tHIS IS THE rough draft of the first part of Ch 9. I will correct it tomorrow and put it up. The rest will be put up whn it is finsihed, sometime in the next coupl months, depending on how fast I write. Give me a few weeks to give myself a deadline. Please comment on this part since it is still being worked on, oh and take into account that this takes into account the changes I am doing in the rewritten updates of previous chapters.

enjoy

Joseph A.. Kohle jakohle@worldnet.att.net

DISCLAIMER: Ranma Nibunnoichi is the property of Takahashi Rumiko, Shogakukan Inc, Shonen Sunday Comics, Fuji TV, Kitty Film, Studio Deen, Viz Video, and Viz Select Comics. It is used without their permission and is not intended for profit but only for the enjoyment of fans of the Ranma series. All characters within this fic that are not the property of the above mentioned are copyrighted to the author, Joseph Kohle, January 1997. This work of fiction is the result of the author's hard work and is for the enjoyment of others. Please do not change, modify, or use any segment of this story without the author's knowing and written consent. Feel free to archive this work.

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Meiyo Ai soshite Nikushimi

A Ranma Nibunnoichi Fanfic
by Joseph A. Kohle
Chapter IV Separate Paths
Part IX Facing Oblivion

--1--

The universe was darkness, again. Not terrible like a child's closet but comforting like the enclosed confessional. It enfolded him like a lover, and he caught himself slipping into fantasies best left for another time. It was the warmth of a bed in the morning, the soothing lull of Kasumi's voice, the blissful ignorance of the harsh light that lured the weary sailor like a tavern and the arms of a maid. All whispered to just let go and float for eternity as the world turned. Why fight when Mousse would tidy up, make sure the final danger he posed was wiped from the earth with but a single thrust, a consuming flame, and the depths of the ocean.
In time, Akane would understand. The tears would dry and her heart would find another. So much better than the tortured, uncertain existence of her Sancho to his Quixote. Just allow Kasumi to sing and he would be content . . . parts of songs, simple and pure.
He could almost hear it.
"...anata no nega igoto ga..."
A mother's voice, loving and gentle, confident and clear.
"...kanau naraba..."
Her face was covered in tears. She would cry and her heart would break. But if he stayed . . .
"...tsubasa ga hoshii
"kono senaka ni
"tori noyo ni
"shiroi tsubasa tsuketa..."
In inaction did he betray them?
"...hudasai kono o ozorani
"tsubasa wo hiroge ton de
"yukitai yo..."
Could he forsake them?
"...kana shimi
"nonai jiyuu na
"sora e tsubasa hatameka se
"yukitai..."
Or do you save them?
He screamed as the darkness became a roiling geyser of mud. "Leave me alone! I'm not your toy!"

