Hearts of Ice

Chapter 4: Shadows of Revelation

"So is this it?" Ranma asked impatiently, eyeing the small two-story medical clinic wedged in between the larger business buildings on the outskirts of Tokyo.

Tofu nodded affirmatively, since he was too winded to speak at the moment and was busy gulping air into his lungs. He had to admire Ranma's durability; the boy had barely broken a sweat on their rooftop run. It wasn't that he himself was out of shape, per se. He worked out every morning before opening the clinic, but it had been a while since he had focused on the endurance aspect of his martial arts training, preferring the healing arts above all else. Still, he took a rather perverse comfort in knowing that Genma, and even Ryoga were gasping a little.

Ryoga glared at Ranma as his breathing leveled out. He was used to traveling great distances, just not in such a short amount of time. And Ranma was unbelievably fast when he wanted to be. "Ranma, you idiot! What's the big idea taking off like that? We would have gotten here a lot sooner if you had slowed down and waited for directions."

Ranma didn't even look at him. "Shut up, Ryoga. Like you're one to talk about waiting for directions."

"Hey, I wait for them, I just..." Ryoga trailed off and seethed. He hated admitting that he couldn't seem to get directions right, no matter how carefully he paid attention.

"That's enough, you two." Tofu straightened, getting his breathing under control. He rapped lightly on the door. The door opened a moment later to reveal an old man with wise eyes and grey hair tied back into a short, neat pony tail, much like the one worn by Dr. Tofu. The old man's face creased in a surprised smile. "Ono-kun, you're here already? My, that was quick."

Tofu bowed and returned the smile. "We, ah... took the high road, Kintaro-sensei,"

The old man chuckled. "I see." As if to prove the point, his eyes scanned the group with the piercing gaze that Tofu remembered so well from his days as a student under Kintaro-sensei's kindly, yet careful tutelage. There never seemed to be detail that his former teacher missed, a symptom that he ever overlooked. The old man quickly assessed the situation, his gaze lingering on Ranma. The boy looked back steadily for a few moments, then began fidgeting uncomfortably under the intense scrutiny.

"This must be Ranma," the old man said, his eyes narrowing in concentration. "Yes, yes... I see what you mean, Ono-kun. There is definitely a strange magic affecting his ki." Kintaro stopped suddenly, and looked chagrined. "But where are my manners?" He gestured for Ranma and the others to enter the clinic. "Please, come in. Then I can make a proper examination, and we'll see what we can discover about this spell that has been cast over you."

"And Akane," Ranma said. "We need to find out where Akane is." He grimaced, almost as if in pain as a spell-voice swelled within him, once again whispering hopelessness to his soul. He pushed it down forcefully. "Whatever got me got her too."

Kintaro nodded sympathetically. "I'll see what I can do," he said, ushering them into an inner office.

The inside of the clinic was much like Dr. Tofu's, except that there were many more books and scrolls on the shelves, some of which looked so ancient that it appeared they might crumble at a touch. Kintaro motioned for Ranma to get onto the examination table. He then looked at Ryoga and Genma. "Would you mind waiting in the outer office? I need as little distraction as possible for this examination."

Genma looked ready to protest, but a look from Dr. Tofu silenced him. Reluctantly, he followed Ryoga out the door. Tofu made to follow, but Kintaro restrained him with a hand. "Ono-kun, I'd like you to stay and assist me. Ranma is your patient, and I expect you know him well. Perhaps you can explain to me why I see two separate and extremely different magics linked to his ki, when you only mentioned the one spell on the phone?"

Tofu glanced at Ranma, who was staring at his lap and twisting his fingers, his face flushing with embarrassment. Tofu coughed delicately. "Oh, well, I guess in all the excitement and rush to get over here, I forgot to mention the, ah... little curse that Ranma is under."

Kintaro-sensei raised his gray eyebrows, and looked at Ranma again. "Curse? No, you didn't mention it. What is the nature of the curse?"

"Have you ever heard of Jusenkyo?"

The old man's eyebrows shot up even further. "The Cursed Springs?" He looked at Ranma's aura intently. "So, it's not a myth after all. Tell me, boy, what do you change into?"

