Chapter 17: Journeys and Arrivals
The Snow Woman gazed down at Ranma, her frost-blue eyes clouded and unreadable in her cracked, blackened face. She stood tall and pale in the starlight, her long mane of shimmering white hair flowing about her slender form. Her feet, barely visible beneath the long hem of her silken robes, did not touch the ground.
And, as Ranma looked up at her through his red bangs, furious recognition flickered across his female face, even as his mind screamed in terror.
It's her! That demon - The Snow Woman!
She was back, somehow she had found out that he had escaped the Nekoken, and so she had returned.
And... the Shadowcat was with her. He just knew it. He couldn't see the demon, couldn't feel it yet, but then, it didn't come last time until after the Snow Woman was finished with him, and so he knew that the demon would come, that it was coming, and his mind screamed as he tried to keep from trembling...
Ranma swallowed as the hard black knot of fear building in the core of his chest threatened to explode. Oh man, if I fall into the Nekoken again with this cold spell still on me... A shadow, dark and terrible, crossed his face as memories of the past week, spent living with his mind and soul transformed to that of a dumb animal, swept over him like a glacial wave, leaving him gasping and shaking. Oh no, he realized, his terror building. I'll be trapped forever.
And, just at the thought, Ranma became acutely aware of the small, altered piece of his soul inside him; the "gift" inflicted upon him by the Shadowcat as a result of his Nekoken training. He felt that strange, feline part of himself twinge restlessly even as his fear mounted, as if in anticipation of the imminent moment when it would once again rise and gain animalistic dominance of his mind and body, swallowing his intelligence, his humanity, devouring him whole...
His eyes teared, he clenched his teeth, and his battle aura flared bright blue-green around his female body, even as he stepped protectively in front of Ryoga's unconscious form. "No," he groaned, a flickering ball of blue-green ki growing in his hands.
The Snow Woman looked at him, at the ball of energy he was creating. Almost unconsciously, one hand stole up towards her face to touch her blackened cheek, even as her eyes widened in alarm. "Ranma..." she said softly, gliding towards him.
Ranma crouched, his eyes narrowing in fear and anger as his ki blazed brighter. "Stay back," he snarled fiercely.
Yuki-onna paused, seeing the terror flashing through Ranma's blue eyes even as he glared up at her, the furious expression on his girl face lit eerily by his expanding ki...
...and she realized that he would not listen. He would fight her to the death before he would let her get near him.
And so, drawing strength from the biting chill of the night air, she tilted her head towards the boy in the cursed female body... and breathed softly.
Ranma flinched as the Snow Woman's icy breath swirled about his head, a few tiny snow flakes sticking against his face, not melting because of the cold spell that barely hovered over the surface of his skin. What was she doing?! Was she trying to freeze him to death again? He would blast her away before she could-
And then he felt it.
A sudden, deep lethargy seeped into the edges of his mind. Ranma blinked in surprise as his vision unfocused, blurring the image of the Snow Woman standing before him. His outstretched arms, held before him as he summoned his depression ki into the palms of his hands, sagged suddenly as a penetrating weariness swept through him, tugging at him, pulling him down to join Ryoga on the ground in a peaceful, slumbering heap.
Sleep, child, the spell whispered to him. There is no need to fear. Sleep, and all will be well...
"No!" Ranma grit his teeth, shook his head violently, and fought against the sleep spell, his ki blazing as he tried desperately to focus above the exhaustion that was creeping through his limbs, fogging his brain. If he succumbed, if he fell asleep, who knew what the pale demon would do to him.
Yuki-onna watched in amazement as Ranma struggled against her spell, the bright blue-green ki in his delicate hands building rather than diminishing. The skin of her cracked face tingled in remembered pain, almost as if in response to the power build up of Ranma's ki. She could feel it - feel the strength of his anger and despair growing before her, focusing in the palms of his hands, and knew that, after what she had done to him, he would hold nothing back.
After all, she was nothing more than a demon... a monster...
She had to act now, while Ranma was distracted and weakened by her spell, before it was too late.
She reached out to him with her pale arms. "Ranma," she said softly, almost pleadingly. "Don't be afraid."
Ranma grit his teeth, blinking, trying desperately to focus his vision as the Snow Woman began to glide towards him again. "No!" he cried. "Not again!" He had to stop her, he couldn't let her touch him, he couldn't allow her to summon the Shadowcat demon to steal away his mind...
And all of the immense power of Ranma's intense fear and despair went into the Shishi Hokoudan that surged in a bright flash from the palms of his hands, towards the white apparition.
Yuki-onna's eyes widened as Ranma released his attack, and, in desperation, her hand flashed out and grabbed Ranma's wrist just as the blast hit her.
The ki blast split, surging in fiery waves around her invisible protective barriers, lighting up the dark forested mountain-scape. Ranma's eyes widened, watching as his attack scorched trees and vegetation, burning them to cinders... And yet it failed to harm the Snow Woman, who continued to clutch his wrist with her white fingers even as she sank to her knees, exerting all her power to keep his hot ki from burning her away.
"NO!" Ranma yelled in horror, jerking, trying frantically to pull out of her grip, but he was weakened from the ki he'd loosed, and her ice-cold hand was unnaturally strong, like a vise, her nails biting into his skin.
And, as the Snow Woman slowly raised her head to look at him, her face creased with strain and effort, Ranma felt a strange tingling emanate from her hand to spread in an instant all over the surface of his woman's body, from the soles of his feet to the top of his scalp.
Anguish rippled across his face, as he realized... Too late, I was too slow, dammit, too slow! She touched me, oh gods, what did she do to me this time?
The Snow Woman sagged weakly, her magic spent, her hand sliding limply from Ranma's wrist. Ranma jerked away violently, staggering back and sitting down hard next to Ryoga's fallen body.
Yuki-onna looked up at Ranma from where she knelt, glittering frozen tears of exhaustion sliding down her pale, cracked cheeks. Ranma was rubbing his slender wrist where she had grabbed him, staring at her in numb horror...
He was so tired, his body and mind cried out for sleep as the spell continued to work within him. Even the energy from his rush of adrenaline was already sapped away, and he was weakened from the ki blast he had released.
Sleep, Ranma. The whisper caressed his mind like the soft warm touch of a downy pillow. Sleep and all will be well...
He blinked as he felt his mind begin to wander; as reality slowly began to slip away under the onset of dreams...
Akane... he thought, as his eyelids drooped unwillingly, the blackness of unconsciousness flickering at the edges of his sight. And in his mind's eye, he thought he saw her, sitting alone, utterly isolated in a dark featureless place, weeping silently, tears slipping down her beautiful face...
Akane... He tried to call out to her. Was he dreaming? He couldn't tell. I'm sorry...
And then the Snow Woman was standing, coming towards him. He could see her, a pale apparition in the starlight. The mountain winds tugged at her flowing robes and her long, shimmering white hair.
He could hear Akane weeping, so desperate and lonely it made him want to die...
The Snow Woman knelt next to him, and he cringed away ineffectually. "D-don't..." A plea. Not for himself, but for Akane.
"You are free, Ranma," said the Snow Woman wearily. "I... have removed my cold spell from you."
Ranma blinked slowly, looking at her blearily, his blue eyes unfocused in his girl face as the spell, combined with his own very real exhaustion, pulled him down into sleep.
"What..?" he said, his eyes closing against his will. His body felt light and disconnected. He felt himself sinking...
The corner of Yuki-onna's lips quirked into the tired ghost of a smile, and she reached out to catch Ranma's slumping form, to ease him to the ground, surprised at the lightness of his cursed form.
"I do not ask you to forgive me for what I've done to you." she whispered. "If I could somehow erase the harm I have done, erase the suffering I've caused you, I would. But I cannot. I... can only view the past, not change it."
And, in confusion, Ranma slipped into unconsciousness, the sleep spell overwhelming him at last. Yuki-onna's weary expression softened. She reached out and touched his forehead gently with her white fingers, brushing back the red bangs that framed his girl face.
**Ranma,** she said, sending the words directly into his mind. **I... am sorry. For everything. And I wanted you to know... Akane has not forgotten you. She remembers.**
A frozen crystal tear fell onto Ranma's cheek. It began to melt against the warmth of his skin.
**She remembers, Ranma. And she is waiting...**
Kuno was perplexed.
He lay on his futon, his arms behind his head, staring up at the sloping ceiling of his tent. The sun had yet to rise, so the light was poor. Still, that did not prevent him from contemplating the poster-sized pictures of the pigtailed goddess and the mysterious Akane Tendo attached to the canvas ceiling.
As he gazed up at the images, the corner of his mouth twisted slightly. How ironic, he thought, his eyes lingering on smooth, flawless skin; dark flashing eyes framed by perfect lashes. The picture had captured the mystery girl in mid-motion as she sent her fist through a stack of bricks. Indeed, he thought, who could imagine that such a fierce tigress as this raven-haired maiden could be related to the cold, manipulative Nabiki Tendo. Ah, truly, I must save her from the savage foreign serpent who holds her captive. And, as her savior, I will most nobly accept her gratitude and adoration by allowing her to date with me!
Kuno's eyes became slightly glazed at the thought, a delirious grin disrupting the calm of his countenance. Moments passed, and his gaze drifted with his imagination until once again his vision cleared, and he found himself staring up at the face of his beloved, the flame-haired pigtailed goddess. His grin immediately dissolved into a frown.
Here was a quandary. He loved them both so dearly... And yet, the pigtailed girl, his first love, was enslaved just as surely as Akane. That foul sorcerer Saotome had twisted his beloved's mind, enslaving her body and soul. He had cursed her, that most delicate and beautiful blossom of maidenhood, to believe that she was actually... a man.
Kuno shuddered and clenched his fists in fury. Such an abomination of dark magic! And worse, it seemed that, even though Saotome had been left behind in Japan, his enchantments over the pigtailed girl grew stronger with the distance that grew between them. For not only did his beloved believe she was a man, but she spurned his affections with increasing violence, preferring the company of that hopeless fool, Ryoga Hibiki...
"What did you say?" Ryoga's voice was low, his face twisted in a grimace of horror and disgust that was mirrored almost exactly by the look on the pigtailed girl's face.
Kuno swept his bokken in a grand gesture until it was pointing right between the lost boy's eyes. He had held his tongue with admirable restraint since arriving in China earlier that morning. All throughout the first leg of their journey to save the fierce and beautiful Akane Tendo, he had watched and seethed in silence, unable to appreciate the lush Chinese wilderness around them. For his silence was forced; a matter of honor tied to a promise exacted from him by the manipulative Nabiki Tendo.
But that promise of silence did not matter. Far better that his own honor be soiled than that his pure, naive, undefiled goddess be taken advantage of so blatantly!
"Art thou deaf, man?" Kuno's bokken didn't waver, but then neither did Ryoga's hard gaze as he stared up its length. "I demand to know what your intentions are towards my beloved! She, who is as fair as the rising sun, as pure as the white lily. It is plain to me that you are trying to seduce her before my very eyes!"
He heard Nabiki groan behind him. "Kuno, you idiot."
Ryoga's face turned an interesting shade of red, even as he tensed up, his eyes blazing furiously, his fangs bared. "Why- why you-! How dare you suggest that I-"
"Kuno, you moron!" The pigtailed girl pushed Ryoga out of the way with one hand, while shoving the bokken out of the way with the other. Her face was livid as she gazed up into Kuno's face. "How many times do I have to tell you?! I'm a guy!"
Kuno's furious passion changed in a flash to... well, passion... as he gazed down into the sparking blue eyes that melted his heart and set his soul on fire. "Fair pigtailed girl," he said gallantly, "thou art bewitched; thy mind bent to unreason by the foul sorceries of Saotome. Now stand aside, beloved, and do not interfere in manly things. This Ryoga Hibiki is no better than Ranma; he would stain thy honor, given the chance. I do this but for thine own good."
The flash of Ryoga's battle aura was almost blinding. "WHY YOU-"
"Calm down, sugar." Suddenly, Ukyo was there, stepping between Ryoga and Kuno. "He flew us here, and we need him to get us back to Japan once this is over, remember?"
Ryoga snarled, but restrained himself. Barely.
The pigtailed girl stared up at Kuno, eyes narrowed in fury, her teeth clenched... And yet, to his surprise, she did not attack him. She appeared to be struggling within herself; a fearsome battle, for he could hear her teeth grinding together. Could it be that she was fighting against her ensorcelment? Ah, if only she could break free, then he could take her in his arms at last...
"Look, Kuno," the pigtailed girl said tightly, her voice cold and calm. "The sole purpose of this trip is to save Akane. I don't have time for distractions. Now I'm glad you flew us here and all, but unless you keep your sick delusions to yourself, I'm gonna pound you to a pulp and leave you at the nearest village where you can wait till we get back."
Kuno's heart sank. Ah, the poor child had lost the inner struggle once again. "But Pigtailed gir-!"
"No 'buts,'" she said. "And, for the last time, my name is Ranma. Ra. N. Ma. Not 'pigtailed girl.' Got it?" She withdrew her small, powerful fist from Kuno's jaw.
Kuno rubbed his jaw for what would definitely not be the last time. "Perfectly," he replied, mustering the shreds of his dignity. "Though why you should wish to be called by the name of that most pathetic of cowards, that most heinous specimen of humanity-"
And, as the darkness of unconsciousness claimed him in that old, familiar way, he heard Ryoga's voice, still tinged with anger, followed by the dulcet speaking tones of his beloved...
"About time, Ranma."
"Dammit, now I have to carry him."