Light, filtered through closed lids, pierced the darkness. Air, a young maiden's sweet kiss, suffused his lungs. Grass, wet with dew and dream soft, bent beneath his hands. The morning damp soaked his pants and chilled him like a swamp as the warm sun scorched his back like a desert. A burning dichotomy of emotions leaving only a scintillating tremor of utter release in his body. The caressing wind, the gentle melody of life that floated about him like stray wisps of hair. Scent. Sound. Texture. The feel of home. He did not even need to see it. It was the home that he held in his dreams and fantasies, the reality where he longed to be.
His eyes wakened slowly to the green grass and the small stone path meandering before him. Blinking away the dark nightmare, the garden of the Tendou home filled his awareness. Unbelieving, he stumbled to his knees, trying to asure himself the scene was real.
The tree, the pond, the rising peak of the dojo on his left; all of them deliciously satisfied his devouring gaze. He knelt before the open porch to the room in which his father played shogi and drank.
The subtle whisper of his father's voice caressed the wind, declaring the last move of his friend to be illegal; the click of the wooden pieces. Was that Kasumi in the kitchen? Her sweet voice filling the air like the scent of wild flowers on the wind? Nabiki was on the phone, her voice crisp as a winter morn, snapping orders and making demands. And Akane? Her glorious shout burst from the dojo, brimming his weary and battered heart with joy and peace.
Yet no movement. No sense of rightness.
There was no one, only ghosts and shadows moving gently against the half-opened shoji. The small wind chime tittered like a practical joker.
It was a hollow diarama.
A fraud to relax and entertain him.
Anger clenched within him, a muscle drawn for the killing blow. A practical joker was the truth, a sadistic master willing to torment him to the end of his days, until he screamed in insanity and begged his life to be unburdened from his shoulders as if he were Atlas bargaining with Hercules.
"Do you think I'm that easy?" he whispered. "Is this the best you can come up with?" His fist closed tightly, and he watched the swirling blue and white ki coalesce around it. "An empty home! A shattered life! Promises as empty as everything else you've shown me! Is that it? Is that all you have, Boukyaku? Why don't you promise me something that I don't have? That I'll never have?"
With a flicker of his mind, his hand wrapped around the glinting blade of a wakazashi, as sharp and biting as any words rolling from Nabiki's tongue. He had learned his lessons well the first time trapped within the idol. He knew the power he held when he chose to be there.
"I can tempt you too! You want my life! Well, you can have it." He leveled the blade at his heart and lifted his eyes to the sky. It was dark and brooding. Red and black burnished in darkness, and here he sat within the hole of light and purity, his sanctuary and desire, mocking him as surely as Boukyaku's laughter. "If I die, you die." he gritted his teeth and prepared to end it. So simple and so right. Akane would understand. Xian Lin would.
"Ranma?"
The voice snapped his resolve and the strength in his arm and mind. The blade vanished as his hand fell and was cradled by the earth. The sound of a shoji sliding open captured his attention. He turned to the sound and nearly cried out in relief as he realized who had called.
She was different. She was no longer the girl who stared back at him with slightly shocked eyes every time he looked in the mirror. A woman filled his eyes, an angel that took his breath away and constricted his chest like the sight of Akane's face in the pale morning light. The coppery curls had deepened to the red of the setting sun while her skin had become the light of the hunter's moon. Taller than he was as a girl, her body was thinner, the hips curving less, and the swell of her breasts more subtle rolling hills to the prominent mounds that would have been his had a different chromosome begotten him. Lithe like the cheetah, the strength of a cougar reflected in her deep, sea green eyes.
She was dressed in a red chegasm with vines and white lilies climbing from the hem up across her hips and stomach to the encircling clasp about her neck. An oval cut in the bosom exposed her white skin and a hint of cleavage. On each wrist, two stylized ivory bracelets clattered as her arms swayed.
She paused for a second in the open shoji, her lips slightly parted, and he drew in every detail of her face, mapping it and accepting it because it was right in his mind. This was the face he should have been staring at, the face he might have worn with comfort. This wasn't some magical adaptation of his body, it was the actual girl, but before he could finish his thoughts, the doubt vanished from her eyes and a cry leapt in a bell's peal from her lips. "Ranma!"
She was in front of him an instant later, as if the world had shifted at her bidding. "I didn't think you'd come. I wouldn't have blamed you, you know." Her lips curved into a half-smile. Her eye were serious, however.
Searching his face, she sought reassurance that he was real and not some figment of this prison's devising. He knew his expression was the same. Guarded, yet desiring to open up and let go.
It was a relief to find her after only expecting her death. "If you could keep yourself out of trouble, I would've stayed away. But do you do that?" He knuckled her chin and smiled. "Play with the big boys and you'll get hurt."
It was an old game, one that had kept their relationship from becoming something that might just hurt them. Playful and friendly like otters, but without the seriousness of insult and pain and love that was the standard carried by his tie to Akane. That was why the closeness distracted him. Her fingers hovered above his forearm, their heat penetrating the silk of his shirt. The scent of jasmine filled the air around him. So different from the sun-scented aroma of mango and honey that hung about Akane, but just as distracting and alluring.
