Chapter 15: Into the Demon's Lair
A warm wind blew gently across the tall grasses of the valley, joining in with the quiet music of the calm stream nearby. A few long wisps of silken dark hairs escaped Akane's thick braid and brushed against her tear-streaked face. She gazed steadily at the obsidian-eyed deity who looked down at her in wry approval. Though her heart ached from the pain of looking into the mortal realm, seeing what she had lost... seeing the horrible state Ranma was in... her brown eyes were filled with grave determination.
"Where is the Gaki domain?" she asked, her voice low and trembling, her knuckles white around the hilt of her katana. "I'm going to find that Shadowcat demon and hack it into bits so small, it will never be able to pull itself together to hurt Ranma, or anyone else ever again."
Susa-no-o's grim smile quirked at the edges. "That's the spirit, Akane. As I said, I'll show you how to get there. But first, there are a few things we need to do to prepare."
Akane's eyes sparked, burning away the last of the hopelessness that had smothered her just moments before. "I'm ready now," she said, her voice raising in anger. "I've been killing demons for over four years now, I think I can handle a stupid cat demon!"
The deity's eyes narrowed. "Don't be so cocky, little girl," Susa-no-o said coldly. "Masakazu was a hundred times the martial artist you are, and the Shadowcat killed him. The Shadowcat is not a cat demon, it is the Cat Demon. It is the sole Master of the Nekoken, one of, if not the most powerful of all martial arts techniques."
Akane paled as she realized... He... he's right. How am I supposed to defeat the demon that killed the best martial artist I know?
"And not only will you be taking on the Shadowcat," continued Susa-no-o seriously, "but you'll be walking right into the realm of evil gods. That place is swarming with demons and Gaki, more than you've ever come across in all your travels combined, and you'll be on their turf. I can tell you right now that without my help, you won't last ten seconds." Susa-no-o leaned over to look Akane in the eye. "What do you think will happen if the Soul Gaki catches sight of you, for instance, hm? Where will you be then?"
Akane blinked, a chill running through her. "I... The... Soul Gaki?"
"I'll tell you where you'll be," Susa-no-o said, throwing up his arms in exasperation as if she hadn't spoken. "You'll be irretrievably dead! He'll suck the soul right out of your body without even touching you, and then you'll be trapped in a gestalt of other unfortunate human souls that the Soul Gaki has devoured in that amorphous blob that passes for his body, and you'll suffer indescribable torment for his pleasure for the rest of eternity." The deity rocked back on the heels of his tennis shoes with his thumbs stuck in his front jeans pockets and leered at her. "How does that sound, little Miss I-can-handle- anything?"
Akane felt tears of anger and frustration building up behind her eyes. She had to help Ranma, to free his mind and soul from the Shadowcat's influence. But how was she supposed to defeat the demon that had killed her tengu sensei?
And the Gaki domain... If what Susa-no-o said was true, she didn't stand a chance. But now... she had to go there willingly?
"If this place is so terrible," she said, glaring at the god, "then how am I supposed to walk in there and find the Shadowcat in the first place? And if you're so sure the Shadowcat can defeat me, why should I even try?"
Susa-no-o raised an eyebrow at her. "Does that mean you're giving up?" he asked quietly. "You're just going to let the Shadowcat keep Ranma?"
Akane closed her eyes and clenched her fists as an image flickered through her mind of Ranma, trapped in the Nekoken, mewing pitifully, crying out for her dimensions away... "No," she whispered hoarsely. "Of course not."
Susa-no-o smirked infuriatingly. "I'm glad you feel that way. Besides, you weren't listening, Akane. I never said you weren't good enough to beat the Shadowcat. I just said you couldn't do it without my help."
Akane opened her eyes in surprise, then frowned. "But you just told me that you can't leave your realm. You said that the Council would 'jump on your back,' as you put it, if you tried to leave."
The deity shrugged. "That's right."
She sighed. "So how, exactly, are you going to help me?"
"Jeeze, you're impatient. I was just getting to that." Susa-no-o waved his hand with a flick of his wrist like a magician, and a small ivory hair comb appeared between his fingers. "Here," he said, handing it to Akane. "Put this in your hair."
Akane took it hesitantly and examined it. It was simple in its design, the teeth about two inches long, the smooth, rounded spine devoid of carvings or symbols of any kind. "What is this?" she asked.
"It's a hair comb. Duh."
"You know what I mean," Akane snapped irritably. "What's it for? How is this supposed to help me survive the Gaki domain and defeat the Shadowcat?"
Susa-no-o sighed and rolled his eyes. "Just... put it in your hair, will you? It's not going to hurt you."
Akane eyed him balefully for a moment, then reached behind her head and plunged the teeth of the comb into the thick twist of her French braid at the crown of her head.
Susa-no-o grinned at her. "Perfect," he said. "I knew it would work."
Akane grit her teeth. "If this is your stupid idea of a joke..." She left the threat hanging, tightening her grip on the hilt of her unsheathed katana.
**Akane, you wound me to the very soul.**
The deity's voice echoed in her head, and she jerked, startled.
Susa-no-o raised a finger to his lips in a silencing gesture. **Don't say it out loud,** his mental voice snapped at her. **Think the words at me. This is how we are going to communicate after you leave my domain.**
Akane stared at him with wide eyes. "But... but how-"
**Think the words, girl!** The deity's obsidian eyes flashed. **Are you an idiot that you cannot do something so simple?!**
Akane flushed in fury and opened her mouth to retaliate with a scathing reply. But then she paused, and closed her mouth carefully. **I am not an idiot,** she responded hotly.
Susa-no-o smirked. **Glad to hear it. Or not hear it, in this instance. Anyway, this comb not only allows us to communicate beyond my domain, but it has also rendered you invisible.**
Akane looked down at herself to see... herself. "Wha-" She clenched her teeth around her verbal slip. **What are you talking about? I'm not invisible.**
**Well, of course you can see yourself.** The god sneered. **Fighting demons is going to be hard enough without you not even being able to see your own body. And before you blather on about how Masakazu trained you to fight blind, that's all well and good, but it's still one more handicap that you can do without.**
**But... you can see me, right?** asked Akane as he looked right into her face.
Susa-no-o raised an eyebrow. **Well of course. It's my comb, after all.**
Akane sighed. **Great. So I can see me, and you can see me, and I'm supposed to believe it when you tell me I'm invisible.**
He winked at her. **You got it. Trust me, when you go to the Gaki realm, they won't even know you're there.**
Akane's eyes widened. "You-" She closed her mouth and grit her teeth around the instinctive urge to talk verbally. **You want me to just walk into the Gaki realm, defeat the Shadowcat, and walk out... right under their noses?**
Susa-no-o grinned, pleased. **Yup.**
It was insane. It would get her killed. Susa-no-o was insane. The whole idea was insane.
And so, apparently, was she.
She smiled grimly. **Let's do it, then.**
She could feel the difference immediately. The Mists of Kami were, if such a thing was possible, even more black and cold than before.
**Just keep going straight. You'll get there soon enough.** Susa-no-o's voice echoed in her mind.
Akane shivered. It was so unsettling, having a conversation inside her head. Let's see, hearing voices... Violent tendencies... Slices up the occasional demon with glowing sword... Yes, doctor, I recommend the highest dosage of medication and a nice padded cell.
**I always do go straight,** she replied, grimacing at her train of thought. **And I always end up someplace different. How are you going to control where I end up this time?**
**Trust me. The mists are very receptive to a specific intended destination. Until now, you've never had a specific intended destination, so the mists have just deposited you at random.**
**How nice. Wish I'd known that before.** Damn, it was so cold. And the mists were so thick and black... If she closed her eyes, she would see more than she could see now. At least the insides of her eyelids were something.
