Ranma tried to back peddle, pulling Herb along with him. There were jiangshi waiting for them out there, but somehow it seemed preferable to being trapped in an unknown cannibalistic lair. But as he took a step backwards, the screaming started again. The wind began to howl, pushing at their backs. Herb gave a yelp as he was propelled forwards by invisible hands, dragging Ranma in with him. The boys tumbled into the yard and the gate swung shut behind them with a sharp clack!
Ranma dragged himself to his feet.
"What happened?" he demanded, eyes scanning the area for any threat.
"Something pushed me in," Herb said, looking bewildered and unsure for the first time Ranma had known him.
He felt his stomach clench uncomfortably.
He tried the gate, but it was shut tight. The screaming had halted again, leaving the night deadly silent.
"Come on," Ranma said hurriedly, getting the prince to his feet, "If you hold onto me, I can jump the fence."
Herb's golden eyes darted around the yard, before he nodded and allowed Ranma to get a grip around his waist and shoulder.
"Alright," Ranma said, looking at the fence, did it seem higher now? "Lets go-"
His feet had barely left the ground when something solid collided into his chest, pressing both boys on their backs to the ground. Ranma chocked as the wind was knocked out of him and his vision blurred from the sudden lack of oxygen. The moon and stars danced for a sickening moment, before everything righted itself again. The pressure disappeared and the boys sat up, gasping.
"But," Ranma rasped out, "I didn't see anything."
Herb remained oddly silent.
"Come on," Ranma said determinedly, "We're not staying here!"
He yanked Herb up again and prepared to make the jump. Again, the same thing happened, though this time the two were flung even further back and closer to the hut.
"What the hell?!" Ranma snarled, anger overriding his fear as the pressure again subsided, "Fine! I'll just smash your stupid wall down!"
He leapt to his feet, dashing towards the fence of bone, fist raised.
"Ranma!" Herb yelled, still on the ground, "Don't!"
Too late, Ranma's fist collided with the fence. There was a loud, dull thud and the bones began to shift and move. They rippled out over each other like water before setting back into their original positions. As they did, there was a pause. Everything was silent and then…
"Gah!" Ranma cried out as he felt an invisible fist strike him in the gut, sending him sprawling backwards to the ground again.
He winced, getting to his feet immediately and charging at the fence once more with a cry of rage and frustration. It was no use though. He jumped back this time after punching the fence, but the fist still found him.
"Are you done yet?" Herb drawled as he watched Ranma claw himself up from the dust for a third time.
Ranma just grunted, staring at the fence like it was just another opponent. It certainly acted that way. He tried to jump out and it pushed him down. He tried to hurt it and it responded in kind. He couldn't just smash a hole through the fence; he had to find a way to destroy it completely. But what in his arsenal could even scratch the surface of this thing?
The Breaking Point…
Ranma shook his head, irritably. He couldn't sense the 'fault lines' in this pile of bones. There seemed to be a living energy exuding from them as though they were animate beings. It made everything blur together, giving him a headache trying to look for it. He glanced at Herb and canceled out one of the prince's ki blasts. If this thing returned fire against them, there was no telling what it would do if they resorted to that kind of power. Plus, Herb was already looking beat and he'd rather they had the ki to use against the jiangshi. He tapped his foot impatiently, trying to find a way out of this trap.
And tapped his foot again.
The earth was surprisingly hard, and dry too.
He looked down at his finger.
What if he didn't attack the fence, but the ground underneath the fence?
A grim smile lit his face and he rolled his shoulders in anticipation. He picked a spot at the base of the wall and charged.
"Bakusai Tenketsu!" he roared, willing his attack to work.
His finger found the spot and the earth exploded.
He backed away as pieces of rock, soil and bone showered the immediate area. By destroying the foundation, he'd uprooted the fence, shattering it to pieces with the force. A huge cry of triumph left his lips as he eyed the huge hole he'd made. He turned quickly to the prince, already bending forward to scoop him up. As he did, the ground began to tremble. Ranma froze, twisting around to see the bone fragments shimmer and begin to move. His ragged breath became visible as the coldness returned to the air. The pieces shot towards each other, fitting together to reform the bone fence once more. The earth was still upturned, but the fence looked like he hadn't made a scratch on it. Worse still, it looked taller than ever.
Ranma felt his jaw drop, his eyes wide.
"How-?" he started, only to feel that invisible force slam into him once more, pushing him to the ground. He landed on his back, skidding headfirst through the dust and the dirt. He vaguely heard Herb call his name, but Ranma was too preoccupied with trying to breath.
