Chapter 20: Heaven and Hell, Part 1
The cool night air felt good on Kasumi's face as she emerged from the warm kitchen to the dining room. The patio door was open, spilling a rectangle of light into the dark back yard; light that was blotted by the shadows of two hunched figures.
Soun didn't raise his eyes from the Shogi board, knowing that if he did, Saotome would use the distraction to eat one of the wooden game pieces - literally, since the man was a panda at the moment, and had little trouble chewing and digesting such unpalatable fare. "Why, yes, thank you, Kasumi," he mumbled.
Kasumi poured steaming green tea into her father's empty cup.
After an affirmative grunting response, she poured for the panda.
Under normal circumstances, she wouldn't have offered tea so late in the evening. But Father and Uncle Saotome had taken to playing Shogi far into the night, ever since Ranma, Nabiki and the others had left for China in search of her missing sister. She supposed they were doing it because, though neither of them would admit it, they were deeply, terribly worried.
And she was worried as well, she realized. Why else would she be up making tea at nearly eleven-o-clock at night?
"We should have gone with them," Father had said, out of the blue, a few days previous over a game of Go.
Uncle Saotome hadn't even blinked. "Why? So we could get in their way? Do you really think we would be more help than hindrance to their quest? How long since you truly practiced the Art, my friend?"
"My daughter has no skill in the Art whatsoever," Father snapped back. "And yet she went with them."
"And Ranma will protect her," Uncle Saotome soothed. "But Nabiki needed to go because, out of that entire group, she's the most level headed. Your daughter isn't one to fall apart at the first sign of chaos, and in that respect, she is more qualified than we are to make the journey."
Father nodded slowly. "Yes... yes, I suppose you're right."
"Of course I'm right."
Father fell silent. And then, a low whisper, so soft that Kasumi wasn't even sure she heard correctly.
"What cowards we are."
Uncle Saotome simply moved a game piece.
And that had been the last mention of the subject of Ranma's rescue mission for Akane. At least in her presence.
She hoped Nabiki, Ranma, and the others were okay.
And... Akane. The sister she couldn't remember. The youngest child of the Tendo family, whisked away to a terrible, frightening, dangerous plane of existence, where demons dwelled...
She didn't want to think about that.
It had been nearly a month since the blood spell had stolen Akane from their lives, from their very memories. Many things could happen in a month, Kasumi knew. So much had happened in her own home in the past few weeks; so much chaos, so many sleepless nights of fear and worry for Ranma, for her family... she dared not even think of what might have happened to Akane. The prospects were far too frightening. And not knowing was torture.
It didn't matter to her that she couldn't remember Akane. Just knowing she existed was enough. Even without memories, Kasumi felt as if she knew this girl, her youngest sister. The photos she'd found. In most of them, Akane was smiling... or scowling. A pretty girl, so much like Mother. And yet... full of fire. A tomboy. The weights, and the thread-bare yellow martial arts gi. The homework, the dried flowers on the wall. Mother's cookbook, folded to the "How to Boil Water" page. The botched attempts at knitting and needlework hidden amongst the clothes in her dresser. All spoke volumes about the girl's personality. She must be a hard worker; determined, if undisciplined. Impatient, but sincere. A rough, unpolished diamond... but a diamond all the same. For, most revealing of all... Ranma loved her. Her, above all the girls who would have him. Akane must be an extraordinary person indeed.
Yes, Kasumi felt as if she knew Akane.
And yet, even with all those pieces, the puzzle was incomplete. No remembrance of her living face, no memory of a warm, loving touch... she didn't even know what Akane's voice sounded like.
She wanted to know.
In spite of the lack of memory, the great hole in the puzzle, Kasumi found that she cared for the missing girl. Loved her. Feared for her. Hoped that she was still alive...
She prayed that Ranma would be able to rescue her in time. For how could one such as this lively, yet insecure child survive, she wondered, in such a dangerous, inhuman realm as the Kami Plane?
Kasumi leaned wearily against the door frame of the kitchen, the cooling tea kettle still in her hand, and watched as her father listlessly moved another Shogi piece.
Ranma... please bring Akane back to us...
The blinding, black Mists of Kami were cold and moist against her face, whispering through her loosely braided hair, trailing in damp tendrils behind her. Even so, she didn't hesitate in her head-long flight through darkness, trusting in her battle senses rather than her eyes to keep her from stumbling, falling. She ran, her feet springing with each step against the unseen, spongy ground.
Her throat was dry with fear.
You're crazy, you know, she thought to herself. This is a suicide mission. The Shadowcat will eat you alive. It will eat you alive, and then it will go to the mortal plane and take Ranma and rob him of his sanity, his humanity, alter his very soul until he's a mere mindless shell of feline instinct within a human body...
Spurred by the terrible aching dread the thought induced, she ran faster.
No... Ranma wouldn't be completely mindless. After all, didn't the Shadowcat itself say that, in spite of the Nekoken, and in spite of the Kami Plane's spell of Forgetfulness, some deep part of Ranma's altered soul... remembered her?
But no, that was just because of the blood spell. And if the Shadowcat killed her, the blood spell would be broken. And then, without that interdimensional connection, even Ranma's buried, transformed spark of human intellect would forget her.
He would forget her, she knew, if she died in the Kami Plane. And then it wouldn't even matter if her soul continued on as a disembodied spirit, traveling to some other plane of existence - or worse, lingering in eternal, unfulfilled misery. For in the mortal plane, she would cease to exist as if she never was, not even living on in the minds and hearts of her family and friends...
She cut off the thought abruptly.
Get a grip, she told herself. Don't think about it anymore. Just run, just get there, and don't disrupt your focus worrying about all the infinite what-ifs.
The mist parted before her and closed behind her, sifting and writhing in a dark wake with her swift passage.
No choice, no choice. I've come this far, I can't fail now. I just can't. To fail now would render everything meaningless...
Before her, a filtered gray light registered in her direct line of vision. The Mists began to thin.
She pressed her tongue against the back of her teeth, forcing moisture into her mouth.
A deep, strangling sensation of intense evil swelled before her, squeezing tightly around her torso and throat, as if its mere presence could force the very breath of life from her.
She slipped out of her dead-run to a stealthy, silent creep. Reaching over her shoulder, she unsheathed her katana and swallowed thickly through the tightness pressing against her esophagus. Her eyes were watering, but she blinked the wetness away. She forced her rib-cage to expand against the suffocating heaviness with quiet control...
She halted in surprise.
More than one demon. Many, actually. She could feel them, a few clustered together before her, one or two scattered off to her sides.
Even as the thought pierced her mind, she felt something dropping down on her from above. Whirling, her blade flashed in a swift arc over her head. The winged creature, swooping at her with outstretched talons, screamed as it fell to the moist ground with two distinct wet thumps. In the thinning mist, Akane could see a mass of midnight-black feathers, lying in pooling black-red ichor - a crow demon, she realized. And, even as she saw the fire of maliciousness and agony sparking in the beast's three blinking eyes as it flopped around helplessly on its remaining wing, she stepped forward and, with one clean motion, lopped off its head.
She hated messy kills.
Flat-eyed and tight-lipped, the terrible calm of battle settling upon her, she turned and stepped out of the Mists into a strange gray landscape that seemed almost as featureless as the Mists themselves. The other demons were coming at her then, shrieking and giggling and hissing...
She barely noticed. Her heart contracted briefly with horrified realization.