"I knew what I was doing. What does it matter to me? I change one prison for another, one sorrow for grief. The price is worth it to see you living in peace." Her fingers drifted toward his cheek, but then fell to lie lightly upon his chest.
His heart was thundering in his breast from fear and something he couldn't quite grasp. To flee backwards was his initial reaction, but she held him enthralled like a snake does its prey. Shaking his head, he tried to push her away. "Do you think I'm free? You are part of me. Every time I close my eyes, I feel your pain. I feel your sorrow and your fear."
"You shouldn't have come back," she snapped. "This place isn't for you. It's my fight, and this is my choice. If I want to die here, then I'll die here."
"No!" he denied. He shoved her backwards, pushing her onto her rump as he scrambled to his feet. "I'm not letting anyone die for me. So don't even get any ideas. You might have tricked me the first time, but you're not going to do it this time. Can't you see that I'd rather die than have any of you get hurt?" He turned his eyes to the dark sky and screamed, "You're not getting any of them! Do you hear me!?"
"Ranma."
His rage faded as her voice brought him to look on her.
She was propped on her elbows, her expression searching. The feather- light touch of her mind brushed his, but it was gone before he found what she had retrieved. Her eyes began to shine. She stood up and gazed intently at him. "You are right, but only in part," she added and smiled as she saw his satisfied smirk. "You are part of me. I am part of you."
"I don't understand."
Closing the distance between them, she cocked her head and slapped him with a scrutiny that said he should know the answer, but that she was going to give him the answer anyway. He just didn't understand women. "You said it yourself. Every time you sleep, I am there. I can feel you even when you're not here. How do you think I knew you were here? You went from being a reminder of what I was missing to filling my mind with your presence. Can't you feel the same? And don't lie to me!"
"It's the idol. That is all it is. My body and soul are connected to it, nothing else."
"Then gather your ki."
"I don't see. . ."
"Do it!"
Her voice snapped, suffused with the authority that she had employed in their training. For a moment, he stumbled to gather his energy only to realize that he had done it automatically. Astonished and mesmerized, his eyes followed the blue energy, tinged with white like a cloudy azure quartz, as it rippled around his body, following the slightest contour. "I still don't see what this means," he mumbled in perplexity as he returned his attention to Xian Lin. He sucked in his breath in shock.
Xian Lin stood before him, her aura cascading about her. The incandescent white of her aura melded to her body, but within it he saw whispers of blue. He was not a master like Toufu-sensei, but he could recognize his own aura and those of a few other people. There was no doubt that the blue was his.
"How? This can't be possible." Holding out his hand, he compared the white to Xian Lin's aura. It was the same. Muted like a fine horn, but still the pure pattern of her aura. For a moment, he considered sinking to the soft ground, but he fought it. "I don't understand," he finally groaned in frustration.
"Neither do I." Grasping his wrist, she lifted his hand and placed it on the bare skin above her heart. A jolt or heat rushed through his hand and into his body. Gasping, he tried to pull away, but she held him tightly until he relaxed and let things take their course. After he relaxed, she released his wrist and placed her own hand above his heart. At her touch, his vision blurred. He could feel her heart beating in time with his own, slowly speeding up.
Ranma was in her village, practicing against her friend as her mother watched with pride. "Watch, Mother," she called out and leapt forward to attack. Her opponent retreated and then an older girl was there to defend her friend. She screamed in pain as the fist crushed her nose. Bright blood flowed, but then she was older, watching as the men with helmets and iron weapons made their way toward her village. Her mother was with the Matriarchs, talking to the men. None of them saw the subtle signal. She tried to shout a warning as she saw several men knock arrows, but by then it was too late. Her mother was falling. Blood was everywhere, and the screams of women filled her ears.
With a start Ranma shook off the memories and turned to face Xian Lin. She was staring at him with a dazed expression, as if she were two places at once. She flinched once and muttered something about cats. Then he noticed the auras. They had switched. She now wore his blue and his own arm was encased in white, yet where his own hand touched her, the blue fled onto his hand and the white onto her body.
It was like blood flowing through the body, natural and normal. Snail- paced, their auras equalized into a bluish white. He could see his and hers within in it, but they melded so perfectly that it was only the difference in colour that gave him a hint that they were separate. Or maybe they weren't supposed to be separate. But then the visions flooded his mind again, blocking out the idea.
He was riding his father's shoulders as his mother watched in anguished silence as they departed on a short training trip. He was cradling his mother, weeping as the village burned around him. His father was training him, but speaking of tradition in Chinese. The man's face was fierce, determined despite the fact that two of his arrows protruded from the man's body and his leg was broken. He couldn't kill him. But he had no choice as the darkness closed over him and the cats began to yowl in hunger and fear. They were in the mountains steadily traveling towards Jusenkyo. In the distance, he thought he saw himself with a man in ancient armour, but why was his hair red? His father was training him. The man kissed him, his hands caressing his breasts, lifting the dress from his body, inch by inch. They were on poles, bounding at each other as the guide screamed at them in a language he could understood, but was forced to ignore. They placed the statue before his lover, and their eyes met. He rushed to attack his Clan Sisters. He kicked his father. The statue shattered. The panda rushed at him. The shadow killed his lover. Fear claimed him, and he was transfixed by the attacking panda. There was no way to beat the shadow, he gathered his energy. The kick connected. The world exploded in light. The water closed over his head.
