In which a few loose ends are tied up, and the rest is left to the imagination.
The mountains that surrounded the walled village of Nujiezu (known to Japanese outsiders as Joketsuzoku) were pale stone, bare of vegetation. The smooth peaks were devoid of rough edges, the stone having been worn smooth by ages of erosion. Legend said that the first Amazon woman had come into existence at the same time the mountains themselves were born of the earth, birthed by the same power. Some believed that the mountains housed the spirits of all Amazon ancestors.
Cologne looked on the mountains as she approached the village gate and, for the first time in her long life, rather than feeling uplifted with the pride of her tribe's strong, distinguished bloodline, felt as if she carried the weight of those mountains on her shoulders.
Two guards met her at the gate; girls she recognized, about Shampoo's age. They greeted her by name and she responded in turn.
"Inform Sheng Zhi that I have returned and that I require a meeting of the Elders," said Cologne.
One of the guards bowed slightly, and Cologne couldn't help but notice that the bow was not as deep as it should have been. "The Elders have already convened," the guard said. "They gathered as soon as the Watchers made them aware of your approach."
So, news of her failure had preceded her, but then she knew it would be painfully obvious since she was returning alone. Well, at least she wouldn't have to wait. Without another word, she left the guards at the gate and headed for the Hall of the Elders.
Cologne was expecting near darkness when she entered the windowless hall. Instead, the circular hall was filled with the glow of hundreds of lit candles. They must have indeed seen her coming from afar to be this prepared.
The Elders were already seated and waiting for her. Her seat was conspicuously empty, but she did not move to sit. Instead she stood before them, and looked into their faces. Most of the expressions that met her gaze were carefully blank, but Sheng Zhi, Weimen and Zongxian, three of her closest friends, looked at her with puzzled sadness.
Sheng Zhi spoke first. "Kho Lon," she said, "Where is Xian Pu, and where is her rightful husband?"
Cologne closed her eyes, surprised at how they suddenly stung. "Her rightful husband is dead, killed by demons," she said. Then she looked up at Sheng Zhi. "I saw his body myself, and bear witness of it."
Sheng Zhi's eyes widened in surprise. "Then you and Xian Pu are free from your obligation. Why, then, has she not returned with you?"
No need to draw it out, Cologne thought. Best make it quick and sharp. "Xian Pu has broken with the tribe," she said, an announcement that was greeted with various degrees of audible shock and disbelief from the Elders. "She has openly rebelled and has returned to Japan with Mu Tzu as her husband. And I... I have been defeated by an outsider. I was unable to administer the Kiss of Death afterward. I have returned to the tribe to restore the fallen honor of my family through the ritual of blood."
At this, the gasps and mutterings fell silent.
"This is a very serious thing you propose," said Sheng Zhi after a long moment. "Are you certain of your course of action?"
"Honored Sister," replied Cologne. "Since I received your letter a little over a month ago, I have done many things for the sake of fulfilling our obligations of honor and upholding our sacred traditions that have made my soul shrink. I took calculated risks that ended not only in failure, but in the death of the one who was the objective we sought. Over the course of these events, the heart of my great-granddaughter failed her, and she chose weakness over strength, and banishment over restoration to the tribe. I also inadvertently empowered my enemies and gave them the means by which to defeat me. For these crimes against the tribe and my ancestors, honor demands nothing less of me than the blood ritual. You know this as well as I, and for the sake of honor, I will not now hesitate to do what needs to be done to restore what has been lost."
Sheng Zhi regarded her soberly. Then she sighed. "So be it," she said, and her voice was barely above a whisper. "Who will witness?"
"I will bear witness," said Weimen.
"As will I," said Zongxian.
"Then I shall be the third," said Sheng Zhi.
With this announcement, the rest of the Elders stood and left the hall silently, each bowing deeply to Cologne as they passed her.
When none were left but Cologne and her witnesses, Sheng Zhi walked over to the altar that stood at the very back of the hall and retrieved an unremarkable wooden box.
Weimen reached out and put her hand on Cologne's good shoulder, observant of the injury in her other, and said, "I always believed you were the strongest among us, and this proves it. I shall not let this be forgotten."
"Thank you," said Cologne.
Zongxian just shook her head as Sheng Zhi returned with the wooden box. "Xian Pu and Mu Tzu. I thought she hated him."
"So did I," replied Cologne. "Perhaps she still might... but I think she hates being alone more."
"Mm. A terrible weakness."
