Act I: Heart and Soul
A Ranma ½ short story
by Brian Randall
Disclaimer: All the characters depicted in this story are from Ranma ½, which was created by Rumiko Takahashi.
Nabiki shuddered against the cold, pulling her coat about her tighter. The chill wind whipped around her, sending the trailing straps from her climbing gear flapping around. She stumbled for a moment, as one half-numbed hand slipped, and she dropped her mattock.
Shivering, she slid her mitten back on, turning to look down the slope behind her. The hood of her parka obscured her field of vision, as the thick brown strands of the lining fluttered in the wind.
All around was an expanse of featureless white, broken only in the distance by occasional rocks, and further away, distant brown smudges. Only last week those smudges had been where she had griped to Ranma and Tofu about the heat. Ranma had simply stared into her eyes impassively, not showing any reaction, while Tofu shrugged and bore it.
Once her mitten was back on, and warmth began to seep back into her hand, she glanced back up the slope they were traversing. A giant slab of white snow on the side of the mountain. It wasn't much of a mountain, really. More like a big hill.
The slope wasn't steep, but it was a good distance to the point Ranma had declared that he was going to, and the Tendo girl found herself wishing she had studied the martial arts more closely. Or at least practiced more than just flexibility.
She paused for a moment, waiting for Tofu to notice her. After a moment he did, and turned around slowly. His own form was wrapped in dark, thick woolens, making him look like a native guide. Nabiki almost laughed at the image of Tofu as a sherpa, herself the explorer… but the humor of the situation drained quickly when Ranma stepped out from behind Tofu, his face calm and composed.
Nabiki shivered again, partially from the air, but mostly because of Ranma. He wore nothing more than his standard Chinese clothing, while a subtle lambent aura seeped from beneath the faded silk. His blue eyes were hardened, cerulean spheres of ice that lit upon Nabiki briefly, turned to Tofu, then looked away again. He gazed up towards the peak of the mountain, then shook his head.
Tofu turned to look at Ranma, warily stepping back. The pigtailed boy sighed, seemingly untouched by the frigid surroundings. "She's near. We'll rest here. Tomorrow, then." He nodded decisively, then sank to the lotus position. "You two require sleep."
Nabiki shuddered, then shrugged off her pack, eager to have the tent set up, and the chance to huddle for warmth. "Thank the kami…" For heat, she would have been willing to curl up with Kuno, at this point.
Tofu removed his own pack, rummaged around for a bit, then removed his mittens, revealing thin gloves beneath. His eyes met Nabiki's for a moment, and she saw a hint of sadness, and loss in them, before he turned back to the task of setting up the tent. His voice carried through the wind that tore at them, trying to tear the words away. "Let's just hurry. I know I can hardly wait to get warm again."
Chastising herself for her lapse in attention, Nabiki approached, and held down the tent while Tofu staked it in place. "Right. Sorry." The wind had stilled suddenly, and she opened her mouth to ask about it, but Tofu interrupted her with a shake of his head. She paled, and nodded, shooting a glance towards where Ranma meditated in the snow.
Loose flakes swirled about in the wind that seemed not to touch the pair of climbers, gradually spiraling towards Ranma, then flitting away. Tofu studiously avoided looking at Ranma, though Nabiki shot the occasional peek towards him nervously, noting that outside of a wide circle surrounding Ranma, crystals of ice still whipped about in frenzied gusts.
Once the tent was erected, Tofu held it open while Nabiki scrambled in, joining her after only a moment of hesitation. Nabiki sealed the tent after Tofu, then shrugged out of her outer clothing and squirmed her way into her sleeping bag. Tofu smiled faintly, then encased himself in his own protective layer of warmth. "Better, Nabiki?"
Nabiki shivered again at the memories. After a moment, she opened her eyes, and turned towards Tofu. "Is… What's going to happen?"
Tofu frowned, his face betraying none of the emotion it had in Ranma's presence. "I don't know, Nabiki. I'm worried, and… I'm afraid. I'll tell you that much. Tomorrow, we'll see if he can…" He trailed off, turning to face the roof of the tent moodily.
Nabiki winced, then muffled a whimper. "He… he's going to save her, right?" There was no reason to name him. "He's always saved her before, right?" There was no reason to name her, either.
