Chapter 23: Dragon
Akane stood before the cave of the Ancient One, carefully cradling Ranma's limp form to her chest. As she stared into the darkness of the gaping hole, she was acutely aware of the feel of Ranma's body in her arms. If she didn't think about it, she could almost pretend he was only asleep... or even unconscious.
But his clothes were sticky with drying blood. His skin was the color of cold ash.
And his ghost was standing next to her.
She couldn't think about it. She couldn't think about it, because if she did, she would scream or cry or laugh or sob and never stop. So she didn't think. She just had to act, and get the problem solved. She had to fix this. She had to find a way to repair this... problem... that threatened to separate her from Ranma forever, just when she had finally found him again.
He wasn't looking at her. He hadn't looked directly at her, ever since she had picked up his body from off the stony, bloodstained ground. And he didn't look at her as he stepped forward - seemingly unaware of how his feet never quite managed to touch the ground - and cleared his throat to address the great Chinese dragon, who was their last hope.
"Hey, Ancient One!" Ranma yelled. "Get your scaly dragon butt out here, I wanna talk to you!"
Akane gasped, looking at him with wide, horrified eyes. "Ranma!" she squeaked in panic. "What do you think you're doing?" She glanced anxiously into the unyielding darkness of the cave, half expecting a huge dragon's head to emerge, mouth open to swallow them whole... but nothing happened. She lowered her voice to an intense whisper. "Are you trying to make him angry?"
"Of course not," Ranma replied irritably, still not looking at her. "I'm just trying to get his attention, that's all."
Akane groaned. "Idiot, that's not the way to convince him to help us!"
"Well, what do you think we should do?" he snapped, finally turning to face her. His eyes strayed to the body she carried, and she could see his face cloud with a dark, painful emotion that made her own heart ache in response.
Ranma suppressed a wince as he saw the anguish in Akane's expression. He was trying so hard to pretend that it didn't bother him, seeing her hold his dead body in her arms. But... when he did... it brought the reality of his situation into painful focus. As each moment passed, each second spent surrounded by a terrifying feeling of nothingness, of absence that had invaded nearly all of his senses... he found he was starting to feel less like a person, and more like a mere apparition. A lost spirit, increasingly disconnected from the physical world... from everything that he longed for.
"Look, Akane," he said, lowering his eyes again. "This so-called all-powerful dragon didn't do a thing to help me when I was bleeding to death right outside his cave. It had to know I was there, since I'm the only one it even allowed on this stupid mountain. It obviously doesn't give a damn about mere humans." His voice was full of bitterness. "And you think I'm gonna be polite to him now?"
Akane didn't answer him for a long moment. Finally, he looked at her out of the corner of his eye. Her head was bowed, and he couldn't tell if her eyes were closed, or if she was simply looking down at his dead face...
"If it means getting you back," she whispered at last, "I would grovel like a worm."
And Ranma immediately felt like the worst kind of worm himself. "Aw man, Akane," he said, his tone softening. "I'm not saying I wouldn't do that too. Hell, if I thought groveling before this dragon would get us what we want, I'd do it in a second." He shook his head. "But think about it. This dragon only grants requests to the strong. It only respects people who can survive all those demons down there, and still make it up here alive." Ranma clenched his fists and looked at the ground so that Akane wouldn't see the helpless, infuriated look on his face. "Well, I didn't make it. But I'm sure as hell gonna make sure that this dragon knows just who he's dealing with anyway."
He looked up at her, expecting her to be angry; expecting her to yell at him for being a macho idiot...
But she didn't. In fact, he thought he saw her almost smile, and he raised his eyebrows in confusion.
"You... have a point," she said slowly, remembering a few entities she had run into in the Kami Plane, who had similar attitudes. "So... do you have a plan then?"
Ranma blinked. A plan? "Uh, well," he said, hesitantly. "The original plan was to just come and fight him until he agreed to break the blood spell, since I don't got any magic binding scroll like Shampoo had... but..." He looked down at himself. "I'm kinda at a disadvantage at the moment."
Akane snorted. "Only you would call death a 'disadvantage,'" she said, with a half smile.
Ranma grinned. "Yeah. This is just a temporary setback, right?"
Akane's small smile grew, and she nodded. "Right."
"Damn right!" Ranma raised his fist enthusiastically. "Nobody defeats Ranma Saotome for long. Not even death! I ain't gonna give up until the Ancient One agrees to help us. Even if all I can do right now is... is haunt him."
And Ranma suddenly felt great. Here was Akane, obviously upset and disturbed by the events of the past few minutes, and if that wasn't bad enough, she was carrying his corpse... and with all that, he had still been able to make her smile. To make her laugh.
It was a new power, a kind he had never really exercised before. Before the blood spell, he had been too afraid of his own reaction to her smiles to actively seek them out. But now...
"Besides, if it comes down to it," Ranma continued, trying not to get flustered by the realization of how cute she looked at that moment, "I... I think you could take him on. I mean, you helped me fight that eight-headed dragon at Ryuganzawa, and that was back when you were a clu... I mean, back before you became this, uh, kick-ass demon hunter."
Akane snorted. "Nice save," she said, her smile turning wry. "But thanks."
"Ah-heh..." Ranma's hand slipped behind his head, even as he mentally kicked himself. Idiot, don't blow it now by falling back into old habits!
"Okay, then," Akane said, nodding firmly. "We'll do it your way. If the Ancient One wants strength... We'll show him what it means to cross Ranma Saotome and Akane Tendo."
Ranma grinned. "All right! Now you're talkin'!" He turned back to the cave entrance. "You hear that, dragon?" he yelled. "We ain't taking no for an answer! So come on out and face us!"
They were answered with an all-pervasive silence from the darkness.
In fact, as they stood there, they slowly realized that, through their whole conversation, there hadn't been the slightest flicker of response from anything inside the cave at all.
"Ancient One!" Ranma could hear his voice echoing deep inside the cave. "Hey, c'mon! I don't got all day!"
Got all day... the cave echoed.
Ranma and Akane looked at each other, both at a loss.
"Um..." Akane cleared her throat after a long moment. "Maybe he's not home," she suggested.
Ranma immediately spluttered in exasperation. "Not home? Not home? He's a dragon! Where's he gonna go, grocery shopping?"
"I don't know," Akane replied tersely, "but he's not answering, obviously, and I'm not sensing anything either. So either he's gone, or he's so deep in the cave that he can't hear us."
Ranma sighed. "Great. Just great. What do we do now?"
"Well, why don't we just go in and look for him?"
"Akane..." Ranma sighed again. "Look, that may seem like a great solution to you, since you've apparently developed this hyperactive battle sense that will keep you from running into bad guys and walls and other stuff in the dark, but only two of my six senses seem to be working at the moment," he said, pointing to an ear and an eye, "and if we go in there, I'll be down to one."
"Oh." Akane's mouth puckered in a small frown as she looked at him, her eyes glimmering with distress. "I'm sorry, I keep forgetting that you can't... I mean..."
"Whatever, I guess it doesn't matter anyway," Ranma said, looking into the impenetrable shadows inside the cave. Being blind wasn't so bad when you could at least sense your surroundings. But this... "We don't got a choice. I guess what we could do is, you could talk, and I'll just try to follow your voice and do my best not to... to float through a wall or something."
"Well, actually..." Akane's battle aura flared about her, bathing everything within a fifteen foot radius in a flickering blue light. She looked at him, enjoying the brief flash of astonishment on his face. "I've had a bit of experience in dealing with, um, pitch-black caves," she said.
Ranma stared, then raised an eyebrow. "Okay, that's... cool." Akane's amazing control over her ki was going to take some getting used to, especially since he was used to her ki being wild and unfocused. But he certainly wasn't going to complain - at least, not right now. He felt embarrassed at how relieved he was that he didn't have to go into the dark, unable to sense anything around him...
...because, where before he had at least taken comfort in the seeming-solidity of his own ghostly form, that comfort was now lost in the terrifying sensation of continually bleeding from the long, thin puncture wound in his abdomen. On top of that, no matter what he did, he couldn't seem to wipe his bloody hands clean...
And... there was a small seed of growing panic deep inside his chest - a desperation that craved to touch something solid; that hungered to feel even something as insignificant as air against his arms and face...
Or... better yet... something like the flicker of warmth he'd felt when Akane had touched him, or when he had brushed his intangible fingers against her face, and she had shivered... Even that small, barely-felt whisper of life had been so wonderful in comparison to the nothingness...
Ranma swallowed, startled at the direction his train of thought had turned...
...as he suddenly remembered hanging helplessly in the embrace of a kuei. A kuei, who took pleasure in capturing humans; in plunging its ghostly hands into living bodies, holding its victims in a trance so that it could feel something beyond itself...
"Ranma," Akane said, her voice full of concern. "What's wrong? Are you okay?"
He was a kuei. He was a kuei, and he had touched Akane... touched her with tainted, cursed hands, just so that he could feel... And Ranma blinked, realizing belatedly that his horrified understanding must be plain on his face.
"Nothing," he said quickly, turning away so that she could no longer see his expression. "I'm fine. Come on, let's go."
