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Act V: Song of the Void

A Ranma ½ story
by Brian Randall

Disclaimer: Ranma is property of Rumiko Takahashi and Viz video.

Notes: Don't think about something this silly too hard. That's not the point, and you should know that by now. ;)


[Earth]


He had never considered himself a man of deep thought, and outside of combat and martial arts, he felt that his mind was slow about many things. But of late, something had nagged at him, pulling at stray thoughts and worrying at them in the manner of a young, untrained puppy.

His eyes narrowed, and his head bowed slightly allowing him to study the grill before him. His wife was gone at the moment, and the day was slow. Slow enough that he could stare at the grill and lose himself in thought, should the fancy strike him.

But he didn't really know what to think of. He supposed that it meant he was bored. But he wasn't much given to daydreaming, either. What need did he have for daydreams? He found his life of simple work and simpler pleasures enough.

A hobby, he decided. He needed a hobby.

He frowned at that thought. Aside from martial arts, all he truly did with his free time was tell stories to his children. They seemed to enjoy his tales, as did his wife. Yet….

Eyes growing distant for a moment, he allowed his senses to drift, casting about him through the earth, stone, and concrete that lay beneath and around him. His wife was safe, he could feel her presence a mile and more distant, walking with… with Nabiki. Of course. Headed to school to pick up their children.

He sighed, shrugging his shoulders uncomfortably as a pensive spike of apprehension crawled across his spine.


[Wind]


He imagined that his lack of confinement within mental rigid structures was the product of the knowledge that was bestowed upon him. Spinning over the lake, he gestured, massive gusts and eddies of wind slashing effortlessly through the waves, an ethereal Dragon of cloud and mist parting the waters and uncovering the creature below the waves.

A thing of light and shadow — structure frail and empty. "You do not exist," he remarked.

The creature — the Orochi — writhed weakly, fading through the talons of the Dragon that hovered behind him as he floated, melting into an ethereal mist.

"Hmm," he mused, watching as the massive creature faded to nothing. "Unacceptable. This will need to be changed."

Whirling once more, his Dragon faded to nothing, and he folded his arms at his side, soaring high and away. Far, far to the west, towards the Gate of Death, the resting place of the sun, he sensed his brothers. Two of them. But closer, so much closer… another.

"Yes," he said softly, smiling. "As I am the most elevated, you will be the most base. Earth."


[Fire]


He lay on the bed, staring at the stone ceiling above him. He felt oddly pensive, though he knew well enough that he was happiest waking the way he had. His wife remained asleep — drained from the ordeals of the last few days, and contented to rest for the moment.

Tired, he knew in a clinical sense, because the journey so far from Qinghai, amid lands where his own kind were persecuted and killed, drained her. Content because his presence restored her.

His lips curved upward in a smile, and he was unable to resist the impulse to push his wife's hair out of her eyes, brushing it gently back, and mussing it in the process. "Nnng," she noised, screwing her eyes shut and pressing her face into his chest.

She squirmed about for a moment before waking, sitting up slowly, and yawning. He propped himself up on one elbow and studied her as she yawned, clad as she was in a thick flannel shift. Done, she squinted at him blearily, and mumbled, "Morning, Airen."

Smiling, he sat up, nodding to her. "Are you well rested?" he asked.

"Yes," she said fingers absently raking through her hair and setting it back to some semblance of order. Cocking her head to one side suddenly, she asked, "Do you think I would look better with blonde hair?"

His face betrayed his confusion as he shook his head, answering, "I like you best as you. Why?"

She giggled, leaning forward to plant a kiss on his lips before pulling away, eyes glittering with subdued joy. "I'm going to take a bath," she announced. "Then we will have breakfast with Ranma and Akane."

"Of course," he warned quietly, "no other woman could tell a Dragon what to do."

"Then I suppose I'll have to teach Akane," she mused, grabbing a robe as she headed towards the door and shooting him a sly wink.


[Visitor From on High]


Ukyou stopped, three steps short of the corner that would allow her to be seen by her children from the school. "Nabiki?" she asked quietly, turning to regard the woman. "You've been very quiet, and you don't usually just visit with me to watch me pick up my children. You have a flitter, after all. What's troubling you?"

The other woman winced, looking away. She heaved an uncomfortable sigh, and said, "Of course you'd be the one to see through me. Ukyou… It's about Ranko."

Which, as Ukyou knew, would mean it was about Ranma too. "Oh?" she asked worriedly. She'd harbored both hopes and fears about the project, as little as she understood it.

"Um…." Nabiki turned around, expression dogged and worried. "Ukyou," she said plainly, "Ranko hasn't been heard from in a while, and, well…. Have you heard what happened in Xinjiang recently?"

Ukyou struggled to remember, feeling vaguely embarrassed that she hadn't paid closer attention. "I'm afraid not," she admitted.

"They said that it was an accident," Nabiki murmured. "But nuclear missiles aren't accidents."

"Oh," Ukyou said in a quiet voice. "Was it at around… six o'clock, three days ago?"

Nabiki whipped her head around to stare at Ukyou and narrowed her eyes. "How do you know that?" she asked apprehensively.

