Chapter 19: Of Magic, Gods and Demons
Nabiki stared at Cologne's fallen form, then glanced at the gun, unable to believe that she had pulled the trigger. Milliseconds ticked by with infinite slowness as the echo of the shot reverberated throughout the valley, shattering the stillness that shrouded the base of the mountain of the Ancient One.
A cool wind abruptly stirred through the heavy, stagnant atmosphere, soft and strangely clammy across the skin of her outstretched arms.
"Fool," the wind whispered.
Nabiki heard the voice of the wind, ghostly and unnerving, even with her unprotected ears singing in pain from the startling, piercing sound of the gunshot, and hoped she wasn't losing her mind.
She couldn't feel her face. Her eyes stared at Cologne's body through an expressionless mask; a mask covering the inner turmoil boiling inside her chest, the nausea trembling within her stomach.
No, I'm not a fool, I'm the smart one, dammit, the others came unarmed, relying on their martial arts, but I brought a gun, and I'm the one standing-
Cologne twitched, and began to move.
Nabiki blinked in surprise, She's alive I didn't kill her, and shifted the grip on her gun, the wind and its mocking voice forgotten as her mind suddenly raced in counterpoint to the dragging moments of time.
You just had to come with Ranma on this fool's errand, didn't you? Thought you had to help the prince and his little legion rescue the damsel-in-distress, didn't you? Gee, I wonder why you never hear about court treasurers going on adventures. Perhaps because they're usually smart enough to stay behind and count the gold?
Oh jeeze, I'm rambling, I can't lose it, not now of all times...
She didn't realize that there would be so much blood. That a simple twitch of her finger on the curved trigger of her gun would cause the old woman's flesh and bone to explode so violently in a shower of scarlet.
The paper practice targets at retired-Colonel Hiwamura's private indoor shooting range never bled, after all. She'd have to mention that little discrepancy to Hiwamura-san the next time she saw him.
She had always been a girl who liked to bet on a sure thing. If it wasn't a sure thing, and the odds could be bent in her favor, she never hesitated to bend them.
The cold metal weight that she held easily in her hands had just bent the odds in her favor at a time when she saw the world tumbling out of her control before her eyes. Mousse, Shampoo, Ukyo, Ryoga... all fallen in moments...
Nabiki Tendo was in control once again. She had used the gun, and had brought a little order to the chaos of this crazy place where invisible barriers rose from the ground, and where a strange new wind spoke terrors to her soul with a near-silent voice.
She just wished she could wipe her damn sweaty palms on the legs of her jeans.
Lucky shot. Beginner's luck, stupid beginner's luck, a slight jerk, a misalignment, and it would be her face or her chest that would be gone instead of her shoulder...
She's still alive, thank the gods, I didn't kill her...
Oh no, she's still alive. She's moving, she's going to get up, what do I do now, I don't think I can shoot this thing again, I don't think I...
Cologne was getting impossibly to her feet. And, as if from a great distance, as if she were under water, Nabiki heard her own voice, cold and calm and as smooth as silk.
"Don't move, or next time it's your heart." Her off-hand thumb instinctively cocked back the hammer of the gun.
Next time, yeah right, there's no way I can pull the trigger again, oh crap, she looks angry, I can't believe she's still moving with that... that... Oh no, I'm in trouble, what about the others, I can't believe it, she took them all out in seconds, and Ryoga is P-chan, Ryoga is P-chan I can't believe I didn't see it before, that idiot, he should have told us, no wonder he didn't help Ukyo, I hope he's alive...
We're all in big trouble...
Cologne was once again on her feet in spite of the gaping, bleeding wound in her shoulder. Her battle aura, the color of the sprayed droplets on the ground, began to flicker around her diminutive form, and she was even speaking...
"You think you can shoot me before I can reach you to break your neck, girl?"
Nabiki felt her skin go cold as glass.
She's going to kill me. She wants to kill me, I can see it in her eyes, I should have shot her the moment she showed up, but no, I had to deal with Kuno and keep him quiet so he wouldn't attract attention to me, to us, I had to get the gun, I had to... wait... Yes, I had to wait because... because who knows, Shampoo might have been able to talk some sense into the old ghoul, and we might have continued and finished this whole mess without incident...
Yeah, right. Face it, girl, you blew it.
The wind was laughing at her.
Nabiki felt her careful poker face begin to slip under a building surge of terror.
No! Control. Get under control. Ignore the damn wind, it's just another part of this crazy place, it can't hurt you, but Cologne can. Forget what's happened, just go from here, or you'll end up just another body littering the ground. You brought this gun for a reason, remember?
Yes. She brought the gun, in spite of the fact that marksmanship was just an exotically foreign hobby that she had taken up (a bit subversively, due to certain legalities) a few months ago, because it was a form of self defense that didn't involve getting beat to a pulp during training. She brought the gun in spite of the fact that, until the past week, she had never really thought about turning a gun on another living creature.
But she didn't want to be a liability to the expedition. She wanted a way to defend herself so that her martial artist friends wouldn't have to worry about protecting her all the time, wouldn't have to worry about saving poor, defenseless Nabiki, who didn't know how to fight and had never physically hurt anyone in her entire life.
Violence really wasn't her cup of tea, after all...
And, through the ringing in her ears, Nabiki heard her own voice again, so distant and calm that she had to wonder if the sound could possibly be coming from her own throat.
"I think you're fast." Nabiki felt her cold, numb face quirking into a well-practiced sneer. "But you're wounded. And whether it's with a gun or a camera, I'm a very fast shot."
She didn't know where the words were coming from. I've been watching too many B-movies. Oh jeeze, she's smiling. I can't believe she's smiling with that hole in her shoulder. Look at all that blood! I must have hit an artery, I can't believe she's still standing. How is that possible?
But then, she knew how it was possible.
She knew because for the past hour, she had breathed the air surrounding the mountain of the Ancient One; air thick with magic. And now, the voice of that damnable unearthly wind that had come out of nowhere, whispering, soft and clammy... She could feel the undeniable force of it inside her as it seeped into the core of her fierce self-confidence, shaking her faith in the laws of logic and reality, filling her head with possibilities.
Possibilities. Terrible possibilities of things she would never have imagined, if only she were still surrounded by the sane civilization of the Tokyo suburbs.
Sure, at home she'd been around the constant strangeness of the Jusenkyo-cursed victims. But she'd almost gotten used to their water-induced shape-shifting, so that it was almost a commonplace part of everyday life, no longer mysterious or frightening.
Now, though, as she stood in the very land where the Jusenkyo curses originated, as she saw a helpless cat, duck and piglet lying unconscious where her friends once stood, she realized anew just how terrible, how unnatural the curse magic was.
Possibilities. Anything was possible, it seemed, in this Chinese wilderness where dragons and demons dwelled, where a splash of cursed water could transform your body into something strange and alien, where invisible barriers granted or denied access to mist-shrouded mountains on a whim, where the feeling of enchantment lay heavy as a shroud on the landscape...
And where an old crone was standing as if she didn't have a terrible, bloody bullet hole in her shoulder, her scarlet ki lighting the gloom in lengthening tendrils of power.
Nabiki knew she was out of her element. The smoking gun in her hands felt alien, out of place. She could almost sense the whispering wind's disapproval for bringing such a terrible technology into its midst. She felt the strange breeze brush against her face and ruffle her hair with moist intangible fingers that smelled of death.