"I said I'm fine, okay?!" he snapped. And immediately regretted it. Even if he couldn't see her face, he could tell from the abrupt silence that Akane was hurt.. "Oh man... I'm sorry," he said miserably, his shoulders slumping. "I didn't mean to yell."
"I'm just worried about you!" she said. Her voice was tearful.
"I know," he said softly. "I know, and I'm sorry. I'm just..." He looked down at his bloody hands. "Let's just go find this dragon, okay?"
Akane stared at Ranma's back, his stooped shoulders... at the blood that continued to seep from his ghostly wound... and realized with a start that Ranma, in spite of all his usual bravado... was scared.
"Okay," she whispered.
And she stepped forward into the cave, her battle aura penetrating the thick darkness, pushing it back. Ranma followed her silently.
Fear was a strange thing, Nabiki realized, as she followed Kuno closely through a night-shrouded copse of trees, keeping her eyes fixed on his shadowed form ahead of her. She'd never realized before just how many different ways there were to feel afraid. There was the blinding white, almost detached terror of seeing the thread of your own mortality slide along the razor edge of death.
Yeah. Been there, done that.
And then there was the fear she was feeling now - not the raw terror of before, but more of... a thick dread... a kind of breathlessness, as if her lungs were full of lead; a tightness through her shoulder blades, like taut piano wire. As if a threat was still there in the writhing darkness of the living forest around them, but lurking just... out of sight...
...or waiting for them at the end of the trail...
Please, Ranma. Hurry and come back and defeat Cologne before we reach the campsite...
It was a selfish thought, she knew. Cologne had something terrible planned for Ranma; something insidious. And the old ghoul had seemed pretty damn confident that her final card in this game of desperation would be powerful enough to make Ranma abandon Akane and the rest of them, and willingly spend the rest of his life as a deferring, subservient husband in a hard-nosed matriarchal society. So whatever it was that she had planned had to be bad. Very bad.
But even so, Ranma was still their best chance of winning this conflict. Ukyo, Ryoga, Shampoo and Mousse had been defeated, and she didn't have any further delusions that she and Kuno might be able to stand up to the ancient Amazon alone, so what other hope did they have?
What if Ranma didn't make it back in time? What if he was so busy having his glorious reunion with Akane that he didn't return until it was too late? What if she and Kuno inadvertently beat him to the clearing, and walked right back into Cologne's waiting hands?
Then again, maybe that wouldn't be a problem, if they kept up at their current pace...
Nabiki held her arms up protectively around her face and eyes because of the threat of unseen branches. Kuno was taking similar precautions, she noticed, and yet he refrained from clearing the way with his bokken for fear of losing the evidence of the path he'd created in daylight. Still, she took comfort in the fact that at least he seemed to know where he was going.
"Watch your step," he said softly. "The terrain is very uneven through here."
"Thanks." She ducked under a low-hanging branch that Kuno held out of her way, and felt a rush of gratitude for the small kindness. Some lingering tattered shred of stubborn pride instinctively bristled within her, but she immediately squashed the impulse. To slip back into ice-queen mode now would be detrimental to her present purpose - namely, getting out of this predicament alive. Kuno was in full-blown protective guardian mode, and she knew it would be the height of foolishness to undermine him when this was exactly what she needed if they were going to survive the night.
It still amazed her how he had managed to shed his insipid Love-Struck Warrior Poet persona in favor of his new-and-improved Humbled Fallen Samurai. But hey, if putting on that mask allowed him to wear a courageous facade in the face of humiliation... if it gave him the ability to protect her and make her feel even the slightest bit safer than before... if, by some chance, it actually changedhim... so much the better.
Hey Kuno, do you have an extra mask I could borrow? I have to admit, yours actually seems pretty cool right now. Oh, and while you're looking through your Bag o' Personalities, could you check and see if you have anything that could make me a fighter strong enough to kick Cologne's butt, rather than some pathetic liability to this whole stupid expedition?
Nabiki clenched her jaw. True, she wasn't too thrilled about having to be completely dependent on Kuno for protection, but at least she could live with it. Living was the idea, after all. Getting back home in one piece without any serious maiming would be a pleasant bonus...
What she really hated was this place. This primeval forest, four days journey away from the nearest primitive human dwelling. This deep, isolated forest that guarded the steep, jutting peak of a lonely forbidden mountain... was old. A landscape straight out of her worst nightmare. The twisted, towering trees, the tangled vines, the thick, spongy carpet of leaves and pine needles, the moist, musty air that she could feel under her skin... All these things held secrets that a person who had spent most of their life sleeping under the neon-polluted night sky of Tokyo would never dare guess.
We are far older than you, the forest sang softly, and she heard the song clearly in the faint, echoing call of birds; the rustling, grunting and hissing of wild animals. The trees moved and swayed to the voiceless music of the cool night wind. We are older than you, they sang, and we are home to creatures whose natures you could not possibly imagine...
Kuno could hear it as well, apparently. She could tell by the way he kept pausing, tilting his head slightly, then moving forward again with a caution that belied the boldness of his bearing.
Shampoo had said that the woods were safe; that the only real danger lay on the demon-infested mountain.
But Shampoo had been wrong about a lot of things lately.
I hate this place. I hate it, I hate it...
She took another careful step... and froze, startled, as all sounds around her abruptly ceased. The thrumming music of the living forest silenced, the cool breeze died into nothing, and, for a brief, frightened moment she thought she'd gone deaf, but for the throbbing of her heartbeat in her ears. She stumbled, nearly falling into Kuno, but he turned and caught her arm, steadying her.
"Ah," Kuno gasped softly; and yet his voice carried loudly in the sudden absence of other sounds. "It seems we are near the Mountain of the Ancient One."
"Apparently," she agreed wryly, swallowing against the thickness in her throat. She had experienced the same phenomenon earlier that day where, in just a few steps, they had walked out of a forest rustling with the constant murmur of life, and into a forest where even the wind was still... except when it whispered with a mocking voice as cold as death.
Entering the noiseless shroud that surrounded the Mountain of the Ancient One had been unnerving the first time, in broad daylight. Now, in the pressing darkness of night, knowing what she knew...
"Come on." Nabiki clenched her teeth against the sudden urge to chatter. "Let's get going. Ranma's probably already taken care of everything, and they're probably looking for us."
Kuno nodded, released her arm, then stood for a moment, looking searchingly into the thick tangle of forest before them.
"What are you waiting for?" Nabiki wrapped her arms tightly around her chest and glanced around with growing nervousness. "I don't know about you, but I want to get out of here as soon as possible."
"The trail is gone."
Nabiki blinked. "What?"
Kuno turned to look at her, and even in the darkness, she could see the perplexed look that creased his shadowed features. "The trail... the path to the camp site that I created as I... fled..." He reached out to carefully plunge one hand into the unyielding tangle of shrubbery and vines in their path. "It has disappeared. There are no more broken or severed branches, nothing... It seems to have been overgrown, or... changed, or..."
Funny, the different kinds of fear a person could feel, Nabiki mused, as a completely new sick sensation suddenly filled her gut. She should have known something like this would happen. The forest within the Ancient One's boundary of silence seemed to have erased their path.
"So," she said, and she was surprised at the calmness of her own voice. "What you're saying is that we're lost. Well, can't you just make another path going straight ahead? Won't that lead us back to the camp site?"
Kuno cleared his throat uneasily. "I'm afraid," he said quietly, "that, in my haste to save our lives, my escape was not very... linear."
Nabiki stifled the urge to groan.
"However," he continued, turning to push at the tangled barrier of foliage with the flat of his bokken, "I believe that if we continue to follow the uphill grade, we shall eventually emerge from this forest at the base of the mountain. We can then follow the circumference of the mystical unseen barrier until we discover our place of camp." He tilted his head at her in a deferring gesture that surprised her. "Does this strike you as a reasonable course of action?"
"Uh... sure," she replied slowly. It certainly sounded better than her first rather dangerous inclination to try climbing one of the twisted trees in the dark to see if they could get their bearings.
She eyed Kuno speculatively. First, being able to follow little more than a deer trail in near pitch black, and now this. Kuno was turning out to be even more useful than she first thought. Certainly more useful than she was feeling at the moment, which is why she found it so odd that he would look for her approval when he was clearly the one with the understanding to deal with their current situation. "So, you learn all this forestry stuff when you were a little Samurai Scout?" she asked dryly.
Nabiki blinked as she caught the underlying smile in his voice. Then her mouth quirked up at the corner in response.
She still wasn't sure what to make of this new side of Kuno. He was much more quiet, for one thing. Introspective, even. When he did talk, he still sounded a bit like an anal-retentive literature student, but at least he had sense. And maybe even a sense of humor. Which was a good thing to have, she supposed, when you didn't even know if you were going to live through the night.
"Well then," she said, smiling. "By all means, lead the way."
With that, Kuno turned and began clearing the way before them with swift sweeps of his bokken. Nabiki found herself once again amazed at Kuno's skill; how he could make a wooden practice sword behave like a blade of sharpest steel.
He was no Ranma when it came to martial arts. But that didn't change the fact that, before Ranma and his other martial artist cohorts had showed up in Nerima, Kuno had been the best, which was no small feat.
The cleanly severed leaves and branches fell to the ground with a steady rustle that might have been comforting... were it not for the complete absence of other sounds.
"Can you sing?"
