T E N
A Ranma 1/2 Fanfic
By R. E. (ranmaehotmail.com)
Illustrations by Irka (irkaciudad.com.ar)
CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE
"The Exodus"

Ranma!

Akane watched with hope in her heart as the formless black mass descended toward her, sinking like the night to swallow the faltering light overhead. She could not see her companion within the cloud but Ryujin's eyes could see hundreds of tiny, crackling sparks of energy that darted like lightning beneath the seemingly-benign surface.

A wave of cold hit her, a blast of frozen air that stung her eyes. She winced, squinting and raising her hands to cover them as her hair rippled violently in the gale. The cloud landed heavily upon the platform, flattening and spreading from the force of the impact.

A deep thud reverberated through the shaft. The platform itself gave way under the force of the collision, steel scraping against steel as the floor was pushed downwards. Akane wobbled, struggling to stay balanced as the vibrations shook her.

The elevator juddered to a halt with a loud thump, which echoed into absolute silence. The wind died down and Akane lowered her hands, her eyes widening as a shape began to emerge - a pillar of smoke, crowned with bright red fire. Taller and taller it grew, seeming to stretch the smoke until at last the blackness gave way, parting in two to allow Ranma's head and shoulders to emerge from beneath.

Ranma's eyes were closed, her head tilted forward, her pale skin glowing faintly in the darkness. The rich red light of the fire atop her head flickered across her face, deepening the shadows around her eyes. Akane gasped, realising that Ranma's hair was not on fire - Ranma's hair was fire. Thin burning strands dangled loosely across her cheeks, tiny tongues of flame dancing to and fro.

"Ranma," she whispered, her body trembling. "What ... what have you ...."

Suddenly, one of Ranma's eyes shot open, a bright red orb burning with a light that was both beautiful and terrible.

Even within the protective shelter of her robe, Akane felt her own body growing colder, heavier. Weariness was taking hold of her, slowing her breathing and weighing down her eyelids. She could feel her legs wobbling, buckling under the sudden weight of her own body. She tried to look away from that eye but she could not. Its stare was unrelenting, its power undeniable.

Still staring with one eye Ranma gave a thin smile, revealing sharpened fangs. They grazed her lip, loosing droplets of blood upon her pale chin. The liquid bubbled and evaporated within moments, swept away to join the smoke.

The cloud surrounding Ranma shifted, a small bump growing and parting as she raised her arm. The dark mass gave way and Akane gasped. What once had been Ranma's arm was now a twisted mass of flame, the scorched red flesh of her hand tipped not with fingers but with sharp black talons.

"Ranma," she whispered, horrified. Ranma's body stood before her, but it was not Ranma. This creature was a twisted caricature, a demon wearing her companion's face.

Gods, Akane thought desperately, clutching her hands to her temples. Is this ... Ryukyu? Is this what Ranma has suffered for nine hundred years?

Ryujin's voice cried within her, compelling her to run, to hide, to make good her escape before it was too late. Go, go! Run while you still can! You must not fight her!

No! she yelled back, clenching her fists in anger. I'm not afraid. I'm not going to abandon Ranma!

Ryujin's voice rose to a scream, a wordless cry of anguish and despair. The dragon within her truly feared Ryukyu, and as Ryujin's fear rose, her own rose in turn. She gritted her teeth and fought back the fear, pushing it aside with her own determination.

"I don't know if you can hear me, Ranma," she called out to the demon before her, "but I'm coming to get you."

Silence.

The veil of darkness was slowly lifted from Nine's mind. He did not remember passing out, and yet he could not remember anything else either. He tried to move. Save for a tingling sensation in his feet and a dull ache in his lungs, his body was completely numb. Leaden weight held his eyes closed.

He snorted, taking a deep breath as the weight of unconsciousness began to lessen. Frozen air filled his throat and the ache in his lungs intensified, sharpening to become a stabbing pain in his chest. He grimaced, or tried to, his lifeless muscles refusing to respond.

The drowsiness lifted further, its disappearance accelerating until suddenly his eyes flew open, allowing blinding light to penetrate the darkness. Pain surged through his mind, forcing him to squint, to allow his eyes to adjust. All around him sound grew louder, clearer, as though he were emerging from beneath the surface of the ocean. Dull tones resolved themselves into murmured voices.

He took another breath, and this time he saw moisture rising before his eyes. He could feel his lips quivering as the air passed between them, hear the click-clack of his teeth chattering involuntarily. He became aware of a soreness in his throat. This came as an enormous relief to him. As if in acknowledgement of his discovery, his heart gave a deep thump.