"Ryu-chan got really sick then," she said blandly. "I can tell you what time it is, or how long something takes — down to a second, if I have to. Ryu-chan can sense when things touch the Earth. We all have our powers."

"Oh," Nabiki said in a small voice. "Of course. You're Fey. Just like Tofu-chan."

"Ranko, Nabiki?" Ukyou reminded the woman. "My children lose their patience in about eight minutes, and start to walk home on their own."

Nabiki sighed, shaking her head. "I think Ranko may be dead," she said in a quiet voice. "I… Tofu-chan says not to give up hope, but if they did that… Ranma couldn't stop that. Ranma and Akane… and Ranko…." Heaving an unsteady breath, she whimpered, "I should never have let her go!"

Ukyou winced, regretting the harshness she had addressed Nabiki with. "Nabiki…" she said quietly. "I… I don't… Don't give up hope. Not yet. Maybe she couldn't save Ranma and Akane…." Something about that struck her false, though she couldn't put a finger one what — or why. "Ranko might still be okay."

Opening her mouth to reply, Nabiki looked up sharply, staring in shock as a figure shot through the space over their heads, easily passing above the nearby buildings, then streaked sharply downward. Both women ran full bore around the corner towards the school building.

Nabiki skidded to a halt, eyes wide, as Ukyou pulled the massive spatula that the woman could have sworn Ukyou had left at home from over her shoulder, charging towards her children determinedly. Both Makoto and Tomoko stared, Tomoko hiding behind Makoto, and Makoto holding her hands up, as though she intended to fend off the man before them, that Ukyou was charging towards.

The man that was floating a good half-meter above the ground, suffused with a faint nimbus of glowing white light. The light wavered and rippled, and so too did the air about him. Ukyou yelled something incoherent, swinging the spatula down over in a hard, overhand arc. The man cocked his head to one side, deflecting the attack in an errant manner, with one hand.

Makoto yelped, and jumped back as Ukyou circled around the man, standing before her daughters protectively. "Who are you?" she demanded of the man.

He straightened up, folding his arms over his chest. "How remarkable," he mused. "Base he would be, assuredly, but enough so to have children? Remarkable."

Ukyou growled, eyes flickering briefly to Nabiki, then back to the man. Stubbornly, she warned, "My husband can be here in… in… in two minutes and three seconds, if someone calls him right now."

"Is that so?" the man asked, shooting a glance at Nabiki so laden with contempt that she dropped the communicator she had retrieved at Ukyou's words. "He can be here even sooner, I think." Smiling sardonically, he unfolded his arms, reaching a hand towards the children. Makoto and Tomoko backed away at Ukyou's gesture, retreating into the schoolyard. As his gesture, a violent whirlwind erupted around him, wind biting into the ground at his feet and spiraling upward, traced out only by stray dust and leaves.

His arms slowly rose, and the column of wind about him increased its speed, whirling over his head and into the sky. Nabiki felt an impulse she couldn't quite identify, and took three steps to her left, feet moving nearly of their own accord. The giant column of air slowly curved, then vanished, one heartbeat there, and the next, gone.

Above the man, mammoth wings beating slowly, nearly lazily in the air, a monstrous Dragon of smoke and mist hovered, head swinging low to pass the man, and sniff at Ukyou, tail lashing. The lashing tower struck a power relay, and Nabiki shielded her eyes from the trail of sparks as the tower collapsed, crashing into the ground only two steps to her right.

Rearing back, the Dragon made a soft, quiet noise, and suddenly lunged its head towards Ukyou where she stood defiantly.


[Brothers]


"Aoyama?" Keitaro asked dumbly. "What the hell'r you doin' here?"

Ranko cocked her head to one side, heels kicking absently at the rim of the stone fountain as she sat on its lip. Keitaro had been relating some other mission he had been on, though she hadn't been paying much attention to the details as much as she was watching him, and thusly neither of them noticed a man of about Keitaro's own age approach.

The man bore a strong resemblance to Keitaro, too, though his dress was entirely different. He wore the standard garb of a swordsman in a long passed age, and too, a blade was at his side. The grace he carried himself with warned that he more than likely knew how to use the sword, too. He smiled, inclining his head to Keitaro. "Koara," he returned levelly. "I come on my own business."

"Dad told you to seek your destiny?" Keitaro asked, narrowing his eyes slightly. "Said you had to pick a college or find someone to serve, eh?"

Aoyama's expression shifted to mild annoyance. "Close enough," he mumbled. "Mother said that I needed to make something of myself."

"You failed the entrance exam," Keitaro returned bluntly. "Didn't ya?"

"Ahem," Aoyama pronounced, not meeting Keitaro's eyes. "One failure, to your three."

"Hey!" Keitaro protested. "I made somethin' o' myself. And you would'a failed as much as I did, if ya didn't spend all those years tryin' 'to find yourself'."

"Do we have to settle this with a duel, Koara?"

Keitaro glanced behind him to where the Tama was resting, engine casings removed so he could work on it, then back to Aoyama. "The Tama's kinda not in shape for a duel, ya know."

Ranko shook her head, trying to understand what was going on. "Wait," she protested. "You'd fight him with the skimmer? He's only got a sword!"