Nothing.
He was looking at her breasts, and her voice was crying in his head, crying and pleading as he screamed because he was her.
Ranma jerked his hand away. There was a wrenching, as if the world had shifted, and he suddenly felt empty as his aura shifted back to the original imperfect colour and pattern.
"What was that?" he whispered in horror. He could still feel the pain, remember the anguish, the fear, the joy, but it was fading, losing its reality like a movie does once the lights return. Xian Lin's sob broke his bemused musings.
"I didn't know. I didn't know that would happen," Xian Lin whispered. Her eyes were wide and filled with tears as she looked up at him. Ranma did not even recall her crumpling to the ground. One moment they had both been standing and then . . . He shook his head. He did not know. He was uncertain if he really even wanted to know what had happened.
Kneeling, Ranma laid his hand against her shoulder. "It's not your fault. You didn't know that would happen."
"I did," she argued. "Maybe not like that, but I thought it would bring us closer, make us understand each other. I didn't know. I had tried to forget all of that. I never meant for you to see it. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."
"Xian Lin," he whispered. But he said no more as she turned her face upwards. His breath caught as her shimmering eyes held his. Pain. Her eyes screamed pain and torment. They screamed of a desire that she was denied century after century. A curse had been laid upon his mortal body, but here was a soul who would be tormented through all eternity, and mayhap beyond. "I didn't know. I never knew. How can you stand it? How can you look at me and not hate me for trapping and damning you twice? How come!?" "It's not your fault," Xian Lin whispered. "I made my choice. I made it fifteen hundred years ago, and I made it again a month ago. I knew what would happen at the beginning, and I knew what would happen this time. Boukyaku is destined to have me."
"Then why?" Ranma asked in an anguished voice. "Why do it?" But he knew the answer.
"I loved him. You saw that. You felt that, and you know what I did for that love." She was crying now. The first time she had ever cried since her death. She didn't sob, but the tears fell to crash against Ranma's hand and the earth of the Tendou garden. "I love you too."
Unhinged by Xian Lin's tears and then her declaration, Ranma was a statue when she reached up and kissed him, her lips pressing softly against his like silk drawn across the sensitive skin of the neck. The world disappeared in a blur of images. Many familiar, but just as many of people and places he had never seen. They came and went like a flashing strobe light, incoherent and leaving him fumbling for reality. Then they receded and disappeared leaving him surrounded by warmth, a sweet taste upon his lips.
The taste was indescribable. Lingering and pure, it held all the innocence and joy of a child yet the burning passion of a genius. Tantalizing and fresh like Akane's lips, yet subtly different in the overall experience.
Different?
His eyes snapped open to find the world blurred by burnished red hair and a face he knew well. A face that wasn't Akane.
Their lips still touched, her breath mingling with his, but the moment was over and it was not long before the reality of the transgression clarified for Xian Lin like rocks in the mist, but it was already too late to stop.
"I am sorry. I didn't mean to. It just felt right, I'm so sorry." her face was red as she stumbled over the words. Shamefaced, she began to back away. "I'll understand if you hate me."
"No!" Ranma started forward. "I don't hate you, Xian Lin. It's just that. . ."
"I know," Xian Lin whispered brokenly, her eyes burning with pain that washed over Ranma like a searing vent of gas, "but I can't help it! I-I . . . it's not fair!" Her face twisted into a grimace of agony, and Ranma stumbled backwards as her tortured emotions slammed into his mind. Before Ranma could react she was up and scrambling toward the house. Her passage sent the chimes clanking wildly and left Ranma with a stunned expression on his face and a heavy weight upon his heart.
The sky continued to darken and Ranma's hopes began to dim in the face of this new problem. Xian Lin loved him. Their auras were being mixed and matched as if he were some child's dress-up doll. Boukyaku. Cologne. Mousse. Akane. And now, Xian Lin. Everything was wrong. Everything he touched was doomed for failure.
He wanted to scream. He wanted to run after Xian Lin. The sky pulsed, bringing his attention to the malevolent interest of Boukyaku and the power that resided behind him. Boukyaku's glee at the recent events was almost palatable. Two separate, uncoordinated enemies. Ranma knew the problem with such a stance. Hell, he thought, Kasumi could have figured it out. He had very little time. He had to find Xian Lin, and they had to resolve this. Now.
Ranma ran into the house searching for Xian Lin; however, the moment his foot touched the smooth wood of the sitting area, the world shifted and yanked at him, twisting his body and mind as his reality dissolved. He landed flat on his stomach, his face pressed into burning red earth. Noise crashed around him as if he were trapped within a drum, beating him to the ground as the heat slowly tore through his body and ignited the marrow of his bones. And through the pain, the blurring vision, he heard Xian Lin's screams.

