The smallest of sparks can kindle a flame, and this spark began curiously enough, in a dream. One forgotten, buried among triumphs and losses, lessons learned, and ones unheeded. A twisted jumble of events both mundane and outrageously fantastic; that was the landscape in which the fire was born. A single solitary ring of flame that burned dark, leaving ash and dust in its wake as it spread, fanned by the fuel of pride and fear. It was this very ring that Ranma Saotome found himself in, as awakening would be a strange concept to one caught up in the slumbering world.
The pig-tailed martial artist was covered in a thin sheen of sweat, wearing little more than the boxers and tank top he'd thrown on before hitting the sack. The scorched ground was cool beneath his bare feet, and the thin layer of ash rose up in small puffs between his toes as he turned about to get his bearings. "This is," he spat out, finding the air thick and heavy with the scent of something burning. The smell was vaguely familiar, and altogether unpleasant, enough that he covered his mouth with one hand, trying to ward off the stench with the other.
It recalled a memory of when he'd been camping out on the road with the old man. They'd both been stuck in the rain for what had seemed like days on end. The first night that they'd managed to get a decent fire going under an overhang, the stupid panda had fallen asleep too close to the edge of the campfire. Burning fur and skin had woken both of them up, stunk up the place bad enough that they'd almost headed back out into the weather. This smell here was like that, he realized, squinting against the waft of ash and smoke that drifted into the circle surrounding him.
The flames crackling at the edge of the ring, some few short meters away weren't very tall, knee height if even that. But Ranma couldn't see much at all past that line of flickering light. There was movement out there, he could tell that much. Movement hidden in scraps of shadow, as ephemeral as the faint lines of heat that rippled above the flames. "Who's out there," he shouted, feeling a little foolish in the process, but the sound of his own voice was strong enough to quash the sliver of fear that had bubbled up in his gut. He was hardly a kid anymore, and certainly not defenseless. His free hand curled into a tight fist.
"Show yourself," he shouted past the flames. "You're messing with the wrong guy," Ranma lowered the hand he'd been blocking the smell with. He could deal with a little stink if it meant upping the intimidation factor. "You listening to," his words broke off as a darker shadow appeared, towering over both the ring and the young man inside, "me."
From high above, behind the shadowy form, there came a brilliant flash of light that almost blinded the martial artist. A distant peal of thunder sounded just after, and the lingering light was enough to illuminate what stood before him. "The hell," Ranma blinked away the jagged afterimage and fell into a familiar stance in the same breath.
The huge figure was both recognizable and unwelcome in equal spades. Towering above the Saotome heir was one self-proclaimed Blue Thunder of Furinkan High, decked out in full Kendo tournament gear, sans the helmet. "Kunou," Ranma spat, fully aware of the encroaching storm, and the hazard that it heralded. Sure enough, he could feel small drops of water strike his exposed skin, not enough to trigger the curse, yet. The fact that the kendoist was here and apparently a giant to boot was enough to recall the nature of the moment, the unreality of it to be more precise. As the rain began to fall in earnest, Ranma's opinion favored that of a nightmare, rather than a more dismissible dream.
"Verily, it is as you say, Pig-tailed girl," the unwelcome behemoth boomed above the sound of pouring rain. "It is our strange fate to meet once again. Though I do admit that yours is a welcome sight in this dismal setting," the large sword practitioner swept a hand through his dripping locks, pushing errant strands from his face. "To happen upon such a flower blooming here of all places, the honor truly is mine."
"Stuff it, Kunou," the young woman that Ranma had become said, feeling a headache coming on already. His presence in a dreamscape was almost more unwelcome than in waking life, though the tall figure was curiously restrained in comparison to what had occurred in the past. "What do you want," she asked, fully aware of the faux samurai's usual intentions regarding her person.
The looming figure did not immediately answer, preferring instead to turn its attention to the flames surrounding the cursed martial artist. "These flames, have bound you, have they not?"
Ranma found herself shrugging. She hadn't exactly had time to test the fact behind that theory, though now was certainly as good as later. "We'll see about that," she said crouching slightly with the full intent of jumping well over the edge of the ring, away from Kunou naturally.
The pigtaileg-girl's posture was not lost on Kunou, who tried to hold up a hand in warning before the object of his concern made her leap. "It would be prudent to wai-," his objection was cut off as the woman kicked off with a graceful spring, sending a small cloud of ash skyward in the process.
Kunou's warning was not without merit, Ranma found out mid leap as she dropped writhing to the ground before reaching the perimeter. The circle visibly contracted at the same time, shrinking to within footsteps of the floored redhead. "You've got to be kidding me," she vented, slapping the ground with a palm even as she rolled to a sitting position in the center of the reduced ring of fire.
"As I feared, thou hast been entrapped within the very same prison as I," the kendoist lamented, "a cage of the vilest construction, but one not suffered long, if the past rings true."
The huge form of Tatewaki Kunou stood tall to his full and considerable height, resembling more and more one of the statues outside a Buddhist temple. The likeness to the imposing carved figure of Raijin was all too fitting given both the kendoist's moniker, and penchant for storm themed entrances. It was a comparison that Ranma herself was not inclined to ever voice, and certainly not to the man himself, for fear of inflating an already horrendously huge ego. She'd vanquished one self-proclaimed god, and didn't relish the thought of quashing another pretender any time soon.
"Uh, what are you doing," the redhead slid easily to her feet the moment she noticed that Kunou was gripping a wooden sword high overhead, and clearly intending on rending the flaming circle with the force of his blow. She couldn't discount the possibility, given his past track record in cracking things with the air pressure alone, but even in a dream she didn't want to be standing directly in the path with no way of evading the strike zone.
"Fear not, fair pig-tailed girl, for I, Tatewaki Kunou, will free you from this cursed prison once and for all," he shouted, already swinging with deadly precision borne of a lifetime of practice. It was calculated and true, the blow halting a few hand spans above the red haired woman's head. Even without connecting directly with anything, a shockwave of air radiated outward from the center of the slash, intent on snuffing out the flames. The force was enough to scatter the rest of the ash to the winds, and even drive Ranma down to one knee as she braced against the blow.
Coughing and sputtering, Ranma wiped at the gray coating of grime that now coated most of her, sticking in uncomfortable places thanks to the sweat. "You moron, are you trying to crush me?"
"My aim was true, O crimson sylph," came the thundering reply from above. "But, alas, I have failed you, as I failed in my own endeavor. I had hoped, from the outside there would be a way."
Indeed, even a strike with all the force of an avalanche behind it did little to waver the flames, let alone extinguish them. If anything, Ranma noted that the flickering grew more brilliant and suddenly a lot closer. The circle began closing with increasing speed, eating up the remaining ground until it nearly brushed her toes.
"I cannot aid you here, but perhaps elsewhere my worth will be proved," the shape of the towering Kunou bent double and more as the kendoist prostrated himself in the dirt before the incensed martial artist. "Forgive my weakness, please."
He was still bowing as the flames shrunk further, until they touched flesh and spread upward. Ranma didn't even have time to protest as the fire ate at her clothes and curled her flesh. In the darkness of the nightmare, a small pillar of fire soon snuffed out, and all was silent as dawn broke over the distant horizon.