Hearts of Ice

Chapter 1: Blood Spell

Something was wrong.

Ranma could feel it; a twisting, nervous sensation in his gut, a premonition almost. It wasn't the same other-sense that he used as a martial artist, the sense he'd developed that forewarned him of a sneak-attack or an opponent's moves during battle. It was more of a...

Damn. He couldn't put his finger on it. It was... a vague sense of foreboding. A suspicion that something was seriously out of place. A feeling like, any moment now, the world would turn itself inside out.

He glanced at the sky as he ran, his feet not missing a beat as they instinctively found the narrow length of fence piping beneath him. Not a cloud in sight. It was a bright, dewy morning in Nerima. The heady scent of cherry blossoms and sizzling breakfasts filled the spring air.

Ranma frowned, perplexed. He was glad he wouldn't have to deal with rain today, but...

He looked down at his fiancée as she kept pace with him on the sidewalk below. His frown deepened. Akane wasn't even paying attention to him. Her short, dark hair fanned out behind her as she ran, her eyes focused ahead on the distant Furinkan High School clock tower that showed they had approximately three minutes before they were both officially late for class.

At least Akane wasn't mad at him. Which was a surprise, actually, since it was sort of his fault they were running late. Breakfast that morning had deteriorated into an all-out sparring match with Pop as they fought over Kasumi's cooking, and, after he executed a lightning-quick move that deprived Pop of the last of the shrimp tempura, he had ended up getting tossed into the pond - which meant that he had to wait for Kasumi to heat a kettle so that he could change back to himself, since he had no intention of going to school that day as a girl. For all intents and purposes, Akane should be mad at him, but for some reason she wasn't, so he was counting his blessings.

It was a beautiful, cloudless day, he was still on Akane's good side... so what the hell was bugging him? Hopping over a segment of fencing that looked as if it had been smashed repeatedly with an object that appeared to have the same shape as his face, he blinked. The strange feeling surged in his gut and he heard an almost audible click in his head as the pieces fell into place.

He didn't realize he had stopped running until Akane yelled back at him. "Ranma, you dummy, what are you doing? Do you want to make us even more late than we are already? Don't just stand there, come on!"

Ranma looked up at her. "Yo, Akane, have you... I mean, do you know... uh..." He thought furiously, but knew there was no way to phrase his question without incurring his fiancée's wrath. She was already looking steamed as he continued to stand on the fence stuttering.

"What is it, Ranma?" Akane asked, her brow furrowing. "I don't want to end up holding buckets all day, so let's move it."

Ranma sighed inwardly. And here he'd gone the whole morning without pissing her off. "Hey, look, it's no big deal, I was just gonna ask you if you'd seen Shampoo. She hasn't been around much lately."

Akane's fists clenched convulsively at her sides. "What?" she asked.

Ranma heard the barely subdued hurt and surprise in her voice, and knew he was treading on thin ice. "Hey, uh... chill, Akane. It's not like I want to see Shampoo or anything. It's just that... Don't you think it's odd that she hasn't slammed my face into the fence with her bike recently? I mean, haven't you noticed that she's been kinda scarce?" He pointed to his facial imprints in the metal piping behind him.

Akane had good throwing aim, and even though he knew it was coming, Ranma was still somehow unable to dodge her book bag. It smacked him right in the face, toppling from him perch on the fence, and sending him head first into the drainage canal. The change rippled through him instantly as he plunged into the water, and a female Ranma spluttered to the surface a moment later, rubbing her nose.

"Hey, whaddja do that for?!"

Akane glared at him as she picked up her bag from the sidewalk; her mouth in a pinched frown, her eyes glistening. "If you miss Shampoo that much, why don't you just go find her?" And without waiting to hear his reply, she turned and sprinted off to school again, leaving an angry, dripping female Ranma standing alone in the drainage ditch.

"Stupid girl," muttered Ranma as she grasped the chain link. She swung herself up and flipped in a mid-air arc to land on the top of the fence again. "Stupid uncute tomboy. Did I say I wanted to find Shampoo? I was just pointing out that she hasn't been around lately. Maybe she's gone back to China... Naw, my luck's never that good..." Ranma ran along the fence and rubbed her jaw with one hand, feeling the rising bruise that was probably already starting to purple.