Eventually he came to a stop. The pressure on his chest released and he gasped and choked, trying to force air back into his lungs. His head ached and it felt like an elephant had decided to tap dance over him.
A sound caught his attention and then something small and sharp poked him on the forehead. He gave a start, sitting up despite his pain and looked round blearily at his attacker.
Ranma shook his head, trying to clear the hallucination away. Except, the chicken stayed right where it was, cocking its head to the side and clucking loudly. It was a fat, grey hen with a speckled neck.
He prodded it to see if it was real, only to snap his hand back just as quickly when a piece of bamboo appeared out of nowhere to rap his fingers.
"Hey!" he cried and looked up realizing for the first time that there was someone else there. He leapt to his feet immediately, backing away from the stranger.
The woman was as old and stooped as Cologne, with the same long grey hair, but that was where the similarities ended. She was taller, for one, coming up to Ranma's chest and her thin, wiry frame made him think of the twisted branches of a tree. She stared at him, sallow cheeked and with a frightening pair of clouded eyes.
She wore a scraggly robe and carried in one hand a bamboo staff, the very same she had used to knock away Ranma's hand. Her robe was made up of dirty chicken feathers, all in greys and browns. It hung off her lean frame awkwardly, making her appear even thinner. She snarled at him and he was treated to the sight of a jaw full of very sharp, very yellow teeth.
Does she sharpen her teeth or something? He wondered incredulously, those are like fangs!
It reminded him of the jiangshi and he cringed.
"Don't touch my chickens!" the woman snapped and her voice was like nails on a chalkboard.
Ranma lifted his hands defensively, resisting the urge to put them on his ears.
"I wasn't going to!"
"Boys," she huffed, "Always getting into trouble, never listening to anyone. I should put the lot of you in my pot right now!"
Herb and Ranma's eyes darted to the giant pot, bubbling on the fire. Thinking of the bones surrounding her yard, Ranma gave an audible gulp and shuddered slightly. It wasn't like he was scared or anything, he reasoned with himself stubbornly, but the thought was unpleasant.
"Who are you?" it was Herb who spoke. He was standing up, balancing on his good leg. Despite his obvious discomfort and the damage done to his appearance during their time in the forest, he still stood as tall and proud as when Ranma had first seen him. Hand it to Herb to look dignified covered in scrapes and dirt, his clothing torn and disheveled and standing on one leg.
The woman's clouded eyes snapped to the prince and she bared her teeth at him in a horrific sort of grimace. Her old face seemed to twist around the expression, giving the grotesque impression of a deformed gargoyle.
With a shudder, Ranma realized that was just her smiling.
"I'm just a poor, old woman living on her own," she responded, smoothly.
"You're a spider sitting on her web," he snapped rudely, "Waiting for flies to wander in."
The jagged smile intensified.
"And look at the flies I've caught," she cackled, "A prince and his servant."
She laughed at some private joke. Ranma flinched at the sound. It had a harsh, clanging quality to it, almost like someone was banging two metal pots together. He opened his mouth to tell her just what he thought about being called a servant, but a warning look from Herb halted him.
"Are you the one keeping us trapped?" the prince pushed forward, shifting his gaze back to the woman – the witch.
"And if I am?" she asked sweetly.
"I want to know your purpose," Herb's eyes narrowed, "And I want to know what you know of the jiangshi on this mountain."
Ranma stilled, waiting to see how she would answer.
It was cold again. The air around them chilled to an almost uncomfortable level. The red glow of the torches cast shadows, shifting as the flames flickered. In the dim light, they made spectators of the strange scene. The woman's yellow teeth flashed in a predatory manner as her sightless eyes stayed on the two boys.
"Ah," she said slowly, "So you noticed."
"Noticed what?" Ranma blurted out, confused.
The woman laughed again.
"Slow, isn't he?" she said to Herb, cocking her head in Ranma's direction.
Herb gave her a sardonic sort of smile.
"He's learning," he replied, folding his arms over his chest.
"Hey!" Ranma protested, glaring from one to the other, though they weren't looking his way at all, "Hey! What's goin' on?"
For an intense moment, no one spoke.
"Think about it Ranma," Herb said finally, "Don't you remember your lore on jiangshi? It takes them a few hundred years to get to the stage we saw them tonight. There's no way in hell our tribesmen could have reached that point in little over a year. Someone accelerated their transformation."
Ranma would never claim to remember any lore on jiangshi, apart from what he'd seen in those cheesy kung fu films, but if what Herb said was true…
"Her?" he asked, pointing a finger at the old woman, "How?"
"That's what I'd like to know," the prince said, his eyes never leaving the woman.