Cologne nodded, wordlessly took the wooden box from Sheng Zhi's hands, and opened it. Inside lay the sacred dagger, the blade chiseled from the stone of the top-most peak of God Mountain Amesores. The blade had no hilt or guard. She took it up in her withered hands and felt the razor edge slice the skin. Blood began to trickle from her fingers.
She looked at each of her old friends, memories of older, better times filling her mind, and closed her eyes.
Sheng Zhi spoke, and her voice filled the hall. "Kho Lon, beloved matriarch of the Ancient Tribe, we three Elders witness this, your final act, and declare your honor unblemished before our ancestors, and swear that your name, and the names of your family, shall be spoken of with honor to our descendants until the end of time."
"Go in strength," said Zongxian.
"You will be missed," whispered Weimen.
Shampoo, thought Cologne. I do this for love and honor of only you.
Please... be happy, child.
Cologne plunged the dagger into her chest, aiming for her heart.
She did not miss, and as she fell, she caught the scent of mold on the wind and felt the caress of Yin Wu Ch'ang Kuei's cold, dead hand on her face...
The Land of Yomi wasn't nearly as bad as he expected it to be, Masakazu mused as he sipped cold sake. Yes, it was underground in a deep cavern, but there was plenty of light. Aside from the perpetual blue flames that hovered around the deceased inhabitants, the city that seemed to stretch endlessly off in every direction had lit paper lanterns strung across every street. Stores bustled, inns made good business. He'd seen a few parties, a few street festivals. Dead people chatted, laughed, sulked, cried.
It wasn't great. But then, it wasn't all that bad either.
He had made this particular inn his home because it was close to a decent hot spring, and because the lady proprietor had died of a drug overdose, which made her one of the less gruesome dead people to be around. People in Yomi tended to wear their deaths like badges of pride. Still, Nakamura-san kept the place clean, Masakazu's room afforded him some privacy, and the public areas, such as the back patio where he now sat, leisurely setting up a Shogi board, didn't see much traffic when there was a festival nearby. Which was often.
Masakazu looked up as he heard the inn's front door open, and footsteps head his direction.
The cause of the footsteps, Susa-no-o, came around the corner. "Yo," the deity said with a cheeky grin and a hand raised in greeting.
Masakazu didn't even blink. "I expected you sooner," he said.
Susa-no-o frowned. "Come on. You're not even the least bit surprised to see me?"
Masakazu shook his head. "I figured they had to have caught you, when they came and let Hoso-no Kami out." He gestured for the man to sit on the other side of the Shogi board.
Susa-no-o did so, snorting his indignation. "They didn't catch me. I surrendered myself."
That did surprise Masakazu. "What? Why would you do that?"
Obviously pleased that he had finally gotten a reaction out of his tengu friend, Susa-no-o smirked. "Well, for one thing, who in their right mind would want to spend one more moment than necessary in Hoso-no Kami's disgusting body?" Susa-no-o shuddered dramatically. "I only wanted to stick around long enough to see how things turned out. The Council, they're so ridiculous. As if sending me to Yomi was punishment. I guess they don't remember that Daddy Izanagi created me by washing off excess Yomi after he visited here trying to get Mom to leave. Had to 'purify' himself after coming to the land of the dead, and blew me right out of his nose." Susa-no-o threw up his hands and waved them in mock distress. "Oh, no, don't banish me to Yomi! Please, please, please don't throw me in that there briar patch!"
Masakazu laughed. "I should have known."
"Eh, best you didn't. I would hate that overstuffed shirt, Emma-O, to realize that I like it here. It would make him all grumpy again. Better for our young mortal friends that he stays cheerful."
"And how are our young mortal friends?"
Susa-no-o grinned. "Blissfully in love, of course. Just got back from their honeymoon."
Masakazu actually gaped. "What? You mean they got married? That quick?"
"Practically as soon as they got back to Japan and could get things arranged. Of course, with their dads, that didn't take long."
Masakazu shook his head. "Well, I figured Akane was ready... but I didn't expect Ranma to agree to it so soon."
Susan-no-o leaned over the Shogi board and whispered, "It was Ranma's idea."
"I don't believe you. Ranma? Ready for marriage?"
Susa-no-o chuckled. "I think he finally realized that, after coming to terms with his feelings for Akane, then facing down and utterly conquering his worst nightmares, and then even coming back from the dead all for the sake of the woman he loves... well, what could be so scary about marrying her?"