**Almost there.** Susa-no-o's voice was quiet and serious in her mind. **Can you feel it?**
Akane nodded silently, her throat constricting in instinctive fear as she felt the pressing weight of an immense evil growing steadily in front of her.
Then she realized that Susa-no-o couldn't see her. **Yes,** she answered. **I can feel it.**
Susa-no-o chuckled softly. **I saw you nod, dear. I am looking through your eyes, after all.**
Akane paused in alarm. **You are? Since when?**
**Since you put the comb in your hair, stupid. How else am I going to be able to see what's going on to give you appropriate instruction?**
Akane digested this new piece of information silently. She felt like she should get angry for one more invasion of her privacy, but the intensely evil vibes she was getting from the mists in front of her quelled any desire to argue with the voice inside her head.
She walked through the mists in silence, her apprehension building with each step, the feeling of evil thickening around her until it became hard to breathe.
**This was a stupid idea,** she said, fighting back the rising panic in her chest. **What on earth was I thinking, listening to you?**
**You were thinking of Ranma. Of Masakazu.**
Akane fell silent and kept walking, forcing herself to breath deeply.
The mists thinned.
She slowed her walk, hesitant, afraid to come out into the open and see what was making her deepest instincts scream at her to flee in terror...
**You're sure that I'm invisible? That they won't be able to sense me at all? Because I sure can feel them...**
**Akane, trust me. I'm Susa-no-o, after all, remember? Direct offspring of the creators? I'm not without power, you know.**
Akane swallowed hard, unsheathing her katana with one hand, and brushing a long dark strand of hair from her eyes, tucking it behind her ear nervously. **Okay. Here goes nothing...**
She stepped out of the mists. And felt the blood fall from her face as her eyes widened in horror.
**Steady, Akane. Don't faint on me, now.**
Akane blinked and focused, steadying herself even as she fought the desire to turn and run back into the mists. **So... so many...**
A nightmarish, barren wasteland stretched in front of her. Dim, gray light filtered through a dark musky fog that filled the sky. In places, the fog seemed to bleed down to the earth in smoky tendrils as if it were a living thing, a floating wraith reaching downward with grasping, intangible fingers. Twisted rock formations jutted from the stony ground like the strewn, rotting bones of a malformed giant.
Demons were everywhere.
Demons of all shapes and sizes, thousands of them, giggling maniacally through slavering, jagged teeth, sunken eyes flickering like candle-flames, flailing about their misshapen limbs, raking their claws against the stone ground...
Oh no. **I... I don't think I can do this...**
**Sure you can. Remember, they can't see you. Besides, most of the demons like to hang out by the border. Once you get past them, it's smooth sailing.**
**Easy for you to say. You're not even here.**
**Come on, Akane. The Shadowcat isn't going to be with this lot. It's a much more private demon, it likes to keep itself aloof from the general riff-raff. So you've got to walk past these border-scrapers to reach the less-populated areas of the domain.**
Akane's eyes darted around frantically, as if trying to find a place to look that wasn't filled with hoards of creeping, screeching, giggling demons, but they were all around her, the sight of them filling her vision, the feeling of evil malevolence crushing her chest... Her breath came in little gasps as the flesh of her arms and back crawled in terror and revulsion...
**Focus, Akane!** Susa-no-o's voice in her head seemed to come from a great distance, as though it were muffled by layers of cotton. **Focus inward, find your center! Don't let it overwhelm you. You are strong enough to withstand this, Akane.**
Akane tried to obey, trying to focus inward and block out the horrible sights, sounds, feelings... But her concentration slipped from her mind like water through a sieve under the onslaught of chaotic evil surrounding her...
**Remember, Akane.** There was a tinge of desperation in Susa-no-o's mental voice. **You're doing this for Ranma. Do you think a few thousand demons would stop him? No way. If your situation was reversed, he'd walk out there in a second.**
The thought of Ranma cleared Akane's mind a little, calmed her. His face in her mind gave her an anchor against the hostile inner turbulence that was sweeping her away, and she forced her chest to expand against the smothering tightness, taking a deep breath. **That,** she replied shakily, **is because he's a stupid, macho jerk who throws himself into danger without a thought of caution or his own safety. But I get your point.**
**Heh, you can't fool me, Akane.** Susa-no-o was obviously relieved at her response. **You love that stupid macho jerk.**
Akane closed her eyes and tried to ignore the screeching, the insane giggling that filled her ears and penetrated her to the core. **Be quiet, will you? I'm trying to focus.**
She couldn't stay here much longer. Any semblance of control would seep away from her if she did. She had to just... go through them. And pray that the demons really wouldn't know she was there...
A rock outcropping, jutting above the writhing horde. If she could leap to it...
Akane jumped, vaulting over a swarm of demons to land on the tip of the twisted pillar of rock. From her new vantage point, she had a whole new perspective on the hideousness that surrounded her. Yet she also saw...
**Look, there's the edge of the crowd. If you can leap to that other outcropping over there, I think you can jump from rock to rock and make your way across this mess without actually walking through all these demons. Just... don't lose your footing. They may not be able to see you, but I can't stop them from feeling you if you should fall on them.**
Akane clenched her teeth. **Thanks for the bulletin. Anything else you want to tell me to disrupt my concentration?**
**Nope, that's it. Carry on.**
Akane shifted her katana to her left hand and wiped her sweaty palm on her tunic, shifted it back, and tightened her grip on the hilt.
Focus. Jump. Land. Yes. Don't mind that the smallest slip will send you plummeting into a veritable sea of burning, bristling skin and venom-oozing claws and teeth. Just leap casually over to that twisted pillar of rock... to another... There's the edge of the sea, right over there... It's not so bad from up here, you can actually see where all these demons end. Then you just walk across that nightmarish plane beyond this mass and track down the Shadowcat... Don't think about how, when you're through, you have to come back through this. No, just focus on Ranma. He's depending on you, even if he doesn't consciously know it...
Akane leaped again...
...and in mid leap, she saw something out of the corner of her eye. A sudden feeling of nausea flooded her stomach, bile rising in her throat as fresh waves of inexplicable horror rippled across her skin. She landed on an outcropping of stone, gasping as she nearly slipped...
Frantically she regained her footing, sending loose gravel falling into the writhing masses below. Suppressing a shudder, she lowered herself to one knee on the uneven, narrow surface of the craggy rock formation to steady herself, gasping, forcing air into her compressed lungs...
**What's wrong, Akane? You're doing fine, keep going. Just don't think about it.**
**No...** Akane raised her left hand and wiped cold sweat off her cheek, turning her head slowly in the direction of... **There's something...**
And she saw it.
Off to her right. Moving slowly through the mass of writhing demons.
A tall, amorphous Nothingness; complete, utter Darkness which even the dismal light of the domain could not penetrate. It looked almost like a tear in reality... if a tear in reality moved like a sentient being. If a tear in reality had gleaming moist blood red eyes hovering in the blackness. If it had jagged sharp teeth stained reddish-brown, clenched tightly in a huge, hideous grin, floating in the void of its being...
The demons fell away before it, shrieking, clearing an impromptu pathway for its passage... It was moving at an angle in her direction...
...and as it grew closer, Akane heard the screams.
Horrible, despairing screams of a multitude in agony.
The screams were coming from inside the creature...
Akane blinked, only then realizing that she was frozen in terror...
The creature paused in its forward movement. Slowly, its moist red eyes slid in Akane's direction... until it seemed to be staring straight at her. It's jagged bloody grin widened.
**Run!** Susa-no-o's voice rang in her head, spurring her into mobility.
Without another thought, Akane turned and fled, leaping frantically over the demon masses, from one distorted rock formation to another, the adrenaline coursing through her veins focusing her mind and concentration to a bright, sharp point. She didn't need to look behind her to know that the creature was following slowly, its amorphous form sifting silently after her...