Kuno paused in cleaving his way through the forest and turned to look at her in surprise. "Pardon?"
She shrugged. "It's just... this freaky silence and everything. It's creeping me out, and I thought, you know, maybe a... a hiking song or something..." Kuno stared at her, and she could feel herself flushing red. She was suddenly glad, at least momentarily, for the cover of darkness. What on earth was she thinking, asking Kuno if he could sing of all things? Gah! Chalk up one more strange thing that fear could do to a normally rational person like herself...
"Okay," she said, clenching her teeth, "I know, it's a stupid, cheesy idea. I don't care. Besides, it's not like we'll be able to take Cologne by surprise or anything, what with you crashing through this jungle like a rabid elephant." She waved her hand towards the fallen foliage in an impatient gesture. "So it's not like a bit of extra noise would hurt."
Kuno paused, as if carefully considering his words. "I didn't say it was a stupid idea," he said at last.
"No," she replied shortly, "but you were staring at me like it was."
"I was merely wondering why you don't sing, if you feel such a need for it."
Nabiki nearly choked. Her? Sing in front of Kuno? "Sorry," she said quickly, "but my throat's so dry right now, I'd sound like a bullfrog on a gravel diet."
Was that a smile on the edge of his lips? In the darkness, she couldn't tell. He'd better not be laughing at her...
"I'm afraid I'm not much of a singer," he said.
Nabiki sighed and ran her hand through her hair, which, after four days in the wilderness, only served to remind her how badly she wanted a shower. "Fine. You won't sing, I won't sing. Forget I mentioned it. Let's just go, okay?"
Kuno turned and resumed his hack-and-slash passage through the forest.
After a few moments... he began whistling.
Nabiki blinked in surprise.
It was a rough, raspy sound at first, but then Kuno paused to lick his lips. When he began again, the notes were clear and steady, floating thinly through the vast silence that surrounded them.
The notes rose and fell in a light, airy melody. It sounded like an old folk song of some kind, though Nabiki didn't recognize it.
And she felt herself flushing again, embarrassed and yet grateful all the same. She felt silly, feeling so suddenly comforted, like a child afraid of the dark who needed a night light and a teddy bear. But better this than to allow herself to be overwhelmed by everything that had happened, topped off with her fears of everything that might be ahead of them... or around them...
It was... awfully nice of Kuno to whistle, she reluctantly admitted to herself. Probably one of the nicest things anyone had ever done for her...
And in a way, his kindness scared her even more than the terrifying, supernatural silence. His change in demeanor; his unexpected thoughtfulness was making her feel... warm things about him. He was whistling past the metaphorical graveyard for her sake, to keep fear, ghosts or both away. He was giving her strength and support at a time when she'd never felt more weak and worthless. And, at this moment, he was making her feel so intensely grateful, she could feel tears beginning to burn her eyes and throat.
On second thought... maybe this is the perfect time to slip back into ice queen mode, she thought.
Still, she possessed at least one more thread of self-control; at least one spark of rationality that hadn't yet been severed in the past few hours. And she clung to it like a lifeline.
She was Nabiki Tendo. She could handle this. If there was a way to get out of this nightmare alive, she would figure it out.
And then she could decide, with a mind not muddled by terror, how she really felt about Kuno.
So, instead of crying, she clenched her teeth against the aching in her throat and the burning behind her eyes, and followed Kuno silently. And she listened intently to the slash of his bokken, the rustling of leaves and branches falling before them, and the cheery folk tune that Kuno kept whistling, keeping them surrounded with a small pocket of sound that was, if not safe, at least keeping her terror at bay.
And then, in the distance, far outside their little pocket of noise... they heard the wailing.
They both heard it at the same time, and they froze in mid-movement, staring wide-eyed out into the darkness. Kuno's whistling faltered, the notes dying on his lips, as the faint, eerie sound reached their ears.
Nabiki's jaw was clenched so hard, it hurt. Taking a deep breath, she forced herself to relax. "Um... I know I'm going to be sorry for asking this," she said in a low voice, "but... what in the hell was that?"
"I don't know." Kuno frowned, peering intently into the inky darkness.
Nabiki grimaced. "Can you tell where it's-"
The words froze in her throat as the haunting, inhuman cry rent the air again - a shriek of fury and despair that made goose bumps erupt along her arms.
And then Nabiki felt the strange breeze on her skin, biting cold like the sting of needles.
"Okay," she said, with a strange, tight calmness. "I'm for running. Right now. How about you?"
But before Kuno could even reply, they heard the scream again, full of soul-rending rage, and Nabiki felt her heart clamber violently up her throat as the sound reached a nerve-jangling crescendo. And with the scream, an icy, freezing wind whipped through the woods around them, lashing the foliage into a frenzy, numbing the skin of her face and arms, making her nose run and her ears ache... Through her shivering terror, Nabiki realized belatedly that she was clutching Kuno's arm, and that she intended to run, it didn't matter where, just as long as it was away from that and so she would run and she would drag Kuno along with her...
...but then the wind died. And as it did, the scream faltered... and dissolved into quiet, broken... weeping?
Nabiki stood like a statue, peering blindly into the darkness, listening intently, trying to hear over the thudding of her heartbeat in her ears. Still, in the ensuing silence, it was much easier to tell the direction of where the sound was coming from...
Ahead of them, and off to the left...
"Kuno," she whispered, almost mouthing the word to keep the sound from carrying. She pointed off to the right. "Let's go that way. Come on, now's our chance."
Kuno didn't move. He was staring into the thick forest towards the haunting, sobbing sound of despair.
Nabiki tugged impatiently on Kuno's arm. "Kuno..."
"Shh," he hushed. "Listen..."
"I don't want to listen," Nabiki hissed, trying to keep from raising her voice. "I want to get the hell out of-"
And then the weeping changed to a whisper that sent a chill of dread rippling up Nabiki's spine. The whisper was distant and faint, but clear in the absence of other sounds.
"Akane," the voice sobbed quietly in a strangely familiar voice. "Akane-chan..."
Kuno turned to look at Nabiki, and even in the darkness Nabiki could see that his eyes were as wide as hers.
"Oh gods." Nabiki blinked as the pieces suddenly fell into place. "It's the Snow Woman."
Kuno looked at her sharply in surprise. "The Snow Woman? Are you sure?"
"Pretty damn sure," she replied shortly, still shivering from the sudden onset of the unseasonable winter cold.
"But why is she here?" Kuno's voice was barely audible, but Nabiki could still hear the disturbed tone of his voice. "Does she not reside in the Kami Realm, as you said? Why did she scream with such distress, and why is she calling for your sister?"
The questions, which echoed the ones in her own heart, caused an old familiar calm to settle within her. Nabiki felt her down-to-business mask fall into place with an almost audible snap as a fiery anxiousness rose within her chest, burning through her frozen, incapacitating terror.
She looked at Kuno with a stoic, half-lidded gaze. "Let's find out," she said.
That was all the urging Kuno needed. He immediately turned and began to slash a trail through the choking foliage towards the sound. Nabiki followed.
As they made their way through the dense forest, she noticed that the fresh spring growth of the surrounding foliage... was covered in a thin layer of white frost. The frost glinted in the brief patches of starlight that managed to struggle through the tangled, leafy canopy overhead. With each step they took towards the piteous sound of the Snow Woman's quiet sobs, the temperature seemed to drop, and the frost seemed to thicken around them until each brush of a leaf brought with it the sensation of ice melting against warm skin. The frozen ground crackled beneath their feet.
Nabiki wrapped her arms around herself and tried not to chatter.
Gradually, she began to see a soft blue glow filtering through the darkness of the winter-shrouded thicket before them. Each frost-layered leaf and branch seemed to catch the ghostly light and hold it within each crystal, so that they seemed almost luminescent in and of themselves. A thick white fog crept across the forest floor, cold tendrils writhing about her ankles.
They were making their way through enchanted, crystalline scenery straight out of a fairy tale, and Nabiki would have found the sight almost beautiful, were she not so anxious to find the source... The eerie bluish light was a welcome guide, making Kuno's job of creating a path much easier, and Nabiki suddenly found herself stepping quickly to keep up with him.
They emerged abruptly into a clearing, and they both stopped, amazed at the sight before them.
Everything was covered in gleaming ice. Sheets of it covered the ground, the rocks, the plants...
The Snow Woman knelt on the frozen ground, her head bowed as she wept, her long white tresses flowing around her like water. The soft blue glow that lit the clearing emanated from one slender white hand that was pressed against the invisible barrier of the Ancient One's Mountain... only the barrier was no longer quite so invisible, for it was now covered with glittering patches of frost that seemed to hang in the air like motionless ice spirits.
Scattered on the frozen ground around the Snow Woman's shuddering form, large jagged shards of a shattered mirror lay glinting in the starlight.
Nabiki and Kuno stared, speechless.
The Snow Woman slowly raised her head and looked at them, her smooth white face, etched with resigned misery, flickering with brief surprise at their intrusion.
"You," she said softly, hoarsely, looking at Nabiki. "I know you. You are Akane's sister..."
Nabiki stepped forward hesitantly, swallowing against the sudden dryness in her throat. "Yes," she said. "Where is she? Is she safe?"