And Cologne's battle aura was building. Even from nearly ten meters, Nabiki could feel the intensity of Cologne's ki prickle against her skin.
Ki attack. She taught Ranma the Hyruu Shouten Ha, and helped him create the Mouko Takabishya. Of course she can do ki attacks.
She's going to fry me.
Just shoot her! a part of her screamed. Forget magic, forget ki! Stop her before she kills you! It isn't murder, it's self-defense! This is what you came prepared for, remember?
Nabiki swallowed. Her finger tightened on the trigger.
And Cologne's withered, blood splattered smile widened into a chilling grin. The crone raised her uninjured arm, a blindingly bright bead of scarlet ki focused tightly in the palm of her hand.
Nabiki's heart was a trapped bird, beating wildly against her rib cage. Now or never. Now or never, now or never now or never now or-
She didn't hear the shot. Only the hard recoil shuddering through her arms and shoulders told her that she had fired.
Cologne didn't even flinch.
Nabiki blinked. Her heart seemed to freeze, seemed to sink into her stomach.
A deep, terrible calm settled through her. And suddenly she was pulling the trigger, once, twice, a third time, feeling the recoil jerking through her body...
...but there was no sound. No cracking shot. Not even the acrid smell of powder.
Nabiki looked at the gun. With a practiced flip of her wrist and a twist of her fingers, she snapped the cylinder of the gun out of alignment.
All six chambers were empty.
No way. No way, dammit. I know I loaded this thing...
"Fool," the quivering, clammy magic wind whispered. Its laughter filled her head.
And, as Cologne hoarsely shouted something in Mandarin, there was a tremendous flash of light, and Nabiki knew it was too late, she'd blown it, she was done for, a goner, for the scarlet ki was roaring towards her and she couldn't seem to move, except she could once again feel her face, and she knew that her mask had shattered and that her terror was shining clearly from her features for all to see as she felt death coming-
Something grabbed her from the side, around her waist. She was yanked hard off her feet, but not quickly enough, because the edge of the attack still caught her in the face, blasting her senses like a hot wind, stealing the air from her lungs, sending a black wave through her brain, washing away consciousness...
She resurfaced from the wave briefly, groaning, realizing in amazement that she wasn't dead even as she felt her limp body turned carefully in someone's arms. Through the black motes swallowing up her vision, she caught a glimpse of her rescuer.
He had saved her, she realized incredulously. What do you know, he's actually useful for something other than money.
But, as the darkness swallowed her again, she didn't have time to hope that he would be smart enough to run.
Kuno's mind was whirling as he glanced down at Nabiki, cradled in his arms. Looking up, he saw the old woman glaring at him furiously, impervious to her horrible wound. Once again, her ki began to focus into a bright speck of power in the palm of her hand.
"That was a mistake, boy," she rasped.
Kuno blinked. The world had turned upside down. Nothing that had happened since he regained consciousness at the foot of this strange mountain made any sense.
He needed to think. His mind swam with images of small animals and his fiery pig-tailed goddess... He needed to make sense of the things he had seen and felt that had shattered the adamantine wall of his personal perception.
But there was no time to think, because this old woman, who had defeated his companions in mere moments, was getting ready to attack him.
Honor demanded that he stay and fight to the end, of course. And yet, he realized with sudden clarity, there was more at stake here than his honor.
The lives of his companions, for instance. The life of the girl he held in his arms.
His very sanity, perhaps.
He lifted his eyes to meet those of the old crone, pushing back the overwhelming confusion in his mind, trying to ignore the fierceness of the old woman's gaze and the power of her aura.
"I would challenge you," he intoned gravely, falling back on to his old, virtually unconscious aphorism. When in doubt, act as if you're in control. "But at this moment I believe... discretion... is the better part of valor."
Cologne didn't respond. She merely stood, trembling with fury, her aura blazing.
So, without another word, Kuno shifted Nabiki's limp form in his arms and made haste for the thick of the forest. Bokken in hand, he swiftly slashed his way through the heavy undergrowth, not looking back to see if the old woman was following.
Saotome Secret Technique, he found himself thinking with something akin to self-loathing. Oh, that I have sunk so low...
But, as the image of his flame-haired goddess filled his mind, only to flicker with the image of the hated Saotome, he found that he wasn't quite sure what the true source of his self-loathing was...
Cologne watched Kuno leave.
When he was gone, her aura died abruptly. She sagged weakly to her knees, and thanked whatever gods that were listening that the boy had fallen for her bluff.
The familiar, musty wind brushed her skin, laughing.
"Yes, he fell for it. But do you think it will do you any good, even though he is gone?"
Cologne froze at the sound of the voice.
And as she looked up, her skin, already gray from shock and loss of blood, turned even more pale.
"Yin Wu Ch'ang Kuei," she breathed.
The Ghost of Impermanence was taller than Cologne remembered. Then again, it had been over half a century since their last encounter, and Cologne wasn't as tall as she used to be.
The Ghost's face was the same, though. Cold and dead, the woman might once have been beautiful. Her skin was both the color and texture of old rice paper, and her face, framed by tangled, matted locks of heavy black hair, was spider-webbed with a thin network of splotchy, broken blood veins bulging just under the surface of the skin. Milky, sightless eyes gazed at the ancient Amazon with unnerving accuracy. The Ghost smiled, revealing a mouth black with mold.
"It has been a long time, old one," she said in a thick, gurgling voice, as if her lungs were half full of murky water. "Yet once again, your encroaching death summons me to collect your soul. I am curious to see, will you escape my grasp this time?"
Cologne's eyes narrowed, even as she trembled against the dead numbness seeping from her shattered shoulder, spreading throughout her body. "I am not quite ready to die just yet," she murmured.
Yin Wu Ch'ang laughed, a strange, delighted burbling sound. "Yes. You say that every time. But you just expended a great deal of ki in your attack against that girl. And that is quite an impressive hole she made in your body, I must say. She wanted to make more holes, but I stopped her." The ghost's black smile widened. "After all... what kind of a challenge would that be?"
Cologne gazed at her in stunned silence.
"How ever do you intend to patch it up?" the dead woman whispered intently. "With leaves and sticks and mud?" She glided forward, her blank, wet eyes rolling eagerly, and extended a skeletal hand, the pale skin stretched tight over the bones. "Whatever you are going to do, do it quickly, for you are dying, old one. I can feel the pull of your soul. It longs for me to come and help it shed your crumbling mortal carcass."
Since the first time Cologne had encountered this Chinese emissary of Death, she had never quite understood the delight the Ghost took in seeing her struggle to escape.
Perhaps it was because Yin Wu Ch'ang escorted only the souls of the elderly to the afterlife, whereas her male counterpart, Yang Wu Ch'ang, with the swollen, lolling tongue and the bloated, purple face, dealt with the souls of the young. And while the elderly passed on with perhaps a sigh or a wheeze, the young ones usually had a spark of fight to them.
Well, if Yin Wu Ch'ang wanted a fight, she'd get one. Cologne hadn't lived three centuries without knowing how to cheat all kinds of death, after all. She may have been caught off guard this time, but she was never fully unprepared.
She'd have to work fast, though. Yin Wu Ch'ang was gliding closer, her thin, skeletal arms outstretched, reaching out to harvest her soul...
