Hearts of Ice

Chapter 24: Phoenix

The voice of the Ancient One filled Ranma's mind, quiet, and yet infinitely commanding.

"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...

...and saw nothing but shimmering pale blue, filling his entire field of vision so that he saw nothing else, even when he turned back the way he had come. All around him, above him, beneath him, as far as he could see. Pale, shimmering blue, like a washed-out desert sky.

"Where-" he said, and then choked as his mouth filled with water. It was only then that he felt the cool, wet pressure of it against his skin and his open eyes; felt the mild currents flowing around him, lifting and tugging at his clothes and his dark hair.

Several realizations struck him at once. He was under water. Under water, and he could feel it, and it was wonderful, after the near-complete sensory deprivation he had just experienced during his brief stint as a hungry ghost on the Ancient One's mountain.

Another realization. He was under water - cold water at that - and he was still male.

Also - and this was on the rather negative side of things - his lungs were starting to burn from lack of air.

Some rational part of him that wasn't buried under the sudden flare of panic that gripped him wondered how he could drown if he was already dead. But if he was dead, he was dead in a place where he felt incredibly, vibrantly alive with the restoration of his sense of touch, as well as the apparent need to breathe, and if the dead could die twice, he didn't want to wait around to find out.

He began swimming instinctively upwards, though there was no way to tell if all this water that he found himself submerged in even had a surface to reach. The water looked the same in all directions; pale blue, no distinguishing light or shadow to let him know if he was swimming in the right direction. His single, surprised exclamation had not even created any air bubbles for him to follow to safety.

Maybe the dragon screwed up, he thought with a mixture of annoyance and fear. That was the way his life, and death, went, apparently. One big screw-up after another. I was supposed to go to the Japanese afterlife, but instead I ended up in some crazy water dimension.

His swimming became more frantic and determined as the burning in his lungs increased. He cursed mentally, thinking about how, less than five minutes ago, he hadn't been able to breathe even if he'd wanted to. That particular nuisance would have been a blessing in this current circumstance. On top of that, he was just getting used to not needing to breathe! It wasn't fair to change the rules on him like this, dammit!

His lungs were on fire, the strength was leaching from his limbs, and his fingertips were turning blue when he finally saw a wavering light far above him. Or maybe it was just an illusion; a hallucination caused by the lack of oxygen to his brain. He didn't know, didn't care. Spurred on by the sight, he pumped his legs furiously and felt a twinge of relief when the light seemed to grow closer through his effort. And then he could actually see bright sunlight filtering down through the water, see it rippling across the surface, and he pushed himself for it. After an infinite moment, his fingers straining upwards, he broke through the surface into crisp, clean air that he eagerly took into his aching lungs with a heaving gasp. Before his weight could pull him back down, he kicked his legs to keep his head above water...

... and felt his bare feet touch down on something soft and silty, that pushed between his toes, and yet stopped him from sinking further.

Ranma, still gratefully gulping air, blinked in surprise and looked down. The crystal clear water only came up to his mid-torso. Below the surface of the water, he could see that he was standing on a bed of gray sand that sifted and swirled around his feet with the current.

"...the hell?" he said, thoroughly confused and irritated at this point.

"Oh, you don't want to go there," said a voice, and he looked up, startled, to see a young woman, wearing a deep red summer kimono with an intricate pattern of green leaves, kneeling, poised and graceful, on the nearby grassy bank. She smiled at him, and he saw that she wasn't as young as he first thought, for there were laugh wrinkles at the corners of her dark, glittering eyes.

"Who are you?" Ranma asked.

"Just a dead soul, like yourself," she answered casually. "I'm waiting for reincarnation."

Ranma took that in. "So..." he said slowly. "This is the afterlife?"

"Yes," she answered patiently, as though she had dealt with this sort of thing before. "You're dead. Don't worry, you'll get used to it."

"It's not that." Ranma had had plenty of time to get used to the idea of being dead, and he didn't want this woman to think he was some sort of novice or anything. "I just thought I might have gotten lost on the way here or something." Now it was the woman's turn to blink in surprise. "I came from China, see," he explained. "And I didn't think that almost drowning was part of getting here," he added irritably. "Is that the way everyone gets here? They die, and suddenly find themselves several hundred meters under water?" Ranma didn't know if it really was that far, but it had felt like it.

The woman was looking at him oddly. "You almost drowned?" she asked, raising an eyebrow as if she didn't quite believe him. "I was wondering why you made such a big production, coming out of the river like that, gasping like a fish out of water."

Ranma frowned. "So it wasn't like that for you?"

She shook her head. "I was only under for a few moments. Just long enough to realize that I was dead, and that the surface of the river was just above me."

Ranma had a million questions then, but was struck with a sudden morbid curiosity. "So... how did you die?" he said carefully, hoping it wasn't some sort of taboo question.

But she just shrugged. "Car accident," she said. "I was on my way to a festival. Found out too late that it's best not to drive a stick shift wearing a tight-wrapped yukata and wooden sandals."

Ranma blinked, not knowing what to say to that. He was about to ask how long she had been sitting there waiting for reincarnation, when suddenly the river bed seemed to shift under his feet, and a strong current took hold of him, pushing him a full meter downstream so fast that he nearly lost his balance and plunged all the way under the water again. "Whoa!" he yelled, and he struggled against it, trying to wade for the bank where the lady was sitting, but the more he struggled, the stronger the current became. "What the hell is this?"

"Don't fight it," the woman called out to him. "It's okay, this happens to everyone. Once the river has you, it will send you where you are supposed to be."

Ranma didn't like the sound of that. He wasn't sure where he was supposed to be, but he knew where he wanted to be. He had to find Emma-o, the Lord of the Hells. He twisted in the water, trying to see where the river was pushing him.

His eyes widened as he got a good look at the river for the first time. He hadn't realized that it was so... huge.

And that he was not alone in its waters.

The river looked to be nearly a mile wide. And it was full of people. Hundreds, maybe thousands of people. The more he looked, the more he gradually became aware of them, their forms slowly appearing before his eyes. Old people, middle-aged, teenagers, children... even a few infants floated gently on the surface of the water. Ranma stared at them all in amazement. And yet, he noticed that only a few were looking around at the others, like he was. Most seemed completely unaware that they were not alone in the vast river, just like he had been moments before, even as they were being pulled along by the same swift current that he was caught in.

As he watched, feeling the current drag him down river, several more people broke through the surface of the water, looking a bit dazed, and perhaps even a bit frightened as they looked around at their new surroundings... and yet their eyes passed blindly over their fellow deceased.

"You don't see it all at once," he heard the woman say, far off to his side. She had stood, and was following him as the river swept him along. "It's too much to take in. And then, you see only if you're looking closely." She paused. "You're seeing a lot, I can tell by the look on your face."

Ranma could only nod.

He could see that the river downstream forked three ways.

The right fork, near the bank that he was closest to, wound off into the distance, and he could see lush fields, and forested mountains. And, as he looked closer, he thought he could see houses, their gleaming tiled rooftops peaking through endless groves of cherry trees, reflecting the sunlight, and people waiting on the banks of the river, helping others out, greeting them with smiles and hugs...

It looked... nice. Warm. Welcoming. Like family. Ranma felt his heart twist inside his chest, and he forced himself to look away. He couldn't allow himself to get distracted.

As he forced his gaze elsewhere, he noticed that other people were washed up onto the bank before they reached the forks in the river. Those, like the woman, who were to be reincarnated, he guessed.

The middle fork was hard to see. It was obscured by mists, and when Ranma tried to look at it closely, it didn't seem to be there at all, which puzzled the hell out of him. It was like an optical illusion, something he could only see when he wasn't paying attention to it directly, and it immediately aroused his suspicions. Was that where he needed to go to find Emma-o?

"Where does that middle fork go?" he asked the woman.

"Middle fork?" The woman sounded surprised.

So, she couldn't see it. That meant that it was a pretty decent bet that she didn't know where it led, either. "Never mind," he said, and he looked out across the river again, wondering if there was a way to maneuver himself to that middle fork...

But, as his gaze slowly raked past the masses of human souls caught in the river... he could suddenly hear voices. The voices floated to him across the surface of the water, snatches of solitary conversation, faint and eerie...

"...dead? I'm dead? But I was just..."

"...at last, finally, I waited so..."

"...god, oh god, I'm sorry, I didn't want..."

The faint garble of voices washed over Ranma like a wave, far colder than the river itself. So much confusion, relief, uncertainty, fear...

"...mama? Mama? Where..."

"...ooo! Nooooooooo! Help, someone, I..."

His head jerked towards the sound of that last terrified voice...

The left fork.

For a moment, he couldn't see it. It was even worse than trying to look at the middle fork. His eyes kept skipping past it, almost instinctively, because each time he almost saw it, a feeling of immense dread twisted his insides. But then, he grit his teeth, and forced himself to stare, unblinking, until it slowly came into view...

One look at it, and Ranma knew that it was where he needed to go. The water streaming into that left fork ran thick and blackish-red, like an open, clotting wound. The people caught in its current clawed futilely at the bloody water as they tried to escape its grip, their eyes wide, or clenched shut, their faces tight masks of terror. In the distance, the sky was as black as tar, and as Ranma listened carefully, he became aware of a thin, high sound that drifted from that starless void. Faint, but it chilled him to the core all the same.

That wasn't... screaming, was it?

"Like I said." The woman following him on the river bank spoke again, and her voice was grim as her gaze followed his. "You don't want to go there." She sighed. "Lucky for you, it looks like you're headed for your ancestors. I mean, life's great and all, but I personally am not too thrilled about having to live it all over again..."

But Ranma didn't tear his eyes away from the left fork. "I gotta get over there somehow." And he began to struggle against the pushing force of the river, forcing his legs to move against the water pressure.

The river, sensing his struggle, fought back. Ranma found himself suddenly in the midst of his own personal rapids. The water frothed and churned with the sudden force of several tons of water rushing around Ranma's body, pushing him towards his eternal destination whether he liked it or not. He strained with all his strength to stand, but the current was too much for him. His feet were swept out from beneath him, and for a moment, he went under. Immediately, the waters calmed, and Ranma stood again, spluttering and angry as he felt the current once again pulling him steadily downstream. "Damn it," he shouted. "Leave me alone! I'll go where I damn well want to!"

The woman was staring at him, mouth agape. "What are you doing?" she asked.

He ignored her, his eyes narrowed and calculating as he looked around. There had to be a way to escape the river's current. Any move he made in any direction other than the way the current ran made the river react violently. He looked across the river, where thousands of other human souls drifted inexorably towards their fate...

He blinked. And grinned.

The woman's eyes narrowed, but he didn't see. "What are you doing?" she asked again.

He didn't answer. Instead, he took a deep breath and ducked under the surface of the water, curling himself into a crouch. He opened his eyes in the clear water, waiting , letting the current drag him along the bottom of the river bed...

...and then, he jumped.

The woman stared as Ranma burst from the river like a trained dolphin. He flipped at the top of his arc, and landed, feet first, on the top of a man's head.

The startled man, who was apparently on his way to meet his ancestors according to the direction his current was pushing him, didn't even have a chance to react, for Ranma had already leapt to the next head, and the next...

The river did nothing, could apparently do nothing, Ranma noticed, as he gleefully head-hopped his way across the river. "'Scuse me! Comin' through! Whoops, sorry ma'am, you looked like a guy from the back."

The woman in the red kimono yelled after him. "Wait! Where do you think you're going?"

"Where does it look like?" he called back. "I'm going to Hell!"

The woman stared after him, wide-eyed. Indeed, he was making great progress across the river, jumping from the head of one astonished dead person to the next, until finally he reached the black-red waters that bled into the left fork. At that point, though, the people caught in the river's current were not docilely allowing themselves to be swept along. They were struggling frantically to get away, and the river was fighting back, often dragging them under the thick, slimy waters until their struggles ceased.

Ranma stepped on one river-slick head, and slipped.


He went under. The river had him again... and it was furious. There would be no reprieve or escape for him this time, and the woman saw a brief flicker of panic cross Ranma's face as the raging red waters dragged him under...

The woman held her breath, her eyes scanning the far bank's violently turbulent waters. The moments ticked by.

Finally, Ranma resurfaced at the mouth of the left fork. He looked bedraggled and afraid as he looked around, bloody water streaming from his hair and down his face... but then he saw where he was. The river had apparently decided to grant his wish after his display of utter disrespect for its laws. He was on his way to Hell.

And he was grinning in triumph.

The woman slowly passed a hand over her eyes. "Ranma," she groaned. "You idiot."

Ukyo glared sullenly at Cologne as the old, wounded Amazon threw another log onto the campfire, sending glowing red embers floating up into the night sky. The glare went unnoticed. Cologne didn't even glance in her direction as she settled down next to the fire once more, smoothing the pale lavender fur of the unconscious cat nestled in the crook of her good arm with one withered, blood-stained hand.

The revived blaze roared, crackling and hissing, breaking into the deep, smothering silence that had settled over the clearing ever since Ryoga's heart-wrenching sobs had finally subsided a short while ago.

At the thought of him, Ukyo looked up, her eyes drawn unwillingly to where a black piglet and a white duck dangled, trussed up with nylon tent cord, from the branches of the same tree to which she herself was tied. Mousse was silent and despondent as usual. And Ryoga...

Though his weeping had ceased, the piglet still shook with the occasional shuddering tremor. His eyes were heavy-lidded with despair as he stared at the ground, unseeing. Ukyo quickly looked away, a sharp pang of sympathy banishing whatever remaining traces of anger she had felt towards him for hiding his curse.

She couldn't blame him, really, now that, with her memories of Akane restored, she understood the truth.

She had felt guiltily relieved when the tiny piglet's weeping had ceased, almost grateful of the unnerving silence that came after. Ryoga's all-too-audible grief at rediscovering his memories of Akane had resonated within her, though she had shed no tears.

She was too tired to cry. Too tired, and too uncomfortable, with a foul rag stuffed in her mouth, her legs bound, and her arms tied behind her to the rough bark of a tree.

With a muffled sigh, Ukyo shifted her attention away from the fire and looked down at her legs, wriggling as much as her bonds would allow her, trying to restore some feeling into her numb rear-end... then sighed at the futility of it. She had lost track of how long she had been sitting there, tied up helplessly, waiting. Hours, it seemed, though she couldn't be sure, because time seemed to be crawling by. And she spent each dragging moment with nothing to do except feel her own discomfort, stare into the campfire, and wonder why the hell it was taking Ranma so long to come down from that stupid mountain and rescue her.

But then, of course, she knew. Akane was back, after all. And Akane loved Ranma, and he loved her, and everyone and their bloody dog knew it now, and it really didn't take a genius to figure out what two newly-reunited lovers, blissfully unaware of their friends' plight below, would spend the rest of the night doing. Ukyo had been counting on their mutual shyness, though, to at least get the two of them down the mountain in a more timely manner before things got too hot and heavy. She had pegged Akane for sure as being one to wait until after the wedding. It figured that they would both choose such an inopportune time to throw away their prudishness.