"Yeah," Keitaro returned blithely, "and she's too damaged. Don' wan her to get messed up worse fightin' Aoyama."

"I see you've learned a healthy respect for my skill," Aoyama remarked, pleased.

Continuing as though he hadn't heard Aoyama, Keitaro explained to Ranko, "I might dent the hull on 'is skull, or somethin'."

Aoyama bristled for a moment, then grinned, shaking his head. "It's been too long," he said, throwing his arms apart.

Keitaro chuckled, and embraced the man. "Good ta see you too, bro," he said, pounding Aoyama on the back.

Ranko relaxed slightly. If it was merely two brothers joking around…. "Keitaro?" she asked quietly, as the men broke apart, grinning at each other — with the exact same vacuous grin.

"Yeah?" he responded, turning to Ranko, as Aoyama looked at her expectantly.

"If he's your brother, why does he call you by your last name?" she inquired quietly. Not exactly a polite question, but she noticed that Keitaro generally didn't care much for a lot of civility anyway.

"Oh," Keitaro answered slowly. "Well… that's… uh, he's only my half-brother, see… I don't got any brothers, just a bunch of half-brothers…."

Aoyama gave a pained sigh, looking away. "… And our mothers all named us 'Keitaro'," he finished quietly.

Ranko boggled at that, then asked, "How many of you?"

"Uh… lessee… there's me, Aoyama here, Konno, Otohime, and Maehara."

She winced at that. "Five brothers named Keitaro? That must have been really confusing when you were children, growing up together."

"Er…" Aoyama began, coughing. "We didn't… um… grow up together."

"Dad is the wandering type," Keitaro Koara advised. "You'll prolly wanna call me 'Koara' 'til this lug gets out of here."

"Um. Konno is here to," Aoyama noted.

"Oh, great," Koara grumbled. "Watch your fingers if you shake his hand," he warned Ranko. "And after you watch them, count them to make sure they're all still there!"


[Sanctity of Blood]


Makoto wanted to cower, to run away and flee, but Tomoko wasn't very good at running — her little sister fell down too much. And she didn't want to abandon her mom, especially with the strange man being there and acting so funny.

But then the man summoned wind, and scared her, and her mom started getting nervous. She didn't usually, but Makoto could recognize the telltale warnings that spoke of her mother's warnings. The spatula in her hands trembled slightly, but she refused to stand down.

Which meant that her mom was fixedly defending her. The man's summoned wind gave way to a Dragon, and Makoto yelped, as it lunged, moving to strike her mother. Acting completely out of reflex, not remembering her parent's admonishments and warnings that she never misuse her powers, she lashed out, yelling, "Spirits of Earth and Cloud, heed my Call!" The words, as they always did, came from somewhere under her heart, not from her own mind. With that same familiarity, though strangely brighter then it had ever been before, a bolt of lightning surged from her fingertips, searing through the air, and passing only a hairsbreadth from her mother. But she knew well enough to not let the power strike her mother, and it arced smoothly around the woman, slamming into the gaping maw of the smoky Dragon, and passing through that to wreath the man behind the dragon in writhing bands of electricity.

The Dragon froze, pulling back to look at the man in consternation. For his part, the man seemed dubiously impressed, though he made a single gesture with his hand, and the writhing force leapt from him to strike the ground. "Some small hint of your father's heritage?" he queried. "No matter. Call your father, child." The Dragon reared its head back, smoky eyes suffusing blue as it regarded her maliciously, preparing to strike again.

Makoto's mother muttered something vile, and raised her spatula menacingly. "Don't you dare threaten my children!" she warned.

"No?" the man asked, frowning. "Perhaps, then, it should begin with you. Where is Earth?"

"Daddy!" Tomoko shrieked, bawling loudly as the pressure of the situation grew too much. "Daddy! Come help us!"

"Foolish mortals," the man grumbled, another of his errant hand gestures sending a torrent of power towards them. The Dragon reared its head back, and lunged again, unerringly aimed towards Tomoko — though Makoto stood steadfast in her path, and her mother flung herself to interpose herself as well —

But the Dragon's lunge was met with a fierce uppercut from her father.

The Dragon reeled, the force of the blow knocking its head back, straining the creature's long, slender neck. The strange man hissed, raising one hand to his temple, then growled, as the Dragon recovered, eyeing him warily. "Ah," the man grumped. "You arrive. Let us be quit of this place — our brothers and we have much work to do."

Ryu spat, shifting his stance, and shook his head. "No way in hell," he said flatly. "I don't know what you think you're doing, and I don't really care — you are not going to get away with threatening my family."

Makoto sagged with relief, only having a moment before her mother pushed her backwards, giving her father room. "Daddy!" Tomoko squealed joyfully. "Daddy!"

"Yeah," Ryu grunted. "I'm here," he continued, not looking back. "Now who the hell are you and what do you want?"

"Base indeed," the man spat. "I am the King of Staves, as you are the King of Coins. Of course, you're probably still so slow you don't even know what you are."

"Uh… I ain't a king that I know about," Ryu countered, eyeing the Dragon uneasily.

"Quaint," the man remarked. "But far, far, far from useful. What do you call yourself, King of Coins?"