It's just that I think Shampoo's up to something, he thought. It's not like her to up and disappear like this, or leave without saying goodbye... The sick feeling in his stomach was still there. If anything, it intensified when he made the connection with Shampoo's uncharacteristic absence. She's up to something, I'm sure of it.

A few blocks ahead of Ranma, Akane ran, blinking back tears. That idiot! she thought, gritting her teeth. Of course he would have to bring up Shampoo. It's been so nice not having her around hanging on Ranma all of the time, but I guess he just can't stand the thought of losing one of his cute fiancées! And then he has to go rub it in! That womanizing jerk!

A tiny part of her mind whispered to her that she could be jumping to conclusions; that she'd been feeling strange and edgy all morning... but she ignored it. And kept running.

As a matter of fact, Shampoo was in China.

She stood trembling at the entrance of a huge gaping black cave at the top of a jagged mountain, her body tensed in a ready stance, her hands clutching her bonbouri. Her body was covered with purpling bruises and scrapes. There was a bleeding gash on her right cheek just below her eye. Her mass of violet hair was a tangled, matted mess.

She hesitated at the edge of the cave. It was so dark inside that it seemed as though light could not penetrate the entrance. Shampoo reached into the bodice of her torn, soiled blouse and pulled out a small, ancient scroll that hung from a gold chain around her neck. Carefully, she unrolled it, her eyes scanning up and down rapidly as she it read one last time.

After returning the scroll to its place, she closed her eyes to steady herself. When her violet eyes opened again, they were filled with determination.

"*I have come, Ancient One,*" she called out in Mandarin Chinese. Her light soprano voice had an edge of steel, and it echoed into the heavy darkness of the cave. "*I have defeated your demon guardians. I demand that you come and face me!*"

Two gleaming blood-red eyes, each the size of a house, blinked open in the blackness. The dark scarlet glow from the eyes illuminated the cave, revealing a hint of scales and teeth. A low snarl caused the ground to tremble, and Shampoo was showered with rocks and dirt from the cave ceiling.

Shampoo paled and took a step back. Then her brow furrowed in determination, and she held her ground. She had come too far to turn back now. "*Face me, dragon!*" she called out. "*I require something of you.*"

The rumbling snarl turned into a deep, throaty laugh. "*Go away, girl-child, before I eat you.*"

"*I will not leave, and you will not eat me. I have passed your guardians. I have found your lair. Now you will give me what I require.*"

The huge eyes narrowed, and Shampoo gulped softly. Aiya, she thought. Have I come all this way and done all this work only to be eaten?

"*What is it you require?*" The movement of the dragon's mouth revealed its rows of huge teeth gleaming in the red of the eyelight, yet Shampoo sighed in relief. According to the scroll, the dragon's response meant that he would go along with the ritual. Whether this was because of a magical binding or dragon whim, she did not know.

"*I require a small amount of your blood, Ancient One.*"

"*You are willing to pay the price?*"

"*I have fought for the privilege of paying the price, Ancient One.*"

"*Very well. Extend your arm.*"

Shampoo extended her left arm into the almost tangible shadows of the cave. The ground shook as the dragon moved it's massive, coiled body towards her. She stifled a shriek as a single black claw, twice as tall as she was, came out of the gloom, it's needle-sharp tip poised over her arm. Before she could withdraw, the claw came down, the point lancing through her arm just below the elbow, and retracting just as quickly.

The pain was incredible, worse than she imagined. Blackness surged at the edges of her vision. She could feel her blood running down her arm, past her hand, and trickling off her fingers in a steady stream. Her heart pounded, growing louder in her ears. Looking down, she saw that her blood was falling to the earth in great splashes of scarlet, soaking into the soil at the mouth of the cave.

"*Enough,*" said the dragon. "*That will do.*" Shampoo looked at her arm and saw that the bleeding had stopped. She raised her trembling, uninjured hand to her mouth to hold back a wave of dizziness and nausea that threatened to send her to her knees.