She hoped that, when Ranma and Akane finally managed to drag their love-sick selves back to the campsite and discovered what had happened in their absence, they felt good and guilty for taking their sweet time.

It was a terrible, unworthy thought, she knew. But dammit, she was tired and miserable, and if she chose to indulge in a bit of self-pity, it was well-earned. She had lost, after all, though now it was painfully clear that she'd never had much chance of winning the big fiancée competition in the first place. She had come out here to selflessly support Ranma on his quest to find true love, when she was standing right there the whole time. And now he and Akane were busy getting it on, while the only intimacy she shared at the moment was with the gnarly tree at her back that was chafing her arms, all while a crazy Amazon held her hostage. Terribly sorry if my charity is running a wee bit thin, she thought glumly.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Cologne tense suddenly, straightening in her seat by the fire. Ukyo looked up to see that the old ghoul was no longer staring into the flames... but at the far side of the clearing, where a small whirlwind was forming in the dust.

Ukyo blinked. What now? she wondered, a small knot of fear forming in her stomach. There was nothing natural about that whirlwind, appearing out of the stillness that surrounded the mountain. Her heart began pounding; she could feel it thudding in her throat as the silence was suddenly pierced by the wailing of the wind as the strange dust devil grew in strength with swift, wild fury.

Above her, hanging from the trees, she could hear Ryoga and Mousse stir in their bonds. Ryoga gave a small squeal of apprehension as the whirlwind expanded in height and width. Finally, she could distinguish a dark shape forming in the midst of the small cyclone. A dark, human shape, carrying another human shape in its arms.

And Cologne, she noticed, watched the figures within the whirlwind with tense expectation, unmoving from her spot by the fire. Which is when it dawned on her.

Ranma was back.

It had to be him. Finally. And Ukyo found herself suddenly torn between relief that she was finally going to be freed... and dread at seeing Ranma and Akane together. From what she could distinguish through the wall of the whirlwind, he was carrying her in his arms, just like the knight cradling his newly-rescued damsel in distress. Akane probably had her arms thrown around his neck in a grateful embrace. The whole thing was so romantic, Ukyo wanted to gag.

The wail of the whirlwind reached a frenzied shriek before dissipating abruptly with a sound like a small clap of thunder, leaving the human figure standing alone in the sudden stillness. Silence descended, and the dust stirred by the vanished wind settled like a shroud around the figure.

Ukyo blinked. It wasn't Ranma.

The figure was a woman. Tall, slender, with a long, tangled mane of dark hair that fell to her waist. She was wearing ragged, bloodstained clothing, and had a sword strapped to her back.

And she was carrying Ranma in her arms.

Ranma, who was unconscious. Just unconscious, Ukyo thought numbly, just unconscious, even though she could see in the flickering light of the campfire that his head hung back over the woman's arm just a little too limply; that his skin was as pale and gray as ash, and his red Chinese shirt and black pants were heavy and wet with blood, lots and lots of blood that streaked his bare feet and stained his hands, and he was still, so unnaturally still that not even his chest was moving, he wasn't breathing...

...he's not breathing, oh gods he's not breathing, and he's bled white, but that can't be, it's impossible, because he was fine, just fine a moment ago in my mind, and I was angry at him for being so fine and happy with Akane, and look at him he's not fine at all he's dead oh gods he's dead, my Ranchan...

A strange, dull tightness filled Ukyo's head as she stared and stared.

The woman was holding him, seeming almost unconcerned that she was carrying a corpse in her arms, and she looked at all of them with dark eyes that seemed terribly old, though her face was young.

"Excuse me," the woman said in a calm voice as her gaze came to rest on Cologne. "What the hell is going on here?"

And it was only then, as she heard the familiar voice, that Ukyo realized the woman was Akane.

No. This couldn't be. It was wrong, all wrong. Nothing made sense. Not Ranma's corpse, not the strange, beautiful warrior woman with old eyes that spoke with Akane's voice. It was a nightmare. Just a nightmare...

Ukyo heard a strangled, despairing cry of protest that must have come from her own throat, because Akane looked sharply in her direction, their eyes locking for one brief instant before her surprised gaze then flicked up to where Mousse and Ryoga hung from the tree branches, and then back to Cologne.

Ukyo watched as Akane's face hardened into a mask of icy rage. "Cologne," she said, and her low voice was like chilled steel.

And Ukyo suddenly wondered, through the haze of shock and grief that had numbed her beyond all feeling, if perhaps they were going to be rescued after all.

Akane did not want to relinquish her possessive grip on Ranma's cooling, stiffening body, but with this unexpected situation she knew she needed to take advantage of Cologne's surprise to ready herself for battle. Without lowering her guard, she knelt and gently placed Ranma's body on the hard ground of the clearing, trying in vain not to notice the cold slackness of his gray, bloodstained skin as she brushed her fingers briefly across his cheek.

Not dead, she told herself. The thought kept her grief at bay. Not dead, just... gone for a while. He'll come back. He promised.

She could feel Cologne's eyes on her, as if searching for a weakness. But she would make sure there would be none to find. When she rose again to her feet a moment later, and faced Cologne, her expression was carefully blank as she returned the Amazon's gaze, instinctively assessing her adversary with a detached swiftness that came from long experience.

Cologne was bleeding. In pain, and favoring her wounded shoulder, though hiding it well. Both the clearing and her robes were splattered with blood - more than it looked like the old Amazon could afford to lose, but with her tightly controlled ki swathing her small body like a shield, she could probably fight, massive blood loss or no.

And Akane hoped all the blood was Cologne's. Because Nabiki and Kuno were nowhere in sight. Anger and fear filled her, at the thought that her sister might be hurt, or worse. At least the others seemed mostly unharmed...

...including P-chan, who, Akane had realized the moment she saw him hanging in the tree, was Ryoga.

She was surprised at how sudden and easily that particular realization clicked in her brain. Maybe it was the bandana. Or maybe it was the fact that she knew, having viewed the expedition often through Yuki-onna's mirror before they reached the mountain, that Ryoga had come to China with Ranma, while P-chan had most certainly not. Or perhaps she already knew on some subconscious level, and only now, after everything that had happened to her in the past five years, could she accept it without anger or hard feelings.

Whatever the reason, she knew. And she didn't care, because at the moment, as she glowered furiously at Cologne while standing next to Ranma's corpse, and with Nabiki nowhere in sight of the bloodstained clearing, Ryoga being P-chan was the smallest complication in her life.

"Akane," the old Amazon responded flatly, though her eyes were fixed on the body lying on the ground next to her. "So. After all this... and he is dead."

"Yes," Akane said, amazed at how calm her voice was, because she could feel cold fire burning behind her eyes. "I hope you're satisfied."

Cologne looked at Akane then, and chuckled bitterly. "I am not. His death defeats everything for which I have struggled, and sacrificed."

Akane snorted softly, galled at the old woman's audacity. "Oh please. Sacrifice? What do you know of sacrifice?"

"More than you credit me for," Cologne said, and for a moment, Akane thought she saw some real regret flicker across the aged face. "I have sacrificed much. Trust. Love..." Stroking the pale fur of the unconscious cat in her arms, her gaze once again drifted back to Ranma. "Friendship."

Akane shook her head sharply. "No," she said, fighting back the hot anger that was welling up in her belly. "You chose to throw all that away. And it's only a sacrifice if you value what you give up."

Cologne's eyes hardened. "Do not presume to tell me what I do and do not value, child," she said. Her flickering scarlet ki brightened around her. "I only did what I had to do."

"That's crap," Akane snapped. "You didn't have to do any of it. You didn't have to cast the blood spell. You could have just left us alone."

"Honor demanded otherwise."

"Honor?" Akane laughed, short and without humor. "You have a strange concept of honor. Your high and mighty Amazon tradition somehow supersedes basic human decency, is that it? Is that your excuse? The justification for all the suffering you've caused?"

Cologne frowned. "I do not need to justify myself to anyone. Least of all a stripling like yourself."

"How convenient for you." Akane clenched her teeth, fighting the pricking ache behind her eyes. She could feel her temper slipping through her careful control, and she struggled inwardly to find her center of calm, knowing that she could not afford to be impulsive with Cologne as her opponent if it should come to a battle - especially since Cologne was a master of the Soul of Ice technique. The last thing she needed was to be giving off hot, angry ki that could be used against her in a Hiryu Shoten Ha attack. But she could not purge her fear and anger until she knew...

"Where is my sister?" Her throat nearly closed off on the question, for fear of the answer. The irate expression that crossed the Amazon's face did nothing to ease her fears, for it was apparent that she knew the answer. "If you've hurt her in any way-"

"Your sister," Cologne said sharply, "is just fine. That Kuno boy carried her off into the forest when I arrived."

Understanding suddenly dawned on Akane's face, even as she was nearly overwhelmed with relief that Nabiki was safe. "But not before she shot you."

She had seen her sister through Yuki-onna's mirror. She had seen the gun, before Ranma had started his journey up the mountain; before Yuki-onna had pled with her not to watch him through the mirror anymore, for the sake of her own sanity. It had surprised her that Nabiki would own an illegal weapon, but she hadn't made the connection between that, and the Amazon's wound, until that moment. "I know my sister, Cologne," she said. "She might be a bit mercenary, but she wouldn't hurt anyone unless she felt she had good reason. What did you do, to make her shoot you? Or is that something else you don't need to justify to a 'stripling like myself?'"

The Amazon merely stared at her in challenge. But then, it didn't take much deductive reasoning to figure out at least part why Nabiki had shot Cologne. It was obvious that some sort of battle had taken place. That it had ended with Ukyo, Ryoga and Mousse tied up and helpless, and Kuno escaping into the forest with her sister, was answer enough. No doubt all hell had broken loose when the Amazon had arrived on the scene.

"Well, then," Akane said, her voice cold as she slowly, deliberately drew her sword from the sheath on her back. She held out the blade, so that its tip pointed accusingly at the stoic Amazon. "You're so worried about your honor. What about my honor? My fiancé is dead because of your blood spell. For the sake of my honor, and his, I should kill you."

Cologne said nothing, but her eyes were hard and bright.

"I could, you know," Akane said. "Kill you."

Cologne's piercing gaze flickered briefly over Akane's lean, battle-hardened form, and noted the tell-tale long hair that revealed a passage of time not matched in the mortal world. She appraised the sword, held with ease and confidence in Akane's hands, and the girl's tightly controlled ki. Then her gaze once again came to rest on brown eyes that spoke of having seen too much death; most of it, if the shadows she saw within their depths were any indication, inflicted by Akane's own hand.

"Perhaps you could," she said.

The admission surprised Akane.

Cologne tilted her head and said, almost conversationally, "How long were you in the Kami realm?"

"Five years," Akane said, without hesitation. She heard a muffled exclamation of shock from Ukyo's direction, and a brief, alarmed squeal from where P-chan dangled from the tree branches, but she didn't take her eyes off Cologne. The Amazon, to her annoyance, didn't seem the least bit ruffled by her big announcement. "And," she added, "I spent almost every waking moment of those five years fighting for my life against both gods and demons." It was a slight exaggeration, she knew, since she spent the first few months training with Masakazu, rather than battling the denizens of the Kami realm. But it was close enough to the truth that she felt it didn't matter.

Cologne merely nodded. "Yes, that explains it. You are obviously not the clumsy, incompetent girl you were before. But still, five years in the Kami plane can't compete with 5,000 years of Amazon history." And she thought of the small vial of mind numbing potion that still lay hidden in her sleeve.

Akane's eyes narrowed. Something dark had just flitted across Cologne's stony expression. Almost instinctively, she fell into a more aggressive stance. "Care to put that assumption to the test?"

The Amazon calmly raised an eyebrow, and Akane got the feeling she would have shrugged, were it not for the wound in her shoulder. "If you intend to kill me for Ranma's honor, whether I care to or not is irrelevant. I will, of course, not stand idly by and let you kill me without resistance. But if given a choice, I would prefer to leave in peace."

"Leave in-" Akane spluttered in disbelief. "You have got to be kidding me. After everything that's happened, you want to just walk away?"

"Shampoo's rightful husband is dead," Cologne said. "The goal I struggled for no longer exists. I have no reason to stay. And I have been too long from my duties at home as it is. I desire nothing more at this moment than to return home to my village without incident."

Akane stared, dumbfounded.

Cologne wanted to leave. Just walk away. Without a fight. Incredible.

"Why should I let you?" she asked.

"Because you might be able to kill me," said Cologne, "but I don't think you want to."

Akane laughed shortly, a sound utterly devoid of humor. "Don't be so sure."

"If you really wanted to kill me to avenge Ranma's death, you wouldn't be wasting time talking to me."

And Akane, to her own disquiet, found that she was right. After all, if Cologne didn't want to fight, she couldn't just kill her in cold blood. And though her hands had been often stained by the sickly green and black of demon blood, she had never killed a fellow human being. That Cologne had been able to sense that hesitation in her was disturbing.

But... perhaps letting her go wasn't such a bad idea. If Cologne left now - if she returned to her village with news of Ranma's death - then she would not be around to discover that Ranma might not be as dead as she thought.

But if... when Ranma came back, there was the possibility that Cologne would find out, even in her isolated village. If so, would she once again stake her claim? Akane frowned slightly. She couldn't very well ask to find out and raise suspicions. Oh, by the way, Cologne, if by some chance Ranma came back to life, would you come after him again? No, that definitely wasn't an option.

So there were her choices. She could fight Cologne, most likely to the death. No, it would have to be to the death. For if she defeated Cologne, she would undoubtedly receive the kiss of death, and she knew that Cologne would not share Shampoo's reluctance to fulfill that aspect of Amazon honor. To defeat Cologne without killing her would only ensure that the Amazon would continue to plague her. If she killed Cologne, however, then she would never have to worry again about the Amazon seeking her out for revenge.

But... could she live with herself afterward, knowing that Cologne had been willing to walk away?

If she let Cologne leave peacefully, yes, there was a chance she might find out about Ranma's possible revival. But there was a greater chance that she wouldn't find out, and that they would never hear from her again.

"All right," Akane said at last. "Maybe I don't want to kill you. But that doesn't mean that I can't, or won't, if necessary."

"It is not necessary," Cologne replied. And though the words were a concession, her tone did not relinquish its pride. Her tone said that she did not want to fight, not because she did not believe she would win, but because it would gain her nothing.

Akane lowered her sword. "Then leave."

Ryoga couldn't believe what was happening. He knew on some level that he was in shock, because he felt entirely too calm about the events unfolding before his eyes.

Ranma... dead. Lying on the ground, a lifeless, empty shell, covered in too much blood. His rival. His best friend. Dead.