So I'm not dead.

The light faded away as his eyes adjusted. Before long its source was revealed - a fluorescent tube far above, glowing dimly, its light obscured by a lingering cloud of thick, black smoke.

Cold ... too cold ... where am I? What happened? He coughed, and the pain returned to his lungs. And where the hell is all this smoke coming from?

Something at the edge of his vision caught his notice. Actually moving was out of the question, so he simply allowed his head to loll to one side. It took a moment for his eyes to refocus. The moment they did, he wished they had not. The smoke peeled away, revealing his twin and tormentor, towering over him.

Six-Three!

Panic gripped his body, and he tried to move, to get up, to defend himself somehow - but he could not. He wanted to scream, to call out for help - to do something, anything, but even that was beyond him. He stared in helpless despair at Six-Three's face, the features of his twin and tormentor locked in a twisted smirk.

He's going to kill me. He waited for me to wake up. He's going to kill me. He's going to--

Nine's frantic thoughts were brought to a screeching halt as, suddenly, Six-Three's forehead cracked. A tiny fracture spread across his face, growing diagonally down across his nose and beneath one eye. It spread, growing longer and wider before branching out, until suddenly a large chunk fell away.

Nine watched in astonishment as the chunk tumbled end over end for what seemed an age, before smashing into the cold metal in front of his face. It shattered violently, sending tiny shards flying in all directions. A few landed gently upon his face. He instinctively closed his eyes, recoiling at the burning sensation of blood upon his skin. A few moments passed before he realised that it was not blood that stained his face. It was not heat that burned his skin - it was cold. Slowly, tentatively, he opened his eyes.

What the hell ...?

His eyes shot up to Six-Three. The Hidari stood unmoving, still smirking with what remained of his face. Beneath the skin was not flesh and bone but clear, solid ice. As he stared, fractures began to appear all over Six-Three's body. One hand came loose and fell away, leaving a jagged, frozen stump.

A sudden surge of adrenaline poured into his body and his muscles jumped into motion, pulling him up and away from Six-Three. He managed to raise himself to a sitting position against the elevator railing just as Six-Three's abdomen split into three and collapsed to the floor.

He pressed himself tightly against the railing, staring in dismay at the scattered pieces, some of which were beginning to melt. He panted, gulping down frozen air through a dry throat. A dizzying sensation washed over him as the blood drained from his head. Six-Three was the most terrifying creature he had ever met - what on Earth had been able to do this?

For as long as she could remember, Akane had felt a benevolent presence alongside her. Perhaps it was nothing so tangible as a presence; more an everpresent sense that she was not alone, even inside her own head. She could feel it watching her when she lay in bed half-asleep, when she was walking home from school, when she was planting flowers in the garden behind her house. Wherever she went, it came with her. Never speaking, never moving - simply there, inside her. Silent but steadfast.

As she grew older she began to rationalise it - it must be her mind's way of coping with the loss of her mother. A fantasy of her own creation, something comforting to believe in. She convinced herself for so long that she began to believe it. She ignored the fact that she was the only person with such a companion, such as it was, and tried to move on with her life.

But then, Ranma entered her life, and everything changed. Suddenly, this ethereal presence was quite real. What was once nothing more than a vague sense of comfort and reassurance began to coalesce. Suddenly, the feelings became words. The presence she carried within her gained a voice and a name: Ryujin.

It was not until she saw Ranma with Ryujin's eyes that she realised the truth. She was not the only person with a companion. Ranma, this stranger, was similarly gifted.

But Ranma's companion was not a gift. She could now perceive Ryukyu burning within her friend, a dark cancer consuming Ranma from within. Where she felt comfort Ranma felt torment. Where she felt reassurance Ranma felt malevolence. While she was accompanied by Ryujin, Ranma was imprisoned with Ryukyu. She was never alone - Ranma was never anything else.

Akane. Please - you must not do this. I cannot help you. You cannot stand against Ryukyu's will.

I'm sorry. I didn't realise it before, but I ... I have to save her. By myself, if I have to.

To even look upon Ryukyu's face was painful. To see that eye, burning and hateful, filled her with such powerful revulsion that she was forced to look away. She could not imagine living with such anguish for more than a moment, let alone a lifetime. Let alone a dozen lifetimes.

She pressed her palms together and gathered her strength, focusing upon pooling her courage and preparing to ignore the warnings inside her mind for the first time in her life. Gritting her teeth, she looked upon Ranma's face again. This time, she would not look away.