"*You have paid the price. Now take your reward, sorceress, and go.*" A whirlwind appeared out of nowhere, sweeping around Shampoo. She never felt her feet leave the ground, but when the wind dispersed she found herself standing at the bottom of the mountain facing the valley. In her hand, she clutched a small crystal vial of black liquid.

Dragon blood.

She looked at it and smiled, the excitement in her eyes a contrast to her battle-weary, blood-drained body. "*Soon, Ranma,*" she whispered. "*Soon you will see... how much I... love you. And Akane will... be gone for good.*"

Shampoo collapsed to the ground in an exhausted, unconscious heap.

Akane and Ranma stood sullenly in the school hall, each holding a pail of water, each studiously ignoring the other.

They sneezed simultaneously.

Ranma sniffed and rubbed his nose. "Gah. Somebody must be talking about us."

Akane snorted. "I can't imagine why."

"And what is that supposed to mean?"

She glared at him. "I was being sarcastic, you dope. It's probably the teachers talking about how we were late yet once again. We'll be lucky if Hinako-sensei doesn't show up with her five yen piece in a few minutes." Akane almost smiled, seeing Ranma grimace and roll his eyes at the prospect of facing the hyper-active Hinako-sensei and her plethora of ki-draining circular objects, but she covered it with a mask of seriousness when Ranma turned to her.

"You don't think she'd try that, do you? Just for being late? I mean, we're already holding these stupid buckets of water."

"Oh, I don't know," Akane responded, rocking back on her heels. "I've heard she's been cracking down on even the most minor offenses, like chewing gum in class, or talking out of turn. I'm sure showing up to school five minutes late, or ten minutes late in your case-"

"Hey, I had to find some hot water, no thanks to you-"

"- will be more than enough to bring Hinako-sensei down on us both. I wonder what Dad will do when he sees me all drained of ki and finds out that it was all your fault."

Ranma paled, knowing from experience how Soun Tendo reacted to any threat to his beloved daughters. The Demon-head Ki attack was not something to be dismissed lightly.

Ah, man, that's all I need. Ranma stared at his feet glumly and twisted the pail in his hand making the water surge and swirl in the bucket. He immediately stopped, letting the water settle. His luck with water had never been good since the curse. Water was almost like a sentient thing around him, actively seeking him out to turn him female at the most inconvenient moments and make his life miserable. He certainly didn't need to have an "accident" with his pail in the middle of the school hall right now. And on top of everything else that had gone wrong today, he still couldn't shake the feeling that something really bad was going to happen. Soon. Something a heck of a lot worse than getting drained by Hinako-sensei or facing Tendo-san's demon head. Ranma shook his head, trying to clear it. Man, why can't I shake this feeling? It's creeping me out!

Akane watched Ranma from the corner of her eye, her brows creasing into a confused frown that didn't quite reach her mouth. That's odd, she thought. He wasn't responding to her jibes the way he normally did. She liked seeing the all-mighty too-macho Ranma get flustered and panicky, and normally any mention of her father's protectiveness was enough to send him into an indignant, stuttering rage. Instead, he was staring at the floor with a strange, almost sad look in his eyes.

Her confusion warmed into concern. Was he sick? No, Ranma never got sick, except for that one time Happosai gave him his cold, but that was just one time. And besides, aside from the look on his face, he appeared perfectly healthy. Then what was wrong? He seemed strangely subdued, and Akane was startled to realize that, aside from the incident on the fence, he hadn't flung any of his usual insults at her. Could it be that he didn't want to fight with her anymore? No, that definitely wasn't it. Otherwise, he wouldn't have brought up Shampoo, the jerk.

Something was obviously troubling him, though. Maybe if he talked about it, he might feel better and start acting like his old self. Akane didn't like seeing him like this. Not that his old self was any better, but at least she knew how to deal with him then.

She swallowed. On the other hand, if she showed how concerned she was for him, he might get some funny ideas about her liking him, or something equally stupid. As if she could ever lo... like a stupid perverted jerk like him.

"Ranma?" She intentionally put an edge in her voice, not wanting to sound too concerned. "What's wrong with you?"