Ranma felt a strange combination of acute embarrassment and relief. If the old man was familiar with Jusenkyo, he might know of a way to break the spell that had taken Akane away. He supposed he shouldn't have been so surprised at the old man's unusual knowledge. After all, this guy had been Dr. Tofu's sensei, and Dr. Tofu had helped him counter some of the worse stuff that Cologne and Happosai had thrown at him.

On the other hand, even though he had grown accustomed to his curse, he really, really hated it when people first found out about it. It always made him feel humiliated, though he tried not to show it, and it unfailingly brought to his mind the feelings of horror and anguish he felt when he plunged into the spring and felt his body shift with the change for the first time. He had known what had happened instantly; the sensations of the changes his body underwent from the inside out didn't leave much doubt in his mind. He knew, and for one brief, despairing moment was tempted to stop struggling and let himself drown, thinking that the change was permanent. But then his indomitable survival instinct kicked in, and he thrashed desperately to the surface. Gasping for breath, he peered through unfamiliar locks of dripping red hair that were plastered against his face as his hands tentatively explored his chest and confirmed what the sensations already told him. Then he looked down at himself, and the horror that had been building in him erupted in a soprano scream.

Ranma shuddered at the memory, then realized that Kintaro-sensei was still awaiting an answer. He squirmed miserably on the examination table.

Kintaro-sensei put a sympathetic hand on his shoulder. "I understand your discomfort, Ranma. I'm sure your curse must not be an easy thing to bear. However, I'm going to find out anyway, since you will have to change to help me differentiate between the magic of the curse and the magic of the spell. It would probably be better if you told me now rather than waited for me to be surprised."

Ranma sighed and looked at the floor. How could he even be worrying about his stupid curse, which he'd had for over a whole year, when Akane was missing? "I fell into the Spring of... of Drowned..." Ranma stopped and almost had to choke the word out. "...Girl."

Kintaro kept his face carefully neutral. "Ah," he said, and was silent for a long moment. "Well," he said finally, "it could have been worse, or so I've heard."

"I guess so," Ranma mumbled. "No offense, but could we get on with this?"

The old man nodded and adopted a clinical manner. "Tofu-sensei," he said, addressing his former pupil in a more formal manner, "would you bring me some hot and cold water? I'd like to find out which part of his aura is which before I start trying to pick apart this spell."

Dr. Tofu complied, and Ranma closed his eyes as Kintaro-sensei upended a glass of cold water over his head. Much to his relief, the old man refrained from comment, and instead concentrated on his, now her, aura.

Tofu glanced briefly at his former sensei, and could see the same amazement in his expression that he had felt the first time he had witnessed Ranma change. The bright flare of the peculiar sparkling in the boy's aura as the transformation took place was a sight to behold, for those like himself who had eyes to see such things. This time, though, he could see how the deep red flicker of the spell was interwoven not only with Ranma's regular ki, but with the curse magic as well. It seemed to have penetrated every part of him. He could see his sensei drawing the same conclusions, as well as making discoveries that were, as yet, beyond his own capabilities.

Ranma waited impatiently with her eyes closed, holding perfectly still, not wanting to disturb Kintaro and Tofu's concentration. Then she felt hot water spill over her head, and in moments was back to himself. He opened his eyes. "Well?"

Kintaro-sensei's mouth was pinched in a worried frown. "This spell is strong, boy. I've never seen its like."

"Do you know what kind of spell it is?" asked Tofu.

"I have a suspicion, but I need to look through a few of my books before I make any judgments. You can let the others in now. I'll be in my study for a few minutes." Kintaro left through a door in the back of the office, while Tofu let Genma and Ryoga come back in.

"So, what's the news? Does he know how to get Akane back?" Ryoga looked anxiously at Dr. Tofu.

Tofu shook his head. "Not yet, but he thinks he may know what kind of spell it is. I'm sure he's researching it right now."