Kuno rubbed his cheek, staring up at the image of the pigtailed goddess attached to the ceiling of his tent, remembering the electric feel of his beloved's hand... well, fist... against his face on that first morning of their journey. Three days had passed since that morning, and the pigtailed girl had not delivered him up into the dark embrace of unconsciousness since then. He could only hope it meant that the spell that bound her was weakening.
He sighed heavily. Somehow, sometime soon, he would break Saotome's evil enchantment that poisoned her soul towards him. At that time, he knew, his goddess would touch his face in a much different manner. She would caress his cheek, whispering his name as she gazed up into his face, her blue eyes shimmering with gratitude and love...
Kuno's stomach growled noisily, interrupting his fantasy. The smell of frying okonomiyaki pulled him from his ponderings. "Ah," he said aloud, reluctantly tearing his gaze away from the images of his two loves and sitting up in his futon. "Breakfast lends strength to body and spirit. I must partake, lest I lack the means to save my fair ones."
Stepping out of his tent, he saw Ukyo Kuonji cooking away at her grill next to the campfire. The sun had yet to peek over the mountains, and a thin, grey mist covered the ground, matching the chill in the air. Bird calls echoed through the canyon, and the general rustle of awakening wildlife whispered through the surrounding vegetation.
The beauty of his surroundings was lost on Kuno, for he only noticed one thing. Ryoga's tent flap was open. The tent was empty. That vile Ryoga Hibiki and his beloved pigtailed goddess... were gone.
He strode over with haste to confirm his suspicions...
"Ah," he cried. "What is this?! Do mine eyes deceive me?!" He raised his clenched fists, his face filled with horror. "It cannot be! And yet, there can be no other explanation!"
"What is it this time, Kuno," said Nabiki hoarsely, coming out of her tent and giving him a rather groggy version of her evil eye. Rubbing her face with one hand, she glanced over at Ukyo and quirked a smile. "Smells good, Ukyo."
Ukyo grinned and flipped an okonomiyaki with practiced ease. "Thanks."
"That foul miscreant Ryoga Hibiki!" Kuno snarled. "He has taken advantage of the sweet innocence and fragile mental state of my beloved pigtailed goddess, spiriting her away from the camp during the night, no doubt against her will, to satisfy his own base desires!"
"Hmph." Nabiki raised an eyebrow in near-amusement as she walked over to get an okonomiyaki off the grill. "Can we say 'Jumping to conclusions,' Kuno-chan? I wouldn't worry too much about Ranma and Ryoga, if I were you. They're probably just off answering the call of nature. And I don't mean that call of nature."
Kuno scowled. "Do not mock me, Nabiki Tendo," he said gravely. "I know whereof I speak. Come, cast your eyes and observe how their bedrolls are untouched!"
Nabiki's eyes widened slightly with interest, and she exchanged a glance with Ukyo. Ukyo put down her spatula, and the two of them went over to look in Ryoga's tent.
Sure enough, Ranma's and Ryoga's sleeping bags were rolled up, their respective backpacks zipped up tight and leaning against the tent wall.
"Maybe they got an early start," suggested Ukyo. "They probably just woke up before us and packed up their stuff."
"Without pitching their tent as well?" A hint of worry was creeping into Nabiki's eyes. So many strange things had happened, they had to be on their guard. And, though she hated to admit it, Kuno might actually be right to suspect something was wrong - even if the situation wasn't what he thought it was.
Ukyo frowned. "You don't think something has happened to them, do you?" She looked around at the surrounding wilderness, a vast expanse of forested mountains. "Maybe we'd better look for them."
"Alas, I feared from the beginning that this would come to pass!"
"Shut up, Kuno." Ukyo shot him a look of disgust, then glanced over at Nabiki. "We should split up, but stay in sight of the camp. If we have to go further than that, we'd better go as a group. It will be safer that way, I think."
Nabiki nodded, her face calm, but the flicker in her eyes mirrored the worry on Ukyo's face. She turned and immediately started towards the rise that overlooked their little camp. She'd have a better vantage point from there; perhaps she could deduce where they had gone...
"What going on?" Shampoo stuck her head out of her tent flap. "Why stupid bokken boy yelling?"
"Ranchan and Ryoga are missing," said Ukyo, quickly turning off the gas on her grill. "It looks like they've been gone all night. We need to find them."
Shampoo's face paled. "Aiya. Is no good get lost in these mountains at night. We go look for them now." She pulled her head back in the tent and spoke in urgent Mandarin to Mousse. The two of them emerged a moment later.
"Hey!" Nabiki called down from the top of the rise. She waved. "It's okay, I found them! They're up here!"
"Are they alright?" Ukyo felt a hard knot of fear forming in her gut as she ran towards the rise, followed closely by Kuno, Shampoo and Mousse. For Ryoga and Ranma to be so close, and not respond to the noise from the camp below... She clambered up the steep grade to see Nabiki kneeling down next to them. They were lying on the cold dirt ground, Ryoga on his stomach, and Ranma about a meter away, lying on his back. Ukyo gasped. "Are they..."
"They're... asleep," said Nabiki, looking up worriedly. Why on earth..? Something was terribly wrong with all this. She took Ranma by the shoulder and shook him gently. "Hey. Wake up."
Kuno came over the rise of the hill and saw the pigtailed girl lying on the cold ground, the rounded curve of her breast rising and falling gently in sleep even as Nabiki jostled her with increasing anxiety. Then, he saw Ryoga, lying less than a meter away.
Kuno's eyes grew to the size of saucers, and his blood thrummed furiously in his veins as, in moments, the entire situation became plain to him.
Rushing past the others, he pulled the unconscious girl out of Nabiki's hands, sweeping her up in a crushing embrace. "Oh, my pigtailed goddess!" he wept. "To have defended thyself so adeptly from the amorous advances of this cretin, only to faint from thine own exertion once the battle was won! Alas, I should have foregone sleep, that I might have defended thee better!"
The pigtailed girl stirred in his arms, dark thick lashes resting against the pale skin of her cheeks fluttering open to reveal the bright blue of her eyes, looking up with groggy confusion into his face...
Bright blue eyes that were narrowing in sudden fury...
"What the hell-?!"
Kuno opened his mouth to whisper comforting words to his distraught goddess, only to freeze abruptly. His adoring, tear-filled eyes went blank... and he collapsed stiffly to the ground.
Ranma hastily extricated himself from Kuno's grasp and looked up to see Shampoo handing her bonbouri to Mousse, who then hid the weapons in his robes.
"Thanks, Shampoo," said Ranma, grimacing as he glanced down at the unconscious kendoist.
"Is no problem," she replied. "Shampoo tired of hearing stupid bokken boy."
"What's going on?" asked Mousse, looking back and forth between Ranma and Ryoga's slumbering form. "Why were you two sleeping up here?"
Ranma looked over at where Ryoga lay, and his face creased with confusion, his brain still foggy with sleep. "Huh?" he responded intelligently. He had fallen asleep outside? That was weird. What the heck had he been doing out..?
And then his face went slack with horror as he remembered the Snow Woman.
He remembered. She had cast a sleep spell on Ryoga, and then on him. He had fought the spell with all his strength, terrified of what would happen, what she would do to him if he fell asleep...
He had fallen asleep.
"Oh no," he whispered.
"What's wrong?" asked Ukyo, her brow furrowing with worry as she saw the color drain from Ranma's face. "What is it? What happened?"
Ranma looked down at himself, holding out his hands. He was still a girl, but other than that, he didn't feel any different...
And, he realized, the Snow Woman hadn't summoned the Shadowcat again...
His trepidation faded slightly, to be joined by puzzled relief. She hadn't summoned the Shadowcat. She hadn't come to send him back into the Nekoken. Then what..?
You are free, Ranma...
Ranma's eyes widened as he remembered the Snow Woman's words from the night before; the strange tingle that rippled over his body at her touch - different, he realized, from the flash of bitter cold that had trapped him in his cursed form...
He hadn't really been listening to her at the time, he had been so focused on fighting the sleep spell, on keeping her away from him...
You are free...
"No... No way," he said, shaking his head in disbelief.
"Ranma, would you please tell us what the hell is going on?" Nabiki's face was filled with irritation, tinged with worry. "Are you okay?"
Ranma looked up at her, his heart suddenly thudding hard in his chest. "Hot water," he said, his mezzo-soprano voice sounding hoarse in his ears, even as he tried to remain calm. "I need some hot water now."
Nabiki blinked. "Hot..?"
Ukyo, Mousse and Shampoo stared at Ranma numbly, trying to absorb the implications of his request.
"Shampoo and I have a thermos in our tent," said Mousse, breaking the silence. "Just in case of emergencies. The water may still be hot."
"Shampoo get it," announced the Amazon, and, without another moment's hesitation, she turned and leaped down the rise to the campsite.
Ukyo watched as Shampoo disappeared quickly into her tent. She turned to Ranma. "Ranchan," she said. Her mind was spinning. "What's going on? What happened last night?"
Ranma looked at her, his eyes wide with fearful hope. "I..." His throat closed off. He didn't want to say it. Just in case it wasn't true. Just in case the whole thing was a trick to get his hopes up...
"Here, Ranma!" Shampoo was back, with a swiftness that surprised even him. She thrust the thermos into his waiting hands. "Is still warm, Ranma," she said breathlessly.
Ranma looked down into the water, swallowing hard as the reflection of a cute red-haired girl stared back at him. If it was true... If he was... free...
His eyes moistened involuntarily, and he blinked even as his throat thickened.
Oh, please, please let it be true, he thought.
And he up-ended the water over his head.
Ranma slowly opened his eyes. He knew. He could feel it. Just as surely as he could feel his expanding heart about to burst in his chest. Just as sure as he could see the looks of happy astonishment on the faces of his friends. And still he looked down, just for visual confirmation, dropping the thermos to bring his hands... his hands... to his chest...
"YES! I'M A GUY AGAIN!" His shout of pure joy echoed off the sides of the surrounding mountains. And then a moment later his friends were around him, laughing and talking all at once, touching him, patting him on the back, as if making sure he wasn't an illusion. And then they had to stand back because Ranma couldn't hold still; he had to move, had to feel his body, his true shape around him, feel the power and strength of his lean musculature, feel that all the traces of his cursed female body were truly gone. Taller, stronger... He was a guy again!
And, with his true gender finally restored, Ranma could feel the horror of the past week sloughing away while, at the same time, a huge grin spread across his face. He was himself again, mind and body! He was back in control at last!
And nothing could stop him now.
"How, Ranma?" Nabiki was the first to recover from the shock. Even so, she was uncharacteristically flushed with the emotion of the moment, and she was smiling. "What happened to the cold spell?"
"The Snow Woman!" he crowed cheerfully, enjoying the sound of his baritone voice. "She showed up last night and took the spell off me."
Nabiki's smile vanished as her eyes went wide. "The Snow Woman?!" Her sharp tone made everyone pause, including Ranma. "The demon who did this to you in the first place? The demon who is holding Akane prisoner?"
"Well..." Ranma frowned. "Yeah. But..."
"But what, Ranma?" Nabiki's intense relief at seeing Ranma restored back to himself had vanished at the mention of the Snow Woman. "Are you saying that, after everything she's done to you, to ruin your life and keep you from rescuing Akane, she just gave up? Changed her mind? She just showed up and said, 'Hey there, Ranma. You know, while I was sitting around in the Kami Plane cutting out snowflake patterns, I suddenly realized that torturing your girlfriend and trapping you with a cat mind and a girl body was deeply, horribly wrong. Sorry for the inconvenience. Here, let me remove that nasty old cold spell of mine.'" Nabiki frowned. "I hate to break this to you, Ranma, but it's time for a reality check. There has to be a catch to this somewhere."
Ranma stared at Nabiki, dumbfounded. He wanted to get angry at her, to yell at her for ruining the moment of his freedom from the cold spell... But her words struck a chord, echoing the unvoiced fears he had buried under the emotion of the moment.
"I... Look, Nabiki." He met her dubious gaze. "I can't explain it. I don't know why she did what she did. All I know is that she had me right where she wanted me. She cast her sleep spell on me, and I couldn't fight it. She coulda done anything to me then, when I was asleep. She coulda killed me if she wanted to. Or she coulda summoned the... the Sh-Shadowcat again." Ranma swallowed. "But she didn't. And I woke up, and now I'm back to normal... and I remember..." Ranma's eyes widened and flickered slightly in amazement. "She said... that she was sorry. She said she wished she that could change what she did."
Ranma trailed off, his eyes clouding slightly as something else flickered in his mind. "And she said... that Akane is waiting for me," he said quietly. "She's waiting for me to rescue her."
He looked into Nabiki's face again. "Now I know I don't got any reason to trust her," he said. "But she did break her cold spell. And as far as I can tell, she didn't do nothing else. So as far as I'm concerned, I'm going to listen to what she said... and not keep Akane waiting for me to break this blood spell any longer."
Nabiki still looked skeptical.
"Aiya," said Shampoo softly, and everyone looked at her.
She looked around into the faces of her companions, and smiled sadly. "If... if stubborn, prideful Amazon woman can change heart... no can see why Snow Woman no can do same."
Everyone turned to look at Nabiki. Nabiki simply gazed at Shampoo for a long moment. Then, finally, her expression softened slightly.
"Oh, what the hell," she said at last, shrugging. "I suppose it's possible."
Ranma grinned. "Yeah!" he said enthusiastically. Shampoo smiled.
"Even if it's highly unlikely," Nabiki added cynically.
Ukyo laughed and patted her friend on the back. "Well, considering all the 'highly unlikely' things that have happened in the last few weeks, I'd say that the odds make it pretty darn likely, wouldn't you say?"