The sound of Ryujin's voice sank into nothing, and the everpresent warmth died. She swallowed hard, feeling truly alone for the first time since her awakening. Ryukyu smiled thinly at her. One black talon curled, beckoning her forth. Akane flinched for a moment, realising that Ryukyu could read her, as well. She was alone, she was vulnerable, and Ryukyu knew it.

Damn it, she thought. Too late to worry about it now.

She pulled her hands apart and, forming two fists, tried to move forwards towards Ryukyu. However, her feet would not obey. A sudden panic took her - what was wrong? Why wouldn't her feet move? Was Ryujin holding her back? Daring to look away from Ryukyu for a moment, she glanced down to her feet.

What the HELL?

Nine's heart pounded in his chest, the sound seeming to echo within the small sphere of clear air that surrounded him. All around the black smoke hovered. It was a suffocating fog, thick and unyielding; dancing over the rapidly-melting remains of Six-Three. He could feel the fog encroaching upon him, its movement slow but unmistakable. His instincts screamed at him: stay out of the smoke! Stay back!

The pragmatic matter of survival pushed aside the horror that had filled him only moments before. He had to stand up. He had to get out of this smoke, somehow. He did not know how, but it had killed Six-Three. Unless he found a way out, it would do the same to him.

He tried to pull himself upwards, fingers and knuckles protesting loudly as they tried to grip the frozen railing. He grunted, straining his arms against his own weight. His feet scratched back and forth uselessly against the ice-covered metal, the soles of his feet sliding to and fro as his knees flexed in a futile effort to raise his body.

And all the while the smoke circle moved, one edge drawing closer, closer.

Damn it, he thought in frustration. I'm not getting anywhere like this. I've got to--

A gleam of light among the fog - a pale white glimmer in the fringe of his vision - caught his attention. With curiosity momentarily overwhelming fear, he turned and glanced at the source of the light. At first it was unrecognisable, little more than a faint point of light, but as the smoke ebbed, the source was revealed. Nine's eyes widened.

Six-Three - again. No, he realised, this was not Six-Three. This was another of his brethren. Like Six-Three, the new Hidari was frozen solid. The light Nine had noticed was at last revealed - little more than the reflection of the light overhead by the Hidari's frozen features.

This Hidari, like Six-Three, was falling apart. One arm had fallen away, and the other sported a sizable crack. Behind this new discovery, Nine could see another frozen foot - another Hidari. The smoke rolled slowly onwards, allowing an entire row of frozen faces to emerge from the darkness - silent, still and lifeless.

The stark realisation struck him: They're all dead - every one of them. But ... why am I still alive?

Akane strained but her feet would not move, for they were completely encased in thick, solid ice. A thick coating covered the entire elevator platform, and no matter how hard she tried to shift her legs, they could not break free of their anchor.

She did this, she realised, looking up at Ryukyu's eye. A manic grin spread across Ryukyu's face, sharp teeth gleaming red under the light of her flaming hair. The smoke began to draw in towards Ranma's body, seeming to grow thicker and darker.

Ryukyu's arm rose, talons curling into a fist. From the smoke another arm, ten times larger, rose in tandem alongside. The smoke bubbled and writhed, held in place by the force of Ryukyu's will. Ryujin's eyes could see the crackling red energy surging along the arm, sustaining its form.

Gods, it's alive, Akane realised, staring in gobsmacked horror as Ryukyu's other arm raised, bringing another duplicate with it. She yanked herself upwards, straining against the ice; there was a tiny cracking sound, but her feet did not move.

The giant arms surged forward. Curved talons screamed toward her. The air was ripped in two with lethal force. She couldn't move - she could only duck. The smoke shot over her back; a blast of cold air followed in its wake and slammed into her. She gagged, winded.

The gale died down and she breathed again. A painful breath, oxygen like ice burning her throat. Overhead the colossal arms drew back, two hands clasping together into an enormous fist. She stared, horrified. Her legs burned, muscles straining against the ice.

Come on ... I've ...

The hands began to move. The shadow grew larger. The air pressure bore down upon her. A weighty sense of impending doom. And all the while, her muscles strained. Her heart pounded. And her legs began to shift.

... got to ...

She screamed, and pushed until - with a deep crack - the ice finally gave way.

... move!