Ranma slid off the examination table and began pacing back and forth. "I hope this doesn't take too long," he said irritably. With every moment that passed, he could feel the spell-voice wearing down his perseverance with its insistence on his pre-determined failure. He clenched his fists and fought the feeling back again. He would not give up, never in a million years. Akane was alive somewhere, and he was going to find her.

Ryoga leaned against the wall and watched Ranma, full of nervous energy, pace the room. After a few minutes of watching without comment, he began to wish that Dr. Tofu hadn't restored all of Ranma's ki flow. He briefly considered pounding his rival into the floor just so that he would stop his nervous fidgeting, since it was really getting on his nerves. He abandoned the idea after realizing that if Ranma were unconscious, it could possibly hinder the search for Akane.

Just then, Ryoga noticed movement out of the corner of his eye. He turned and saw a small animal pad silently through the slightly open door that led to Kintaro-sensei's study. It was a cat. A long-haired orange tabby, to be precise. Ryoga guessed that the cat belonged to Kintaro-sensei, since it wore a collar, and appeared quite comfortable as it strolled casually into the examination room.

Ryoga suppressed an evil grin, and wondered how long it would take Ranma to notice it.

He had heard somewhere that, when in a room full of people, cats can somehow pick out the biggest cat-hater in the lot, and go right to them. It certainly seemed to be true in this case. The cat went straight to the pacing Ranma, and rubbed against his legs affectionately.

Ranma froze in mid pace. His eyes grew to the size of saucers, staring straight ahead.

The cat entwined itself around his legs, looked up at Ranma inquisitively, and meowed.

Ranma's features fled to the perimeters of his face in terror, and he began to shake uncontrollably. Almost as if against his will, his head bent itself at the neck and forced his watering eyes to look down.


"GYAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!" Ranma leapt straight up in the air and clung desperately to the light fixture that hung from the ceiling. His primal scream sent the poor cat scurrying out of the room, its claws scrabbling on the floor tile. Tofu stared at Ranma in amazement. Genma looked disgusted, and Ryoga just smirked.

A moment later, Kintaro burst into the room and joined the other three staring at Ranma who still hung from the ceiling, his eyes glazed in terror, his trembling threatening to loosen the light fixture from its fastenings and send it crashing to the floor.

"What on earth happened in here?" demanded Kintaro.

"C-c-ca-... C-c-c-ca..!" Ranma stuttered incoherently.

"What Ranma is trying to say," said Ryoga casually, "is that a cute little kitty-cat just came in and rubbed up against his legs."

Kintaro blinked. "You don't say?" He looked piercingly at Ranma. "If I didn't know any better, I'd say from his reactions that he's been exposed to Cat-fist training."

Genma cleared his throat uncomfortably. "Well, uh, he has. I trained him in the Nekoken when he was ten years old."

"What?!" Kintaro turned on Genma angrily, his usual friendly countenance clouded with anger. Genma shrank against the wall, away from the fierceness of his gaze. "Are you crazy? What on earth possessed you to do such a thing to your own son? Didn't you know what the consequences would be?"

"Well," said Genma, shriveling, "no. I, er... never made it to that page in the instruction manual." Then he straightened, and stared back defensively. "But the Cat-fist technique has helped him win battles against some of his most powerful enemies."

"I see," Kintaro said coldly. "It's nice to know that you believe winning a fight is more important than your son's sanity." Genma flinched. Kintaro looked back at Ranma's trembling form, and frowned. "If you could see what I see," he continued darkly, "your opinion of the Cat-fist might change drastically. The technique wasn't banned without reason, you know."

Genma's brow creased in confusion, and he squinted at Ranma, wondering what the old man saw that he didn't. All he could see was his son gibbering in terror, which was enough of an embarrassment as it was. What could be worse than that? He watched as Tofu stood on the examination table and gently pried Ranma's shaking fingers from the light fixture, then lowered the boy back to the table.

Ryoga looked at the floor. Somehow, Kintaro's reaction to Ranma's phobia had spoiled the fun of seeing his arch rival tremble in terror. And what had he meant by "if you could see what I see?"

He quietly posed his question to Tofu when the young doctor came to stand beside him against the wall as Kintaro pushed various pressure points on Ranma in an effort to help the boy relax. "What did he mean by that?" he asked.