"Kuonji Ryu," he answered warily.

"Ryu… Dragon… How… fitting," the man remarked, grinning. "And there, we have our brother, the King of Cups, bearing… but it is of no import now. We must find them and complete our predecessor's task."

"Anyone ever tell you that you talk crazy?" Ryu grumbled, "I don't have a clue what you're talking about. All I know is that you threatened my family, and I'm going to beat you within an inch of your life for it."

"But you can't," the man notified him. "And you know it. There's a gap between us, as there should be."

"Shut up!" Makoto's mother yelled, stepping forward. "Ryu-chan, kick his ass!"

"He can't," the man sighed. "Are you all daft? It is natural for me to be above you, for I contain the wisdom of Shen-Lung, but isn't this a bit… much?"

"Ryu-chan! Why are you just standing there."

Makoto's father growled, then turned his attention to his hands, fascinated by them for the moment. "I don't know," he confessed. "I… I can't do anything. I keep… I try and move to hit him, but I can't! It's like my body won't listen to me!"

"Not without proper cause," the man noted drolly. "Observe." With that, he streaked from his position in the air, descending on Ukyou like a streak of lightning, while the Dragon behind him moved in tandem, sailing towards Makoto and her sister.

Makoto grabbed Tomoko, and flung herself on top of her younger sister, intending to shield her with her own body if she had to. She wouldn't let the crazy man hurt her little sister!

And yet, her precautions were unneeded. The man's strike was halted, his extended fist caught in her father's hand, as he stared at it in fascination. He had not moved to intercept the strike; he had simply stopped being in one place, and immediately started being in another. And the dragon too was held in check, the entire body of mist and smoke being rebuffed entirely by a massive plate of stone that had risen from nowhere at the last possible moment, looming over Makoto and Tomoko protectively.

Makoto's father's eyes tracked from the hand that clenched the strange man's fist, while Makoto's mother turned to stare at Makoto and Tomoko in confusion. Nearly the entirety of the abandoned schoolyard was filled with the bulk of another monstrous creature, this one made of earth, stone, and bits of metal. Its eyes gleamed like polished onyx, as it stared firmly at the other Dragon, one gargantuan wing extended to cover Makoto and her sister, guarding them as through they were the Dragon's horde.

"That… that…" Makoto's father stuttered, his hand falling limp, and releasing the other man's hand as he stared at the massive Dragon of Earth. "That's… that's mine."

"Not yours," the man corrected him, drawing back and massaging his hand, as his Dragon withdrew, vanishing into a cloud of mist and smoke, then nothing. "It is you."

"I…." Makoto's father looked distant for a long moment, then shook his head. "I remember," he warned, "but don't think for a heartbeat that I'll ever forgive you for what you've done! I don't care what your plan is—"

"No!" the man shouted, gesturing at Makoto's father urgently. A fierce wind blew, literally tearing the words from Makoto's father's mouth. "Anything you say will be binding by Oath, Kuonji Ryu, King of Coins, and Pillar of Earth," he advised. At Ryu's glower, he continued, "We must go and bring Summer to these lands. If we do not, your blood kin," he paused to nod at Makoto and Tomoko, "will lose themselves, and fade. And your chosen… mate… will, as well. We cannot live in Spring forever, with the hints of Winter nipping at our lives, and the existence of magic." Done with his speech, the wind whipping about Makoto's father suddenly stopped.

Nodding grudgingly, he said, "I know… I know… I remember now." He fumed silently for a moment, glancing Makoto's mother, who was speechless still, her spatula hanging limply from her fingers. "Why the hell did you attack my family?" he yelled. "Why are you such a sadistic bastard?"

"I am no such thing," the man assured him. "It is merely the most efficient path. For now, however, you have more power than I in the realm of moving about the Earth, because you are the Earth. Take us to our brothers, and we can finish our assigned task, and complete the will of our predecessor."

Grunting unhappily, Makoto's father shook his head. "Not until Makoto and Tomoko are put somewhere where they'll be safe," he growled.


[Strength]


He wasn't at her side when she awoke. She knew it should have upset her, but at the same time, it didn't. She knew there was a bond between them, forged by the warmth that survived through twenty years and more of lying frozen….

She shivered at that. So easy, now, to control the heart of ice. But the cost….

Her own curse was the merest price to pay, and one she could not complain about truly. His curse was old, but in the end, without that curse, she wouldn't be alive. Again, it was a small price to pay, she thought.

Rising from the bed that she had rested in throughout the night, though her lover was gone at the moment… She smiled, relishing the sensation. Even the feel of the muscles in her face moving. So strange, such a strange power that had brought her back from death and restored her flesh. Shaking her head, she gingerly paced across the floor, the thick carpet unable to completely protect her from the cold of the stone beneath.

A note in a hand that was far to concise to be Ranma's informed her of the location of a bath for the guests of the Musk, and a thick robe was hanging from a hook on the back of the door. Taking the robe in hand, she idly wondered to herself, "Where is Ranma?"


[Mirror, Mirror]


After a quick scrub, she let herself slip into the warmth of the vast, segregated bath. No mere bamboo divider, instead high stone piled up to separate the two halves. And the water was, thanks entirely to the Phoenix people, very hot.