The Shadowcat wasn't there.
It wasn't there. Where was it then?
But there was no time to wonder, because the demons were upon her, and there were a lot of them, five, no six... Six against one, and they were huge, bristling with venomous claws and fangs and pincers and mandibles and spikes and burning feathers, and their eyes were aflame, red and gleaming wetly with blood lust, and those that had mouths were grinning madly...
A flash of her ki-lit sword, and the nearest one fell, grin intact on its severed head, even as she leaped up and over the rushing onslaught. Before the demons could adjust to her new position, another one slumped heavily to the ground with a strangled gurgle. Akane pulled her sword from the back of its thick neck and leaped out of the way as a sticky spray of webbing shot at her from a spider demon.
A swift kick, and one of the spider's fragile forelegs crumpled, even as sharp pain stabbed through Akane's foot. The huge arachnid's monstrously humanish head emitted a thin, reedy shriek of agony. And, as the demon swiped fiercely at her with its other legs, Akane saw the source of her foot injury - the spider's legs were covered with bristle-like hairs that glinted like steel needles. She could feel the blood already soaking her boot, but she ignored it, leaping out of reach of the spider's dangerous flailing limbs...
...and into the next demon, a leather-skinned oni with flames licking out of its slavering mouth. And another demon was coming up behind her; she could feel its anticipation as it thrust a clawed appendage forward to puncture her torso-
She wasn't there. And in mid leap, she grabbed the sluggish oni's shoulder with her free hand, twisted, and cleanly decapitated the fire-breathing creature. Then, grunting with exertion, she yanked the oni corpse as it fell so that the flames erupting from the stump of its neck caught the other demon full in the face. The stench of burning demon flesh filled the air, along with the sound of the creature's screams. And Akane silenced those a moment later.
Already she was gasping for breath. Her nose and eyes stung and watered from the dark burning ki that swirled about her.
Another one, to her left. She began to turn... and found herself sprawling on the ground. She landed hard on her chest, the air rushing from her lungs, and, as she wheezed for breath, she felt rather than saw that her legs were bound with sticky spider webbing. Without hesitating, she rolled over onto her back and thrust her katana upward, into the gaping maw of a wolfish demon. The rank smell of its last breath filled her nostrils as she saw the fire die within its eyes. The clawed hands went limp mere centimeters from her chest.
Akane shoved the body aside, pulling her blazing katana from the demon's skull and severing the webbing that bound her legs with a single quick movement. But the spider demon was already there, almost on top of her, and her sword clashed with its glistening, steel-like fangs as it bent over her. She grunted, using all her strength to hold the monster's head and clacking mandibles at bay, then cried out as she felt a sharp needle-sting against her arms and back as the creature reached behind her with its barbed forelegs, and gathered her in closer. Venom began to ooze eagerly from the glinting fangs. A greenish drop fell, narrowly missing Akane's bare sword hand, and sizzled against the ground.
Enough. Lifting her uninjured foot, she fell backwards and kicked up against the spider's abdomen, gritting her teeth in pain as the barbs pierced deeper into her skin as she fell against the ground. But the demon flipped over her head and onto its back, and in the next moment, she was standing over the creature.
A swift flash of her sword, and the segmented body collapsed, quivering, in two neat pieces. The spider's spindly legs immediately curled up towards its exposed underbelly in an insectoid rictus of death.
Suddenly, she could breathe again.
And she was shaking.
Wiping her stinging eyes, Akane looked around frantically, ignoring the carnage, the smells of burning demon flesh, of ichor and her own blood, ignoring the biting pain of her wounds, her bleeding shoulders and arms, her punctured foot.
It wasn't there. She couldn't feel it, couldn't feel anything...
Something flickered in her peripheral vision, and she turned, startled.
There, not far from where she stood, a strange, rippling grayness hung in the air. She blinked at it, almost unsure if her eyes were playing tricks on her. But no, it was there, wavering before her like a heat mirage in the desert.
The dimensional weakness. The mortal plane and the Mountain of the Ancient One were just on the other side of this disturbance in the fabric of space and time.
She stepped towards it hesitantly, then froze as she caught sight of something on the ground in front of her.
A huge paw print. Placed deep and purposefully, with the claws extended, in the soft ground in front of the flickering grayness.
Akane felt her heart shiver to dust within her. Her wide, horrified eyes were wet with disbelief. It couldn't be.
She lifted her gaze to the visible tremble in the air, to the fragile dimensional fabric that separated her from the mortal plane, her home.
Her ichor-stained fist tightened around the hilt of her blazing katana. With a determined snarl that was almost a sob, she slashed at the dimensional weakness.
It parted cleanly, like a fleshy membrane under a surgeon's scalpel-
-and Akane choked out a cry of pain, even as her katana fell from her paralyzed fingers. She collapsed stiffly to the ground under the sudden assault of soul-tearing agony that ripped through her body.
She was on fire, she was breaking apart, dissipating molecule by molecule, and it hurt, it hurt so bad she couldn't see, she couldn't think, she couldn't scream oh please make it stop please please please...
The slice in the dimensional fabric slowly closed in on itself, sealing the hole as if it had never been.
And the pain ceased.
Gasping, Akane lay sprawled and trembling on the soft ground, strands of her long hair clinging to her tear-streaked face.
She was too late. She hadn't made it in time. The Shadowcat had passed through the rift to the mortal plane.
And the blood spell wouldn't allow her to follow.
Her wracking sobs were swallowed in the thin grayness of the limbo realm.
The Shadowcat stood before Ranma, unmoving, waiting patiently for the boy to succumb.
Ranma felt the symbiont feline soul within him claw its way up from the depths of his being like a black wave, drowning his humanity in its wake. Groaning in agony, he fell to his knees trembling, one hand clutching at his chest as the other shakily entwined itself in his dark, spiking bangs, pulling at his hair, the heel of his hand pressing into his forehead as he desperately fought to hold onto himself.
But it was no use. The fog of the Nekoken seeped into his mind, and he could feel his human intelligence slipping away. The words in his mind were slowly becoming mere sounds, without meaning or substance...
"No." A single word; a hoarse cry through clenched, grinding teeth. But it was a word all the same, a piece of language that he hadn't yet lost. He clung to it like a lifeline. "No, no, no, no, no..."
As Ranma chanted his mantra of sanity, the demon looked down at him, its yellow eyes glinting in amusement. **Stop fighting it, Ranma.** The Shadowcat's telepathic voice was a soft, purring chuckle; a light, painless touch of a mental razor in his mind. **It won't be so bad, really. And I promise to take good care of you.**
The meaning of the Shadowcat's words slowly filtered into Ranma's clouded mind, adding to his fear, weakening his fighting spark that was so focused on keeping the Nekoken at bay, on forcing back the raw, black terror that welled within him because of the demon's proximity.
After everything he'd been through. After coming so far. If he lost himself now...
"No, no, no..." he whispered, wetness leaking from his clenched eyelids.
There was something he was forgetting, he knew, something he had forgotten. Something that had slipped away with so many other things under the Nekoken's attack on his soul.
He reached after it, straining, knowing that it was important if only he could remember.
It was there, and his spark of humanity grasped onto it, clung to it.
A reason why he didn't need to be so afraid...
Of course. His curse. The first time he was hit with cold water, the link would be broken, he would be free...