"I'm not sure," Tofu whispered back, his expression grim. "I knew that Ranma had a phobia of cats, but I didn't realize it was connected with the Nekoken, and I've never actually seen him before when he's had an... attack like this. But I did notice a strange grayness in his aura, especially around his head, that appeared as soon as he noticed the cat. That might be what Kintaro-sensei was referring to."

Kintaro smiled encouragingly at Ranma, who looked a little better as a result of his ministrations. "I'm sorry about my cat, Ranma. I usually let her wander the clinic at night. She keeps the mice away, and she's good company. But she's gone for the night," he added quickly, as Ranma's eyes began to dart around furtively. "Last I saw her, she ran past me and was out the window in a flash." Ranma relaxed only slightly.

"I do have news about the spell," he continued. That got Ranma's attention, and his trembling ceased abruptly. Ryoga, Tofu and Genma leaned forward as well.

"What? What is it? Can you break it?" Ranma asked in a rush.

"I'm afraid this is beyond my capabilities," Kintaro said. Ranma groaned and put his head in his hands.

"I'm sorry, Ranma, but all the signs point to this being a blood spell of some kind, and spells cast with blood are not only nefarious and unscrupulous in the extreme, but very hard to break."

Ranma lifted his head. "A blood spell? What the heck is that?"

"Just what it sounds like. A spell cast with the blood of a living creature. The more powerful the creature, the more powerful the spell. From what I can see in your aura, I would guess that the blood used was at least human, or possibly even that of a magical animal or spirit beast."

Ranma slid off the table, turned and slammed his fist down in frustration, sending cracks through the wooden base. Kintaro raised an eyebrow at the property damage, but said nothing. "There's gotta be some way to get Akane back," Ranma said, fuming.

"Well," said Kintaro thoughtfully, "my first suggestion would be to find out who cast the spell in the first place."

Ranma froze, staring at Kintaro. "What?" he asked. "What did you say?"

Kintaro looked at Ranma. "I said that you should find out who cast the spell."

Ranma's eyes widened in disbelief, and he smacked himself in the forehead. "Oh duh!" he exclaimed. For some reason, it hadn't occurred to him that there was a caster behind the spell, even though it now seemed so obvious. The spell couldn't exactly have conjured itself, after all. So then who-?

A small gasp escaped Ranma's throat as all the little mysteries that had been plaguing him all day clicked into place with frightening clarity. The strange premonition he felt that morning while running to school, that peaked when he realized Shampoo hadn't attacked him all week... His conversation with Mousse, and finding out that the Chinese boy had experienced the same feeling... The postcard from China... The way the red glow rose out of the western sky...

Ranma's eyes narrowed, and a snarl escaped his lips. "Why, that old GHOUL! I'm gonna kill her! If she thinks she can get away with this..."

"Hold on," said Ryoga, holding up his hands, his voice edged with sudden nervousness. "Wait a minute, Ranma. Are you trying to say that Cologne is behind all this?"

But Ranma wasn't listening. He turned to Kintaro. "Mousse got a postcard from Shampoo today. It said that she and Cologne are in China doing some kind of special training. Is it possible for them to cast a blood spell in China and have it travel all the way to Japan to get Akane and me?"

Kintaro frowned. "I'm not really sure if there are spacial limits to a blood spell. I wouldn't rule it out as a possibility, however."

"Then it has to be them!" Ranma's eyes glinted dangerously, and for a moment, Ryoga felt sorry for Shampoo and Cologne. But only for a moment. After all, they were the ones who made Akane disappear. Ryoga's brow furrowed in anger, his blood boiling as his sentiments mirrored Ranma's exactly.

"The postcard said they would be getting back to Japan on Tuesday," Ranma continued, his battle aura flaring around his body. "And when they get back, I don't care what it takes, I'm gonna force them to reverse whatever it is they've done to Akane!"