And Akane. Akane, more terrible and beautiful and cold than he had ever seen her, with her long hair, dark eyes, and pale skin. Akane, calmly telling Cologne that she had been in the Kami plane for five years. Five years! Telling Cologne that she had fought demons and gods. That she could kill her if she wanted. And Cologne, acknowledging the truth in that... and then leaving without a fight.

He was sure he would wake up any moment now. Any moment now. Right.

He watched as Cologne turned away from Akane, then picked up her long, gnarled staff from where it lay near the fire with her good hand, while cradling Shampoo with her wounded arm. The Amazon then looked directly at him for one brief moment, before looking over to where Mousse hung next to him in the tree branches.

Mousse squawked as Cologne pinned him with her gaze, and Ryoga looked over to see the duck suddenly wide-eyed with apprehension as he watched Cologne approach.

"What are you doing?" said Akane, and Ryoga glanced at her quickly, afraid to take his eyes off the approaching Amazon for more than a moment. Akane looked upset.

"Only taking what is mine," responded Cologne, and Ryoga flinched as she lashed out with the pointed tip of her staff. He felt the sharp breeze of its passage whisper against his face as the tip neatly severed the rope above Mousse so that he plummeted like a stone. The duck squawked in fear, even as Cologne dropped her staff and reached out to catch him by the ropes that bound his wings to his sides.

Mousse immediately began struggling as if his life depended on it, wriggling in his bonds and hissing and biting at Cologne's hands and arms, until she shook him violently. "Silence! You will be still," she commanded. "You are in enough trouble as it is, boy. Do not compound your sin by attacking your elder."

Mousse fell silent, but he looked over at Akane. The pleading and desperation Ryoga could see in his black bird eyes was so human, it hurt to look at it.

"Excuse me, but I don't think he wants to go with you," Akane said. Her voice was polite, Ryoga noticed, but her sword was once again raised in an aggressive stance.

"That is none of your concern," Cologne replied.

"Yes it is." Akane's voice was calm and cold. "Mousse is my friend. I'm not going to let you take him if he doesn't want to go."

Ryoga blinked in surprise. So did Mousse.

Cologne scowled. "He is not your friend. You've never had any dealings with him unless it involved his rivalry with Ranma in some way, and even then it was only superficially."

Akane shrugged. "So? He came here to help Ranma rescue me from the Kami realm. He was Ranma's friend. That makes him my friend."

"He only came here to follow Shampoo, as usual." Cologne's voice was getting dangerous. "Not because he was Ranma's friend."

"He came for both reasons," Akane said, as if she knew this without a doubt. "And speaking of Shampoo, don't you think it's rather odd that she's slept through this whole thing? Or is her unconscious state your doing as well?"

Ryoga felt his eyes widening as he looked at Akane. Was she trying to make Cologne angry? A soft, worried bwee escaped him as he thought, Please, Akane. Don't make Cologne mad. She'll kill you. Please, Akane, please... Just let them go. Shampoo and Mousse can take care of themselves, please, just let them go...

When Cologne didn't answer, Akane said, "It seems to me that you're afraid Shampoo wouldn't approve of these proceedings. And if that's the case, I'm afraid I can't let you take her either, because she is also my friend."

Ryoga flinched as the crackle of Cologne's battle aura charged the clearing like lightning. "You are trying to vex me, child," the Amazon said. "Surely you have realized that Shampoo is as much responsible for the blood spell as I am, if not more so. It was herchoice to cast it, and not mine. So do not pretend friendship with her, simply to presume to keep me from what is rightfully mine."

Akane's expression darkened. "Shampoo and Mousse are people, not property. And besides, I already know Shampoo cast the blood spell. But I also know that she felt bad about it afterwards, and tried to make up for it by helping Ranma save me."

Cologne's eyes narrowed. "And how is it that you know all this?"

Ryoga was surprised to see an almost Ranma-like smirk flit across Akane's expression. "Wouldn't you like to know." Then she sobered again. "People make mistakes, Cologne. Shampoo had the courage to admit that she was wrong, and try to do something to fix her mistake. You, on the other hand, hid behind your Amazon tradition like a coward to justify your actions, and that is what you are still doing."

Akane, what are you doing? thought Ryoga, feeling panic rise in him as he saw the fury build in Cologne's countenance. He wondered if it was possible that Ranma's death had pushed her over the edge. Please, stop, she's going to kill you!

"Now you can go back to your village and stay there forever, as far as I'm concerned," Akane continued. "But you're going to have to go without Mousse and Shampoo."

"I see," said Cologne. "So, you wouldn't attack me to avenge Ranma's death, but you are willing to fight me to keep Shampoo and Mousse from returning to their home?"

Akane nodded. "Yes, that pretty much sums it up."

"So you care more about them than you do Ranma."

"Of course not," Akane said. "But fighting solely for vengeance is petty and futile. I'm used to fighting immediate dangers that threaten myself and my friends. Mousse seems to be in a bit of trouble with you, and I have no doubt that you have some weird, torturous and humiliating Amazon punishment in store for him once you get back to your village. Am I right?"

Cologne said nothing, but the entire clearing glowed scarlet from her battle aura.

Akane took the silence for the affirmative answer it was. "Well then, I'm afraid I can't allow you to do that to him, because as I said, he is my friend, and he hasn't done anything wrong. Other than defy your stupid Amazon law, that is."

The stunned silence in the clearing was only broken by the sound of Ryoga's quiet, despairing bwee.

"Very well, Akane," the old Amazon said in a deadly quiet voice, as she lowered the unconscious cat and the squirming duck to the ground. "If it is a battle you want, you have it."

Oh crap, thought Ryoga as Cologne disappeared in a blur of speed, and as he looked frantically at Akane, squealing a warning, he thought he saw a strange, small smile on her face...

Somewhere, deep inside her heart, Akane's return to the mortal realm had sparked all of her old insecurities. She remembered how slow and clumsy she had been, in comparison to Ranma, and the other martial artists her age. And as for Happosai and Cologne... well, she never in a million years thought she might become a martial artist of their caliber.

She feared that Cologne was right. A mere five years of training in the Kami realm could not hope to stand up to 5,000 years of Amazon history, and the centuries of experience that the old woman personally possessed.

But now, as Akane stood once again in the mortal realm, her battle senses extended...

... she could feel Ukyo and Ryoga behind her; could tell without looking that their bodies, human and piglet, had gone into mild states of shock. She could sense the forest around her, could discern the faint stirring of life in each and every single root, branch and tree leaf lying still in the stagnant air.

And, approaching from not far off... the old familiar presence of... her sister.

Nabiki was coming. She was safe. She was with Kuno. And...

Akane felt a spark of surprise.


She felt all this within a fraction of a second. And as Cologne came at her in the silence... she could hear the old woman's threading heartbeat. She could sense the exact amount of power within Cologne's ki. She could see the attack coming - a feint to the left. Akane pretended to fall into the trap, and began to move as if to dodge. As expected, the sharp point of Cologne's gnarled staff changed course, aimed for her heart in a vicious instant death strike.

But the Amazon was slow. So slow. Cologne moved through the air as if it had the consistency of tar.

And Akane suddenly understood, for the first time, how much the Kami realm had changed her.

She moved, and she felt like liquid; like water flowing. The edge of her sword flashed in the firelight.

And she watched, feeling almost detached, as Cologne leaped back in surprise, landing lightly on her feet on the other side of the clearing. The Amazon's eyes were wide as she stared at her staff.

A moment passed, and the staff fell to the ground in nine segmented pieces, leaving Cologne holding a stump that extended less than a centimeter from her hand.

The old woman blinked, and by the time her eyes opened again, Akane was there with the edge of her blade resting lightly against her neck.

The Amazon matriarch looked up, her expression a mingling of shock and fear, and Akane smiled grimly. She said nothing. Her expression spoke for her.

Cologne's countenance hardened. "Well, what are you waiting for, foolish child? Kill me."

Akane raised an eyebrow. "Why? Are you planning on giving me the Kiss of Death because I have defeated you?"

"You know the answer to that." Cologne's eyes gleamed like shards of obsidian. "Unlike Shampoo, I refuse to dishonor the traditions of my sacred ancestors."

"Do you honestly think," said Akane, as she gently drew the edge of her blade along the Amazon's neck, barely parting the withered skin without drawing blood, "that you could get close enough to me to deliver your traditional kiss?"

Cologne glowered, anger burning fiercely in her countenance.

Akane let her sword hand fall to her side. "You are defeated, Cologne. Leave now, on your own, or I will force you to leave."

But Cologne didn't move... except to dip one hand into the heavy folds of her robe.

Akane almost sighed. What was the old crone thinking this time? Was she going for some sort of hidden weapon? After this last display, didn't Cologne comprehend that it didn't matter what she tried to throw at her, she would see it?

It was a small vial. And, with a snap of her wrist, Cologne flung the liquid contents at Akane's face.

Instinctively, Akane blocked with the flat of her blade. The clear liquid, which smelled musky and faintly sulphurous, splashed against her sword. Droplets flew everywhere. As she flinched, she caught a glimpse of a malevolent smile spreading across Cologne's face; and, cursing herself for her overconfidence, Akane realized that a few flying droplets were going to strike her cheek. She reached up to block with her free hand, thinking that if it were some sort of acid, she could afford a few scars on her palm...

But Cologne was grinning. And as Akane felt the droplets touch the bare skin of her blocking hand, she suddenly wondered if maybe she had lost after all...

The droplets were cold, and unexpectedly hard, like small pebbles, striking her palm with stinging force. Akane blinked as the frozen liquid fell around her like hail stones, falling and shattering against the hard ground.

And as Cologne's smile wilted, surprise flickering across her face as she looked beyond Akane, across the clearing. Akane turned, looking over her shoulder, but already sensing; knowing what she would see.

Yuki-onna stood at the edge of the clearing, one white hand stretched palm outward towards her. Beside the Snow Woman stood Nabiki and Kuno, staring at her with nearly identical looks of astonishment written plainly on their features.

"Step back, Akane-chan," Yuki-onna said. A strange expression of both relief and sadness seemed to be warring on her pale, smooth face. "You do not want to be touching that when it thaws."

Quickly, Akane stepped away from the glittering frozen fragments. "What is it?" she asked.

"A trap." To Akane's surprise, it was Cologne who answered. Looking at her, she blinked, wondering at the old woman's sudden change in demeanor. Cologne's battle ki had faded to almost nothing. "A trap that almost snared you," the Amazon said with a bitter smile. "You are not as invulnerable as you think, child."

Akane eyed Cologne suspiciously. "And I thank you for that lesson," she replied. "I will do my best to remember it from now on."

Cologne returned her gaze expressionlessly. Akane watched the old woman, waiting for her next move; wondering what was going on in her head.

"You have defeated me," Cologne whispered at last. "I have nothing left with which to fight."

It was plain, from the look on Akane's face, that she didn't believe her.

But her disbelief did not seem to perturb Cologne. She looked at Akane calmly. "I must give you the Kiss of Death," she said.

Akane held her sword ready. "I will not let you."

Cologne closed her eyes, and the corner of her wrinkled mouth turned up slightly. "I know." And she sighed. "You, Akane, who set aside the sacred traditions of my ancestors as naught. You, who have managed to rob me of all things, which are mine by right." She opened her eyes, and her gaze burned. "I will not forget this, Akane Tendo."

Akane stood ready, her lips pursed into a tense frown, and did not reply. She would not argue. And she would not be taken off guard again.

Cologne glanced at where Shampoo lay on the ground, still unconscious, and in cat form.

"Don't touch her," Akane said.

"I have no intention of doing so," Cologne replied, without looking away. Her face was once again expressionless as she turned, this time to Mousse, who was awake and lying bound not far from Shampoo. Nearsighted as he was, the duck could still apparently feel the weight of the Amazon matriarch's gaze, and he swallowed.

"Tell her," Cologne said, "that the spirits of the ancestors do not recognize her."

Mousse's eyes widened.

"Tell her... that she is dead to me." Cologne turned away, then. Away from all of them.

Akane watched, half amazed, half resigned as the old Amazon, hunched over her wounded shoulder, hobbled slowly to the edge of the clearing, where she paused. "And tell her," she said, without looking back, "that I am dead to her."

And with that, there was a brief flash of movement, and she disappeared into the shadows of the forest.

Nabiki couldn't believe it was over. Not the way she had imagined it. Oh no, quite the opposite. For Ranma, instead of rescuing her sister and returning in triumph to defeat Cologne and save them all, was dead. And Akane...

Akane was not trapped on the Ancient One's mountain with Ranma's corpse, as Nabiki had feared when she and Kuno found the Snow Woman weeping amidst the remains of her shattered mirror. As the three of them rushed back to the clearing at the base of the mountain, using Yuki-onna's frosted shard of mirror as a guide, they had witnessed Akane's arrival.

They watched as she gently lowered Ranma's body to the ground, and Nabiki felt her heart twist inside her as she realized that what they had hoped to prevent - Akane discovering Ranma's death while utterly alone - had happened anyway, even as she felt a surge of relief that at least Akane was off the damn mountain.

They heard her voice through the shard as she argued with Cologne, spurring them onward with a near panic-induced urgency, fearing the worst as Kuno determinedly hacked a path through the foliage before them. They arrived at the clearing in time to witness the brief battle that left Nabiki and Kuno gaping in amazement; in time for Yuki-onna to save Akane from the old Amazon's trap.

And now it was over. Cologne was gone.

Akane was here, right before Nabiki's eyes. Taller. Older. Battle-scarred. And as Akane finally looked away from where the Amazon had left the clearing, their eyes met, their gazes locked... and Nabiki realized with a shock that she didn't know this woman. She felt as if she was looking at a stranger.

But then Akane blinked. The ageless, obsidian-hard edge of ice faded from her eyes as they grew bright with a sheen of tears. She took a step forward, inhaling sharply, her lips trembling, and said, "Nabiki."

And Nabiki knew at that moment that whatever else happened, her sister was back, and she didn't even care that Kuno, Ukyo, Ryoga and Mousse were staring, she was there hugging her sister, and Akane clutched at her, crying into her hair because she was taller than her now, and it didn't matter because her face was wet too.

"You're back," Nabiki found herself whispering over and over, until Akane finally laughed through her tears.

"Thanks to you," Akane said, hugging so tightly that Nabiki almost had to gasp for breath for a moment. "Yuki-onna showed me. Cologne would have succeeded if you hadn't been there to thwart her at every turn. And Ranma never would have known how to find me if you hadn't helped him so much."

Nabiki stiffened at the mention of Ranma, and she drew back. "Akane," she said... and then she found herself at a loss for words. What could she say? Akane knew Ranma was dead, and even as Nabiki looked at her, a dawning look of horror spread across Akane's face.

"No!" Akane said, releasing Nabiki and looking back at where she had left Ranma's body, lying at the edge of the clearing. Nabiki braced herself for a fresh onset of grief in the face of the harsh reality of Ranma's death.