He didn't lift his eyes. "Nothin'." He had toyed momentarily with the idea of trying to explain what was bothering him, but then he heard the anger in Akane's voice, and knew that any explanation he tried to give would probably earn him a quick sex change and a new set of bruises, courtesy her bucket of water. Besides, it didn't even make sense to him, so there was no way she would understand. She didn't understand things even when the explanation should have been perfectly obvious. He thought of Ryoga/P-Chan, one of the better examples of Akane's weird selective blindness, and sighed. "At least nothing you'd listen to," he finished.

Oops. Akane's battle aura flickered on the edges of his vision. Somehow he'd done it again, and he wasn't even sure what he'd said this time to make her angry, especially when he'd been trying so hard to avoid her temper. He turned quickly, jumping into the air with his pail as the water flew right where he'd been standing, sloshing to the floor as Ranma flipped and landed on dry tile. He turned to yell at Akane, but her pail was already there, slamming against the side of his head, upsetting his pail and drenching him as he crashed head first into the floor.

"Ranma, you idiot!"

Ranma recovered immediately and flipped up to her feet, just barely missing another pail attack. She jumped back and stood dripping, risking a glance at Akane only when she knew she was out of range.

"Jeeze, Akane, whaddja do that for?" Ranma shouted, angry and baffled at the unprovoked attack. "I didn't do nothin', you psycho macho chick!"

Akane stood in a battle stance, holding her empty pail. Her teeth were clenched and her brow was furrowed in fury. Then, without warning, her battle-aura faded and her eyes shimmered with unshed tears.

Ranma's mouth opened, and she leaned away from Akane in panic. "What the... What's wrong?" Ranma's voice rose in pitch. "You're not gonna cry, are you? Jeeze, whaddi do?"

Akane threw her empty pail to the floor with a clang. "Ranma, you jerk, it figures that you're too stupid to know what an insensitive creep you are! And to think I was worried about you!" With that, Akane turned and, for the second time that day, she fled, leaving a soaked female Ranma standing in the flooded school hallway staring after her, his mouth still hanging open in surprise.

She was... worried? About me?

Around the corner, Akane leaned against the wall, her chest heaving with silent sobs. She felt the tears brim and slide down her cheeks, and put her face in her hands. Why did I do that? she thought miserably. It's not like he really insulted me or anything. He just said I wouldn't listen, and then I go and prove his point right there! What's wrong with me today?

She wiped at her face and tried to get herself under control. I've felt edgy all morning. Maybe I've just got a bad case of nerves. She sighed, thinking regretfully of Ranma. Well, she thought, trying unsuccessfully to ease her conscience, he probably had it coming for something. She headed for the restroom to clean herself up.

Shampoo felt the touch of a rough, small hand on her forehead, and her eyes fluttered open to see Cologne standing over her. She moaned and looked around, recognizing the shelter her great-grandmother had built for their stay in China. Above her, dust motes danced in the orange light streaming from the setting sun through the window of the tiny thatched hut.

"*Well, Great-grandchild,*" the crone whispered softly. "*It appears you have succeeded. I must admit, I had my doubts that you would return from the mountain. You are one of very few who have managed to reach the Ancient One.*"

"Shampoo do anything for Ranma," Shampoo replied in her broken Japanese. She could speak Mandarin, or even fluent Japanese if she wanted to. After all, she'd lived in Japan for almost a whole year now.

However... she found that people, including her great-grandmother, tended to unconsciously underestimate her when she played dumb, and Shampoo had a policy of exploiting every advantage she could get. It was almost funny. Cologne now spoke Japanese more than Mandarin in an effort to help her become more fluent. Shampoo knew it was a constant, mild irritation to her great-grandmother that she never seemed to make any progress. But Cologne seemed more concerned about molding her into a great warrior than into a great intellect, and Shampoo was content to let her great-grandmother and the others believe she wasn't all that smart. It gave her an unexpected edge.

She smiled weakly as she struggled to a sitting position, then winced as the effects of her injuries made themselves known. She blinked wearily and tried to stand up, but was restrained by Cologne's hand.