Nabiki blinked at Ukyo, and raised an eyebrow. Then she chuckled. "Okay," she said. "You win." She shook her head. "I'm glad I didn't bet on that one."
"If you had, you'd find a way to win," Ukyo quipped. And laughed again when Nabiki scowled at her with mock indignance.
Ranma smiled. He felt good. He was a guy again... A slight twinge in the depths of his soul flickered briefly, and for a moment, Ranma's cheer faltered. The Nekoken... It was still there. He could feel it... and the feel of it brought back a flood of memories of living, of thinking like a mindless feline creature...
Ranma swallowed, and forcefully pushed the feeling back. He... he didn't have to be afraid of that anymore. After all, the cold spell was gone, right? And if, by some chance, he did fall into the Nekoken again, all it would take was a splash of water to snap him out of it. A splash of water... or Akane...
Yes. He could rescue Akane... and face her as a man. The night before, when they had set up camp, Shampoo had told him that they were less that ten hours away from the mountain of the Ancient One. If they started out now, they would reach it by late afternoon, well before dark. Surely enough time to climb the mountain.
He was only ten hours away from seeing Akane again...
"Um..." said Nabiki, breaking into his train of thought. She was looking over at where Ryoga still lay, face first on the ground, snoring softly. "Should Ryoga still be asleep? I mean, I knew you could sleep through a nuclear blast, Ranma, but..." She trailed off. In spite of the prevalent optimistic attitude among the group that had been restored with Ranma's masculinity, she still had a nagging feeling that something was wrong; that they had overlooked something. Just watch, she thought. He won't be able to wake up from that sleep spell.
But Ranma, apparently, wasn't worried about that. After all, he had woken up from the Snow Woman's sleep spell. He went over to Ryoga, turned him over, and pulled him up by the front of his shirt. "Ryoga! Hey, Ryoga, wake up!" He shook his friend, none too gently. "Come on, you idiot, I can't believe you slept through all that," he said.
Ryoga's eyes opened slightly as Ranma continued to shake him. "Whu-hmldrbl?" he mumbled. Ranma grinned and released him. Ryoga fell to the ground, blinking groggily. He looked up at him. "Oh, uh... Hi, Ranma," he said, still not quite awake. "Wha's goin' on?"
Ranma smirked. "Duh, Ryoga. Open your eyes and take a good look."
Ryoga blinked and looked up at Ranma. "Yeah, so?" Then his eyes widened in realization. "Hey! You're a guy again!"
Ranma grinned. "Give the man a cigar," he said, leaning over to clap Ryoga on the back.
"What? How?" Ryoga pushed himself to his feet, looking around in confusion. Why was I asleep up here?
"I'll tell you in a second. But first..." Ranma turned to the others. "Let's break camp and get moving. We can make the Ancient One's mountain by this afternoon. Right, Shampoo?"
Shampoo nodded. "Right," she said. "But we need hurry." She looked down at where Kuno still lay unconscious at her feet. "And someone need pack for stupid bokken boy."
Ranma sighed. "I'll do it," he said. "And I guess I'll have to carry him too, until he wakes up."
Nabiki chuckled. "Now that will be interesting. How are you going to explain to him where his 'Pigtailed goddess' went?"
Ranma's face twisted in annoyance, eliciting a laugh from Ukyo. "I'll tell him the truth, of course," he replied testily. "Not that it'll make any difference. He'll probably make up some story about how I used my 'sorcery' to switch places with her, or something worse."
"Something worse," said Ryoga, scowling. "Definitely. Now, Ranma..." He reached over and pulled Ranma down into a headlock. "Are you going to tell me what's going on, or do I have to beat it out of you?" He started applying pressure.
"Gak! Ah-heh. Sure, Ryoga..." Ranma twisted deftly out of Ryoga's grip and flipped the lost boy over onto his back, slamming him into the ground. "I'll tell you while we pack."
As the small company of friends broke camp, they were so distracted, so filled with excitement and optimism about the end of their journey drawing near... that they failed to notice a pair of large, bulbous eyes watching them intently from the shadows of the foliage. And they completely failed to notice as those same eyes narrowed with interest, focusing on Ranma's now-masculine form...
Ranma no longer had the nearly-invincible power of the Nekoken behind him.
And, more importantly, he was a man again. A man, who could... who would provide strong heirs to strengthen the Amazon tribe. And he would do so willingly, once he was... properly dealt with.
Cologne smiled, her withered face wrinkling like ancient leather, and reached into the folds of her robe to finger a tiny bottle. A bottle that contained a carefully concocted potion, designed to subdue a certain strong-willed, hot-headed martial artist. It would only take a small dose, splashed onto his skin, which would then be absorbed into his blood stream and carried up to his brain. Then, within minutes, Ranma would be as tame and trusting as a small child. And he would be incapable of hearing the spell voices, which chanted incessantly of Akane's existence, in his numbed mind.
Cologne grinned. Yes, she would take great pleasure "raising" the child-like Ranma, reeducating him, teaching him of his proper place in Amazon society...
His friends would fight her, of course. Ukyo, Ryoga and Nabiki would not stand idly by and allow her to take Ranma away. It was too bad, really. She would probably have to kill them. After all, those who stood in the way of the ancient high traditions of the Amazons would perish. It had always been thus. And she would not allow the weakness of mercy to sway her from her duty. She would not fail to uphold the old ways, the traditions of her great ancestors.
Still, killing was not a wholly unpleasant prospect. She had wanted to kill that meddlesome Nabiki Tendo for quite some time now.
As for her great-granddaughter... Her smile faded. Shampoo had been extremely foolish, accepting that weakling fool Mousse as her betrothed. But... she was young. Just a child, really. Though she had the makings of a powerful warrior, she had not yet lived long enough to appreciate the sacrifices of their ancestors. She did not fully understand why the strength of the tribe came above all else... including personal desire.
Cologne's eyes flickered briefly.
Especially personal desire...
She shook her head, dispelling a sudden sense of unease, and sighed. No doubt Shampoo would come to her senses again, once she realized that Ranma was finally hers, to do with as she pleased.
Yes, she thought. By whatever means, the removal of the cold spell from Ranma was certainly a fortunate turn of events. The gods were surely smiling on her.
All she had to do now was follow silently, and wait for the right opportunity.
Yuki-onna sat on the floor of her chambers, carefully combing through the silky lengths of her cascading white hair, the tangles giving easily under the gentle strokes. Absently, she glanced over at her mirror. It was dark, unlit by her frost magic. It reflected only her room, herself. Even so, she instinctively knew, because of her dominion over the cold, frozen parts of the mortal realm, that gradually, over the past week, time had passed slowly on the other side of the time dilation. It was time to look in on him again. He was probably awake by now, after all...
There was a soft rap on the wooden framework of her screen door. Yuki-onna looked up, her frost-blue eyes lit with sudden hope. "Yes? Who is it?"
The door slid open to reveal Kazuo, her diminutive ice-sprite servant. No. Not her servant; her friend. Perhaps her only friend. After all, when all others had fled from before her... unholy behavior... he had stayed.
Even so, she could not hide the disappointment on her face, though she tried to cover it with a smile. "Kazuo-san," she said, indicating with a nod of her head for him to enter.
But Kazuo knew her too well. "I'm afraid it is only me, mistress," he said, and there was no reproach in his voice. He came into the room, knelt next to her, and bowed formally. When he rose again, he spoke. "I thought you might want to know that Akane is recovering well," he said. "Her wounds have healed. There is still a little pain, she says, but she is now starting rehabilitation exercises to get herself back into shape."
"That is good news," said Yuki-onna, but her eyes were sad. "So... she will be leaving soon?"
Kazuo nodded. "I imagine so. As soon as she feels strong enough to fight demons again, I expect she will be leaving us."
"I see." Yuki-onna looked away and ran the comb through her hair.
Kazuo frowned. "You will not go to see her?"
Yuki-onna closed her eyes and shook her head. "She does not wish to see me. And I promised her that I would not impose upon her further." She opened her eyes, and they were wet. "I have broken too many promises," she said quietly. "I intend to keep this one."
Kazuo's frown deepened to a scowl. "But surely she should know-"
"Kazuo." Yuki-onna's voice was gentle, but firm. "I will not discuss this with you again. Akane is free. And I will not do anything to make her feel obligation towards me. Even if she accepts that my intentions are sincere, she could not help but feel, somewhere inside herself, that this is yet but one more manipulation; one more trick to keep her here and bind her to me." Yuki-onna sighed deeply. "She already knows that he is free of the Nekoken; that he is coming for her. I had nothing to do with that. And it is all she needs to know to be happy."
Kazuo bowed his head in resignation. "Very well, mistress. I will tell her nothing."
Yuki-onna's mouth turned up in a half smile. "Thank you, my friend," she said.
The ice sprite looked up at her, his professional demeanor cracking slightly, and almost smiled back. "Will you take supper this evening, mistress?" he asked at last.
"Not this evening, thank you. I was about to look in on him when you knocked."
"Ah." Kazuo rose to his feet. "Forgive the interruption, mistress."
"There is nothing to forgive. You are welcome any time."
Kazuo's almost-smile grew slightly. "Thank you, mistress." And, bowing, he left.
Yuki-onna waited as Kazuo slid the door shut quietly behind him. Then she stood and, placing her comb on a small decorative table, went to stand before her mirror. Her eyes narrowed slightly as she examined her face. Was it her imagination, or... were the charred cracks in her skin fading slightly? She had grown so accustomed to her marred features, she couldn't tell.
Ah well. She shrugged mentally, dismissing the thought. Then, leaning forward slightly, she breathed, clouding the reflective surface of the mirror with frost. The magic swirled, and an image formed...
"Oh man." The groaning voice echoed ethereally from the flat surface, and the mirror image focused on Ranma, who, along with his own backpack, appeared to have an unconscious young man slung over his shoulders. He was following close behind his two Amazon friends, hiking up a treacherously steep mountain path that rose ominously in front of the small company. The top of the mountain was lost, obscured by low-hanging clouds.
"I can't believe how heavy this idiot is," Ranma grumbled, shifting under the combined weight of his pack and Kuno's unconscious body as he continued to climb the rocky incline.
"Well, that's what you get for not listening to me," said Ryoga, following close behind Ranma. "I told you we should have left him at the campsite with a note telling him to wait until we got back."
"Yeah, right," Ranma called back. "You think he woulda paid attention to that? He'd just follow after us and get lost or hurt or something."
Ryoga shrugged. "Suit yourself. You're the one who has to deal with him when he wakes up and find that his 'beauteous pig- tailed girl' is gone."
Ranma scowled. And yet, at the same time, his eyes lit with an inner smile at the reminder of his restored manhood...
Yuki-onna looked on the scene in warm amusement. Yes, Ranma was a man again, free, for the moment, of his cursed form. The ice magic of her mirror swirled briefly and focused on his face...
... and, as it did, Yuki-onna gasped softly, her eyes widening.
She knew what Ranma looked like as a man. She had knelt over him, ages ago it seemed, while he slept on a roof, her white hands spread across his chest as she slowly, carefully froze him to death...
Why had she not noticed before? The strong lines of his face. The tousled, dark hair, hanging over eyes that were as blue...
...as blue as the summer sea...
Her hands trembled. Shin, she thought, her frost-blue eyes filling with tears. Oh... He is so like him. How could I not see?
She pushed the thought away, knowing the answer even as the pain of loss and grief stabbed through her heart. She closed her eyes briefly as icy tears slipped down her cracked cheeks.
Ranma's resemblance to Shin, though undeniable, was superficial at best. Still, the recognition of it drove a painful spike of remorse through her heart. Oh Akane, she thought, feeling the wet ice crystals against her face. To think that, in trying to keep you from him, this beautiful boy you love... I have caused you to suffer the same agony that I went through. The agony that, even now, claws away at my very sanity...
Just one more piece of evidence against her. To be blind to one's own monstrosity was a hard thing. And yet to finally see that monstrosity, with the perfect clarity of one who has had the veil of self-delusion lifted from their mind, was misery unparalleled.
And Yuki-onna wept silently, trembling.
When she finally opened her wet eyes, the image in the mirror had changed, panning back to show the entire party as they struggled up the mountain pass. Shampoo and Mousse led the way, followed by Ranma, burdened with Kuno, then Ryoga, with Ukyo and Nabiki bringing up the rear, the two girls silently keeping a close eye on the Lost Boy to make sure he didn't wander off.
And, far behind them, slipping silently among the dense trees, hiding in shadows, was the old Amazon crone.
Yuki-onna frowned through her tears. She wasn't sure of the old woman's exact intentions towards the rescue party, but she was sure they weren't good. The crone was the one behind the blood spell, after all. Yuki-onna had delved into the past and watched the whole thing in her mirror.
A mental command, and the image swirled, and focused on Cologne as she moved from shadow to shadow. The old woman's ancient face was creased and withered with age.
And, hidden deep within the lines of age, so deep that it was not visible to human eye, Yuki-onna recognized... bitterness. Avariciousness. Hatred and self-loathing.
Yuki-onna trembled as she looked into the face of this mortal, her eyes widening in wet revulsion and horror...
...for she recognized those hidden aspects of the old woman's countenance - recognized them from years, decades, centuries of looking at her own reflection...
A small clenched fist went to her mouth, and she turned away, unable to look in the mirror...
Yuki-onna took a deep breath and reached out a trembling hand towards the mirror to steady herself against the solid wooden frame. She leaned against it heavily.
No. It was plain to see that this woman's intentions towards Ranma were anything but good.
Slowly, the Snow Woman turned back to face the mirror, to face the image of the twisted, bitter crone, skulking in shadow, moving in the reflective surface.