Ryoga walked over to face his rival, his face set with determination. "Ranma, I know that we've had our differences, but just this once I'm going to stand with you. You need all the help you can get if you're going against Cologne and Shampoo." He hadn't forgotten how the old crone had used him, teaching him the Breaking Point technique, deceiving him into believing that he could destroy Ranma with it, when all it was really good for was breaking rocks. He clenched his teeth and, almost against his will, stiffly held out his hand. "Truce?"

Ranma stared at the outstretched hand blankly for a moment. Then his face softened into a wry half smile, and he clasped Ryoga's hand firmly. "Truce."

"Now don't get any funny ideas that we're friends or nothing. I'm doing this for Akane, not you, got it?"

Ranma nodded grimly. "For Akane."

Outside the window of Kintaro-sensei's clinic, a lone figure crouched silently in the shadows, listening intently to every word spoken inside. For this one night, Mousse was glad of his vision impairment. His hearing was much more acute because of it, making up for what he lacked in the other sense.

Ranma had confirmed his worst fears. Well, maybe not his worst fears. As soon as the red blur of energy streaked across the sky heading towards the Tendo Dojo, Mousse knew that whatever Shampoo and Cologne had done in China had come to fruition. He followed the red blur quickly, reaching the Tendo household just after the spell had done its dirty work and disappeared. He then spied and listened from the Tendo roof to all that followed. He was sure that Ranma would regain consciousness with his brain completely addled by the spell, a spell that Mousse knew would cause Ranma to forget the now-absent Akane and fall in love with Shampoo.

But that wasn't the case at all. Mousse was completely baffled, yet strangely relieved. If Shampoo was behind the spell, why didn't she make Ranma fall in love with her? Didn't she know that by taking Akane away, she would just arouse his anger? Ranma may be a womanizing jerk, but it was obvious to all observers - even Shampoo - that, out of all his fiancees, Ranma's feelings (such as they were) were strongest for Akane.

And now he knew that the spell cast on Ranma and Akane was a blood spell. Mousse shuddered. Surely Shampoo would never stoop to such sinister magic. Cologne, on the other hand... She might not be above casting a blood spell, as long as it suited her needs, and Mousse was painfully aware of how easily Cologne could convince Shampoo to go along with her less-scrupulous plans, especially if Ranma was the prize dangled in front of her.

But whether or not Shampoo was actually responsible for the spell or not, Ranma now believed that she was. There would be a battle, and, as good a fighter as she was, Shampoo could not hope to defeat Ranma. She might be hurt; seriously so if Ranma's anger was great enough.

Mousse could not allow that to happen.

He stood and carefully edged away from the window. He had plans to make before Tuesday.

Akane knelt at the dining table and picked despondently at her rice with her chopsticks. Yuki-onna had left a few hours earlier, saying that she needed to attend to some personal business. At the Snow Woman's directions, the household servants had attended to her every need - even the pompous Kazuo had served her dinner, much to his chagrin. The little ice man hadn't warmed up to her in the least. She couldn't blame him really, since she had nearly attacked him when she first arrived.

Now, though, the servants were nowhere to be seen. That was odd. She rested her chin on her hand with her elbow on the table and sighed, twirling her chopsticks idly. She still felt a little shaky from her exhausting cry hours ago, when she'd finally admitted to herself that she loved Ranma. Not that it did any good now that he was out of her reach for at least seven years. Seven years during which he would probably marry one of his other fiancees.

She felt her eyes tear again at the thought, but swallowed hard and angrily swiped at her eyes with the back of her hand. What was done was done, and there was nothing she could do about it. The blood spell held her to the Kami plane, and it would take the Snow Woman at least seven years to break its hold on her. But at least it could be broken. She would be able to go home, eventually. But go home to what kind of life, without Ranma?

She cut off the thought. She would go crazy if she dwelled on it further. Best to take the Snow Woman's advice and take it one step at a-

Akane froze as she suddenly felt another presence in the room. She turned quickly... but the room was empty.

She tensed. The feeling of another presence still tingled strongly in the back of her mind. Her eyes scanned the room carefully, trying to spot anything out of place. She suddenly wished she'd paid closer attention to her surroundings, since she wasn't sure that if something was out of place, she'd realize it. Cautiously, she stood and turned her back to the table, instinctively bringing her hands up into a defensive posture.