As the realization sank in, Ranma's will gained a bit of purchase against the Nekoken's onslaught. His mind cleared slightly, but even as it did, he again had to fight the urge to flee, to willingly sink beneath the black wave, simply to escape the mind-numbing terror of the beast standing before him, and the beast writhing within him.
The Shadowcat's huge glowing eyes narrowed as it felt the minuscule resistance of Ranma's human intellect. Then, its sharp-toothed grin widened as it perceived the source of the boy's hope.
The curse, indeed. The curse had always been a problem for the Shadowcat, shattering its Nekoken link with a mere splash of water...
**I have a gift for you, Ranma,** the demon said slowly, knowing the struggling boy could barely understand its words. **I think you'll like it. It's something you've always wanted. A cure for your curse.**
The demon waited for Ranma to react.
At first, nothing. But then, after a moment, it became plain that the irony was indeed not lost on Ranma. He had longed for a cure to his Jusenkyo curse, from the first moment the enchanted waters of the Nyanniichuan had worked their form-altering magic on him. But a cure now, at this moment, meant that there was nothing left to break the Nekoken link.
The boy didn't raise his head, didn't open his eyes, but his fingers clenched convulsively, tearing at his dark bangs, the heel of his hand pressing into his sweat-slicked forehead as if the mere action could loosen the demon's growing control of his mind.
"Y...you..." Ranma stuttered the word out through clenched teeth, not as much from his fear, as from the symptoms of his failing language skills, washing away in the wake of the growing feline instinct. "Nnn... luh... lying..."
The Shadowcat was impressed. The boy was so strong! He'd never resisted this long before, and here he was, still fighting, in the very presence of his Master.
Too bad it couldn't last, though.
**Why would I lie, when the hard truth is always more fun? I have in my possession a special artifact, forged at my request by an oni fire lord. It repels cold, keeps it from touching your skin. Your Snow Woman friend inadvertently gave me the idea for it, actually. After all, she's not the only one who can do tricks with temperature. And this is better, since your ki is so much stronger when you are in your true male form.**
The demon fell silent, waiting for Ranma's besieged mind to understand.
And then the Shadowcat felt the delicious surge of fear as the boy cried out, shaking his head back and forth as he clutched his temples with both his hands, his fingers digging into his scalp and drawing blood. "Nnnnnnnnah," he sobbed.
He was trying to say "no" again, the Shadowcat realized. How quaint.
So close. One more push should be enough.
The demon's eyes flashed, and a thin circlet of silvery scarlet metal appeared around Ranma's neck.
Ranma felt the unnaturally warm metal as it materialized against his skin. A collar. An animal collar that would lock him in his true form so that not even his curse could save him...
There was nothing, and no one to save him now. His fear was absolute, and he frantically grasped at the collar with both hands, to tear it away, but the metal was too strong, he was too late, he was lost...
Shaking, Ranma fell to his hands and knees, his fingers curling instinctively to claw at the earth beneath him. The inhuman scream that tore itself from his throat was filled with despair.
The Shadowcat closed its eyes in a rush of pleasure as it felt the Nekoken link throb quietly to life between them.
Akane's eyes flew open as she heard the scream. Faint, muffled and distant, anguished and bereft of humanity, it filtered through the thin membrane that separated the Kami Plane from the mortal realm.
It was him, his voice. She recognized it, even now after so long, even though she'd never heard him scream like that before, such a terrible sound of hopelessness...
The Shadowcat, she realized with a horrified despair that seemed to resonate with the lingering echo of the scream. Oh gods. It has him.
Too late. She was too late. Ranma was lost to her forever. She would never see him, or her family, again.
Still trembling from the after-effects of the abated dimensional forces that had tried to tear her apart, she pushed herself up to her hands and knees. Her long, thick hair hung loose and tangled around her face, torn free of its braided fastening, and matted with blood in places from the wounds on her back.
She couldn't stay here. She couldn't stay in this place where Ranma's tormented, inhuman voice might seep through the barrier while she sat helpless, unable to do anything...
It was over.
And the Shadowcat had won.
Her soul felt hollow. As cold and empty as the vacuum of space.
Five years of longing, hoping, fighting with every ounce of her being... for nothing.
What was she to do now? Live out the rest of her life in the Kami Plane? Grow old and die with this terrible loneliness, a sole human amidst gods and demons that were ofttimes indistinguishable from each other in behavior?
A tremor passed through her. No. She couldn't live like this.
Gradually, she became aware of a strange weight against her hip. She looked down.
The dagger that Susa-no-o had given her. The dagger that was supposed to help her defeat the Shadowcat and save Ranma. Beautiful and useless, it hung from her belt in its ebony sheath. She pulled the softly-glowing blade from its casing.
She regarded it with near contempt.
Susa-no-o had said that she'd know what to do with it when the time came.
Slowly, numbly, she grasped the hilt with both hands and held the glittering edge just above her stomach.
After a moment of dead-eyed contemplation, she brought the point of the blade up to her chest until it rested over her heart.
Through the heart, like Juliet, weeping over her dead lover amongst the tombs of the catacombs. Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?
And she had wanted to play Juliet for so long.
Had she remembered back then - a lifetime ago as she stood with him on the school stage, staring with nervous excitement into his blue eyes on a balcony facade, listening to her own heart pound in deeply veiled anticipation - that "Romeo and Juliet" was a Tragedy?
A quick thrust of the blade, and it would end. And with the blood spell thus broken, the Kami Plane would erase her existence from Ranma's memory. Maybe then, at least, his transformed mind wouldn't be tormented forever with images and feelings for her that he couldn't even comprehend. Perhaps then he wouldn't suffer so...
The tip of the blade pierced the fabric of her tunic and pricked the skin underneath. A drop of blood welled between her breasts.
Akane's eyes widened. Her hands trembled. The sound of his scream still lingered in the air.
A thin, keening wail softly emerged from deep in her throat; a sound that mirrored the misery in her wet eyes - misery that was slowly flaring to determined desperation.
Her grip tightened on the hilt of the dagger...
... and in a flash, she stood, and, with a great cry, plunged the blade into the membrane between dimensions.
Searing pain spiked through her arms, torso, and legs, and lit violent sparks behind her eyes as she slashed the blade downward, opening a narrow slit to the mortal realm. She didn't care. If she was going to die, she would die fighting.
The moments of shattering torture passed with infinite slowness as Akane cleaved the dimensional membrane in two.
To her surprise, she didn't collapse to the ground, incapacitated with agony.
Akane's streaming, clenched eyes flew open as she realized the significance of that fact. She was still standing. The pain was terrible, true; she could barely move for the agony coursing through her body... but she didn't feel as if she was being ripped to shreds.
Looking down, through her pain-blurred vision, she saw Susa-no-o's dagger.
The blade was flaring like a small sun in her hands as it parted the barrier before her.
You'll know what to do with it when the time comes.
Akane almost smiled through her pain. If she survived this, she was going to kill that bastard deity. Okay, maybe not kill, but at least make him suffer a bit. Stupid Susa-no-o, and his veiled implications and incomprehensible riddles. He claimed he had a good reason for not telling her what the dagger was for. But what if she had gone through with it, and killed herself with his gift in that blackest moment of despair?
Heh. That would have shown him, alright.
Gritting her teeth, she pressed forward with her hands, hoping to push her arms through the gap. The pain increased until it was nearly unbearable. Her trembling knees began to buckle beneath her. Groaning, she withdrew, keeping the blade within the opening to keep it from closing completely.