Tofu sighed, closing his eyes. "I hope so, Nabiki." But they were words Nabiki didn't want to hear, then. The thought of losing her sister sent a hot pain shooting through her gut. "I hope so."
Ranma had become detached, seeming indifferent once the entire ordeal had begun. He spent more and more time in the soul of ice, and less time being himself. He explained, in his cold, dispassionate way, that he had to do it. He needed to be ready.
The others had finally come to accept it, knowing they couldn't quite understand what drove him… or her for that matter.
Nabiki sighed against the light that woke her, illuminating one wall of the tent, and alerting her that the time of warmth and comfort was at an end for the moment. Tofu was lying near her, staring at the ceiling silently.
She licked her lips nervously, then sighed. "Morning, Tofu."
He shot a glance towards her, expression grave, then sat up. "Morning indeed… today…" He frowned, trailing off, then shook his head. "We'd better eat, and hurry on our way."
Nabiki nodded. "Ranma might get impatient."
Tofu shook his head, rummaging though a bag. "I doubt he's got the capacity at this point."
Nabiki lowered her head and sighed. "Right. Do you think he's hungry?"
The older man looked up and stared at her for a moment, seeming surprised, then shrugged, turning back to the bag he was rifling through. "I doubt it."
The middle Tendo sister frowned. "Isn't it traditional to leave them offerings?"
"Ranma's neither dead, nor a kami." Tofu's tone seemed terse, and Nabiki wisely kept her tongue in check until their trail rations were finished.
Once they were done, she took a last piece of hard biscuit out, dressed, and waited for Tofu.
The man re-packed everything with expertise, and in short order, re-dressed. The two took a few quick, shallow breaths, bracing themselves for the biting cold that would be waiting them outside.
It wasn't enough.
The chill of the afternoon before was nothing compared to the blinding, near-arctic air that assaulted them when they exited the tent. A thin layer of ice crusted the exterior of the tent, despite the warmth it had held inside.
Tofu eyed it for a moment, then shook his head and decided to leave it. One way or another, they wouldn't need to take it with them.
Nabiki drew in a sharp breath, coughing as the freezing air invaded her lungs, then gasped, provoking another coughing fit.
Tofu raised his mattock defensively, and spun, then relaxed. "Calm down, Nabiki. It's just Ranma."
Nabiki shivered, then nodded decisively. Slipping off her mitten, she pulled the biscuit out of a pocket, and approached Ranma.
The pigtailed martial artist was sitting on a low pedestal carved out of compressed snow. Ice had formed near him, thin, serpent-like strands writhing in a ring about him, then ascending in a spiral.
He stared at a blue column of ice that jutted through the frozen strands around him contemplatively. Nabiki swallowed, and as Ranma shot a glance towards her, the formations around Ranma shivered once, then collapsed into a circle of shards. Nabiki's hand trembled as she held out the biscuit. "You should eat something, Ranma. She wouldn't want…" She trailed off, as Ranma's features became pained, and a wave of fatigue washed across his face.
The pigtailed boy shivered, then smiled faintly. "I'm not hungry now, Nabiki. But thank you." He shuddered again in the frigid climate, then relaxed, the emotion draining from him again, and with it, the touch of the environment faded.
Tofu shouldered his pack, motioning Nabiki to do the same. She did so silently, resisting the urge to shed tears. They were both alive, still. There was a chance Ranma could save her… and himself…
The devastation around Phoenix Mountain was frightening, when Kiima relayed the words to Nabiki. The Gekkaja had been taken as a symbol of power, and only would be returned if someone brought the Kinjakan to a place that… 'Ranma would know.'
And he had, though Nabiki couldn't understand how. Nabiki took a moment to study the boy. He hadn't cried in weeks, seeming more removed and detached from the outside world than ever.
Kiima's eyes had a hard edge, capturing Nabiki's own eyes, as she surveyed the shattered and crumbling stone parapets that made up their home. The fact that no lives were lost was little consolation to the guards who had lost their wings to frostbite.