But, to Nabiki's great surprise, Akane was still smiling through her tears. "No," she said again, and she was shaking her head and waving her hands in front of her as she backed towards Ranma's body. "I need to explain. I know what it looks like, but Ranma's not dead!"

Nabiki felt a sudden sick sense of dread, and she glanced over at Yuki-onna to see what she was making of this. The devastated look on the Snow Woman's face as she looked at Akane didn't comfort her in the least. Had her sister returned, only to be driven over the edge of sanity by Ranma's death? It was a thought echoed in the worried expressions of the others in the clearing, human and animal alike.

Apparently Akane was not oblivious to their concern, because she stopped. "Well, yes," she said, looking a bit flustered. "I mean, he is dead. That's obvious, isn't it. I mean..." She straightened and took a deep breath, looking around at each of them in the clearing. "Look, I'm not crazy. I can explain. But first..." She looked at Yuki-onna and once again blinked back a wash of tears. "I'm so glad you're here," she said, walking over to the Snow Woman and taking her white hand. "I don't know how or why, but you are... and I need your help."

"Anything, Akane-chan." The Snow Woman's voice was low and broken. "Anything."

Akane led the Snow Woman by the hand to Ranma's body. Shakily, she knelt down next to him and the Snow Woman followed suit. "It hasn't been very long," she whispered, and her voice carried in the silence of the clearing. "But I felt it when I held him; his body is already... he's..."

Yuki-onna understood. "I will preserve him," she said, and Akane nodded tightly, tears spilling down her cheeks. Nabiki felt the knot of worry loosen slightly at the sight. Akane didn't seem crazy, and she was grieving. And she was thinking logically. She hadn't known that the Snow Woman would be here, but she wasn't so shaken that she couldn't ask for some much-needed help. Whatever she meant about Ranma not being dead... well, she said she would explain.

As the Snow Woman spread her hands over Ranma's pale, prone form, Nabiki found herself feeling immensely grateful that the winter spirit had come. She couldn't even begin to imagine what it would be like, trekking the three day hike back through the wilderness to civilization with Ranma's slowly decaying body...

She shuddered, but then a soft moan tore her attention away from her morbid thoughts.

Ukyo, still gagged and bound to the tree, had tears coursing down her face as she stared at Ranma's body. Nabiki immediately went to her, feeling guilty. She had been so wrapped up with her own reunion with Akane, she had forgotten almost everyone else. "Ukyo," she said, and Ukyo turned her face away, muffled sobs escaping through the gag. Nabiki understood and didn't question... but she couldn't just leave Ukyo tied up. She looked at Ukyo's bonds and realized that there was no way she could undo the ropes herself. "Kuno," she called.

Kuno only let his gaze linger briefly on Akane and the Snow Woman as they knelt over Ranma's body, before walking over to Nabiki. He understood what she wanted and severed Ukyo's bonds with a slash of his bokken, then freed P-Chan from his dangling rope prison as well. "We need some hot water," Nabiki said, pointing toward their backpacks at one edge of the clearing. "Ryoga packed a kettle."

Kuno nodded at Nabiki, then looked down at the despondent black piglet, and the duck that hovered protectively beside the unconscious cat. They looked back at him suspiciously. Kuno cleared his throat. "I will gather your clothes also, if you wish," he said with solemn dignity.

Ryoga and Mousse shared an uncertain glance, before peering back at the changed Kendoist. Ryoga nodded hesitantly. Kuno offered him a small bow and started on his task, leaving the piglet and duck staring after him with wide, surprised eyes. Ryoga looked to Nabiki and bweed in a manner that could have easily been interpreted as "What the hell?" but Nabiki was focused on Ukyo, helping her untie the gag.

Ukyo coughed and spit once the gag was removed, rubbed the back of her hand across her lips, and wiped a bit ineffectually at her face with her sleeve. She still didn't look directly at Nabiki, but didn't refuse her outstretched hand offered to help her to her feet.

"Ukyo," Nabiki said, and Ukyo cut her off with a raised hand.

"Don't tell me it's going to be okay," Ukyo whispered hoarsely. "It's not okay. Nothing is okay."

"Actually," Nabiki said gently, "I was going to ask if you would stoke the campfire so that we could boil some water."

Ukyo looked at her sharply then, all her frustration and anger and grief open and raw and exposed in her face.

Nabiki wanted to wince, but her mask was in place and she gazed back at Ukyo calmly until the rawness in her expression softened slightly. Finally, Ukyo shakily put her face in her hands, rubbed at her tears, and nodded. "Yeah," she said, muffled, then she lowered her hands and looked up. "Yeah, I can do that."

Nabiki nodded, reaching out and giving Ukyo's hand a little squeeze. You're right, it's not okay, everything is wrong and backwards and twisted all out of shape, but we'll get through this so hang in there, was the unspoken message. Ukyo squeezed back briefly, then headed for the campfire.

Nabiki turned to start collecting water from their supplies when Akane said, anxiously, "Why isn't it working?" and all attention again turned towards the pair kneeling over Ranma's corpse. "What's wrong, Yuki-san?"

The Snow Woman's eyes were closed, and her brow was furrowed as she held her outstretched hands over Ranma's body. "There is magic," she said. "Powerful magic that is blocking my cold spell." She opened her eyes and seemed to wilt slightly. "I cannot get past it. I am sorry, Akane-chan. I am too weak here." Visibly perplexed, she reached toward Ranma's neck, her hand hovering over his grey-skinned throat for a moment, before she reached down and pulled at the stiff collar of his red Chinese shirt. Nabiki caught a glimpse of shiny metal underneath. "Ah," said the Snow Woman. "This is the source."

Akane leaned forward and gently pulled the collar back, revealing a skin-tight band of metal encircling Ranma's neck. "What is that?" Akane asked, looking upset and confused. "Ranma didn't say anything about this."

Nabiki felt her eyebrows raise by reflex, and her worries about Akane's sanity began to reassert themselves. How long had Akane been on the mountain, alone with Ranma's corpse, before the mysterious whirlwind brought her here? She didn't miss the worried glance that the Snow Woman gave her as well.

"It is of oni make," the Snow Woman answered. "It has the taint of fire devil about it, and it seems to... to serve the same purpose as my cold spell once did." Her voice lowered with shame, but she continued. "Only instead of blocking heat from reaching him, this metal band blocks cold."

Akane's eyes widened. "A cure?" she whispered. "For Jusenkyo?"

"So it seems," the Snow Woman replied.

The words fell into the silence of the clearing and seemed to reverberate for a moment. And then, behind Nabiki, Mousse and Ryoga began quacking and bweeing loudly, making such a racket in the quiet clearing that she whirled around and glared at them. Cure or not, now was not the time for celebrating, or demanding, or whatever the hell it was they were doing. They got the message quick and immediately fell silent and still, looking as ashamed as duck and pig could possibly look.

Akane was reaching around Ranma's neck, feeling all around the band. Nabiki marveled that she managed to be so calm and collected about the whole situation. "There's no clasp, no seam in the metal," Akane said. She stood, pulling her sword from its scabbard. "I don't know how it got on, but it needs to come off, or you won't be able to..."

The Snow Woman nodded, then reached over to pull Ranma's collar away from the metal band.

Akane lifted her sword, then paused. "Will cutting it off destroy its magic?"

"I do not know," the Snow Woman answered, "but it is a possibility."

A very quiet, dismayed bwee escaped P-chan, and Akane looked at him. "I'm sorry, Ryoga," she said with genuine regret. With those words, the little black piglet froze, staring at Akane in horror, and paled until he was so grey that it looked like he might faint. Nabiki had to fight very hard to not let the shock show on her face. Akane knew?

"I know a cure is important," she continued, "but this... I can't let his body get worse without him. He's going to need it when he gets back, and I honestly don't know how it's going to work, but I'm pretty sure that letting his body go through rigor mortis isn't conducive to whatever he has to do to come back to life."

Now everyone was staring at Akane in horror. Slowly, the Snow Woman reached out and touched Akane's arm. "Akane," she said, "why don't you explain to us what you mean."

Akane suddenly looked uncertain as she met their gazes. But then she straightened. With a flash of her katana, the metal circlet surrounding Ranma's neck fell in two pieces. Akane picked up the pieces and gestured to Ranma. "Please, Yuki-san," she said, and the Snow Woman nodded, stretching her hands out once again. This time, Nabiki could immediately see the frost forming on the surface of Ranma's dead, grey skin, and she looked away, feeling disconcerted and upset, seeing that emotion mirrored in Kuno's face, in Ukyo's face, even in Mousse's bird eyes. Ryoga still looked like he was on the verge of passing out.

She didn't even realize that Akane had come up behind her until she felt the touch on her arm. "Nabiki," Akane said, "why don't you go ahead and get that water? I'm cold. I'm going to sit by the fire." She looked over at Ukyo, who was throwing a sturdy log on the blaze, sending sparks up into the night sky. Ukyo met her gaze for a moment, then looked away, firelight glinting off the wetness in her eyes.

Akane closed her eyes briefly as if in pain for a moment, then looked at Mousse, still next to Shampoo. "Can you wake her up?" she asked. Mousse indicated that he would try, but seemed uncertain. Akane nodded. "When everyone is ready," she said, "come sit with me and I'll tell you what happened to me on the mountain."

It took longer than Nabiki's patience - already stretched thin with stress and worry - was prepared to allow, but she dealt with it. Mousse managed to wake Shampoo, and once the water was hot, the Jusenkyo-cursed slipped out of the clearing to change back to human form and get dressed. Mousse had the unfortunate task of bringing Shampoo up to speed with everything that had happened since Cologne had tapped her unconscious, and the stream of Mandarin conversation emanating from the darkness outside the clearing was punctuated with Shampoo's cries of grief and despair. Eventually they emerged. Shampoo did not look up, and she stumbled as if blind. She would have fallen but for Mousse's protective arm around her shoulder as he led her to the campfire.

Akane sat and stared into the fire through it all as one by one, her friends who had sacrificed so much to bring her back from the Kami realm joined her around the fire. Only Yuki-onna, after finishing her grim task, stayed outside the circle of the fire's warmth, standing guard by Ranma's frozen body.

Nabiki noticed that none of them - Ryoga, Ukyo, Kuno, Mousse or Shampoo - could bring themselves to look at Akane. Akane didn't seem to notice, but Nabiki had to wonder if anything at all escaped her notice now. Once again, looking at her sister stare into the flames, she felt like she was looking at a stranger, and she shivered.

"On the mountain," Akane said at last, "there is a dimensional weakness between the planes. Through it, demons can escape from the Kami realm into this world, but the Ancient One uses this barrier to keep them trapped on the mountain so they can't wreak havoc on the mortal realm."

She continued, explaining how the Shadowcat had lured her to the weakness in the veil between the planes with his promise to recapture Ranma. She told of how she called to Ranma, fearing him lost in the Nekoken; how she used the dagger of Susa-no-o to rend the veil and survive even with the blood spell still intact. She told of regaining consciousness to hear Ranma's voice calling her, of how he told her the Shadowcat was dead, but there was something terrible in his voice, and she knew he was hurt. How he left her with the promise that he would break the blood spell.

And then it was broken. And she came through the veil and the blood spell was gone, and the Shadowcat lay dead at her feet in pieces, in shreds, and Ranma's trail of blood led up the mountain and she was so afraid that he was dead...

...but then he was there. Talking to her. Arguing with her. Being utterly, infuriatingly Ranma until he finally confessed that he was dead. He was a ghost. A kuei, doomed to haunt the mountain like the other hungry ghosts that dwelled at its base, and Shampoo cried out in anguish, and Ukyo wept silently, and Ryoga and Mousse and Kuno sat staring grimly into the flames.

Akane waited until Shampoo's audible grief subsided before she continued. She told of how she and Ranma determined a course of action. They would confront the Ancient One of course, and for the first time the listeners looked up from the flames at Akane, looks of incredulous hope kindled in their expressions. She told of walking up the mountain with Ranma's ghost; of finding his body just outside the Ancient One's cave. Of going into the cave and up the staircase to the gardens under the great pillars that held up the domain of the gods. Of confronting the Ancient One. Of telling him their most heartfelt desire, and him at last giving them an inkling of how it might be done. That it could be done. Of Ranma being released from his kuei curse and then being spirited away to the afterlife where he was currently on his way to confront Emma-O and demand his life back.

"And then the Ancient One sent me here," Akane said. "And, well, you know the rest."

Only then did she look up to meet the confounded gazes of her friends. "So like I said." She smiled, and Nabiki, her head still whirling with all the information, once again saw her little sister in this tall, battle-hardened warrior woman. "Ranma might be dead at the moment," Akane said, "but he's not going to stay that way. He promised me that he'd find a way to come back, and if anyone can do it, he can."

There was a long silence as everyone seemed to digest what Akane had told them. Nabiki felt her mind whirling with questions, but it was Ukyo who spoke first. "So," she said. Her eyes were still wet, but her voice and expression were firm and determined. "What do we do next, Akane? What can we do to help?"

Akane looked up in surprise at the okonomiyaki chef, her former rival, and smiled, the gratitude and relief on her face plain to see, and for the first time Nabiki realized that Akane was worried about this very thing. "To be honest," she said, "I don't really know. I have no idea how long it will take Ranma to... well, work things out on his end."

Kuno cleared his throat. "If I may make a suggestion," he said quietly, "since we have no idea how long Ranma's journey back from the dead may take, we should camp for the night and begin the journey back to Japan tomorrow. Am I correct in guessing that it does not matter where Ranma's physical form is, for him to complete his return?" he asked Akane.

Akane blinked at him. She blinked again, looked at Nabiki questioningly, then back at Kuno as if he'd grown another head. Kuno bore her scrutiny patiently. "I... I think so," she said at last, "or the Ancient One wouldn't have essentially sent me on my way. I was going to suggest something similar..." She peered at Kuno again, obviously trying to figure out just who was this strange man with Kuno's face. Nabiki decided to put Akane out of her misery.

"Kuno has seen the light," she told her sister. "He finally gets it - all of it. He's a changed man."

Akane looked at Kuno in open astonishment, even as the others gaped at him as well. "You're kidding," said Ukyo. "I wondered what the hell had happened to him. I thought maybe Cologne had knocked him on the head too hard." Kuno looked at her, and she had the decency to blush for referring to him in the third person right in front of him. "Er, sorry Kuno," she said. "Akane coming back five years older was a shock, but I never thought you'd finally..."

"No apology necessary," Kuno said. "It is I who should be apologizing to all of you." And sensing the opportune moment, he rose from his seat, then bowed deeply before them. "I would be most gratified if you all would accept my humblest apologies for the atrocities I have committed in the past for the sake of my mad delusions. I have treated all of you most poorly... you especially, Akane, and Ranma most of all. I shall do whatever is required to make proper restitution, no matter how long it takes, and I do so with the hope that I will also be able to offer this apology to Ranma once he has regained his flesh. This is my vow."