Trembling violently as shock, pain and numbness seeped through her frail, wounded body, Cologne reached deep into the secret folds of her robes with her undamaged arm and pulled out a small leather pouch, holding it carefully in her withered, blood-stained hand.
Yin Wu Ch'ang smiled slightly as she saw the pouch. "Of course. The Shards of the Apple. You've used this before, have you not?"
Cologne would have shrugged if it was possible. As it was, she was fighting the darkness flickering at the edges of her vision with all her concentration.
The Shards were, of course, immeasurably old, remarkably preserved pieces of fruit from the very first apple tree in the world. Legend had it that the tree grew far to the north-east of Qinghai province, in the Heilongjiang region, in ancient times. Known to have fantastic healing properties, the fruit from that tree cured the worst diseases and injuries, from blindness, to strange and deadly wasting illnesses, to lost limbs...
Yin Wu Ch'ang was getting closer. "You might not make it, even so," she whispered. Cologne could smell the dead woman's rotten, musty breath, could feel it, soft and clammy on her skin. "The Shards are old, and have lost most of their potency."
True, Cologne knew. But at this point, she didn't care. It was her only chance.
"Ah." Yin Wu Ch'ang's milky eyes widened, and her black, oozing mouth hung open with slack pleasure. "You are dying quickly. Can you feel it? Can you feel your heartbeat slowing under the entwining tendrils of death?"
Cologne could feel it. And, more than anything, she wanted to tell the Ghost to shut up.
Instead, with what seemed like the supreme effort of strength, she spread the puckered opening of the leather pouch with two fingers.
There were only two Shards left. Two from the original twelve that she had acquired as a young woman as spoils from a long, bloody battle against an attempted invasion of the village. Of course, if she could ever recover the Shards that the wretched lecher Happosai had stolen from her, she would have at least four more...
Reaching inside with shaking fingers, she plucked out a papery-thin, shriveled brown object. Slowly, carefully, she lifted it to her lips, and placed it on her tongue.
She closed her eyes, and felt the ancient shred of apple dissolve in her mouth.
The gaping, dark bloody hole in her shoulder continued to drain her life away...
"Yesssss..." She heard Yin Wu Ch'ang's dark, gurgling voice right next to her ear, felt the cold, dead fingers caressing the skin of her face...
Please, Cologne thought. Please... I don't want to die. Not now, not when I'm so close. It's almost over, I'm almost finished. And then Shampoo can return to the village, and, having fulfilled her debt of honor, with her rightful husband by her side, my great-grandchild will finally have her deserved place of honor on the council, she will be strong and happy, and the tribe will be strong and happywith her, because of her, she will be a living monument to both our noble ancestors and her posterity...
...and then I can die in peace...
A flash of fire shot through the nerves of Cologne's limbs, so sharp and painful that her breath caught in her throat, and her eyes flew open wide.
Yin Wu Ch'ang gasped, her skeletal hand jerking from Cologne's face as if she'd touched a live wire.
Cologne's numb, dead shoulder began to tingle with the barest flicker of life.
It was all she needed.
Summoning the last inner reserves of her ki, she focused her sight inward, until she was aware of the weak throbbing of her heart, of the blood threading through her veins, focusing smaller and smaller until it seemed she was aware of each particle of her being.
She focused on aiding the healing spark, leading it on its microscopic journey through the cells of her destroyed shoulder.
Gradually, with her inner guidance, the spark worked its healing power within her. Bleeding slowed as the ends of the severed artery joined and fused. Veins and capillaries closed, and shredded flesh pulled together. Shards of collar bone shifted within the torn muscle, moving so painfully into place that Cologne had to grit her teeth to keep from crying out.
But the magic was old, and had indeed lost much of its potency. Cologne found the healing spark dimming, slipping from her mental grasp...
The supernatural movement within her wound slowed, then ceased.
There was severe pain. But pain was good. It told her that she was alive. She could feel that the bone shards in her shoulder were loose and unknit; that the wound, no longer a gaping hole, but a mere puckered puncture, still trickled blood.
Her heartbeat was again steady and strong. Her ki was restored. And with her ki, she could endure the remainder of the injury.
She heard Yin Wu Ch'ang sigh. And, she was surprised to realize, the sigh was almost a sound of... contentment?
"Well played, old one." Cologne could feel the Ghost's face mere centimeters from her own, could smell her dank, rotting breath as she spoke softly. "Another time, perhaps?"
Cologne opened her eyes slowly and met the Ghost's sightless gaze. "Perhaps," she replied.
Without another word, the Ghost faded away in the cloud-filtered sunlight.
Cologne knelt in silence for a long moment, unblinking.
Then, pushing herself to her feet, wincing in pain, she hobbled over to where a small lavender-furred cat lay on the stone ground, not far from an unconscious duck, piglet, and girl.
With great care, she lifted the limp cat, and cradled it gently with her good arm.
She checked on the others. Alive, all of them, though Ryoga would be unconscious for a while, considering the blow she gave him. Ukyo lay face first on the ground. There was a bleeding gash on the back of her head, where she had impacted with the barrier, but her breathing was steady and strong. Mousse would probably recover first, since he was the least stunned, but he wouldn't be any trouble.
Deep within the folds of her robe, she could feel the small vial of carefully-prepared liquid that would subjugate Ranma to her forever, and restore her great-granddaughter's honor.
And as the musky whispering wind touched her skin one last time, Cologne realized her face was wet with tears. Tears of pain, fear, or relief, she couldn't say.
She had never felt so old.
Nabiki's eyes snapped open. Her heart pounded in her throat, her hands clenched, and she felt grass and moss tear away from the ground in her white-knuckled grip. She stared wildly at the tangled mass of tree branches, budding with spring growth, that mottled the gray sky before her.
She gazed at the sky, unable to breathe, feeling the weight of her body pressed against the ground. She listened. The wind blowing across her skin was almost warm, and smelled of fresh leaves and earth. And, as she strained to hear with lingering dread, she realized that the wind's only voice was nothing more than the usual wordless whisper through the dense foliage that surrounded her.
Not only that, but she could hear bird song, and the trilling chirp of insects throughout the forest. Wherever she was, she was in a place where nature seemed to be behaving in a normal manner.
Slowly, carefully, she exhaled. Blades of uprooted grass fell from her limp fingers.
I'm alive, she thought. Well, how about that.
"So. You're awake at last."
Nabiki sat up quickly - and immediately regretted it as a swelling ache reverberated through her skull. Groaning, she pressed the palms of her hands against her throbbing temples.
Kuno favored her with an imperious half-lidded glare. He sat cross-legged a meter or so away from her on a patch of thick grass, his bokken resting across his up-turned palms, almost in an attitude of meditation.
She glanced away, hoping that the surprise she felt didn't register on her face. "So," she replied, massaging her head with her fingertips. "You did run away."
Kuno's supercilious expression twitched, and, for a moment, his hands clenched around his bokken. "What would you have had me do?" he asked coldly. "Stay, that we might both be killed?"
"Not at all," she said, dropping her hands into her lap, noticing with mild dismay that they were shaking. "I'm just surprised you had the guts to do it."
"'Guts?'" Kuno's lip curled in sudden disgust, and he dropped his gaze. "There is no courage, no honor in fleeing a battle just to save one's own life."