She charged forward, pushed by the wake of the fist as it slammed through the platform behind her. In front of her, Ryukyu's arms lowered in perfect synchronisation. As the burning talons sank into the smoke between them, the eye was once again revealed. This time she was not afraid. Drawing her fist back she snarled and flung herself toward it.

Her fist flew. The eye widened. The smoke surrounded her, shutting out all light, all sound. She was alone with the eye, bathed in its horrible light. Fear and thought were abandoned. Instinct alone drove her movement. Closer, and closer, and slower ... and slower ... until she felt the impact.

For a moment, all was perfectly still. The eye's light was gone, and she was alone in the dark. She felt ... warm. A drop of water landed upon her cheek. And another, on her arm. The world exploded into existence around her once more. Ryukyu flew backwards from the force of her punch. All around her the smoke vanished, dissipating in an instant.

Nine felt her presence before he saw her.

Part of his mind perceived the smoke's dissolution. His eyes and ears did at some level notice the vast crowd of frozen Hidari as they began to crumble en masse. But none of that mattered anymore. He could feel something else, something far more important.

A strange feeling struck him, a bizarre hybrid of terror and relief. It was, he realised, an intensely familiar emotion - something he had felt before and yet somehow lost. Now that he felt it again, deep within himself, he wondered how he had ever forgotten. How could he have lost something that felt so much a part of him?

The railing supporting him shook from an impact. His head turned of its own accord, and he caught sight of her. The rest of the world faded into insignificance as he looked upon her face - his face - in wonder. Her eyes were closed, but a tiny smile held fast upon her lips. Across her features a dozen tiny strands of flame were splayed, burning brightly.

"I ... remember you."

One eye, burning a deep shade of red, shot open and fixed him with a glowering gaze. The stare of that eye was like a blow to the head; he recoiled, his legs threatening to give way beneath him. Catching himself mid-fall, he gripped the railing tightly with suddenly-numb hands.

A voice. HER voice.

"He tricked you."

Rock and sky. Water, rock and sky. Tumbling end over end.

"What?"

The rush of air past him. Cold, churning spray upon the air.

"You shouldn't have trusted him. It was all a lie, and you never even suspected."

Falling, falling. A deep, pounding sound far below.

"What are you talking about?"

A strong taste of metal, hot in his mouth.

"You are just a tool to him. He created you because he thought you could stop me. That's the reason you were born."

Ringing in his ears.

"What ... what are you doing?"

The rich smell of the earth.

"He was right. You could have stopped me. But he was too slow. It's my turn now. Now, you belong to me."

The sun was rising into the horizon.

"Stop! Why are you doing this?!"

It vanished. There was blackness, salt, and blood.

"He tricked you, but he didn't - trick - me."

Akane bit her lip, anxiously watching as Ryukyu's limp body fell to the platform, leaving behind a crumpled railing. Ranma landed with a heavy thump, the sound carrying a note of finality. It had certainly been quite a blow - more powerful than she had intended. She wondered for a moment if it was her own anger that drove her hand forward, or if it was the anger of the dragon within her.

Ryukyu underestimated me. I hit Ranma too hard ...

She stepped toward the fallen body of her companion, but stopped as something else caught her eye. A person, falling slowly sideways. She gasped as she recognised the figure; a person she had completely forgotten.

Nine stumbled backwards, faintly aware of his body pitching sideways. The dull impact of the railing against his back registered in the back of his mind.

That face - that eye - burned itself irrevocably into his mind. He had seen it before. He did not know where; it was like as from a dream, a vague sense of familiarity amidst a sea of uncertainty. The memory of her was clearer now, even as it was surrounded by confusion. Her face occupied a place in his mind and all around was ... nothing.

That lack of memory was as damning as any memory could be. That demon had stripped something away from him - something dear, even though he could not remember it.

He could hear her voice, speaking echoed words to him, but he could not entirely understand them. The eye burned brightly, silhouetting all else. It was not looking at him but through him, to some distant beyond that he could not perceive. And yet, it was aware of his presence somehow. He could feel its terrible gaze upon him even as it passed through him.

He tumbled helplessly, his arms cartwheeling wildly. He could not see anything to grip amid the darkness, but his arms flailed nonetheless. And then, a blurry light appeared at the edge of his vision. It was white, glowing with a diffuse light that pushed aside the shadows. Within it he could hear a sound. Soft, melodious, gentle upon the air.

"Akane," he whispered, suddenly remembering just where he was, and what was happening. Awareness of his surroundings hit him, a blast of cold water, and his body jolted as if awakening from a haunted dream. The white light now shone brightly upon him, but even as he reveled in its warmth he could feel the icy demon rising nearby. The demon began to move and panic seized his heart, for he perceived the terrors lurking behind that red eye.