She hissed slightly, lowering herself into it, as a cold wind breezed through, swirling the steam upwards and allowing her a clear view. Except for one other, climbing into the opposite end of the vast bath, it was deserted.

Lips quirking upward in a smile, she realized who the other woman would be. She slipped into the water, slowly working her way through the water, and enjoying the warmth.

It took her only a second to utilize her power to draw on the threads of magic that suffused the area. Her great-grandmother had hated when she used her power… "Hello!" she announced cheerfully, jumping through a passing veil of cloud.

The girl who she had surprised was not the girl she had thought, and she spent a moment staring, absorbing the red hair and strong features, before she remembered.

"Kiima?" Akane asked warily, eyes wide.

"No…" the woman said, shaking her head, and shifting again to emulate the form before her. "I suppose… 'Shampoo is copy-cat'," she offered, smirking.

Akane stared at her, now that the woman was a mirror for herself, then burst out laughing, while Shampoo let her own form become dominant once more. "How are you, Akane?" she asked, watching the girl… No… Woman. She was a girl in body only.

Akane recovered herself, brushing her red bangs out of her eyes, and allowed, "I've been much worse. How have you been, Shan Pu?"

"Ah?" she asked. "I have been worse. I was only frozen for hours…." She shivered, shaking her head. "It wasn't fun. What about you?"

"I don't know," Akane admitted after a moment, eyes distant. "But I think that as long as Ranma is with me… I'll always be okay."

"Good catch," Shan Pu advised. "You could have done far worse. I'm just glad that we got you out of there. Koara found out some fairly frightening things while he was investigating."

"Oh?" Akane asked, narrowing her eyes worriedly.

"Mmm. Ranko gave them much in trade for the right to free you…. I'll not lie to you, Akane. We took a very substantial risk in allowing what we did. As it stands, Xinjiang may have enough power to destroy us."

"Xinjiang?"

"Where you were," she clarified. "With Ranma… perhaps with Ranma, if he agrees to stand with us, that risk will be lessened. But… I don't know."

Akane's brows furrowed, and she stared fixedly into the water. "I… I think Ranma will help. I don't know why he wouldn't… He… We both owe you a lot, I think." Smiling slightly, she added, "And don't count me out, either!"

The younger woman raised her hand to strike the surface of the bath to emphasize her point, a faint nimbus of blue energy expanding from her fist to flash brightly, rendering the entire bath nothing but ice. Shan Pu shook her head, warned by an unnamable reflex, and had seized the other woman, hauling her out before she struck. "Maybe," she allowed, shivering at the cold air, and frowning at the frozen bath not three steps away. "And maybe Ranma will want to teach you a little more first."

Akane had the decency to blush, while Shan Pu dropped the other woman's hand and raised a single finger in demonstration. "Control is important. The Heart of Ice… You should be more careful, I think," she warned. "I'll find someone to melt the bath. For now, I think we should eat. When was your last meal?"


[Water]


He flowed through the forms with a strangely surreal ease. He had known he was good, but then, he also used to know what he was doing wrong. That sensation was lost now, merely the smooth, flawless artistry of motion left to replace the strain and effort.

How much had being without a body for so long taken from him? So much of his martial arts… but then, he had more than martial arts, should he need it, though he didn't understand it all yet.

Sighing pensively, he threw himself into a more complex kata, straining to remember the details and nuances, and to try and get it right. His ruminations were interrupted as a presence intruded on his senses, and he broke from the kata, tossing his head to one side, as a fist passed through that same space only a hairsbreadth later.

Not bothering to speak, he offered the other man a smile, and continued with the kata, a simple strike throwing the overextended arm away, and opening Herb's guard. Herb grinned back, launching a kick in before he could take advantage enough to strike, and then the two lost themselves to a level of combat that brooked no thought, merely action.

So caught up were they in the melee, they did not notice until a pair of fierce calls distracted them and they both paused, turning to look to the courtyard, some meters below them. Akane and Shan Pu both stood, dressed in similar clothing, both with hands on hips, and both looking upward with looks of faint amusement and simultaneous worry.

He blinked at that, while Herb drew away a short distance, scratching the back of his head. Then something penetrated, and he looked down to his lover, at Shan Pu's side.

"Hey, I can't fly…." And with that realization, he plummeted, hurtling headlong towards the cobbled stones below. Akane's eyes widened with realization, and the absurdity of the situation sent him into a fit of laughter, as his servant — the other part of himself, in all truth — emerged from seemingly nowhere. He caught himself on the Dragon's neck, swinging around and landing easily atop the creature's head, barely able to maintain his laughter at the whole affair.

"Hey, Herb?" he asked, chuckling and looking upward, where the man floated idly, watching him curiously.

"Yes, Ranma?"

"How did you let me float like you did?"

Herb blinked, frowning. "I don't know," he admitted. "I think it was because we were sparring."

"Figure it out," Shan Pu grumped. "Then come back. We want to eat, and there's much to discuss."

Herb sank to the ground, Ranma leaping to Akane's side and dismissing his servant. "Very well," Herb grumped.

"And thaw out the bath first," Shampoo advised. "It's a bit frozen."