"Safe?" came the lifeless reply. "Oh, no, no... Not safe, not now... I tried to stop her... I tried to reach her first so that she wouldn't see... but the dragon's barrier... He wouldn't let me through..." Her free hand strayed to the slivers of glass that surrounded her. "And... my mirror..."
"What are you talking about?" Nabiki asked tightly, trying to smother the rising fear and frustration that swelled within her at the Snow Woman's cryptic response. "Why isn't Akane safe?"
The Snow Woman groaned low in her throat, a terrible sound of anguish. "She is on the mountain... alone... and she mustn't see..."
"See what?" Nabiki snapped, her ire rising. "If she's on the mountain, then she's not alone! That means Ranma is with her. He saved her, he broke the blood spell!"
The Snow Woman turned and glared at her suddenly, her frost-blue eyes blazing even as tears of ice slid down her cheeks. "You foolish child, don't you understand?" she cried. "Ranma cannot save her! He is slain! Murdered by the demon Shadowcat!"
Nabiki felt the blood slowly drain from her face. Behind her, she heard Kuno mutter a low, broken oath. "Wh-what?"
"Ranma is dead," the Snow Woman said with a voice so full grief and bitterness that it was like a raw, open wound. "And Akane is alone on the mountain with nothing but demons and his corpse for company."
"No," Nabiki whispered numbly. "That... that's impossible..." Her head suddenly felt like it was full of cold lead. Her hands were tingling. Her heart was thudding like a rabbit's deep inside her chest. "Ranma... he... he can't..."
The Snow Woman sagged suddenly, reaching out with a white hand to touch a shard of mirror lying on the frozen ground beside her. "I saw it with my own eyes..."
Nabiki shook her head forcefully, as if doing so would somehow erase the horror of the Snow Woman's revelation. "But... the blood spell... Ranma broke it..."
"Yes. With his death," the Snow Woman whispered.
Nabiki stared at the Snow Woman in white-faced silence as she suddenly found herself wondering how her little sister would react when she found his body...
Kuno spoke from behind her, his voice low and intense. "There must be some way to get past the barrier."
The Snow Woman turned on him, clenching her fists. "Do you think I have not tried?! I have summoned all my power, weakened though it is by this warm season, even calling upon the lingering memory of winter from the earth for strength... and I can do nothing! I have even pleaded for help from the foreign gods of this land, but they answer me with silence!"
No adequate response came to Kuno's mind. He could only stand, looking at the pale, beautiful woman of legend, helpless and immobile, his mind numb and reeling at the news of Ranma's death. The "foul sorcerer Saotome," the bane of his existence, who had kept his True Loves from him for so long...
He would never get the chance to tell Ranma he was sorry...
"Cologne," Nabiki whispered.
Kuno looked at her, alarmed. "What?"
Nabiki turned her flat-eyed gaze towards him. "She had the scroll that Shampoo used to get on the mountain the first time. This is her land, these are her gods. On top of that, she's got a few thousand years of Amazon history behind her, as she never hesitates to remind us. If anyone knows how to get past the Ancient One's barrier, she does."
"Are you suggesting," Kuno asked steadily, "that we return and request help from one who desires to kill you?"
Nabiki didn't answer. Instead, she looked at the Snow Woman. "You fought Cologne before. Can you do it again?"
The Snow Woman shook her head wearily. "I was able to defeat the Amazon, only because I had the power of my own domain at my command, and because I was able use my mirror to bridge the gap between realms. Now my mirror lies shattered, and I am trapped in this land, in a season where Nature itself binds my power."
Nabiki nodded, her mouth a tight, thin line. "I see. Well, Cologne has her own little handicap to deal with. I shot a big hole in her shoulder, and I'm sure it's taking a lot of her will power, or ki, or whatever to keep herself upright."
The Snow Woman looked at her sharply, her eyes wide. "Shot..?"
"You know, with a gun." Nabiki's face was expressionless as she made a shooting motion with one hand. "Bang. The old ghoul was busy taking out my friends, so she wasn't expecting it. The wound probably would have killed anyone else, but like I said, she's got that ki stuff to hold herself together. Still, I expect that would even the odds a bit for you."
The Snow Woman frowned speculatively, and she straightened, rising gracefully to her feet. The weary resignation in her countenance slowly faded as a new spark of faint hope glinted in her frost-blue eyes. "Yes," she murmured. "That would indeed level the playing field..."
Kuno watched the eerily-calm exchange between Nabiki and the Snow Woman with growing unease, and cleared his throat. "Even if by chance the old woman does know the secret to pass the barrier, how can we force her to reveal it to us? I do not think she would help us... especially if she were defeated."
Nabiki shrugged with a casualness that Kuno found deeply disturbing. "She went through all this trouble to get Ranma," she said. "We'll just tell her he's in trouble. Or maybe even offer him to her in exchange for getting us through the barrier."
Kuno couldn't hide his shock at her callousness. "But-"
"He's dead," Nabiki said coldly, her eyes flat and opaque as smoked glass. "It doesn't matter. There's nothing we can do about it now, but that doesn't mean I can't use the knowledge to my advantage. I just want my sister off that mountain. Now are you going to help us or not?"
Kuno stared at her for a long moment.
Nabiki stared right back at him. And, just beneath the surface of those flat, emotionless eyes... he thought he saw a flicker of unspeakable grief and anger...
He closed his eyes and nodded. "All right."
"Then let us not waste any more time," said the Snow Woman.
"Lady," Kuno said with cautious respect, "while I agree that we must act with haste for Akane's sake, I am afraid we are lost in this wilderness. Our camp lies somewhere near this barrier, but the base of the mountain is vast."
Rather than answering, the Snow Woman reached down and picked up a single shard of mirror, the size of her hand, and kissed it with her icy breath. The swirling frost magic cleared to reveal within the shard, the image of an ancient, white-haired crone, hunched over her wounded shoulder as she stared into the flickering flames of a campfire...
"There," Yuki-onna said, her voice as cold and hard as the mirror's surface. "This will show us the quickest way." She looked up and met Kuno's astonished gaze, and a small, grim smile quirked the edges of her white lips. "For good or ill, young mortal, we will confront the Amazon soon."
Akane had lots of practice when it came to entering the domains and habitats of preternatural beings, so she wasn't all that surprised when, as she stepped into the absolute darkness of the Ancient One's cave, she felt as though she were passing through a whispery-thin membrane, moist and fragile, like the surface of a soap bubble. It allowed her to pass, flowing around her without breaking, springing back taut and whole behind her. And then she was inside the cave, with Ranma standing next to her.
Did you feel that? she wanted to ask him, but before she could... she saw the cavern.
They stood for a moment in stunned silence as they stared, wide eyed, at their surroundings.
"Whoa," Ranma finally said.
"You said it," Akane breathed. "I guess I won't need to use my battle aura after all."
The cavern was, as she expected, immense. It reminded her of the inside of the Tokyo Dome, only... bigger. However... the rounded walls and ceiling were formed of perfect, unnaturally smooth pearl-gray stone. And, embedded within the stone... thousands upon thousands of large, tear-shaped gems lined the cavern, shining with faint golden light, suffusing everything with a soft, warm glow.
Ranma cleared his throat in surprise. "Shampoo... didn't mention this," he said.
Akane looked up at the ceiling that seemed to reach much higher than the mountain peak outside had indicated. "She probably didn't see it, if she stayed outside the cave," she murmured with soft amazement. Shifting Ranma's increasingly-heavy body within her arms to get a better grip, she walked over to the nearest wall to examine the strange glowing stones. "We passed through some kind of barrier. Probably an illusion spell of some kind that keeps intruders from seeing what's actually in here."
Ranma gave her an odd look, which she missed, because she wasn't looking at him. As a matter of fact, he noticed, she was being quite careful to look at everything except him.
Not that he could blame her. Looking down at himself in the warm, golden glow, he could really see, for the first time, just how bad he actually looked. Out on the night-shrouded mountain side, darkness and faint starlight had done wonders to cover up the gore. He grimaced. Those gruesome specters they had encountered at the Cave of Lost Love didn't have a thing on him, he mused soberly. The blood that slicked his hands, drenched his shirt, and trickled continuously from the corner of his mouth, glistened, bright and wet in the unforgiving light.
Another somewhat less-disturbing discovery was that, while Akane had faint shadows spread about her feet like flower petals, due to the thousands of glowing stones that surrounded them, he remained perfectly shadow-less. Creepy.
"So," he said with forced casualness. "You've come across something like this before? Something looking different on the inside than it does on the outside?"
"Mm, once or twice," Akane agreed distractedly, as she got a close-up look at one of the glowing, tear-shaped stones. It was easily twice the size of her head. And, now that she was closer, she could see that the stone wasn't embedded in the wall at all, but rather, it was smooth and flat, and mounted to the wall by three tiny golden hooks - two at the wide rounded base, and one at the pointed tip. She wanted to touch it, to see if it was as warm as the light it emitted, but she wasn't willing to let go of Ranma's body to free her hands.
"Dragon scales," Ranma said, coming up behind her.
"Yes," Akane agreed. "I think I remember hearing somewhere that, after a dragon sheds its scales, they glow..."
Ranma shook his head as he took in the overwhelming view. "Jeeze. The Ancient One must be one damn huge monster. But hey, I betcha he's saving a ton on his electric bill."