**What is it?!** she asked, her mental voice high in panic as she leaped with perfect balance from one jutting outcrop to the next. She was almost there...
**The Soul Gaki. Just our luck he would be so close to the border.**
The Soul Gaki...
**I thought you said he wouldn't be able to see me!**
**He can't see you. But the Soul Gaki is not your average demon. He's a high-ranking evil god. He can't see you, but he can sense you right enough, apparently.**
**Apparently!** Akane snarled. **Great! What do I do now?!**
**Keep running. And hope that you lose him.**
Akane cursed silently under her breath. After jumping to several other outcroppings in a random, zigzag pattern, she landed on another pillar of stone and risked a glance behind her.
The Soul Gaki was looking right at her, grinning, moving towards her with slow malevolent purpose. She could hear the screams...
**This is not good,** said Susa-no-o.
**You're telling me?!**
**I hate to tell you this, Akane, but you're going to have to jump down.**
**... What?** Akane looked down at the ground, at the demons that surrounded her, engaged in various activities of depravity and sadism... She swallowed and focused inward, thinking of Ranma once again, trying to block the sight from her eyes, trying not to imagine what might happen if...
**I... can't do that,** she said.
**Listen, Akane!** Susa-no-o's voice snapped. **The Soul Gaki doesn't have to touch you to rip out your soul. It just has to get close enough, and right now it's coming right for you because your human soul is standing out like a beacon on top of this rock. If you jump down and mingle with the demons, it may mask your presence and allow you to get away, so do it now!**
**Now, dammit! It's coming! Do it NOW!**
She landed silently on the ground in the middle of the shifting mass of demons, her senses reeling, her chest heaving against the panic...
...and stumbled face first into demon flesh.
She staggered back, gagging, her face burning from the touch of black ki as the demon jerked and turned its flaming yellow eyes in her direction. Its eyes narrowed in confusion, seeing nothing, and it extended a grotesque arm towards her, the six-inch black claws at the ends of its finger-like appendages clacking together, reaching unknowingly for her abdomen...
A blinding flash of pulsing blue steel, and the offending limb lay severed on the ground. Droplets of sickly green ichor splattered against Akane's face and arms from the bleeding stump of the demon's arm. Her eyes bulged, staring between her katana and the clawed arm as if unable to believe what she had just done, knowing what the consequences would be...
The demon shrieked in agony and fury. At the piercing sound, the burning eyes of a hundred surrounding demons turned in her direction.
**Oh yeah. Way to go,** said Susa-no-o. **Might as well just yank the comb out of your hair and let the entire population of the Gaki domain get a good look at you.**
The Soul Gaki sifted closer, grinning its bloody grin in anticipation. She could feel its malevolent intelligence, she could hear the screams again...
The demons giggled insanely and began to converge on the wounded demon like vultures descending on a rotting carcass.
Or tried to. There were so many of them, all moving towards her, towards the wounded demon. And the Soul Gaki was coming closer, she could feel it, hear the screams of all those souls... So she ducked, leaped, dodged and contorted her body, focusing intently, using every scrap of swiftness and agility she had in her, moving through the legion of demons as fast as she could, moving away...
...move, move, Oh please don't let them touch you... weave in and out... ignore the stench and the heat of their putrid bodies and their slavering gaping mouths and burning eyes all around you because, after all, they can't see you, and there are so many of them that when you accidentally brush against them in your zigzag flight they don't even notice, even though you notice because the touch of their hoary skin burns with dark ki and sends your flesh crawling up your back, and you clench your teeth against the terrified sobs that want to burst out but can't because then they would hear you...
Akane blinked dazedly as her pinpoint concentration relaxed enough to register Susa-no-o's voice in her mind.
**What?** she asked stupidly, still running, still trying to get away...
Susa-no-o sighed. **I think you lost him. You've been running non-stop for over fifteen minutes.**
Akane's eyes began to water uncontrollably. **I... I'm gonna throw up.**
**No you're not. You did fine. Look around, do you see the Soul Gaki anywhere?**
Akane slowed in her headlong flight, blinking away the wetness from her tearing eyes, and looked. The Soul Gaki's towering dark form, it's jagged bloody grin, was nowhere to be seen above the demon masses.
**See? What did I tell you? I knew you could do it. Now let's lose these demons, shall we? I'm tired of looking at them. Go to your left. The edge of the crowd is in that direction, less than fifty meters away.**
The edge... Akane stopped running, wiping the rivulets of warm sweat mingled with splattered ichor from her brow with one hand, and looked to the left. She only saw more demons. **Are... are you sure?**
**I was paying attention to where you were going while you were zoned out.**
Akane stifled the urge to laugh, fearing that it would sound hysterical and blend in with the insanity around her. **Right,** she responded, then obeyed gratefully, swallowing down the heartbeat that continued to pulse in her throat.
The flat wasteland with its jutting rock formations and demon multitudes had given way to desolate, craggy foothills, pocked with gaping black caves and crevices which were occasionally lit with the glowing eyes of some shadowed, silent creature.
Akane ignored them, since their gaze swept right over her, and kept walking, making sure that her footfalls were soundless against the stone ground. The echoing quiet of the canyon and the stagnant, heavy air under a dark bleeding gray sky was unnerving, but at least it was better than the insane noise she had escaped hours before.
**Feeling better yet?**
Akane scowled fiercely as Susa-no-o's voice broke into the stubborn mental silence she had maintained since breaking free of the demon hoards.
**Why didn't you tell me what to expect?** she said at last.
**Would it have made any difference? You had to go through that mess either way. It was just bad luck that the Soul Gaki happened to be in the vicinity.**
Akane was silent. Inside, she was still shaking.
**So, tell me about him.**
Akane froze as a black, hairy spider, the size of a small dog, emerged from a rocky crevice off to her right and skittered across her path less than eight centimeters from her foot, disappearing into the craggy recesses of the foothills on the other side. She swallowed and kept walking. **Who?**
**Oh, come on. Who else? Lover boy. Ranma. The guy you've been pining after for over four years.**
Akane scowled. **Why ask me? You seem to already know everything about the both of us. If you're so curious, why don't you just pick through my memories like you've been doing and find out for yourself?**
**'Cause I'd rather hear it from you. I asked you before, and I'll ask you again: What do you see in this guy? Most of your memories of him are of you pounding him for being an insensitive jerk. And yet you've spent the past four years searching for a cure to the blood spell so you can return to him. And here you are, right now, braving the perils of the Gaki realm to face the Shadowcat, all for his sake. So what gives?**
Akane was silent. The thought of Ranma filled her heart with the familiar, dull ache and brought the threat of tears burning behind her eyes. She didn't want to share her innermost feelings with the arrogant, irreverent deity.
**Come on, Akane, tell me. If you don't tell me, I'll start reciting some of my haiku, and then you'll really be sorry. Just ask my wife. She takes off whenever I get the urge to sit down with my ink and paper.**
Akane blinked in surprise. **You're... married?**
**Of course I am!** Susa-no-o sounded shocked. **I thought everyone knew that. What rock have you been hiding under?**
Akane ignored the taunt. **Who is she?** she asked, genuinely curious.
**Hmph. You remember the story of how I rescued the girl from the Orochi, don't you? Well, I married her and we started our own little family.**
**You've got kids?**
**You don't have to sound so surprised, Akane.** Susa-no-o sounded slightly rankled. **Besides, weren't we supposed to be talking about Ranma?**
Akane's enthusiasm for their light banter vanished. **You wanted to talk about him, not me.**
Akane sighed heavily. **Look, will you just leave me alone? I don't really feel like having this conversation right now.**
**If you don't want to hear me talk, take the comb out of your hair.**
**Ha ha, very funny.**
Susa-no-o was silent a moment.
