A Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon / Ranma ½ crossover story
by Jeffrey Vasquez
Disclaimer: Based on the series Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon. All characters copyrighted by Naoko Takeuchi, Toei Animation, and Kodansha. The characters of Ranma ½ are the express property of the most benevolent queen of comedy, her Highness, the revered Rumiko Takahashi and Shogakukan. I am in no way claiming or even pretending to own these characters. The rest belong to me.
Foreword: Some of the early parts of this chapter will overlap, time-wise, with events from last chapter. Things are pretty much linear, so there shouldn't be too much loopiness.
What has gone before: Ranma saves Ami and Usagi from a terrible fate, and briefly meets Mamoru. Ami and Ranma have their second close encounter, and Ami learns her benefactor's name thanks to Usagi's quick thinking (isn't that like a paradox?). Nabiki remembers something from her previous life, and wishes that she hadn't. Mother sends her on a mission to find Ranma. Xian Pu and Herb mingled, and Tsuru's group gives the warriors their warning. Ranma makes the decision to return to school, to prove to his mother that he can be reliable. Let the show begin!
The Palace of Seven Clouded Heavens, China,
Ahbrim Ur walked through the halls of his new palace clothed only in a pair of black silk pants and a set of black cloth slippers that made no sound as he moved. Intricate tattoos of a spidery, serpentine design decorated his body, moving subtly with the motion of his strong muscles. A cold madness clung to him like a miasma, poisoning the very air about him. One powerful hand trailed along the smooth marble wall at his side.
His newly-won freedom was wonderful. Every sensation was fresh and new again. No longer was he walled away in an endless void, drifting with no sense of life, yet ever aware of the world around him. No, the magic had returned, and with it a giddy awareness of the world around him. It was intoxicating. He felt nearly overwhelmed by the sights and smells about him.
It was a heady experience, one that he tried desperately to control. If he failed, the Rhakshasa would know and exploit his weakness to his ultimate demise. He had suffered far too long to fall prey to this wickedly delicious distraction he called flesh. But the true majesty that he felt sprung from the well of power that was once again his.
How many millennia had he been cut off while locked away in Serenity's damnable prison?
He'd long ago lost count.
During the first thousand years, his psyche had slowly crumbled underneath the passage of time. He had been stretched thin and folded over and over again. He had thrown his spirit out into the void and reduced himself to the very components of his being. He had seen his pride, and all of his mistakes. He had seen his folly and embraced his sins, and then transcended them all. He had been hammered in a cosmic crucible and shaped into the entity that he was today.
Ur no longer saw himself as a man, but as a step above men. Evolved human? No. There was nothing scientific about his metamorphosis. He had enough humility to understand that he was not a god, but he could concede that he was one step below divinity. After all, hadn't he humbled and leashed the Rhakshasa? He had been forced to become his very own chrysalis, thanks to Serenity's bruised pride. No. Not pride. It had been her heart that had been bruised.
In one breath he cursed her, and in another he blessed her. If it hadn't been for her, he wouldn't be who and what he was today. It seemed only fitting that he return the favor when he found her again.
His soul still howled at the memory of watching young mountains grow old. But, that fiery furnace was behind him now. Yes, behind him. The dross had been burned away, and he was free to walk the earth again. The prison was gone and he was free again. Free forever.
But he had to step with great care, lest he found himself in a new prison of his own creation. He had no desires to become a prisoner of his own body, which meant that he had to maintain strict control. Control over himself, his environment, and his allies.
Yes, control. With control he would reshape this world in his image.
He inspected his newly acquired palace critically. The foundation was sound, and the location was naturally defensible. All in all, he was very impressed with the former Musk stronghold. The Emperor of this rather hedonistic race had fought well, but not so well as his son. Herb had acquitted himself in the fashion of a true ruler; saving what he could, and destroying what could not be taken with him. Had Ur not seen and repaired the damage Herb had inflicted on the palace, the stronghold surely would have caved in on itself. It was a clever trap, but one easily circumvented with the right knowledge. Ur admired the young mongrel king and prayed for the day that they might meet again.
The only distaste that the palace held for Ur was the lingering taint of dragons. It was rife throughout the place, and Ur wondered idly what it would take to cleanse it. Ever since the beasts had supported Serenity, all but deifying her, Ur had come to loathe them.
He would have to have the place scoured to sanitize his new home. The lesser Rhakshasa had already been set the task of securing the place for habitation — searching out stragglers and suicide squads, and sealing up the lower levels of the main palace. He just hoped that they left enough of the rabble to serve their needs. If not, then they would be set the task of acquiring a new palace staff. Otherwise, they would serve in that capacity themselves. Ur could already think of a few of the demons that would fit that bill nicely. The smile on his handsome face was anything but pleasant.
It was a good beginning.
Only a handful of casualties had been suffered in the assault, and for the most part, they had driven the former inhabitants into exile. They wouldn't get far, and the few warnings that they spread would do the inhabitants of Terra no good. He was awake now, and this world was his. It was his birthright, and no one would keep it from him — not these pathetic shadows that called themselves humanity, not even his former Queen.
He could feel the power of the Ginzuisho to the southeast, and knew that there was only one person that could use it. Serenity would eventually stand against him. It was an inevitable confrontation, one that he looked forward to. There was no question in Ur's mind that it was her. She would have taken steps to ensure her power remained to influence. Such was the power of vanity, and with the Ginzuisho such vanity was nigh immortal.
He would, of course, bless her with the same opportunity to enlighten herself that she had given him. And if she survived, then he would entertain the thought of taking her as his consort. He had already felt young Mars tickling about, blindly searching for him. It was a surprise that she had been the one to dig for him. Neptune had always been the nosey one.
Times changed, and people changed. Change itself was the only constant, so it came as little surprise that she wasn't as strong as he remembered, nor as adept with her element as she once had been.
Old age or inexperience was at work here, and Ur was bound and determined to exploit the weakness, whichever the case. The old order was about to fall, and a new, brighter future was destined to be reborn from its ashes. All would be as it should have been.
It was time for him to look into the changes that this world had endured during his imprisonment. After all, knowledge was power, and he needed all the power that he could get to reclaim what he had lost. With a snap of his fingers, eight shapes materialized from the shadows.
"Reconnaissance and stealth are your goals. I want information on the status of the world at large: technology, political powers, everything. You are to find the Senshi and watch them." He paused and looked to one of his minions. "They are to remain untouched until I call for their heads."
Ur turned to the leader of his forces and addressed him specifically.
"Set them to task, Indra, then prepare your assault on Mount Phoenix. Saffron yet lives, as do his people… I want them removed." He waited for a moment before motioning a dismissal with his hand. The figures bowed in unison and then silently disappeared into the shadows.
Ur calmly walked out onto a balcony over looking the valley and smiled lovingly at the land around him. The air was crisp against his skin, carrying the scent of wild flowers and rain down from the mountain pass above him. He paused, laying his hands gently upon the cold marble balustrade. The frigid sensation sent a decadent shiver dancing down his spine, causing Ur to grip the stone railing harder. Spiderweb cracks appeared from the impressions that his fingers dug into the stone.
"Soon you will be mine again." Ur's voice was gentle in spite of the intensity of his mad gaze. "And I will dress you in Eden's glory anew. Serenity and her brood will kneel before me, and forsake their arrogance. I will heal what she tore asunder, and there will be peace again." He did not laugh, nor did he boast. He simply continued to walk, laying plans and weighing his resources.
Xian Pu stood with her back to her father, who cradled her great-grandmother, her bonbori held in a guard position. The door that stood before her was blasted and singed horribly, but the building itself was one of the few that had remained intact during the assault. The strangers' warning had given them almost an hour to prepare, but even still, it was obvious that they were outgunned here.
Herb and Pepper flanked Xian Pu, guarding the right and left quarters. Several other Amazons bordered their family's Matriarch as well, guarding their leaders as they gathered and distributed the various magical artifacts and treasures amongst each other. They worked quickly and silently out of necessity. Old feuds were buried, and a true sisterhood had been attained in their hour of need.
The young, purple-haired Amazon carefully watched the doorway that led out into the chaos that was the night, waiting for the monsters to attack. The fires that consumed her village were mirrored in her angry eyes; tears made silent tracks down her beautiful, soot-stained face. Herb was touched at the emotion that he had been unable to show when his kingdom had fallen.
One day, spent mostly in an unending debate, and disaster had struck. Khu Lon wanted to spit. She knew these enemies, or at least was more familiar with them than any one else, and understood enough about their power to retreat and fight another day.
When the scout parties ran across the advanced patrol of the Rhakshasa, they did the most intelligent thing that they could think of. They ran. Their warning had signaled the exodus that would scatter the Amazon nation to the four corners of the globe. Khu Lon hated it when history repeated itself. Still, all of the children and most of the elderly had departed before the first wave struck.