--2--

Mu Tsu dropped another log into the fire, sending sparks into the night air like a hundred short-lived fireflies. Leaning back against the small stack of wood, he watched the silent form of Ranma. She was sitting in the same lotus position. Her damp clothes were nearly dry. Though he had no clue where the moon was, Mu Tsu was sure that it was nearing the horizon. The sun would be up in an hour or more, and the moon would set a few hours after that.
Reaching down, Mu Tsu retrieved the tanto from the ground. It was a superb weapon, finely balanced and honed to a hair-thin blade. In the firelight he could see it clearly. The blade was clean and polished, shining. Someone must have taken the time to clean it after its last use. Mu Tsu idly wondered if Ranma had. It made sense, but at the same time, the notion of Ranma cleaning up his own blood was a difficult one to imagine.
It was not hard to remember the times when he had wanted to see Ranma's blood spilt across the ground like some child's tipped-over glass of cherry punch. Four months ago, he had attacked Ranma at night. Only a misstep on his part had allowed Ranma to notice the sharpened kamma he had thrown in desperation. Only luck had saved his rival, but it always seemed that way.
Despite his curses, despite his problems, Mu Tsu considered Ranma one of the luckiest men on earth. Mu Tsu doubted Ranma would have survived his life in Nerima, or maybe even up to it, without a great deal of luck. Ranma had skill. Ranma had the intelligence and instincts of a great fighter, but even those could not have protected him against everything he had faced. The Orochi. Pantyhose Tarou. Kirin. Toma. And dozens of others that Mu Tsu had heard about and probably more that he could barely imagine. Mu Tsu had once laughed at his rival's plight, enjoying the straights in which Ranma always found himself floundering.
But now? He was not so sure anymore.
Where was the smile that had been the mark of Ranma's easy-going nature? Where was the boyish charm and good-natured competition?
He glanced at the tanto in his hands. Was that what growing up meant? Everything became serious, and the world no longer was filled with wonder but terror?
Yes, he had wanted to kill Ranma, dreamed of it. But to have the blade in his hand, to be readying himself for a single killing stroke, to fulfill Ranma's last requests, was not the future he hungered after. With one single stroke, he would close a part of his life that he would miss. He would complete a chapter in dozens of people's lives, and maybe kill more than one, physically and emotionally.
It terrified him.
They all lived in his shadow. Old and young alike. Over the course of the weeks, Mu Tsu began to see the real Ranma and came to know the man behind the mask. Strong, quick, and desiring nothing more than obscurity. Ranma wanted nothing to do with any of them, at least that was how Mu Tsu saw it. But Ranma's karma always seemed to draw others to him and him to danger like mosquitoes to blood. And so they were all feeding off of him. But was Ranma supposed to be part of his life? Was Ranma's presence in his life foreordained? Ranma was because of Shampoo. And now to break free of Ranma, he had to let himself be swallowed in the footprints of his passage.
Although he knew Ranma had the best intentions, the best goal at heart, it was still his purpose, and Mu Tsu was simply an extension of it. Mu Tsu was nothing more than a pawn in this game between Kuh Lon and Ranma. And everyone knew what part pawns played. Yet, if a pawn reached the other side alive anything could happen. But to do that Mu Tsu needed to be away from Ranma, away from the bulls eye.
Because, when Ranma woke, his battle done, Mu Tsu would fall beneath his shadow once more, and that was not his wish.