Akane was left speechless, her mouth hanging open slightly. Nabiki once again came to the rescue. "And she accepts your apology. Don't you, sis?"

Akane nodded. "Thank you, Kuno," she said finally. "And thank you for what you have already done in providing the means for this rescue mission."

Kuno merely bowed his head in acknowledgement.

"Well, then," said Ukyo, getting to her feet. "If we're really heading back tomorrow, I'm going to start making camp." As she walked toward the supplies, Nabiki watched her, wondering just how much of Ukyo's newfound composure was real, and how much of it was just keeping busy for the sake of sanity.

It had been a hell of a day.

"Akane," said Mousse. Shampoo was sitting close to him, her hands in her lap, her head bowed, eyes overshadowed by her hair. "If you would grant us this request... Shampoo and I would like to build a litter for bearing... for bearing Ranma back to Japan."

Akane nodded wordlessly, tears standing out in her eyes. Then she stood and walked over to the pair, leaned over, put her hand on Shampoo's shoulder and whispered something between them that Nabiki could not hear. Shampoo slumped over, put her face in her hands and wept, and Mousse held her tighter, but as Akane walked away, Nabiki could see that Mousse was smiling at her.

Nabiki stood and joined her as she walked to the edge of the clearing. "What did you say?" she asked, burning with curiosity, but Akane just smiled and shrugged. Nabiki rolled her eyes and sighed, but wasn't really all that put out. "You haven't changed all that much, you know," she said wryly.

"Neither have you," said Akane. "Trying to eavesdrop."

"Hey, if I had been really trying, I would have succeeded."

Akane laughed, and Nabiki felt warmed to see genuine mirth in her eyes. But almost immediately, Akane's eyes clouded over again. "Wait," she said, frowning. "Where's Ryoga?"

Nabiki whirled and scanned the clearing. Ryoga was nowhere to be seen. The Lost Boy had flown the coop right under their noses, and she cursed herself for not paying more attention to him. She should have seen this coming. "Akane, he thinks—"

"I know what he thinks," Akane said, "and he's wrong. Damn it. Don't worry, I'll find him." And with that, Akane disappeared into the thick foliage at the edge of the clearing.

Ukyo came up behind Nabiki, peering out into the forest. "I didn't even see him go," she said. "That idiot."

Nabiki snorted. "Can you blame him?"

"He should have told us about his curse. He especially should have told Akane."

Nabiki raised an eyebrow. "So you're saying that if you had a curse that would have allowed you to get closer to Ranma in ways you otherwise couldn't, you wouldn't have taken advantage of that?"

Ukyo turned away, her lips pressed tight, tears bright in her eyes.

Nabiki mentally kicked herself. "I'm sorry, Ukyo. That wasn't fair."

"It was perfectly fair. You're right, Nabiki, I'm hardly one to be criticizing Ryoga right now." She sighed. "I'm actually jealous. He had the guts to actually run away from... from all this. I don't even know why I'm still here."

"Yes you do," said Nabiki, and Ukyo turned on her with almost defiant challenge in her gaze. "You stay," Nabiki continued, "because in spite of all the pain you're in right now, in spite of feeling like you've lost everything, you're still a good person who can't just walk out on her friends."

Ukyo's glare softened. "Are you sure it's not just because I know that if I took off right now, in the middle of the Chinese wilderness, I'd get just as lost as Ryoga?"

"Maybe a little of that too," Nabiki said mildly. "But my first point still stands."

Ukyo just sighed and shook her head.

"I've been meaning to talk to you about something," Nabiki said. "I figured I could talk to you about it when we got to Japan, but I suppose there's no reason we can't talk about it now."

Ukyo looked at her, curious and suspicious all at once at the sudden strange shift in the conversation. "What?" she said.

Nabiki tilted her head, smiling enigmatically. "Just something to think about. One word, really. And you don't have to decide right away. We can talk about it more when we get back to Japan."

Now Ukyo was really perplexed. "What? What one word? Just tell me!"

Nabiki leaned forward and whispered, "Franchise."

Ukyo blinked. Then, almost in spite of herself, she laughed and shook her head. "You want to go into business with me?"

Nabiki shrugged and said, "What else do we have to do when we get back?"

Ukyo didn't have an answer for that, and just snorted. But the half smile she gave Nabiki before turning back to setting up camp was the first genuine smile Nabiki had seen on her face since before the whole blood spell mess began.

Nabiki looked over to the other side of the clearing where the Snow Woman knelt by Ranma's frozen body. Everyone was giving them a wide berth, but the Snow Woman didn't seem to mind. She sat with her eyes closed, one hand resting gently on Ranma's forehead.

Nabiki had finished setting up her own tent, and Ukyo had set up the rest of the camp and had started cooking okonomiyaki, filling the clearing with delicious smells, when Akane finally returned with Ryoga. They both looked like they had been crying, Nabiki couldn't help but notice, but the look of utter devastation had left the Lost Boy's countenance, though he still looked far from happy.

"There," Akane said as they entered the clearing, and her tone and her manner struck Nabiki as being almost motherly. "See, everything's fine, nobody's mad." She said it in a way that clearly indicated that if, in fact, anyone was mad at Ryoga for his disappearing act, they needed to chill the hell out immediately. "Now don't worry about it. You should get something to eat, and then try to get some sleep, okay?"

Ryoga nodded, not quite looking at her. As she turned away, heading towards the Snow Woman, he reached out and caught her hand in a bold gesture that amazed Nabiki, and she would have stared if she hadn't been trying to be so discreet in her observation.

"Akane-san," Ryoga said, his voice low and hoarse. "Thank you."

Akane just smiled. "What are friends for?"

Ryoga muttered something that Nabiki couldn't hear.

"Yes," Akane said, gently but firmly. "We are, and don't forget it." She took him by the shoulder and pushed him toward where Ukyo was cooking and trying very hard not to stare at them. "Now go eat. Get some rest." This time he obeyed. When he reached Ukyo, he looked at her, took a deep breath, and said something softly that must have been an apology of some kind, because Ukyo accepted it with a nod and a dismissive shrug.

"It's okay," Ukyo said, flipping him a fresh okonomiyaki that he caught between two fingers. "Might have done the same in your shoes, hon. Don't beat yourself up over it." Ryoga gave her a small, grateful smile.

Nabiki missed the rest of their conversation as she got up and moved to intercept Akane on her way over to the Snow Woman. "Okay," she said in a conspiratorial whisper. "You have to tell me what happened when you found Ryoga."

"Nothing that you haven't already guessed," Akane said in her new, infuriatingly calm manner. Nabiki grit her teeth. This new aspect of Akane was going to take some getting used to. She was about to ask Akane what exactly she thought she had guessed, when Akane turned to her and said, "Hey, Nabiki, can you help me out? I've got some wounds that need cleaning and dressing. My foot and my back, mostly. Do you have a minute?"

Nabiki couldn't help but admire Akane's deft change of subject, even as she laughed at the absurdity of the question. "Do I have a minute? I come traipsing across half a continent just to get you back, and now that you are back, you have to ask me that? Follow me, I've got a complete first aid kit."

They went into her tent, closed the flaps, and Akane carefully stripped off her upper tunic and her boots, hissing in pain as she inadvertently reopened wounds. Nabiki looked at her, feeling herself pale slightly. "What," she asked, "in the hell did that to you?"

"Spider demon," Akane said, turning her back to Nabiki so that she could have better access to the deep, thin slices scattered across her back. "Had really spiky - Ow! Dammit, take it easy," she griped as Nabiki poured half her bottle of rubbing alcohol over the worst of the cuts.

"Big baby," Nabiki chided. "Don't worry, the worst is over. Now hold still. You squirm around like a toddler."

"Only because you have the bedside manner of a rabid weasel," Akane retorted, but Nabiki could hear the smile in her voice. Nabiki surprised herself at being able to keep up a constant stream of teasing banter that was only barely holding back the horror of what she saw on her sister's back as she cleaned off the dried blood. Beneath the fresh wounds, old scars. Deep scars. Scars that looked like they might once have been life threatening. And still, they were chatting, ribbing each other back and forth as if they were little kids, back at the dojo, and Akane had come to her because she had tripped and sprained her ankle or gotten a sliver in her finger. And of course, she only came to Nabiki if Kasumi was off running errands, and Nabiki always pretended to be put out, but her big secret was that she liked those few times when Akane had come to her and she got to play nurse for her violent tomboy little sister...

...and she didn't realize that she had stopped and that she was crying until Akane turned, wiped the tears from her cheek with her hand, and pulled her forward until their foreheads were resting against each other. Akane was crying too, but she was saying, "It's okay, Nabiki. It's over, and I'm okay."

It took Nabiki a few minutes to collect herself again, and then, when she resumed cleaning Akane's wounds, including a nasty puncture wound in her foot that Dr. Tofu would definitely need to take a look at when they got home, she did so in silence, struggling to get her mask back in place. Akane didn't seem to mind.

When she was through, she showed Akane that she'd brought along some of her clothes that she could change into, but they both quickly realized that Akane no longer fit in any of her old clothes. "I'm going to have to go shopping for... for everything," Akane said. "Daddy's going to have a fit."

"Not this time, I think," Nabiki said.

Akane ended up wearing a change of Nabiki's clothes, which, while still too small, was at least more comfortable. She still had to wear her bloodied boots, though.

Nabiki fished out a comb and brush from her pack and, without being asked, attacked the tangled mane of Akane's hair. At first Akane protested, but it was only a half-hearted protest, and they sat together in companionable silence while Nabiki worked away the knots and tangles and combed out the dried blood.

"Wow," Nabiki said when she was finally finished. "You're hair's longer than Kasumi's."

Akane fingered a lock of her hair distractedly. "I wonder if I should cut it when I get home."

Nabiki shook her head. "Wait," she said. "Wait until... until Ranma gets back."

Akane nodded. "You're right. I will." She stood and stretched as best she could in the small confines of the tent. "Thanks, Nabiki. I feel so much better."

"Any time," she said, meaning it. "You aren't sleeping in here?" she asked, as Akane lifted the flap to leave the tent. "Ukyo and I got a three person tent so you'd have a place to sleep on the way home."

"That's okay," she replied. "There's no way I can sleep my first night back home. I'm going to stay with Yuki-san and Ranma for a while."

The flap fell, and Nabiki laid down on her sleeping bag. She found herself staring up at the tent ceiling feeling utterly exhausted, and utterly incapable of falling asleep. But she didn't get up. She lay there, listening to the noises of her friends moving around the camp outside, and simply enjoyed the feeling of being at peace for the first time in a long, long time.

Akane knew that Yuki-onna felt her silent approach, because as she drew close, the Snow Woman opened her eyes, smiled sadly at her, and made room so that she could take a seat beside her in the vigil over Ranma's frozen body. They sat in silence, watching as her friends eventually set up their tents and attempted to get some sleep. At one point, Kuno approached her and offered her his tent, informing her that he and Ryoga had agreed to share a tent, but she smiled and thanked him (silently boggling at the idea of Ryoga and Kuno coming to such an agreement), and politely refused. Kuno accepted the refusal reluctantly but graciously. She couldn't help but shake her head as he walked away. If anyone had asked, she thought she might be hard pressed to declare which of the two of them had been more changed by this whole adventure.

She wondered just how much sleep anyone would get, if any, but then the sound of light snoring drifted from the tents in the clearing, confirming that her friends were getting a little sleep at least.

"Yuki-san," she said finally.

"Yes, Akane-chan."

"Ranma promised that he would come back to me. That he would defeat death itself to return to me."


"I believe he will do it. I think he will succeed."

"As do I."

"But..." she said. Her voice cracked, trembled. "But there is a small, infinitesimal chance that..."

Yuki-onna remained silent.

"How long..." She swallowed, cleared her throat and struggled against tears. Altogether too much crying today. "How long do I wait? How will I know if the reason he hasn't yet returned is because he is still striving for success, or... because he has failed?"

"There is no way to know," Yuki-onna whispered. "Even if I still had my mirror, the realm of the dead has always been blocked to my view."

"So." Akane digested this silently. "I just wait."


Akane looked up at small patch of sky visible through the clearing. The peak of the Mountain of the Ancient One was just barely visible through the clouds. Every now and then, as the cloud masses shifted in their dance across the sky, she caught a glimmer of starlight.

"Forever, then," she said. "If that's what it takes."

Yuki-onna closed her eyes.

Akane reached out and took Ranma's stiff, frozen hand in hers, refusing to flinch from the cold. "You hear that, you stubborn, insensitive jerk?" she whispered. "I'll wait for you forever."

There was no response. Akane held his cold, unmoving hand until the growing pale light of dawn began to obliterate the stars from the sky.

Ranma was in Hell. And he felt pretty good about it.

Admittedly, the only reason he felt good about it was because he had no intention of staying. It wasn't exactly the kind of place he wanted to spend more than, say, twenty minutes in. Half an hour tops. And not because he was scared. Nope. Wasn't scared. Not a bit.

Okay, so the river that brought him here, before forcefully expelling him onto the river bank in a violent scarlet geyser, flowed with thick, clotting blood rather than water. He'd managed to wipe most of it from his face and wring it from his hair and sluice it from his clothes, but he still felt pretty gross, and on top of that, the smell was nauseating. As for the rest of the scenery, the sky was a starless void from which emanated a faint but constant screaming. The bank of the river was choked with gnarled, thorny briars and leafless black trees. And just beyond the trees, an endless stretch of wasteland.

Then, of course, there were all the dead people.

As far as Ranma could tell, there were two types of dead people in Hell that he had observed so far. First, there were the dead people who came out of the river. Covered in so much blood it was sometimes hard to tell if they were male or female, they were dragged unwillingly out of the river by black meter-long chains emerging from their wrists and feet. They were pulled screaming and weeping and moaning, tugged along by the living chains like demented marionettes being forced to dance by some invisible puppet master, through the black brambles and out into the wasteland.

Okay, he thought. So maybe that was a little unnerving. What did a guy do in life to end up like that? Not really sure he wanted to know.

Then there were the other ghosts. The kind he'd always heard about in ghost stories and saw in bad horror movies. Draped in white, skin pale like bleached bone, disheveled black hair, dark eyes wide and rolling madly, drifting aimlessly over the ground because they had no feet.

But when it came down to it, Ranma wasn't the kind of guy who got all shook up over creepy landscapes and moaning ghosts. He'd played video games that were scarier than this place. And he'd been a nasty-looking ghost himself just a little while ago, and quite frankly, he put quite a few of these other guys to shame.

Now all he had to do was get one of these fellow dead guys to help him out.

He decided to leave the bloody puppet guys alone. All of them were too busy screaming and fighting to really talk to anyway, and he was pretty sure he wouldn't be able to get a coherent answer out of them. So he walked up to one of the pale ghosts that was hunching over, drifting through the dead black trees.