Akane let out a short, nervous laugh, as she glanced at Ranma out of the corner of her eye. She didn't quite succeed in suppressing a shudder as she carefully averted her gaze away from him, and silently prayed that Ranma didn't notice.
He noticed. He thought about saying something, like Sorry I'm looking so gross at the moment, but somehow he got the feeling that it wouldn't make her feel any better. It certainly wasn't making him feel all that great...
"Hey, look," Akane said, breaking him from his dark thoughts. "What's that over there?"
Ranma followed her gaze to the far end of the cavern, where a small, oval shaped hole broke the smooth continuity of the scale-lined wall. "Maybe a doorway or something? Though it seems really small for a dragon..."
"Come on." Akane began walking towards it quickly. "Let's check it out."
Ranma frowned, keeping a silent, gliding pace with her as they crossed the floor of the vast cavern. You stay here, he wanted to say. This is too weird, too dangerous. I don't want you getting hurt. Let me take care of it.
Yeah, right. He couldn't stop her from going, even if he wanted to - a fact that was bugging the hell out of him to no end. Ranma clenched his jaw in frustration. The situation was a double-edged sword. So what if Akane was now a veteran warrior? That didn't stop him from wanting to protect her; from wanting to keep her from needing to fight. But to do that, he needed his life back, and to accomplish that... Akane might need to fight. And fight a dragon who, from the looks of the cavern, was just as huge and dangerous as Shampoo had said...
Of course, fighting the Ancient One wouldn't even be an issue if they couldn't even manage to find him.
As they approached the oval hole, they discovered that it was indeed a doorway of some kind. The opening was about five meters high and three meters wide. Beyond, a single glowing dragon scale was mounted on the wall, softening the darkness within with diffused, golden light, and they could see a winding staircase, formed from the same strange smooth pearl-gray rock, that spiraled upward.
Silently, Akane stepped into the passage way. A cool breeze brushed her skin, and she inhaled deeply and closed her eyes. "Ranma... can you smell that?"
"Akane..." he sighed, as he drifted beside her.
She opened her eyes as she felt herself flush with embarrassment. "Sorry. I keep forgetting that you..." She sighed. "Anyway," she continued in a low voice, "this is weird, but... I can smell flowers. And... water. Like the air before a rainstorm."
"Rain?" Ranma blinked. "Inside a cave?"
"I've seen stranger things," Akane replied with a half-smile. "Come on." She started up the narrow, winding spiral staircase.
Ranma followed close behind, since the stairway was too narrow for them to walk side by side. At first, he was inwardly annoyed; his already severely bruised male pride rankling at being unable to take the lead.
However, after several minutes of climbing, each moment spent staring at Akane's back, Ranma found himself... increasingly fascinated by the sweeping mass of her long, dark hair. It swung almost hypnotically before his eyes, back and forth over the graceful movement of her swaying hips as she climbed the stairs with swift ease...
Ranma blinked, only then realizing that his eyes were about as wide as saucers. Swallowing hard, he forced himself to look away, even as he wondered how long he had been staring. What on earth was he thinking? This certainly wasn't the time or place for such thoughts! And, oh man, if Akane knew what had been going through his mind, she'd be furious...
Never be sorry for wanting to touch me...
Akane's words from just a short while before rang in his head, mocking him as he looked down at his bloody hands. Okay. Maybe she wouldn't be furious. But that possibility only made it worse.
Akane... you have no idea...
He was acutely aware of that small seed of panic that he had first felt at his realization of the true nature of his kuei curse, slowly growing within him, and he fought it back fiercely. The desire to touch something solid was a deep, gnawing ache. And worse, the memory of Akane's living warmth evoked a hunger in him, as though his chest were hollow, and could only be filled by allowing his intangible hands to drift within her living body...
His bloody fingers twitched at his sides, and he clenched his fists convulsively.
Okay. The walls. He'd look at them. They were a hell of a lot less interesting. Each rotation on the seemingly-endless stairway only brought into view yet another glowing dragon scale and more stairway. But at least that view didn't make him want to reach out and...
Ranma jerked, facing forward abruptly, hoping that the guilt he felt wasn't plain on his face.
But Akane wasn't even looking at him. And, peering beyond her, he could see that she had reached the top of the stairs, and was standing in front of another doorway. It was the same shape and size as the one below, but the opening was draped with cobalt-blue silks, billowing with the slight breeze that whispered through the opening. White pearls, each the size of his fist, lined the oval rim, shimmering with a muted, silvery light.
Akane turned to look over her shoulder at him then, and her expression was tense with an almost fearful anticipation. "Come on," she whispered. "I think this is it. There's something powerful in there..." And before Ranma could even utter a warning for her to be careful, she slipped through the veiled doorway, holding his body close.
Akane swallowed a gasp as she stepped through the shrouding veils of silk... and emerged from the cave into open air, and onto a landscape of rolling, tree-lined hills that stretched in all directions.
The night sky above was brilliant with a vast expanse of stars, glittering with impossible nearness. The Milky Way seemed to move and ripple above her, like a bright river flowing across the sky, bathing the land in pale light. Immediately before her, a scarlet bridge stretched over a small stream that cut a swath through carefully trimmed grasses before merging into a vast, still pond that reflected the night sky in all its glory. Lotus flowers floated on the pond's silver surface, their moonlight-white petals open to the sky and wet with dew. Beds of flowers and rocks were arranged tastefully around the pond. The humid air was heavy with the scent of lilies that lined the banks of the stream, and a gentle breeze whispered through a grove of willow trees near the pond, the tips of their low-hanging branches stretching out over the watery mirror.
Most impressive of all, though, were the eight pillars of iridescent light in the distance. Each pillar seemed to be a point in a vast, perfect octagon, of which the garden stood at the center. The pillars rose from the ground, stretching up until they seemed to merge with the light of the stars themselves.
Ranma came to stand by Akane, his eyes scanning the skies, but not to take in the splendor of the stars, nor the strange pillars of light. He took in his surroundings, oblivious to the beauty, with a caution born of not being able to use the living senses he had lost; of being unable to perceive the source of the power Akane had mentioned. Gradually, as his searching eyes found no hint of any other presence, his caution melted into outright aggravation. He turned to Akane, to see if she was having any luck, but found that she was too busy ogling the flowers. "Well?" he said irritably. "Where the hell is this dragon, anyway?"
Akane shook her head. "I... I don't know. There's a feeling of power here, but... it's all over. I can't tell where it's coming from. It's too spread out." She shrugged uneasily. "It might even be coming from those columns of light, for all I know."
Ranma snorted with disgust. "Sheesh. You'd think that, as big as he is, the Ancient One wouldn't be able to hide so damn well."
Akane was about to respond, when she caught a glimpse of movement out of the corner of her eye. Ranma noticed it the same moment, because they both turned towards it simultaneously.
Something was moving towards them through the shadows of the willow grove less than twenty meters away.
"Akane." Ranma hissed the warning through clenched teeth.
She nodded, and hastily knelt down, gently laying Ranma's body on the grass before reaching back to draw her sword as she stood in a ready stance. Ranma stood next to her, anxiously wishing he could do more than just stand by helplessly if they should be attacked by whatever creature a dragon would leave to guard its lair...
They watched the figure emerged from the shadows of the trees... and they both blinked.
It was an old man, stooped with age. He wore long nondescript brown robes, and his gray hair was pulled back into a ponytail at the base of his neck. His long, thin mustache hung nearly down to the end of his beard, which was tied neatly at the end with a short piece of string. He paid them no heed, but instead, walked slowly over to a bed of pale blue irises, knelt down, and with great care, began to pull weeds, placing them into a small cloth bag that hung at his waist.
Ranma stared, flummoxed. "Uh... The Ancient One has a gardener?"
Akane looked slowly over at Ranma, her eyes still wide with surprise. "Ranma," she whispered. "I think that is the Ancient One."
"What?" Ranma looked again. Yup, still the same old guy, digging in the dirt, and apparently too senile to even realize they were standing less than fifteen meters away. "No way. That ain't him."
"Yes it is," Akane insisted, leaning towards him and lowering her voice even further. "Trust me, I've seen this a dozen times. An all-powerful deity disguised as a lowly peasant or priest or something. And besides, can't dragons change shape?"
"You're asking me?" Ranma grumbled, making no attempt to be quiet, his frustration at the whole situation getting the better of him. If, after everything he'd been through, the dragon turned out to be some stupid old guy, he was going to be incredibly pissed. "You're the expert, obviously, so you tell me."
Akane's expression slid into one of hurt anger. "I'm just trying to help," she whispered back fiercely.
Ranma almost snapped back, old habits rearing their ugly heads... but instead, he sighed, struggling to get his temper back under control. "I know, I know," he said wearily. "I'm not mad at you... I'm just mad at this whole stupid situation." He looked at her and smiled weakly. "Sorry for being a jerk about it."
Akane softened immediately. "I'm sorry too." She laughed a little, but it sounded tired and a little afraid. "This... getting along... is going to take a bit of getting used to."