Wave. Khu Lon snorted in derision. It had been the advance scouting party. Only three of the creatures had followed their prey back to the village, and Khu Lon had no doubt that there were more in the wings! Why send a battalion when the enemy is untested? Better to hold their forces in reserve, on the offhand that they would be needed later.
By the Goddess! The enemy not only showed intelligence, but also had power to spare! She and Herb had dealt with one each, but the third had killed twenty warriors and wounded four other elders before it had finally been brought low.
Khu Lon's opponent had pushed the Matriarch to her limits, and beyond, and she still barely overcame it. Her right arm was broken in three places, and she had sprained an ankle. The indignity of having to be carried by Xian Pu's father was almost too much to bear.
Herb, for his part, looked fresh, but Khu Lon could tell he was tired. The last two days had left their mark on the boy, and it had shown in the battle. He had lost control of himself early on and gone berserk. The collateral damage that his power had caused equaled that of the Rhakshasa. She shook her head. So much rage, and so little control. If they got out of this alive, she would have to see if she could remedy that.
So many "ifs". Khu Lon shook her head and resumed her gathering. Khu Lor and Lo Xion had finished their packing and prepared themselves to depart.
"We will travel to Phoenix Mountain, Matriarch," Lo Xion said quietly. "We will do our best to negotiate a truce and secure a place for our people there."
"Do not bother." Every head, with the exception of Xian Pu's, turned to their Matriarch in shock.
"I pray to the Goddess that you are joking, Khu Lon." Lo Xion eyed her leader and rival with open disbelief.
"I wish that I were, Lo Xion. I wish that I were." Cologne placed the last treasure in a satchel before handing it off to Shampoo. "Saffron is an infant, and while the people of Phoenix Mountain are great warriors, it is inevitable that their mighty realm will fall to the Rhakshasa."
"How can you be so sure?" Khu Lor asked skeptically.
"Because, you foolish old crone," Cologne snapped, "in less than two days time, two of the most formidable kingdoms that this world has ever known fell before the might of the beasts! What makes you think that one mountain will ward them away?!"
Khu Lor held in her rage. Khu Lon was right, of course, but she didn't have to like it.
"The Rhakshasa will eat Phoenix Mountain alive, and then turn its voracious appetite to the rest of the world. We were the first line of defense against them, and for all of our lore and prowess, they brushed us aside like paper dolls." She looked at each person huddled in the room directly in the eye, weighing and measuring them each in turn. When she was satisfied, she handed the two elders a set of scrolls.
"We have no time for bickering." She pointed to Ban Dait, the leader of the scouting parties. "You will send ten of our nation's fastest runners to Mount Phoenix, along different routes. They are to contact Kiima, Saffron's seneschal, and report the events that have transpired. They will then rendezvous with one of our groups as soon as they are able."
"Groups?" Khu Lor queried.
"Yes. We will scatter our forces and gather them anew as quickly as possible. The refugees will continue their journey to Brazil and the other Amazon holdings. It will make it harder for the Rhakshasa to hunt us, and at best we will have the opportunity to gather the necessary resources to reclaim our homeland." Both elders nodded at the strategy. "At worst, a remnant will be saved, and our people will not be forgotten. The scrolls contain instructions and the location of our chief encampment. Memorize them and destroy them before you leave."
The wizened women nodded and glanced over the maps that they were given. When their perusal was complete, and the information committed to memory, each ignited their map with their ki. Khu Lon was not quick enough to stop them, and turned her worried gaze to the doorway.
"Fools! You have killed us!" she hissed.
Xian Pu smiled grimly as a single shape detached itself from the shadows of a building and loped toward them. She loosened her sword in its scabbard, and set herself to break the thing's charge. The blade was an ancient relic, supposedly handed down from Artemis herself to one of the first Amazons. Silvery runes flared to life along the blade as the beast closed on her, bathing Xian Pu in a shimmering, ethereal light.
The time had come for a little more payback for her sisters' deaths, an action that Xian Pu was all too eager to perform.
Khu Lon's throat clenched as she glimpsed the beast for the first time. It was clearly twice as big as the scouts that they had dispatched earlier, and the power that she felt rolling off it easily tripled what they had faced before. She wondered just how many of these things were waiting for them in the shadows of the forest.
For the first time in over a century, Khu Lon, Matriarch of the Amazons, felt terror grip her. A sharp pain crashed into her from behind, followed by an inhuman scream. The last thing that she saw before the blackness of unconsciousness took her was the sight of her beloved granddaughter shoving her sword to its hilt through the beast's head in a spray of blood and gore.
Rei had spent the entire day worrying about what her Grandfather knew and didn't know. So much so that three different teachers — all very concerned — had pulled her aside to speak to her. She had begged out of each confrontation, and afterwards decided that she was going to have to confront her grandfather before the situation got further out of control. She needed to know the truth, and that meant she was going to be breaking one of Luna's biggest rules. But if Grandpa already knew her secret, it wasn't like she was telling him… right?
By the time that she had gotten back to the shrine, both Grandpa and Yuichiro were gone. The note said that he was going to introduce his apprentice to "the wonders of nature". Rei had found the advertisement for the hot springs stuffed in the trash soon after reading the note.
She sighed and absently pulled her hair behind one ear. The idea of being here alone was creepy, but a part of her was relieved that she didn't have to follow through with her plan. Maybe she could call Makoto and spend the weekend with her… but that would leave the shrine untended, which automatically shot that idea down.
Maybe Makoto would come and stay with her? It was worth a shot.
Rei entered the kitchen and immediately picked up the cordless phone to make the call. She had dialed two numbers when she heard a teacup quietly meet its saucer. She whirled and threw the receiver at the noise; only to watch as a long slender hand shot out and effortlessly plucked the telephone out of the air. The cinnamon-colored hand contrasted nicely against the pristine, cream-colored lace cuff of the blouse, as Rei tracked the phone's smooth descent to the table. The elegant yet aloof woman that sat at the kitchen table simply stared at Rei through her timeless stare.
"Setsuna! Who the hell do you think you are?! You scared me half to death!"
"Good. Maybe you've learned a valuable lesson, then." The green haired woman picked up her tea and took a sip. Her casual criticism bit deeply into Rei's pride. But the serious gaze that Setsuna leveled at Rei showed more concern than the shrine maiden had ever seen before.
"You should pay more attention to your surroundings, Rei. Now more than ever."
What was that supposed to mean? Setsuna however, didn't seem too forthcoming with information… as usual.
"Since you don't usually make social visits, I'm assuming that you're here on business." A flash of pain and loneliness crossed Setsuna's eyes, causing Rei to blink and wonder if she hadn't imagined the whole thing. She hadn't meant for her reply to be so caustic, but her nerves were shot and what little sleep she'd been able to get wasn't very restful.
"A woman is entitled to change now and then," Setsuna said after a moment, refreshing her tea and pouring Rei a cup. "I came to check on you and to answer some questions that you will have."
Rei nearly spewed her tea all over the woman before her.
"Who are you, and what have you done with the real Setsuna?"
"Cute," The green haired woman deadpanned. She brought her cup to her lips, never taking her eyes off of the shrine maiden across from her. Rei squirmed a bit under the woman's gaze, then picked up her own tea to cover her agitation.
"Okay, so you're the real deal. This is just so out of character for you that it makes it hard to believe."
Setsuna smirked behind her cup. "Maybe that's the whole point." This got her a raised eyebrow from Rei. "Then again, maybe I'm checking up on a friend."
Rei's other eyebrow climbed her forehead, and she simply stared at Setsuna for a very long moment. The woman had always been so distant, but it wasn't hard to see the weight of loneliness that she tried to hide behind the veneer of stoicism.
Setsuna shook off the moment of weakness and focused her attention back on the young woman before her. "So. Tell me about your dreams."
It was Rei's turn to fidget and look nervous. The look that she gave Setsuna was fearful and frustrated. It had been more than a dream, but it galled her that some bozo could make her feel so vulnerable. She was surprised when Setsuna's hand covered her own.
"It's okay to be afraid of him, Rei." Somehow that didn't seem to make Rei feel any better. "He's the reason that I urged the Queen to institute capital punishment."
The shrine maiden looked at Setsuna in shock.
"How do you know about…?"
Setsuna waved her hand and smiled gently. "I know a great deal, but somehow it's never quite enough. That's partly why I'm here, I suppose." She paused, looking down at her reflection in her tea.
"I can see potential futures and what causes them. Some things can be avoided, while others are self-fulfilling prophecies that don't change, no matter how many things that you attempt. Take Hitler, for example. I looked for something, anything, to divert the atrocities that he inspired; but in the end, any course that I would have taken would have delayed your revival. Even had I intervened and averted that tragedy, someone else would have surely taken his place. There was a man in the United States that would have made Hitler look like a saint."