"Hey," he said, "uh... how are ya?"

The ghost turned toward him, and he was irritated to see that the ghost's face was hidden by long, tangled black hair. But at least he seemed to have its attention. "I'm kinda new here," he said, plowing on in spite of the surreal absurdity of the situation. In Hell, talking to a ghost, asking for directions. "I'm looking for Emma-O, and I'm in hurry. Can you, uh, tell me which way I should go or something?"

The ghost raised its head - Ranma still couldn't tell if it was a guy or a girl - and the hair parted to reveal one bulging eye. Its mouth opened and a long, pointed purple tongue unfurled and fell to the ghost's waist. "Gnaaaaaaaah..." it said.

Ranma backed up slowly. "Okay..." he said, "I'm guessing that's a 'no.'" He glanced around, looking at other pale ghosts drifting by, and wondered if they all had long dangling tongues that made speaking a problem. If so, this was going to suck. He didn't want to head out into Hell's wilderness without knowing how to get to the big guy in charge and end up going in the wrong direction. He didn't have time to waste getting lost. He needed to find Emma-O and convince the god to bring him back to life so he could get back to Akane as soon as possible.

"I don't suppose you could at least point me in the general direction?" he tried again. The ghost responded by raising its hands and going for his neck. "Whoa!" Ranma grabbed the ghost's ice-cold, clammy hands, suddenly really wishing he knew if this ghost was a guy or a girl. If it was a guy, it was about to get pounded to a pulp. "Knock it off. You don't want to tell me, fine, but don't pull any of this spooky gonna-get-you crap or I'll have to kick your ass." The single exposed eye glared, and the long tongue started to waggle up toward his face. "Blech!" Ranma pushed the ghost away in disgust. "Okay, that's it, guy or girl, you try to lick me and the other ghosts will be scraping you off the trees." He put his hands together, his ki building between his palms, preparing to blast it to pieces if it tried to come near again.

It didn't. It dropped its hands, furled its tongue, and turned away.

Okay, obviously being polite was getting him nowhere. Apparently the wrong tactic to use in Hell, he thought wryly. He looked around again, hoping to spot a ghost that was obviously a guy, wondering if maybe he could get the information through force.

"You don't belong here," said a voice behind him.

Ranma whirled and found himself looking down at a really short ghost. A kid, he realized, getting a good look at him, probably seven or eight years old. Pale and floating like the others, but with hair short enough that he could see the kid's face. Unlike the other ghosts, the kid was minus the bulging crazy eyes, though they were still deep and completely black, like a bird's, which was a little bit unnerving in and of itself.

"You should leave," the kid continued in bleak tones. "Go back. Find your ancestors. You don't belong in Hell."

"Well," said Ranma, grateful that the kid could at least talk and seemed to have a normal tongue, "I'd like to get out of here, but the only way I'm doing that is by seeing Emma-O first."

To Ranma's surprise, the kid barked a short laugh. "Emma-O? That's why you came here? Why in all the seven hells would you want to see him?"

"Because," Ranma said with all the authority he could muster, "he's going to bring me back to life."

The kid looked up at him, black eyes fathomless. "You want to be reincarnated?" he said, somewhat incredulously.

"No," Ranma said, getting irritated. "He's going to bring me back to my old life. The one I had before I died."

The ghost kid actually boggled. "You are out of your mind," he said. "He's never going to do that."

Ranma's eyes narrowed. There was something weird about this kid - more than just the obvious weird of being one of these pale ghosts.

Aside from the ghost's verbosity in the face of all his silent or groaning companions, through their brief conversation, Ranma felt the feline part of his soul stir a little. It had come out of hiding the moment he was no longer suffering sensory deprivation under the kuei curse, and now he realized... he could smell something. Down, deep under the choking smell of the blood river and the blood that still partially coated him, this ghost kid standing in front of him... smelled. More than that, he smelled familiar.

But he couldn't put his finger on why. He wasn't used to having that particular sense be so, well, sensitive. He was about to ask the kid just who in the hell he was when the kid waved his ghostly arms, gesturing at the pale ghosts around them. "See these people? Do you know why we're here? Not because of any wrong we did in life, but because we died violent deaths. Because of the way we died, we're tied to the mortal realm, and we go there, and we haunt. We haunt because that's all we can do unless some clever mortal figures out how to release our souls from this curse, and if we're released, we can finally leave this place and join our ancestors. But do you know how often that happens?" He glared up at Ranma. Ranma just blinked and shook his head. "Hardly ever!" the kid continued. "No, rather than trying to figure out why a ghost is haunting their house or inn or hot spring or mountain path, they hire a priest, and the priest slaps a god name on our foreheads which exorcises us and sends us back here. Look."

The kid pointed at his forehead, and Ranma could see a faint black scar in the shape of a kanji. "Can't go back until this is gone completely," the kid said. "And then what are the chances that a mortal will decide to try to help rather than just call another exorcist?"

"Well," Ranma said, "when you go back, can't you just... talk to people? The way you're talking to me? Seems better than doing the whole creepy moaning ghost thing."

The kid shook his head. "Doesn't work that way. And do you know why? Because those are the rules."

Ah. Ranma was getting the picture, and he didn't much like it. It was reminding him of the rules he had been bound by when he was under the kuei curse. He was starting to feel pretty sorry for the kid. "They don't seem like very fair rules," he said.

"And that," said the ghost kid, raising an index finger for emphasis, "is my point precisely. The rules aren't fair. And who do you think made those rules? The rules that govern the dead?"

Ranma sighed. "Emma-O."

The kid nodded, seeming satisfied. "So like I said. You'd be better off joining your ancestors than trying to get your old life back. Emma-O made his rules and he sticks to them. See that man?" The kid pointed to the bloody river as it frothed. Black chains broke the surface, dragging a terrified man by his wrists and feet. "That man was a murderer. He killed an innocent. Emma-O deals with people like him directly. They see him, and he judges them and sends them to spend a few eons sitting in a boiling pot of molten metal. He doesn't bother with anyone who should have gone down the other fork of the river," he said, looking deliberately at Ranma, "and even if he did, he wouldn't deal with you by helping you."

Ranma stared at the bloody man as the chains dragged him out of the river and through the black thorns, heading for the trees and the wasteland beyond. "He's going to see Emma-O? All of these guys with the chains are going to see Emma-O?"

"Yes," the kid acknowledged grimly.

Ranma grinned. "Thanks, kid. That's just what I needed to know." And with that, he took off running past the thorns and dead trees, pausing only long enough to gauge the direction the chained ghosts were being dragged across the wasteland before he was off running again.

The ghost kid stared after him in stunned amazement. Then he clenched his fists and rolled his eyes in exasperation. "Ranma," he shouted, "you idiot!"

Ranma was already too far away to hear.

Ranma ran as fast as he could, and tried not to think too hard about the dead guys who were leading the way. Murderers, the kid had said, and he ran past three of the bloody, screaming puppet men, giving them a wide berth. How many murderers were there in Japan? he wondered. And how did so many of them happen to die right now? There were at least five more ahead of him, all shambling in the same direction over dead flat ground, toward some hills in the distance. Hopefully toward Emma-O, if the kid was right.

But he didn't want to think about the dead guys. He ran, feeling grateful that in the afterlife, free of his kuei curse, he felt alive again. His feet made solid impact against the ground, he could feel his muscles pumping as he strained for more speed, and he felt the swift exhalation of his own breath against his face. His senses were back in full force and he reveled in their return after their absence, even if what he was sensing wasn't all that pleasant. So maybe being a spirit in the spirit realm was just like being alive in the mortal realm, he thought. At least if you weren't cursed to be a hungry ghost, or heading for some kind of punishment.

But most of all, as he ran, he thought of Akane. He wondered what she was doing right now, if she was doing okay even though he had left her alone with his dead body on the Ancient One's mountain. He wondered if she would be okay climbing down through all those demons and the kuei at the base of the mountain. But then, she had spent five years in the Kami realm dealing with the kind of demons who were on that mountain on a constant basis. He had witnessed her kick-ass skill for himself, and so he had to believe that she would be okay. Maybe the Ancient One would help her out. The old dragon still owed them, in Ranma's opinion.

And once she got to the base of the mountain and met up with their friends, carrying his body, what then?

He didn't know, but he couldn't imagine it being a good thing. His friends had come to support him on his quest to save Akane, and she was returning with his corpse and a story that he was coming back to life. No matter how he thought about it, he just couldn't imagine it going well.

But most importantly, he didn't want Akane to grieve. He didn't want his friends to grieve. He had promised Akane that he was coming back, and he kept his promises, no matter what.

And the more he thought about it, the more he realized that not only did he need to come back to life, he needed to do it fast. Too much time had already been lost. Akane had suffered too much already, and his friends had sacrificed so much to help him. Leaving Akane and the others hanging, wondering when and if he would succeed in keeping his promise to return, was unacceptable. Maybe, if he was fast enough, he could even come back to life before Akane left the mountain, and they could fight their way back down to their friends together.

So Ranma ran, these thoughts lending even greater urgency to his mission.

After a while, he reached the hills he had seen from a distance, and he sprinted to the top of one large hill, hoping he would be able to see where he needed to go next. He was surprised to see that his destination was just on the other side.

After the bleakness of the bloody river and the wasteland, Emma-O's home was a surprise. Ranma wasn't quite sure what he was expecting - maybe something with a skeleton motif, or maybe torture chamber-style decorations. Not this shimmering jewel-encrusted palace, perched on a grassy island surrounded by a lake of water that glowed with soft golden light. Ranma looked it over critically. For a god who was supposed to be lord of the dead, the guy sure seemed to like his earthly riches.

A wide scarlet bridge spanned the lake, leading directly to the large golden doors of the palace. The doors were open, as if in invitation. Come on in, enjoy the glitzy decor and impressive architecture before you get sent to writhe in eternal agony. What had that kid said? Molten metal?

Ranma looked behind him, back across the wasteland. In the distance, he could see two of the bloody puppet guys that he had quickly passed once he caught sight of the palace. They were far away, and lurching along slowly enough that it would be a while before they made it to the gate. Hopefully that would give him the time he needed to talk to Emma-O without interruption. He wanted Emma-O to be in a good mood, and he had no idea if punishing murderers with endless torment made the god grouchy. He rather hoped it did, because he didn't know if he liked the idea of trying to make a deal with a guy who enjoyed that depth of human suffering, even if it was well deserved.

He descended the hill quickly, ran across the scarlet bridge, and came to a stop before the open golden doors. He took a deep breath to steady himself. This was his only chance to succeed. He couldn't blow it. "Okay," he said. "Here goes nothin'."

He passed through the entrance and found himself in a vast hall. Torch light flickered on walls that seemed to be encrusted with diamonds. Pearls the size of his fist lined arches overhead, from which hung silken purple and scarlet drapes that fell to floor. Ranma couldn't help wondering who the hell this guy was trying to impress. As he walked silently down the hall, navigating between the falls of silk, he wondered if he would meet any resistance from guards or servants, but so far the place seemed deserted.

Or maybe not. Up ahead, where the glow of torch light grew brighter, he could hear voices. He strained to listen. One voice was faint, pleading, and a bit whiny. The other was deep, commanding, and aggravated. Ranma was betting the second voice was Emma-O.

Just great. Was someone already there ahead of him, putting the god in a bad mood? Not what he needed. Quickly, silently, but carefully so as not to stir the drapes with his movements, he made his way closer until finally he started catching glimpses through the silk of a tall man sitting on a throne. Not just tall, he realized as he edged closer and cautiously peeked around a scarlet drape. Big. Like two or three times the size of a normal human. He wore the ancient robes of a judge, and his immaculate black, pointed beard fell to his chest. Next to the god was a large pedestal upon which rested the biggest scroll Ranma had ever seen, encased in gold inlaid with lapis lazuli. The scroll was open, and Emma-O appeared as if he were trying to read it. Except that the first voice, whose owner Ranma couldn't see, was talking.

"Please, I beg you, listen to me!" the voice pleaded, and there was a strange quality to the voice, a thinness, that Ranma recognized. He had heard it before, twice, on the mountain of the Ancient One. Once, when the Snow Woman spoke to him while she was fighting Cologne from her domain in the Kami realm. The second time when he had heard Akane's voice calling him through the dimensional veil. "I am the victim of trickery, you must believe me!"

"There has been trickery indeed," Emma-O rumbled, scowling over the scroll. "And you are a fool if you think I shall fall for it a second time. Now, for the last time, be silent."

"How can I be silent when you ignore this injustice that has befallen me? That you yourself have brought upon me? I tell you, I am not Susa-no-o! How many times do I have to explain? I am Hoso-no-kami, and Susa-no-o has tricked you, tricked the entire council! You must let me out!"

Ranma grimaced. Apparently he had just walked in on an argument between gods. This can't be good, he thought.

"I must do nothing of the sort," Emma-O said firmly. Ranma noticed that a vein was starting to bulge on the god's forehead.

Emma-O's response brought on a new deluge of near-frantic pleading and begging from the being who was apparently either Susa-no-o, or Hoso-no-kami, whoever the hell they were. Either way, it wasn't good for Ranma because he could see Emma-O's face slowly flushing, and one giant fist clenching tight.

"ENOUGH!" Emma-O slammed his fist on the scroll's pedestal, causing the scroll to jump a good meter into the air before clattering back down. "You WILL be silent, trickster! If you think you can get out of Yomi by annoying me, you are wrong. Do not think I have forgotten your last sojourn to the seventh hell. You thought I would let you go if you read your abysmal haiku constantly for the space of many years, but you failed!" Emma-O stood and raised his fist, glaring downward, presumably toward whatever dimension the other voice was trapped in. "Your foolish attempts at deception WILL NOT ANNOY ME!"

Ranma couldn't help it. He snorted, wondering what Emma-O was like when he was actually annoyed.

Emma-O looked up sharply, and he quickly spotted Ranma behind the silks. "You!" he demanded, pointing at him with the hand that had just been clenched in a fist. "Come here!"

Well, this is it, Ranma thought, straightening and thinking of Akane. Remember... be diplomatic. With that thought, he stepped forward into Emma-O's court.

The god's eyes widened slightly in surprise as he saw him, then he glared. "You don't belong here, boy. What do you want? Why have you not joined your ancestors?"

Ranma bowed deeply before Emma-O. "Because, oh your most high, uh, eminence." He winced, wondering exactly how you were supposed to address the god of the dead, but continued. "I want to be restored to life."

There was silence. Then, Emma-O said, "Really."

"Yeah." Ranma glanced up from his bow. Emma-O's face was devoid of any expression he could read. "I, uh, I was told that you were the guy to see about this."

"And who told you this?"

Ranma blinked. Not the question he was expecting. "It was a Chinese dragon," he said, straightening from his bow. "The Ancient One." He suddenly hoped that was actually the dragon's name, and that he hadn't just told Emma-O that it was just some really old dragon.