So. Even with the dagger, the blood spell still wouldn't allow her into the mortal realm. But at least this blade was keeping its magic from tearing her apart completely, even so close to the mortal realm's proximity.
A sudden fit of convulsive coughing wracked her trembling body. Specks of scarlet splattered against her hands.
Maybe the dagger was holding the blood spell at bay. But only barely.
She didn't have much time.
She pressed her body against the dimensional barrier, her hands clenching desperately to the hilt of the dagger as she widened the slit.
"Ranma!" she screamed through the opening. "RANMA!"
The creature that had once been Ranma cowered on all fours before the huge, gloating Shadowcat demon, hissing furiously, his dark hair standing on end, his wide eyes feral in his human face.
The feline instinct that filled his brain was screaming for him to run, to flee from the savage threat in front of him... but he couldn't move. His legs weren't working, and he couldn't understand why. He hissed and spat in terror.
The Shadowcat stood motionless, glazed eyes nearly closed, its mouth hanging open slightly in ecstasy. The demon could feel Ranma's desire to run, but held the boy immobile with a little exertion of will. Soon enough, it would allow the boy to roam wild - once it had killed Akane. Then, without the blood spell's interference, it could take Ranma to the Kami Plane, where the realm's magic would erase the boy from mortal memory. And then, no matter where Ranma wandered, there would be absolutely nothing that could come between it and its precious prey-
The Shadowcat turned, surprised, as Akane's distant scream filtered through the heavy silence.
Then, it grinned, gums pulling back from white, needle-sharp teeth in a delighted grimace.
She was here, just a few meters away, at the dimensional weakness. How wonderfully convenient. Now it wouldn't even have to mount a long, difficult assault on the Snow Woman's barrier to reach the girl. Akane had succumbed to its taunts, and had rushed right into its waiting claws. And now, it had all of Ranma's powerful ki with which to kill her.
"Ranma!" The cry was faint, desperate, and full of agony.
The Shadowcat blinked. She was in pain?
The fool girl wasn't trying to come through the dimensional fabric... was she? The blood spell would kill her first.
The Shadowcat tilted its head indifferently at the prospect. Ah well. Though it would be infinitely more satisfying to rend her to pieces with its own claws, it didn't really matter how she died... just as long as she died.
The demon looked down at Ranma's trembling form through slitted, gleaming yellow eyes. The boy was staring up into the Shadowcat's face, paralyzed, hissing wildly, too terrified to even notice Akane's faint cry. The Shadowcat's ears twitched with mild amusement, and it glanced back down the mountain to where the dimensional veil hung invisibly, the dark mists obscuring the slight quiver in the air.
She was begging. How sweet.
"...please, listen to me... It's me, Akane... I'm here..." The sound of her voice trailed off into a fit of thick, wet coughing. "Oh please... Ranma... Ranma, fight it..."
The Shadowcat felt something twinge.
And Ranma's hissing fell silent. The boy was still paralyzed, still trembling, but now he was... listening. No longer staring at the demon, but looking past it into the darkness. Towards the veil.
"Ranma, please... oh please, you have to hear me, you have to fight it, Ranma..!" More coughing, followed by a groan of agony...
A slight flutter rippled through the Nekoken link. The Shadowcat turned in surprise as Ranma shuddered convulsively, his eyes clenching shut, a strangled yowl escaping his throat.
"Ranma..!" Akane's voice, thick with pain.
Ranma's eyes flew open, hard and feral. A thrumming pulse ran through the Nekoken link... and the Shadowcat's tentative paralysis control shattered.
The demon blinked in amazement, torn between mild annoyance at the obvious results of Akane's interference, and delight with its prized possession. The boy was so strong!
Ranma looked at the Shadowcat, his inhuman gaze filled with terror and fury, and snarled, raising a curled hand-
The Shadowcat blinked in surprise.
-to claw viciously at the demon's face.
Instinctively, the demon leaped out of the way-
Not swiftly enough. Pain lanced through its side as four deep parallel gashes tore into its flank.
The Shadowcat emitted a bestial scream of pain as it landed neatly on four feet, its claws splayed on the ground, tearing deep ruts in the earth. It turned, eyes flashing, all humor gone from its blazing, black countenance.
Ranma was already running on all fours into the mists towards the veil, drawn by the sound of Akane's agonized, weakening cries.
The Shadowcat's eyes narrowed. **I think not.**
A deep scarlet aura flared around its body... and Ranma stumbled, collapsing to the ground in a boneless heap as the gaping wounds on the demon's body slowly closed.
The demon turned and slowly, purposefully licked its healed flank with its huge, rough tongue, tasting the bloody ichor that had spilled from the wound. Its narrowed yellow eyes glowed fiercely.
The boy had attacked. More importantly, the boy had wounded it. Ranma should not have been able to do either, not while under the Nekoken. The power of the Nekoken stemmed from the Shadowcat itself, after all. The power of the feline soul that had melded with and overwhelmed Ranma's humanity could not be used against its Master.
And yet, even now, as the boy lay gasping from the sudden ki drain, the Shadowcat could feel how Akane's voice was pulling at Ranma's mind and soul, disrupting the Nekoken link, undermining its control.
The Shadowcat turned towards Ranma's fallen form. The dimensional membrane lay a few meters beyond, where Akane's distant, pain-filled voice still filtered through, tainting the boy's senses.
Black ki flared around the demon's lean, muscled body like a hellish bonfire.
The time for playing with the prey had come to an end.
The strange sound was weak, raspy, distant, familiar... If only he could find its source. But he was so tired.
Ranma lay where he had slumped onto his side, wheezing slightly, his wild blue eyes open, filled with confusion, fear, pain...
Pain. Strange pain, inside, where he couldn't lick his wounds, for it was deep where he couldn't see, and it hurt it hurt it hurt...
He needed to find the tall one with the liquid brown eyes, whose image and scent filled his mind. It was close. He could feel it, smell it... almost taste it. It was making the noise, he knew, and it sounded like pain and the sound made him hurt.
And the monster was coming. The terrible one that smelled of death and rot and blood, so dark with terrible bright eyes and claws and teeth, and when it was near, it made him want to run and run but he knew it would follow, it had followed, he would never escape.
"...please, Ranma, th... there's n-not much t-time... Unnngh... Wh-where are you?"
He needed to get up, he needed to find the tall one, he needed to run away because the monster was coming and he couldn't move, he couldn't do any of it and he needed to, he needed to
remember because if he could just remember then he would be able to stop the hurt inside and the hurt in the sound, the voice, her voice
but he couldn't because the monster was closer and he couldn't move to stop it and
he had to because she was in pain, he could hear it in her voice, and he couldn't stand it when she was hurt, he had to help her and the monster was right next to him, it was moving past him, it was moving away, it was leaving him behind because it didn't want him it wanted her it was going to hurt her it was going to
kill Akane and there's no way in hell he was going to let that happen.
Ranma's eyes widened.
The link was faltering.
The Shadowcat snarled. Swiftly, now. A flash of claw, to shred the dimensional membrane. If the raw exposure to the mortal plane didn't kill her instantly, its claws could take care of the rest. And hopefully, Ranma was far enough away from the veil that the backwash from the Kami Plane wouldn't damage him too badly. But once Akane was dead and the blood spell extinguished, the boy's pain would cease. And anyway, Ranma had such remarkable regenerative abilities, any damage he might suffer wouldn't be too permanent...