Rei's eyes bugged, but she was held captivated by Setsuna's story.
"I learned that there was a measure of suffering that had to occur in order to bring about the greater good. Hiroshima for example: without it, the Japanese would never have been humbled. Their war machine would have continued forward, and hundreds of millions of lives would have been lost over the course of a decade. And the rest of the world would have ground the Japanese under their collective boots. It was a terrible, but necessary tragedy."
Rei digested this and nodded. She didn't like it, but she could accept it.
"So what does this have to do with me?"
Setsuna shrugged. "The future is a funny thing. It's constrained by so many different variables that there are times that I cannot make sense of what I see." She sighed. "It makes it very hard to prepare."
"And you're going through one of these blind periods now." Rei hoped that she was wrong, but intuitively knew that she wasn't. When Setsuna nodded, Rei's heart sank. One of their most valuable assets had just been crippled in the face of a major enemy.
"It's not so much as a blind period, as a period of information overload. There are too many variables, and too much potential for me to guide. Which was why I was hoping for a more intuitive approach." She weighed Rei for a moment before draining the rest of her tea.
Rei wasn't sure what she had just heard, but it had sounded a lot like a request for help. By the way that Setsuna refused to look directly at her, she knew that she had guessed right. She also had enough sense not to be smug about this.
"So you need more information, is that it?"
Setsuna shook her head. "If only it were that simple." She swallowed and set her hands on the tabletop. Rei started to feel her stomach twist in knots. "I am bound by too much dogma and too many doubts to guide us through this alone, Rei."
Rei's shock meter went through the roof. She knew that she hadn't just heard what she thought she did.
"You were the first among us to be contacted by Ur. You saw what he and the army that he leads are capable of, and I believe that you can uncover his motivations. That is something that I cannot do. I can only see events unfold, not the impetus that drives them."
Rei nodded. It made sense, but the thought of even looking for this type of information made her blood run cold.
"You won't be alone in this, Rei. I promise." Setsuna's smile was soft, encouraging, and a bit stiff. "Now tell me about your dreams."
Rei nodded and sighed. Setsuna had a plan, it seemed, and the fact that she was sharing it at all was a sign of just how serious this business was.
"Well, they were kind of weird. Ami was riding this wild horse bareback through a field of shadows. They were heading towards this giant tree, and one of the oddest things was, halfway through the field, the horse was wearing a crown." Rei hesitated and looked up at Setsuna, only to find the woman smiling back at her. She could just see the pieces falling into place behind the green-haired woman's eyes. And Rei could tell that her "partner" wasn't going to give up the goods anytime soon, either.
"Go on." The older woman's voice was encouraging, which gave Rei hope that the Senshi of Time might just let her in on what was going on.
"Well, the horse…." Rei pressed forward, answering Setsuna's questions and having her own brushed aside without her realizing it. It was a long night, and the way that Setsuna continued to grill her, Rei knew that she wasn't going to be getting much sleep.
With the sun barely hanging above the horizon, a solitary wind blew through desolate streets in the lower part of the Juuban ward. Somewhere nearby a dog's barking echoed gauntly, and was soon joined by another.
The desolate mood of the neighborhood would have unnerved Youta Fumikake if he hadn't been so drunk. The five shadows that detached themselves from the walls of the alley would have driven him screaming in any available direction, too, had he been sober. As it was, he could barely lift his head without the world spiraling hopelessly out of control. The shadows coalesced into five blurred shapes, yet in his stupor he could tell very little about them.
In a moment of uncanny clarity, Youta remembered something that his ex-wife had said. It had been one of the last things that they had said to each other. One of the larger blurs asked one of the smaller blurs a question. The smaller blur motioned with one of its hands nonchalantly.
"Youta, your drinking will be the death of you yet."
He thought it strange that one memory would stand out among the clouded fuzz of all the rest. But then again, he thought it truly appropriate when the large figure tore his throat out. He remained conscious only long enough for the other figures to join in the feast. His last thought was of how thankful he was that the alcohol had numbed the pain.
Indra looked up from the gored body of the human that they had dined on. It was an appetizer for what was to come, which made the leader of this Rhakshasa scout party very hungry. Sadly, though, they would have to be disciplined in how they feasted. Ur had made it quite clear that this was to be a silent mission, and Indra knew enough about the man's power to be wary of crossing him.
Indra himself was an impressive figure, standing over six and one-half feet tall. His broad shoulders carried a Siberian tiger's head that looked both noble and nightmarish to the few humans that had been unfortunate enough to lay eyes on him.
"Dispose of the remains. Prepare yourselves to leave." His gruff voice left no room for argument, not that anyone would have been stupid enough to challenge him.
Agni, a small red-eyed woman, smiled intensely. Flames burned where her teeth should have been. A whip of white flames appeared in her hands, which she snapped at what remained of the corpse, igniting it. Within moments it was nothing more than tiny gray ashes floating on a fetid wind. She smiled seductively at her leader. Hope — or some twisted thing akin to it — lit her eyes.
Indra took no notice.
"Split up. Establish a base of operations." He looked at each in turn, holding their gaze until each bowed their heads meekly. "No open confrontations, and leave no evidence of your passing." He looked directly at the large man to his right. "Is that understood, Marut? Karttikeya?" A set of deferring nods was his only response. "Good. Surya will attend. Return here within an hour's time and report."
The group melded once again into the shadows, and all was as it had been.
Nabiki had seen quite a lot in her time, mostly because of a certain martial artist that had come to live with her family. She had been privy to the machinations of an ancient Amazon tribe, watched feats of martial skill that should have been impossible, and participated in some of the most exotic and fantastic adventures that a human could imagine… and that was just in the first few months of Ranma's stay.
To say that she was familiar with legendary figures and at ease around powerful characters was a given. She had seen and done things that most people only dreamed of. So dealing with the likes of Mother and the rest of the Clan wasn't all that bad. Sure, they had kidnapped her, danced around her mind without so much as a "how do you do?", and told her that she was the reincarnation of "The Huntress", Mother's number one daughter.
Who the hell was she kidding? The whole thing was driving her nuts! The kidnapping she was used to. It had happened enough around here that Nabiki had long ago worked out what she would do if it happened to her. She hadn't gotten them to ransom her, nor had Ranma come charging in on his mighty white horse, but she had adapted easy enough.
The idea of having telepathy was cool, but having it used on you was creepy, not to mention downright embarrassing! The thoughts of that Washi-character were downright hedonistic, and the others weren't all that chaste either. The only ones that she even remotely could stand were Hato and Tsubame; they seemed more interested in romantic fluff than "getting it on", as Washi-san had so politely put it. They reminded her of inexperienced schoolgirls more than anything else. That Tsuru guy was nothing but doom and gloom.
Every time he spoke, she felt like someone was sharpening the executioner's axe. She had to suppress shivers just thinking about him. Then, of course, there was that other guy… Yoshitsune. Cute as hell, with a body to die for, and eyes that made her knees swim, but as stoic and grumpy as they got.
All in all, things seemed manageable enough… that was, until she had started remembering her past life. There had been so many images, and feelings, and losses. Her head still felt like Swiss cheese, and the migraine that she was fighting wasn't helping things either. Her heart ached at all the faces that flittered in and out of focus, remembered one moment and then forgotten the next. Everything was experienced in a haze, and she was having trouble sorting out the tangled warren that her mind had become.
She remembered a face that was and was not hers, she remembered discovering Ranma's note and feeling a deep loss, and she remembered hating that two-timing rat Aramas! Dumping her for that Senshi hussy, Isis! Of all the nerve! Now if only she could remember who the hell Isis was, she might be able to get some dirt on her!
Nabiki groaned and rolled over onto her side. Everything was topsy-turvy for her, and no one was there to help get her through it. To make matters worse, her nose felt stopped up and she was burning up inside.
In spite of her cavalier attitude, this little adventure had pushed her to her proverbial limits. Normally she would have been very aloof, keeping her distance and remaining objective while the world did its best to pummel Ranma. But it wasn't Ranma that was getting pummeled this time around. Due to her current position as number one — and only, so far as she knew — fiancée, she wasn't sure that she was going to be able to be on the sidelines any more
Nabiki wasn't all that sure that she wanted to, either.
Her head throbbed and she groaned, clutching something to her chest for comfort. It was warm and shaggy, just like her old teddy bear.
She imagined the lumpiness of his body and the comfort he would give her when she was sick. He had that one eye missing, and then there was the chocolate milk stain that Akane had spilled on him when she was six. You couldn't really tell, since his fur was brown, but she knew where to look.