Yuki-onna's eyes shimmered, the grief and suffering in their frost-blue depths hardening with determination.
Akane, she thought resolutely. You will be reunited with Ranma again. I will make sure of that.
And, closing her eyes, she pressed her slender white hands against the mirror.
An unexpected chill wind burst down the mountain, and Cologne shifted and moved swiftly as the tree branches and foliage bent and swayed under the cold onslaught, never losing her cover of darkness. The ancient Amazon moved on, undeterred by something as trivial as weather, blending with the rustling of the leaves, she herself a chaotic, flitting shadow.
Far above her on the mountain trail, Ranma and the others climbed, oblivious to her presence. Ranma had grown careless and overly confident with the return of his masculinity. Before his release from the cold spell, he was constantly tensed and alert, sometimes becoming aware of her proximity. Now, he didn't even cast a backward glance over his shoulder. He was totally focused on his goal in front of him, and had left his back open and exposed...
This would be easier than she had first thought.
Another burst of frigid wind, whipping her long white hair about her face, and Cologne felt the sting of tiny flecks of ice bite against the skin of her cheeks.
A moment later, she stopped dead in her tracks in surprise as a sudden weariness penetrated her old bones, seeping through her like a numbing mist.
Cologne's eyes narrowed in alarm. A sleep spell! How-?
And then she knew. She understood how the cold spell had been removed from Ranma. Somehow, Ranma's enemy had become his ally.
And his ally was now her enemy.
Very well, Snow Woman, she thought, a grim, wrinkled smile creasing her face. You would try to stop me from reaching my goal? Let it be war then. I haven't lived over three centuries without learning how to deal with your kind, after all.
And, focusing her ki, the powerful ki that had kept her ancient body from the grave for over two hundred years, she focused inward... and burned away the soothing desire for sleep spreading through her limbs, trying to dull her mind.
Cologne cackled softly, her voice blending with the angry cry of the biting wind that now lashed at her with tearing, icy fingers, which she ignored with ease.
What will you do now, Snow Woman? she thought contemptuously. You see I am not like the untrained stripling of a boy you are used to dealing with. I know your limitations, and I can counter your tricks. The winter season has left this land, and your magic is weak. You cannot stop me.
And indeed, she moved with even greater speed and determination up the mountain path, a silent flitting piece of darkness, unseen and unheard by those she followed after...
Yuki-onna's eyes went wide as she stared into her mirror, her hands still pressed against the cold, flat surface as her frost magic swirled around the image of the mortal world. Impossible! she thought angrily. No mortal has ever resisted my sleep spell before! Even Ranma, who had a strength of will unlike any she had encountered in a mortal before, other than Akane, had fallen under her magic.
She frowned, her frost blue-eyes narrowing at the stilled image of the old Amazon crone.
No ordinary mortal, this one. Her simple spells, easily cast through her mirror, would not work. To face the crone in person was out of the question, since her power in the warming season of the Chinese wilderness would be seriously dampened, and she knew of the Amazon's physical prowess in the martial arts.
And yet she had to keep Cologne from reaching Ranma.
Yuki-onna thought furiously, biting her lower lip. There had to be a way...
Frowning, Kazuo carefully balanced the tea tray on one hand and slid open the screen door, peering tentatively into Yuki-onna's chambers.
The Snow Woman stood, silent and unmoving before her mirror, staring as her frost magic swirled across the reflective surface.
The mirror showed a series of images, repeating over and over. An old mortal woman, climbing a mountain with incredible swiftness. She pauses suddenly, sagging, as if overcome with great weariness. She scowls fiercely, and a faint outline of scarlet battle aura flickers about her diminutive form. After a moment, she straightens, and her withered face splits into a disturbing smile. Then she resumes her course with increased speed...
The image paused, the frost swirled, and the same series of images was repeated again.
"Mistress?" Kazuo repeated worriedly.
Yuki-onna blinked and turned to him. "Kazuo-san," she said distractedly. "Come in."
The ice sprite entered, and closed the door behind him. "I brought you some tea."
"Thank you. That was very considerate." Yuki-onna's eyes strayed back to her mirror.
Kazuo cleared his throat. "Mistress... You haven't left your chambers in almost three days."
"Yes," she acknowledged.
"Is... something wrong?"
A slight frown tugged at the Snow Woman's pale lips. "Kazuo," she said, glancing at him suddenly. "Have I ever told you about this mirror?"
Kazuo blinked, his bristly white brows furrowing over winter gray eyes. "I know that it serves as both a window and a portal to the mortal realm," he replied hesitantly, unsure about the direction the conversation was going.
Yuki-onna nodded, and reached out a slender white arm, her long fingers gently caressing the shimmering reflective surface. "You are right," she said. "With my mirror, I can view the past of the mortal realm, up to the moment of the present. Unfortunately," she said, her frown deepening slightly, "because of the time dilation between the planes, the present in the mortal realm passes much more slowly than it does here. For that reason, the events I view in my mirror have usually already happened. I can watch the past, up to the moment of the present, and then the image freezes, for nothing more has taken place. And then I must wait for time to pass slowly in the mortal realm before I can view more. Unless, of course, I cross over into the mortal realm and become a part of that time flow."
"I see." Kazuo fell silent, waiting expectantly.
"This old woman." Yuki-onna gestured to the moving image of Cologne in her mirror. "She has ill intent towards Ranma and his friends. I have tried to stop her from reaching them, by casting my sleep spell through the mirror. Unfortunately, because of the filtering of the time dilation, the warming season in that part of the mortal realm, and her own unexpected power, she was able to dispel my magic."
Kazuo frowned, not liking the sound of what the Snow Woman was saying. "What are you going to do?" he asked. "I can see by your face that you have not given up."
A small smile tugged at her lips. "No. I haven't. And I have an idea. But it is dangerous."
"Very." She looked down into the narrow, blue-skinned face of the diminutive ice sprite. "So dangerous that it may put you in harm's way. And I would not see you hurt."
Kazuo looked up into the Snow Woman's face, his eyes widening slightly with surprise and understanding at her quiet words. He returned her gaze, his chiseled features expressionless.
"Are you telling me to leave?"
"I am... requesting," she said softly. "I cannot require that you stay at the risk of your life."
"Then, if you are not ordering me to leave, it is settled." Kazuo's winter-gray eyes gazed at her steadily. "I will stay. My place is here."
The steel in his tone left no room for argument. Yuki-onna's smile saddened, and she closed her eyes briefly. "As you wish, then. So long as you know that you are free to leave, should you desire to do so."
"I have always been free to leave, mistress," he replied.
"Yes." Gratitude flickered briefly across the Snow Woman's cracked face. Then she turned away, and her gaze focused on the mirror. "Is... Akane well?" she asked, her voice low.
Kazuo nodded. "Yes, she is doing much better. This morning before breakfast, I watched her perform some very difficult-looking katas with apparent ease." He paused hesitantly, knowing instinctively what Yuki-onna really desired to know. "She... is anxious to leave," he said quietly. "She will probably leave within the next day or two."
"So." Yuki-onna nodded slightly, but did not turn to face him. "She is able to defend herself, then, against any demons she might face."
Kazuo frowned at the talk of demons. "Yes," he said slowly. "I would imagine so."
The Snow Woman lifted her head, and her eyes gazed at nothing. "Good. Then it is time to begin." She turned and smiled gently at Kazuo. "You'll need to stand back, my friend."
Moments after shaking off the Snow Woman's sleep spell, Cologne moved with swift confidence, silently gaining ground on Ranma and the others as they hiked up the mountain.
Her concealment was perfect, her presence precisely hidden. And, with Ranma focused so intently on reaching the mountain of the Ancient One, he wouldn't be able to detect her. Only a matter of minutes, now, before she would be close enough, and then...
She smiled. And then, Ranma would never know what hit him-
A fierce blast of sub-zero wind hit Cologne full in the face, tearing at her skin, freezing the breath in her lungs. She halted in her movement, gasping from the sudden bitter cold, her eyes widening in alarm as a thin layer of frost began to form over her skin, spreading over the withered surface like a fungus.
Such power! she thought angrily as she immediately summoned her ki to her defense. Where is the Snow Woman getting that kind of energy in this temperate climate?
She focused her ki, her fury igniting its heat. Her ki began to eat away at the cold that had taken hold of her.
But, to her amazement and dismay, the cold fought back with even greater fury, extinguishing the heat of her ki, nullifying it, dispersing it harmlessly.
"No," Cologne whispered, her breath a cloud of moisture freezing before her eyes and falling to the ground in tiny granules of ice. She felt her old joints stiffening with the growing cold. She had to move, she had to get away-
She couldn't. And, looking down, she discovered the reason why. Her feet were completely encased in several inches of ice, frozen solid to the rock face, effectively halting her forward movement.
The cocoon of ice began to spread quickly up her legs.
Snarling, Cologne lashed out with her staff and shattered the ice that held her bound. She would not be stopped, not by this impertinent Japanese Ice Sprite with delusions of nobility. With her legs free once again, she clenched her teeth against the numbing wind and resumed her course, her ki flaring brighter, her heated anger fighting against the frost that continued to creep across her skin...
Almost three centuries of martial arts training would not allow her to fall, however, and she immediately found purchase against the slick ground, balancing on the tip of her staff, unwilling to allow her feet to touch the ground again. Looking at the rocky trail in front of her, and the surrounding vegetation, she saw that everything for a good ten meters around her was covered in a thick sheen of gleaming ice.
And already, the tip of her staff was frozen solid to the ground, thick ice forming up its length.
How is this possible? Cologne thought in amazed fury. The Snow Woman should not have this kind of power! With a yank, she tore her staff loose from the ice, yet when she tried to balance on its tip to leap clear of the ice patch, the wind tore at her with renewed frenzy, and she fell against the onslaught, landing lightly on her feet...
Immediately, the ice clamped on, forming a bright cocoon up to her knees, creeping up to her thighs.
And, in her growing rage, Cologne shouted a loud "Kiya!" as she once again shattered the ice that bound her.
High above her on the mountain, Ranma and the others froze as the sound of the shriek echoed off the rocky canyon walls.
"What," said Ranma, as he and the others turned to look back down the mountain, "in the hell was that?"
Akane walked into the dining area. She had dressed in her nicest clothes, which, she had discovered to her dismay, was the outfit with the least amount of bloodstains. The plain brown tunic, which fell to mid thigh, was sloppily hand stitched in several places where it had been torn, slashed, or simply worn through, and her leggings and soft leather boots weren't in much better shape. Still, the clothes should last her another month or so. She had long ago sacrificed vanity and style for thrift, practicality and comfort. Both her pack and her katana were strapped to her back.
She stopped short when she saw that, there on the dining table, her place had been set out. A kettle of steaming green tea sat next to her cup.
She smiled in spite of herself. Kazuo hated to be near anything that gave off heat, since it made him extremely uncomfortable, and yet, ever since her first rather childish protest about the tea always being cold, he had made sure it was hot for her.
"Kazuo?" she called again, looking around, extending her senses and trying to feel him in the near vicinity, but coming up blank. Where could he be? The past few days, he had always had tea with her. And if he didn't show up now, how could she say goodbye? How could she thank him for taking care of her before she left?
The ice sprite still acted as if he didn't like her much. During the few weeks she had been here recovering from her battle with the Shadowcat, however, he had made sure her every need was taken care of. When she was too weak and in too much pain to take care of herself, he had tended and dressed her wounds, and had waited on her hand and foot until she was strong enough to take care of herself. And even then, he always had her meals ready, making sure she never had the chance to go hungry.
He wasn't much for company, though. It seemed he never spoke unless absolutely necessary, and she had soon learned that it was futile trying to start a conversation with him. But that was okay, because, after over two years of wandering through the Kami Plane on her own, Akane was almost used to being lonely.
Still, she was grateful to the unsociable sprite. Were it not for Kazuo's help, she wouldn't have healed so quickly. She wouldn't have recovered so fast, and she wouldn't be ready to leave this frozen prison, so full of painful memories and shattered hopes...
Yes. She was leaving today.
Akane felt a frown tug at her lips as she looked around, a swirl of convoluted emotions filling her chest.
Sometimes she couldn't help but feel that Kazuo had helped her only so he could be rid of her sooner.
They never talked of the Snow Woman.
But that didn't keep Akane from thinking of her.
The Snow Woman had been as good as her word... this time. From the day Akane first regained consciousness and had yelled at her in fury, magnified by her pain, fear, and confusion at finding herself in the enemy's domain, Akane had not even so much as sensed the Snow Woman's presence. Where ever she was, she was staying far away. Probably hiding out in her quarters, which Akane had intentionally avoided.
But what was she doing?
That was the question that plagued Akane's mind. And, during the days of her convalescence, her imagination had run wild with speculation, fed by memories of her own betrayal - memories of walking in and seeing the Snow Woman laugh in delight as she looked into the mortal plane through her mirror, watching as Ranma despairingly clung to a severed lock of hair as if his very sanity depended on it...
But that was not all. For Susa-no-o, with his own magic, had shown her the full extent of the Snow Woman's crimes. He had shown her images of Yuki-onna, her former trusted friend, tormenting Ranma... delivering him into the claws of that horrible Shadowcat demon... the demon that went on to murder Masakazu. The demon that had nearly killed her when she tried to free Ranma's soul...
Yes, she had nearly died. But it had been worth it, she thought, smiling grimly, because she had sent that demon's head flying with a last, desperate flash of her katana. And in doing so, she had set Ranma's mind and soul free once again...
Ranma was free.
Yes. It had been worth it. She would do it again in a second, if necessary.