"Akane!" he cried, forcing the last of his strength to his throat. "You have to RUN!"

His body fell at last to the platform. As his head struck the frozen metal, light was cast aside by darkness and sleep claimed him.

I can't run, Nine. I'm sorry. I can't leave either of you with Ryukyu.

Ryukyu slowly rose, shaky legs lifting her weight as both hands gripped the railing for support. Akane tightened her fists. Damn it, maybe I didn't hit her hard enough.

"Let her go, Ryukyu."

The railing creaked beneath Ryukyu's weight as she slowly rose to her feet, standing shakily for a moment as her support was released. Ryukyu's hair had slipped its bonds and hung to her ankles, a flowing sheet of flame that almost completely obscured her body.

"Let her go," Akane insisted, "or I'll make you let her go."

Her words went unheeded. Ryukyu simply stood still, her shoulders rising and falling with slow breaths. Akane's eyes caught ten burning talons hanging loosely at Ryukyu's sides, but they did not move.

"I ... won't warn you again."

Ryukyu's head rolled lazily to one side, once more bringing the red glow of her eye into view. She looked over her shoulder at Akane, that vicious smile once more spreading across her face.

"Warn me?" she asked through her laughter, words ringing in a deep, booming voice. She turned, facing Akane once again, and folded her arms. "Warn me?"

She can speak! Akane thought in amazement, hoping her surprise did not show. Her heart quickened, and despite the cold sweat began to trickle down the back of her neck. Suddenly, she felt very vulnerable.

Ryukyu's gaze remained fixed upon her, that burning eye wide and bright. Suddenly, Ryukyu's body blurred and vanished.

"Ranm--" she began, but her words went unfinished. The gap beneath them was no more. Faster than thought Ryukyu was before her. A clawed fist, moving beyond all imaginable speed, slammed into her chest. A hail of blows slammed into her body, a barrage of attacks so swift that she could not even see them. A sickening snap filled her ears as a fist slammed into her jaw. Her head snapped back as she was sent screaming upwards into the air.

Wind wafted gently by, its touch gentle against her skin. There was light overhead, growing brighter and more intense with every moment. She felt giddy, filled with the lightheaded sensation of flight. It felt strangely relaxing. Her feet dangled far below, not attached to the earth, and she wondered for a moment if she was lying in water.

A starburst of pain detonated inside her head, and her mouth was suddenly full of blood. She cried out and her voice was soaked in it, the thick liquid spurting from her opened lips. Her eyes, filled with tears, snapped open. She tried to move, but her body would not obey. Suddenly her weight shifted, and as her body reached the apex of its trajectory, realisation struck. Her body turned as it began to fall, and her eyes showed her a blurry shape far below. The platform, she realised. She could see the bright red light of Ryukyu's hair still burning.

She could move at a speed no human could ever hope to match, and yet she could not even see Ryukyu's movements. Her fall became a plunge, and once more the air whipped past her face. Her eyes narrowed, dried by the force of the gale. A creeping fear took hold as she realised just how high she had been hit, and how much strength lurked within her opponent.

I was careless, she told herself. This fall is going to kill me. After that punch I should already be dead.

She could see that red eye watching her still. Ranma's beautiful blue eyes still existed; pale and blind behind the burning malice of Ryukyu's. Frustration welled within her - Ranma was still alive, still in need of her help, but she was not strong enough. She tried to scream, but her mouth was once more full of blood.

She's going to kill us both - Ryujin, help me!

She felt nothing, only the same cold emptiness that had been there before. In her despair Akane closed her eyes. Tears rolled down her cheeks, only to be torn away by the frozen wind. She coughed another mouthful of blood, wincing at the burning pain in her chest.

I can't leave without her. I can't run away. Please, Ryujin. Please ... help me!

The elevator platform gave a deep metallic groan as it juddered downwards, weighed down by the ice. Its screech was the only sound in the air as Akane's body tumbled silently downward. Ryukyu stood perfectly still, unperturbed by the platform's slip. She folded her arms and watched closely as Akane began to fall from the very top of the elevator shaft.

"You aren't going to stand by and let me kill her, are you?" she whispered.

As if in response, the platform beneath her feet began to shake. Sparing a glance downward, she saw the ice around her was cracking; bubbles were forming, and liquid was beginning to flow.

"That's more like it," she said, her lips curling in glee. "But surely you can do better."