Ranma was also reluctant to take his eyes off her. It felt like a very bad idea. She didn't give off a battle aura, per say, but there was something heavy and intimidating about her. It struck Ranma as an oppressive, dampening presence that made him feel trapped more than the bone cage could.
The chicken clucked and pecked at the ground by her feet, seeming unperturbed by the tension. Ranma half realized he was holding his breath and forced the air back out with deliberate slowness.
Drumming her fingers on the bamboo staff, the strange woman finally spoke, cocking her head to the side and baring her teeth again.
"I really didn't do anything more than give them an option. They're enslaved to their own anger," she pursed her lips, "I told them there would be a price to pay for revenge. Now they live a fruitless existence, driven only by the need to feed."
"Why haven't they gone after you then?" Herb snapped, glaring hatefully at the old woman.
She smiled, but didn't answer, seeming amused by the suggestion.
"You seem unwell," she said instead, "Leg bothering you?"
"Turn them back!" the prince demanded, his face reddening with anger.
She looked decidedly unimpressed by his outburst. Raising a hand, the strange woman flicked her fingers and a loud crack filled the air. Herb gasped in pain, bending over to clutch his leg and almost losing balance and toppling to the ground.
"Herb!" Ranma cried, rushing forward, "What –?"
The prince blinked, standing straight again. He hesitantly put his leg down again, putting his weight on it again. He stared at the woman with wide eyes.
"Better?" she asked dryly.
"How-?" he choked.
"I have my ways," she said dismissively, "And I don't feel like anymore chatter. They're a warning. The only one I'm giving you, heed it well."
Ranma snapped his head between the two again, fear squeezing his chest. She'd healed Herb. With a flick of her hand, she'd fixed him! Warning bells were ringing in his head, increasing in volume with every passing moment. Then what she said registered in his head and he stared in confusion.
"The jiangshi?" he asked, "They're the warning?"
She didn't answer, but her sightless gaze swiveled to him.
"I'd have thought they'd be the problem," he finished lamely.
"Nothing a man among men can't handle," she snorted.
Ranma stiffened, shifting back slightly at her words. He didn't need the reminder that his woman was more than she appeared. A cautioning look from Herb kept his mouth silent. He wondered if she was some kind of witch or perhaps a demon or spirit. He'd grown up half listening to such tales. There were the wu, shamans who delved into dreams, summoned spirits and called the rain from the sky. They were healers, if he remembered right.
But thinking of her threat to toss them into her cook pot, Ranma doubted there was anything good about this woman.
So what was she?
He didn't want to find out, but how were they to escape? Even with Herb mobile again, how could they escape the invisible force that kept them trapped?
Those pointed yellow teeth flashed again as she gave an awful grimace.
Or was that meant to be a smile?
"Basil," Herb blurted out firmly, "Where is Basil?"
The white gaze shifted back to the prince and Ranma could feel the tension ebbing away from him.
"Not here," she said quietly, "Never was here. The men I rose were already dead."
"Why warn us like this? What are you warning us about?" he asked carefully.
The old woman actually flinched, looking annoyed.
"I gave you everything you need to know about what you're dealing with," she said indignantly, "Something comes to destroy you all. Take heed prince."
Herb opened his mouth to speak again, but the old woman had her hand up in an angry gesture.
"You've had your three questions," she snapped and bated her hand in his direction.
The invisible force rocked into Herb, sending him sprawling backwards in the dust. Ranma gave out a shout of surprise, rushing over to help the young dragon, but before he could move, the witch charged forward. She grabbed him, wrapping a bony hand around his throat and holding him in place. Ranma struggled to break free, hands clawing at hers as he tried to get out of her grip. She was strong though; even using one hand she was stronger than he was. He might as well be a chicken whose neck she had decided to wring. He flailed, chocking as her grip restricted the oxygen going to his lungs. Black spots swam in his vision.
"Hush now," she said softly, voice grating on him.
He couldn't make a sound, he could hardly breathe. Hot tears welled at the corners of his eyes and he still scratched desperately at the hand wrapped around his throat. He was dizzy. His hands tried again to reach for her, to struggle and then fell limply at his side. Just when he thought he was going to pass out, the grip on his neck loosened, allowing him to breathe again.
He sucked in air like he never had before, coughing and spluttering to get it all in. Everything was still spinning and she was still holding him in place, like a mother cat carrying its kitten. His limbs felt weak.
"There now," she dropped her staff, he heard it thud to the ground, "Lets get a look at you, boy."
She stroked a hand down his chest, pressing her fingers into the gashes left from the jiangshi's long, black nails. Ranma hissed out in pain as she drew blood, reopening the fresh wounds.