From somewhere beyond her, she heard something. It was mumbled at first, but seemed to grow more distinct with each passing moment.
She squirmed, and hugged the warm, lumpy, shaggy thing closer for comfort. When it tried to wiggle free, she frowned and clutched it tighter.
That was odd, it sounded like Kasumi.
But why was Kasumi visiting Mother's grove?
Nabiki started to work through that puzzle when a ghostly memory of her older sister riding a dragon distracted her. Since when had Kasumi started hanging out with dragons? Didn't she know that they were really stuck up?
She'd have to have a talk with her big sister later and warn her. The last thing that Kasumi needed right now was that type of reputation. The image of Kasumi frolicking with a dragon wasn't proper at all.
Now, the image of Nabiki dating Yoshitsune… that wasn't such a bad thing. She grinned and wondered if Ranma wouldn't mind sharing her.
"Nabiki! Stop that this instant!" Kasumi's stern voice finally roused her sister from the depths of her dream.
Kasumi tugged at the poor young man still clutched to Nabiki's bosom and was amazed at how strong her little sister had become. The young woman behind her snickered, and somehow, yet another improper image of Nabiki, Ranma, and poor Mr. Yoshitsune doing something that they really shouldn't have been doing drifted into the forefront of her mind.
She pushed that one aside, but the scene that followed was even worse. Somehow she knew that the images were coming from Nabiki; the physical changes in her sister seemed to herald a plethora of surprises yet to come. Yet another self-indulgent image fluttered to the fore, and the girls that had greeted her at Nabiki's door squealed with scandalous glee.
Poor Kasumi couldn't take it any more.
"Nabiki! Stop that this instant!"
"Kasumi?" Nabiki groggily opened her eyes and licked her pouty lips, but made no move to let go of her captive.
The eldest Tendo shook her head, and finally let go of Yoshitsune's arm. It was a lost cause. She couldn't free him. First Ranma disappeared, then Nabiki…. Now Nabiki returns home (quite different than when she left, mind you) and in the company of lewd strangers, no less.
Grandfather Happosai she could tolerate because the little troll was impossible to be rid of; but these people she did not know, and their behavior was anything but proper! Why, this Washi-san alone made her want to bar the entire group from the house!
"Kasumi, what are you doing here?" Nabiki yawned, but did not let go of her captive.
"Nabiki! I live here!" Kasumi said in exasperation. "Now, if you would please release Yoshitsune-san, I would really like an explanation." The poor man made a muffled response that went unnoticed.
"Where am I?" The question was definitely out of character for Nabiki, especially since Kasumi had already answered it.
"You're home, Nabiki." Kasumi couldn't keep the concern out of her voice. "You arrived early this morning with your… guests." The eldest Tendo had never before witnessed the miracle of Nabiki coming fully awake in such a short period of time. But the young woman still refused to release her hold on her captive.
Poor Yoshitsune-san was bent nearly in half as Nabiki sat upright. The suffering man had every right to groan, in Kasumi's opinion. To think that her little sister was treating a guest in such a scandalous and insensitive manner! He had been the only polite one in the bunch, going so far as to try and wake Nabiki up for a rather stunned Kasumi.
The groan must have somehow pushed through Nabiki's disorientation. Kasumi watched her gaze slowly fall, to where she had poor Yoshitsune-san's face pressed firmly between her breasts. Kasumi watched the interplay with some baited curiosity, but was surprised that the man's eyes narrowed. Well, he was either gay, or very skittish… like Ranma.
"You were projecting," he mumbled clearly enough for everyone in the room to hear, and Nabiki's face drained of color.
The one that had introduced herself as Hato-chan tried very hard not to snicker, but failed miserably. Her friend, Tsubame, had a very distant, shocked expression plastered on her flushed face. From somewhere in the house, Kasumi heard Washi-san laughing and banging his fist against something wooden, the floor or table perhaps. She hoped that nothing got broken; she had her eye on a nice dress for her next date with Tofu-chan.
Nabiki blinked twice, then looked from Kasumi to the man in her arms.
"Do you mind?" His voice was muffled in the soft silk of Nabiki's green pajama top.
Washi's laughter howled, and poor Tsubame-san seemed to be breathing rather hard, while fanning herself with one of Nabiki's many notebooks. Hato-chan's own laughter broke free of its dam and filled the room; although Kasumi couldn't see what the joke was. The whole situation was totally improper! Ranma might have gotten away with it, but he was a man. Men were expected to do such things. Women were supposed to have more restraint… or at the very least, be more discrete about it.
It was past time that Kasumi said something about Nabiki's behavior. She'd kept quiet for so long, but it was just the two of them now. And if poor Ranma found out! She didn't want to think about what this would do to him.
"Really, Nabiki! I don't think it's fair of you to play with such a nice young man's feelings like this." Hato-chan's laughter drifted to a halt, and Tsubame turned her head towards Kasumi blankly. "Here you are engaged to Ranma, and leading this young man on! I am very disappointed. Ranma will be crushed!"
Nabiki looked down into the young man's blushing face. There was a shared moment between the two before Yoshitsune went flying across the room, to crash into the wall.
"You're engaged to Aramas Drumheller?!" Hato-chan looked pole-axed. The brunette's long hair seemed to 'toing' out in every direction, revealing a set of pointed, elfin ears.
"Oh, how fickle the Huntress is!" Tsubame lamented. The multitude of her silky blonde braids swished backs and forth as she shook her head in disappointment.
Yoshitsune groaned from where he had slumped, his poor body little more than a heap of stunned flesh. Nabiki sprang to her feet and grabbed Kasumi's shoulders.
"It's not what it looks like! Really!" Her eyes were huge with panic.
Kasumi shook her head. "Really, Nabiki, just because Ranma had a harem doesn't mean that you should too." She frowned ever so slightly. "You're all that he has left now."
Nabiki was about to protest further, when she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror. Long tapered ears, the kind that the elves from "Record of Lodoss War" had, climbed out from underneath her… long… hair?
She blinked and fingered them.
Kasumi sighed and shook her head, then gathered the laundry that she had come for. With one last look over her shoulder, she sighed and left.
Tsubame continued to lament the indecisive heart of her idol.
Hato-chan kept shaking her head, mumbling something about "…never thought she'd actually catch him…." before sitting down… on top of Yoshitsune. Yoshitsune groaned. And downstairs, Washi continued to laugh.
The house seemed more alive than it had since Akane's death — moreso when Nabiki's window-shattering scream woke the rest of the neighborhood.
He floated in a black morass, drifting aimlessly from one jumbled set of memories to another. Each scene was his, and yet not. He remembered everything associated with the experiences, but knew that he hadn't lived them.
At least, not in this life.
Those words echoed in his mind as he fought to make sense of what he saw around him. Images and scenes that were familiar — and yet entirely foreign at the same time — flashed before him, settling into something more solid, for a lack of a better term. He was back at the Tendos, sitting on the roof looking out at an ocean sunset.
Since when did the Tendos own a beachhouse? The thought evaporated like so much fog, as he felt someone shift in his arms. That was odd. He'd never let anyone get this close to him. It was too "mushy" for a tough guy like him.
It wasn't like the closeness of the feminine body next to him made Ranma nervous or anything. He never got nervous — except where cats were concerned, of course. Ranma looked down, and was pleasantly surprised to see a head of blue-black hair nestled against his chest.
"How long will you be away?" A quiet voice asked.
"Not long. Two days at most."
He couldn't connect the tone and pitch of that soft whisper to a face, but an image of a vast library filled his mind's eye. He remembered shelves; towering, thirty-foot shelves that dominated the vision, and were topped by a second level of stacks that rose another thirty feet in the air. A part of his mind named the place as his mother's library. And in an isolated corner next to a window, a young woman with short dark hair was curled up on a bench, reading in the golden light of the afternoon.
But Nodoka had never owned anything like this. Ever. The young woman looked up and he could almost make out her smile. A smile that he would die for a thousand times over.
She was always so cute when she smiled.
The image faded and was replaced by a dojo, a mad conglomeration of marble pillars and the humble mats of the Tendo training hall. Somewhere behind him, the soft shuffling of feet played across the room, punctuated every so often by the sharp rustling of cloth or a powerful kiai.
He loved the feel of the place. There was something about the sweat-stained wood floor and the vaulting marble arches that whispered "perfection" into his soul. The smell of activity was heavy in the air, causing Ranma to want to move. The call was so great, that he buckled and began flowing through a complex kata that he had never before practiced, but remembered performing a thousand times. A flurry of punches flowed into a majestic reversed crescent kick. Each move was performed with a perfection that he had only dreamed of.
A dream. That's what this is, his mind rationalized. Yet the familiarity of the images couldn't be denied. He continued to move unconsciously, flowing from one powerful form to another, knowing without a doubt that he had never learned the moves from Genma.