--3--

The house blurred around her as she bolted from the enclosing backyard and through to the front door. Bursting from the entryway, she rushed toward the gate and collapsed against it, her head resting on the cool stone.
How could she be so stupid?
The confusion in his mind she had expected, but the self-loathing and fear she had not been prepared to face.
Yet could she expect anything more from him? His love for Akane was stronger than even his desire to be the best martial artist. In small ways, she had stepped in and pushed the relationship along by working on Ranma from the inside. It gave her a purpose. It gave him happiness. But it brought her to his real heart.
Maybe it had been a mistake to take an active role in his life, but when the other choice was to be absorbed and perhaps annihilated by Ranma's invincible inner strength, she was really given no choice. Become a part of Ranma's life or die, so she fought him from the initial joining of their souls.
Fighting him, she had been locked perpetually with Ranma. She had shared his life, past and present. She had delved into his memories and found things even he could not recall. She had seen his birth, listened to his mother's heartbeat within the womb. She had suffered eternally through the darkness and the screams of the cats. Friendship, agony, depression, love. Everything was as much a part of her as it was of him.
She loved him. She could not help loving him, but to give him peace, she had helped him gain the strength to take the first step with Akane. It was all she could have done under the circumstance. She never realized that she would be given the chance to meet him, talk with him, learn to see him as a person.
The irony of it was not lost on her.
It was simply another aspect of her curse. Eternal punishment for her crimes against the Amazons. Because of Boukyaku, because she had loved someone she could never have.
Maybe this was not the same, but if it could be any closer in similarity, she did not know how it was possible.
"I love him," she whispered into the cool stone. "I'd give anything for you, Ranma. Even my life, my eternal life."
With tears as war paint, she lifted her face to the sky. The sky, before a deep blue filled with clouds and birds, was now a burning inferno of flame and darkness. In past victims of her curse, she had feared that sight as she lay dormant within them. Now her heart was filled with an exuberant spirit.
Fear burned away into a rictus of hate that consumed her heart as she stood up and gazed into oblivion.
"You have desired me for fifteen hundred years, Boukyaku. You stole my love from me, but I kept him from you. You won't kill this one. You won't curse me again."
Why, she wondered, why had the other girls never seen past their own desires to Ranma's? She loved him as much as they did, if not more, but they refused to give him his freedom. She would. She had transcended death, and now it was time to move on. She would give him her love by making him happy.
"Let us dance, Demon!" she challenged.
The sky darkened in response, and Xian Lin twisted the world she had created and stepped beyond.
Hot air seared her lungs and face as she materialized beyond the protection of her own prison and into Boukyaku's. Wilting under the malevolent fire that raged around her, she crumpled to her knees. Gathering her ki, she pushed back the heat and stood on her own two feet.
The blasted red landscape shattered around her and blackness surrounded her. For a moment it was calm. She was alone and the Universe was empty, but then a swirling cloud of the deepest black began to form, sucking the darkness into it. Only two bright red orbs shone in anxious glee within the darkness.
'Let us dance, woman,' Boukyaku's sibilant whisper wrapped around her, but she charged before he closed his mind on her.
She lashed out with a blast of pure white ki, slicing through the dark void like a comet in the night sky. It arced into Boukyaku and was swallowed as a flame crushed between two fingers.
Shocked, she was immobile as a black hand surrounded her and engulfed her body. Panic ripped through her mind as she screamed in pain. Thousands of midnight tendrils of energy violated her soul, tearing at her mind. And then, there was only a blessed silence in the eternal darkness.