"Who's there?" she called, hesitant, yet angry that someone was trying to spook her. "Kazuo? This isn't funny..."

A shift in the air current behind her was all the warning she had, but before she could turn, something whacked her hard in the back of the head and sent her flying into the opposite wall. The impact knocked the air out of her in a whoosh, and she groaned, sliding down the wall. As she tried to suck the air back into her lungs, she could feel a throbbing lump growing at the base of her head. Wh-what hit me?

Her feet touched the floor, and she turned, fighting dizziness, to face the room. She pressed her back against the wall, glad to have something solid behind her.

The room was empty.

Cold fear gripped her heart. Something was there; she could feel it... and not just because of the evidence throbbing at the base of her head. She crouched defensively, trying to see in all directions at once, fighting the panic that was rising in her chest. How can I fight something I can't see? she thought. It figures that the house would be attacked before I could even get a chance to learn how to defend it. I have no idea how to fight a spirit!

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a flash of reddish-brown, and had the impression of glittering black eyes coming straight for her. Her martial arts instinct kicking in, she turned swiftly to meet the attack, bringing her hands up to block. But the thing moved right through her defenses and landed numerous blows on her face, chest and stomach, sending her skidding several meters across the floor.

She staggered to her feet, her body on fire with pain. Blackness flickered at the edges of her vision as unconsciousness threatened to overwhelm her. She could taste blood in her mouth, and one of her eyes was swelling shut. Seven years? she thought bitterly. I'll be lucky to survive the next seven minutes! She looked around, but sure enough, there was no sign of her attacker. The unfairness of the entire situation broke over her like a tsunami, and anger surged within her. To lose Ranma, her family, and now possibly her life at the hands of some unseen demon was just too much for one night.

"Show yourself, coward!" she yelled in frustration. "Why don't you fight me fair?!"

"Duh, Akane." Akane paled as Ranma's voice suddenly spoke out of nowhere. "I don't see what your problem is. You always complained that I held back too much during our sparring matches. Well now I'm not holding back. It's what you wanted, isn't it? To have a real fight? To not be coddled like some fragile girl? If you want a 'fair' fight, you shouldn't try to go against someone who's better than you. Which in your case is just about everybody."

"R-Ranma?" Akane whispered through swelling, bleeding lips. The voice was his; some of the words too, but the tone was full of sneering contempt. Even when Ranma teased her the worst, she never heard that in his voice. And, above all, Ranma would never hit her, not even in their sparring matches. No, of course it wasn't Ranma. It was a trick of some kind. The predator playing with its prey. This is the Kami plane, remember? she thought to herself. Who knows what the inhabitants are capable of?

A reddish blur streaked in her peripheral vision. Akane moved to block, but was struck in the side of the head and sent reeling. She fell hard on her rump.

"Heh. Slowpoke." Still Ranma's voice.

Akane clenched her fists, pushing herself to her feet again. "Shut up!"

"You might as well face it, Akane. You're just a girl. You'll never be as good as me."

A red haze settled over Akane's vision, a combination of pain and fury, overwhelming the part of her that knew the voice really wasn't Ranma. "Oh yeah?" she shouted. "Well who are you to talk? You're a girl half the time yourself, you stupid pervert!"

"Eh, wha-?"

Akane suddenly realized that the reddish blur was closing in on her again from behind, but had paused in surprise at her last exclamation. Dropping to the floor, she rolled, instinctively kicking backward with her right leg. To her satisfaction, she felt her foot connect solidly with a body, and heard an "oof!" She had scored a hit! Smiling painfully through split lips at the small victory, she turned and sprang to her feet to face her attacker.

Her jaw sagged in amazement.

"Well well!" said a tenor-pitched, wizened voice altogether unlike Ranma's. "Not bad for an untrained, clumsy fledgling like yourself." The creature that stood before her clutching its stomach bowed briefly, then raised its ruddy, feathered arms in a strange gesture of salute. Its solid black birdlike eyes blinked mischievously at her over a wide, pointed beak set in a feathered face that had not a single trace of humanity to it. The whole creature, from the top of its head to the base of its ankles, was covered in fine feathers the color of burnt umber. Below the ruff of feathers at its ankles were reddish, predatorial taloned feet. It wore a cloak about its shoulders of tightly woven, yet supple green pine boughs.