She lifted the bloodstained finger to her nose and gave a long, noisy sniff. A smile curled her lips as sightless eyes strayed to Ranma's face.
"The oath still holds," she said quietly, as though confirming something to herself, "Poor boy."
She frowned deeply then, the crags in her face increasing.
"You're very late," she said, still making no sense to Ranma, "Maybe too late. It's already been stolen."
She stared at him, long and hard.
"I know your eyes, child," she said softly, "Though it has been centuries since I beheld them."
She sniffed again.
"So much has changed since then," she seemed to be speaking to herself now, "But the blood remains strong."
She reached up to pet him on the cheek, smearing his face with his own blood. It felt hot and sticky on his skin, making him flinch in disgust.
"You should be grateful," she said with a manic sort of grin, "I don't usually pay attention to such events, but it was all rather entertaining. I wonder how you'll pull it all off."
She tapped her chin thoughtfully.
"I will answer three questions, I think," she said softly, "Choose wisely."
"You didn't," he ground out shakily, "Tell Herb that."
"I didn't?" she looked at the unconscious prince, "Must be my age. Hurry now, boy, I don't have all night."
He glared at her.
"Oh, very well. Listen," the witch hissed, running a dirty fingernail down Ranma's chest, "Tell your prince he's right to look for signs. Something is coming. Something no one man can stop."
"I don't understand," Ranma blurted, "What do you mean?"
She didn't speak for so long, Ranma wasn't sure she would answer.
"It is something from long ago," she answered finally, "Something that should never have been made."
Ranma opened his mouth to ask more, but then thought better. That was one question wasted already and her answer had been vague. He couldn't waste anymore like that.
"Who killed them, the Musk warriors?" he asked, wetting his lips.
"Hmm," she tapped her chin thoughtfully, "His name is Shouzu."
A name. He had a name. That was a start.
"Where is he?"
"He's moving west," she paused for a moment, looking away into nothing for a long moment, "Always moving. He's still searching for it."
"Searching for what?" Ranma asked.
She smiled. Her teeth were rotten too.
"You've had your three questions," she told him, tapping his nose like he was a troublesome child, "You surprised me. You could have asked me anything, even about your mother."
Ranma stiffened, eyes widening.
"Is that regret?" she asked.
Ranma shook himself.
"No," he said stubbornly.
She laughed at him again.
"But I'm generous. So I will give you a piece of advice too," her grip tightened
Ranma tried to protest, but she held him tight.
"Leave China," she intoned, "See the world while you can. This land will have your blood and your bones before its done with you. It will mark you, curse you. So run. Run away as far as you can, while you can."
"That makes no sense!" Ranma chocked out, appalled by the women's words. Why would he leave? His family was here. The only life he'd ever known was here!
Not the only life, a snide voice hissed in his mind.
Ranma ignored it.
"You've thought about it already," she carried on, "Leaving. You should follow your instincts. It'll catch up with you if you don't."
He shook his head in denial. How the hell had she known? Known the thoughts in his head from only a week ago? She couldn't, that's how! She was bluffing, trying to throw him off his guard. Yes, he had his doubts about the way of life the Amazons, and even the Musk, followed. The priority placed on honour over human life. The merciless attitude towards outsiders. The laws that forced people to do things for the most senseless of reasons. Yes, he knew he wouldn't stay in China forever, but that didn't mean he was going to run away. For everything he didn't like, there was just as much that he did. When he left China, it was going to be on his terms. It was going to be with the support of his family and his village. It was going to be so that he could learn more, see more, and become more. It had been his father's last wish that he become 'the best' and Ranma really wanted that too. But there was still more to learn in China.
He wasn't going to flee with his tail between his legs because some crazy old witch on a mountain told him to.
She seemed to read him again, for her eyes flashed with amusement and the grip on his throat tightened just a fraction. Ranma fought hard not to choke.
She leaned in closer; her chapped lips were a breath from Ranma's right ear.
"You feel it, don't you?" she whispered, "There's too much connecting you here already. You're rooted. Go, before it destroys you. Before you get swept up in the coming storm."
He shuddered. She was mad! Insane! Nothing that came out of her mouth made any sense at all!
Finally, after what seemed an age, she released him. He fell to the ground, nursing his bruised neck and looked up at her blearily.
She was shaking her head.
"You should have listened," she said, and she almost looked sad, "You won't find me again, Ranma Saotome. Though you will look for me."
Ranma wanted to retort that he'd rather deal with all her jiangshi again than come looking for the old hag, when he stopped. You should have listened. As though she knew what he had decided and pitied him for the choice.
Mad, she must be mad!