Confusion tugged at him as he executed a complex aerial kick combo, and rolled midway through the maneuver into a blazing set of punches that made his Amaguriken technique look slow and weak. Power roared through his limbs, and he could hear the Song of the Earth coursing through his veins.
It was beautiful.
A new form grew from the old when Ranma noticed that the room had become filled with mirrors. Hundreds of reflections stared back at him as he moved through the kata. Many looked like him, but he knew that on some fundamental level they were different. That one had a scar on his chin. This one wore glasses and carried a stack of books. Those two had a positively evil look about them, while the guy to his right wore a black uniform with some military insignia stitched in silver thread at the throat of his jacket. They were all Ranma… but not.
"What the hell's goin' on here?"
His kata slowed to a halt as more and more mirrors made themselves known. They seemed to go on forever, giving Ranma a glimpse into what might have been… or perhaps what truly was. A mist rose from the floor, carpeting everything within the scope of his vision, in a white fog from the knees down. The reflections stared back at him, watching him mutely as he struggled to make sense of all the images. Their collective gaze unnerved the young martial artist.
"Answer me, damn it! What do you want from me?"
"I want you to remember."
Ranma turned at the sound of his own voice, to gape at the black-uniformed Ranma as he stepped from a mirror.
"I want you to remember who you really are." The black-clad figure wore a tired but mischievous smile as he circled his twin. Ranma slid easily into a loose defensive stance, ready to take whatever this shadow had to offer.
"Oh, please, Ranma!" the black-clothed figure groused. "Don't be an idiot! I'm you. Do you really expect to fight yourself?"
"You ain't me, man! I'm me!" Ranma growled, hoping that he had said that right. There was nothing worse than looking like a fool in front of an opponent.
The other figure halted directly in front of his twin, and shook his head in mild annoyance.
"By Saturn's rings! You really like to make things difficult on yourself, don't you?" Ranma shrugged in a very noncommittal fashion. "Fine. Whatever," the other said with a wave of his hand. "If you want to make this harder on yourself, I'm game. Just know that it could have been a whole lot easier."
Ranma wisely kept his mouth shut, waiting for the other to continue. "I'm Aramas Drumheller, First Lieutenant of the Queen's Royal Guard and Knight Protector of the Crown Princess Serenity." Ranma's eyes widened with recognition as memories started to flood his mind.
"Who the hell are you?" His trembling finger stabbed at Aramas' broad chest.
"I just told you," Aramas sighed, exasperated.
"That's not what I meant, damn it!"
"Then…" Aramas rolled his eyes in longsuffering. "…might I suggest that you say exactly what you mean? It will save you considerable grief from the opposite sex. Besides, I don't like the reputation that you're giving us."
The young martial artist shook his head in denial. This was starting to get on his nerves. "Would you cut that out?!"
"What?" his black-clothed twin asked with a smirk.
"All this 'you-being-me-being-you' crap!" Ranma had to pause a moment to be sure that everything had come out correctly. He hated conversations like this. They were so confusing.
"You should listen to him, you know." Ranma's body stiffened at the sound of that beautiful voice.
"…Akane?" He turned towards the sound; pain and longing to hold her filled him. She rose from the mist, clad in a white gown that shimmered in the half-light. He never understood how he could have called her uncute.
"You really should hear him out, Ranma." Another familiar voice filled his heart, sending conflicting emotions surging through him. He couldn't describe the peace and joy that he felt at hearing the new voice. It was like being reunited with Akane, only more intense.
If that was even possible.
He turned, unsure of what sight would greet him, to see another woman rise from the mist. She wore a gauzy white dress that glowed like gossamer around her. Her hair was short, crowned with a band of gold that was fashioned to resemble a hooded cobra. She had black kohl lining her eyes, and some type of blue lipstick painted on her lips, making her look beautifully exotic.
The two could have been sisters for the resemblance that they shared.
And he knew her. He couldn't say how, but he did. It was one of them déjà vu thingies that Akane used to talk about all the time.
"Who are you?" He was disappointed to see those beautiful lips turn down in a frown. It felt terribly wrong to see her unhappy.
"I am Isis. Dearest heart, tell me that you haven't forgotten!"
He started to protest, but checked himself. This whole scenario felt very uncomfortable, as if the act of even looking at this beautiful woman was a sin. He tried to look away, to find Akane again, but everywhere that he looked, Isis was there, walking towards him. He tried not to feel anything, but something in his heart would not be denied.
She came up to him, moving behind him slowly, and gently wrapped her arms around his waist. It felt so familiar, so real, that he could almost smell her jasmine perfume. How did he know that she wore jasmine perfume? Her hands snaked up his chest to rest perfectly over his heart.
"You haven't forgotten me, have you, Beloved?" she whispered playfully in Ranma's ear.
"Isis," he repeated. Images started to surface around him, something about a library and sitting by a window…. The feeling of peaceful moments passing filled him. Isis smiled happily and rested her chin on his shoulder; and watched Akane from afar as the young woman mimicked her action with Aramas.
Ranma's eyes slowly opened, and he flinched at the perceived betrayal, and his own roaring guilt.
"I've never seen you smile like that, Ranma," Akane said from where she held Ranma's twin.
"It's too soon for this," Aramas warned, dejectedly shaking his head. "He's not ready…."
"Don't worry." Isis nuzzled Ranma's neck in a familiar way. Memories of Isis cuddling up to him… no, that other him, Aramas, in the same manner, flittered through his head like a swarm of bees. "He will."
The martial artist shrugged free of the woman's arms and backed away from the group, keeping them all in his line of vision.
"Like HELL I will!" He challenged the group. He turned on Aramas violently. "Quit mucking with my head!"
Aramas tossed his hands, and shot an "I-told-you-so" look in Isis' direction. Isis, for her part, simply crossed her arms in a way that Ranma remembered meant big trouble for him… er… Aramas.
Damn, this was messed up! He sought out Akane, to see her mirroring Isis perfectly. She shook her head in disappointment. Her eyes were filled with a mixture of worry and impatience; and he thought that he heard her mumble something… 'baka'. As she faded into a sudden brightness that enveloped everyone, including him. Ranma reached out for her longingly.
Indra materialized in the shadows of a deep cavern. All about him, his brethren and sisters, his legion, waited. Ur had given him fine warriors, and with good reason; they faced the Phoenix Lord, the Immortal King. If half of them survived, Indra would consider them lucky. He had faced Saffron before, and had nearly been killed in the battle. Those that had gone with him hadn't returned.
But that was a long time ago, and Indra was no longer the pup that he had been.
"Savitri, Surya…." Two horse-headed Rhakshasa stood from the group, one white and one gray.
"Ansa, Aryman, Bhaga." More creatures stood and walked forward. "Take your troops and work your way up from the bottom. Purge everything." The creatures nodded and melted into the shadows. "Daksha, Varuna, Ravi. You will attack the vaults. Do not tarry. The Dread Lord requires the artifacts." The second group nodded and vanished.
"Dhatri, Mitra…." Indra trailed off, searching for the last of his brothers. His eyes narrowed, and a low, angry growl escaped his throat. He looked to Mitra, his snake-headed brother, and snarled.
"Where is Yama?"
"Already on the hunt." Mitra's voice held a duality that even most Rhakshasa found disconcerting, as if two souls were speaking as one. "He tired of waiting for your return." There was no challenge in Mitra's voice, just simple fact. The snake-headed beast felt that lies and challenges were for weaker minds. Why lie, when the truth hurt more? Why challenge, when you could just as easily manipulate?
Indra wondered if his brother had set Yama up to this. Either way, it was a winning scenario for Mitra; if Yama found Saffron first, he would be killed — of that there was no doubt — but if somehow Indra found Yama first… Well, the ensuing battle between siblings would leave two holes in the ranks, leaving Mitra fewer steps between himself and leadership of the Adityas.
"Gather your troops. We hunt the Immortal King."
Indra idly wondered, as he and his faction melted into the shadows, if there might be a way to turn Mitra's machinations in on the snake-headed Rhakshasa in the coming battle. It would be one less front that Indra had to fight, and a consolidation of power as well.
Accidents were known to happen. Something would need to be arranged.
Nodoka sighed as she stepped through the door to her home. Ranma came in quietly behind her, setting their packages down distractedly. The entire day had been spent replacing old clothes and getting Ranma other necessities that he would need for school. They had stopped by and had him fitted for a uniform, much to his dismay. She had to admit that he endured the poking and prodding stoically, and had only blushed once when the woman measured his inseam. They had passed by Juuban High school and inquired after transferring him from Furinkan. The counselor had smiled knowingly, and simply scheduled a placement test for Ranma.