Akane was too stunned to react to the "untrained, clumsy" remark. "Wha... what... W-who are..?" she stuttered.

The strange bird-man bowed. "I am Masakazu, the Tengu. And you, my dear, had better get used to seeing strange creatures like myself pop up from time to time, or you'll never be able to defend Yuki-onna's household. Most of the inhabitants of the Kami plane are much less attractive than myself, and the way you're stuttering right now, with your defenses completely open, I could have defeated you ten times over."

Akane blinked as she tried to shift her brain back into gear. "You're a tengu?" Akane remembered reading about the mysterious race of ancient bird people who were both great warriors and incorrigible tricksters. More mythology come to life, she thought dazedly. Next, I suppose a kappa will come knocking at the front door asking for cucumbers.

The tengu's expressionless bird face didn't change, but his black eyes twinkled. "Yes, I believe that's what I said. I have come to train you in the martial arts so that you will be a suitable body guard for our mutual friend, the lovely Yuki-onna."

"You... you know martial arts?" Stupid! What kind of question is that? He just beat the crap out of you!

Masakazu laughed; a short chirping sound. "Know martial arts? My dear, my people invented martial arts. Who do you thing taught humans how to master it in the first place?"

Akane stared. "Uh, I never really thought about it, actually."

The tengu's strange black gaze grew serious. "Good. Because the martial arts are not about conscious thought. The arts are about instinct." There was a blur of movement, and suddenly Akane found herself nose to... beak... with the tengu. She "eeped" and staggered back a step.

"They are about speed," Masakazu continued, the mischievous glint back in his eyes. "Something which you are seriously lacking, my dear. But I intend to fix that. Along with your agility and dexterity. You have strength, will, and endurance, but little else."


"Oh, and we must also work on focus and concentration. Apparently I could work on that a little myself. You really threw me for one with that last comment of yours. So," Masakazu's eyes glittered with barely suppressed laughter, "your fiance fell into the Spring of Drowned Girl, did he? Poor sap. That must have made for an interesting relationship."

Akane blinked. "How do you know about..."

"There aren't very many secrets that can be kept from me, you'll find. It's a small talent I possess. But don't worry, I spread gossip only when its absolutely necessary." The tengu winked conspiratorially at her. "Now, shall we begin your training? Or do you want some time to recover from my little sneak attack?"

Akane winced as she was reminded of the pain throbbing through her body from the beating she'd taken. "That wasn't fair," she snarled.

"Fair? Who said anything about fair?" The tengu narrowed its black eyes. "Don't expect formal challenges in this level of existence, dear. The creatures you'll be facing will use all sorts of deception and unethical tactics to defeat you. Anything goes. That is your school of training, is it not?"

Akane's lips thinned into a frown as she realized that she was whining like a spoiled child, and she nodded. She should be ready for anything. And, much as she hated to admit it, she wasn't. As she was right now, she had no chance of winning against the inhabitants of the Kami plane.

"Let's start the training now," she said, then blinked in surprise. The tengu had disappeared. "Hey, where'd you go? I thought we were -"

She suddenly felt herself grabbed from behind and thrown roughly into the air. She landed on her back, hitting the floor with a thud, the air whooshing out of her lungs, and found herself staring up into the laughing eyes of the tengu.

"First lesson. Always be on your guard. Don't think that just because you're having a friendly chat with someone, the denizens of the seven levels of hell will wait until you're finished to attack at your convenience."

Akane wheezed a sigh and glared daggers at her new sensei as she struggled to sit up. It looked like it was going to be a long seven years.

The Nekohanten was dark. Shampoo sighed in relief and exhaustion. She really didn't want to deal with Mousse at the moment. The swift journey back to Japan had taken a lot out of her, mostly because she was still feeling the effects from her battle with the demon guardians, her encounter with the Ancient One, and the draining task of casting the blood spell. Still, as great-grandmother had told her, even this would work to her advantage in the end.