[Folly of Dreaming]


"Who are you?" Shia Hai asked bitterly, not rising from her chair.

Across the room, peering at the young woman intently, the young man smiled — smiled so deeply his eyes narrowed to the point of nearly being closed. "You can call me Keitaro," he said. After a pause, he added, "Right now you should probably call me Konno, though. I have a lot of half-brothers."

"Fey," the woman spat. "Why are you holding me here?"

"Do you even know who you are?"

"Of course I do! I'm Shia Hai, servant of the People."

The man smirked, shaking his head, and sinking to sit at the floor across the small stone room. "You know that, but you don't really understand. Would you like me to tell you a story?"

"No!"

"Too bad."


[Song of the Void]


"Um… Ucchan," he began haltingly, smiling at his daughters as they stared at him in awe. "I'm afraid that I need to go… go to China."

"Then you're taking me with you," she insisted, glaring at the man who called himself Ryu's brother angrily. "I don't trust him anyway. Why should you trust him?"

Judging that it was safe, Nabiki approached from where she had watched the entire display, and added, "If this is about Ranko and… and Ranma and Akane… then I want to go, too."

He frowned, and shook his head unhappily. "Where would I leave the children?" he asked warily.

"Damnable relations," his brother grumbled, crossing his arms over his chest. "Have you no one who can watch over them?"

"Konatsu?" Ryu asked, struggling.

"If you can find him," Ukyou grumbled. "He doesn't like to come out into the light much anymore…"

"A being of shadow and fleeting thought," Ryu's brother noted. "Inadequate."

"Uh," Ryu grunted. "Nabiki? What about your family?"

"What?" she asked, taken aback. "Oh, well… You could ask Kasumi, I suppose."

"Okay," Ryu mumbled, smiling at his children. They blinked, and he used his newfound power to shift them about — and they were gone.

Ukyou squawked indignantly, "Ryu! Where are they?"

"With Kasumi," he answered slowly, feeling his children's feet pattering about the backyard of the old Tendo home, delighted at the new trick. Kasumi's light step was not far away, hesitant and confused, but slowly gathering confidence as she led the children into the house, and then, onto a surface he couldn't sense as well. "They're fine," he added. "Let's go."

And with that, they vanished from the street.


[Scent of Spring]


When my father was a young man, his life — and indeed, reality — began to reshape themselves. As you know, Winter is the bane of the Fey. But around one woman, as incidental as she was, hints of Spring lurked, allowing some who would not otherwise have been anything other than… mundane… to be more. To be Fey.

There was a man who loved this woman, this key. And this man, after the fall, when hints of Fey became true Fey, became a symbol of Fey. He was the Magician. Some say that the first is not the Magician, but instead the Fool. Some insist that it is the other way about.

However, the Fool is my father, and my father loved the Magician like his own father. Someday, the Fool will outgrow his own foolishness, and then he'll be the Magician.

But, of course, Spring came, after the Fall. And with the Fall, there was no longer a need for a key, a hint of the Spring to come, and room was needed to be made for the next key, the doorway to Summer. And with the loss of the key, then too was lost the Magician, for his life was… But that's not important at the moment.

I will tell you this much of the woman though, Shia Hai. Her name meant Scent of Spring. Haruka.


[Center of the Spiral]


Ukyou staggered, unsettled by the sensation of being one place, then suddenly shifting to another. She stared at the flagstones of the courtyard around her in confusion, noting Nabiki's equal disorientation.

Ryu stared about, bearing not trace of uneasiness at the process, then to Ryu's self-proclaimed brother, who rose to float off the stones and drifted about, smiling faintly. "This will suffice," he remarked critically, studying the layout of the court, and the fountain in the center. A pair of young men and a young woman — Ranko — sat on the fountain, staring at the newcomers' arrival with some interest.

"Ranko!" Nabiki exclaimed, rushing towards her daughter. "You're okay! You're okay! Why didn't you call us?"

"Ack!" the woman sputtered, shoving one of the men away from her and embracing her mother awkwardly. "Mom! I wanted to call, but I couldn't; they said that the communication lines were being watched by Xinjiang…."

Nabiki shook her head, drawing away from her daughter, and offering a relieved smile. "You're okay?" she asked.

Ranko nodded, looking distinctly nervous. "Just peachy, Mom." Glancing towards Ryu, as the young man she had pushed climbed to his feet, she called out, "Hey, Uncle Ryu, Auntie Ukyou! How did you get here?"

Ukyou stared at Ryu for a moment, then turned back to Ranko, admitting, "I'm not sure. I think Ryu learned how to teleport people."

Ranko's eyes widened. "Really?" she asked, surprised. "How neat!"

"He's always known how to do that," Ryu's self-proclaimed bother noted dryly. "It's simply that today he's learned to stop fleeing his own shadow."

The other young man at Ranko's side, the one dressed in the immaculate dress of a swordsman, drew his sword, eyeing the levitating man suspiciously. "What manner of man are you?" he asked carefully. "I sense something about you that puzzles me."

"I was once called Shinnosuke," he addressed the swordsman. "You serve my brother, the King of Swords, not I. I am the King of Staves."

"I serve no such man," the swordsman countered, not sheathing his blade.