Nabiki sighed heavily. "Yeah, whatever." She could feel her body's desire to just collapse back onto the ground and tremble in post-traumatic reaction. She wanted to wrap her arms around her chest and let the fear pour out of her in sobs and screams, let it seep out of her skin and back into the atmosphere, until she once again felt like herself.
But no. She'd come this far, and she'd be damned if she'd lose control now and let her body overrule her mind. Especially in front of Kuno.
She turned to look him in the face, her expression carefully neutral. "And you didn't just save your own life," she said. "We're both perfectly aware that I would probably be splattered across the landscape if you hadn't grabbed me and run. Amazing though it is, you actually did something smart. So let's cut the 'soiled honor' crap, and figure out what we're going to do now."
Kuno blinked, his condescending expression slipping slightly. He opened his mouth to respond, but then he stopped and stared at her a long moment, as if unsure whether or not to be angry. "You have an unusual way of expressing gratitude, Nabiki Tendo," he said at last.
She glanced at him sharply.
"Thank you," she said, "for saving my life."
They stared at each other, like two unyielding statues.
"Well, now that that's over with, let's get going." Nabiki pushed herself to her feet with determination, gritting her teeth against a wave of dizziness.
Kuno looked up at her from his sitting position. "Really. And what, exactly, is your intended destination?"
Nabiki blinked at him. I'm going back to the mountain, she wanted to say. I'm going back to save the others from Cologne.
The thought was so ludicrous even as it came into her mind, that her composed expression almost slipped into a scowl. Go back? And do what? Give the old ghoul a chance to finish her off?
Infuriatingly enough, she saw from the look on Kuno's face that this had already occurred to him.
The very idea of going back at this point was ridiculous. No doubt Cologne would be able to sense her approach long before she could be in a position to do anything. Not that she could actually do anything anyway. Her plans, her calculating logic, even her ace-in-the-hole... All had been rendered completely useless by the chaotic element of... magic.
That damned wind...
Her stomach slowly clenched, sending bile into her throat. She, Nabiki Tendo, the smart one, was completely, utterly helpless, unable to do anything to save her friends.
And on top of that, Kuno's somber, uncharacteristically rational calm was really getting on her nerves. How dare he be so composed at a time like this? He should be rending the air with passionate poetry at this point, bewailing their misfortune and the unknown fate of his Pig-tailed goddess. Not sitting there like some damned meditating monk.
"How long have I been unconscious?" she asked.
If Kuno noticed, or even cared about her changing the subject, he gave no sign. Instead, he shrugged his shoulders in a casual gesture that was deeply unsettling in its lack of pomposity, though his face still held a look of cool arrogance. "I haven't been keeping track of the time," he said. "An hour. Maybe longer."
Nabiki bristled. She hadn't realized so much time had passed. "And what have you been doing all this time?" she demanded.
She stifled the urge to snort derisively.
"And it seems to me," Kuno continued, his voice carefully level, "that we can do nothing except wait for Ranma to return from the mountain."
Nabiki looked at him, and raised a contemptuous eyebrow. "I don't believe it," she said. "The mighty 'Blue Thunder of Furinkan High' is just going to sit here and wait for his 'Pig-tailed Girl' to come back and save him?"
Kuno's jaw clenched, and his eyes darkened with such intensity that Nabiki was momentarily startled. Then, to her further amazement, Kuno lowered his gaze. Slowly, he took a deep, shaky breath.
"I would think that you would agree with me, Nabiki Tendo," he said softly. "After all, with... his... exceptional skill and determination... Ranma may be our only hope to defeat the old woman."
Silence. Nabiki stared at Kuno, too stunned to even blink. After a long moment, he slowly lifted his gaze and regarded her with a hostile defiance that practically dared her to mock him in the face of his quiet admission.
Incredible, she thought, as she abruptly comprehended Kuno's strange behavior. I don't believe it. He's finally figured it out.
Nabiki exhaled her breath in a whoosh. Her amazement was clear and she made no attempt to hide it. She hadn't missed Kuno's amazingly straightforward compliment of Ranma's martial arts skill, either.
"So," she said carefully, "you've finally accepted Ranma's curse, eh?"
His eyes narrowed, and his jaw clenched. "The evidence," he said, "that presented itself at the mountain was... most convincing."
"You mean, with the others? Shampoo and Mousse?" And Ryoga, she thought suddenly. That's right, he's cursed too. He's P-chan.
She pushed the disturbing thought, with all its implications, aside, and focused her gaze on Kuno. "Come on. You've seen them change before. Hell, Ranma's changed right in front of you, and you never figured it out."
A shadow crossed Kuno's face, and his mouth pinched in a severe frown. His eyes were steel as he gazed at her, and again, Nabiki was startled at his intensity.
Startled, yes. But damned if she'd show it. Damned if she'd give the arrogant, idiotic bastard the satisfaction of seeing her shaken by his strange behavior.
"So, Nabiki Tendo," he said slowly, deliberately. His knuckles were white around the wooden bokken. "Are you suggesting that I was the only one who had a few self-delusions shattered at the base of that mountain?"
Nabiki's eyes narrowed. "What do you mean?" she asked. Just what had he been thinking about while she was unconscious?
But, as she saw his face, she knew exactly what he meant. And she couldn't tell if she was more amazed that thick-skulled, air-headed Kuno had asked the question... or that he'd had the clarity of sight to see into her hidden heart.
She realized that her palms were sweating again.
The bastard. How dare he turn her question around on her?
"For one thing," he replied, "it seems rather foolish to me that you would go through all the trouble of bypassing our native firearms laws to acquire a gun, and even smuggle the distasteful weapon through Chinese customs... only to load it with a single bullet to face a powerful enemy."
Nabiki's throat was dry; all the moisture had evaporated from her mouth. "The gun," she said hoarsely, "was loaded. All six chambers."
"Indeed," Kuno replied coldly. "Then how do you account for what happened when you attempted to fire the gun a second time?"
Nabiki blinked. She couldn't account for it, of course. Though, insanely, her gut, her inner instinct told her to say, It was the wind.
That strange, unearthly wind that smelled of her own mortality, that blew away the comforting veils of self-delusion...
She had thought she was untouchable; her logic infallible. With her fiercely calculating brain, she could plan for any and every contingency. A clear, rational mind would succeed over chaos every time.
Wrong. Self-delusion shattered.
Kuno was - damn him - right.
Nabiki stared at him, this creature who wore Kuno's face and spoke harsh logic instead of inane archaisms. It's a changeling, she thought. A doppelganger. He's been abducted by aliens, and replaced with a pod person.
And she grimaced inwardly at her very line of thought. By the gods, she thought, gazing numbly at the young man sitting before her. I'm turning into Kuno.
She almost laughed at the realization, at the irony of it all. Don't like reality? Then create one that's more comfortable. Kuno and I could go into business together. Creative Realities. Realities R Us. Kuno can happily lust after his Pig-tailed goddess forever, while I rule the world through perfectly calculated manipulations...
She had a choice now.
She could go on, she knew, and pretend that nothing had happened. Pretend that the whole experience of the afternoon was nothing more than a momentary lapse, and that she hadn't been affected in the least by... shooting someone. Seeing her perceptions of reality shattered. Feeling death come rushing at her in a fiery, scarlet blast...
And now, the fear. The gnawing uncertainty, bordering on terror, of what was to come...