But Emma-O looked surprised. Then his eyes narrowed, and he peered at Ranma intently as he reached for the scroll on the pedestal. "What is your name, mortal?"

Ranma barely managed to suppress the smirk that usually manifested in his expression whenever he introduced himself. Diplomatic,he thought to himself forcefully, Akane's face in his mind. No cockiness. He cleared his throat. "I'm-"

"-just leaving!"

Ranma and Emma-O both stared as the pale ghost kid rushed into the court in a most unghostly manner, silks billowing in his wake, grabbed Ranma by the arm, and began pulling him out of the room with a supernatural strength that took Ranma completely by surprise. "So sorry to disturb you, oh glorious one, we'll just be on our way now, don't worry, I'll make sure he gets to where he needs to be. His ancestors are waiting!"

"Hey!" Ranma protested, and planted his feet, stopping their progress before moving to slip out of the kid's inhumanly strong grip. To his surprise, the kid countered, and just as he realized just how unordinary this little ghost was, and that he was actually in for a real battle just to get free, Emma-O brought everything to a halt.

"You dare!" the god raged, and to Ranma's relief, Emma-O's fury seemed directed at the ghost kid rather than him. "You dare appear before me wearing a disguise? I will not tolerate such trickery!" And with that, Emma-O raised his hand, pointed at the ghost, and suddenly Ranma found himself looking eye to bird-black-eye with a tengu.

A tengu that, he realized with a shock, he recognized.

And apparently so did Emma-O. "Masakazu!" he bellowed.

"Hey," Ranma said, "I know you!"

"Good," said Masakazu. "Run."

"But I have to-"

The tengu grabbed him by the shoulders, looked him in the eye, and said, "Trust me."

Ranma glanced at Emma-O. The deity's face was starting to purple as he shook with rage.

Cursing angrily, Ranma ran. Masakazu followed right behind.

Once out of the palace, the tengu took the lead. "Follow me," he said, "and don't look back."

Ranma didn't look back. He kept his eyes fixed on the back of the red-feathered head of the tengu and thought about how the only reason he wasn't beating the strange creature up for destroying his chances of persuading Emma-O to bring him back to life was because he remembered him.

He remembered that the tengu had come to him in a dream, had sealed the spell voices from his mind and had encouraged him to keep searching for Akane. He remembered that when he was trapped in the Nekoken, this tengu had come and had tried to save him from the Shadowcat. Had banished the Shadowcat back to the Kami realm. But not before the Shadowcat had dealt him a fatal wound.

So, as angry as he was, Ranma figured that you just can't beat up a guy who gave his life trying to save yours.

But that didn't mean that, as soon as they were through running, he didn't intend to get some answers.

Emma-O watched the two intruders go, fuming silently. It took a while to calm down and once again regain his center of rational calm, but the blessed silence from Yomi helped. Masakazu had obviously come in a futile effort to free Susa-no-o, his oft-time partner in crime, who had quieted as soon as the strange human boy's presence had been known. No doubt now sulking that his rescue attempt had been thwarted, Emma-O thought with satisfaction.

Masakazu could run as far as he liked, but it would never be far enough. He would face judgment soon enough.

Now, as for that mortal boy... Emma-O looked at the scroll which spun under his outstretched fingers. It came to a stop, and his finger fell on a name. Ranma Saotome.

He sat on his throne and contemplated. So this mortal whelp was one of the humans who had stirred up so much trouble with the Kami realm. He didn't think he wanted a human such as this wandering loose in his domain.

"So," he said aloud. "He wants to be restored to life?" With a thought, he summoned Tensei-kaze.

A loud rushing sound roared outside the palace, and moments later the silks hanging in the great hall twisted and writhed as if caught in a storm. Tensei-kaze, barely visible, long hair streaming behind her, flew into the court. Faceless, the Wind of Reincarnation bowed before Emma-O.

"Find this boy," Emma-O instructed, pointing to the name on the scroll. "Set him on the path of rebirth."

Tensei-kaze whispered voiceless through the hall. The silks fluttered.

Emma-O pondered a moment. "A cat," he answered finally, then he smiled, utterly without warmth. "He had a feline taint about him. It seems fitting."

Tensei-kaze bowed in obedience and flew out of the palace in search of Ranma Saotome.

Masakazu led Ranma all the way back across the wasteland to the banks of the roiling, bloody river, when the tengu finally stopped and turned to face him. "We have to fly from here. You'll need to climb on my back."

Ranma eyed the tengu suspiciously. "Where are we going?"

"Back to the start. Back to the river before it forks."

Ranma shook his head and crossed his arms defiantly. "Look," he said seriously, "you know, I appreciate what you've done. I remember what you did for me with the blood spell, and how you fought the Shadowcat and sent it packing. It killed you, and I'm sorry. It killed me too, but if it makes you feel any better, I killed it back."

Masakazu snorted a laugh. "That does make me feel better, actually."

"Good." Ranma couldn't help a grin, but then forced himself back on topic. "But I am not going to join up with my ancestors, no matter what you say, so you might as well give up on that."

The tengu sighed. "I know... I know. If I had realized exactly what had happened to you, and if I had known about your promise to Akane, I never would have wasted time trying to convince you to go."

Ranma blinked. "Wait, how do you know about that?"

Masakazu's eyes glinted. "I did what I should have done in the first place, instead of trying to be your unobtrusive guide in the afterlife. I peeked while we were running away from Emma-O."

Ranma frowned. He didn't like being confused. "Whaddya mean 'peeked'?"

The tengu pointed to Ranma's head with a feathered finger. "I looked inside your mind. Saw your memories. I now understand why you want to return to life, but I promise you, what I said before is true. Emma-O is not the one who will do that for you."

Ranma really didn't like the idea of this tengu, friend or not, poking around inside his head. "Uh, I'm glad you understand now and all, but don't do that again," he said, scowling. The tengu merely nodded. Only somewhat satisfied, Ranma continued. "And if Emma-O won't bring me back to life, who will? I thought Emma-O was the only one who could do it."

"He is," said Masakazu, "but I have an idea."

Ranma looked at him, surprised. "Really?"

"Yes, but it involves you climbing on my back so we can fly back to the river before it forks, preferably before Emma-O, or whatever he decided to send after us, catches us."

"Ah," Ranma said, glancing back over his shoulder at the expanse of wasteland. He didn't see anything, but that didn't necessarily mean there wasn't something there. "Why didn't you say so in the first place? Let's go."

The tengu wore a long cloak of woven leaves and pine boughs, which was far from comfortable, but Ranma didn't complain. The tengu leaped into the air with Ranma clinging piggy-back, and they flew up and over the river, heading upstream.

"Can't you go any faster?" Ranma asked. They weren't going slow by any means, but they had run faster than the tengu was flying.

"No, because you weigh a ton," Masakazu said irritably. "Now listen to me. When you first surfaced in the river, you saw three forks, correct? Not just two?"

"Yeah," Ranma said, sliding a little and trying to get a better grip without choking the tengu. "But how do you know that? I thought I said no more peeking!"

"I know because you told me yourself. You asked me, 'Where does that middle fork go?'" That took me by surprise because humans can't see that middle fork. It doesn't even really exist for humans, because it leads to the realm of the souls of beasts and all creatures of the earth, where they await reincarnation."

Ranma processed that silently, absorbing the implications of what the tengu was saying. It was the Nekoken, of course. The part of him that was apparently irretrievably feline. He had been able to see the middle fork because his soul was part beast.

Then he started. "Wait," he said, realizing. "That chick on the bank of the river was you too?"

"Yes," Masakazu said. "As I mentioned, I was trying to be an unobtrusive guide for you, to help you make the transition from life to afterlife with your ancestors. But then you deliberately headed for Hell, making me chase after you... to be frank, I thought you'd gone crazy."

Ranma laughed shortly. "So you disguised yourself as one of those pale ghosts and tried to talk me into going back."

"Exactly. And I'll be honest, Ranma, I would still prefer that you join your ancestors, but I already know you won't simply because you gave your promise to Akane. So that leaves us with my idea. What we're about to do... it's very risky. I don't even know if it will work."

"If what will work?" Ranma asked, getting increasingly agitated. "What's your idea?"

"Within the realm of the souls of beasts," said Masakazu, "is a holy place where there burns an eternal, sacred flame. It is the place where the Phoenix is reborn, the ashes of its former body restored again to perfection."

Ranma understood immediately, and felt a sudden thrill of excitement. "Hey, so if I can enter that middle fork and reach that flame..."

"You might be restored to life," Masakazu said firmly. "Or you might give yourself a really bad burn. You're not a phoenix, Ranma. It could work, but no one has ever done anything like this before."

"What, you mean no animal, other than the phoenix, has ever jumped into the flame?"

Masakazu snorted. "No other animal is crazy enough to want to return to the life they just departed. They are perfectly content to wait for reincarnation, and perhaps a better lot in the next life, but not the phoenix. Constantly burning herself up, being reborn, and burning herself up again. Just for fun. Absolutely bonkers, that bird."

Ranma thought about that. "So... is this my best chance to keep my promise to Akane?"

Masakazu sighed. "Your only chance. I believe so, yes."

Ranma grinned fiercely. "Then let's do it."

Masakazu just shook his head and flew on.

After a while, the tengu said, "Look behind us. I hear something."

Ranma craned his head to look around. All he could see was the bloody river stretching out behind them, the river bank lined with the dead black trees. "I don't see anything."

"Nothing at all? No movement?"

"Nothing," Ranma said, squinting in an effort to see farther. "Just the trees moving in the wind off in the distance."

Masakazu swore colorfully.

"What?" Ranma said, baffled. "What's wrong?"

"There is only one wind in the realm of the dead," the tengu answered. "Tensei-kaze. No doubt Emma-O sent her after us."

Ranma felt a sudden sick dread - the first real thread of fear he'd felt since he had emerged from the river. "Look, man, I don't want to be reincarnated."

"So we need to get to the sacred flame before she catches us."

Ranma focused on the movement of trees far behind them. "Uh, I might be seeing things, but I think she's gaining on us."

"Hang on. We're almost there."

Ranma looked ahead and saw that the pitch black of the sky was giving way to daylight ahead. The urgency he had felt before, the need to succeed in returning to life quickly for the sake of Akane, was suddenly magnified tenfold as he realized that returning to life might be the only thing that could save him from Emma-O's revenge. "Hurry," he said, trying to keep the growing panic he felt out of his voice.

Masakazu didn't bother to respond.

Soon, though not soon enough for Ranma's comfort, they were back at the beginning, above the wide river where newly dead souls were surfacing in the water. By now, Ranma could hear what Masakazu had heard - the sound of the wind howling up the river fork that led to hell. She was close. We're not going to make it, Ranma realized. The wind was too fast. She had already closed the distance between them. But he had to try.

And as for the middle fork...

"Are you ready?" Masakazu called over the sound of the approaching wind. "Can you see it?"

Ranma looked. He could, but it was like before. The middle fork was like an optical illusion that he could only see out of the corner of his eye. "I can sort of see it, but not really. It keeps disappearing on me! What do I do?"

"Are you using the Nekoken?" Masakazu asked.

Ranma cursed his stupidity. Of course he would need to be actually using the Nekoken to see the path to the beast realm. With a thought, he summoned that feline part of him, bringing it to the surface.

He gasped.

He hadn't really used the Nekoken properly since killing the Shadowcat, right before he died. He had almost forgotten what it felt like. Power flooded through him, and his senses sang. The middle fork snapped into view like finally spotting the picture hidden in those weird 3-D paintings. "There!" he shouted, and his voice had a rasp to it that surprised him. "I see it, go! Go!"

As Masakazu dove toward the middle fork of the river, Ranma looked down the bloody river to Hell and saw the wind coming. It was close enough that he could see her, a near-transparent, faceless woman shape flying directly toward them with unnerving speed.

Then, abruptly, she stopped. Ranma saw her as she hesitated. Her faceless head turned back and forth, as if searching.

"Ha!" said Masakazu. "That did it. It's you she's after, not me, thank the gods, but she doesn't recognize you when you're fully immersed in the Nekoken. You just bought us some time, but we still need to hurry, she won't be fooled for long."

Ranma reminded himself to breathe. He didn't care what caused the reprieve, as long as they had one. "Just go!" he shouted - unnecessarily, since Masakazu was flying at full speed - and he realized his mouth felt funny. Probing the inside of his mouth with his tongue, he was startled to discover that his teeth were thin and sharp. Looking at his arms, he saw that they now sported a fine covering of black fur. What the hell?

"Ow, take it easy," Masakazu snapped at him. "You seem to have grown claws, so ease up on your grip, if you don't mind."

"What the hell happened to me?" Ranma yelled back, forcing himself to relax his grip on the tengu slightly.

"Nothing to worry about," the tengu soothed. "Souls here almost always outwardly reflect the inner state."

Ranma blinked. That was weird; but more importantly... "So when I come back to life, this isn't going to happen every time I use the Nekoken?"

Masakazu laughed. "No. If you actually pull this off and return to life, you'll look perfectly human even in the Nekoken."

Ranma couldn't help the sigh of relief. The last thing he needed when he got back was another shape-changing curse. And it made a little more sense that calling up the Nekoken had managed to throw off the reincarnation wind. Hopefully it would throw her off for a long time.

And, thought Ranma, looking down at the landscape that was revealing itself before them the farther they flew, the animal afterlife certainly seemed a lot nicer than Hell. Rolling green hills, thick leafy forests, lakes, and in the distance, pine covered mountains. And was that an ocean glinting on the horizon?

Everywhere, animals. Ranma thought it looked like a zoo had exploded. Herds of animals, dotting the landscape. Flocks of birds in the sky. He found himself wondering if there were bugs too.

But he didn't get a chance to appreciate scenery and the local wildlife. Masakazu landed on the bank of the river as soon as they were far enough into the realm of beasts that they couldn't see the other parts of the river looking back. "Now," said Masakazu, "follow me and run."

They ran. Masakazu led him into a forest so thick with large trees that the sky was blotted out by the leafy canopy. The forest floor was springy under their step with layers of fallen leaves and grass. He could almost smell how ancient this place was.

They ran, and Ranma felt utterly exhilarated. He had never in his entire life moved so fast on two feet, even dodging and weaving between the trees. And he quickly came to realize, as Masakazu kept pace with him, that the tengu had been holding back for his benefit during their sprint across Hell's wasteland.

He suddenly wondered if the tengu was holding back even now and decided to put it to the test with an extra burst of speed. He sped past Masakazu, who just as quickly called after him.

"Yes, you're faster, Ranma, but is now the time to be showing off when you're not the one who knows the way to the sacred flame?"

Duly chastened, Ranma let Masakazu take the lead. "Sorry," he said.

"Less talk, more running. We still have a long way to go."

And then, in the distance, beneath the sound of bird song and animal chatter, Ranma heard the high wailing of an approaching wind.