"Not just yet, child. Drink this first. It will make you feel better." Cologne handed Shampoo a steaming cup, which she took and brought to her lips with unsteady hands. The concoction was bitter - most of Great-grandmother's potions were - but she didn't hesitate, and swallowed it down obediently. She smiled as she immediately felt new strength flooding through her limbs.

"Thank you, Great-grandmother." Her eyes began scanning the hut, searching for...

"Here it is, child," said Cologne, pressing the crystal vial into her hands. "I kept it safe for you while you recovered."

Shampoo looked at the vial. The crystal was cool against the palms of her hands. "You no take any while I sleep?" she asked. Dragon blood was possessed of a most powerful magic, but she needed all of it, every last drop, for what she had planned for Ranma.

Cologne's ancient wrinkled face soured into an angry scowl. "What do you take me for, child? I still question the wisdom of you dabbling with such dark power. Anything bought with a blood-price is not only dangerous, but often leads to grief."

Shampoo looked at the old woman, askance. "What you mean? This whole thing your idea in first place. You say this work for sure."

"I believe I mentioned in passing that dragon blood ensures the success of any spell, nothing more." Cologne said, cocking a critical eyebrow.

"Good!" Shampoo responded, swallowing the urge to argue. "Nothing else work. We try everything, and still Ranma no leave violent pervert-girl, Akane."

Cologne glared at her great-granddaughter. "That's the point exactly, Shampoo. Just think. Nearly a year ago, you gave Akane the Kiss of Death. If you had followed through on that, instead of letting compassion soften your warrior's heart, we would not be here now, reduced in the end to meddling with dark magics to snare son-in-law."

Shampoo frowned. "Is not that simple," she said. And it wasn't. It was true that she had given Akane the Kiss of Death when she first arrived in Japan, since she stood in the way of her rightful claim to Ranma. But when it came down to the death-duel on the grounds of Furinkan High School, she... couldn't do it. She couldn't kill Akane. Instead, she had used the Xi Fa Xiang Gao Shiatsu technique to erase all memory of Ranma from Akane's mind. It didn't last long, though. Akane had recovered without even receiving the proper cure, her subconscious feelings for Ranma restoring her memory completely.

It was Shampoo's second failure. First, not being able to take Ranma as her husband as he was by law, and then letting Akane live. Dishonored twice over.

Yet... if she had a chance to do it over, she wouldn't do it differently. Shampoo had never killed anyone before. She knew she had it in her to do it, but deep inside her soul, in a place she didn't like to admit existed, she didn't want to. For an Amazon, these pangs of... mercy?... were an unforgivable weakness.

"No can kill Akane," she said, her voice heavy with the knowledge. "No can kill then, no can kill now. You know this, Great-grandmother. I kill Akane, Ranma get angry and no spell strong enough to bind Ranma to me. He stubborn man, he fight it to his death."

Cologne's scowl softened, and she chuckled mildly. "True enough. Son-in-law is rather... strong-willed, to say the least."

Shampoo smiled wickedly. "Is part what make him strong man," she said, her eyes gleaming. Then her smile faded into a worried frown. "This spell... it no make Ranma slave, yes? Shampoo want Ranma with free mind." Shampoo wanted Ranma to look at her the way... the way he looked at Akane all those times when she was in danger, or when he thought no one was watching him watch her. That kind of look didn't come from an enslaved mind, no matter how devout the slave might be. She had done many things to force Ranma to take her in his arms, whether by blackmail, bribery, hypnotic mushrooms or other strange means. But although those moments provided some satisfaction - most of it from seeing Akane's jealousy - she always felt the pain deep inside her that yearned for Ranma to love her of his own free will.

"The parameters of the spell are very clear," Cologne answered, looking at the tiny, ancient scroll that lay on a small makeshift table. "No mind control is involved, unless you desire it. The spell is designed to alter circumstance in favor of the caster according to the instructions given. You must think on this carefully before you begin, or the spell could have disastrous effects."

Shampoo nodded, pleased with Cologne's affirmation of her own understanding of the spell, and caressed the vial of dragon blood in her hands. "No worry, Great-grandmother. Shampoo know exactly what instruction to give."

Cologne nodded thoughtfully, but her expression was grave. "Then I suppose there is nothing to keep us from continuing. However..."