Ranma nodded. I only hope we have the chance to get used to it, he thought, his eyes straying back to the old man who still seemed blissfully unaware of their presence, though, if Akane was right about him, that probably wasn't the case at all. He peered at the old man intently, a scowl creasing his face as the old man continued to work amidst the flowers without even a glance in their direction. "I'm gonna go talk to him," he said, stepping forward.
"Wait," Akane whispered urgently. She was going to say, Let me talk to him, since she had more experience in trying to bargain with other-worldly entities... not that she'd really ever had much success, but that was beside the point...
However, when Ranma looked back at her, impatience and determination plain on his pale, gray-skinned countenance, she swallowed her words. She knew his male pride was stinging badly from being physically incapable of helping her so far. The least she could do was trust him to handle this...
"Just..." She took a deep breath. "Try not to make him angry, okay?" she said with a small, hopeful smile.
Ranma gave her a small flash of his old, cocky grin. "Hey, don't worry about it. I'll be diplomatic, you just watch." And before Akane could say another word, he turned and quickly approached the kneeling old man until he was standing right before his bowed, silver-haired head.
"Ahem," he said, clearing his throat, hoping the old man would finally look up and notice him.
The old man didn't look up. Instead, he reached down once again and parted the irises at the roots to grasp a thin, curling weed, pluck it carefully from the soil, and place it in the bag at his waist.
"Um... excuse me," Ranma said, with rather forced politeness, since he was growing more irritated with each passing second.
No response. Another weed went into the old man's bag.
"Hey, you," Ranma snapped. "Look at me, dammit! I'm tired of being ignored!"
Behind him, he could hear Akane groan, and he could almost hear her thinking, So much for diplomacy. He grimaced. Okay, so he blew it. But he was just so tired of this whole charade...
He broke off in mid-thought as the old man slowly raised his head to look up at him.
The old man's eyes were utterly inhuman in the wrinkled, aging face - solid black and liquid, like a film of ink over pools of night. And, deep within the center of each midnight orb, a shimmering glow the size of a pin prick, as if the darkness within each eye had been punctured and was bleeding light.
Ranma swallowed his surprise. "Uh... hey there..." he said nervously, his bravado slipping away beneath that unearthly gaze. "Uh... so, you're the Ancient One, huh?"
The old man's face creased unexpectedly with a smile. Ranma could see that his teeth behind the withered lips were white and sharp.
The old man looked beyond Ranma to where Akane was standing, wide-eyed. "Daughter of fire and ice," he said, his voice soft, though there was a distant roaring sound behind it, like the rush of an immense waterfall. Then he looked back at Ranma, his black eyes reflecting nothing. "Infant kuei," he said.
Ranma's eye twitched, and he clenched his teeth. Who are you calling an infant? he wanted to say. His chest burned with indignation and humiliation, but, with every ounce of his self control, he bit back the words, once again swallowing his pride. As much as he wanted, to, he couldn't pound the guy's face in, he reminded himself. He finally had the old guy's attention, and he had some business to take care of. Getting his life back was far more important than anything else. He couldn't let Akane down by losing his temper again.
Diplomacy, he thought to himself forcibly.
"Ancient One," he said, and the amount of respect he was able to muster in his voice surprised even him. "I have a request to make."
The old man looked at him for a long moment, the strange points of light glinting deep within his liquid black eyes... then he laughed quietly; a sound like the shushing of a windless rainstorm against forest foliage.
Ranma blinked, perplexed and annoyed. "What's so funny?" He narrowed his eyes suspiciously. "You are the Ancient One, right?"
"I am," came the quiet, amused reply.
Before Ranma could say anything, Akane stepped forward to stand next to him. "Please, Ancient One," she said, fighting off a wave of uneasiness as she looked in to the ethereal depths of the old man's eyes. "I... I am willing to pay the blood price, in exchange for your help." She took a deep breath as she saw, in her peripheral vision, Ranma's head swivel towards her, his eyes wide with shock. "Whatever it takes," she whispered.
"No way." Akane flinched at the anger in Ranma's voice, and when she glanced over at him, she saw the old, familiar stubbornness in his expression. "I'm not letting him touch a hair on your head," he said fiercely.
"You're already wounded," he said, turning away from the old man to face her directly. "You carry yourself well, and try to hide that you're hurt, but I know damn well that all the blood on your clothes ain't just mine. And you're starting to limp," he said, pointing down to her bloodied foot.
Akane looked down and frowned. She had almost forgotten about her entangling encounter with the spider demon that had punctured her foot when she kicked against its spiny legs. Okay, so it was true that she had been wounded in the fight with the demons before she crossed back over into the mortal realm, but... "So what?" she asked, looking back up at Ranma, her determination matching his. "I can handle a lot worse."
"I said no!" he snapped. And in his eyes, behind the anger, she could see all of his worry and concern for her, which both pleased her immeasurably, and irritated her at the same time.
"Ranma, don't be foolish!" she snapped back. "This may be the only way to bring you back!"
"You ain't paying some stupid blood price when I already bled all over his damn mountain," he said hotly, gesturing with a thumb towards the old man, who sat watching their exchange in silence. "If a blood price is what it takes, he already got one from me ten times over."
"Indeed," said the old man, startling both of them. Ranma and Akane turned towards him as he slowly got to his feet, brushing the soil off his hands against his coarse robe, giving them a glimpse of his long, sharp nails. He looked at Ranma and smiled, pointed white teeth glinting. "Infant kuei..."
Ranma bristled instinctively against the insolent name, and clenched his teeth. "Hey..."
"You speak the truth," the old man finished.
That sent Ranma's anger into a tailspin. His jaw sagged as he and Akane exchanged a surprised, hopeful glance. "I... I do?" he asked, looking back at the old man who, now that he was standing, was a lot larger than he first seemed. Ranma had to look up to meet his disturbing, gleaming black eyes. "I paid the blood price?"
The old man nodded. "Your blood has fed my mountain, seeped into its soil. Your dying breath stirred the dust on my holy ground." His black, bottomless gaze fixed on Ranma's face. "The price is paid," he said quietly. "What would you have of me, infant kuei?"
Ranma twitched. "Well, you can stop calling me that, for one thing!" he said... and as his thoughts caught up with his mouth a moment later, he mentally kicked himself, even as he heard Akane's dismayed cry of "Ranma!"
"So." The old man tilted his head slightly. "You wish to be released from your eternal curse?"
Ranma blinked, taken aback. "Uh... y-yeah," he stuttered, even as he caught Akane's panicked expression - an expression that said she thought he was about to screw up their only chance of getting out of this mess together. "I mean, no!" he amended. "I mean..." He took a deep breath and closed his eyes. Jeeze, get a grip, Saotome, this is it.
He opened his eyes and met the old man's gaze with resolve. "I want you to bring me back to life. That's my request."
The old man stared at him for a long moment.
"Back to life?" he said at last.
Ranma nodded sharply. "Right. Back to life. See? My body's right there." He pointed back to where Akane had rested his lifeless body on the grass. "So just... do whatever you all-powerful dragons do, and put me back."
The old man's black eyes widened in surprise. "You are serious?" Then he laughed; only this time, it was a soft, rueful chuckle.
"What's wrong?" Akane asked pensively. "You... you can help us, right?"
The old man looked at her seriously. "I cannot."
"Augh," Ranma snarled, clenching his bloody fists in frustration. "You can't or you won't? Don't jerk me around, old man! I paid your stupid blood price, now keep your end of the bargain!"
The old man raised a thin, gray eyebrow at him. "Old I may be... but 'all powerful' I am not. I am a dragon, the guardian of the Celestial Realms. I maintain the pillars that support the home of the gods. Many things are within my power. But the spark of life, once extinguished by the infinite dark, is not so easily rekindled, even by one such as I."
Ranma heard Akane's sharp, shuddering intake of breath beside him. He didn't dare look at her, not with the dread he felt showing so clearly on his face. It was something he hadn't truly dared contemplate until this moment. That the Ancient One wouldn't be able to help them. That he was well and truly dead. That he had finally encountered the one opponent that he could not eventually defeat.
Ranma closed his eyes, as if in pain, though, as usual, he couldn't feel a thing. This... couldn't be. Not after everything they had been through.
When he opened his eyes, they were slits of blue fire as he stared up at the old man before him. "You're full of crap, old man," he said in a low, tight voice that almost hid his fear. "You... you gotta bring me back to life. You let me onto your mountain, but didn't let any of my friends come with me. You didn't help me when I was dying on your damn doorstep. Now I don't care if you have to pull in favors from all those gods you say you're protecting. But you are going to bring me back to life, and you're going to do it now."
"Infant kuei," the old man said with a sigh. "You speak of the gift of life so lightly. You, a departed spirit, who should know better than any living creature just how precious and fragile life is. How, when Death comes, his touch is incontrovertible and irrevocable. So much so, that the power to restore the spark of life is not given to all the gods."
"Not all," said Akane, grasping desperately at the qualifier. "But some, right? There are some gods that can do it?"
The dragon sighed. "Once there was a woman," he said quietly, "who lost her only son to a swift, deadly illness. Grief-stricken, and unwilling to bear the loss, the woman sought for Xi Wang Mu, the Queen Mother of the West, so that she might plead with him to restore her son to her."
Ranma frowned. "Oh great. Why do I get the feeling I ain't gonna like this story?" He glanced at Akane and saw the same sentiment written on her features.