He didn't want to. It was too awful, too humiliating. But Akane's voice pulled at him, as it always did. Her voice dragged his humanity from where it lay, submerged in animal instinct. And this time, unlike before, he felt every nuance of his awakening. He felt the feline part of his soul, still in control, trying to stifle him, trying to smother him with terror...
Remember. His own voice, in his own mind.
He remembered. So humiliating. He, the growing spark of intellect that was Ranma Saotome, was painfully aware that he couldn't even hold on to his sanity when Akane's life was at stake. He hated the mindless, feline part of him, the part that could defeat him, mind and soul, the part that, even now, was in control, refusing to relinquish its power over him.
And what would happen, if, by some chance, he succeeded in regaining control? The Shadowcat was still here. The demon would only take him again.
After it killed Akane.
Ranma twitched slightly on the ground, his wide eyes blank, his wild gaze turned inward.
Defeated so easily, are you? His own voice, in his own mind. The last thin, pale ghost of his shattered confidence, back to haunt him. Come on, I thought you were the great Ranma Saotome. I thought nothing could defeat you.
Bitterness. Yeah, well, you're wrong. I've been defeated lots of times.
Yes... But you've always figured out a way to win in the end, haven't you? You've always managed to find the enemy's weakness, and use it against him. What is the Shadowcat's weak spot?
It... doesn't have one.
Really? How do you know? Have you ever tried to stop being so blitheringly terrified of it to seriously think about the possibility that it might have a weakness?
What's so frightening about that beast, anyway? You've faced nastier, uglier things than that before.
But... it's a cat...
So what? You happen to be a cat at the moment. Or had you forgotten?
No. I haven't forgotten.
The memories flashed through his mind unmercifully.
...tearing up landscape, gouging deep ruts in stone and earth with a flash of his hand as he fought a bronze-feathered tengu...
...senses so sharp, like they were now, he could see the world around him without eyes...
...human again, and yet remembering, feeling the Nekoken within him... recognizing it for what it was because of all the memories of his nightmarish week spent as an animal...
Ranma paused, as the significance of that memory struck him to the core.
The Nekoken was still inside him, still part of him... even when he wasn't under its influence.
And something more...
...snarling, hissing, reaching up with a curled-fingered hand to lash out at the Shadowcat; the wild fury, the rush of power as his ki shredded the demon's flesh...
He had hurt it. He remembered.
A shock of realization rippled through him, his entire being, human and feline soul alike.
The Nekoken had been a part of him for years. The symbiont feline aspect of his soul existed within him, even when it wasn't controlling him.
Maybe... without the fear... it couldn't control him. After all, ever since he awoke from those days of being trapped in the Nekoken, his human intelligence had possession of all the memories, feelings, experiences of his feline side...
He remembered it all.
That's it. That's the answer.
He, Ranma Saotome, remembered how to use the Nekoken.
When he was human.
It was his technique.
And he sure as hell didn't need no stupid cat demon controlling his mind or draining his ki to help him use it.
"Ranma..." Akane's voice was so weak, so hoarse, he couldn't bear it. He had to save her.
And there it was. The demon's link to his soul. It was easy to recognize. After all, it was the only part of the Nekoken that didn't feel familiar from when he was fully human. And it was no surprise that when he focused on it, he felt the terrifying presence of the demon Shadowcat.
He focused on it, and felt no fear.
Then, with little more than a mental shrug, Ranma severed the Nekoken link.
Intelligence flared in Ranma's wide, savage blue eyes.
The Shadowcat felt the Nekoken link vanish, even as its claw flashed out to shred the fragile dimensional barrier.
No problem. It would simply reassert the link. But first...
The dimensional fabric parted cleanly beneath its claws.
Akane's scream of pain was beautiful - raw, hoarse, with a slight gurgle... and quickly silenced.
Through the torn rippling in reality, the demon could see her body, lying on the ground. Her long, thick, blood-matted hair spread under her in a way that was most becoming, considering that she looked like a corpse. Her skin was pale, near white with a bluish tinge. Her eyes were open, but unseeing, and a trickle of blood ran from the corner of her mouth.
The Shadowcat blinked.
And yet, her chest rose and fell with rapid, shallow breaths. In one hand, she clutched a strange dagger. The blade glowed with faint luminescence.
By the gods. What did it take to kill this girl?
The demon grinned. Ah well, it would just have to taste her blood after all. What a shame.
The barrier was already mending itself, its torn edges quickly fusing together, so the demon raised its claws again to tear a greater hole; one through which it could crawl and-
- it leaped aside, instinct guiding it as the grazing power of a tremendous ki attack destroyed the earth where it had been standing.
What in the Seven Hells-? The Shadowcat landed and spun in a flash, yellow eyes blazing with fury.
The boy stood upright before the demon, crouched in a ready stance. Bright tendrils of ki emanated from every inch of his skin, blazing around him, encircling him, lifting his hair in the updraft. He held his hands before him, his fingers curled into claws. His narrowed blue eyes shone with a fearless, feral gleam.
Ranma felt as if he was on fire, every sense alive and screaming with exultation. The symbiont feline part of him swelled and surged, without the binding, smothering terror that had been its master, merging with its host completely, its fierce ki and fighting spirit strengthening, rather than destroying the human soul.
It had a new master, and Ranma was more than willing to guide its tremendous power. He kept it under tight control.
He gazed at the demon before him stonily and didn't say a word. He didn't need to.
The Shadowcat's eyes widened in disbelief at the sight of him, then immediately narrowed with sudden understanding, black ki blazing in a surge of fury. The demon arched its back with a spitting hiss, then crouched in response, ready for battle.
It couldn't be, the Shadowcat raged silently. It was impossible. Then again, obviously it wasn't, for there Ranma stood, on two legs, his eyes blazing with savage, yet distinctly human awareness. And the Shadowcat had never been one to waste time arguing against the obvious.
The boy had claimed the Nekoken for himself.
So be it. There could only be one Master of the Nekoken. And, symbiont cat spirit or no, the boy was only human.
**Your ki was delicious, Ranma,** said the Shadowcat, snarling low in its throat as it crouched, tensed and ready. **But now I wonder, is your blood as sweet?**
Ranma snorted. "You'll never know." His gaze flickered a few meters to the right, where a strange, shimmering veil hung in tatters. Even as he looked at the unusual sight, the tatters were mending themselves, pulling together to form again seamlessly.
The Kami Plane lay beyond that weird shimmer. He knew, because Akane - the real Akane, and not some demonic illusion - had called him back to himself. She had called to him across the dimensions. She had saved him. And she was still there, just beyond his reach.
"Akane!" He called her name anxiously, even as he faced the bristling Shadowcat demon. But if he could hear her through the dimensional membrane, maybe she could hear him. "Akane, are you okay?"
No answer. But she had to be okay; the spell voices in his mind insisted that she was alive, even though her brief scream and the memory of her agonized pleas still resonated in his heart, inspiring a terrible fear deep in his soul in a way the Shadowcat never did...
The Shadowcat pulled its gums back from its sharp teeth in a terrible grin. **You're too late,** the demon said. **She's dead. Or if she isn't, she soon will be. The blood spell is tearing her apart.**
Ranma choked back a cry of grief-laden rage. "Liar," he spat.
**Go see for yourself, if you don't believe me. That is, if you can get close enough to the open barrier without the blood spell sending you to your knees in agony. But by all means, try.** The demon raised a huge paw and flexed its extended claws. **You'll make it so much easier for me to put you out of your misery.**
Ranma snarled to himself, a distinctly inhuman sound. No option then. He couldn't get to Akane before the barrier sealed itself - especially while the demon stood in his way.