Once inside, Shampoo yawned mightily. "Aiya," she said softly, so as not to wake Mousse, wherever he was, "I go to bed now, great-grandmother."

Cologne nodded. "That's a good idea, child. Tomorrow is going to be a busy day, and you'll need your rest."

Shampoo went into the bathroom and turned on the hot water. Even in the cool spring night, she felt hot and sweaty from the journey. She would have loved to splash some cold water on her face, but with her curse, it was more trouble than it was worth, so she rinsed most of the grime from her face with an uncomfortably warm wet washcloth. She then removed the makeshift bandage from around her arm and carefully cleaned the wound left by the Ancient One's claw where it had lanced clean through so that she could pay the blood price. The wound was healing nicely, thanks to Cologne's ministrations, and when it was sufficiently clean, she anointed it with herbs and replaced the bandage with some clean white gauze. Then she headed to her room and to the promise of sleep that beckoned her.

It wasn't until she closed the door behind her that she realized Mousse was sitting on her bed.

"You're home early," he said. "We weren't expecting you for another two days."

She stared in surprise that swiftly turned to anger. "Mousse! What you doing in Shampoo's room? You leave now! Only husband allowed on Shampoo's bed." She was appalled at his audacity. Even Mousse, who constantly threw himself at her, had never presumed to sit on her bed uninvited.

"Very well. I'll stand," said Mousse softly, and he stood. It was only then that Shampoo realized that Mousse's attitude was profoundly different than what she was used to. First of all, he didn't appear to be overjoyed to see her, the way he usually did, and wasn't babbling and crying about his "darling Shampoo." As a matter of fact, he looked almost... angry. His face was creased in a frown, and his arms were crossed severely over his chest.

"But," he continued, his voice firm, "I'm not going to leave until you tell me why you cast a blood spell on Ranma and Akane."

Shampoo paled and staggered back a step. How did he know? And if he knew, that might mean that Ranma knew as well!

Shampoo's panicked mind raced to the words Great-grandmother had rehearsed with her on their journey from China. "There is a chance," Cologne said, "that Ranma and the others might figure out what happened before we get back. If this is the case, remember,our plans do not change in the least. Just stay with the story, and all will be well." Shampoo trusted in their plan. It had to work. It would work, as long as she remembered to do her part well.

Her eyes filled with tears, and she sank to the floor, hoping that her initial shocked reaction would blend with her performance. "Oh, Mousse!" she said, her voice shaking. "Tell me, what happen to Ranma?"

Mousse was taken aback, and he seemed almost relieved. "You... you mean, you really don't know?"

"Please, Mousse! Tell Shampoo what happen!" She let a few of the tears slide down her cheeks. It was easier than she thought it would be, pretending this apprehensive anguish. But that could be due to the actual sick feeling she had inside. Aiya, she thought, the tears coming stronger and more sincerely, This lie feels so dirty. I wish I didn't have to do this, Ranma. But there was no other way.

Shampoo's tears were having the desired effect on Mousse. His angry countenance shattered into concern, and he sank down to his knees beside her. "D-don't cry, Shampoo," he said, reaching out a tentative, comforting hand. "I'll tell you. I'll tell you everything!" And he did, starting with Ranma's visit to the Nekohanten, and ending with what he had overheard at Kintaro-sensei's clinic.

All through his story, a part of Shampoo's mind listened analytically, finding out exactly what Ranma and the others did and did not know. The other part focused on reacting properly anguished, yet not completely surprised, at the news of Akane's disappearance, and the spell voices within Ranma. She was a little worried when she heard that Ranma had managed to shatter the spell with one of his ki blasts. Still, the spell had formed itself back together, and it seemed to have done its job quite adequately, so she pushed those nagging doubts to the back of her mind.

When Mousse was through telling his story, Shampoo shuddered with sobs. "Oh, Mousse. It all my fault." The truth. That didn't feel so bad...

Mousse looked at Shampoo, distraught. "How? Why is it your fault? What happened in China, Shampoo?"

Shampoo shuddered. A real shudder this time. And told the lie.

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