**Seriously, Akane.** The soberness of his mental tone felt sincere, surprising her. **You're about to face one dangerous demon. Granted, the comb gives you the advantage, since the Shadowcat won't be able to actually see you, but the Shadowcat is incredibly powerful and intelligent. It's not going to be easy. So tell me. Is Ranma worth it?**
**I'm here, and you have to ask that?**
Akane paused thoughtfully, sadly, for a long moment. She knew it was worth it. The feelings were inside her, but she had never said them out loud, never vocalized the quiet inner discoveries of the past four and a half years, never shared them with another person...
But wasn't that part of the problem to begin with? That she had never shared her true feelings? If she had, would she even be here? Could she have avoided all the pain, not just from her time in the Kami Plane, but... before the blood spell?
Perhaps it was time to stop hiding from the truth she carried inside her.
**Before the blood spell,** she said softly, finally, **everything was different. Ranma and I never seemed to get along. We were always saying and doing hurtful things to each other. And yet there were some moments when he... when the barrier of pride between us would fall, if only for a moment, and I could see it in his eyes... see the same feelings I felt for him reflected back at me... and it was so wonderful, and yet so painful, because then something would happen and the barrier would come between us again...**
**Why the barrier?** Susa-no-o's voice was quietly unassuming. **What do you think caused it? Was it his fault? Because he was a 'stupid macho jerk?'**
Tears. She expected them; she didn't even bother trying to hold them back. She wiped at them with the back of her dirtied hand. **I've thought about it a lot the past four years, and I think I know... It was all my fault.**
**All your fault. Don't you think that's a bit harsh? It seems to me that Ranma did his share of contributing to the problem.**
Akane nodded. **Well, yes. He did. But... I've thought about it, and that was later. I mean at the very beginning, when we first met... Ranma just wanted to be accepted... and I turned on him. If I had only controlled my temper, if I had only controlled my big mouth... things might have been different...**
Memories came flooding back. Memories that, before the blood spell, she would have pushed away as being uncomfortable, but that were now precious treasures, her only reminders of her lost life. **You see, when Ranma first came to my house, it was raining, and he showed up in his girl form. It was a shock, since we were expecting the arranged fiance Daddy had told us about. But I was relieved to think that Ranma was a girl, because I was having some boy problems... Really stupid, inconsequential stuff, now that I think back on it... But anyway, Nabiki was poking at him and making some rude remarks about him not being a boy...**
Akane flushed with realization as she relived the memory with new perspective, and her chest contracted in empathy as she thought of Nabiki sticking her finger in Ranma's substantial female bosom, going on and on about how he was definitely not a guy... of Ranma's embarrassed, quiet plea for her not to do that... Oh, Ranma... she thought mournfully. **We didn't know... Oh, he must have felt so humiliated! The curse was new to him, you see. I think it scared him, more than he wanted us to know. He... would never admit it, but... I think it still does.**
She lapsed into silence. It was awful, how clear hindsight was, how the understanding of the present brought the past into painful focus that was lost in the moment of actual occurrence.
**Why his idiot father didn't give him a chance to change back to normal before introducing him to us, I'll never know. But, thinking he was a girl, I asked him... if he wanted to be friends.**
Akane closed her eyes briefly against the memory. **The look on his face... it was relieved. Almost... timidly hopeful. He wanted...needed a friend. And he probably wondered if he would be able to make any friends at all, with his curse. I can't really blame him for not telling us to begin with. He... probably thought no one would want anything to do with a gender-changing freak...**
Akane felt her lips begin to tremble, and her vision swam with tears, blurring the desolate, craggy canyon before her as she trudged on. **And I... I confirmed his worst fears. Me. The only one who showed him an ounce of friendship, turned on him... After the embarrassing bathtub scene, I was so angry... I was so worried about how I would look, how my life would be messed up...
**After Ranma changed back, and we were all sitting in the dining room, I saw him look over at me; that same timid, embarrassed look, as if hoping there might be a chance that I didn't mind the fact that he was cursed. But I just glared at him until he looked away. I knew he was hurt, but I didn't care, I was so mad. And then, after Genma told the story of how they were cursed at Jusenkyo, and the others agreed that I should be his fiancée, I was so worried about me, I didn't even think of how Ranma might be feeling. Of how badly he might need to have someone tell him that his curse didn't matter, that it was okay, and sorry about the mix-up in the bathroom, I understand it was an honest mistake, we can work out the fiancée problem later when our parents chill out, but in the meantime we could still be friends...**
Her tears fell to the stone ground, making light splashing patterns in the gray dust.
**But... I didn't. I... I made fun of him, of his curse... I said he was a couple all by himself... And Ranma was hurt and scared and he didn't want to show it so he responded the only way he could think of, and that was to hurt me back...
**So you see... it was my fault. I set the precedent for everything that was to follow. And then, even when I knew deep down how much Ranma meant to me, I could never say it because... I was a coward. And I know that Ranma could be a macho jerk sometimes, but most of the time it was because he was responding to my outrageous temper or my jealousy... or just being scared of his curse all over again...
**I came... so close, sometimes, to telling him the truth... Like when he came back from fighting Herb after that mountain collapsed. I was so glad he was alive and... okay... that I didn't care, I just hugged him and cried...**
And as the memory flared in Akane's mind, she could almost feel her arms around Ranma's torso, smell the clean, musky scent of his skin as she buried her face into the silk of his Chinese shirt, feel his trembling as, once, twice... his arms nearly went around her in return even as he stood frozen in shock...
**But even then, I couldn't say it...**
Akane fell silent, unwilling to delve deeper into that old wound. She waited, half-expecting Susa-no-o to laugh at her, at her foolishness, or respond flippantly to her outpouring.
**You were a child, Akane.** His voice was surprisingly gentle and without reproach. **And now you are a woman, with a woman's understanding. You cannot think to judge the ignorant past with the wisdom you have in the present.**
Akane cracked a smile, even as her brown eyes glistened. **You're starting to sound like Masakazu.**
Susa-no-o laughed softly. **Do I? Well, you know what they say about 'birds of a feather.' And remember, just because I'm the one who said it, doesn't make it less true.**
Akane drew a shuddering breath.
And she wept.
Even so, she continued walking. Her quiet sobs echoed off the canyon walls, and the solitary demons that dwelled within the caves and crevices listened to the sound and wondered at it, blinking their sunken yellow eyes in confusion because there was no scent, no human presence, and nothing to see that could be producing such a sound... A lost soul, perhaps? A ghost and nothing more...
**Why are you crying, Akane?**
She looked up at the dark, bleeding sky, blinking at the tears that trickled from the corners of her brown eyes, trying to gain a semblance of control. **Oh, I don't know. Everything. I guess you said it yourself. I'm a woman. I'm almost twenty-two years old. But Ranma... he's still only seventeen. Seventeen seems so long ago for me... I've changed, so much has happened to me here that I can't help but wonder... If I ever make it back, will Ranma... I mean, will he..? Will I..?**
She trailed off, and Susa-no-o was silent for a moment. **I don't know, Akane,** he said at last. **Age isn't something I comprehend very well, to be perfectly honest. And I can't see the future to tell you what's in store.** He was quiet, contemplating. **But, as you said, Ranma reacts to how you treat him, both positively and negatively. From what I know of the both of you, the only thing I can advise is that, if you do see Ranma again, you use the wisdom you have gained during your time here, act accordingly, and see what happens. That is all you, or anyone can do.**
Akane absorbed his advice silently.
**Can I ask you one more question, Akane?**
Akane paused, then nodded.
**If, by some chance, you knew for certain that Ranma was going to choose someone else; if you finally made it home, and Ranma saw you and thought you were too old for him... If he decided then to marry Ukyo or someone else... would you still be here? Would you brave those demons again? Would you still go fight the Shadowcat for him, knowing that?**
The old, familiar pain welled in her heart as Susa-no-o's words conjured all-too familiar fears in her head, but the answer came immediately to both her mind and her lips.