As if in protest to the thought, a slight ache rippled through her shoulder and thigh. Akane winced slightly, and reached up with one hand to rub her shoulder. The wounds from the Shadowcat's claws were healed now, but the thin pink lines of parallel scars would be hers forever.
Akane blinked at the sudden wetness in her eyes as she massaged her shoulder, feeling the new, fearful hope tremble in her heart. He was free. And he would come for her. He always came for her. It... it didn't matter that the time dilation would make it so that the days, weeks and months would continue to pass with agonizing slowness; that she would continue to grow older before Ranma, still just seventeen years old in the mortal plane, found a way to break the blood spell that kept her bound here. She knew he wouldn't give up. And neither would she. She would keep searching for a cure as well...
Akane sighed. She had to start searching again.
"Kazuo?!" she called, her voice tinged with impatience.
Fine then. She'd have tea without him. And if he didn't show up, she'd just leave him a note and then go. She'd been in the Snow Woman's realm far too long for her liking anyway. She would walk into the mists, and head straight for Susa-no-o's realm. Then she'd face the arrogant deity, and demand to know what the hell he was thinking, transporting her back into the Snow Woman's domain. It had to be his doing. She remembered the tingling sensation that came from his magic comb before she lost consciousness, feeling the stone ground of the Shadowcat's cave turn to soft snow beneath her. She couldn't think of any other explanation as to how she had come to be here.
Akane scowled. It was probably Susa-no-o's stupid idea of a practical joke. Well, she'd tell him a thing or two when she went back.
Kneeling at the table, she tossed her long, thick braid over her shoulder with an unconscious flip of her head. She then slid her pack and her katana from her shoulders, and poured herself a cup of tea. Taking a slow sip, she couldn't help but let her eyes wander over the white, crystalline walls and ceiling that seemed to catch the light at all angles and refract rainbow colors over the surface.
So beautiful. And yet so cold and empty, utterly without warmth.
Just like the Snow Woman, she thought, her brown eyes clouding as her countenance darkened.
It had been so strange, the past few days, being back in the Snow Woman's realm... Walking through the rooms and corridors that she had called home during the first two and a half years of her stay in the Kami Plane...
And, in spite of her anger, she couldn't help but remember the beginning, when the blood spell had first torn her from the mortal realm. She couldn't help but remember when she first came; when the Snow Woman... Yuki-onna... had showed her kindness and friendship in some of her loneliest, most frightened hours...
Akane's eyes flickered, and a small frown tugged at the edges of her mouth.
They had been so close. They had laughed and talked and shared so many things, almost like a mother and daughter, before it all went sour...
Now the icy corridors echoed with the silence of the grave. Gone was the comforting murmur of the ice sprite servants, talking and laughing among themselves as they went about their duties, having all deserted after the Snow Woman summoned the demon Shadowcat. Everything was now empty and cold in a way it had never been before the betrayal.
Akane's hard gaze softened slightly. There were times when, while wandering through a familiar yet empty room, she sometimes felt the brush of an old memory against her mind. She sometimes half expected to feel Masakazu's flitting presence as he initiated another training session with one of his sneak attacks, or hear Yuki-onna's warm voice; see her turn the corner, her frost blue eyes lit with excitement as she presented Akane with yet another new outfit, carefully sewn with motherly affection.
Yes, Akane realized with surprise. Yuki-onna's voice had been warm once.
Akane sipped her tea, her expression troubled...
She blinked, her tea still lifted to her lips, as a slow suffocating feeling of dread stole upon her, making her flesh crawl.
Her brown eyes widened at the horribly familiar sensation. Her senses screamed, her muscles tensed.
Carefully, silently, she lowered her cup, placing it on the table.
Demon, she thought. And, reaching down in one smooth motion to where her pack lay, her katana was in hand, unsheathed, the live blade flickering with blue ki.
Her shoulder ached as she felt the malevolent creature's presence. She could sense it as it skittered down the hallway towards the dining room. She could hear the faint scrabble of its thick claws on the cold floor...
A demon was in the Snow Woman's realm.
Which meant that the Snow Woman had removed the protective barrier that surrounded the outskirts of her domain.
But... why? Akane moved with silent speed to the dining room entry way, feeling the demon as it grew closer, creeping down the hall towards her.
The Snow Woman didn't have the strength or fighting ability necessary to protect herself from the viciousness of a demonic attack. And surely she didn't expect Akane to protect her, as she had done so long ago, when the Snow Woman had removed the barrier to relieve the constant drain on her magic.
Which could only mean one thing.
Akane's dark eyes flashed in anger, and the blue fire of her battle aura tinged with red, throwing off a violet light. The Snow Woman had lowered the barrier. And the demon wouldn't be there unless the Snow Woman had allowed it... had invited it.
Stunned realization flickered across Akane's face.
The Snow Woman had summoned this demon, just as she had summoned the Shadowcat in her attempt to destroy Ranma. She was trying, again, to stop Ranma from rescuing her.
Akane's gaze hardened, and she shifted her two-handed grip on her katana.
Over my dead body.
The demon was close, getting closer. She could hear it breathing now, a high pitched wheeze, in and out through clenched teeth; a continuous sickly, hysterical giggle. She could feel the suffocating weight of its evil presence as it drew closer...
Akane stepped out into the hallway, directly into the demon's path, her expression as cold and calm and deadly as the blue aura that surrounded the blade wielded in front of her.
The demon screeched to a halt in surprise, its flickering eyes narrowing in a dead gray face that might once have been human, and it snarled, displaying jagged yellowed teeth in a slavering mouth.
Akane didn't allow the demon to get its bearings. Without hesitating, she moved towards it with deadly swiftness, leaping silently...
...and as she did, the demon's sunken eyes widened in realization. It lashed out with a gray-fleshed, clawed hand.
"You!" it wheezed, eyes sparking with hate and fear as Akane's sword flashed.
And then the spark vanished from the demon's eyes. Its twisted expression, a rictus grin of terror, remained frozen in place for a long moment.
Akane landed lightly on her feet behind the demon... And listened to the sound of a head sliding cleanly from a stump of neck, falling to the floor with a solid thud.
She turned and watched in silent revulsion as the body slowly collapsed, joining the demon's head on the floor.
Not a very powerful demon. Slow and stupid. Still, Akane couldn't help but be amazed at how easily she dispatched the creature. She walked over, swallowing the bile that still rose in her throat after all this time, and pushed the quivering body away from the head with the tip of her boot. No sense in letting the thing pull itself together any sooner than necessary. Her chest still felt tight with the squeezing presence of encroaching malevolence...
Akane blinked, looking down at the twitching dead demon at her feet. That's not right, I shouldn't still be feeling that after...
A skittering presence shifted in the back of her awareness.
Akane jerked and turned just in time to see a shadow flit across the intersection at the end of the long hallway.
What, another one?
With growing alarm, Akane extended her battle senses, slipping automatically into the old pattern she had used over two years ago when she defended the Snow Woman's domain on a regular basis. Her expertise, combined with her familiarity with almost every centimeter of the realm, made it easy to sense the approximate location of any intruder on the premises...
Akane gasped. There were two other demons in the household, aside from the one she'd just decapitated. A third demon was barely tickling the outskirts of her awareness as it emerged from the Mists of Kami.
And now a fourth. A fifth...
So many. In the past, when Yuki-onna had lowered the barrier to have full access to her magic, Akane had only faced one or two demons a day. And that was when they were being persistent...
She knew where they were going. Though they came from different directions, and moved at different paces, she could sense that they were all moving to the center of the domain, where the Snow Woman herself resided.
"No." Akane spoke aloud through clenched teeth, her dark eyes narrowing to glinting slits. "No way are you helping that witch hurt Ranma." And she ran silently, following swiftly after the closest one, the shadow creature that had flitted by moments before.
I'll just have to take them out one by one, she thought.
At that moment, yet another demonic presence intruded upon her senses, even as she continued to pursue the second.
Akane felt the first twinges of fear steal into her heart. Where were they all coming from? Had the Snow Woman sent an open invitation to the entire Gaki domain?!
Just the thought of facing so many demons again...
She swallowed, forcing saliva into her suddenly-dry throat, trying to ignore the throbbing in her shoulder. They were moving quickly now, too quickly for her to catch all of them before they reached the Snow Woman. They moved almost as if aware that she was on to them. And she knew she couldn't face them all at once. Two, yes. Three, quite possibly. Four or five?
Well, at least she would go down fighting...
She had to go to the source, she realized. She had to stop the Snow Woman.
Akane ran. The glittering walls of ice flew by in a dazzling blur as she moved at a speed Masakazu would have been proud of. Turning the corner in a flash, she saw the shadow demon a ways ahead of her. She called out to it with cry of challenge, and the creature paused in its flitting movement to look back at her...
...although "look" probably wasn't the most appropriate description, because the thing had no eyes. And no face. Just blackness, shadow on shadow. Even so, Akane could almost sense it grinning at her in malevolent anticipation.
The shadow demon's nebulous form rippled and convulsed slightly as she neared it.
"Ssssoooo lllovely," it hissed without a mouth. "I willll hhhaave youuu."
Akane suppressed a shudder as she came towards it, sword blazing. Ughh. Pervert, she thought angrily.
And, as she closed in for the kill, the demon's black ki flared with blinding swiftness, lashing out at her with dark, burning tendrils to ensnare her, to pull her into its shadowy body.
Akane gasped in pain as the swift tendrils breached her defenses and caught her, one wrapping around her neck, another catching her wrist and snaking up her arm. "Unghh!" she grunted, bracing her feet against the floor as the demon began to pull her towards itself. More tendrils shot out to snare her ankles and pull her off her feet.
I don't think so, she snarled mentally, and, with a swift flash of her katana, the severed ki tendrils dissipated harmlessly.
Akane straightened, her eyes narrowing as she rubbed her ki-burned neck with her free hand. The faceless shadow demon trembled slightly, shrinking back in surprise. "Llllovely..." it whispered.
Akane cleaved it in half.
It died silently, the flickering shadows around its shapeless form disappearing like fog vapors in sunlight. Its remaining twisted physical form fell to the floor in two twitching pieces.
Akane didn't pause to watch the creature's death throes. She ran, a blur of movement in the cold corridors, as she extended her senses once again, her face set with grave determination.
Now... where are the others?
She could feel them. The demons that had not yet penetrated the walls of the household had slowed in their invasion, as if sensing the deaths of those within. A small reprieve, she knew, for demons could not be dissuaded from their desired goal for long. And the third demon, the one already inside...
...was already with the Snow Woman.
"No!" Akane turned the last corner and saw the entrance to the Snow Woman's quarters. The rice paper and lattice door had been demolished, and an eerie blue-white light pulsed from the opening with bright intensity. Akane ran to what was left of the door, clenching her jaw to keep from chattering as the temperature dropped abruptly.
She gaped at the sight that met her eyes.
Kazuo lay stunned against the wall, a bloodless gash torn in his blue-skinned cheek. And in the center of the room, the Snow Woman knelt before her living mirror, her hands thrust into the rippling surface up to her wrists. Her head was bowed against her chest, and her white shimmering hair spilled about her face, hiding it from view. Both she and the mirror were surrounded by a shining, transparent blue-white sphere of magic and energy.
And a demon, its dead gray skin moist and glistening, was pushing its way into the sphere to join the Snow Woman.
Akane saw all of this, and yet none of it held the forefront of her attention. For in the living surface of the mirror, she saw the mortal plane. A Chinese mountain-scape. And on the side of that mountain, frozen as if in mid-movement, she saw...
"Ranma!" she screamed.
The demon turned at her cry, and gave her a venomous grin, the saliva dripping from its gaping maw and sizzling against the cold marble floor, its yellow eyes glinting.
"Akane!" Kazuo called out weakly. "Be careful..."
Akane wasn't listening. All she knew was that the Snow Woman was trying to hurt Ranma again, and this demon was here to help her. With a cry of despair and fury, Akane ran forward, ignoring how the air crackled with cold and bit into her skin. Her sword flashed.
The demon fell to the floor in pieces.
Kazuo was struggling to his feet. "Akane... Thank the gods! I thought you'd left..."
Akane's ichor-stained katana clattered to the ground. A moment later, she had both her hands pressed against the sphere of magic, her ki blazing blue around her, and, with all her strength, she began to force her way inside. She would tear the Snow Woman away from her mirror by force, stop her from working her evil... stop her from hurting Ranma...
"Akane! What are you doing?"
But she couldn't hear the ice sprite's frantic protests. Because, as her hands passed through the barrier, searing agony tore through her, causing her to cry out and sink to her knees. Wave after wave of pain rippled through her, as if every cell in her body was being torn apart...
Familiar pain, she realized, tears streaming from her open eyes as she desperately struggled to focus over the agony. She could dimly hear Kazuo calling her name. Yes, this was familiar. She had felt this long ago, when the spell from the mortal plane had tried to pull her through the dimensional barriers. But the blood spell had fought back, keeping her rooted in the Kami Plane, tearing her apart until the mortal spell was reversed, pulling Ranma through the barriers instead...
Ranma. She had to save him. She could see his unmoving form in the mirror...
With his face in her mind, she focused above the pain, and continued to push against the sphere. Her arms broke through, followed by her face, her head, neck and shoulders...
Oh... the pain...
The pain flowed around her, and she kept pushing.
This sphere, she realized. It's part of the mortal realm somehow... and the blood spell is trying to keep me out of it.
The Snow Woman knelt unmoving, head bowed, hands thrust into the mirror, as if unaware of Akane's intruding presence.