Masakazu barked a laugh. "He has no idea."
"That's right," Susa-no-o agreed seriously. "Dying is easy. Marriage is hard."
"That reminds me," said the tengu, offering the god a sake cup, "how is the missus?"
Susa-no-o took the cup, filled it from the jug Masakazu had on hand, and drained it in one gulp. "Ahhhh... Pretty sure she's not crying over me being banished to Yomi again."
Masakazu snorted, then gestured to the board. "So are we going to play or what?"
Pouring himself another cup of sake, Susa-no-o settled down comfortably on the other side of the board, drank, and immediately moved a piece. "Your turn."
Several turns later, while Susa-no-o was silently pondering his next move, Masakazu said, "Hey... so do you think they'll make it?"
Susa-no-o looked up. "Who, Ranma and Akane?" He laughed as if that was the craziest question he'd ever heard. "After everything they've been through to reach this point? Of course. Neither of them would ever be willing to conceded defeat, even if marriage is the hardest thing they'll ever do. Besides." Susa-no-o threw back another cup of sake. "It's True Love."
With a smile glinting in his black eyes, Masakazu nodded in agreement, and took a turn.
Susa-no-o didn't notice.
Ryoga sat in his tent in the middle of the Japanese forest wilderness, reading a shonen manga in the grey light of a stormy afternoon. He was waiting for the rain to let up so that he could find some work since he was starting to run a bit low on funds, and this time of year he could usually find some farmer in need of hard labor who was willing to hire him on for a week or so. Sometimes longer, if he didn't inadvertently get lost in the meantime.
So, isolated as he was, he was surprised to hear the sound of someone calling his name over the incessant pounding of the rain against the tent. Moments later, that someone was at his tent flap.
"Ryoga? Hey, you decent in there?"
Ryoga blinked. "Nabiki?"
Nabiki lifted up the tent flap with one hand and peeked in. She was wearing a blue rain slicker and holding an umbrella in her other hand. "Ryoga? Mind if I come in? It's kind of wet out here."
Ryoga sighed. "Sure, Nabiki. And since you're here, I'm guessing I'm not in Yatsugatake, like I thought."
"Nope. You're in the woods next to Furinkan High."
Ryoga sighed again. He got lost so frequently in those woods, he thought he should be able to recognize something by now. Apparently not. "So what can I do for you, Nabiki?" he asked as she sat down at the tent entrance, doing her best not to drip water deeper into the tent.
"Actually, I have something for you. A present from Ranma."
Ryoga raised his eyebrows in surprise. "From Ranma?"
"Yeah," said Nabiki, reaching into her jacket pocket. "He would have brought it himself, but, well, he said he didn't want to rub salt into your wounds so soon after... you know."
Ryoga smiled sadly. "Eh, it's okay. I'm over it, mostly."
Nabiki smirked. "Well, hopefully this will get you the rest of the way over it." She pulled her hand out of her pocket and held out a small, plain silver ring.
"A ring?" Ryoga shook his head, puzzled. "Okay, what's the joke?"
"Take a closer look, Ryoga. Notice anything familiar about the metal?"
Ryoga picked up the ring from Nabiki's outstretched palm and examined it. The silver band had a strange reddish tint to it. He blinked. "Wait," he said, and his heart pounded hard inside his chest. "Is this... this isn't..."
"It is," Nabiki said, grinning. "Ranma had rings made from that oni collar... and they work. That one is yours, Ryoga, magic intact."
Ryoga was so stunned, he couldn't think of anything to say. With shaking hands, he slipped the ring over his right index finger. The blood was pounding so hard inside his head that he almost couldn't hear Nabiki as she opened the tent flap, gestured outside, and said, "Go ahead, try it out."
Ryoga half stood, then hesitated. He didn't think Ranma would do this to trick him; not after everything that had happened. But... what if it didn't work? With his luck, he was probably immune or something. A cure, so close, right in his hand, and it probably didn't even-
Nabiki rolled her eyes in exasperation, grabbed Ryoga's arm, and pulled him outside into the downpour.
Ryoga stood, frozen in shock, soaking wet, as he quite definitely did not turn into a little black piglet.
Nabiki stood back and watched, enjoying the look of ecstatic joy that slowly blossomed on Ryoga's face.
He looked up into the storm, letting the rain pour into his face and raised his fists to the sky. "Ah-HA!" he cried. "At LAST!"
Nabiki laughed. "How does it feel?"