"Yes," she whispered noiselessly.
**Good.** Susa-no-o's voice was grave. **Because we're there.**
Akane blinked. Then she unsheathed her katana, the tears evaporating from her eyes as her gaze hardened abruptly.
**Where is it?**
**Look up and to your right.**
Akane looked. About halfway up the craggy canyon wall was a cave, larger than any of the ones she'd seen thus far. It gaped from the hillside like a black, toothless mouth.
**Are you ready?**
Akane answered by leaping up the steep incline from one foothold to another until she stood before the entrance of the cave.
The inside of the cave was as black as molten tar.
A rippling shiver ran down Akane's spine, and she clenched her teeth against the sudden knot of fear in her stomach. **It's awfully dark in there,** she said hesitantly.
**No problem. Your battle ki will light up the cave for you.**
Akane snorted silently. **Yeah, for me, and for every other thing that might be in there.**
**Wrong.** Susa-no-o's voice was insufferably smug. **My comb hides every aspect of your presence, including your ki. I mean, come on, if it couldn't mask your ki, half those demons by the border would have torn you apart in seconds. I guess you didn't realize that, during your fifteen minute dash, you were lit up like a neon sign, eh?**
Akane felt heat rise to her face. **I wasn't aware of much during that time,** she replied with irritation. **I was just trying to get away.**
**Anyway,** Susa-no-o soothed, **you don't need to worry about walking into that dark cave, because you'll be able to see. And the Shadowcat... well, it will be able to see too, but only because it can see in the dark anyway. It won't be able to see you, your ki, or the light it casts, so relax.**
Akane frowned worriedly, unconvinced. **You're sure the Shadowcat won't be able to sense me the way the Soul Gaki did?**
**Positive. The only souls the Shadowcat can sense are the ones connected to it through the Nekoken.**
Akane looked into the silent blackness of the cave. **This sounds way too easy. I just walk in there, sneak up on the Shadowcat without it even knowing, cut off its head, and that's all there is to it?**
Susa-no-o hesitated. **Well... no...**
Akane sighed. **I knew it. Okay, spill it.**
**Well... even ordinary cats in the mortal realm are attuned to the supernatural. They can see spirits and oni and the like. The Shadowcat probably won't be able to pin down your exact location, but it might be able to sense the power of my comb at work, and figure out that you're there. Nothing I can do about that. Still, it's not as bad as it seeing you outright.**
**I see,** said Akane, struggling to hold her temper in check. **And when, exactly, were you planning to give me this little piece of extremely vital information?**
**Now, of course.** Susa-no-o sounded as if her question was the silliest thing he'd ever heard.
**Thanks ever so much.**
Akane scowled, then concentrated, and her battle aura flared a bright blue, spilling flickering light into the cave entrance.
Swallowing, she stepped into the thick darkness and began to silently make her way into the cave.
It was absolutely quiet; even her footfalls were soundless against the stone ground. Her battle aura lit the gloom in a smaller radius than she would have liked. The aura was brightest around her, of course, but the light it cast dimmed to darkness a mere ten to fifteen meters away.
Akane looked around. The cave ceiling sloped upwards until it was lost in the blackness above her. She swallowed nervously, her battle senses extended to the max; she didn't want anything dropping down on her from up there...
**You know,** she said, just for the comforting sound of her own mental voice. **The last time I was in a cave like this, it was in the mortal plane. The Cave of Lost Love. Ranma and I went together. It was supposed to be really romantic, but it was just creepy, full of ghosts and spirits... I suppose they were meant to send you clinging to your boyfriend's arm... and it worked a little, I guess, but Ranma and I ended up arguing as usual...** Akane bit her lip thoughtfully. **Although... now that I think back, Ryoga and Ukyo seemed to get more out of it than we did. Strange, that nothing ever happened between them after that.**
Susa-no-o's chuckle echoed in her head. **Akane, it's amazing how, with all you've learned, you can still be so dense sometimes.**
Akane bristled. **And what is that supposed to mean?**
**Nothing.** She could hear the smile in his voice. **Never mind.**
**If you're not going to tell me what you mean, don't say anything,** she snapped.
Susa-no-o just laughed quietly.
So much for lighthearted conversation, thought Akane angrily.
The narrow, craggy cave was quickly becoming a cavern, the walls and the ceiling expanding out of the radius of her aura, until her ki's dim blue sphere of light stood alone, surrounded by nothing but featureless darkness. It was almost as if the world outside of her battle aura had ceased to exist.
**This,** said Akane, her eyes widening, **is definitely creepy.**
**Don't think about it. Keep going. The Shadowcat's in here somewhere.**
**Thanks,** Akane replied wryly. **You're such a comfort...**
**I live to serve.**
And at that moment, a slow, suffocating feeling of evil began to build from the darkness.
**Uh... I think it's here.**
**I think you're right,** Susa-no-o agreed.
Akane turned slowly in a circle, senses extended, feeling the demon as it grew closer, but not being able to see...
**Are you sure it can't see me?**
**Well, as sure as anyone can be under these circumstances.**
Akane felt her mouth go dry. **Great. Well, do me a favor, okay?**
**Anything for you, my dear.**
**Shut up for a while. Like, until this is over. I need to concentrate.**
**What, starting now?** he asked impishly.
And, to her relief, Susa-no-o fell silent.
She turned, her katana blazing, trying to feel where the demon was coming from, but she could see nothing outside the light of her aura, and the feeling of evil didn't have a direction, it was just getting stronger...
**Who are you?**
The strange voice scraped against her consciousness, startling her.
She stood, silent and swallowing, trying to feel... There!
...and saw two yellow cat eyes, the size of dinner plates, glowing in the thick blackness about thirty meters from her, the huge narrowed orbs catching the dim light of her aura. The eyes were moving, scanning briefly in her direction, and then disappeared again into the darkness as they slowly turned from her, unseeing...
She'd thank Susa-no-o later for small miracles...
Akane swallowed again, trying to get some moisture into her throat. Okay, so it was big. And telepathic. And if it stayed outside her aura's radius, she could only see its eyes when it looked in her direction...
She'd dealt with worse... right?
**Who are you?** the Shadowcat repeated. **I know you're here. I've known you were here since you stood at the mouth of my domain.** Akane saw the flash of its eyes in the blackness as its gaze wandered in her direction again.
She began to move towards it silently, katana held at the ready. Prepare to die, demon, she thought grimly.
**Could it be that you want me to guess?** The Shadowcat's tone was unnervingly calm. **Is that why you're so silent? Very well then...**
The edge of Akane's ring of light caught a flickering blackness at ground level, as if flames of darkness were eating away at the glow. Akane looked closer and saw that the flickering was black ki, surrounding a huge cat's paw, the claws extended...
The same paw that had pinned and killed Masakazu...
**Could it be that you are... Akane Tendo?**
Akane's eyes widened.
**I think it is. Who else would have such a reason to visit me in my own home, trying to sneak up on me so silently. But then I knew you would come; ever since I first started feeding on Ranma Saotome's ki, I've known. It's the blood spell, you see. I've become intimately acquainted with its powerful magic through my feasting. The Snow Woman, and even your dead sensei, Masakazu, were foolish enough to think that a single fluke strand of dragon blood was all that connected you and Ranma to each other across the dimensions. It never dawned on them that the blood spell that encompasses you and the blood spell that encompasses Ranma are two halves of the same whole. You are linked together, not just through a single dissipating strand, but through the entire blood spell itself, a spell woven with dragon blood, which not even the Kami Plane itself can penetrate.**
Akane focused, but a part of her found itself listening with morbid fascination to the demon's discourse. She had never discovered the reason behind her immunity to the Kami Plane's spell of Forgetfulness, and here, the demon was telling her...