Right then. Time to get rid of the demon.
He lashed out with his hands, feeling the claws of ki shoot from his curled fingers...
The Shadowcat wasn't there. Swiftly, Ranma turned...
And leaped out of the way of the demon's flashing claws, tearing right through the air where his torso had been.
His eyes widened. He hadn't realized the demon was so fast!
**Fool.** Another slash. He dodged, and it grazed his cheek, leaving a line of blood under his left eye. **You think that you can learn to control the power of the Nekoken in a few moments? You think you can use it against me?**
And then the Shadowcat attacked in earnest.
Ranma dodged and twisted desperately, and knew that, were it not for the Nekoken, he would already be dead. But he had new strength, new agility, and the power of his ki thrummed through his body like life blood.
Even so, the demon had him on the defensive. He was barely eluding the furious onslaught of razor-sharp claws.
**The power has been mine for millennia, boy. I am its Master. And you'll find it's not as easy as it seems, finding the perfect balance of intellect and instinct.**
The demon didn't even give him a chance to regain his bearings so that he could mount an offensive attack. He was simply dodging, running, trying desperately to avoid being turned into human confetti. And all the while, the demon's voice echoed in his mind with a maddeningly effortless dialogue.
**Too much intellect, and the power fizzles. Too little control, and the beast takes over.**
It was true, Ranma realized. He was thinking too much. He was so grateful to be free of the mindless instinct, that now he was smothering the very power that might save him. But... what if he lost control?
**Not that it matters. Man or beast, either way, you're dead.**
Another slash, grazing his arm. Ranma cursed silently. The demon was a blur, a shadow, a flash of gleaming eyes in the mist. And even with the Nekoken enhancing his battle senses to levels he'd never dreamed possible, he couldn't seem to get ahead. All his attacks were missing, merely flashing through a dark feline after-image and tearing up the mountain landscape. Impressive, certainly - it made Ryoga's Breaking Point technique seem like crumbling dirt clods. But unless he could actually connect that power with the demon, it wouldn't do a thing to save him.
Her voice, at the veil. A strangled, choking gasp of agony.
For a moment, his concentration nearly faltered, as he fought every particle of his soul that wanted to turn towards the sound of her voice.
**Well. Apparently I was mistaken. There's life in her yet. But not for much longer.**
It had to be her. She had called him back, after all.
Akane. Ranma clenched his teeth in agonized frustration, his eyes haunted and desperate as he continued to fight. He had to win! And fast! There was no time, and even if he won, he still had to find the Ancient One and get the dragon to break the blood spell...
"Ranma... I think I'm... dying...*
Ranma's mouth went dry. Oh no.
"Please, I'm so scared..."
His heart felt as if it was being crushed within his chest. Tears stung his eyes, blurring his vision.
Claws shredded his sleeve, leaving shallow slices in the flesh beneath.
**What's wrong, Ranma? You're slowing down. I nearly got you that time.**
Shut up, shut up shut up shut up...
**What a callous fiance you are. Not even rushing to your true love's aid in her darkest hour. How terrible for her, to die alone.**
Ranma snarled in rage.
He had to win. It didn't matter that, on the deepest levels of his soul, where years of cumulative fear and clear memories of the past few weeks lay open and raw, the savage power of the Nekoken that he was wielding... terrified him.
But he had no choice. To win, to save Akane, he had to let go. He had to loosen his stranglehold on the beast within, so that it could help him defeat the monster in front of him.
Ranma swallowed and took a deep breath. With a part of his mind that wasn't focused on the battle and his internal struggle to control the wild forces within him, he realized his hands were sweating.
He didn't care. He reached within... and let go.
The feline instinct felt him relax his steel will, and immediately flowed to the surface of his mind, swift and sparking with terrible power.
Ranma bared his teeth in a savage grimace as he struggled to keep his human soul from drowning under the deluge of mindless instinct.
A risky balancing act. To allow the Nekoken some freedom, without letting it overwhelm his humanity. And then...
There. He felt it.
The Nekoken burned like a cool fire, just behind his eyes and under his skin. It coursed through him, like lightning. The world around him sang to his mind, vibrated within his senses like a tuning fork, like a resonating crystal.
The raw power of the Nekoken, experienced through the filter of his still-human awareness, nearly took his breath away.
No time to pause, no time to be amazed. With the full power of the Nekoken, Ranma swiveled, a blur of bright ki, his clawed hands flashing, his eyes gleaming savagely.
The Shadowcat shrieked in pain.
The smell of blood exploded in Ranma's head. Blood, and something darker, that smelled of death. The stench assaulted his senses, and he staggered as if from a physical blow, even as he saw that he'd slashed off a large portion of one of the demon's hind legs.
Scents of blood, of pain and fear and fury, the sound of the demon's screams rasping in his sensitive ears, sending his skin crawling... the instincts of hunger and the hunt... It was all too much, too fast. The cool fire of the Nekoken erupted with blistering heat, raging up in Ranma's soul with frightening, bestial vehemence...
...and Ranma found himself crouching down on all fours, an eerie, inhuman yowl issuing from deep in his throat as he faced the wounded demon-
No! Ranma froze, then shook his head to clear his mind. Moments passed as he trembled, his eyes slightly glazed as he fought within himself to contain the reckless, wild power.
He held his breath, forcing the dark, wild smell of blood from his mind, his senses. Slowly, he pushed the Nekoken back down.
He straightened. He was human, dammit! And he intended to stay that way.
A few meters before him, the Shadowcat was occupied, licking and chewing at its wounded hind leg, making horrible bestial noises of pain.
Can't steal my ki to heal yourself now, can you? Ranma thought with grim satisfaction. He wiped the blood from his cheek with the back of his hand.
Now, while it was distracted. He turned towards the barrier. With the precious moments he had bought for himself in battle, above and beyond anything else, he had to help Akane. Akane, who was scared, hurt... He had to let her know that she had saved him, that he was himself again, that he was coming to save her.
He had to let her know she wasn't alone.
"Akane!" he yelled. "Akane, I'm here!"
Something punctured his abdomen from behind, just above his pelvic bone, barely missing his spinal cord.
Stunned, Ranma looked down to see a single blood-stained claw withdraw from his body.
**Fool. Falling for it not once, but twice. I told you she was already dead.**
Ranma blinked slowly. The world seemed to have rolled to a stop.
**You deprived me of your ki. So now I feed on your pain, your despair.** Ranma felt the hot, stinking breath on the back of his neck. The feline demon nudged him gently, almost affectionately, with its huge head. **You're a dead man with that wound. And it will be a slow, lingering death. I wonder, who will save Akane now?** Ranma shuddered once, and the Shadowcat let out a deep sigh. **Ah yes. Already, I can taste it.**
Ranma stumbled forward a step. He could feel the wound, long and thin through his abdomen, soaking his clothes with blood.
Not enough to gut him.
Enough to make him bleed to death.
He turned to look back at the demon. The Shadowcat stood on three legs, seemingly unmindful of its severed limb.
It was then, in the numb calm that settled over him, that Ranma got the idea.
Really, he thought. Of course. How could you be so stupid to have not thought of it before?
Hey, I had other things on my mind, he answered himself.
Not that any excuse will help things now.