"You will," Shinnosuke informed him casually. "Earth, we must summon our brothers, and find the key. We have much work to be done."

"Uh…. Can't you at least pretend to act like a normal human?" Ryu complained, as the swordsman unhappily sheathed his blade.

Shinnosuke looked genuinely confounded. "Why would I care to do such a thing?" he asked.

Ryu hung his head, sighing. "Okay," he said a moment later. "Who's the key?"


[Dreaming of Folly]


Blinking away her confusion, Shia Hai asked, "What does that have to do with me?"

Konno shrugged, drawing a package of cigarettes from his pocket. "My brothers serve, or will serve, the progeny of Shen-Lung. I myself, will serve the one who brings Spring to the world."

Shia Hai reluctantly took a cigarette from the package, hands close together, afraid of touching Konno unnecessarily. "There's no lighter," she complained.

Nonchalantly, the man drew a coin from his pocket, flipped it with his thumb, and when it landed in his hand, it burst into a tiny ball of flame. Grinning, the man presented Shia Hai with the handful of fire. She drew away fearfully, whimpering.

Laughing, Konno asked, "Are you afraid of fire?"

"No!" Shia Hai snapped. "Just magic!"

"The magic will not harm you," Konno assured her, holding the small ball of fire out to her. "You can take it."

"But… but it's not even real!"

"Neither am I, and yet you address me as if I were real. And you can change that, as well…."

Shia Hai tentatively, slowly reached out and gathered a small finger full of the flame. "It's warm," she said, confused, too stunned to remember to use it to light her cigarette.

Konno smirked, asking, "Do you understand, then? Are you willing to bring Summer to us?"

"Absolutely not!" she said, dropping the fire, to have it wink out on the floor with a metallic clinking noise, as it became a coin once more. "It would not serve the People at all."

"You serve the People, Shia Hai? The Fey are people, too. Are you going to chose to serve only some people, when the whole world deserves to be able to make the choice for themselves?"

She shook her head, uncertain. She had known the moment she had entered the lands of the Fey, they had begun altering the way that she thought, who she was. But…

But what if that was someone who she'd always been?

Alone, trapped with one of the Fey, and being told that she was their messiah — it was too much, and the woman spat out her cigarette, burying her face in her hands. "I can't! I'm not like you! I'm not Fey!"

"But you can be," Konno countered. "And if you are, then you are free. Freer than you ever thought possible."


[Reunion]


"Ucchan?" he asked, surprised. At the nickname, his lover drew him close to her, pouting, even as the man at Ukyou's side put an arm around her protectively. "Hey!" he exclaimed, turning to Akane. "Look, Ucchan came to visit us!"

Ukyou giggled, shaking her head. "Ranma," she said quietly. "This is such a strange day… you're alive!" She sniffled, wiping a tear from her eyes, and unmindful of the others in the room. "I'm sorry, Ranma," she said quietly, bowing her head. "I… I didn't wait for you. I…. Ranma, this is my husband, Ryu."

"Long time since I've seen you," Ranma allowed, bowing politely to Ryu. "You been doing okay?" Glancing at Ukyou, he smirked, dismissing her hurt casually as he added, "You been taking care of my friend, there?"

Ryu blinked, obviously taken aback, then relaxed, and said, "I've been worse, I suppose… Ranma. I only got lost for a while. You… how have you been?"

"Mighty cold," he chuckled, grinning. "I… Why are you here, anyway? And Shinnosuke?"

Shinnosuke snorted derisively, shaking his head. "That I would be more elevated would be assumed, but must my brethren all be so base?" he grumbled.

"What?" Ranma, Herb, and Ryu asked in tandem.

"Nothing," Shinnosuke sighed. "Merely that we're wasting time. We are here, and thus, we should set about the task left us by our predecessor."

"Who?" Herb asked, frowning. "I've divined long ago that there were four of us, and that we each embodied some trait, but I could never discern what bestowed that trait… nor did I know of you two."

"Hmm," Shinnosuke mused. In an authoritative voice, he began, "Legend speaks to us of Shen-Lung, the great dragon that supports the palace of the gods in the heavens…."


[Choice]


"I can choose to do nothing and let you all die, can't I?" Shia Hai accused. "I can just turn my back on you and let you perish."

"You could," Konno allowed. "But even if we never thrived, we cannot all perish in Spring. Only in Winter. And then, we would return anyway. Eventually, your life will end, and then another key will be reborn. Chronos is on our side. The only thing you can do is delay what will happen."

"You're bluffing," she countered.

"Why would I bluff? I am your servant."

"If you're my servant, then light a cigarette for me," she insisted, watching him carefully.

He shrugged, stooping to gather the pack where she had dropped it, his head easily within kicking range should she try and lash out at him. Of course… Was he trusting her, or merely foolish? Rising, he touched the tip of a cigarette with his finger, and it glowed faintly, already alight. "Here," he said, offering it to her.

She accepted it, relaxing as she inhaled the thick smoke. "What if I tell you to get me out of here, to return me to Xinjiang?"

"Then I tell you how to leave," he answered, shrugging. "I'm not dumb enough to go there myself. You shouldn't be, either. Koara, he's a damn big fool; he'll do it. Did already, I guess."