**And that is why you are here. The Kami Plane cannot penetrate the blood spell to erase your memory of the mortal realm. You remember Ranma, clear enough. And somehow, you have found out what I've done to him, eh?**
Aughh, she thought. Here it comes. The taunting... Focus... don't listen...
Akane started moving forward again, staring as the edge of her aura slowly illuminated the lean, muscled form of the Shadowcat...
The beast was huge, its fur rippling with black ki, eating away at the dim blue light of her aura. It was looking away from her at the moment...
The Shadowcat laughed, a low growling chuckle that broke into the silence and echoed off the cavernous walls, hidden far off in the darkness. **To think, after all the Snow Woman did for me, giving me access to the mortal realm and practically delivering your fiance to me on a silver platter, and you didn't even go back to her. All that for nothing.** The demon laughed again, and its glowing eyes turned unnervingly in her direction, stopping...
It knew where she was.
Akane tensed, tightening her grip on her katana as the Shadowcat's narrowed yellow gaze seemed to look directly at her.
**I suppose you have come to avenge your dead sensei? To free your beloved Ranma's mind and soul from my control? How very noble of you. How tragically romantic.**
Over two years of listening to Masakazu's taunts had weaned Akane of losing her temper during battle. Still, she couldn't help but notice a twinge in her heart at the Shadowcat's words.
**Human love is so... bittersweet.** The demon bared its teeth in a gruesome approximation of a grin. **Did you know that, in spite of being trapped in the Nekoken, he still thinks of you?**
Akane felt her heart pound. Don't listen...
**I find it quite amazing, actually,** the Shadowcat continued. **Usually my gift eliminates all human thought and memory as the soul and mind transform to use the Nekoken. But your Ranma, he's unlike any I've ever had before. Oh, yes, his poor, altered mind is unable to comprehend or create even the simplest of words. He is no longer capable of even walking upright on two feet. Both his humanity... and his masculinity... have fled from him irretrievably, and his soul and mind belong to me. And yet, even so, images and memories of you constantly skirt the edges of his simple, feline thoughts... At least, I assume the girl in his mind is you, since I have yet to see your face. I could be wrong. It could be someone else entirely. Ah, that would truly be tragic, wouldn't it?
**But no,** the demon continued nonchalantly, **it must be you he thinks of. It's sad, really, the way he looks for you, the way he waits for you in your bedroom, hoping you'll come home to him, not realizing that you never will. The way he drives your family crazy, meowing over and over like some poor abandoned house cat who misses its master.**
Akane's eyes were burning; her jaw was clenched to the point of pain. This, she realized, was much different than listening to Masakazu tease her with Ranma's voice, with Ranma's words. This was a torture of an infinitely crueler variety. Focus! she thought to herself fiercely. Her control was slipping under the terrible images the Shadowcat was conjuring in her mind with its words, and if she lost control, she would lose the battle. And if she lost the battle, then Ranma would be trapped under this demon's control forever...
Think rationally. Why was the demon telling her these things?
**Yes, it's sad, but if you've come to beg for his release, I'm afraid you'll be disappointed. As I pointed out to your tengu sensei, just before I killed him, Ranma is strong; his ki is most filling, and he replenishes it so quickly. It has been a true delight feeding off of him.**
It wanted to make her lose control. To provoke her into a blind rage. To make her attack without thinking so that she would...
So that she would give away her position...
It doesn't really know where I am, she realized. It was guessing. It could feel her, true enough, but even as she watched it in the dim blue light of her aura, its gaze slid away from her, as if doubting, as if searching in the darkness for some sign...
The realization brought back the control of rationality, and she felt a smile quirk at the edge of her lips. Enough talk, demon, she thought. You're waiting for me to attack? Well, here I come.
She leaped silently, katana raised...
The Shadowcat felt her movement in the air and turned, hissing, its claws flashing in her direction. But Akane was ready, and she twisted, feeling the slashing power graze her left arm, hearing the sound of deep gouges tearing up the stone floor behind her. She brought her sword down in a bright arc...
The Shadowcat, hearing the sword cleave through the air, tried to leap away from Akane's presence...
... and screeched in agony as a searing pain lanced through its right flank, down towards its chest.
Its right foreleg fell, neatly severed, to the ground.
**All right, Akane!** yelled Susa-no-o in her head.
**Be quiet!** she warned as she stood over the Shadowcat. But she was smiling. The Shadowcat was fast, but it hadn't been able to completely avoid her. Now to finish the beast off. Then Ranma would be free!
The Shadowcat was yowling, black ki and ichor leaking from its gaping wound. It looked up as it felt Akane's presence grow near, pain glazing its yellow eyes...
Akane raised her katana to administer the killing blow.
The Shadowcat hissed violently, and a flash of black ki leaped out from its body. Akane dodged, but the edge of the blast caught her and she staggered back against the force of it, gasping, her skin burning...
The Shadowcat's eyes glowed wildly, its gums pulled back from its needle-sharp teeth in a grimace of pain and fury. Both its body and its severed foreleg began to pulse with fiery red energy...
The leg began to twitch towards the Shadowcat, the severed end moving towards the bleeding stump...
The two parts touched... and began to fuse together. The Shadowcat extended the claws of its once-severed limb.
Akane's eyes widened in fear as she struggled desperately to regain her bearings, the black ki still burning at her skin, filling her lungs... What was going on? No way could a demon pull itself together so fast. This wasn't supposed to happen!
**Now,** snarled the Shadowcat fiercely, as it pushed its pulsing body to all four legs, **I'm mad.**
Nabiki and Genma saw Doctor Tofu to the door.
"Isn't there anything else we can do?" asked Genma, looking pleadingly at the young man. After over a week of standing by, watching helplessly, unable to help his only son, unable to even get near him because of Ranma's instinctive fear of him while in the Nekoken, he was just about willing to do anything.
Well, almost anything. He had yet to grow desperate enough to beg help from Cologne, who had returned to the Nekohanten and was openly gloating over their troubles after discovering that her plan to trap Ranma as Shampoo's groom had completely failed.
Still, he was almost ready to set out on a search for Master Happosai, who had been last seen drooling after a touring women's wrestling team, to see if the ancient letch knew of any way to reverse what had been done to Ranma.
"Just watch him. Keep him safe," Tofu said sympathetically, sensing the father's frustration, knowing that Genma couldn't approach Ranma too closely without the cursed boy arching his back and hissing at him. "That's all you can do now." He turned to Nabiki. "Try and make sure he doesn't pull the bandages off his hands again. Those wounds have got to be kept clean, or they'll get infected again."
Nabiki nodded wearily. "I'll try. But he really hates those things. He keeps chewing on them."
"Well, do your best." Tofu sighed. "In the meantime, Shampoo, Mousse and I will keep searching for something in Kintaro-sensei's library that might help. Between the three of us, searching through all those Chinese books and scrolls, I'm sure we'll find something that will either break the cold spell that's trapped Ranma in female form or snap him out of the Nekoken. It will just take some time."
"That's what worries me," said Genma soberly. "Ranma has never been in the Nekoken for so long. Only an hour or so at the most, and here it's been over a week. It... can't be a good thing for him to-"
"DOCTOR TOFU! COME QUICKLY!"
The three startled as Ukyo's terrified voice screamed from inside Akane's room. Tofu didn't even blink before he was sprinting up the stairs, followed closely by Nabiki and Genma.
They burst into Akane's room to see Ukyo kneeling next to Ranma's prone female form.
Ranma was curled on his side, breathing shallowly, his delicate pale skin almost a translucent gray. His blue eyes were open, yet slightly glazed, staring about in confusion.
Tofu knelt next to the cursed boy, reaching out a hand to brush back the red bangs and peer into his eyes. At his touch, Ranma mewed weakly, but didn't move.
"What happened?" he asked.
