu was so happily amazed as he stared at Ranma's still form, the impossible strength of the unconscious boy's memories of Akane playing through his mind and filling his soul with the hope for his friends that he'd lost just minutes before...
...that he forgot about the searing pain in his forearm, about the blood he was losing, and he only barely managed to focus enough to complete the second level of the transportation spell with the single layer of his mind that hadn't been struck numb with joy and amazement at the strength of Ranma and Akane's love for each other, in spite of everything.
The second level of the transportation spell flared invisibly to life and a slight shimmer formed in the air behind him.
That's right... The portal... The Shadowcat...
Blinking, and shaking himself out of his shock, Masakazu turned to face the demon--
And suddenly found himself on his back, the Shadowcat pinning him to the ground with a huge black paw on his chest.
**Well well, the Cat has the Bird in its paws at last,** said the Shadowcat.
And, pressing firmly down on the tengu's body, extended its claws.
Masakazu felt the claws pierce his chest and abdomen, lancing through his body to the scrape hard ground beneath. His black eyes went wide, and a strangled chirping noise escaped his throat as he used his good arm to throw the demon off him. The Shadowcat landed on its feet a few meters away, chuckling softly, and licked the blood off its claws.
The tengu lay on his back, motionless as the pain from the five gaping wounds in his body spiked through his nerves...
Well. This is a surprise. Does this mean I don't have to worry about that stupid Council anymore?
Masakazu struggled to his feet.
The tengu's own words came back to him as he looked down and saw his life spilling out of him; words he'd spoken to Akane two years ago in the Kami Plane...
You lose your focus, you lose the battle...
Seems I could use a little work on that as well. You really threw me for one with that last comment of yours. So, your fiance fell in the Spring of Drowned Girl, did he? That must have made for an interesting relationship...
Seems I could use a little work on that as well...
ah, it's getting dark out...
For you, maybe. See? The sun is still high...
is that it?
i see. very well then.
One Last Time.
Third and. final level. Transportation spell.
so hard... it's getting darker. or lighter...
The Shadowcat was laughing. **Allmightymartialartisttengu,takenoutbythecatfist...**
And then the portal opened. A portal specially designed for a demon Shadowcat.
that takes talent, you know. not everyone can do a spell that complicated...
Yes, very impressive.
The small shimmering in the air grew suddenly, enveloping the surprised demon, and then closed. Disappeared, cutting off the Shadowcat's laughter.
see? piece of cake...
The spring sun shone brighter in the battle-scarred forest glade.
Off to the side, Ranma stirred and blinked unsteadily.
yes, well, he's strong that way...
you know, i wasn't planning on earning a ticket to... that particular plane of existence today.
That's okay. Hardly anybody plans.
is it as nice as the mortal realm?
don't i know you..?
Masakazu sank to his knees, the bright spark in his black eyes fading. A thin line of blood trickled out of the edge of his beak.
And Ranma was by his side, looking into his face, his feral blue eyes anxious, nudging him a little with his nose, startling when he collapsed to the ground, coming close again, finally coming to nuzzle his side, mewing softly...
ah, ranma, i wasn't much help. but at least the shadowcat's gone, eh?
you'll be better soon. you're a good man, to endure all this...
and such a memory you've got. akane will be fine, as long as you remember her...
In the Kami Plane, as Akane trudged wearily across a green meadow towards the looming mists on her way to another domain, she looked up as a sudden chill passed through her.
She blinked as tears inexplicably filled her eyes.
Masakazu? she thought.
And in the Snow Woman's domain, Yuki-onna paused in her calligraphy, her eyes widening slightly.
After a moment, she blinked, then reached up to touch the tiny blackened cracks on the pale skin of her cheeks that had not healed with time.