The trio marched towards a point below the summit, Nabiki and Tofu trudging across the hard-packed snow, and Ranma seeming to drift more than walk. His feet left no marks, though the snow where he passed hardened enough to support both Nabiki and Tofu. They made no attempt to speak to each other, until they reached a shallow, bowl-shaped depression that appeared to be blasted into the side of the slope.
Ranma nodded once to himself, then turned towards Tofu and Nabiki. "It's time. You two will be in danger. Give me the tool, and observe from a safe distance." He pointed towards a nearby outcropping of stone.
Tofu twitched slightly, then removed a short staff-like object from his pack. After a moment of hesitation, Nabiki removed a heavy iron ring with odd decorative flanges from her own pack. The pair eyed Ranma uneasily, then set the pieces on the ground and backed away.
The older man cocked his head to one side. "So you want us to watch?"
Ranma's face remained indifferent as he gathered up the ring and the staff. "No. But you wish to do so anyway."
Nabiki shivered, wiping at her eyes with her mittens. "Ranma… take care of yourself. We… I want you to come back."
His face remained unchanging, as he tossed the ring into the air, then caught it on the end of the staff. "The tool will need to be returned…" He leveled the ring-capped staff at Tofu. "You must retrieve this tool at all costs. Otherwise, all is for naught. I go now. Take cover over there. Do not forget, Tofu. The tool must be retrieved." Ranma's ice-hard eyes bored into the doctor's, as Tofu nodded nervously.
The man licked his lips. "The… Saffron would never forgive us if we lost the Kinjakan. I'll be certain to take it back. What about…"
Ranma shook his head, turning away. "The Gekkaja is in her hands. If it can be retrieved… Simply remember, this tool must be retrieved at all costs."
Tofu nodded again, then scurried to the rock that Ranma had indicated they should hide behind. If Ranma was stressing something when he was that deep in the soul of ice, then Tofu knew it was damnably important.
Nabiki knew by other signs. Ranma never spoke that formally. That he was now meant…
She vanished, leaving nothing behind but a patch of ice, and a room so frozen that the walls had cracked when touched, and caused Soun's fingers to become frostbitten.
Ranma had been broken, blaming himself endlessly, and seemed to be able to do little more than curse his foolishness. Nabiki had tracked her, then met up with Tofu after discovering just what had happened.
A search for power, for strength… an equality that a young man had denied her, despite his well-meaning. Two people agreed to help her in her search for discipline and strength, each unaware of the other's presence.
Originally a quest for self-discipline… one that had failed after being given too much power to resist so soon.
And the heart of ice was too dangerous to be learned so quickly, without the proper self-control. She never would have learned it had Tofu or Cologne been aware of the other's teachings, but as things went…
That was the beginning of Ranma's change, too, since he knew there was only one way to bring Akane out of it.
He had to go in after her.
Ranma strode purposefully into the center of the depression, feeling more than seeing the force at its center.
Easily four hundred feet across, the bowl sloped against the curvature of the hillside, interrupted only by a presence at the center. Ranma tightened his grip on the tool he held, then froze. After a moment, responding to some unknowable sense, he resumed his walk towards a swirling white cloud in the center of the depression.
The chill mists parted around him, sending writhing tendrils of sub-zero air near him, which shied away from the Kinjakan. He frowned, seeing the form revealed at the storm's center.
He nodded to her once, respectfully. "Akane."
The change in her was surprisingly subtle, and for a moment, she seemed to be gaining the control that she sought… But it wasn't to be.
There was simply too much power to resist the temptation.
One night, it became too much, and her means became her method. She didn't know why she had to do what she did… only that she had to do it.
Because the heart of ice was controlling her, at that point.
The passage of time had changed Akane. It was only a short time, but the changes were severe. Ice glittered in her hair, giving her a mystical, gleaming quality. Her dark eyes shone with a luminous, icy power, while her clothing was nothing more than tattered remnants.
But most dramatic was the aura of intense cold that radiated from her, faintly thrumming just beyond the edge of the senses.
She stared at Ranma disinterestedly, the Gekkaja held loosely in one hand. "You came." There was no emotion in her voice.
The pigtailed boy nodded curtly, then showed the Kinjakan to her. "We will do battle now."
Akane cocked her head to one side, then returned the nod. "It will be. The victor will claim both keys. What then?"