Ryoga wanted to stand out here in the rain forever. "Like a hot shower!" he said. "The rain is hot!"
"That's the ring," Nabiki said, watching as the rain steamed in the cool around Ryoga. "As long as you wear it, no cold water will ever touch you."
Ryoga closed his eyes, luxuriating in the feel of the water against his skin. Then, abruptly, he turned to Nabiki, earnestness in his features. "Tell Ranma thank you," he said. "This... this is more than I deserve."
Nabiki raised an eyebrow. "Tell him yourself," she said. "We're having a celebration at my house tonight, and you're invited as one of the guests of honor. Kasumi, Ukyo and Shampoo are cooking fantastic food as we speak, so what do you say? Why don't you come back to the dojo with me and celebrate with your friends?"
Somewhere, deep in a dark corner of Ryoga's soul, a part of him wanted to say, no thank you. Celebrate without me, I don't really need to see Ranma and Akane together as husband and wife, even if they do think of me as their friend...
The rest of Ryoga, the part that, for the first time in a long time, saw real hope in the future, stomped on that deep dark part firmly. Ryoga found himself smiling at Nabiki and saying, "Okay."
It took him practically no time at all to pack, and as he followed Nabiki back to the Tendo Dojo where his friends waited, he couldn't help but think that today was a good day to be alive.
Yuki-onna kept a silent vigil over her mortal friends.
Since parting with them in the Chinese wilderness, rather than returning to her realm in the Kami plane, Yuki-onna had chosen instead to follow. Akane and Ranma did not know, and Yuki-onna preferred it that way.
It helped that spring was slowly turning to summer, and the Snow Woman found that in the warming climate she was barely able to summon the strength to manifest herself as a physical presence. But she watched them all the same, a voiceless, invisible guardian from an encroaching danger that they did not imagine.
For she knew that, someday, he would come. She had known it from the moment she realized the means by which Ranma had returned from death. He would come to claim what had been stolen out from under him in his own domain.
And, on the night of the celebration, in the early morning hours after the party had finally died down and both guests and hosts had gone to bed and were sleeping soundly... he finally came.
Emma-O was in a good mood. All that nasty business with Susa-no-o and Hoso-no Kami had finally been straightened out. The trickster deity was trapped in Yomi where he belonged, along with his tengu cohort, and seemed to be bearing his punishment well without attempting to torment his captor with his inane poetry. Emma-O's personal realm had been blessedly silent for a while. Now all that remained was this last loose end that needed tying up.
The boy was sleeping, curled protectively around a beautiful young woman with long dark hair who seemed quite content to be in his arms.
Emma-O frowned slightly. Normally he did not personally indulge in the collection of souls, but he had made an exception in this case. Now, as he stepped forward to pluck the impertinent boy's soul from his mortal shell, he paused a moment, imagining how the young woman would react to wake and find that her lover had died in his sleep. Not lover, husband, he realized as he saw the matching rings on their left hands, glinting in the moonlight that poured through the window. Certainly it would be a tragic scene... one he chose not to dwell on further.
This boy had dared defy his authority over the dead and had found a means to return to life without his power. This boy needed to be taught that one did not escape the inevitable that easily. It was time to end this farce now. The god of the dead leaned over and reached toward the boy's face.
He turned at the voice, surprised to see an apparition, pale, translucent, with white flowing hair that fell to the floor, appear within the room. He was even more surprised a moment later when he realized that he recognized her. "Yuki-onna," he said. The hauntingly beautiful woman of the snow, who ofttimes served as his handmaiden in speeding souls to his realm.
"My lord," she said, and she knelt before him and bowed deeply, touching her forehead to the floor. "My lord, I beg of you. Please do not take this young man."
Emma-O raised his eyebrows. "My dear lady, why ever not? Surely you know as well as I that mortals cannot defy the gods without consequence."
"That is true, my lord," Yuki-onna replied, "but please." She looked up and Emma-O could see tears of ice slipping down her cheeks. "His death was my fault; the direct result of my collaboration with a terrible demon. I interfered in mortal affairs where I had no right or jurisdiction, and led that demon to him to satisfy a personal and ultimately petty desire for vengeance. Without my interference, this boy never would have died in the first place."
Emma-O straightened, and looked down at the boy again. "I see," he said, frowning thoughtfully. "However, that doesn't change the fact that he did die, and he deliberately defied my rules to return to the same mortal life he had lost. He broke the rules, and justice must be served."