Ranma held no illusions that academics were his weakness, and the whole idea of having to take a test to see if you belonged in school unnerved him. Nothing like this had happened at Furinkan — not that this surprised mother and son; both knew that Principal Kuno had some rather unorthodox teaching methods. The counselor knew this too, and had graciously given Ranma an outline of what he would be tested on as well as some study material to help him prepare. Apparently, the counselor had been through this situation before.
Nodoka's son seemed relieved, and had worn a determined look all the way to their next stop. It was here that Nodoka started to truly notice her son's distraction. He had become so distant that she had bought two skirts and four sets of girl's underwear for his "other half" without him even realizing it. He had even picked out the colors! Nodoka was glad that Yuriko was coming over. She needed a better understanding of what she should expect from Ranma in the days ahead.
"I'm going to get dinner started, Ranma."
Ranma seemed to jerk out of his thoughts. "Oh… Uh, need any help?"
Nodoka reached up and felt his forehead. "Are you feeling all right? You're not coming down with anything, are you?"
Ranma smiled softly and set her hands aside. "Just thinkin', mom. That's all."
"Care to share?" she asked hopefully. The look on his face seemed perplexed, and she could tell that he really wanted to open up.
"Well… I guess. You won't laugh or think I'm weird, will you?"
Nodoka frowned and crossed her arms under her breasts. "Ranma, I am your mother. Mothers do not think their sons are weird."
"Even when they turn into girls?"
Nodoka chuckled. "How can I, when I have the best of both worlds?" She saw Ranma's face look skeptical. "Son or daughter, it is the same. You are my child. I gave birth to you. I changed your diapers and fed you." Nodoka seemed to lose herself for a moment in her memories, and so didn't notice the guilt building behind Ranma's eyes.
"You are a part of me, Ranma." she said at last. "A part of my soul." She grasped her son's hand and held it tight. "How could I ever make fun of the best part of my own soul?"
Ranma seemed taken back by this. How did you react to something like that? You couldn't.
So he didn't. He simply smiled and nodded.
"Well, I had this really weird dream…." He told her everything, from the weird mirror thing down to the whole confrontation between Akane and Isis. He described in detail the conversations, and the imagery, all the while helping her prepare the meal. And for Nodoka's part, and to her credit, she didn't laugh once. Nor did she think of her son as weird.
And for that Ranma was glad.
"What do you think?" he finally asked. He had never talked so much about personal stuff like this before. Not to his father, or Akane, or even Kasumi. It was nice to be able to be able to open up without being interrupted or scoffed at.
His mother was silent for a very long time before she set her stirring spoon down. She had a ponderous expression on her face, and Ranma was happy that she was taking this so seriously.
"I don't know what to think about this Aramas person. I'm not used to interpreting dreams," she said honestly. "But…." She trailed off ponderously, crossing her arms beneath her breasts.
"What?" Ranma encouraged.
"If I tell you something, Ranma," she began, "will you promise to listen to everything I have to say, even if it is upsetting?"
Ranma wasn't sure he liked the sound of that, but he nodded anyway.
"While you were gone with your father, my mother came to me." She picked up her spoon and began stirring something in a bowl again. "It had been three years since your father had last written, and I was terribly depressed. I thought that you were both dead, and so I called my mother and asked her advice."
Ranma felt his heart ache for the loneliness that he heard in her voice. He wanted her to stop, not to say anything more, but he forced himself to listen anyway. He had caused this pain, at least partially. He owed it to his mother to listen.
"Your grandmother was a beautiful and wise woman. I think that you would have liked her very much."
Ranma had no trouble believing that in the least.
"She came to me on your eleventh birthday, to help me through the… the…." Ranma cringed, trying to keep the pain hidden, and failing. He was going to pound Genma flat the next time he saw him. He was going to make the fat old bloat feel every heartache and every lonely night that his mother had endured.
Nodoka sighed, and continued, "You have to understand how difficult it was for me then. It had been almost six years since he had taken you, and in that time I had never once lost hope of you returning. Then a young girl at the orphanage, who had recently lost her own parents, asked me if she could come home to live with me."
Ranma looked up in surprise. "What did you do?"
Nodoka smiled sadly at her son.
"I came home and cried." Shame crashed down on Ranma like a mallet, flattening his spirit and self-worth. Nodoka seemed to realize this and set her spoon aside. She walked the five paces over to her son and wrapped her arms around him.
"I want you to understand something before I continue." He couldn't look her in the eye, so she gently took his face in her hands and forced him to gaze upon her. "I do not blame you. Not in the least, so don't think that my telling you this is to make you feel guilty. I blame your father's pride, and my own stupidity, for what happened. Do you understand?"
The shame didn't fade completely, but Ranma nodded his head silently.
"Good. Now then, this young girl. I called her Ayame-chan. This pretty young girl asked to be my daughter — she gave me the opportunity to fill the void in both of our hearts. But I couldn't take her."
"Why not? It sounds like you liked the kid a lot."
Nodoka sighed and returned to her stirring. "I loved her, Ranma. She was such a sweet child, but she could never replace you." Nodoka hid her face for a moment, pretending to read a recipe. "Mother said that I should go ahead and adopt her, that you weren't coming back, and that it was past time to bury the dead."
Ranma winced yet again.
"I threw her out and told her never to come back." Ranma nearly dropped the plate of fish he had been holding.
"I couldn't accept it, Ranma. I couldn't accept that you and your father might have been killed." She ran the back of her hand over her eyes, but didn't stop stirring her pot.
After a moment of silence, Ranma gathered the courage to ask the next question. "Whatever happened to her?"
Ranma's mother sniffled, then turned to him. "Who? Your Grandmother, or Ayame-chan?"
He shrugged. "Both, I guess."
"Your Grandmother, bless her, came back the very next day… and the next… and the next. Her advice never changed, nor did she relent. She said…" Nodoka puffed herself up and pushed her chin down to touch her chest. When she spoke again, it was with a very authoritative voice. "'…The dead are meant to be buried, and the living are meant to live. Live No-chan. Live!'."
Nodoka shrugged, and Ranma looked uncomfortable.
"I went to the director of the orphanage after two weeks of agonizing debate, and was told that Ayame-chan had been placed in a home." Nodoka smirked. "She had a temper, that one, and apparently had broken one too many noses." There was a wistful, dreamy look in her eyes as she remembered the little girl.
When she returned her gaze to Ranma, he looked more distracted than before. She took the plate from him and set it down; then she picked up his hands in hers and drew him to sit at the kitchen table.
"Your grandmother was right, Ranma. I should have adopted that little girl. If I had, then you would have had a sister. If I had, I wouldn't have been so very lonely all those years. The fact remains that I didn't, and I suffered for it."
The guilt returned a hundredfold to his eyes.
She patted his hands and smiled.
"I chose to suffer, Ranma. But that doesn't mean that you must follow in my footsteps. Perhaps Akane's spirit is trying to tell you something?" Ranma nodded his head quietly, but the stern, defiant look in his eyes told Nodoka that this battle was far from won. She smiled warmly and kissed her son's forehead before standing again.
"The dead are meant to be buried, and the living are meant to live. Live Ranma. Live!"
Nodoka couldn't tell if she had gotten through or not, but she did at least expect the seed to be planted. She let him digest it all for a moment, before returning to making dinner. Their guests would be here soon, and she hoped that they could have everything ready to go before then.
Ranma simply sat at the table, staring off into space, pondering his mother's words.
"Are you sure this is okay, Mizuno-sensei?" Usagi couldn't believe her luck! Not only was she going to get the chance to try and fix Ami up with a cute boy, but Ami's mom had all but begged her to come, going so far as to promise to take Usagi out for ice cream afterwards!
But after last time, Mizuno-sensei had vowed never to do that again!
"Usagi-chan, I wish that you would call me Yuriko." Ami's mother smiled at the blonde. "You make me feel so old when you call me 'Mizuno-sensei'. Besides we have a deal. You keep Ami company tonight and help her make this boy feel comfortable here, and I buy the ice cream."
Ami groaned and tried not think about her mother bribing one of her best friends.
"Who can withstand that kind of invitation?" Makoto said from her position on Usagi's left.
Make that two of her best friends.
"Not me!" Usagi crowed, and everyone laughed — everyone, that was, except Ami. She simply walked stiffly in the long indigo skirt, and clutched the small "thank you" gift that her mother had insisted that she buy for Ranma to her chest. The long-sleeved white blouse was very flattering, and made the skirt seem darker than it was. Usagi and Makoto couldn't stop talking about how beautiful she looked, and how she was going to knock Ranma's socks off when he saw her.
For some reason, Ami didn't know if that was a good thing or not. She certainly couldn't stop thinking about the dashing young man, which was disconcerting. It was just as she had predicted: boys were a distraction that she didn't need in her life right now.