The dark beast looked at him a moment, silent and unmoving. Then it spoke again, and, to Ranma's surprise, the demon's voice was tinged with regret.
**You shouldn't have broken the link, Ranma. Really, I would have taken care of you.**
Ranma raised his hands in front of him, his fingers curled into claws. Ki flared from the core of his being, focusing in his palms.
The Shadowcat was unconcerned.
Ranma smiled. His blue eyes glinted with the untamed power of the Nekoken.
"Kachuu Tenshin Amagurikan," he whispered.
The Shadowcat didn't even see his hands move.
The demon blinked, surprised once again. There wasn't even any pain.
But it knew it was dead.
The Shadowcat's ear twitched in mild annoyance... and then slid cleanly off its head.
**Well, Ranma,** it said, holding perfectly still. **It seems the Nekoken is all yours... for the moment.** The demon looked pointedly at the blood soaking Ranma's shirt, then carefully slid its flickering gaze to look into his pale face.
It grinned nastily, and its face seemed to fragment with the flex of its muscles. **Enjoy my... gift.**
And then the Shadowcat fell to pieces.
Ranma didn't wait around to contemplate his victory. There was no time, he knew.
Pressing the heel of his palm against the hole in his abdomen in a vain effort to staunch the blood flow, he turned and staggered to the strange shimmer in the air, where he'd last heard Akane's voice. Her real voice. The voice that had called him back.
The gaping rips from the Shadowcat's claws were once again closed, but even so, he felt a tingle of pain through his body as he neared the dimensional veil.
Or maybe the pain wasn't from the veil at all.
"Akane..." It hurt to talk. His breath was starting to come in painful gasps, like when the Kuei held him, impaling him with ghostly fingers, keeping him in the thrall of a spell trance. Only this time, there was no way to wake up from the nightmare.
No answer. Maybe she couldn't hear him if the veil was closed. Maybe she could, but was unable to answer. Maybe she was-
"Akane." Ranma closed his eyes and leaned against the rippling shimmer in the air. It felt soft, pliable, almost liquid, yet it bore his weight, giving only slightly under the pressure.
The blood seeping through his fingers was warm, almost hot against his cooling skin.
"Akane, I'm here."
Akane opened her eyes.
She heard a voice, distant and ethereal, as if the sound was seeping through deep fathoms of water.
Her throat felt raw, and she could taste blood in her mouth. Every single cell in her body seemed to ache; a quiet throbbing that was almost a relief in comparison to the agony that had nearly shattered her to the core.
But the agony was gone. She was in one piece. Alive.
And someone was calling her name.
Carefully pushing herself into a sitting position, she realized, absently, that she was still clutching Susa-no-o's dagger. She loosened her white-knuckled grip and let the pulsing, translucent blade slide from her fingers. As it fell from her hand to the ground, the blade's soft glow dimmed and went out, like a dying firefly.
Akane didn't notice.
She stood shakily and pressed her hands against the veil to steady herself.
"Ranma?" she asked, numb and fearful, not even daring to hope.
The voice, thin, echoing and ghostlike... and overflowing with relief. "Akane! Are... you okay?"
It was him.
Akane blinked once, a too-familiar burning sensation stinging her throat and nose and eyes.
She burst into sobs.
"Akane!" She could hear him panic at the sound of her uncontrolled weeping. "What's wrong, are you hurt, are you-"
Gasping, shaking, snuffling, she struggled to speak. "I'm fine, Ranma, I'm j-just so... so..." No words could describe what she felt. Ranma was just on the other side of the dimensional weakness that she was leaning against, he was so close, and infinitely far, and yet he was talking to her...
He was talking.
"The Shadowcat," she gasped. "Ranma, did you-?"
The words should have brought her immense relief.
But she felt something, heard a strange hollowness in Ranma's voice, in those two simple words, even though the sound was distant and slightly distorted as it came through the vast filters of time and space.
"Ranma..." Her joy at hearing his voice shriveled with the onset of fresh fear. He had fought the Shadowcat, the demon that was powerful enough to kill Masakazu, her Tengu sensei. Somehow, Ranma had managed to defeat it, but...
"You're... hurt, aren't you." It was a statement, not a question.
There was a long moment of silence. Then, his reply drifted to her, quiet and echoing. "It's... just a scratch."
He had never been a good liar.
"Oh Ranma." She swallowed hard. "It's... bad, isn't it?"
"No." A pause. "Well... kinda."
Akane no longer even felt the tears streaking her face. "Ranma... you d-dummy," she whimpered.
His voice was weak with pain. "Aw... don't... don't cry, you stupid tomboy." Silence. Then, his voice again, thick with distress. "I... didn't m-mean that, Akane."
"I know," she whispered. "Neither did I."
And then she didn't know what to say. Her heart ached, and she wept silently.
After a moment, Ranma's labored voice sifted through the veil. "Akane... I'm... going to... break the blood spell now... okay? Then... you can... come home."
"Okay." She hoped he couldn't hear the utter despair in her voice. But he probably could. She could hear it in his voice, after all. "Please... hurry, okay?"
"... I will."
"I'll wait for you, Ranma."
The silence lengthened, deepened.
Akane leaned wearily against the soft, rippling barrier. Her tears mingled with its fluid surface.
And she waited.
Ranma trudged slowly up the incline of the Mountain of the Ancient One. He clutched his stomach with both hands. His shirt and pants, both front and back, were drenched in blood, making the cloth stick to his skin. Thin rivulets of scarlet seeped between his fingers and fell to the ground, splashing against the dust, soaking into the earth.
The mouth of the dragon's cave was just ahead. He could see it, there, at the very peak of the mountain. And above the peak, glittering stars lit the night sky, so bright that it nearly hurt his eyes to look at them.
How long had he been climbing? How long had it been since he left Akane at the veil? Ten, fifteen, twenty minutes or so? He couldn't tell.
Felt like forever.
He was in no shape to fight a dragon, he knew. He was in no shape to fight anything. He could tell, from the bluish tinge of his pale, bloodstained fingers, that the mortal wound had thrown him into severe shock.
It was so hard to breathe. The oni collar around his neck warmed the beads of cold sweat that stood out on his pallid, clammy skin.
Where's the strength and power of the Nekoken when I need it? he wondered. But he knew. The feline part of his soul, like the animal it was, had crawled away to the furthest corners of his mind to wait for the end. And nothing he did within himself could seem to coax it back. His human intellect couldn't convince the poor beast that it was too soon to give up; that, no matter what, he couldn't give up...
He was slowly losing the feeling in his legs.
He kept walking, forcing his trembling legs to move one step at a time.
Akane was waiting for him, after all. He had to break the blood spell. So she could finally return home.
And, if he was lucky, if he could just hold on, if he could just keep his blood inside him, keep it from leaking through his fingers, he would be returning with her.
It was then that Ranma noticed the dead man.
The dead man was sitting on a large rock, just off to the side of the narrow path that wound up to the Ancient One's cave. He appeared to have died by some sort of strangulation, for his face was bloated and purple, and his lolling, swollen tongue was black. Milky, blood-shot eyes, bulging unnaturally from his eye sockets, gazed at Ranma with simplistic patience as he sat, unmoving.
Ranma froze, his eyes narrowing as he automatically sized up the dead man. Was it a Kuei? Another vengeful ghost, come to stop him?
A breeze brushed Ranma's face, and he caught the smell of rot, of mold, and of damp earth.
The dead man watched him. Silent. Unmoving.