Ranma shrugged. "I have no interests beyond the battle."
Akane frowned. "You will have power if you win. What else do you desire?"
"We are beyond such simple things as desire, aren't we?"
"I believe so. But we must fight. My cause is not complete until we do so."
Ranma hefted the Kinjakan once, then lowered it to his side. "Understood."
As one, they raised their weapons, Akane's staff bearing a wickedly curved scythe-like blade on the end. In one voice, they announced, "Kumite."
And the battle was joined.
When Cologne had seen Ranma and Akane growing close, she knew that her chances of getting Ranma were slim, and the chances of getting his cooperation were even less. She had adopted on a different method instead… Akane hadn't taken much convincing to be adopted into the tribe at that point.
If it hadn't been in the wake of Ranma protecting Akane from another fiancee's attack… But Ranma saved her. Had to, really. And Kodachi had time to drop the one poisoned bouquet that a bystander had caught.
If it were a martial artist, they might have been able to shrug off the effects. But Sayuri was not a martial artist. If Akane had been better, she could have stopped Kodachi on her own. If Akane had been able to avoid Kodachi. If she had been able to take the bouquet herself. If.
It was brief, and it was brutal.
Ranma met Akane's charge, flinging his weapon away, and leaving himself open for her attack.
The Gekkaja hissed, slashing through the air with a faint, keening wail, seemingly ready to rend the very sky.
The cruelly sharp edge bit into Ranma's chest, goring him and spraying blood across the slender girl wielding the weapon. He smiled sadly, then shuddered from the exposure. The pain of the steel that punctured him dimmed, as it quickly numbed. "Akane… Maybe… simple things like desires are better left intact. Without you, I have no desire to live. No meaning…" He closed his eyes and slumped forward, shivering.
Inside Akane, something frozen… snapped, and the impassive mask on her face slipped, revealing a frightened young girl. "R… Ranma? What's going on here?"
Her eyes widened, and she grabbed onto him, pulling the Gekkaja free and tossing it away. "Ranma! Are you okay?"
He raised his head, hard ice in his eyes. "Such is the way of folly." Akane recoiled instinctively, but not quickly enough.
With that, coldness enveloped the pair, freezing them in a near embrace. Before Akane succumbed to the freezing grip completely, she saw the light of warmth in Ranma's eyes. Ice began to form around them, giant crystals stabbing into the air about them, pushing snow away, and draining what little moisture that wasn't already frozen. Mere centimeters separated the pair, encased as they were.
Tofu charged towards the slowly enlarging block of ice, gathering the Kinjakan before the structure claimed it, then running away as the heat from the staff began to melt the snow near him.
In defiance of nature, the frozen sludge drifted upwards, then froze once more as part of the crystal that enveloped the young lovers.
Tofu ran, and Nabiki joined him shortly. After the ache in her legs became too much, she slipped, and fell down. The slick ice that Ranma had traversed gave her no purchase, and she flailed about with her mattock for a moment before simply letting the slide take her. Tofu saw Nabiki pass him, then flopped onto his chest, and slid next to her, quickly losing the distance that they had struggled to ascend in the past days.
On the hillside above them, a faint white cloud formed, even as a deep rumbling noise was heard.
To be frozen instantly… she had lost contact with her body, but could still see out of her eyes… and Ranma's met hers. Despite his betrayal, she felt the love in his gaze, and knew that what he had done… had to be done. Dead in body, but together in spirit.
She knew that she would be able to find her center, her peace… and control here. If only the price hadn't been so great…
To be continued.
Author's notes: Once, when I first started writing, I promised myself I would never write anything dark.
I guess I broke that promise, but I had woken up three nights in a row from the same dream. I suppose I cannot deny my muse. I suspect that this was largely inspired by Nanashi's "Soul of Ice: deus ex machina". It's an excellent and thought provoking read.
This is the first time I wrote something that well and truly felt like it needed to be written…
C&C to firstname.lastname@example.org
— 2/9/01: Finally came back and finished re-writing awkward parts… Added some dialogue, as was suggested to me… but… I… I think I'm happy with this, and am going to call it final unless someone finds another error.
— 2/24/01: Thanks to all who C&C'ed/Preread for me!
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