If this was indeed the same Ranma that had helped them yesterday, then maybe she could somehow get him interested in Makoto. The thought wasn't very appealing, but Ami had to be logical about this whole mess. She had a future to think about. Yes, that would definitely be for the best. Becoming a doctor far outweighed being lavished with more of a handsome, well-built young man's attention. She certainly could do without looking into those soulful blue-gray eyes, or being subject to his… electric… touches….
Ami sighed and lost herself in the memory of Ranma's gentle touch.
Makoto waved a hand in front of her friend's face and shook her head. Usagi giggled and Yuriko smiled triumphantly. Things were going perfectly, and she hadn't even stepped in yet! This was great!
"You know, I would have come just see if this boy is as cute as Usagi claims." From the look in Makoto's eyes, Yuriko suddenly felt a little worried.
Kiima flew through the warrens of Mount Phoenix surrounded by five of her most powerful guards. The Aerie of Hephumet had become a bloodbath, and most of the other avenues of escape had been collapsed in their harried flight from the upper levels. The mountain was already falling apart from the inside, and if she didn't get away soon, the young child in her arms wouldn't grow to revenge himself on the devils that had all but slaughtered their people.
Young Saffron had aged three human years since the Saotome boy had left, which not only surprised the people of Phoenix Mountain, but also bolstered their faith in the God-King. It was as if Lord Saffron hungered for another battle with Ranma Saotome, to revenge himself on the human.
Kiima wondered silently if her Lord had not foreseen the disaster that was now befalling his people, and in a desperate attempt to save them tried to regain what he had foolishly lost. Whichever the case, Saffron had been the one to save her little band each time they ran across the Rhakshasa. Thrice had the demons cornered them, and thrice had the flames of life burned their attackers to cinders. And with every kill, Saffron seemed to age a little more.
The thought of the Devourers loose again in the world terrified her. The legends had spoken of their banishment long ago, and the memory of the carnage that they left in their wake seemed very real now that she had seen the beasts with her own eyes.
She had to get her Lord away from here. Saffron would continue to grow in power and he would seal these monsters back in the shadows from whence they came.
Kiima looked down at the child in her arms, and noted the intense look on his cherubic face. She would never get used to the adult voice coming from the boy's body.
She complied instantly, with the guard forming up around her in a tight circle.
"Lift me onto your shoulders."
"Yes, Lord." She complied with his wish without question. A cold, sick feeling fell over her; a sensation that left her feeling unclean, as if she hadn't bathed in years.
"I am glad to see you again, Saffron," a hideous voice slithered from the shadows, echoing madly and reeking of evil and violence. Fear gripped her heart as a hundred pairs of shining, green eyes lit up the shadows around them. "It is good that you remember me, Lord Phoenix. Can you remember what I did the last time I was free?"
The toddler-king made no response; he simply stared into some distant place and wreathed his small group in a protective dome of flames. The light from the god-king's fire illuminated a number of grotesque parodies — monstrosities that mocked life. There was a collective hiss from the shadows, and the darkness recoiled a bit.
"I see that you do." The smugness in the voice angered Kiima to the point of action, but Saffron's hand on her cheek halted her. "A pity that you are not at your full strength. It would have been a monumental battle."
The warriors surrounding Saffron and his seneschal raised their blades in a protective ring of steel. The men and women knew that their lives were forfeit, yet they prepared themselves to sell their lives regardless.
"You are a fool, Indra." Kiima couldn't believe the age that had suddenly entered her monarch's voice. "Twice the fool that Yama has been today."
"Am I, now? There is no Serenity to save you this time." The unspoken promises that hid in the unseen thing's words, combined with one hundred laughing voices, leeched the hope from Kiima's limbs. If she had not had Saffron with her, she would have crumpled to the floor in despair.
"You are mistaken, beast." Saffron smiled viciously into the shadows and increased the diameter of his flaming circle by another two feet. "The Moon Kingdom yet lives, as does its Queen. The Ginzuishou has sung many times in the past year." The young king closed his eyes and the flames changed color, from red and orange to a whitish blue.
The Rhakshasa hissed and retreated further.
"I will have your head for a trophy, Saffron!" The shadows boiled, vomiting forth their hideously misshapen bodies. Saffron didn't notice. His eyes had turned south and east of his mountain home, and a small grin deepened his smile even more.
"Not today, I should think. No, Indra, definitely not today." The world went white and from deep within the granite of the mountain's heart, a phoenix cried out in rapturous joy…
Right before the mountain itself exploded.
"WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO ME?!"
All across Nerima, people celebrated and cringed as a very familiar sound returned to the neighborhood. Many wondered if Ranma had finally put Akane's death behind him. There were ten-to-one odds that Nabiki would actually be able to bring some sense of normalcy back to the ghost town that Nerima had become.
Having seen the level of depression that hung over poor Ranma, many of the shopowners put down serious money against the prospect of "insanity ever returning to the streets of Nerima".
They cursed themselves for not being more specific with the bet.
"YOU TURNED ME INTO A #^%^#& ELF! HOW DOES THAT QUALIFY AS NOTHING?"
"What's wrong with being an elf? I happen to know a lot of really nice elves."
It was an innocent question, spoken from a sweet, and innocent voice. The explosion that followed really didn't seem all that necessary at all. But then again, none of the neighbors could see just how much Nabiki had changed.
Hato-chan hid behind Washi, who was simply drinking sake straight from the bottle. Nabiki and Tsubame-chan were running around the yard in a fair imitation of Ranma and Akane from long ago. Soun hid behind his newspaper, and Genma hid with him; both where doing their best to ignore the small craters that Nabiki kept making.
Neither man knew where she was getting the lightning, but it was truly frightening. They couldn't keep their eyes off of Yoshitsune's smoking body, which was crumpled and twitching in the corner.
"How long has she been at this now?" Hato-chan whispered.
Washi looked at the little clock on the VCR and took another swig. "Eight, nine hours, maybe?"
"She has stamina." Hato-chan shook her head and tiptoed toward the kitchen. Had she seen the leering grin on Washi's chubby face, she would have been running.
"Yeah… Makes you wonder, don't it?" Washi started to daydream, not bothering to shield his thoughts from everyone in the house. Soun's paper was slowly shredded. Genma ran to the bathroom, followed closely by Kasumi, Hato-chan, and Tsubame. Yoshitsune thankfully, was totally oblivious.
Had Washi not been so drunk, he might have noticed the dark shadow slowly creeping up from behind him. Had he not been so sloshed, he might have felt the burning cold that seemed to appear out of nowhere.
Soun fearfully crept away from the table and hid himself in the kitchen.
Nabiki stalked away from the comatose form of Washi, growling very much like a grizzly bear. What the hell was he thinking? Did he think that she wouldn't hear him with these ears? Or that she wouldn't pick up on his lewd thoughts? A trail of foul swearing followed the young woman as she made her way up to her room. She didn't even realize that she was cursing in the language of the Fey.
One thing all of the Clan would agree on: their Huntress had returned. With a vengeance.
Near Phoenix Mountain:
Ryouga and Mousse ran for their fool lives.
Not for the first, nor the last time, Mousse wondered how they had gotten to China without crossing a major body of water. They had been going to the Tendo dojo to say their farewells to Ranma before going their separate ways.
Mousse had the misfortune of walking into a telephone pole and breaking his last pair of glasses. But his true folly had been to ask Ryouga to help him find his way to the dojo from there.
They had been traveling for more than a month through a thick wilderness that had been both icy cold and unbearably hot. And not once in all that time, had Mousse found another pair of glasses….
He often wondered which of his ancestors had cursed him so.
"I thought you said that we were going to be safe!" Ryouga's angry voice floated back to him. "'Amazons!' you said! 'We can go to Joketsuzoku', you said!" The rope that was tied to Mousse's wrist gave a sharp tug as it snagged on a tree branch.
"Hey! How was I supposed to know that they were running away from the village?" Something very blunt impacted his head very hard.
"We no run, stupid Mans! We on too, too secret mission for Elder Cologne!" Mousse groaned, not from the blow to his head, but from the ache to his pride. Out of all the Amazons that he could have been stuck with, why did it have to be Phau Set?
She had been one of the many girls growing up that he had spurned in his pursuit of Shampoo, and she was dedicated to making his life miserable for it.
"'Hell hath no fury….'" he mumbled.
"Shut up, you!" Phau Set's older sister, Xi Fu, had a better handle on languages, but no personality to back that gift up. She was pretty in her own way, but way too stuffy and traditional for his tastes.
At least she didn't hit him as much as Phau Set did.
"Because of you two, we never made it to the mountain on time!" Mousse could feel Ryouga bristle with outrage.
"So? You should be thanking us! We kept you alive from… whatever those things were, didn't we?"