She was almost through, crawling on her hands and knees, her whole body, from the center of her being to the surface of her skin, on fire with pain. Ranma... Akane could see him, his image frozen in the mirror. And now she could see others with him. Ryoga, Ukyo, Shampoo and Mousse... Kuno was unconscious, slung across Ranma's broad shoulders. And... Nabiki? she thought in amazement, seeing her sister's face among the small group.
As she pulled the rest of her trembling body through the sphere, the images in the mirror slowly began to move, as if time had stopped and was only now starting again. She could see Ranma, his blue eyes narrowing as he turned; she could hear his voice through her pain...
"What," Ranma said, looking down the mountain in surprise, "in the hell was that?"
"Cologne!" Ukyo's hands immediately went to her bandolier, pulling out several sharp mini-spatulas.
"Aiya!" said Shampoo, her eyes widening fearfully. "Great-grandmother!"
"Dammit, Ranma!" Ryoga shouted. "You forgot that she was following us!"
"I forgot?" Ranma retorted angrily, and yet he looked rather shamefaced. "Look who's talking," he blustered. "You knew she was following us too! Besides... I had other things on my mind!"
Ryoga went to snap back an insult regarding the state and reliability of Ranma's mind, but then he saw the genuine look of guilt in his friend's eyes. And he once again saw the haunted shadow that lingered just under the surface of Ranma's cocky facade. Ryoga's teeth closed on the words before they escaped, but he still managed a healthy glare that wasn't nearly as malicious as he intended it to be.
"Will you two be quiet?" Nabiki snapped, not noticing the silent exchange between the two boys. "Look at that," she said, pointing when she had their attention. "It looks like Cologne's fighting... some kind of mini snow storm or something."
"What in the-?!" Ranma shifted under his burden and adjusted his footing on the steep slope, trying to get a better view. His eyes widened as he saw Cologne fighting the wind itself. The mountain path and vegetation that surrounded her glittered unnaturally in the little patches of sunlight that managed to filter through the low-hanging clouds. "Is that ice?"
Ukyo blinked in surprise. "I've heard of freak weather patterns before, but this..."
A cool wind blew softly around the small rescue party.
The group froze as a ghostly voice whispered down the mountain. After a moment, Ranma's eyes widened in recognition.
"It's the Snow Woman!" he said in amazement. "Check it out, she must be the one fighting the old ghoul!"
"The Snow Woman?" Ryoga blinked in shock, looking down the mountain.
Nabiki looked down the mountain, watching as thick sheets of ice formed and combined in an attempt to pin down the furious Cologne, who was desperately shattering back the relentless onslaught. "Well, that does explain what's happening down there," she said, somewhat wryly.
"See, Nabiki?" Ranma turned to her, smirking. "I told you she was on our side now."
"Hurry..." the voice whispered again, and everyone paused. It sounded so faint, so weary, they had to strain to hear it among the wail of the wind. "Ranma..."
"What-" Ranma's brow furrowed as he strained to hear.
"Please Ranma. I will keep the Amazon from interfering. Do not waste any time fighting her. Akane has been waiting so long... too long... She needs you... Please hurry..." And then the voice faded away into the wind.
Ranma's blue eyes were wide. The stricken expression on his face said more to his friends than the words that followed. His jaw tightened. "Come on," he said, turning to the others with urgency, tinged with desperation. "Let's go already. You heard what she said. She'll hold off the old ghoul so we can rescue Akane."
His friends nodded in assent, and together they began to climb the mountain with renewed haste.
The wind sighed, and it was almost a sound of relief.
The image in the mirror shifted and turned down the mountain to once again focus on Cologne as she battled the ice that was determined to trap her...
And, watching all of this, Akane trembled. She felt tears sliding down her face, but they were not tears of grief, or even pain, although the dimensional pull on her body was excruciating. Looking over at the Snow Woman for a moment, she then turned and, with the last of her strength, crawled out of the sphere, noting, to her relief, that it was much easier getting out than coming in.
She collapsed to the cold floor, just outside the shining sphere, and lay there gasping as the pain abated.
She felt Kazuo standing over her in concern.
Slowly, carefully, she pushed herself up to her knees. She looked up at the ice sprite.
"Wh-why," she said hoarsely, her breath still coming in ragged gasps, "didn't you tell me?"
"She didn't want me to," he answered softly.
She sat up and wiped at her face with one hand. Glancing back at the sphere, she looked at the Snow Woman; at the image in the mirror, once again frozen in time. "The time dilation," she said. "How long was I..?"
"About seven hours," Kazuo answered. His hand strayed up to the gash on his face. "I guess I'm lucky that time in the mortal plane is moving a bit faster than usual," he said wryly.
Akane blinked. "Lucky?"
"Here." Kazuo handed Akane her katana. "While you were in the sphere, a few more demons made their presence known. I suspect the only thing that has kept them from attacking is the fact that I left the twitching corpse of that demon, that you so neatly dismembered, out in the hallway as a warning. They're still out there, and they're getting more brazen by the minute. A dead body and a katana wielded by an unskilled ice sprite won't scare them off much longer."
Akane took the katana in her hands, looking down at the blade, her mind spinning.
"I trust you do not object to... staying a bit longer... and protecting Mistress Yuki-onna while she remains thus?" Kazuo gestured at the sphere. "It takes all of her magic and concentration to access the power of her domain that she needs to battle the Amazon, while transcending the time and dimensional barriers. She cannot maintain the protective barrier around her domain that would otherwise keep the demons out."
"Protect... Yuki-onna?" Akane's voice was a trembling whisper as she continued to look down at her blade.
She lifted her eyes, and they were shining with tears. A smile was slowly making its way across her face, almost unsure, as if it had been too long since the last time it was there, and was only now remembering the way. Slowly, she rose to her feet, her katana held firmly in hand.
"Hm," she said, as her smile widened. "Just like old times."
Akane sat with her back against the wall of Yuki-onna's quarters, her katana resting on her lap, and struggled valiantly to keep from nodding off. Her long hair was in disarray, erratic wisps sticking out of her french braid. Her face, arms and tunic were smeared with blood and ichor.
Five days. Five days had passed with the Snow Woman kneeling in her magic sphere, her hands thrust into the mirror as she battled Cologne.
Five days in which Akane fought off more demons than had ever invaded the Snow Woman's domain in a month's time.
"Where are they all coming from?" Akane had asked Kazuo wearily as he applied healing salve to her torn arm after a particularly nasty battle. "We've never had to deal with this many demons before."
"It's the Kami Plane," he answered gravely. "It doesn't like immortals interfering with the mortal plane outside of their jurisdiction... especially in this case, where Yuki-onna is helping Ranma reach the Ancient One. If... When Ranma succeeds in breaking the blood spell," he corrected himself, seeing the anxious look on Akane's face, "the Kami Plane will lose you back to the mortal realm."
"Oh great. And we couldn't have that now, could we," she said bitterly. Then she sighed. "I don't know how long I can keep this up."
"Hang in there, Akane. It will only be a little while longer."
But "a little while longer" had stretched into two more days. And Akane, drained and weary from lack of sleep and battle after battle, was reaching the end of her endurance.
A flicker from the sphere caught her attention. Her head snapped up, her exhaustion momentarily forgotten as she saw Yuki-onna stir.
"Yuki-san?" Akane set down her sword and went over to kneel next to the sphere. The light it cast fluxed and dimmed abruptly... and then the sphere faded away.
Yuki-onna moaned softly without raising her head. Her hands slid slowly out of the darkening mirror, and she slumped to the floor in a heap.
"Yuki-san..." Akane crawled over to the unmoving form of the Snow Woman, tears already beginning to sting her eyes. She gently turned her over and brushed the long white hair from the Snow Woman's cracked face.
She looked so... lifeless. Akane felt a twinge of panic stir in her chest. "Yuki-san... wake up... please..."
Yuki-onna's frost-blue eyes flickered open wearily. They seemed to have trouble focusing on Akane's face. "Who..?" she whispered.
Akane felt the tears brim and slide down her cheeks. "It's me, Yuki-san. Akane."
"A... Akane?" A look of happiness flashed across her pale features, only to crumble a moment later to... fear. Grief. And shame.
"Akane..." she said, tears of ice sliding from the corners of her eyes. "I'm... so sorry..."
Akane reached out and pulled the Snow Woman to her in a fierce hug. Yuki-onna stiffened in surprise... and then slumped into the girl's arms, weeping, her tears of ice melting against Akane's warm skin..
Akane couldn't stop her own tears, but she smiled gently as she held her friend in a comforting embrace.
"It's... okay, Yuki-san," she whispered through her own sobs.
"It's okay. I forgive you..."
In the mortal realm, a long while after Ranma and the others disappeared into the low-hanging clouds that shrouded the mountain peak, the cold winter wind that had pushed and pulled, tearing at an old Amazon woman with icy fingers, slowly died out. The unseasonable ice formations ceased to grow and move like living things, and became solid and unmoving.
Cologne stared blankly at the trail ahead of her, where her prey had long since vanished.
She continued to stare in impotent fury, unable to do much else, encased, as she was, in an immensely thick cocoon of gleaming ice.
Shampoo trudged silently up a mild incline through the increasingly dense vegetation, pushing back branches, holding them so that they wouldn't snap back in Mousse's face as he followed close behind.
Two weeks ago, she wouldn't have been so careful.
"*Can you see the trail?*" she asked him quietly in Mandarin. The barest hint of sunlight filtered through the heavy, overcast sky, and the thick canopy of trees blocked out the light even more. Mousse, unable to see the detail of the uneven terrain through his glasses in the near-darkness, had stumbled and nearly fallen on his face a few times.
"*Not really,*" he answered. "*But I'm alright. As long as I watch you, I'm alright.*"
A small smile lit Shampoo's face, unseen by any of the others. She paused, waiting for Mousse to catch up with her, and reached back to take his hand. "*Here,*" she said. "*This way, for sure, you won't run into anything.*"
A hint of color flushed Mousse's cheeks, and, though he tried to keep a stoic expression, she could see his eyes sparkle behind his glasses as he took her small hand in his large one.
He had such beautiful eyes. Deep blue-gray eyes that, even now, looked at her with love and understanding. Two things she felt she didn't deserve after what she had done. And yet, she desired that love and understanding just the same...
It was so strange. In two weeks, Mousse had changed in her eyes from constant irritant to the one anchor of stability in her life. It was he who kept her from sinking into despair and complete self-loathing. It was he who gave her a feeling of worth - a feeling of hope that, even after her crimes against Ranma and Akane, she might still regain her honor.
But, deep down, in a dark part of her soul lit only by a spark of guilt, she still longed for Ranma...
And Mousse knew it. He knew her so well. And even though she had accepted him as her husband by Amazon law and had promised that she would seal their bond with the marriage ritual once they returned to their village, he made no advances, and did not take advantage of his lawful station, as was his right.
They shared the same tent, but he did not touch her. Not when he knew she was still wracked with guilt over her crimes.
And not when he could see her desire for Ranma, buried, but still flickering in the depths of her violet eyes.
Mousse... Sweet, blind Mousse, who spoke to rocks and trees by mistake, somehow saw the things she wanted most to keep hidden. And yet he said nothing. He just continued to offer his quiet, loving encouragement and trust that she would do the right thing.
Shampoo grimaced inwardly. The right thing...
She tried so hard to quell her feelings for Ranma. They frightened her, especially when she thought that her feelings of guilt and shame over her crimes had completely destroyed her desire for him.
But... seeing Ranma that morning, his dark bangs dripping over those intense blue eyes that widened in disbelieving joy... Seeing him shed his cursed female body and stand, once again, as himself, a man... The strong, handsome man she had so long fantasized of having by her side as a lover, a husband...
Shampoo swallowed, cutting off the thought. Surreptitiously, she glanced over her shoulder at the group that followed behind. Mousse, his hand wrapped gently around hers, had his eyes focused on the ground in front of him as he tried not to stumble, lest he pull her down with him. And behind him, Ranma followed, still carrying the unconscious Kuno over his shoulders. The kendoist had nearly regained consciousness a few times, but Ranma had apparently decided that he would rather carry him than deal with the idiot's reaction to finding both his pigtailed goddess missing, and his hated rival in her place. So, with the occasional swift knock to the head at any sign of wakefulness, Ranma ensured that Kuno slept a bit longer through their journey.
Shampoo glanced at Ranma's face briefly before once again turning her focus to the trail in front of her. She suppressed the urge to sigh at what she saw in his expression.
Ranma's eyes were unfocused, his gaze turned inward even as he climbed steadily after them with instinctive ease. His face was set with anxiety, and she could tell that his thoughts were full of Akane. Akane... and the underlying horror of the past week, still haunting him against his will, even with the restoration of both his mind and his manhood...
It had been easier for her to deal with Ranma when he was trapped in the woman's body. She would look at him, look into his haunted, miserable eyes staring out of a face that wasn't his, and think to herself, This is your fault he is like this. It is your fault he is suffering so. That, combined with her utter lack of attraction to his female body, had smothered the burning embers of desire smoldering in her heart.
Now, however, Ranma was a man again. And Shampoo found it harder and harder to look at him without feeling her desire trying to surge to the forefront of her soul in an effort to smother the burning of her conscience, extinguish it all together... make her once again capable of placing her own desires above all else, regardless of the consequences...
Ranma was still suffering, she knew. But now, his haunted, miserable eyes stared from his own beautiful face. And Shampoo found herself, to her great shame, wishing once again that he was hers...
Mousse squeezed her hand gently.
Shampoo started guiltily, and looked over at him, wondering if he could read her thoughts.
"The mountain," he said, looking up at her. "It's just up ahead, isn't it?"
Shampoo nodded mutely, her throat feeling strangely thick, and forced a smile.
"Good." Mousse made no indication that he noticed her discomfort. "We've almost made it. Just a little bit further, and then this will all be over."