She clenched her fists and from beneath her palms gouts of flame sprang forth, balling within her hands. The fire spread across her skin, climbing up along her forearms. Looking up once more at Akane, she spoke again.

"Is that all she means to you? I suppose I'll have to kill her."

The shaking spread - suddenly it was not just the platform that was moving, but the entire elevator shaft. Hundreds of tiny icicles, dislodged from their homes, tumbled down and smashed into the platform. A low rumble filled the air, rising like the tide. And as the vibrations grew more violent, Ryukyu remained still.

Suddenly, the large water pipe screeched; the sound of metal twisting, being forced aside. The pipe ruptured and from within it burst forth a tremendous torrent of water, a powerful blast that shot upwards and ripped through the ceiling far above. A tiny hint of sunlight shone through the hole, illuminating the darkness below.

Once breached the pipe quickly gave way completely, a deep crack spreading along its length to allow water to burst free. Sheets of rain filled the air, masking Akane's descent in a hazy fog of water. Hundreds of tiny droplets fell around Ryukyu. She ignored them, staring up at a dim light that was emerging from the water far above.

"At last," she said with delight, "we can begin."

Akane's eyes shot wide open and a gasp flew from blood soaked lips as suddenly she was not alone. All around her a cascade flowed, a million tiny lives in a million tiny drops of water. The drops were still, and she was falling gently between them.

Before her the droplets began to merge, joining together as one. A sphere of water formed and grew and from it emerged a face. The water solidified as it continued to grow, and within moments had formed a body; the body of an elfin girl clad in robes like her own.

"You're ... Ryujin," Akane whispered, staring in wonder. The girl's face was like her own, but where she had hair this girl had long, flowing tresses of water that shone a bright shade of blue. Akane instinctively held forth her hand and the girl met it with her own, the touch of her skin soft and warm. "You look just like me."

"I do not want to fight, Akane, but I will protect you," spoke Ryujin. She smiled and squeezed Akane's hand. "I will not let you die."

Ryujin's words danced like the light, but this dance was within her mind. She could feel the power surging within her now - a flood swelling, awaiting its release. The pain was taken from her body and the taste of blood was forgotten. Sunlight from overhead danced within the mist, a dazzling array of colour coruscating all around her.

"I want to save her," Akane said, meeting Ryujin's eyes with her own. "She's ... important to me."

Ryujin squeezed her hand again, and from behind the girl's back emerged two bright feathered wings, as large as the girl herself. They spread wide and caught upon the air, slowing her descent. Akane fell forward into her arms.

Akane looked below and saw Ryukyu waiting, her crimson eye reflected a thousand times over in the rain. A thousand eyes seeing into her; seeing Ryujin; seeing even what Akane herself could not see. Behind that eye was a smile.

"I know," Ryujin whispered. "Close your eyes. Let go of your body and the water will take you to her."

Akane did as she was asked, and immediately felt lighter, smaller, as though she was shrinking. The air swept up around her, through her, spreading her body wide with its flow.

Ryukyu watched intently as Akane's body began to glow. Bright blue flames spread and grew, flames made not of fire but of water. The water droplets all around her were pulled toward her, merging with the mass of water as it grew around Akane. There was a sudden flash; Ryukyu's hand shot upwards to shield her eye from the dazzling light.

And then, at last, the pipe's water came crashing into the platform. There was a loud thump as Akane's body slammed into the metal and the ground itself shook under the force of the impact.

"So, you've finally come out of hiding. You have my gratitude for that punch - I was a little out of control," she said. Lowering her hand, she looked toward the impact site. There was nothing there, save for a small puddle amid the ice. A tiny laugh escaped her. "Only you could ever hit me that hard."

"What do you want?"

Ryukyu turned at the sound. Behind her, the water was coalescing into a body. Her gaze hardened. "You already know what I want."

The water solidified into the form of Ryujin. Two shimmering blue eyes were framed by a scowl, which was in turn framed by brightly glowing locks of water. Ryujin spoke again, and her voice carried the depth of the sea. "You know I won't give it to you."

"Don't be a fool," Ryukyu said with a sneer. "I control this body now. You know what I am capable of."

Ryujin shook her head. "Even if I wanted to give it to you, I can't. You've known that from the very beginning."

"I think you're wrong," Ryukyu countered. "I think you can give me what I need. It's simply a matter of ... motivation."

Ryukyu's hand, still dripping fire, flew forward and snatched Ryujin's neck. The other was raised slowly, tenderly, to cup her cheek. Ryujin quivered beneath the sudden contact, but did not back down.