Shampoo blinked in surprise. Her great-grandmother's face was filled with something akin to... apprehension?

What on earth was this? Was her great-grandmother, the fearless Amazon matriarch, having second thoughts?

"However?" she prompted.

"Are you absolutely certain you want to do this, Great-granddaughter?" Cologne asked. The old woman's ancient gaze seemed to burn right into Shampoo's soul. "You have trifled with Son-in-law for a year now, trying to win his heart. Until this moment, you have not caused him, or those around him, any lasting harm. If you cast this blood spell, all of that will change. Permanent harm will be done, and there will be no going back - for either of us. Casting the blood spell will commit us irrevocably to our course. We both will be utterly bound by Amazon law and honor. There will be no mercy, no fun and games, and no harmless, friendly rivalries afterwards. The blood spell is the point of no return."

Shampoo met Cologne's gaze steadily. "You tell me this before. I know this."

"So, I ask you one final time. Are you absolutely certain that you want to cast the blood spell?"

There wasn't even a moment's hesitation. "I certain, Great-grandmother."

Cologne sighed heavily, and in one brief moment, so fleeting that Shampoo wasn't sure if she had imagined it, the old Amazon seemed incredibly weary. But then she straightened and, with one smooth movement, used her staff to snag the scroll off the table by the gold chain. She dangled it in front of Shampoo's face.

"Shall we begin, then?"

Ranma stood in front of the Nekohanten, feeling completely baffled. The ramen cafe was closed. Shampoo really was gone, and she had left without a word. There was no sign of the old ghoul either...

No, wait. He could see movement in the darkness behind the windows. Someone was in there. He pressed his face against the glass and shielded his eyes with his hands to block out the glare from the setting sun.

It was only Mousse. Ranma watched as the tall myopic Chinese boy walked through the swinging doors that led to the kitchen, only to emerge a moment later with a broom and dust pan and begin methodically sweeping the floor. Ranma squinted, trying to get a better look. There was something about Mousse, about the way he was sweeping the floor. Then he caught a glimpse of his face, and Ranma suddenly knew what was wrong with him.

Mousse was completely, totally depressed. His whole posture and attitude practically screamed dejection.

Yup. Shampoo was gone, all right. She and the old ghoul had taken off somewhere and left Mousse behind.

Ranma pounded on the window. "Hey, Mousse!" Mousse looked up, annoyed at being interrupted in the middle of his melancholy. Ranma kept pounding. "Hey, let me in, I wanna ask you something."

Mousse's annoyance turned to anger. "Ranma? Is that you? How dare you come here looking for my darling Shampoo!" He stormed towards the door, and, although Ranma couldn't see it, he knew that the bladed arsenal Mousse carried in the voluminous sleeves of his Chinese robe was getting primed for launch.

He groaned. "Aw man, I'm not looking for Shampoo! I just wanted to ask you where..." Ranma trailed off, realizing that was exactly what he wanted to ask Mousse. But not for the reasons that he assumed. "Aw, man..." he muttered, as Mousse threw open the door and glared at him through lenses that put Coke bottles to shame.

"Saotome, prepare to die!"

Ranma sighed. Why is nothing ever easy? Oh well. I gotta remember to keep him conscious, or he can't answer my questions.

The battle took longer than usual, but only because Ranma's heart really wasn't in it. He dodged mostly, allowing Mousse to wear himself out and inflict most of the usual property damage with his missing blows, which only served to infuriate him even more.

After twenty minutes of fighting, or rather of Mousse fighting and Ranma dodging, the Chinese boy stood panting. He glared at Ranma, who, he noticed to his chagrin and fury, was barely winded. "You dishonorable cur! How dare you take this battle so lightly?" He threw up his sleeves.

"Come on, Mousse," Ranma said, groaning in exasperation and ducking a bladed chain that flew at his head. "I just wanna know where Sha... where the old ghoul went."

Ranma thought he'd covered for himself rather well, but Mousse was blind, not deaf, and he caught the verbal slip. "Arrghhhh! It's not enough that you have three other fiancées, you must come searching for my one true love as well?!" he shouted. "You'll pay for your insolence, you enemy of women!" A barrage of chains, knives, wires, firecrackers, kitchen utensils, and other miscellaneous items flew from the dimensionally deceiving confines of Mousse's sleeves.