Yuki-onna once again bowed her head to the floor. "Then I beg of you, my lord. Take my life in exchange for his."
"What?" Emma-O said, startled. "You, an immortal, wish to die? You wish to throw your life away for the sake of an insignificant mortal?"
"He is far from insignificant, my lord," Yuki-onna replied, and she looked up and regarded him soberly. "This is why I am here. I know that the demands of justice must be met, and so I offer you my life - my immortal life - in exchange for his defiance of death."
Well, this was not going at all the way Emma-O had imagined. He thought this would be a quick jaunt to the mortal realm, snag a soul, done and done, mess finally taken care of. This...
This beautiful woman, pleading so poignantly for justice to be met upon herself instead of the boy. Emma-O found his frown softening slightly as her icy tears continued to fall.
"Well," he said gruffly. "It's unconventional. But," he continued as a crestfallen look spread across her face, "I suppose I could do as you ask. If this is what you truly desire."
The look of devastation was replaced with wild hope. "It is, my lord. This is what I desire. Take my life and spare the boy."
Emma-O sighed. "I do this for your sake, and for the sake of the ages of service you have faithfully rendered. Yuki-onna, rise and take my hand."
Incredulously, the Snow Woman stood, reached out and took his hand.
"Take one last look at this one for whom you sacrifice your life and tell me that this is what you want."
Yuki-onna looked down at Ranma and Akane. They slept peacefully, and even in their sleep, they looked happy.
She looked at Akane. For you, my dear one.
She lifted her gaze and looked at Emma-O. "I desire nothing more than this. I am ready."
Emma-O looked at her, and deep black eyes seemed almost sad. "Then, my dear lady, I take your life for his."
Yuki-onna gasped as there was a sudden, wrenching pull...
...and she found herself under water, curled up, her arms wrapped around her knees, long dark hair floating around her. Instinctively she stretched out. Her feet touched ground and she stood, breaking through the surface of the water.
She was in a vast river. Confused, and a little afraid, she looked around, but couldn't see very much because of a mist that hovered just over the surface of the water, obscuring her vision.
She shivered. All those ages of acting as death's handmaiden, and she never really knew what happened to souls that had been freed from their mortal coil. What was to become of her now?
Whatever it was, she decided, she would face it. Accept it, no matter how hard or harsh her punishment might be.
The current caught her, tugged at her, and she found herself being pulled down stream.
After what seemed like ages, she finally caught a glimpse of something through the mist. The grassy bank of the river came into view, and she found herself being pulled toward it. Gratefully, she climbed out of the river, and, for the first time, she had a chance to get her bearings.
Looking down at herself, she saw that she was dressed in a simple cotton kimono. Her hair, she realized, was black rather than shimmering white. The color it had been during the all-too-brief time when she had been mortal.
Well, she mused. She was truly mortal in every sense of the word, now.
But where do I go from here?
The mists were thinning, and she could see trees. Cherry trees in bloom. And ahead, the warm light of day. Blue sky. She walked, hesitantly, carefully. This... seemed pleasant enough. Not at all what she was expecting.
And then, as kept walking, she realized... she recognized these trees.
She recognized this forest. She was walking a familiar path.
And there, up ahead, around the corner... she knew what would be there. A small, comfortable home in a clearing...
And there it was. But not just the home. There were people there, outside, a whole multitude it seemed, some sitting, some standing, all waiting.
Waiting for her, it seemed, for two young ladies at the front of the crowd caught sight of her and gasped, and they rushed towards her with smiles and tears and open arms...
... and Yuki-onna stood in shock as they swept her into an embrace and heard them call her Mother.
"Haru..." she whispered. "Natsu."
"Yes, yes, Mother," they answered, smiling. "Come, come with us and meet your family."
Yuki-onna stumbled forward in a daze, unable to comprehend it all. Grandchildren, her daughters said. And great-grandchildren. And great-great grandchildren. They all came to her with smiles and welcomes.
"You know, usually it's the ancestors who greet the descendants, not the other way around," said a teasing voice.
Yuki-onna turned, and there was Shin.
He smiled at her. "Yuki... beloved. Welcome home."
And it was only then, as she ran to his open arms that she realized she was crying, weeping tears of joy.
The tears on her face were warm.
Though they go mad,
they shall be sane
Though they sink through
the sea, they shall rise again
Though lovers be lost,
love shall not
And death shall have no dominion.
End of Hearts of Ice
June 20, 2009
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