"I... I don't know." Tears glistened in Ukyo's eyes. "He was okay, and then all of a sudden, he just collapsed."
Tofu's eyes narrowed, then widened in alarm. "His ki is being drained away," he said.
"What?" Ukyo's voice was low with horror.
"The cat demon," Tofu replied. "It's been feeding off Ranma's ki in small increments during the past week, but now it seems to be draining him dry..."
"Can't you stop it?!" asked Nabiki, her eyes wide.
Tofu looked up at her, his face pale and serious. "If I could stop it, I would have done so long ago. But it's his connection to the cat demon that's causing this, and..." He trailed off helplessly.
"But... if he loses all his ki..." Genma said softly. "Won't that... kill him?"
Tofu's eyes filled with impotent frustration as he looked down at Ranma, and nodded.
Genma closed his eyes, as if to block out... everything.
Ranma mewed weakly, tried to raise his head... and slumped abruptly. Ukyo cried out softly and reached out to take his curled, bandaged hand. "Stay with me, Ranchan," she whispered, looking into his eyes that stared with confused pain from his feminine face. "Don't you leave me..."
Ranma's eyes lost focus and slowly slipped shut as he slid into unconsciousness.
Ukyo pressed one fist to her mouth in horror, tears slipping from her wide eyes, as Doctor Tofu leaned over Ranma, frantically pushing shiatsu points to create more ki flow all over the boy's limp female body.
He leaned back after a moment, his face twisted in concern. "That's it," he said. "His ki replenishing points are open and flowing. That's all I can do."
Ukyo began to sob, still holding Ranma's delicate, slack hand. "No..."
Nabiki looked on, feeling angry, horrified, utterly helpless. "There has to be something we can do to stop this."
"Pray," said Tofu, not taking his eyes from Ranma's still form, "that the demon stops draining him before..."
He didn't need to say anything else. They understood.
And they all prayed.
The Shadowcat stood on its newly-healed leg, its fur standing on end, its eyes blazing.
Akane stood tense and ready, focusing above the pain shooting through the nerves of her ki-burned skin, focusing above the terror eating at her stomach after seeing the demon re-form.
A low snarl of unearthly fury emanated from the demon's throat as it stared in the darkness, its nose and ears twitching as it sought some sign of the intruder who had dared wound it. Suddenly, its eyes narrowed, and it turned to stare directly at Akane, its nostrils flaring...
It knew where she was! How...
She felt a strange dampness splatter against her leather-clad foot. Looking down, she saw, in the blue light of her aura, a drop of dark liquid fall from the back of her left hand to the ground, hitting the tip of her boot, staining the light material...
Only then, when she saw the long gash from her knuckle to her wrist, did the pain register. She was bleeding. The Shadowcat could smell the blood as it fell from her hand to the ground, outside the protecting influence of Susa-no-o's comb.
The Shadowcat didn't hesitate. It pounced, claws flashing.
Akane jumped in a blur of speed, flipping up and over the demon's claws and the tearing destruction of their wake. Her own sword flashed out, stabbing and biting quickly into the Shadowcat's flesh as she landed behind it. And then the Shadowcat was yowling, turning to meet her attack with unbridled fury.
Akane twisted as the demon came at her, feeling a searing pain scorch across her thigh as, with scream of anger and pain, she drove her blade into the Shadowcat's throat with both hands. The demon slumped, screeching a horrible, gurgling yowl. The black ki burned Akane's skin, the smell of ichor made her stomach tremble in nausea, but she didn't pause as she pulled her blade from the demon's neck and leaped back just in time to miss the flashing of its claws.
Pain. Oh, she was bleeding bad. Her leg was a mess. She needed to get a tourniquet above the gaping wound, or she would be in trouble soon.
Not that she wasn't in trouble now...
The Shadowcat was pulsing with red ki, almost completely healed of its wounds once again. It pushed itself to its feet and turned towards the smell of her blood, yellow eyes glinting.
It flicked a paw in her direction. Akane gasped and tried to move out of the way, but searing pain lanced through her left shoulder, and she was flung back several meters from the force of the blow. She landed on her back, her head cracking against the stone floor.
As she lifted her head groggily, ignoring the pain in her shoulder, in her leg... the ivory comb fell from her braided hair, clattering to the ground in two pieces.
Akane felt Susa-no-o's silent presence vanish from her mind.
She saw the glowing eyes of the Shadowcat widen, its wide black pupils narrowing to slits from the sudden exposure to the dim flickering light of her battle aura as her fallen form appeared out of the nothingness.
Akane's own brown eyes widened as terror gripped her. The comb...
The Shadowcat grinned at her as she painfully pushed herself up into a sitting position, taking obvious note of her injuries. The demon didn't move, but simply watched in unconcealed amusement as Akane stared at it fearfully, then rolled over quickly, her shoulder and her leg welling blood... She kept a frantic grip on the hilt of her katana with her right hand as her left hand moved painfully, groping for the pieces of the comb. One piece was near by, grasped eagerly by her blood-slick hand, but the other piece had bounced off into the darkness.
Focus! Think over the pain! Oh please, you can't lose now! Akane knew that she was losing blood quickly, that the Shadowcat was watching her struggle, playing with its prey before the kill. With a great effort of will, she pushed herself to her feet and faced the demon, her katana held before her in trembling hands.
**Akane,** the demon's voice growled in her mind, even as it grinned at her, baring its needle-sharp teeth. **You are fighting a losing battle. You see, when you hurt me, you are hurting Ranma. It is his ki that is healing me now.**
Akane froze, her eyes widening in horrified understanding.
**Do you want to kill him? If you somehow manage to stick me with that little knife of yours a few more times, he will die. Even now, he is already unconscious from the drain I have exacted from him. His breathing is shallow, his heart is slowing. He can't take much more.**
The demon took a slow step towards her. **Will you kill him, Akane? I know you want to free him from the Nekoken. Well, death is the only thing that will free Ranma. Is this what you had in mind, Akane? Go on, attack me again. No matter what you do to me, I will only heal myself with Ranma's life force until there is nothing left of him. Then he will die. He will be free of me at last, but he will be dead. And even then, if you hacked me into a million pieces, I would only re-form again, eventually.**
Akane felt moisture on her cheeks as she stood in helpless fury. Futile... All this for nothing...
**I can smell your blood, Akane. It is full of fear. Perhaps it is not Ranma who will die after all. Perhaps it is you who will die here. And then Ranma can live a full, long life... as a mindless animal. As my perpetual feeding ground.**
A quiet sob escaped Akane's throat.
The Shadowcat was grinning, its mouth pulled back from its teeth even as it lowered itself into a crouch, its flickering yellow eyes glancing down to the pool of blood spreading at Akane's feet, then up to her pale, terrified face.
**So easy. Just like the tengu...**
The demon snarled and leaped for her, sensing the imminent kill...
And Akane's brown eyes sparked and narrowed. As the Shadowcat descended on her, she screamed out in grief and fury, rolling from beneath its flashing claws, twisting, bringing up her sword with both hands, flashing out with all her remaining strength in a bright arc...
The Shadowcat's snarl was abruptly silenced as its massive head flew from its shoulders. The demon's huge cat body collapsed bonelessly onto Akane, its dark ki burning her skin, filling her lungs, the ichor spilling from its stump of neck splattering against her skin...
She pushed the twitching mass off of her, shuddering.
She looked over to where the Shadowcat's head rested on its side, the long, rough tongue lolling from its open mouth.
The malevolent light of life in the demon's eyes flickered briefly, then extinguished.
Slowly, so slowly, the body began to move towards the severed head. But this time, there was no bright flare of red energy. Just the normal, twitching movements of a piece of dead demon, trying to reach its other half.
Akane looked at the revolting sight, her brown eyes glazed with numbness and pain...
The comb. She had to find the other piece.