Ranma slipped past them with practiced ease. "Hey, I'm not engaged to no one, duck-boy!" he denied, also with practiced ease. "None of this mess was my idea!" He wove through the attack and landed a fierce punch to the jaw, sending Mousse flying into the front of the Nekohanten, cracking plaster and concrete. Mousse slumped to the ground, dazed, his arsenal falling limp from his sleeves, his glasses askew on his face. Ranma stood at a ready stance, waiting for the Chinese boy to get up and resume the battle.

Instead, to his amazement, Mousse straightened his glasses and gave him a piercing look. "What do you mean, you're not engaged to... Does this mean you're really not here to claim Shampoo?"

Ranma staggered as if he'd been hit, he was so flabbergasted. None of his rivals had ever listened to his protests of innocence before. "Of course not!" he yelled, then softened his tone, hoping not to stir Mousse's anger again. "I just had this weird feeling all day that something bad was gonna happen, that's all, and I think Shampoo might have something to do with it."

Mousse stood up and dusted himself off. His aggressive stance had evaporated, but he still eyed Ranma with open suspicion. "What makes you say that?"

Ranma shrugged. "I dunno, just a feeling."

"Well that's strange, because I've had the same feeling too."

Ranma's jaw sagged. "Really?" As that piece of information registered, he slowly closed his mouth and smiled. "Boy, that's a relief! I thought I must be going nuts or something."

Mousse scowled. "You are nuts, Saotome," he said. "But not about this. Know now that the only reason you're still standing-" Ranma smirked openly, but Mousse ignored him. "-is because I think we have a common concern. When Shampoo and Cologne left, they absolutely refused to let me go with them."

"Hmph. That's never stopped you before. Why didn't you just follow them?"

"That's none of your concern," Mousse snapped. He certainly wasn't going to tell Ranma the details of how he ecstatically and innocently ate the drugged ramen Shampoo had prepared just for him. He was out cold for a whole day. "The point is, I have no idea where they went, but they were up to something." He flushed with a combination of embarrassment and anger. "Actually, when you pounded on the window, I thought Shampoo'd finally managed to get that passion spice to work on you."

It was Ranma's turn to scowl. "No way, man. After that whole hypnotic mushroom mess, I would rather eat Akane's cooking... uh, well... er, maybe not, but I would rather eat anything else than trust something Shampoo tried to feed me." He clapped a hand on Mousse's shoulder. "Believe me, Mousse, if I had my way, Shampoo would be all yours."

Mousse pushed Ranma's hand from his shoulder, and turned away so that his rival wouldn't see the look on his face. He suppressed the urge to attack Saotome with everything he had, knowing that Ranma would just dodge and probably knock him into the wall again. Deep down, he knew that Ranma wasn't trying to be cruel. How could Ranma possibly know how much it hurt to be spurned by the woman he loved, while she pined after another man, a man who never even gave her a second thought? Ranma didn't even know the meaning of the word love. It was so infuriating, the way the girls flocked around him, when he hadn't done a thing to deserve it. He simply existed. Even Akane, who vehemently denied any feelings for her fiancé‚ was obviously in love with him.

He, on the other hand, loved Shampoo with every fiber of his being. And yet she continually spurned him, throwing herself at a reluctant Ranma every chance she got because of some stupid Amazon marriage law.

On top of that, now there was the unsettled feeling he shared with Ranma, and the fear that Shampoo was somehow connected with it all.

"So, uh, what are we gonna do about it?" asked Ranma, breaking the uncomfortable silence. He was more bothered than he cared to admit, knowing that Shampoo and Cologne snuck off somewhere without letting anyone know what they were up to.

As if on cue, the postman walked by. "Hello, Mousse," he said, handing the boy a stack of mail. "How's business?"

"Oh, well, we're closed at the moment. Shampoo and Cologne are... out of town, and I can't run the place by myself."

"Ah." The postman smiled as he turned to go. "That explains the postcard then. See you later."