"Yes." Shampoo wanted to feel glad, relieved.
"Finally," said Ranma wearily. And, in spite of his well-earned exhaustion after lugging both his pack and Kuno's deadweight on his shoulders for a ten hour hike through the Chinese mountains, his blue eyes flickered anxiously with thoughts of Akane.
Seeing this, Shampoo turned away and continued to push through the thick foliage in front of her, clasping Mousse's hand a little tighter.
"What was that?" called Ukyo from behind. "What are you guys talking about up there?"
"We're almost there," answered Ryoga, glancing over his shoulder to look at the two girls following behind.
Nabiki let out an exhausted sigh. "It's about time," she muttered.
Kuno moaned from his position across Ranma's shoulders, and Ranma paused to rap him on the head again, before continuing to work his way through the dense vegetation behind Shampoo and Mousse.
"Uh... just curious," said Ryoga, eyeing Kuno's limp form as he hiked behind Ranma, "but when are you going to let Kuno wake up?"
"When we get there." Ranma grunted the reply without turning his head. "You know as well as I do that if he was awake, he'd just slow us down by trying to fight us. Either that, or he'd drive us crazy with his constant babbling. Believe me, it's better if I just carry him for now."
"Well, yeah, I understand that." Ryoga nimbly caught a branch that sprang back from Ranma's passage before it smacked him in the face, and broke it off at the base so that Ukyo and Nabiki wouldn't have to deal with it. It had become something of a mindless pastime for him on the long hike - doing little things to clear the trail to make the going easier for the girls following close behind him. "It's just that... Are you sure you don't want me to carry him for a bit? I mean, you've been lugging him all day."
"I can handle it," Ranma replied shortly.
Ryoga frowned in exasperation. What was that idiot trying to prove, anyway? "I'm not saying you can't," he said, trying to keep the anger out of his voice. "But if were going to be going up against a bunch of demons and a dragon in a little while, you're gonna need all the stamina you can muster."
"Thanks Ryoga, but like I said, I can handle it." Ranma's voice was calm, but the stubborn tone told Ryoga that there would be no changing his mind. "Besides, we're almost there."
"Okay, whatever." Ryoga sighed with resignation. "It's your back."
Ukyo and Nabiki glanced at each other after Ranma and Ryoga's little exchange. It was only the most recent of several similar conversations between the two boys since they started out that morning.
After the first few times Ryoga had offered to carry Kuno for a while, only for Ranma to refuse, Ukyo had frowned in concern and had leaned over to whisper to Nabiki. "Why on earth is Ranchan being so pig-headed about carrying Kuno? It's not like him to be irrational when so much is at stake, especially when he knows that he should let Ryoga have a turn so he doesn't get worn out for what's ahead."
Nabiki had sighed heavily, a strange mixture of annoyance and worry flitting through her eyes. "I'm not sure," she whispered back. "But on a guess, I'd say his stubbornness probably has a lot to do with the fact that just a few days ago, we were 'kitty-sitting' him almost 24 hours a day, making sure he was washed and fed... making sure that he didn't chew off his bandages and clean his wounds with his tongue..."
Nabiki trailed off, and Ukyo shivered unconsciously at the memory. She looked up the trail where Ranma followed closely after Shampoo and Mousse, and felt her heart ache in her chest. And he remembers all of it, she thought to herself.
Now, hours later, she watched Ranma climb through the vegetation ahead of her, Kuno still slung over his back, and she couldn't help but notice that, every now and then, he would tremble a little under the strain of his burden. But now, she wasn't sure whether the burden was physical, or... otherwise.
She had hoped that, with the return of his masculinity, he would be able to put that nightmarish week, with all its soul-shattering humiliation behind him.
She had hoped, but she should have known better. She knew him too well, she could read him too easily. The euphoria from the events of that morning had worn off. And when she looked into his face, she could see that not only did the memories continue to haunt him, but that he blamed himself... he hated himself for not being stronger, for not being able to overcome his terror of cats. For not being strong enough to keep the Nekoken from swallowing his mind and soul.
The whispered words of the unseen Snow Woman, as she battled Cologne with a tempest of ice, resounded in her mind. Hurry, Ranma... Akane has waited so long... too long...
When Ukyo heard that, and then saw the horrible, stricken look on Ranma's face, she knew. He hated himself for all the lost time. She could see it in his eyes. A desperate, angry and frightened look that said, if only he had been stronger, Akane would already be home.
Ukyo wanted to comfort him so badly. But she couldn't. She felt frozen, immobile and ineffective, capable only of watching and following, until finally the ultimate outcome of this little passion play came to pass. Only then would she know her place, her correct role. And then she could say her lines accordingly.
Congratulations, Ranchan. Welcome back, Akane. I can't believe we all forgot you like that. So glad it all worked out...
Ranchan, I'm so sorry. I'm here for you, always...
Ukyo swallowed as wetness pricked behind her eyes. Either way, the roles were painful and bitter. And, on this journey through the Chinese wilderness as she followed behind, watching the man she loved just a few meters ahead, yet continually walking away from her towards... someone else...
...a tiny, long forgotten piece of Ukyo's heart began to wonder if maybe there wasn't another, happier role she could play.
"Ukyo." Nabiki's voice was low, yet it startled Ukyo from her melancholy train of thought.
Ukyo glanced over at her friend. To her surprise, Nabiki had managed to hold her own on the strenuous hike, not allowing herself to fall behind, or make the others slow down for her. Even so, she didn't have the endurance training that her martial artist companions had, and she looked worn and haggard, tired and sweaty, and thoroughly irritated.
"What is it, Nabiki?"
Nabiki gave her a sideways glance through heavy-lidded, exhausted eyes. "Listen," she whispered. Her voice seemed to echo strangely. "You hear that?"
Ukyo frowned, and turned her concentration outward.
The mountains were completely, utterly silent. The only sound came from the rustle of six human beings making their way through a mass of vines, trees and bushes as they climbed a gentle slope of hillside.
No bird calls echoing in the distance. No chitter of insects. Even the wind was dead and still.
Ukyo's eyes went wide, and she looked up at the thick leafy canopy of tree branches that stretched overhead, blocking the gray, cloud-filtered sunlight. "Creepy," she whispered.
Nabiki nodded in agreement. "I was wondering if you noticed, since you looked kind of lost in thought. But it was like all the background noise just kind of faded away all of a sudden."
Looking up the trail, Ukyo could see that the others had noticed the eerie silence that had descended across the landscape as well. Ryoga turned and looked back at them, as if to make sure they were still following. His expression was grim and alert, and slightly unnerved.
"Are you girls okay?" he asked.
"We're fine," Nabiki replied shortly, wiping her sweaty forehead with the palm of her hand. Her normally smooth, even bangs were spiked and damp. "I only hope that this sudden onset of weirdness means we're almost there."
"We there now," said Shampoo. She spoke softly, but in the silence, her voice carried back to the rest of the group. She pushed her way through the foliage to emerge in a clearing. In a few moments the others joined her.
Each of them froze in their tracks as they stepped out into the open, and gazed upward in the deafening silence.
"Boy, you weren't kidding," said Ukyo finally.
The mountain of the Ancient One rose above them, its dark, towering jagged shape shrouded in gray mist that matched the heavy, overcast sky. They stood at its base, staring at the unnatural fog that bled down the side of the mountain to swirl in cold tendrils at their feet.
Ranma stared up at the mountain, one fist clenched knuckle-white at his side as his heart pounded his chest.
Finally, he thought. His eyes stung as he forcibly ignored the despairing spell voices that scraped against the back of his consciousness; as he ignored the restless twinge of the Nekoken curled in the depths of his soul. I made it, Akane. I'm coming for you.
Mousse looked at Shampoo as he felt her hand tighten on his. "Shampoo, what is it?" he asked.
She turned to look at him, and her violet eyes were full of uncertainty. "It... it no like this, last time. No mist. No deep quiet."
Nabiki's eyes narrowed. "What exactly are you saying?" she said. She refused to allow herself to be ruffled by the obvious, disturbing presence of the supernatural. But now, the worry on Shampoo's face was evidence that another wrench was about to be thrown into the works.
Shampoo looked at Nabiki. "When I come last time to Ancient One mountain... it not so... dark. I have worse feeling..."
"It doesn't matter." Everyone turned to where Ranma stood, looking up at where the mountain peak was lost in the dark clouds. His eyes were hard with determination. "A bit of fog ain't gonna stop me." Slowly, and with surprising care, Ranma slid Kuno's unconscious form from his shoulders to the ground, followed by his pack. He looked at his friends.
"I'm going now," he said. "Are you coming with me or not?"
"We're coming, Ranma," said Ryoga, shrugging off his own pack and taking only his umbrella. "If you think I'm gonna let you kick demon butt all by yourself, you've got another thing coming."
A small smile twitched at the corner of Ranma's mouth, but it faded as he turned to Nabiki. His brow creased in concern. "Are you sure you want to stay here by yourself and watch our stuff? I don't like the feel of this place. It might be dangerous for you to be alone."
"Thanks, Ranma." Nabiki smiled wryly. "But, much as I'd like to join in your little excursion up the mountain from hell, I'm not really in any position to 'kick demon butt.' Even so..." Nabiki's smile faded as she turned to Shampoo, who was kneeling over her pack and pulling out a small wooden box. "Shampoo, I would like a little bit of reassurance that I'll be safe by myself, and that some demon isn't going to come running out of the mist to feast on my entrails the minute you guys leave me behind. You're absolutely sure that I'm safe here?"
"You be safe," Shampoo said seriously. Nabiki looked her in the eye with obvious skepticism and a slight hint of worry showing through her usual mask of indifference. "Demon guardians no can leave mountain," she continued. "And no wild animal come near dwelling of Ancient One."
"Oh, I'm not worried about wild animals," replied Nabiki as she slid her own pack off her shoulders with a grateful sigh. She unzipped it and pulled out a thick bundle of cloth. Unrolling the cloth, a glossy bluish-black piece of metal fell into the palm of her hand. "I'm just worried about creatures that aren't affected by bullets."
"Nabiki..?" Ranma blinked in shock as, with practiced ease, Nabiki flipped the gun into her solid grip, the muzzle pointing at the sky.
Ukyo's jaw sagged. "What is..?"
"It's a Ruger .357 Magnum GP100." Nabiki smiled slightly, feeling the weight of it in her hand. "Not loaded at the moment, but I'll do that in a second." She looked around at the surprised looks on her friends' faces. "What, did you actually think I would come all this way without having some way to defend myself while you guys are gone? I may not be a hot-shot martial artist like the rest of you, but I have no intention of becoming a liability to this expedition."
"Uhh..." Ryoga swallowed. "Do you know how to use that thing?" he asked.
"Of course." She looked at him levelly. "Only a fool carries around a gun without knowing how to use it."
"Yeah. Uh, right."
"Well," said Ukyo, recovering from her surprise over one more unexpected revelation about her new friend. Still, it wasn't surprising in that she knew Nabiki kept most of her cards carefully hidden, only laying them face up on the table when absolutely necessary. She looked down at Kuno. "Hm. It doesn't look like he'll be waking up any time soon, so at least you'll have company until we get back."
Nabiki raised an eyebrow as she looked at the unconscious kendoist, not entirely surprised. After all, if Ranma didn't want to deal with Kuno on a harmless hike, it was a sure thing he didn't want him causing trouble while they were trying to run a gauntlet of demon guardians. With that last knock to the head, Ranma had ensured that Kuno would wake up, but only long after they were gone.
Which meant, of course, that she was stuck with him. "I think I'd rather face the demons," she deadpanned.
Ukyo laughed. "Let's see. A choice between fighting demon guardians and facing an ancient dragon, or Kuno's company. Hmm..." She paused thoughtfully, tapping her lower lip with an index finger. "Yeah, I think I definitely got the better end of the bargain."
Shampoo's voice, low and quiet, pulled at the attention of the group. They turned to see her kneeling over her pack, a small wooden box open on her lap. Her face was white, her violet eyes wide and full of fear.
"Shampoo, what is it? What's wrong?" Mousse was immediately at her side.
"Wards..." she whispered, looking up at him, her expression one of barely suppressed panic. "Demon wards gone..."
She should have checked the wards before they left. She should have made sure that they were safe, intact. But she hadn't. She had assumed that they were there, in the box, just as she had arranged them...
Great-grandmother... she realized, her eyes widening in horror.
Mousse paled. "The wards are gone?"
Ranma didn't even blink. "So we'll go without them. Wards or no wards, no stupid demon is gonna stop me from reaching that dragon."
"No!" Shampoo jumped to her feet, the empty ward box sliding off her lap and clattering to the ground. "You no understand, Ranma!" Ranma looked into her eyes, surprised at the vehemence, the intensity he saw there, so different from the quiet, withdrawn girl she had been since he had confronted her with her crimes.
"When Shampoo come here, demons almost kill," she said, her voice tight. "Wards only thing that save Shampoo. These demons, they no stupid. They smart, they know many tricks and magic to cloud mind. They faster than human, know many ways to kill mortal outsider. Only wards keep demons away, and even then they no stay away! They almost kill Shampoo. Shampoo no last one minute on mountain without wards!"
Ranma blinked as tears suddenly filled the Amazon's eyes.
"Ranma... All week when we look for cure for Nekoken, Shampoo also look for powerful wards to survive demons." Her voice was hoarse, her tone heavy with grim finality. "Without wards," she whispered, "we no survive."
Ranma stared back at her. He looked down at the empty ward box at her feet. "Cologne?" he asked softly.