There. Over by... the head.
Akane half limped, half dragged her wounded body over to the lifeless cat's head, leaving a streak of blood on the stone floor behind her, and slumped down. She looked down at her tunic, saw an edge of cloth shredded by the flash of cat claw, took hold of it with her right hand, and tore off a long strip of cloth. Slowly, painfully, she tied it tightly around her thigh, above the gaping, clotting wound.
She reached down, picked up the other half of the comb, and, with shaking hands, carefully fit the two pieces together. They wouldn't stay, so she tore another small strip of cloth from her tunic, focusing, trying desperately to ignore the searing pain from the bleeding wounds in her shoulder, and bound the broken comb together. It took three tries, her hands were shaking so badly, but finally she succeeded.
She reached back with her uninjured arm and plunged the comb into her hair...
**Akane...** Susa-no-o's voice, filled with relief.
"I... did it. I think..." she whispered weakly, looking at the demon's head. A few meters away, the body was still twitching towards her, making minimal progress.
**Yes.** The deity's mental confirmation was quiet, tinged with a touch of anxiousness as he noticed the state Akane was in. **You did it.**
"I..." Akane could feel darkness flickering on the edge of her sight. Or maybe it was her rapidly fading battle aura. "I broke your comb. Sorry."
"I don't... think I'm gonna make it out of here." Understatement of the year. She didn't think she could move at all, let alone walk all the way back through the Gaki domain, past all those demons at the border. Her tourniquet had slowed the bleeding of her leg, but her shoulder...
Akane blinked slowly through the pain. "Ranma... is he..?"
**He's fine, Akane. He's going to be all right. You saved him.**
Akane closed her eyes and smiled. "Good," she whispered. She was so tired. "Not for... nothing... then."
Her battle aura flickered out.
She felt herself falling... falling forward to the stone floor. Her cheek rested on its rough, cold surface.
**No. Not for nothing...** She thought she heard Susa-no-o's voice in her mind again, but couldn't be sure. Maybe she was dreaming. There were no other sounds but the quiet, slow twitching of a demon body...
**Not for nothing, my brave little Akane-chan.**
Akane felt a slight tingle emanate from the crown of her head, where the comb pierced her thick dark hair, and spread across her body...
The surface of the ground changed beneath her.
Still cold. Colder still. But soft, white, and wet. The darkness was still there, but now there were stars...
Bright, glittering stars. She could see them, even with her eyes closed. Even lying face down in the snow, her blood slowly seeping from her shoulder, staining it red.
Ah, she thought, right before the stars faded from her mind's eye as darkness of a different kind, different from the Shadowcat's cave, different from the night sky above, claimed her.
A sound. A strange sound, like the chattering of tall ones...
It wasn't strange. He knew that sound. It wasn't just a sound...
It was a word.
It was a word. A command. And he knew what it meant.
It had been so long since he knew what it meant...
Words. More words. Words came flooding into his mind, and he knew what they all meant, and they joined together, slow at first, but then faster and faster until they were not just solitary words, but sentences, complete thoughts...
A moment of confusion. But why did I forget?
And with that single thought, a floodgate opened, and Ranma's clouded mind was deluged with memories... So many memories, flowing around him, through him... until gradually they settled back into their proper place and order in his head...
Pop. Training trip. Endless training...
Oh jeeze... Jusenkyo... how could I forget that...
And then... the images that had been floating at the edges of his consciousness gained sudden meaning.
Akane. Oh yeah, Akane. I remember. Short hair uncute tomboy chick...
Real cute when she smiles...
Ranma felt a warmth spreading through him at the thought and felt the urge to smile, but something was wrong. His thoughts were there, his memory returning, but he felt... disconnected from his body somehow and the smile wasn't there except in his mind, in the warmth that filled him... And yet, with the warmth associated with his memories of Akane, came a sudden sense of sick foreboding...
Am I asleep?
The memories kept coming, and with it, the feeling of foreboding grew stronger, stronger still, until Ranma was suddenly afraid.
Herb... The Chiisuiton... No, I defeated him, that's over...
Shinnosuke..? No... Akane came home with me, she didn't stay with him, she only stayed to save his life because he once saved hers... But she came home with me...
So what is it that's making me feel so...
And then, from the back recesses of his mind, Ranma heard... voices.
Voices, harsh whispered, growing louder, growing in intensity...
**Akane is alive Akane is aliveAkaneisaliveAkaneisalive akaneisaliveakaneis...**
**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 have youshouldgiveupyou'llneverseeheragainyou'redoomedtofailyoualreadyhave...**
And, with a surge of horror, Ranma remembered.
Shampoo. The blood spell. The tape. Nabiki, Ukyo, Ryoga, Doctor Tofu...
The Ancient One. A way to break the blood spell and rescue Akane...
The Snow Woman. The... Shadowcat...
And the memories kept coming.
He remembered. Everything. The wildness, the fear, the feeling of his mind and soul diminishing...
Running all night on all fours in blind terror with the Shadowcat at his heels, the demon laughing, enjoying his fear...
Hunger... so hungry... Eating fish raw, scales and... everything...
A battle... A... tengu. Fighting for him. Fighting him as the demon enters his mind, fills it and makes him attack the tengu like a puppet... A strange blast from the tengu's feathered hands as he attacks...
Waking up. The Shadowcat gone. The tengu... dead? The smell of blood on the forest grass overwhelming his instincts, but then...
Ryoga. Ryoga finding him... filling him with instincts of home...
And always, the memories of Akane, lingering... The horrible aching in his chest... The days spent in her room, crying out for her, waiting...
Ranma felt sick.
Oh gods. How long was he... like that? And why could he remember everything that happened to him now, when he never could before?
Physical sensation slowly began to return. Ranma was gradually aware of light pressing against his closed eyelids; of quiet sobbing sounding close to his ear.
Ah, he ached... could barely move. What had happened to him? What had... snapped him out of it?
He slowly opened his eyes...
"He's awake," said Nabiki, relief evident in her voice.
"Oh Ranchan!" Ranma felt a pressure squeezing his limp hand.
He turned his head slowly to see Nabiki and Doctor Tofu standing over him, looking on with worry, then looked over to see Ukyo, her face streaked with tears, clasping his hand in both of hers.
His brow furrowed in concern. "Ucchan," he whispered hoarsely, and as his voice reached his own ears, he realized he was in girl form. "Don't cry..."
He heard sharp intakes of breath from Nabiki and Doctor Tofu.
Ukyo's face froze in a rictus of shock. She stared at him in disbelief. "R... Ranchan?" A moment passed as he looked back at her, feeling strangely awkward. Then, before he could say anything else, her expression burst into one of tearful joy, and she swept him up in a crushing embrace, making him wheeze for breath. "Ranchan! You're back!"
"Y-yeah," he gasped. He felt strangely weak, worse than when he used most of his ki in the Mouko Takashiba he loosed when he tried to stop the blood spell.
The blood spell...
Akane. He remembered. He had to break the blood spell and get Akane back.
"Yeah," he said again, his blue eyes distant and haunted and determined as Ukyo continued to hug him. "I'm back."
The Snow Woman wept icy tears of grief as she stood over Akane, who lay pale in the starlight, nearly bled white; the jagged, gaping wounds from her leg and shoulder staining the pristine snow bright red.
Yuki-onna knelt down next to the girl and carefully turned Akane's motionless form over. She reached down and cradled the body gently in her cold white arms...
...and felt the fading warmth coming from Akane's human skin.
"Still alive," Yuki-onna whispered. Her frost blue eyes glistened as the icy tears of grief turned to icy tears of joy. "Still alive..."
She stood, carefully holding Akane's limp form in her arms, not caring about the blood that stained her flowing silken robes, and began to walk quickly back to her home.
"Ah, my little Akane-chan, you've finally returned to me..."