Inexplicably, she felt her eyes grow wet.
Why did reality have to be so damn painful? To admit that she could lose control. That she, Nabiki Tendo, the calm, collected, always-in-control ice queen, could be fragile, frightened, helpless... unable to think of a way out...
Unable to think...
So, Nabiki. How do you account for what happened when you attempted to fire the gun a second time?
Nabiki looked directly into Kuno's eyes. He was still waiting for her answer.
She wiped her sweaty palms on her jeans, and didn't care that Kuno saw.
"It... was the wind," she said softly.
And Kuno's hard, angry gaze softened. "Yes," he said. "I know."
After all the surprises, this didn't surprise her at all.
What did amaze her was the sudden relief she felt in her chest, the sudden lightness, as if a black burden had been dispelled.
This wasn't so bad, she realized. Being scared and uncertain. Showing weakness, fallibility...
"You heard it too?" she asked.
Kuno's frown mellowed, even turned up at one corner into a wry, bitter half-smile. "'Fool,'" he quoted. "But, to be honest, I thought it was speaking to me."
Nabiki laughed, sharp and humorless, and eased her shaking legs back into a sitting position on the grass. "Perhaps," she said, looking past Kuno to the forest beyond, "it was speaking to both of us."
Nabiki leaned forward, with her elbows on her knees, and rested her chin in one hand in a very weary gesture.
They sat together in uneasy silence.
"What of the others?" Kuno asked quietly.
Nabiki closed her eyes as if in pain. It was the very question that had been subversively eating at her insides from the moment she regained consciousness. Of course Kuno would have to ask; no doubt it had been haunting him as well.
She sighed. "Your guess is as good as mine, Kuno."
"No, it is not. You are more familiar with the others, as well as the old woman. Surely you can surmise whether or not she will harm our fallen companions."
Nabiki looked up, irritated. "Anything I surmise won't do us a bit of good, because there's no way of knowing for sure if they're safe or not. So what's the point? Face it, Kuno, we're completely powerless, and if we try to guess what's going on, either with Cologne and the others, or even Ranma on the mountain, it's just going to drive us both crazy. So drop it, okay?"
Kuno blinked, surprised. Then his expression settled to one of indifference, tinged with annoyance. "Very well," he said coldly. "I merely asked because of the unusual talent you have so often displayed in the past for calculating the odds in numerous and diverse circumstances. I assumed this ability of yours stemmed from critical observation and an intimate knowledge of the parties involved. Apparently I was mistaken. I was unaware that your ability was based instead upon your ego, which indeed has suffered a serious blow this day."
Nabiki's teeth clenched, and she winced as she bit the inside of her cheek. The manipulative bastard! she thought angrily. Yet this thought was immediately followed with a tinge of grudging respect. Who knew he had it in him?
Kuno was just full of surprises today.
"Fine. You want to know what I think?" Nabiki sat up and glared at him as she counted the points off on her fingers. "Here's the deal. First of all, Cologne won't harm Shampoo. Mousse is another matter, but because he's an Amazon, I suspect that if he tries to give Cologne any trouble, she'll merely subdue him, and then deal out whatever Amazon punishment applies. Which hopefully doesn't involve death or torture of any kind.
"As for Ryoga... Well, the old ghoul was pretty vicious when she smashed him into the ground, but I'm hoping that it's just because he's as sturdy and thick-skulled as a pig as he is as a human, and she knew it would take more to knock him unconscious. And besides, I've always had the impression that she was at least mildly fond of him, ever since she trained him a while back.
"Ukyo, on the other hand..." Nabiki paused as a ripple of apprehension shivered down her spine on behalf of her friend. Ukyo had been Shampoo's rival for Ranma's affection for a long time, which probably had not endeared her to the old crone. And if she regained consciousness, and tried to attack Cologne again...
Kuno frowned as Nabiki's expression clouded. "You believe she is in danger," he said.
Nabiki gave him a wry, worried look. "If she wakes up before Ranma returns, she'll be in the best position to give Cologne the most trouble. I just hope she's smart enough to run away as quickly as possible, rather than try to fight it out alone."
Inwardly, she winced. Ukyo, back out of a fight when someone is threatening Ranma? Yeah, right. Ukyo, please stay unconscious.
A somber expression flitted across Kuno's face. "Then, truly, you are the only one that Cologne has the desire to kill."
Obstacles for killing.
Nabiki wondered if she should feel proud that she was the only one that Cologne actually considered an obstacle.
"Yeah, well," she said, as nonchalantly as she could manage. "Aside from the fact that I just blew a big hole in her shoulder, she's had a bone to pick with me for quite some time. I'm pretty sure I'm in the number one spot of her 'Least Favorite People' list."
Kuno blinked. "Indeed."
She looked at him sharply. "Now remember, I could be completely off in my calculations. Cologne just might be a raving lunatic out to kill everybody who gets in her way. For all I know, everybody is already dead. Including Ranma. And were stuck here in the middle of nowhere until we join them."
Kuno's mouth twitched into an almost-smile. "I believe that I prefer to trust in your calculations, Nabiki Tendo."
Nabiki sighed heavily as she wrapped her arms around her knees. "Whatever. As I said before, you can choose your own fantasy, Kuno. My theory may be a bit more pleasant than the alternative, but until we've got the solid facts... it's just a fantasy."
Kuno didn't respond, but merely raised an eyebrow at her.
They lapsed into silence once again. The air was warm. Nabiki noticed, with a deep melancholy that was settling over her, that the afternoon shadows were lengthening.
Though she couldn't deny that this new, enlightened Kuno was a vast improvement over the insipid idiot he'd been, she was still deeply annoyed that he had been a catalyst for her own epiphany. Sure, she could accept that she was imperfect. She could even grant that Kuno had more brains than she'd ever given him credit for.
But that didn't mean she had to like it.
As the thought crossed her mind, the corner of her mouth quirked as she realized how...deeply childish the sentiment was. How terribly petty and unimportant, in the face of what they had just experienced, as well as the trials that lay before them.
Well, how about that, she thought with wry amusement. I'm pouting.
After a long moment, she gave Kuno a sidelong glance. "Hey. About what you said earlier."
"You know, about waiting for Ranma to get back. I think you're right. It's our best bet. If anyone can defeat the old ghoul, he can."
Kuno looked at her pointedly, but his expression had long since lost the defensive arrogance he'd worn earlier. In fact, he seemed almost pleased at this, the first time Nabiki had actually conceded that he was right about something.
"This is one of the dilemmas I have pondered whilst you were unconscious," he said. "How will we know when Ranma returns from the mountain? We dare not return before hand, and, even should he be victorious against the old woman, he knows not where we are."
Nabiki looked over at him slowly. "Very insightful, Kuno," she mused. "Who would have thought that a semblance of a mind existed under that vapid exterior of yours?"
Kuno returned her half-lidded gaze. "Who would have thought that a human being existed under that frigid granite facade of yours, Nabiki Tendo?"
Nabiki almost smiled. "Touché."
And then she fought the urge to turn away, squelching her pride that still seemed insistent on not giving an inch to this guy. But she was sure that Kuno's ego was bigger than hers, and yet, after an afternoon filled with his own cruel, soul-altering revelations... he had it in him to eat humble pie.
Well, if he could do it without gagging, so could she.