Then he realized. She had said Saotome.
Ranma hardly ever used his surname. Amongst the warrior tribes, you associated yourself with the tribe you hailed from first and foremost, not your family name. He'd been introduced as Ranma of the Amazons so often Saotome had grown dusty with disuse. He certainly hadn't used it when they'd first met.
"How'd-?" he started, only to be cut off again.
"Saotome," she sang, "Saotome from Japan."
Then she laughed, sending a chill down Ranma's spine. The words echoed in his head, oddly familiar, though he couldn't place it.
Her laughter grew louder, clanging in his ears. She had him by the throat again, though how or when she had managed it, he couldn't recall. He struggled against her grip, fear making him panic. He couldn't breathe. He could see her eyes and her sharp teeth, but nothing else registered in his brain. Just the laughter. The laughter consumed everything.
"Stop!" he begged, "Stop! Stop! Stop!"
The pressure on his throat increased. He felt dizzy, disorientated. Black spots swam before his eyes again. He'd never felt so helpless…. No. No, that wasn't right. He'd felt this helpless before.
Cats. There were so many cats. He could feel the claws on his skin, the scratching, the mewling and hissing. The smell of fish made him want to gag! He hated fish. It hurt, everything hurt. He'd crawl out, just to be thrown back in again. Over and over and over again... Then there was blackness. Just blackness.
Daddy's face finally broke the darkness. He looked worried. Daddy never looked like that. He never looked so scared. Everything was broken around him, there were angry voices coming from somewhere and everything hurt.
He smelled fish.
He hated fish.
Daddy was holding him. Daddy's arms were warm.
He smelled fish.
He smelled blood.
And there was blackness.
Anger. Hot, blistering anger surged through him. He felt betrayed and suddenly, Daddy wasn't Daddy anymore, he was Pops. Ranma loved Daddy and he loved Pops, but he hated Pops too.
Laughter. Laughter rang in his ears, louder and louder and louder…
But Daddy was gone. Daddy was gone and Pops was gone too.
Daddy's dead…Daddy's dead…Daddy's dead…Daddy's dead…
A cruel, whining, childlike voice echoed over the laughter, drowning him. He was dragging the dead weight of his father behind him. He stumbled and fell. He cut himself on rocks, he tasted dirt and tried to ignore the rage and the worry and the fear.
Fear. The fear cut at him, tore at him like the cats in the pit. Digging into his skin and drawing blood. In the back of his head he could hear something meowing and growling. He was terrified of it, that presence. He hated it, but he needed it. Because it fed on the fear. It took it all and grew stronger, which was something he couldn't do on his own. He didn't want it there, but…he needed it.
Because even after everything he did, Daddy still died and there was nothing Ranma could do to stop it.
"Stop! Stop! Stop!" he couldn't hear the words coming out of his mouth, but his throat ached with the effort to be heard.
He was standing in the snow and he was afraid. There was a presence bearing down on him. It was heavy and hot and it made him feel so scared.
A family heirloom. A sword.
No, it was more than that. It was something else. Something hungry. So, so hungry and it wanted him. It was going to eat him up. He stared at the graves in the snow and he was afraid.
You made a bargain, Ranma.
Guilt. The lifeless eyes in the severed head of a black haired woman stared at him accusingly. He made a deal. He promised something he couldn't understand. He made the deal. He made the deal. He made the deal…
"Stop! Stop! Stop!"
He was in the dust again. Everything ached again. Herb was moving towards his family. The foreign prince who came to the village. A threat. But he could hardly move. He struggled to even stand! He was helpless…helpless…helpless…
"No!" he screamed, "I'm not helpless. I want to be more! I'll become more!"
Cologne flashed in his mind, bound to the will of the elders, bound to the traditions of the tribe. Then there was Herb, obeying his father's word even though it destroyed him inside.
I'll be better.
Happosai, the man he'd never met, but who had ruined so much. The man who probably deserved punishment, but did that punishment have to mean death?
I'll be the best.
Pops. Stupid, selfish Pops. He left his son alone to fend for himself, he didn't have a plan, he didn't think about anyone else. He did what he wanted and damned the consequences. It all caught up with him.
"I'll be more!"
The last thought exited his lungs as a cry. The images stopped swirling in his head and the breath could enter his body again. He coughed, noticing the absence of the hand. His vision cleared and he looked around.
She was gone.
It was all gone. The house, the bones and the witch. There was nothing but bamboo surrounding them and the cold light of the moon shining high above. Herb was slumped over not far from him, but that hardly registered.
She was gone.
You'll look for me, a voice laughed in his head, but you won't find me. You'll never find me.