"The woman knew the legends of the Queen Mother of the West," the old man continued, as if there had been no interruption, "and knew that Xi Wang Mu possessed an elixir of immortality, made from the peaches in her sacred garden that ripened only once every ten thousand years. So, taking only a little food and clothing, she traveled many days to reach the Crown of the World, where the gods dwelled for many years before ascending to the sky. There, by the great Lake Yaochi, she found Xi Wang Mu tending to the lotus flowers. Falling at her feet, in grief and exhaustion, she told Xi Wang Mu of her dead son, and begged her to restore him to life.
"Xi Wang Mu was impressed by the love and devotion this mother had for her son, but told her that her elixir could only grant immortality to the living, not restore the life to the dead. At this, the woman wept greatly. Xi Wang Mu took pity on her then, and told her to go to each house in her village, and speak with each family. 'If you can find one person who has not been touched by the death of a loved-one,' she told her gently, 'I will bring your son back to life.'
"So the woman did as the Queen Mother of the West asked, and returned to her village, going from door to door, asking each person she met, 'Has Death taken a loved-one from you?' She went to every last house, and put her question to every individual, from adult to child. Wherever she went, she was met with a sad-eyed, solemn 'Yes.' And with each affirmative answer, there was a story to be told, with smiles and tears, of the husband or wife, parent or child, brother or sister, who had been taken by the cold touch of the Ghosts of Impermanence.
"And after she had listened to each story, and received her last answer, the woman despaired, for she knew then that there was no soul on earth who had not been touched by death in some manner. And yet, the knowledge also brought her comfort, for she understood at last that death is no respecter of persons, and comes to all, male and female, old and young, bond and free."
The old man fell silent.
Ranma blinked. "... That's it?" he yelled.
The old man looked at Akane. "That," he said, "is the answer to your question."
Akane's eyes filled with tears. Inside, she was trembling and angry. She wanted to kick the old bastard, and would have, if she thought it might have done any good. "So... after everything," she whispered, "we're just supposed to... to accept this?"
Ranma eyes widened, and he clenched his fists. He didn't want to believe that. And yet, his hand went almost instinctively to his bleeding stomach to feel the ghostly wound there, and he shuddered at the memory of Yin Wu Ch'ang Kuei's phantom hand entering his body as his life was swallowed by an deep, icy darkness...
This was it, then, he realized with a cold, sinking finality. The Ancient One couldn't help him. He was dead, and there was no coming back. It was over.
Akane was going to have to leave the mountain without him.
He didn't want her to leave. It was selfish to feel that way, he knew, but the thought of being trapped for an eternity on this mountain, alone, terrified him. And the thought of being separated from her again... forever... was agony.
But she couldn't stay here with him. He couldn't do that to her. What kind of life could she have in the company of a gruesome ghost? She deserved a real man, of warmth and flesh. Not some bloody specter desperately trying to cling to the last vestiges of his vanished life...
She would probably want to take his corpse with her, for burial, he mused grimly. Something to remember him by...
He finally glanced at Akane then, and saw the tears in her eyes, the shock, anger and grief filling her face as she looked at him.
"Akane," he whispered anxiously, helplessly, the look on her face filling him with a terrible, trembling ache. "Don't cry..." He wanted so badly to put his arms around her. "Don't cry..."
She gave a short, violent shake of her head, unable to speak, and silently mouthed "sorry" as the tears slipped down her cheeks.
The sight of her tears was too much. Ranma turned on the dragon angrily, choking on the burning in his throat, in his eyes. He reached out violently for the front of the old man's robe, but his fingers passed through ineffectually. "Dammit!" he cried. "Old man... you have to help us!"
The old man shook his head somberly. "I cannot."
"Please" Akane pleaded hoarsely, wretched in her anguish. Ranma looked back at her, and watched in dismay as she knelt and bowed until she was almost prostrate, in the most humble supplicating posture before the old man. She touched her forehead to the ground, her long dark hair threading amidst the trimmed grass. "There... there has to be something you can do," she said, her voice muffled and broken. "Please... I... I can't lose him. Not now... not this way..."
Ranma looked at her, the terrible ache filling him to the point where it almost sent him to his knees. "Akane..."
"Maybe... maybe my life," she whispered.
Ranma's eyes widened. "No!" he immediately protested.
"Maybe... you can use some of it," she continued. "Give some to him..." She looked up at the old man, tears streaking her face. "Anything, I'll do anything..."
The old man's piercing eyes were clouded as he looked at the two of them; his smile long vanished from his ancient face, replaced with an expression that was almost unreadable.
"Daughter of fire and ice," he whispered. "Your devotion to this departed one is admirable. But the spark of life is different and separate from the living ki it creates. The spark that connects the spirit to the body is rare and unique for each mortal. It is not something that can be shared, or simply rekindled on a whim."
"Then what can you do, old man?" Ranma shouted. "You said yourself that I paid your blood price! You owe me something!"
"I can remove from you the kuei curse that keeps you trapped on this mountain in the image of your dead flesh," the old man replied softly, his black eyes gleaming.
Ranma blinked, taken aback. The old guy could remove his kuei curse? Good, but not enough, he was going to say...
He looked over to where Akane knelt on the grass, and saw her wet eyes growing wide with a desperate hope as she looked at him. "If he... if he removed your curse... if you weren't trapped here any more..."
Ranma closed his eyes, knowing what she was going to say. "Akane..."
"You could come with me," she said tearfully. "We... could still go home together."
Ranma sighed, and turned to her in helpless anger. "Dammit, Akane, you know I can't do that."
"Why not?" she shouted, getting abruptly to her feet. "It's better than nothing! It's better than losing you forever! Do you want me to leave without you?"
"Of course not!" Ranma shouted back. "But you can't live the rest of your life with a ghost! What kind of life is that?"
"Young ones," the old man interrupted, raising one long-nailed hand in a gesture for silence. When Ranma and Akane looked at him, his expression was solemn. "I am afraid that is not possible," the old man said, the rushing sound behind his voice a soft murmur.
Akane's eyes narrowed. "What's not possible?" she asked.
The old man regarded her with regret. "Once his soul is released from the curse, he can no longer remain in the mortal realm. He will be sent to the proper realm of jurisdiction, under your gods. There, he will either meet with his ancestors in the eternities, or be caught by the wind of reincarnation on the banks of the river of death. Either way... you will not see him again in this life."
Ranma and Akane absorbed that information, silent and stricken.
Akane was numb. She felt exhausted, boneless. She didn't even think she could cry any more.
It wasn't fair. It just wasn't fair. When you fought so hard for something, you were supposed to win. You were supposed to come out on top. Not lose everything, and all hope in an instant...
And then, something the Ancient One said penetrated through the numbing fog of grief in her mind...
She looked up, realization flickering across her tear-stained face. "Our... gods..." she whispered.
Ranma glanced at her. "What?"
Akane didn't answer. She was remembering her journey through the Kami Plane. Two and a half years, following any lead she could find, to a deity powerful enough to break the blood spell...
She looked at the dragon. "Your gods might not be able or willing to help us, but..." She turned to Ranma in her growing excitement. "Emma-o," she said breathlessly. "The Judge and Lord of the Dead. I never met him, because he doesn't live in the Kami Plane. He lives in the realm of the Dead - which is where you'll go if you get the kuei curse removed."
Ranma looked at her doubtfully. New hope burned in his chest at the thought that not all options were completely closed to him, but he didn't dare show his eagerness just yet. "You think he could..."
"You would have more luck seeking help from a stone," the old man said bluntly, jarring the two from their sudden hopeful euphoria. He looked at each of them in turn, the light within his black eyes glittering intensely. "Emma-o is known throughout the pantheons as a ruthless and unforgiving judge," he said reproachfully. "Only those who require punishment are brought before him. To seek him out willingly is madness."
Ranma was instantly in the old man's face, his nose scant millimeters from the old man's as he glared into the glittering void of his eyes. "Yeah," Ranma said, his voice quiet and intense, "but could he do it? Is he one of the gods who can reignite the spark of life? Could he really bring me back from the dead?"
The old man stared at Ranma silently. Ranma met his black gaze, determined and unflinching. Only the awareness of his own incorporeal form kept him from reaching up and grabbing the old man by the front of his robe, then shaking him until he answered.
"He could..." the old man said at last, reluctantly. "But he won't."
Ranma looked back at Akane and saw his own ecstatic expression reflected back at him in her face. A faint, improbable hope was better than none. He turned back to the old man, a familiar gleam of a challenge lighting his eyes. "I'll take that chance," he said with a small grin. Finally, he felt like he was back on solid footing, with a solid goal before him. "'Cause if he can do it, I'm gonna find him and make him send me back."
"Fool," the old man groaned, frustration creasing his face and making him appear even older. "If you go before Emma-o unsummoned, you risk the hells, or worse."
"The... hells?" At the hesitant sound of her voice, Ranma turned to Akane to see all of the enthusiasm drain out of her, to be replaced by fear.
"Aw, Akane, don't worry about that." Ranma grinned. "I'll be diplomatic."
"No," Akane said with a shake of her head. "Maybe this isn't such a good idea. If you go before Emma-o, and... and something happens..."