"But to answer your question," she said, "one thing is certain. Ranma won't come back without Akane. When he rescues my sister from the Kami Plane, I'm betting that our memories of her will be restored. And that, Kuno, will be our signal to go back."
"Memories?" Kuno raised an eyebrow. "To what are you referring?"
Nabiki looked at him. "That's right, you don't know about the blood spell, or Akane in the Kami Plane."
Kuno frowned slightly. "I am assuming, from your words, that your 'long lost sister' is not truly held captive by a dragon on that cursed mountain, as you originally expounded."
His expression was somber as he held her gaze. "Perhaps it is time you fully enlightened me as to the real reason we have made this journey, Nabiki Tendo."
And so, in precise detail, without withholding a single secret, she told him. Everything.
When she was finished, they sat together, neither speaking, neither quite looking at the other.
"From what you have told me," Kuno said at last, "there is a great chance that Ranma might not return from his quest to challenge the Ancient One."
Nabiki shivered, her arms still wrapped tightly around her knees. She stared at the grass in front of her feet.
Ranma might not survive the mountain, true.
But if, by some miracle, he did survive, did manage to rescue her sister and return... what then?
Cologne had sounded so sure of herself, when she had told Shampoo that Ranma would be returning... willingly... with them to their Amazon village. And Cologne was many things, but she was not a fool. She would not have risked so much if she weren't positive of the outcome.
Cologne wanted Ranma, wanted him as a slave-husband for Shampoo. And she had confronted their little traveling party at the base of the mountain, fully expecting to accomplish that exact objective.
Nabiki didn't know. But she had a few suspicions, and they terrified the hell out of her.
Death at the hands of demons might be a better fate. Gods forbid.
"Yeah," she said finally, hoarsely. "Shampoo didn't seem too keen on his chances of survival against the demon guardians without the protection of the wards."
Kuno looked at her a long moment. "I see." He closed his eyes.
Nabiki pulled at the blades of grass at her feet.
The wind brushed past them, softly, voicelessly. Above them, a few dim stars glinted in the darkening sky as the sun sank beneath the horizon. The spring mountain air was warm, and, thankfully, full of sound.
Akane stood facing a lush, green valley. Above her, a sunless blue sky shone with its own light. Beyond the valley, jagged, snow-capped mountains loomed like watchful sentinels. She could hear the sound of a burbling stream nearby. And behind her, the edge of the Mists of Kami swirled and writhed at her feet.
"Susa-no-o!" she called.
Silence. The wind whispering through the tall grasses and tugging at the loose hair of her braid was her only reply.
Damn it! Where was he? He had to be here. He himself said that he couldn't leave his personal realm without the Council jumping down his throat.
She couldn't face the Shadowcat without his help. The demon was already on its way to the dimensional rip that led to the Ancient One's mountain. It had a head start. On top of that, she knew damn well that, if she fought the Shadowcat now, even at her skill level, it would most likely kill her.
What was the good of being able to fight demons if she didn't have the power to destroy the one that really mattered?
If only she had more time to train, to build her strength and speed enough so that she might be a match for the Shadowcat. But there was no time. She was risking a great deal just coming to Susa-no-o's realm in the first place, when she should be looking for the dimensional rip.
She was running out of time. And Ranma's soul was at stake.
"Susa-no-o! Answer me!"
"Please!" Tears of frustration began to well up in her eyes. "If you're worried about me being angry that you transported me to Yuki-onna's domain, don't be! I'm not mad, really, I promise!"
"Answer me, damn it! I know you're here!"
"Ah, but he's not."
Akane jerked around, her katana immediately unsheathed and ready, to see a small figure emerge from the black mists.
The diminutive man wore a long scarlet robe that hung heavily on his almost skeletally thin frame. His face was narrow and pinched, and his head was topped with a wiry thatch of yellowish white hair. The pale skin of his face, and the exposed skin of his arms and hands, were pocked with deep scars, as if puberty had been especially unkind to him.
Akane recognized him. She had met him once, briefly, a year or so ago, during her wanderings of the Kami Plane. The encounter had not been pleasant, as this particular deity came across as bitter, defensive and aloof. And, like so many others, he had laughed in her face when she had asked for his help in breaking the blood spell.
"Hoso-no Kami," she gasped. Oh great. What is he doing here?
The God of Smallpox sneered up at her. "Pathetic little mortal. It only makes sense that you come running to this disreputable scoundrel for help."
Akane's eyes narrowed. She'd been intimidated by this deity in their previous encounter, but she'd changed a lot since then. Also, she knew from Susa-no-o that, out of all the gods, Hoso-no Kami wasn't much of a threat to anyone ever since a mortal vaccine had nearly wiped out the source of his power. There were only two strains of smallpox left in the mortal world, both kept safely isolated in scientific laboratories, and both were scheduled for total destruction in a few mortal years.
Hoso-no Kami was in no position to be snobbish.
She held her sword ready and glared at him. "Who are you calling 'pathetic,' you..." What had Susa-no-o called him? "You whiny little weasel-faced runt!"
She had the immense satisfaction of watching as Hoso-no Kami's pale face turned an interesting shade of red as his teeth clenched in fury. The scars on his face deepened to an angry purple. "Impudent child," he snarled. He took a menacing step forward, but Akane's battle aura flared, her sword flashed with power, and he froze, his cheek twitching as he eyed the blade with sudden nervousness.
"Where is Susa-no-o?" she demanded.
Hoso-no Kami eased away from her sword as subtly as possible, mustering the remains of his dignity. Then lifting his gaze to look her in the eyes, his pockmarked face split into a wickedly condescending grin. "It gives me great pleasure to inform you," he said silkily, "that in a unanimous ruling from the Council, the 'Impetuous Male' has been banished indefinitely to Yomi Land."
Akane blinked. Her skin felt suddenly cold.
Susa-no-o... banished? To Yomi Land? The terrible, hellish realm where the unwilling inhabitants suffered infinite, indescribable torment...
"Why?" she whispered hoarsely. "What did he do?"
Hoso-no Kami smirked. "He helped you, of course."
Hoso-no Kami smiled smugly and crossed his thin, scarred arms over his chest. "Yes, I'm afraid he disobeyed the strict stipulations against interference with mortals that were placed on him by Izanagi, Izanami, and Ama-terasu. Oh, he was very subtle at first. The comb he gave you was very clever. It disguised his power so carefully that we nearly didn't catch him. But then, when he used all that raw power just to teleport you out of the Gaki Realm to safety..." His eyes glinted with dark amusement. "Well, it wasn't too hard to figure out what he'd been up to."
Akane glared at the diminutive deity, trembling, her eyes wet with tears.
No wonder Susa-no-o hadn't answered her mental calls through the comb when she awoke in Yuki-onna's domain.
He wouldn't be able to help her with the Shadowcat; wouldn't be able to help her save Ranma...
And he was banished to Yomi Land. He was suffering, and would suffer for who-knows-how-long, all because of her, all for her sake...
Hoso-no Kami stood before her, gloating as he watched all of those horrified realizations play across her face.
"You bastard," she whispered, her voice catching in her throat. "How could you punish someone just because they helped me?"
"Quite easily." Hoso-no Kami regarded her coolly. "He knew the rules; he broke them. Susa-no-o is an arrogant, insubordinate trouble-maker, who never should have been let out of Yomi Land in the first place. It is only fitting that he should spend the rest of eternity suffering for his lack of respect for his superiors."