Xi Fu snorted derisively, but held her tongue. She knew that Ryouga was right, but she didn't have to like it. Who cares if these two weakling (well, maybe not weakling) males had been lucky enough to defeat the Rhakshasa scout? Luck could carry you only so far before it dumped you flat on your face.
Truth to tell though, she was thankful. Especially after coming upon Phoenix Mountain. Mousse was, too. They had come over a rise five miles south of the mountain, only to watch it burn from the inside out. The stench had been terrible for Mousse; a blending of wood smoke and burnt flesh that laced the wind with a sickeningly sweet blend of decay and destruction.
A howl from behind him caused the group to double their pace. They had been running for two days now, and Mousse had insisted that Ryouga take point in the hopes that the Lost Boy would somehow lose their pursuers. Thus far, Ryouga had little or no luck in either endeavor. Par for the course in the lives of both misfits; the moment that they needed a break, they were dealt the worst possible luck.
A moment later, the blind martial artist ran into Ryouga's stationary back and was sent sprawling. "What are you doing?!" The crashing underbrush was the only warning that he received, as a black blur swept passed them. Pain bloomed across his back like some blossoming inferno.
He could feel the blood oozing down his back, mixing with the salty sweat and grime that coated his back. A scimitar leapt into his hands instinctively as he moved back to back with Ryouga. The Amazons entered the scene an instant later, weapons drawn.
"A good chase, Meat." Gods! The thing's voice was like oil creeping over dry leaves. "But every hunt has an end." He didn't know what would be worse, enduring the thing's voice, or being forced to look at it while it spoke. For once in his life, he was glad to have poor sight.
"No use running." Ryouga sounded detached and void of hope. Mousse almost smiled happily.
"I'm glad that you see this. The hunt is boring if the chase lasts too long."
Xi Fu's sweat-laden scent entered Mousse's nostrils, and a slight shift in the undergrowth told him that she was settling into a better position. Thankfully, the thing was in front of them and not behind. It made Ryouga's job easier.
"You killed all those people in the Amazon village…"
"As I will kill you." Mousse could hear the sneer in the thing's voice. Ryouga was growing more depressed.
"…and at Phoenix Mountain…"
"Yessssss." The monster's purr set the hairs on the back of his neck standing on end.
"So many dead… so many gone… just like Akane. Why am I so cursed?"
Mousse could see the glow surrounding Ryouga now, and it was steadily growing brighter by the second. From what he remembered of the technique, Mousse knew that he was probably going to get fried too.
How utterly fitting… a meaningless death, for a meaningless life. Had he been able to step outside of himself, Mousse would have been surprised. His body had taken on the same sickly green glow as Ryouga's.
"Why must people always die? Oh, Akane!"
The monster growled and launched itself at Ryouga. Mousse tensed, waiting for the blow to fall.
"SHI SHI HOKODAN!"
Somewhere near Nanking, China:
They had traveled far, and lost many, but a group of refugees from the fallen Musk and Amazon kingdoms finally found rest in a small village two days northeast of one of China's largest cities.
Shampoo and Herb sat in a dark room, guarding one of the last Matriarchs of the Amazons… and in truth, their only hope for survival. Herb sat in a chair that over looked the tiny cot that held the future of his once-mighty dynasty.
The small, weary body of Pepper slept soundly. He shook his head in wonder as he thought of the flight from Joketsuzoku. The boy had carried matriarch Cologne on his back for over twenty miles before finally passing out due to fatigue. Herb and his generals had lost many more of their straggling band before all was said and done, but midway through the night an eerie mist sprang up around the refugees.
Herb wasn't sure how long they had bumbled around in the mist, yet as the first light of the sun touched them, the exhausted army had found themselves on the outskirts of a small valley just north of the village they were in now.
How they had traveled so far in one night, Herb would never know; providence to be sure, but he was grateful all the same. It had saved the fifteen hundred men and women of the remaining Musk from extinction. He silently wondered how many of his people would be left to rebuild the kingdom when the enemy was defeated. He chanced a glance in Khu Lon's bed and his hope fell.
If they could be defeated.
Xian Pu caught his gaze in her own large, beautiful, eyes, pinning the young king to his chair. She was so beautiful, filled with the grace of a tiger and the undying fire of a phoenix. All that she had known had been destroyed, and yet she fought on. Either she was too stupid and stubborn to know when to quit, or her hope truly sprang eternal.
Since he knew her to be intelligent, it had to be the latter — or a combination of the two. He envied her.
"You should get some sleep," she said quietly. "We don't know how long we will be here."
"I'll be fine," he said nonchalantly, waving off her concern.
"Why must men always be so full of piss and wind?!" Shampoo snorted in derision. The Amazon maiden stood with her fists resting forcefully on her hips. "Take what you can, when you can, warrior! You'll never know when it's lost to you until long after it's gone!"
Somewhere in China… I think:
By the time Mousse's ears stopped ringing and he could open his eyes without a stabbing headache assaulting his brain, it was dark. It wasn't so much the lack of light that tipped him off; it was the voices of night creatures singing to each other. The odd way that the sounds echoed spoke of a shelter of some kind, which, by the musty dampness, meant they were in a cave or under an overhang of some sort.
A crackling nearby spoke of a campfire, but the abundant smell of woodsmoke that hung heavily in the air was far more than the small fire could produce. He moaned softly as he sat up, clutching his head against the throbbing that beset him.
"Lie down, Mousse." Phau Set's soft command set his teeth on edge. Why did all women find it within themselves to order a man about?
"I am tired of lying down." He propped himself up onto his elbows, desperately fighting off the vertigo that fell upon him.
He would have made it farther, had it not been for a strong, yet petite, hand impeding his progress. "Let me up." His voice was filled with impatient petulance. It was then that he noticed that he was only covered with a small blanket covering his waist. He blushed and narrowed his eyes dangerously. "Where are my clothes?"
"You're even more dense now than before you left the village," she said in exasperation, ignoring his demand and his question with equal fervor. "And worse company."
"Look, you!" he bristled, "I didn't ask for your repugnant company! So you can just go to…."
Phau Set shook her aching hand, and watched as Mousse stared back at her blankly. His eyes had this funny, glazed, look about them as the large welt slowly grew from the top of his head where she made contact.
"I've had worse, you know," he said calmly before passing into a dreamless slumber.
"He's grown stronger," the younger Amazon said fondly.
"And more insolent," her sister snapped from where she sat next to Ryouga. "We should leave them here and be on our way."
"After they saved us, Xi Fu?" Phau Set said incredulously. "Twice? I thought that you above all would honor a blood debt." Xi Fu grumbled darkly, but said nothing in return. She stabbed the coals of the fire more than stirred them, sending small showers of sparks heavenward with each strike.
"I helped carry this great oaf, didn't I?" she said defensively. "I could have left him… I should have; he weighs a ton!"
"If you say so." Phau Set didn't try to hide the smile that lit up her face in the soft firelight. Xi Fu grumbled more, and her stabbing increased vigorously.
The sisters sat in silence for a time, Phau Set cleaning Mousse's many wounds and Xi Fu trying her level best to ignore Ryouga's naked chest, but failing miserably.
They both had been amazed at the sheer devastation that Ryouga's attack had caused, and even more so that both men had survived with only a few bruises. Their clothing however, had been another story. Not that the two were complaining… really.
"So what are we going to do now?" Xi Fu demanded angrily.
"Wait for them to recover, I suppose. We can't risk carrying them again…" She swallowed, hard. "…Not if we want to live, at any rate."
Xi Fu removed the burning stick from the flames and stared at it harshly for a long time. "That's what I thought you'd say." She plunged the stick deep into the coals wrathfully, and then cuddled up next to Ryouga. With little reluctance at all, Phau Set observed. "You've got first watch. Wake me in four hours."
Ryouga snored loudly in his sleep and threw an arm over Xi Fu, causing the Amazon to squawk in protest and punch Ryouga in the small of his ribs. It felt like hitting stone, but the Lost Boy grunted and removed the offending appendage.
Phau Set couldn't help but giggle, earning a scathing look from her sister. "You find something amusing, sister?" The tone of her speech was measured, but sending off more menace than their mother's yelling ever had.
"No. No, no, no," she protested. "Not at all." The small smile, and the mirthful snort that escaped her lips gave away the lie.
"That's good," Xi Fu said sweetly. "Because you get to keep "Stony" here warm tomorrow night."
Phau Set's laughter was severed quite nicely, allowing Xi Fu to work herself into a more comfortable spot.
If the Outsider lived through this, she was going to make sure that he suffered for it. Ryouga snorted again and threw an arm over the Amazon, who growled fiercely under her breath.
No man had the right to do this to her… no matter how good it felt.
To be continued.
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