He wasn't attacking. But then, maybe he didn't want to fight, Ranma realized. Maybe he was just sitting there, for the sheer entertainment of watching him suffer, of watching him struggle to climb the mountain with his life slipping through his fingers.
The thought infuriated him. "What the... hell are you looking at?" he snarled, hating how weak he sounded. His breathing was quick and shallow. He couldn't seem to get enough air.
The dead man didn't answer. He probably couldn't answer. His black, swollen tongue filled his mouth. His bulbous, bulging eyes didn't blink as he continued to placidly stare into Ranma's face.
Ranma clenched his teeth. Fine. He didn't have time for this. He had to find the Ancient One.
A shaky step.
He felt dizzy, nauseated. The cold, numbing dark fire of his bleeding wound burned away at his insides.
Just... keep climbing, he thought. Focus above the pain. You've done it before; it's easy. Pain is nothing. Stay focused on the goal. If the dead guy tries anything, you'll deal with it, but right now, he's just sitting there, so focus on finding that stupid dragon already...
The stars above the peak were so bright. His eyes hurt, and he clenched them shut briefly.
He opened his eyes again, slowly, wearily. And blinked.
The stars were going out.
Ranma blinked again. How odd... The sky was clear of clouds, and yet the brilliant points of light were winking into darkness one by one.
There was a strange taste in his mouth. He slid his tongue against his teeth to see what it was, and the minuscule movement hurt, right down to the roots of his nerve endings. He didn't care. What was that taste?
Oh. The coppery tang of blood. And the gritty, silvery taste of dirt.
Ranma opened his eyes, wondering when he'd closed them, and saw nothing. When had it gotten so dark?
He couldn't see, but he found he could still feel, still hear. His cheek was pressed against the rough ground. A weak wheezing sound whispered through his parted lips. His tingling hands, moist and sticky, were pinned under him where he was still clutching at his ebbing life blood.
He couldn't even remember falling.
He tried to move, tried to pull his arms out from under him so that he could push himself back up.
All he managed was a slight twitch. His strength was gone. He felt as weak as a newborn kitten, and, if he weren't busy dying, he would have smirked at the irony.
He blinked, hoping to clear his vision. But the darkness refused to leave. He stared blindly at nothing.
Come on, he thought to himself. You can't do this. Akane's depending on you. Get up, dammit...
Something touched the back of his head. Stroked his hair, gently.
Ranma felt his skin tighten in sudden fear. The dead guy...
He jerked, trying to get away from the touch, but the cold fire had spread through his limbs, had eaten away his sight, had reduced his ki to a flickering ghost. All he could do was tremble.
Then, a voice.
A voice... only he didn't hear it in his ears, or even in his head, the way the Shadowcat had communicated. It was just... there. Infinitely quiet, yet thrumming with finality.
With those words, Ranma understood at last.
The dead guy... not an ordinary Kuei. No, not at all.
Panic filled him.
No... I don't want to.
The Young never do. Come, boy.
Tears of helpless fury slid from Ranma's unseeing eyes, down his cheeks, moistening the dust, mingling with his blood.
No. I won't come.
I have to save Akane...
Yang Wu Ch'ang Kuei tilted his head patiently as he knelt over Ranma's prone form.
Willing or not, your time is done. You will come.
And he gently plunged his ghostly hand into Ranma's back.
Ranma felt it, felt the intangible hand carefully snag his soul.
And the dark cold fire of pain began to fade away.
No... he insisted frantically. He fought against the pull with all his will, for it was all he had left with which to fight. I won't come...
But he could feel his heart, hear it beating in his ears. Not like the times when he was working out, those times he enjoyed, when he was pushing himself to his physical limits and could feel his blood thrumming through his veins making him feel so...
No. This heartbeat was weak. Weak, thready...
A tear escaped the corner of Ranma's open eye and slid down his cheek towards his ear, pressed in the dirt. No, oh no, please, this can't be happening...
I can't die now...
I have to... find the dragon...
I have... to break the blood spell...
I... have to...
... to save...
Yang Wu Ch'ang withdrew his hand from Ranma's body.
And Ranma went still. His last breath slipped, a silent whisper, from his parted lips. The flickering spark of life faded from his wide blind eyes.
A long moment passed. And then, a thick red mist ebbed from the body, writhed in the air for a moment like a living thing... and vanished.
"Wow," said Ranma at last, looking rather shell shocked as he stared down at his lifeless body. "This sucks."
Yang Wu Ch'ang Kuei, the Ghost of Impermanence, just looked at him, and said nothing.
Akane's eyes flew open as a sudden chill rippled across her skin, shivering down her spine.
She could feel something moving inside her, a fluttering, like a ghost moth whispering through her, beating its wings against the inner surface of her skin-
- and she gasped as the strange fluttering suddenly thrummed into a surge of power from the core of her being, blasting through her to the surface, escaping through her skin in wild currents of air.
It seeped from her skin, tingling, burning with cool fire.
And she could see it, hovering in front of her wide eyes.
Glowing, scarlet mist.
The blood spell.
Akane stared at it, fascinated. She didn't breathe. She didn't dare, out of the sudden irrational fear that, by inhaling, she might keep some of the mist inside her. So she held her breath as she watched the last of the scarlet mist ebb from her body.
The mist whirled for a moment, spinning aimlessly... and then it shimmered away into nothing. Disappearing without a trace.
She reached up numbly, unconsciously, to wipe at her wet, tearstained face with her trembling fingers.
The blood spell was broken.
After five years. It was finally broken.
Ranma had succeeded.
The ghost of a smile flickered at the edges of Akane's lips. Of course he had succeeded. He always succeeded eventually. How could she have doubted him?
She was free.
A little, disbelieving laugh escaped her throat. She could barely comprehend the concept.
With a shaking hand, she reached over to where her katana had fallen, and grasped its hilt. She straightened, then slowly pushed herself to her feet, wincing at the thin, sharp pains shooting through her body. She ignored the pain, and looked at the dimensional veil before her.
And she was suddenly afraid.
All her insecurities came flooding back to her at the prospect of once again coming face to face with Ranma. Five years. She was five years older than him, and it showed in her face, her body, her eyes. What would he think of her?
What would her family think? She was older than Nabiki, older than even Kasumi now, by nearly two years.
She would be a stranger, a freak. A battle-hardened warrior, with terrible scars both within and without. Would they even recognize her?
She shook her head forcibly.
There was no time to be afraid of what might be. She had waited for this moment for too long.
There was no more hesitation. Not after five years of waiting.
She swung her arm in a quick, wide arc, and the veil parted beneath the glowing steel of her blade.
No pain. No force, nothing holding her back.
Akane sheathed her katana, and, with both hands, reached out to pull apart the severed edges of the veil.
The mortal plane. She could see mists. And above the mists, a jagged mountain peak. Above the peak, stars. The sky was clear and bright and glittering, and Akane realized she was crying as she felt the cool spring night air on the skin of her cheeks.
Her heart felt full to bursting with a plethora of emotions; a mixture of terror, ecstasy, and anticipation.
And, without looking back, she stepped through the dimensional rift to the mortal plane.
A tremor passed through the Kami Plane as it unwillingly lost its sole human inhabitant back to the mortal realm.
The tremor pulsed and rippled, seeping beyond the Kami Plane's boundaries to where its extended influence lay, deep in the minds of those who had once known one Akane Tendo.
And the Kami Plane's Spell of Forgetfulness shattered.