Akane could barely contain her fury. "And I suppose you consider yourself his superior?"
"Of course. I am on the Council, after all."
He was on the Council. He had helped repay Susa-no-o's kindness towards her with unspeakable punishment.
Akane's battle aura blazed a blinding azure, licking along the blade of her katana. "Get. Out. Of. My. Face," she snarled slowly, "before I do something I probably should regret... but won't."
Hoso-no Kami just stared at her blankly for a moment, unflinching before the power of her ki.
Then, he winked at her.
"That's my girl, Akane-chan," he said in a strong tenor voice, instead of the nasal whine he'd spoken with before. A wicked smile lit his scarred face. "What a little spitfire you are."
Akane blinked. Then, slowly, her expression went slack with shock.
"Suh..." Her battle ki flickered uncertainly. "Susa-no-o?" Her voice was heavy with disbelief.
He grinned, brought a thin finger up to his puckered lips, and winked again. "Shhh," he whispered conspiratorially. "Don't want this getting around, know what I mean?"
She blinked again, looking into Hoso-no Kami's eyes, as if hoping to see Susa-no-o's obsidian black gaze staring back at her. But the eyes were just a murky brown.
"Is it really you?" she asked, suspecting a trick of some kind.
He threw his arms open wide. "In the flesh. Someone else's flesh, to be precise." And he laughed.
The laugh clinched it. She would have recognized that boisterous, arrogant chuckle anywhere.
Her eyes were wet, and her lips began to tremble. Susa-no-o. He was here, he was safe, he could help her...
"You..." Her wet eyes suddenly hardened. "You bastard!"
Susa-no-o's cocky demeanor suddenly slipped. Then his eyes widened in alarm, and he leaped back as Akane took a fierce swipe at him with her katana. "Whoa! Akane-chan, what-?"
"Don't 'Akane-chan' me," she cried, swiping at him again as he frantically dodged. "I was worried about you, you JERK!"
Susa-no-o ducked, and a few of his wiry gray hairs fluttered down around his pockmarked face. But the grin was back, looking very odd on Hoso-no Kami's face. "Ah yes!" he crowed. "Truly, one of my finest performances!"
Akane choked back a shriek of outrage, grinding her teeth together. She was angry, yes. But, on a much deeper level, she was so incredibly relieved, she could taste it.
So instead of shrieking, she paused in her attack, and eyed the god levelly. "Hey. You said once that you could recover easily from dismemberment, right?"
Susa-no-o blinked at her, surprised, then glanced at her sword. His smile became somewhat lopsided. "Um. Er. No?"
"Liar!" She swiped at him again. But now, she was smiling, her narrowed brown eyes glinting.
He twisted out of the way. "I'm impressed, Akane. Here I thought you had no sense of humor." He said it cheerfully, but a bit of the smugness was gone from his voice, she noted with satisfaction.
"Oh yes, you're a barrel of laughs. Now shall we see if I can make your personality even more 'dis-arming?'"
Susa-no-o groaned. "I take it back. That was a terrible pun. Besides, I know you don't actually plan on touching me with that thi- ack!" A large piece of red sleeve from his robe fluttered to the ground. "Hey!"
"You were saying?" Akane smiled sweetly. Actually, he was right, she had no intention of hurting him, but she was enjoying this too much to quit now. Let's see if the trickster can take it as well as dish it out.
He must have read her mind, because his expression became pained. "Akane, come on!" he pleaded. "I was just giving you a taste of my brilliant performance before the Council, so you could appreciate what I'm going through for you!"
That brought Akane up short. His performance before the Council? "What are you talking about?"
Susa-no-o sighed, a sign that he was going to start talking seriously. Akane relaxed her aggressive stance slightly. "What I told you before was true," he said. "The Council did find me out when I transported you to the Snow Woman's realm after you were so severely injured by the Shadowcat. The comb disguised my power, but unfortunately it wasn't strong enough to teleport you such a great distance. So I used it as a kind of power amplifier, and then just went all out to get you to safety." He pulled a bitter face. "The Council came after me a few minutes later."
Akane's eyes were wide. "What did you do?"
"Nothing much I could do, at that point. After all, not even I have the power to fight the entire Council. So they took me away for judgment, and unanimously voted to banish me to Yomi Land. Again." Susa-no-o's frown was genuine, looking very sour on Hoso-no Kami's face.
"But..." Akane gestured with baffled frustration at the form of Hoso-no Kami. "What happened? Why do you look like that?"
"Oh, this?" Susa-no-o glanced down at himself, with something akin to distaste. "Well, before they could carry out the judgment, I switched places with ol' Mr. Smallpox here. I knew that nobody would pay any attention to a miserable, powerless little has-been like him." A wicked grin melted Susa-no-o's scowl. "Heh. You should have seen his face when he realized what happened. He started going on and on to the Council about how I'd switched places with him. They didn't buy it. They thought it was me putting on an act." He chuckled.
Akane was appalled. "Then... Hoso-no Kami is..."
"In Yomi Land, yeah. But hey, he looks like me, while I have to walk around looking like this for a couple of eons." Susa-no-o grimaced. "Trust me, he got the better end of the deal."
"But... the 'infinite torment'..." Akane's mind was filled with horrible images of various kinds of terrible, physical torture. Even Hoso-no Kami didn't deserve such a fate.
Susa-no-o snorted. "Oh, Yomi Land is infinite torment, all right. There is absolutely nothing to do there. It's quite possibly the most boring place in the universe. And just try getting a decent cup of cappuccino."
Akane blinked. "You're putting me on."
The deity cocked an eyebrow at her, enigmatically. "What's the matter? You're worried about Hoso-no Kami? The guy who did his best to spread an insidious, painful, disfiguring disease across the mortal world, killing countless numbers of people throughout history? Your pity is misplaced, Akane-chan. Besides, if I survived Yomi Land, he will too. It's not like he's going to be there forever. Believe me, if he were, I'd trade places with him in a second just to get my body back. Now, don't we have more important things to worry about at the moment?"
He was right. If she was going to be able to do anything to stop the Shadowcat and save Ranma, they had to act immediately.
"You know why I came looking for you, don't you?" she asked.
Susa-no-o rolled his eyes impatiently. "Of course."
"Good." She'd figured as much. Straightening, she sheathed her katana, and looked at him seriously. "Will that little trick you showed me, of focusing on a destination while traveling through the Mists, work for finding the dimensional rip that leads to the Mountain of the Ancient One?"
Without another word, Akane turned and started for the Mists. She paused when she noticed that Susa-no-o wasn't following. "What are you waiting for? Let's go."
"Well..." Susa-no-o looked at her sideways. "I can't go with you, actually."
She turned on him, exasperated. "What? Why not? You know I need your help! I can't fight the Shadowcat by myself, and, now that you're disguised as Hoso-no Kami, you can go anywhere you want, right? I mean, you weren't here when I arrived, so you're no longer confined to your domain!"
"Think about it, Akane." Susa-no-o crossed his arms over his chest, and looked at her levelly. "If 'Hoso-no Kami' is found hanging out with you all of a sudden, especially around that particular dimensional weakness, the Council might think twice about dismissing ol' Mr. Personality's claim that we switched bodies."