"Why do I trust you?" she mumbled. "Are you working your magic on me?"

"Only the family charm," he offered, grinning. "Dad got it worst, though."

"I… What will I get if I do this thing? If I bring Summer? What if I hunt down the key to Winter after that, to finish you off?"

"You'd be skipping Fall," he noted. "And the key to Winter would still be you. Just reborn, like."

She sighed, hanging her head as a vague memory of a house she had never lived in swam through her head, followed by the memories of a man… a man she had known…. "You're messing with my head!" she accused, glaring at Konno.

The man sighed, saying, "No, but this much magic is awakening your true nature. The four pillars are pretty close by, and they'll keep generating more magic as long as they're together."

"So there's going to be more magic even if I don't help you?" she asked, wincing.

"Well… yeah, I guess so."


[Compass Points]


"Okay," Ranma said, shrugging. "Let's do this thing. Any words of wisdom, Shinnosuke? You seem to know what's going on."

The man nodded, gesturing to the courtyard. "Take the places you know in your hearts that you're needed to go," he advised.

With that, he drifted through the air on an errant breeze, standing at the northernmost edge of the courtyard. Ryu shrugged, shifting and not moving — simply being at the south edge. Ranma folded his arms, as Herb strode purposefully to the western edge, each of them standing at the outermost ring of the circular courtyard.

All four stepped forward, stopping midway to the center, unsure of how to proceed, excepting Shinnosuke. He merely smiled, summoning his servant to him, the Dragon looming ominously overhead, and swiftly joined by a trio of others.

Shinnosuke's Air; glowing a smoky blue, which seeped into the courtyard beneath him. Herb's Fire; malevolently red. Ryu's Earth; wisps of dark power rising slowly about it. Ranma's Water; cerulean and placid.

The courtyard beneath them suffused a solid white, when Herb intoned, "I am the King of Swords, and I am Shen-Lung's left hand." As he spoke, the air about him suffused red, charged with a power and energy far greater than himself. "Keeper of the west gate."

"I am the King of Coins," Ryu said next, from the south. "I am the feet of Shen-Lung." Dark, earthly strains of magic rose further about him, streaking upward in a column. The red about Herb rose in challenge, as Ryu finished, "Keeper of the south gate."

"I am the King of Cups," Ranma returned easily. "I am Shen-Lung's right hand." At his words, the cerulean blue streamers rose, pushing the magic higher, nearly threatening the clouds themselves. "Keeper of the east gate."

"I am the King of Staves," the final man concluded. "I am the wisdom of Shen-Lung." A final column, this one of bluish-green energy, sprang into being, twining around the others, and swirling them all into a tower of purest white. "Keeper of the north gate."

Someone else spoke, hesitantly, from the edge of the circle of magic. Where, was not possible to say, for she was no closer to the east or west, than north or south, yet she was only at the edge of the circle. Her voice, wavering and unsure, said, "And I am the key… The key to Summer."

And with those words, Summer began.


[Lazy Days of Summer]


Koara lounged lazily on the hillside, pleasantly green and lush. The springs were below, beyond the library. He could see a few people scurrying about excitedly in the courtyard below — likely looking for his brother's master.

"So," he drawled, shooting a glance at Ranko, who sprawled only a short distance away, then beyond, to where Aoyama sat. "Got what you were expecting?"

Aoyama snorted, shaking his head. "I could do worse," he allowed. "Herb is a fair enough man to serve."

"Eh. You realize that the King of Staves and the King of Coins gotta deal with Maehara and Otohime, right?"

"I don't know that the King of Staves would care much for a servant. He seems more content to flit about and call things 'remarkable'."

"Yeah. True. I wonder why, though."

"I think I know," Ranko offered, staring up at a passing cloud.

Both of the men looked at her askance.

Sighing, she explained, "Ryu feels the Earth, and he was wounded when the Fall happened, because the radiation was hurting him. What happened to the air around the world when that all happened? I think that Shinnosuke lost it because of the pain… and what was left of Shen-Lung took over for him."

"Could be," Koara allowed. "Could be."

"Anyway," Ranko said, shaking her head and turning her attention to Koara. "Sorry about… um… that whole pushing thing."

"What, not like you're the firs' girl ta shove me an' try an' hide me from 'er mom," he snickered.

Aoyama snorted, shaking his head. "Yes she was," he remarked drolly.

Ranko giggled quietly, then asked, "Koara? What… what happens next?"

"Well," he said at length, turning to look her in the eye. "I guess that's all up to you, ain't it?"

 

END, Compass Points.


Author's Notes: Not sure it's exactly what I was going after, but this is the closest I could really come…

Anyway. This is based off of Nanashi's 'Fey', which is based off the earlier chapters of 'Compass Points', which is based off of Nanashi's 'Soul of Ice' (Deus ex Machina), which is based off of Matt's 'Soul of Ice', which is based off of Rumiko Takahashi's Ranma ½. And something in there is based off of something that's based off of 'I am Become…'. No, that's not a joke.

Brian Randall
— Who is very busy with his backlog. Down, fic! Down! Back! Nooo! Not in the face! Aaaaaugh!

 
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