"Postcard?" exclaimed Mousse as the postman walked off. They looked at the stack of mail. Mousse began flipping through it, ignoring the bills and catalogues for food and restaurant supplies. "Aha!" He pulled out a postcard that had a picture of a Chinese mountain landscape.

Ranma leaned over his shoulder, and frowned when he saw that it was written in Chinese. "What does it say?"

"It's addressed to me!" Mousse was so excited, he was nearly jumping up and down. "And it's from my darling Shampoo! They're in China!"

"China? What are they doing there? What does it say?"

"'Dear Mousse,'" he translated, "'Sorry about the sleeping powder in the ramen-'"

"Sleeping powder, eh?" Ranma interrupted, grinning.

"Shut up, Saotome," growled Mousse, before continuing.

"'Great-grandmother and I are on a training mission in China, where she is teaching me some special Amazon techniques as part of my training to become tribe matriarch. These techniques are for women only, so we couldn't have you following us. We will be back on Tuesday, so have the restaurant ready to open by then.'" Mousse stopped reading.

"That's it?" asked Ranma.

"Yes, of course," said Mousse, looking at the bottom of the card where Shampoo wrote 'Give my love to Ranma.' He hoped the sound of his heart shattering wasn't loud enough for Saotome to hear.

Ranma looked puzzled. "Well, if they're just on a training mission, I guess we're worrying about nothing, eh? I mean, how much trouble can they cause us in China?"

Mousse sighed. "Not much. It's what they bring back from China that we should worry about."

"Oh." Ranma grimaced. Most of the strange ingredients Cologne used in her mystical concoctions came from China. "Well, they're not going to be back for another four days, so I guess we don't have to worry about it until then."

Mousse nodded numbly. "I guess. Look, Ranma, I've got to get back to work. I have to get the restaurant ready to open by next Tuesday." With that, he walked back into the Nekohanten and closed the door behind him, leaving Ranma on the outside staring at the door.

Shrugging, Ranma turned and headed home, trying to ignore the small knot of uneasiness in his chest that only continued to grow.

Shampoo stood in the center of the hut, the scroll in one hand, the vial of dragon blood in the other.

Cologne watched in silence from a dark corner as Shampoo unstopped the vial and began to pour the black fluid on the ground, forming a perfect circle around her. If the spell was to work, it had to be followed to exactitude. Shampoo had paid the blood-price. She was the only one who could use the Ancient One's gift. Were it not so, Cologne might have been tempted to keep a portion of the dragon blood for herself because of the incredible magic it possessed, guaranteeing the success of any spell.

The dragon blood trickled in an even stream from the vial to the ground, resting lightly on the surface, gleaming blackly in the candlelight, forming an exact circle around Shampoo. As the last few drops fell from the mouth of the vial, completing the circle, the blood flared to life, surrounding the girl in a cone of magical dark red aura.

Shampoo winced in fear, and hesitated. No! thought Cologne, not daring to speak aloud. Concentrate, girl! Read the scroll!

Shampoo steadied herself and looked at the scroll. In a strong voice, she began chanting in an ancient Chinese dialect.

Cologne wilted with relief.

As the words rolled off her tongue, Shampoo fixed firmly in her mind her desires for the spell. The time was fast approaching, the aura building in strength, swirling around her with increasing fury. The roar was deafening. She could see Great-grandmother through the raging dark aura, looking at her with wide eyes.

Now! Shampoo threw her head back and called out her desire, the roaring noise from the ferocious magic that surrounded her drowning out the sound of her voice.

The pillar of red aura lit with a blinding flash, shot through the roof of the tiny hut leaving a clean, smoldering hole, and was gone into the night sky.

Shampoo blinked in the sudden darkness. She realized she was shaking. "I... I do it?" she asked.

Cologne looked at her in amazement. She nodded.

Shampoo smiled. "Ranma..." she whispered. And collapsed to the floor in a boneless heap.

Continue Reading Next Chapter

About Us

Inkitt is the world’s first reader-powered publisher, providing a platform to discover hidden talents and turn them into globally successful authors. Write captivating stories, read enchanting novels, and we’ll publish the books our readers love most on our sister app, GALATEA and other formats.