Akane grit her teeth in frustration. She hadn't thought of that, but he was right. And she definitely didn't want to risk attracting the Council's unwanted attention. "Then can you give me another comb or something?"
"Sorry, I'm fresh out of cloaking combs." Susa-no-o shrugged in mock-helplessness. "Those things don't grow on trees, you know, and you broke my last one."
She wasn't sure whether to cry, or just punch him in the face. Her fists clenched, just in case she decided on the latter. "Well, then what can you do? I'm running out of time, damn it!"
He smirked. "Calm down, Akane-chan. I wouldn't have risked coming to see you in the first place if I didn't intend to help you. Here." He tossed something long and thin at her, and she caught it easily with one hand.
It was a dagger, about 15 centimeters long, encased in a sheath made of some hard, glossy black material that she couldn't identify. Carefully, she took it in both hands, eased the blade from it's casing...
The blade was translucent like glass, and it pulsed with quiet energy, as if it was made out of refined starlight.
"What is..." She caught herself. "I mean, what does it do?" she asked.
"It cuts things."
She glared at him. "Like smart-mouth deities?"
Susa-no-o chuckled. "No, really, I'm serious."
Akane stared at him incredulously. "What am I supposed to cut? You can't seriously expect me to get close enough to the Shadowcat to cut it with this little thing, do you?"
"You have got to be kidding." She slid the small, pulsing blade back into its sheath and eyed the god, frowning severely. "Why do I get the feeling that you're not telling me everything?"
"Because I'm not." He grinned. "I always knew you were more perceptive than you looked."
Akane felt her irritation sizzle into outright anger. Swallowing hard, she forced back the urge to snap at him, and spoke with a calmness that surprised even her. "Look," she said coldly. "This isn't a joke. Ranma's soul and my life are on the line here. Stop playing around and talk to me straight for once." She felt the sting of tears burn her eyes. "Please."
Susa-no-o's smirk faded. "Hey. Come on, Akane-chan."
"No more mind games," she said hoarsely. "I want the truth."
He sighed. "All right, listen. I can't tell you what to do with that knife because, to be honest, I don't even know if it will do you any good at all." He met her gaze and, to her astonishment, she thought she saw a tinge of... apprehension in his eyes.
He's afraid, she realized with a jolt.
No, more than that. He was afraid for her.
The shock of that discernment rippled through her like a cold chill, and a sudden dread filled the pit of her stomach.
"I wish I could help you more," he said softly. "But this is the way it is. I may be able to wander around the Kami Plane as I please, now that I'm wearing a different skin, but unfortunately, it also means I'm more limited in my power than I ever was before. After all, Hoso-no Kami isn't known for being a serious magic producer. So you'll just have to trust me." He looked pointedly at the blade in her hands. "When the time comes for you to use that knife, you'll know what to do with it."
"But how do you know?" she asked. "Can you see the future?" Her voice was trembling.
"No." Susa-no-o smiled grimly. "But I can see you. I know you. You're about to walk into the biggest death trap you've ever encountered. You won't be invisible to the Shadowcat this time." He reached out, and put a comforting hand on her shoulder. "But if anyone can save Ranma's soul, you can."
She nodded fiercely. Susa-no-o's grave words terrified her. "I will," she whispered. "Or I'll die trying."
Akane didn't ask which part of her oath he was agreeing with.
Ranma spun as he felt the fetid breath on the back of his neck, and drove a ki-powered kick into a demon's face. He felt the thick exoskeleton give under the impact with a sickening crunch, but didn't pause to contemplate as he leaped out of the way of the other demon's reaching black claws.
Damn. These demons were faster than the others. He didn't even have time to wipe the blood out of his eyes, trickling down his forehead from where he'd been grazed a few moments earlier.
He had long since given up firing his ki attacks. It took too long to form the powerful ball of energy in his hands, and then fire it towards whichever slavering, bristling abomination from the darkest pit of hell was closest, before the monster was practically on top of him trying to bite off his head. So instead, he kept his fierce ki focused tightly around his body, around his arms and legs, and just used himself as a blunt instrument of demonic destruction.
How long had he been at this? Minutes? Hours? Days? He couldn't tell, couldn't dwell on something as unimportant as the passage of time, when he was fighting, constantly fighting for his life...
It felt like years.
...slash, punch, kick, jump... A demon falls at his feet, dead... only to be replaced by more from the darkness... an endless, replenishing supply of creatures from nightmare.
And, of course, there were the ones that didn't come out to fight. The ones that stayed hidden in the dark mist, calling out to him, mocking him, shouting at him, pleading with him, screaming and crying and sobbing... all with Akane's voice. Their tormenting calls mingled with the incessant drone of the spell voices in his head, and he did his best to ignore them all.
He was so tired.
Where the hell was the top of the mountain? He'd been climbing for ages.
A quick thrust of his stiff-fingered hand, and the clawed demon collapsed with a gurgling shriek.
Gah. He hated the killing, he hated the deaths, and the nauseating stench of their black blood. He kept going only because he knew it would all be over soon. He would have her back again, and then everything, all his pain and fear... would be worth it.
Right. He turned, his battle senses straining so much it hurt. Two more down, and...
The attack had ceased.
The demons were still there; he could feel them lurking off in the mists. But, to his numb amazement, they were staying away.
Not letting down his guard, he took a moment to get his breathing under control, and to wipe the sweat and blood from his eyes.
And as he did, he noticed something glittering just out of his line of vision above him. He looked up.
Through thinning mist... he saw stars.
The evening sky still held a touch of blue from the fading day, but it was dark enough that the Milky Way was making its presence known, scattering countless tiny droplets of brilliant, comforting light across the darkness.
He turned slowly, hope surging within his chest and thickening his throat, burning away the pain and the fear and the anger that had covered him, like a black, oily film, for so long.
The peak of the mountain rose above the dark mists, towering over him.
He could see the dark opening of the Ancient One's cave from where he stood.
He stared, hardly able to believe his eyes.
"Akane," he breathed.
**She isn't here.**
Ranma's heart came to a shuddering stop.
He felt it, then; so suddenly, it was almost as if it came out of nowhere. It wasn't there, and then it was. The powerful, smothering evil assaulted his senses...
No, he thought desperately. Please... it's not possible...
He looked back down into the mists, his eyes widening, his blood suddenly throbbing in his ears. A cold sheen of sweat slicked his face with the blood. And the hope swelling in his chest evaporated, and seeped from him like so much steam.
The deep, growling voice penetrated his mind once again, even as he saw a pair of huge, glowing yellow eyes emerge from the mists. The Shadowcat's body, swathed in black ki, was nearly indistinguishable in the darkness as it padded towards him with languorous malevolence.
And at the sight of it, Ranma felt that terrible, feline part of his soul, the part that longed to steal his mind and devour his humanity, twitch in sudden gleeful anticipation of rejoining its master in mindless servitude.
"No," he pleaded.
The Shadowcat was laughing in his head.
The Nekoken surged so violently inside his soul that he gasped and clutched his chest, as if hoping to contain the beast within him.
He was trembling. Tears mingled with the sweat and the blood on his face. "No... Akane..."
**Akane couldn't make it. Such a shame. She never realized she couldn't have you.**
Ranma watched, listened, unable to move as the Shadowcat stood before him and bared its razor-sharp teeth in a gruesome smile.
**You are mine.**