"Akane, nothing's gonna happen-"
"You don't know that!" she snapped. "Look at us! Look at you!" She gestured sharply at his bloody, ghostly form with one hand. "Did you plan on this? Has anything turned out like we wanted it to so far?"
Ranma frowned. "Okay, so maybe things haven't gone quite like we planned! Do you want to just give up now? You just want me to wander off into the afterlife without a fight, when there's a chance this could work?"
"Better that, than having you end up in one of the hells forever," she yelled.
Ranma looked at her incredulously. "I can't believe you're saying that. You want to give up just because of the off-chance that this Emma-o guy might be in a bad mood? You were all excited about the idea just a second ago."
"I... I was grasping at straws, I was scared, and I forgot..." Akane closed her eyes, struggling to regain her composure. "You don't know these gods like I do. They banished one of their own to the hells just because he tried to help me escape the Kami plane." Or at least, they tried, she thought, remembering Susa-no-o wearing Hoso-no-kami's skin. And then another realization struck her, like an icy fist to her gut. "If Emma-o is in charge of the hells," she said hoarsely, "he... he must be on the Council..."
"He is." The old man nodded slightly in affirmation.
Akane went pale.
"What?" Ranma looked back and forth between the two. "What's the 'Council?'"
"A fickle assembly of Japanese deities," the old man replied with no small amount of condescension, "ruled more by whim and politics than by logic and compassion."
Akane didn't like the old man's tone, but she couldn't exactly disagree. She wanted to say that Susa-no-o wasn't like that... but then, he wasn't on the Council.
Ranma scowled. "Look, Council or no Council, I'm going to face Emma-o and get my life back."
Akane's face clouded over with fear and anger, and her brown eyes glistened. "But... if you don't come back..."
"I will come back," he insisted. She opened her mouth to protest again, but he silenced her by reaching out. He stopped just short of touching her cheek with his bloodied, intangible hand. He ached to brush his fingers against her skin, but he held himself just scant millimeters away, then leaned forward to whisper into her ear.
"I promise," he said softly. "I won't be satisfied with death. If it means risking the hells... then I will risk the hells to come back to you."
Akane's eyes widened, then shimmered as she pressed the fingers of both hands to her lips. "Oh, Ranma..." He was being an idiot. But that was by far the most romantic thing he had ever said to her. His words, and the look in his blue eyes set her skin to tingling; her blood rushing. And, for a moment, she believed him.
The old man sighed. "It is foolish to make promises you can't keep, boy."
Ranma scowled at the old man. "You keep out of this." He turned back to face Akane, and the look on her face made him want to melt. "Do you trust me?"
Akane looked into his face. She looked past his gray-skinned, blood-flecked features, and into his blue eyes that were still bright and alive - the only part of him that, as yet, remained untouched by his kuei curse. She wanted to trust him. She wanted to believe he could do anything. Even face down Emma-o. Even come back from the dead.
"I do," she said, though she feared it was a lie. "I know you'll come back. Because if you don't..." She leaned forward to whisper in his ear. "Then I'll track you down no matter what plane of existence you're in, and find out the reason why, Ranma Saotome."
Ranma pulled back and looked at her in blinking surprise. Then he grinned.
"Fools," the old man muttered again.
"Nobody's askin' for your opinion," Ranma said irritably. "You just do your dragon thingy and lift this curse like you said you would."
The old man's eyes flashed in his expressionless face. "As you wish then," he said quietly, and he closed his eyes.
Akane's eyes widened in alarm as the old man raised his arms. "Wait," she said, because it was too soon-
The old man exploded in a flash of silver and green, and Akane cried out and shielded her face with her arms as a tremendous wind thrashed around her. The valley screamed with the sudden surge of power, as if resentful of having its peace broken. The flowers and willow trees near the pond whipped about violently, spilling their leaves and petals out onto the tempest the tranquil water had become...
Ranma instinctively shielded his face with his arms against the onslaught, until he realized he couldn't feel anything. He uncovered his face and looked up...
...and up, and up...
Ranma swallowed hard, and idly wondered if it had been such a great idea to smart off to the old man... er... dragon...
The wind died abruptly, and in its absence, the trees and water became almost instantly still. Beside him, he heard Akane's small gasp as she followed his gaze.
The Ancient One filled the sky, his massive sea-green-scaled body coiling in a tangle of gleaming, chaotic loops. The dragon's forelegs and hind legs were almost lost amidst the coils, but for the five long ebony claws that adorned each foot. Blood-red eyes, each the size of a house, gazed down at the two gaping, minuscule humans from within a huge, silver-maned head.
The dragon dipped his gargantuan head gracefully from the sky, sliding silently through the air until he faced Ranma directly.
Ranma forced himself not to step back in the face of this mythic beast that made the eight-headed serpent from Ryuganzawa look like a regular garden snake.
"Infant kuei," the dragon breathed, and his breath shimmered hot and gold, like liquid fire.
Ranma gasped, wide-eyed, as he felt the dragon's breath pass through him. He couldn't move. He stood, immobile, his limbs outstretched as if caught in mid-convulse. The Ancient One's breath burned through him, devouring the cold numbness that had engulfed him since his death...
"Wait," he heard Akane cry, but her voice seemed so distant. He wanted to turn to her, to tell her it was okay, but he couldn't move, couldn't speak as the fire burned through him...
"I remove your curse from you." Another breath; searing white gold. Ranma bit back a scream; but not of pain, not of joy. Just a scream, for the sake of feeling; but by his will, it emerged silent from his lips...
"Please..." Ranma couldn't tell if Akane was talking to him, or to the dragon. "Please, just let me say goodbye..."
And he could feel the wound close inside him, could no longer taste the blood in his mouth...
"Go, now, to your place of eternal rest."
The liquid fire bled from his limbs, out his fingers and the soles of his feet, and suddenly he could move again. He turned to Akane, even as it seemed that he was moving away from her... "Akane..." he called, and his own voice was loud in his ears.
He was moving without moving, and she was running after him, her hands outstretched. But even as she ran towards him, she seemed to fade away from before his eyes, as if a thick veil of mist had risen between them. "Ranma," she called, her voice dwindling. "Ranma, I love you..."
"Akane!" He tried to move towards her but the gesture meant nothing as the mists thickened before him. "I'll come back, I swear..."
And then, he heard the sound of rushing water behind him, and he turned...
Akane cried out as Ranma vanished from her view, disappearing into the river of stars. She called after him, once... twice...
"He is gone," the Ancient One said, his soft, rushing voice filling the sky.
As if she needed him to tell her that. She knew that Ranma was gone. The whole feel of him was gone, and she only then realized that, until that moment, she had been filled with the comforting sense of Ranma's presence...
It was gone.
"You bastard." Akane glared up at him with wet, stinging eyes. "I didn't even get the chance to say goodbye."
The dragon slid towards her in the air, blinking his huge, scarlet eyes at her. "There are many mortals in this world," he murmured, "who would give up everything they own for the opportunity to be with their departed loved ones that you have had this night."
Akane looked at the ground, shame burning her throat. The Ancient One was right. She should be grateful that she had the chance to see Ranma; to speak with him. If it weren't for his kuei curse... she would have been alone on the mountain. Her search would have ended when she discovered his cooling corpse on the bloody mountain path...
Almost automatically, her gaze was drawn to where Ranma's body lay on the grass, not far from the pearl and silk-lined entrance to the cave below. Slowly, she walked over to it, knelt next to it, looked into the pale, lifeless face...
...and felt nothing. She shivered. How could she have ever thought this empty shell was Ranma? Everything that was Ranma was gone.
"Where is he?" she whispered.
She felt rather than saw the Ancient One ripple his coils through the night sky above her. "He now stands on the banks of the river of death. Two paths are open before him. The path he chooses will determine whether or not you will be with him again in the next world."
Akane closed her eyes and clenched her fists. "I'll be with him in this world," she said. She tried to sound defiant, but it came out sounding hopelessly weary. "He promised."
The Ancient One was silent.
Slowly, carefully, Akane reached out and pulled Ranma's body to her, cradling it in her arms once again.
It was time to leave. There were people waiting for her at the base of the mountain, she knew. Nabiki, and her friends. They had come on this insane expedition to help Ranma save her. It seemed almost strange to think of them now, after finding Ranma, and then losing him again.
"There are those waiting for you," the Ancient One said, as if knowing her thoughts. "I will send you to them."
She looked down at Ranma's cold, slack face. "How in the world," she wondered aloud, "am I going to explain this to them?"
The only answer she received was a blast of wind that suddenly engulfed her in a small cyclone, lifting her long hair to the sky in the updraft, and she clutched Ranma's body to her chest, squinting against the wind...
...and then she was in a clearing, surrounded by a thick, dark forest. A campfire crackled in the middle of the clearing. She blinked a little, her eyes tearing from the wind even as it abruptly died, plunging her into a deep, oppressive silence. She looked around...
...and saw Ukyo, bound to a tree, a gag wrapped tightly around her head. Mousse, in duck form, and... P-Chan?... tied up and dangling upside down from the branches of a tree. Cologne, sitting near the fire.
Staring at her. They were all staring at her. And the body in her arms.
Nobody moved. Nobody breathed. Nobody made a sound.
"Excuse me," she said, taking a deep breath that was almost calm. "What the hell is going on here?"