"I'm not afraid of you," she whispered defiantly, even as the warmth seeped from her skin. The trembling of her body betrayed the fear hidden behind her eyes.

"Perhaps that is true, but I can see Akane within you, my love," Ryukyu whispered, fixing her eye upon Ryujin's. "I can see her fear. She is terrified. It is a strange curse we have, the ability to see into the very hearts of humans, but it is sometimes useful."

"It's a gift, not a curse," Ryujin replied faintly, held still by Ryukyu's touch. "You never realised - it was supposed to help us understand them."

"Oh, I know what it was supposed to do. You can lecture me about what it was supposed to do, but you don't share my perspective. You see them in life; I see them in death. You hear their hopes and dreams. I witness only their regrets and sorrow," Ryukyu said, drawing her face near. "To see their precious hopes die as they finally grasp the futility of their own existence - it is a torment that lends a certain clarity. It's curious that Akane understands this and you do not."

"Akane understands because she is human. She has seen death," Ryujin replied, wincing as Ryukyu's fingertips danced across her soft white skin. Burning talons lightly teased her cheek, a gasp slipping between her lips as Ryukyu stroked her thumb across them.

"I seeeeeee," Ryukyu said, her grip tightening. Talons pierced skin; tiny rivulets of warm water seeped from beneath the surface and ran down Ryujin's neck. At the same time she drew her face closer until their noses touched. "Then let me show you something."

Ryujin's body tensed. "What?"

"You know, when I think of you I am torn. I love you, and I hate you. I detest you, and yet I desire you. I know you feel the same. You want me, even though you are my enemy. I can sense your desire," Ryukyu whispered, the gaze of her burning eye piercing deep.

Ryujin shivered in Ryukyu's grasp and yet her arms slowly slid around the demon's waist even as tears streamed down her face. She nodded, a choked sob her only reply.

Ryukyu smiled. "As a token of my love, I want to share a small part of myself with you, so that - if nothing else - you can at least begin to understand me. You want to understand, don't you?"

"I ... I ...," Ryujin stammered, held enraptured by Ryukyu's stare.

"Good," Ryukyu said with a smile. She leaned in closer still, pressing her forehead to Ryujin's. She spoke again, and her cold breath swept over Ryujin's lips with her words. "This is for Akane, too."

Ryujin realised too late to retreat. Ryukyu's other eye flew wide open, revealing a bright blue iris.

"This is Ranma's eye," Ryukyu whispered. The blue eye darted back and forth in its socket, and from its look alone Ryujin was filled with terror. She cried out and tried to pull away, but Ryukyu's hold was firm.

"She does not share her existence as Akane does with you. She is still fighting me with what remains of her strength. She knows that if she relents, I will consume her. Can you feel her pain, her horror? She is surrounded by my darkness. There is no way out."

"No ... no," Ryujin whimpered, unable to look away. Tears flooded her wide eyes.

"She is filled with hate, and anger, and despair. Slowly but surely, it is suffocating her. It has been suffocating her for almost nine hundred years."

"Stop it! Please ... stop!"

"I have no desire to harm her, but I cannot deny my nature," Ryukyu continued, her velvety voice wrapping around Ryujin. "She has been dying for nine hundred years, but death will not take her. The one thing she desires is the one thing she can not have. She cannot die because she is not alive."

Ryujin struggled, frantically trying to escape the yearning stare of Ranma's eye. It penetrated her, mournful misery that wounded her like a sharpened blade. She begged in a pathetic whimper, "Let me go ... let me go."

"Her suffering is my suffering. I have lived for an eternity in this darkness. Now you understand just what my existence is. Now Akane has seen the truth that Ranma was afraid to show her."

Suddenly, Ryukyu's grip was released. Ryujin slumped helplessly to the floor, her body racked with sobs. Slowly Ranma's eye grew dim. The eyelid fell closed and only Ryukyu's burning iris remained.

"Ranma desires the same thing as I. Exodus."

"I cannot kill you!" Ryujin screeched through her tears. "I can only create life!"

"Perhaps you cannot give me what I desire," Ryukyu conceded, her tone nonchalant. She bent at the waist and brought her glowering eye to bear. "But Akane can."

Ryujin began to scream.

"You understand now, don't you?"