He felt his stomach drop. "Do you hear that?" he asked.

"I'm hearing a lot of things right now, Ranma, so please be more specific."

"It's her, that wind," Ranma said. Now he could feel the hair stand up on the back of his neck... and all the way down his back. Ugh. He shuddered. "I think she figured out what happened."

Masakazu glanced at him, startled. "Well, if you're hearing her before I hear her, that means we've still got some time, but it will be close."

Ranma nodded. "Right. Less talk, more running."

Ultimate Saotome Secret Technique, he thought. Don't fail me now.

Ranma lost track of time. He focused so completely on running, on not faltering, on keeping exact pace with Masakazu, that he could no longer tell how long they had been running. Half an hour? Half a day? All he knew was that the wail of the wind was growing ever louder behind them, and so he almost missed it when Masakazu whispered, "We made it."

And they burst into a clearing. The clearing was at least fifty meters across, perfectly circular. In the center, a magnificent pure white bonfire of flame burned on a stone altar.

And between them and that flame, a very, very large scarlet bird. It was almost as tall as the surrounding trees.

It looked at them, spread its wings and let out an earsplitting squawk. "Intruders!" it shrieked. "Demons! Man-beasts! Tengu and cat demon! You shall not touch my fire! It is mine! MINE! I will snap you up and eat you if you come close!"

Ranma groaned. "You could have warned me that the phoenix was going to be here guarding this thing," he whispered to the tengu.

"Actually," Masakazu replied, "I was rather hoping she was still on the mortal plane. I didn't know she had burned herself up already. And even so, she usually only spends a short time here between death and rebirth."

"Just my luck to catch the crazy bird during her special time," Ranma groused.

"Your luck works both ways," the tengu replied. "Come on, let's get you to that flame."

Ranma straightened and nodded. He had the Nekoken at his command and no stupid humongous bird was going to stand in his way.

As expected, the phoenix attacked as soon as he was within striking range. Her sharp, deadly beak flashed down with intimidating speed that was meant to spear him right through, but he leaped over the attack, smashed the bird's head into the ground, and lashed out with one hand, shredding the feathers of one wildly beating wing. "Look, you dumb bird, I don't want to hurt you, but I got a promise to keep, and I will have to hurt you if you don't let me pass." In the distance, he could hear the howl of the wind getting swiftly closer. "I don't got time for this!" he shouted, wondering just how much time he had left before the wind caught up to him. He had already had one failure, dying on the Ancient One's mountain just in sight of the dragon's cave. There was no way he was going to let that wind catch him and send his soul to be reincarnated when he was in sight of the flame that could restore his life. "Let me pass," he growled, "or I'll have to pound you into the ground."

The phoenix groggily rose and glared at him hatefully. "Shadowcat! Hated, hated demon!" it hissed. "Nekoken! I know it when I see it!" She flapped her sloppily trimmed wing. "I would see my own soul utterly destroyed before I would let a slave of the Shadowcat near my sacred fire!"

Ranma sputtered furiously. "Now, look here! I ain't nobody's slave!"

"It's true," Masakazu said. "He is not a cat demon at all. He is a human, and he wields the Nekoken with his own will."

To Ranma's surprise, the bird cocked her head and looked at him with sudden interest, though without losing the baleful look in her black eyes.

"Impossible," she said. "Shadowcat is a terrible demon. Hates humans, looks down on them. It would never share its power."

"Who said anything about sharing?" Ranma said, throwing out his chest. Tensei-kaze was coming, but he couldn't let this pass. "The Shadowcat is dead. I killed it. And I'm the sole master of the Nekoken!"

"Dead? What? Dead?" The phoenix fluttered, puffed out her feathers, and her head bobbed and twitched. "Shadowcat? Impossible!"

"It's true," Masakazu said again. "Ranma killed the Shadowcat. He defeated it utterly by turning the Nekoken against it. Look at me, Phoenix, see me kind to kind, as kindred spirits, and know that I speak the truth."

The phoenix looked at Masakazu, peered at him intently for a long moment. Then, she curved her neck down until her large head was right next to Ranma, one eye staring directly into his face. "Tell me," she said. "Did you kill Shadowcat Kami side or Mortal side?"

"Uh... Mortal side," Ranma said, and was about to ask what difference it made when the phoenix again rose up, wings outstretched, and she shrieked again, but this time in a piercing, warbling song of triumph. Ranma winced and covered his ears. Which were slightly pointed and furry, he noticed irritably.

"Dead! Shadowcat dead!" the phoenix crowed. "Dead forever! No pulling itself together Mortal side, oh no!" And the phoenix made a strange low warbling sound that Ranma realized was laughter.

"Okay then," Ranma said, "So, uh..."

"You go ahead and touch the flame," the phoenix said, smoothing down her feathers while looking at him with gleeful, glinting eyes. "You kill Shadowcat, you touch the sacred flame all you like. You die again, you come back any time."

Ranma blinked. "Uh... thanks," he said.

"Ranma," Masakazu warned, "listen. Tensei-kaze... she's almost here."

Ranma hesitated only a moment as he realized that this was it. He was here, he had made it, surpassed all obstacles, and now all he had to do to achieve the impossible was to jump into that blinding white bonfire. And hope that it actually worked and brought him back to life rather than burning his soul to a crisp.

He turned to Masakazu, but the tengu was already there shoving him toward the flame. "No time for goodbyes," he said. "Go. And tell Akane hi for me."

Ranma turned and clutched the tengu's feathered hand in his own. "I will," he said, "and thanks for everything."

With that, Ranma turned and jumped into the flame.

Masakazu shielded his eyes as a searing flash of light filled the clearing. A roaring noise, not coming from the approaching wind, blasted through him... and then the light and sound faded.

There was no sign of Ranma.

The phoenix clucked a little, folding in her wings. "I like him," she said. "Maybe I will look for him Mortal side."

"He's taken," Masakazu said mildly, suppressing a chuckle as the phoenix's head drooped a little. Then he shook his head in amazement. Ranma had done it.

But he had no time for personal celebrations, because at that moment, Tensei-kaze swept into the clearing with a roar of fury. She circled the clearing, approached the fire, and howled a cry of angry defeat. Masakazu suppressed the urge to gloat - he certainly didn't want to draw attention to himself at that moment, and as far as he knew, Tensei-kaze only went after those who were scheduled for reincarnation. He most definitely wasn't.

With another cry of fury, Tensei-kaze flew out of the clearing and away.

"Well," said the phoenix, smoothing down ruffled feathers. "What was that all about?"

Masakazu merely shrugged. "Thank you, lady," he said, bowing to the phoenix, "for your generosity." The phoenix ducked her head and warbled softly, and the tengu took that as his cue to leave. As interesting as the phoenix had turned out to be, he didn't want to be anywhere near here when Tensei-kaze made her report to Emma-O.

What he failed to take into account, he realized later, was that Tensei-kaze was even more swift when she wasn't searching for fugitives who didn't want to be found, and Emma-O... well, he could be anywhere in his domain.

As he emerged from the realm of the souls of beasts, he found himself looking up at a very irritated Emma-O.

"Masakazu," the god growled.

Masakazu only had one relevant thought.


At the foot of the Ancient One's mountain, the growing pale light of dawn was obliterating the stars from the sky when Akane, exhausted and nearly dozing, felt Ranma's frozen, dead hand begin to grow warm in hers.

At first she thought she was dreaming... but then his hand grew even warmer, and her eyes flew open. "Ranma," she said, and she looked over at Yuki-onna, who was staring at Ranma in amazement, even as she stood and slowly backed away.

"Akane-chan," the Snow Woman said, smiling, "I cannot stay for this. I must say goodbye for now." And before Akane could protest, Yuki-onna faded from sight. But she didn't have time to wonder at Yuki-onna's words.

Ranma was glowing. Bright light seemed to emanate from under the surface of his skin. The ice and frost that encased him was melting quickly, even evaporating in steam, and his hand was growing warmer to the point where it was hot and burning her hand and she was forced to drop it against her will.

Then Ranma burst into white hot flame.

"Ranma!" Akane cried, and she had to back up because the heat was so intense.

Her shout brought the others scrambling from their tents to see what was going on. They stared, speechless, at the sight of Ranma's prone body engulfed in flame. His clothes turned to ash in moments, and for a terrifying moment Akane thought that Ranma's body would follow suit... but instead, the flame continued to burn, and the dried blood coating Ranma's skin disintegrated, and the terrible wound in his abdomen closed and disappeared. Scars, new and old, vanished under the white flame. Then, as if a tiny nova exploded in the center of his being, Ranma's body grew so bright that Akane and the others were forced to shield their eyes.

Slowly, the light faded. Akane stood, blinking against the after images, trying to see, her heart beating in her throat. "Ranma?" she whispered

She heard him take a breath. "Akane," he said.

Akane had never felt more joy than she did in that moment. Ranma sat up and reached for her, and she went to him, and then his strong, warm arms were around her and she buried her face into his shoulder and wept. She carefully placed her hand against the bare skin of his chest, and could feel his heart beating, strong and alive. "You did it," she whispered. "You came back."

"Hey," said Ranma, and she felt one of his hands reach up and gently stroke her hair, almost timidly. "I promised, and I always keep my promises."

She smiled. "With such proof as this, how could I ever doubt you again?"

"Well, I hope..." Ranma started, in what almost sounded like a teasing voice, when he trailed off. Akane looked at his face, his handsome face that she would never get tired of looking at for the rest of her life, and saw that he was blushing.

"Ah hell," said Ranma. "Why am I naked?"

Akane burst out laughing, tears streaming down her face. The laughter felt glorious, cleansing, and Akane felt the fears and worries of the last five years sloughing from her like an old skin. She felt as new and renewed as Ranma was in physical reality.

She turned and looked at her friends. Ryoga, Ukyo and Shampoo were wearing almost identical expressions of amazement. Mousse's eyes were wide behind his glasses, and Kuno seemed to be struggling to remain stoic in the face of what had just happened before his eyes. Nabiki... she was grinning like a little kid on Santa Day.

To Akane's surprise, it was Ukyo who managed to break out of her shock first. She quickly ran to her tent and was back in an instant with a blanket. "Here ya go, Ranchan," she said, carefully keeping her eyes on his face. She smiled. "Welcome back."

Ranma took the blanket and covered himself, still blushing. "Thanks, Ucchan."

"Any time," she said, and laughed as Akane's eyebrows raised. "Kidding, hon," she said to Akane with a wink.

"Hey, Ryoga," said Nabiki, "isn't Ranma's pack in your tent? Doesn't he have some spare clothes in that?"

Ryoga blinked, as if coming out of a daze. "Uh, yes. Yes, of course, I'll go get it."

Ranma stood after carefully wrapping the blanket around his waist, and helped Akane to her feet. She held his hand tightly, and he felt a warmth in his chest that had nothing to do with the phoenix fire that had brought him back. As Ryoga walked up to him, carrying his pack with his clothes, he couldn't help but wonder what this would mean for their friendship, now that the blood spell was broken and Ryoga remembered everything.

"Hey man," he said as Ryoga handed him the pack. "Thanks."

Ryoga just nodded. "No problem."

Ranma peered at him. "So... are you..." he faltered, not wanting to provoke or embarrass him, especially when Ryoga couldn't be completely happy with how things had turned out.

But Ryoga just shook his head, looked at Akane, then gave him a half smile. "You came back from the dead for her, Ranma. What more is there to say?"

Ranma raised his eyebrows. "So... we're cool?"

Ryoga snorted, turned away and headed back to his tent. "Only as long as you treat her right. One misstep, Saotome, and I'll pulverize you."

Ranma grinned.

He looked around at the others and saw Shampoo and Mousse withdrawing to a far corner of the camp. He raised his hand in a wave, and they smiled and waved back, but made no move to intrude further on his and Akane's reunion.

Kuno, on the other hand... Ranma groaned as Kuno quickly approached. Ranma had hoped he could at least get dressed first before having to deal with Kuno, but before he could even threaten the kendoist to leave him and Akane the hell alone, Akane squeezed his hand and whispered, "It's okay, don't worry," to his bafflement.

Kuno soberly gazed at him. "My congratulations on your successful return from the dead, Saotome," he said, then bowed. "At this time, I would like to offer my deepest apologies for my..."

There was a lot more that Kuno said after that, in extreme flowery language, but Ranma was too stunned to process it properly. When Kuno finished, Ranma blinked, and said, "Yeah, okay... thanks. No problem." Kuno left, seeming satisfied, and Ranma looked at Akane. He was still getting used to them being about the same height, looking at her eye to eye, but it wasn't something he minded in the least. "So... what the hell was that?" he asked. "Is he for real?"

Akane just smiled and shrugged. "Well, he is for now. Here's hoping it lasts."

When she smiled, Ranma's heart thudded in his throat, and he felt caught by the light in her eyes as she looked at him.

"Um... Akane?"

"Yes, Ranma?"

"I, uh, kinda need to get dressed."

Akane snorted a laugh, and released his hand. "Go. Get dressed," she said. "But hurry back."

And Ranma hurried out of the clearing and dressed, marveling at the change in Akane, and the change in himself. He thought about the day he first met Akane. How she had walked in on him in the bath, and all the chaos that had ensued. Had it only been a little over a year ago?

Far longer for Akane, he realized. But though he had been without her for a mere month, it was enough for him to know that he never wanted to be separated from her again.

Dressed, and feeling a bit more dignified, he walked back into the clearing towards Akane, stopping right in front of her.

"Um... Akane?"

Akane smiled. "Yes, Ranma?"

He took a deep breath. "I... really want to kiss you."

Her smile turned dazzling and Ranma felt weak in the knees. "Okay," she said.

He swallowed. "You don't mind?"

"Of course not."

He glanced around out of the corner of his eye. "Everyone is watching us," he said.

"Nabiki can take pictures for all I care," Akane answered, and with that, Ranma finally realized that it was time. He closed the distance between them, gently took her face in his hands, even as her own arms went around him, and he kissed her.

Akane kissed him back quite thoroughly. It was a kiss with tears mingled with smiles, awkward starts and re-starts, but then they both quickly started getting the hang of it.

"Woo-hoo!" shouted Nabiki, somewhere off in the distance. "Go Akane!"

"About time, Saotome!" yelled Ryoga.

After, Ranma rested his forehead against hers. "I waited too long," he said. "I should have done this a long time ago."

Akane shook her head, reaching up to wipe the tears from his face and her own. "Let's not regret, Ranma. I spent too much time the past five years wishing I could have done things differently. But now here we are. Let's just go from here."

"I love you, Akane," said Ranma.

Akane choked out a laugh that was half sob. "I thought I'd never hear you say those words to me."

"Then I'll say it again," said Ranma. He had faced and defeated demons, gods, and his own worst nightmares, all for this. "I love you. And I promise you this, Akane. I will love you forever."

Akane believed him.

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