Shampoo nodded. "Ranma... I sorry..." Her throat closed off. And she silently cursed her great grandmother for destroying her one chance at making things right.
Ranma looked at the ground, his bangs hanging over his eyes as a faint flicker of red battle aura flared briefly around him.
His friends watched him silently, Shampoo with despair in her eyes, for they all knew what was coming next.
When Ranma looked up, his face was set and hard. "I don't care," he said softly. His voice echoed in the silence that surrounded the mountain. "I'm going."
Ryoga sighed. "Ranma-"
"Don't tell me I can't do it," he snapped. "I don't care what it takes. I'm gonna reach that dragon and make him break this damn blood spell. I'm gonna get Akane back!"
"Jeeze, Ranma." Ryoga glared at him mildly, shifting his grip on the handle of his umbrella. "I was just going to say that I'm coming with you. Wards or no wards."
"Me too," said Ukyo gravely. Her face was pale, her eyes wide, but her expression firm and determined. "If you think we're letting you go alone, you've got another thing coming."
"And I will come as well," said Mousse.
"Ranma." Shampoo's voice was barely a whisper. The others, they didn't understand, they had no idea what they were walking into. The thought of facing those demons without the protection of the wards made her tremble to her core. Even Ranma, with all his skill and swiftness, wouldn't stand a chance.
At least she would die with honor.
"Shampoo come too," she said.
Mousse reached out and took her hand, and she looked up at him. And, as he smiled sadly at her, she squeezed his hand, grateful, and a bit surprised at the comfort she suddenly felt as she gazed into his blue-grey eyes.
Ranma looked at his friends, silent gratitude playing across his face. Then he nodded. "Let's go then," he said. And without another word, he turned and began to climb the mountain, towards the cold, ethereal wall of mist that writhed in front of him.
His friends followed close behind.
Or tried to.
"Ungh..." Mousse smacked face first into... nothing. He backed up and peered through his glasses, trying to see what he'd run into. "What the-?!"
Ryoga followed suit, slamming into thin air none too gracefully. "Ouch," he groaned, rubbing his bruised nose.
"Ranchan!" Ukyo called. "Wait!"
Ranma turned to see his friends effectively stopped at the base of the mountain a meter or so behind him. Both Ukyo and Shampoo had their hands up like panicked street mimes, pushing desperately against an invisible wall.
"What's going on?" Ranma walked back, concern warring with his irritation at yet another delay. "Are you coming or not?"
"We can't. There's some kind of barrier." Ukyo pounded on it with her fists, causing a hollow thrumming sound to ripple through the air.
"What?" Ranma frowned, his eyes narrowing as if trying to see the obstruction. He stood facing Ukyo, and slowly reached out his hand to where her hands were pressed against the invisible barrier.
His hand passed through, encountering no resistance. "I don't feel anything," he said, puzzled. Cautiously, he stepped through and past the where the barrier was supposed to be until he was standing on the other side with the others...
...and immediately froze. Oh no, he thought, his eyes widening in horror as sudden realization swept over him. I can't believe I did that! This barrier... it's probably some kind of magical security system or something. I probably tripped it off so that the others behind me couldn't get through. And then, like an idiot, I walk back out so I'm trapped on the outside as well!
He didn't even hear Ukyo's concerned voice. "No," he whispered. This couldn't be. How could he come so far, only to be stopped because of a misstep, a single stupid mistake? He turned to the barrier, his eyes burning, his teeth clenched.
Akane... He pulled his fist back and, with all his strength, slammed it towards the barrier...
...and passed right through it. Thrown off balance by the unexpected momentum, Ranma crashed into the ground face first on the other side of the barrier. "Oof!"
The others stared at him, wide-eyed. Shampoo and Ukyo reached out, hoping that the barrier was lowered somehow, but they encountered the same resistance. They pressed their hands against the barrier as Mousse and Ryoga looked on in astonishment.
"Hey, Ranma!" Ryoga pushed against the barrier in growing frustration, seeing his friend on the other side, then pounded on it with his fist. "How did you get through?"
Ranma grunted and pushed himself to his feet. "I don't know," he said, dusting himself off. But he didn't care. He was just so relieved to find himself on the other side again, so relieved to know he hadn't blown his chance to save Akane...
Nabiki walked up and looked at Ranma through the barrier. With morbid curiosity, she reached out, her eyes widening slightly as her fingers brushed the invisible surface. It was unnerving to feel the smooth tactile sensation against her skin when her eyes told her that nothing was there.
She frowned and looked at the others. "I hate to say this, guys, but it looks to me like Ranma is the only one who's been invited into the dragon's lair."
Ranma blinked. "What?"
"No way!" Ryoga looked at Nabiki, stunned. "After we came all this way?"
Ukyo's eyes widened. "You mean... Ranchan has to go by himself?"
Nabiki nodded, her face an emotionless mask, hiding whatever inner turmoil she was feeling. "Unless the rest of you can find a way past this barrier."
"This doesn't make sense." Ukyo's face was white, her face pinched with fear. "I mean, why should it let him through and not any of us?"
"Well, he is the one with the dragon blood in his ki," said Nabiki, her brows knit thoughtfully. She reached out and ran her fingers along the barrier again. "And, with this unexpected development, I would have to guess that the reason Shampoo was able to climb the mountain last time, was because of that dragon ritual scroll she had. She said herself that she thought the Ancient One was bound to grant her request for its blood because of the scroll."
Nabiki looked over at Shampoo, whose eyes were wide with horrified realization. Yup, it looked like she'd hit the nail on the head again. She sighed heavily. "So here we are, without any such scroll, or anything else for that matter, and we expect to just waltz up the mountain?" Nabiki frowned. "I think the Ancient One is letting us know that we've severely underestimated him."
Ranma looked at his friends, who stared back at him in silence.
"Well then," said Ranma quietly. "I guess I'm on my own."
"No." Shampoo's voice was soft, but her eyes were wide and lit with something close to hysteria. "No, Ranma, you no go. You no face demons without wards. You come out, okay? We go get more wards, then safe to come back. Then, even if you go alone, you be safe. Akane can wait few more days. Okay? You come out now." Her lips were trembling as she struggled to keep her voice even.
Ranma looked over at the lavender-haired Amazon, whose hands were pressed anxiously against the barrier, as if hoping she could force her way through. "Shampoo..."
He trailed off as he met Shampoo's gaze... and felt his chest tighten as he saw the helpless dread in her face. He suppressed a shiver as he saw in her wet, violet eyes the pure belief that if he turned and walked into the mists, leaving his friends behind, they would never see him alive again.
And, for the first time, the reality of the situation pierced through his single-minded focus that had driven him to the foot of this mountain without a backward glace or second thought.
Shampoo's words echoed in his mind. Without wards... we no survive...
And she had said this when she believed that they would be going as a group - a group that consisted of some of the most powerful martial artists he knew...
Ranma felt the cold mists at his back, pressing against him, filling him with a chill far deeper than the Snow Woman's cold spell. And in those mists, he could feel the weight of growing demonic malevolence behind him, feel the tingle of danger on the outskirts of his extended battle senses.
Shampoo looked at him with grief-stricken eyes... looking at him as if he was getting ready to walk to his own execution, as if he was putting his own neck in the guillotine, the sharp angled blade glittering mercilessly above him...
And Ranma Saotome, who hated to admit weakness or fear of any kind, found himself faltering. Was he ready to face those demons? Could he fight off the hordes all by himself?
Not so long ago, he wouldn't have hesitated. His single-minded focus would have carried him into the mists without a second thought. And, remembering that time, he searched inside himself, trying to find the care-free confidence that he had wielded so easily only weeks before...
...but it wasn't there.
Instead, he felt a restless piece of symbiont feline soul that had proven itself stronger than him, that had utterly defeated him, that had swallowed him whole, leaving him mindless and inhuman...
A tremor shivered through Ranma's body. How on earth could he defeat a bunch of demons, not to mention a dragon, if he didn't even have the strength to hold onto himself?
The spell voices whispered in the back of his mind, a continuous fiery murmur, searing a deepening despair into his soul.
**Akane is alive... You'll never see her again... You will fail, you already have...**
Ranma felt tears sting the backs of his eyes, and he clenched his teeth. Akane...
Once again, the image of Akane's anguished, tear-streaked face filled his mind, tore at his heart. And the memory of her sobbing words as she reached out for him across the planes filled him with such bittersweet pain that he felt it would overflow, that he would drown in the agony of it...
I'm sorry... I never told you that I love you...
As the memory flitted through his mind, he couldn't tell if the voice he heard was hers... or his own.
He loved Akane. He needed her so much, it hurt. His memories of his time trapped in the Nekoken had clarified that feeling for him, had helped him understand his need for her in a way he wouldn't have otherwise.
For, if only Akane had been there, he would have been strong enough to break out of the Nekoken. Just having Akane near him would have given him the strength of soul he needed to free himself, as she had done so many times before...
With her, he was complete. Jusenkyo curse be hanged. With Akane, he was a whole man. Without her...
The nearest village was at least two days away. And even then, there were no guarantees that they would find the wards they needed if they went back.
Akane was waiting for him. She had waited so long, while he had already wasted so much time...
He would fight demons, face a dragon as old as time, and stare Death in the face before he would turn back and give up now.
"Shampoo... I'm sorry. I can't explain it... but I just know that we can't take the time to go back for more wards." Too much time had slipped away already. He didn't fully understand the powerful need for urgency that he felt, but it was undeniable. "Even if we didn't go all the way back to Japan, it's a two-day hike back to the nearest village." Ranma looked at her, trying not to wince at the despair he saw growing in her expression with his words. "I can't wait any longer. I've got to go now."
"Ranma." Her voice was a sob. "Is no fair. I cast blood spell. It my responsibility to break. You no should have to..." The word 'die' was on her lips, and everyone heard it, though it remained unspoken.
"I'll be fine, Shampoo," he said, hoping he sounded more assured than he felt. "And... if it makes you feel any better... I'm not mad about the blood spell any more, okay?"
Shampoo looked at him, blinking tears from her eyes. "R-really?" She swallowed. "You... you no hate Shampoo?"
"Naw, I don't hate you." Ranma looked at her sincerely. "I know you've done everything you could to make things right. Besides, it's not your fault the old ghoul stole the wards. And it's not your fault that I'm the only one who can climb the mountain. So don't worry about it, okay?"
The look on his face, in his eyes... He was so handsome, so kind... Shampoo felt the old urges and desires rising again to the surface of her heart. But, with a great effort of will, she held them back.
"Okay," she whispered, even as the tears burned in her eyes. And she leaned against Mousse. Mousse, her betrothed, her husband-to-be. Mousse, with the blue-gray eyes who, while looking at Ranma with open gratitude, responded by taking her hand.
Ranma turned and glanced back into the gray mists that were waiting patiently to swallow him up. Then he looked back at his friends, who were staring as if looking at him for the last time. "Come on, guys." He lifted his head and smirked confidently - usually an easy expression for him, but somehow, this time, it felt wrong. "You all look like you're going to a funeral or somethin'. Don't worry about me, I'll be back before you know it."
"You'd better be." Ryoga had his arms folded across his chest, and his face twisted as if unsure whether to look angry or deeply worried. Somehow he ended up looking both. "'Cause if you aren't, I'm gonna have to pound your face in."
Ranma wanted to ask how he planned on doing that if he didn't come back, but decided against it. Instead, he snorted and said, "You wish. When I get back, I'll wipe the floor with you."
"Oh yeah?" Ryoga scowled. "I'd like to see you try it."
Somehow, Ranma got the impression that Ryoga's response had a double meaning.
He looked at the others. Ukyo appeared on the verge of tears, and Nabiki's face was a tight mask of thinly veiled apprehension. Mousse and Shampoo stood together, clasping each other's hands tightly.
Ranma wanted to say something to each of them, something deeply profound that would let them know how he felt. Something that would let them know how glad he was that they had helped him, how grateful he was that they were his friends...
But that would be too final, too much like saying goodbye forever. And he didn't want that.
So he would tell them when he came back.
"Okay then," he said, clearing his throat, and looking at each of them in turn. "I guess I'll see you guys later."
"Good luck, Saotome," said Mousse gravely.
"Please," whispered Ukyo. "Be careful, Ranchan."
Shampoo swallowed back both her tears and her words, afraid of what she might say should she loose her tongue, with her warring emotions so close to the surface.
Nabiki was silent and expressionless, her arms wrapped tightly around her torso. She caught Ranma with her piercing gaze, and he found himself staring back at her, wondering if he should say something else.
"Dammit, Ranma," she said finally, her voice uncharacteristically hoarse. "Just promise that you'll come back."
Ranma nodded. "I promise." His blue eyes flashed with deadly seriousness. "And I'll bring Akane back with me."
Nabiki's tense form relaxed the tiniest bit.
Ranma looked at his friends a final time no, not final, I'll be back and before anyone could say anything that might make him hesitate further, he turned and began to walk into the dark mists.
And the mist, like a living thing sensing that he was finally entering the lair, surged forward like a black tide, reaching out to him with cold tendrils, completely engulfing him, clinging to his skin and hair.
Ranma swallowed the sudden thick feeling of dread in his throat, and pushed back the spell voices which were once again threatening to break free from his careful confinement. Taking a deep breath and focusing, he extended his battle senses to the max and moved, tensed and ready for anything.
The nearly suffocating feeling of evil welcomed him into its embrace with an unbridled sense of gleeful anticipation.
On a lush, green mountainside, not far from where a small group of friends huddled in the shadow of the mountain of the Ancient One, united together in fear for the life of a certain pigtailed boy...
...the warm spring sun shone down on the shattered, melting remains of a thick cocoon of ice...