All around Akane, the protection of unconsciousness was crumbling. She could feel Ryujin's shock and anguish as her own. The veil of her protector was lifted, and the world was brought into sharp focus. She was awake and kneeling at Ryukyu's feet. The question rang clearly in her ears. Nausea stabbed at her, needles in her gut.

"Ranma waited nine hundred years for you. Not for any of your ancestors, not for Ryujin, but for you. It is you and you alone who can kill us. Your will and Ryujin's strength combined can give us what we have waited an eternity for."

"No," Akane whispered, her own tears mixing with Ryujin's upon her cheek. "That's not true. That can't be true."

"Is that so?" Ryukyu asked, amused.

"Ranma protected me from the hunters because--"

"Because?" Ryukyu prodded. "Did she ever say why? Did she ever explain just why she was dragging you around Japan?"

Akane stammered helplessly, searching for words but failing to find them. She stared up at that terrible eye, unable to move, unable to think.

"The world is not as you think, Akane. Your 'protector' does not protect you, and your 'hunters' do not hunt you. There have been more than a few opportunities for the Hidari to kill you. Didn't you ever wonder why they didn't?" Ryukyu asked. "The Hidari have never tried to kill you. They want to take you from me, from Ranma, because they fear what will happen to them when you kill me."

"No, that ... that ..." Akane began, but the words caught in her throat. Memories long buried began to resurface and intertwine, scattered images weaving the fabric of her epiphany. She saw again the first Hidari she had met, who tried to take her from Ranma, only to be killed. She saw the two Hidari who had welcomed her to the Leviathan Spring. They had not threatened her. They had not attacked her. They had not harmed her. None of them had.

All sensation left her. She toppled backwards, a lifeless body, an empty shell. She had lost her way, her only point of reference; the base assumption that had guided her since she met Ranma. The thump of the floor upon her backside registered dully in her dizzied mind.

"Yes, Akane," Ryukyu said. Her smile grew wide. "Your ancestors were not killed by any 'hunters'. I killed them. Pruning the tree, so to speak. Weeding out the weak, so that you - the strong one - could emerge."

"That - that's a lie," she fumed, her entire body shaking. "You're ... just trying to make me angry."

"Perhaps," Ryukyu admitted with a shrug.

"Let me tell you something about death, Akane. The final moment before a person dies is the most telling. In that moment there is one vital realisation: there is no redemption, no way to escape. Death will not be denied. Once that simple fact is accepted at the most instinctive level, all ties to the world are severed. It is only once the burden of hope has been cast aside that the soul can transcend the body and journey to the Otherworld in peace. That moment is the Exodus.

"Not all achieve it. Many fail to understand, and so fade into oblivion. How a person arrives at the Exodus, and whether they arrive at all, is the true measure of that person's worth."

"Why are you tell--"

"You've never seen a human die the way I have," Ryukyu interrupted. She ran a single talon over Akane's lips, silencing her. The talon ran slowly from her chin down her throat. "I made Ranma watch closely when I cut your mother here. She tries to pretend that it didn't happen, of course. I suppose that is her way of staying sane. But in her heart she knows. She watched me kill your mother.

"With the others before her, I spared Ranma the ... details. But your mother was different. You must understand, I did not force Ranma to watch out of cruelty or malice. It was not the blood I wanted her to see. I wanted her to see your mother's Exodus. I wanted her to see that no matter how tortured the soul, at the end there could be peace.

"Ranma has seen millions of deaths over the course of her life, but the Exodus is the one part I did not let her see. After nine hundred years of living through the pain of death, I wanted her to see it; a moment of absolute peace. I wanted her to know what she could have. Your mother was a perfect demonstration. Her Exodus was ... beautiful."

There was feeling again. Deep within the pit of herself, Akane felt a fire begin to burn, kindled by the betrayal she felt. It blazed within her, and filled her with a sudden resolve.

"Don't fight your anger. Use it. Give me my Exodus and I'll give you your revenge."

"You ... killed my mother for a ... demonstration?" Akane whispered, her voice straining. She forced her eyes closed and shrank into stillness; utter, blazing, apoplectic stillness. Tears of anger poured over her skin. Spittle flew between gritted teeth the wordless grunts of an inexpressible rage leapt from her throat.

Ryukyu notched an eyebrow almost imperceptibly. "So, what will you do?"

A fey smile touched Akane's face, and then it was gone. She screamed, roaring with the primitive fury of an animal, and flung herself at Ryukyu. Her hands flew, tearing wildly at Ryukyu's throat.

"YOU KILLED HER! I'LL RIP YOUR GODDAMN HEAD OFF!"

T E N