--4--

Although it was nearly three in the morning, people bustled about Shan Pu as she wandered through the Tokyo International Airport. Voices filled the air and competed with the loud speakers chattering so quickly in Japanese that Shan Pu had trouble following some of what was being said, until it was repeated in Mandarin.
A medium-sized knapsack, thrown over her shoulder, bounced against her lower back as she wove through the small crowds of people. Her other duffle was doing its best to entangle her legs, but Shan Pu kept a step ahead of it, gliding through the crowd like an ice dancer.
Many Japanese business men, tired from long flights or bored with their work, turned to watch Shan Pu's lithe form blaze past them like a shooting star, there one moment and gone the next.
Shan Pu noticed her admirers on a subliminal level, but her mind was preoccupied. Lately, her mind often had retreated to this state, which surprised her. She was not given to deep thoughts or meditative trances. When the need arose, she could struggle through a problem and even surpass in some instances, but she never had been, nor would she ever gain a great deal of intelligence. She was smart, it was just that certain things did not entice her. It was easier just to follow her emotions and let others plot and plan for her. Of course she had taken some things into hand with Ranma, but they were never too complex. Her great-grandmother was the wise seer.
And it had worked. Her goal lay within her reach, but a few steps away. She only had to jump, grab the outstretched branch and hang there comfortably for the rest of eternity as the world passed beneath her feet.
But the chasm that waited below her feet terrified her. What if she missed? What if the branch was not meant to hold her? What if. . . .
Something, like a worm, was gnawing at her stomach. It was as if she had misplaced her favourite childhood doll again. Losing her mother's doll shortly after her mother's death had sent Shan Pu into a frenzy of worry and searching for the creature. After many days, she found it in her mother's old room, wrapped in a worn, down comforter. Finding the doll sent a sob shuddering through her small body like a small earthquake, leaving her weak at the knees yet relieved.
The worm in her stomach felt the same. A building tension of doubt and terror that she could not understand. Maybe it was simply that she was about to embark on the final step of her months long quest to gain Ranma. Ranma had escaped before, it could happen again. She was just worried about that, she told herself and smiled at a cute Japanese man who was watching her unabashedly. He blushed and quickly buried his face in his newspaper.
Of course the guy was not Shan Pu's ideal, but it was almost arousing to flirt with the self-conscious Japanese men. Their mystified, often flustered, and embarrassed reactions made the entire enterprise of flirting almost a kind of combat for Shan Pu. If they looked away she won, and they always eventually looked away.
Except Ranma. He pushed her away, he avoided her, but he never seemed to lose when they flirted. Shan Pu always did. Ranma had an upper hand, but that wasn't right. Men were to be dominated. She was the mistress. He was her husband. That was the Amazon way.
Shan Pu shook her head, sending her purple mane flowing in the stagnant air. Turning she entered the lounge that abutted her gate. Finding a seat she curled up in to it, and stared out the window at the lights of Tokyo and smiled, remembering the happy times there as she forgot about the future for a few minutes and simply relaxed until her seating assignment was called and she was forced to board the plane.

--5--

The Realm of Boukyaku bore down on every part of his body as if he was attempting to shoulder the heavens by himself. Every joint in his body screamed in red hot agony. The unexpected onslaught of torture shattered his concentration, allowing a tiny tendril of consciousness to slip inside his mind.
For a moment there was nothing, only the vague impression one gets on a dark night that something is not right. Ranma tried to search for the answer as he attempted to regain control of the surrounding world. Something had happened. Something was wrong . . . Something . . .
His mind focused back on the world, pushing away the weight, trying to seal his astral body away from Boukyaku. As his world congealed, the weight lifting from his shoulders. He noticed the thin tendril of darkness, which snaked to him and through him like an umbilical cord. It fought against his efforts, forcing him to expend more of his concentration and strength, like a swimmer fighting a strong current. But it was so tiring, dragging him downward into sluggish oblivion.
The world shifted. It was no longer dark, but bright warm. A breeze caressed his skin through his open shirt. The sun above bathed him in heat, relaxing his muscles and mind as he slipped to the grass. It was soft as down, and melted out of his way. It was like sleeping on air.
But he was on grass. His mind told him there was something wrong. Grass was slightly abrasive. Why didn't he feel it? Fumbling, his hand crossed his body and touched his other arm. His arm was there, but he couldn't feel the ground only the touch of his hand. Groggily he tried to raise himself, but slipped. Grabbing for a purchase, his nails gouged into his arm sending a jolt of white hot sensations racing through his body to his mind.
For a moment his mind cleared. He was sitting on the red earth of the prison, his fingers digging into his arm. But the pain did not last, and soon the peaceful meadow was slipping back into reality, fading the stark burning world into nothing.
"No," he whispered.
The birds were singing.
"It's not right."
Was that Akane's laugh?
"She's . . . Nerima."
And Xian Lin was glowing in health and happiness as she moved through the knee high grass.
"She's . . ." Her scream echoed in his mind as her face contorted for a brief moment.
"Its not real!" he screamed, his fingers clamping onto his forearm again, sending the mind clearing agony through his body.
The world shimmered, losing its reality as the pain assaulted him. This wasn't real. It was another vision, he whispered over and over. As his nails gouged his skin, the pain became a focus. This was real, he told himself. Digging his nails in deeper, he relished the pain. It burned through his arm and up into his shoulder. His fingers were taunt, the tendons straining and resisting the forced pressure. Every joint compacted as he bore down, his nails sliding along the skin, tearing small tracks, leaving behind rivulets of blood. Deep down he knew this was not physical pain, but the force of his will acting against his spiritual form, but it felt real. It was real. And it meant he was in control.
"Ranma! Stop, please stop," Akane's tearful voice flooded his mind, her tear filled face wavering before him. "It was a mistake. You didn't hurt me. You promised, Ranma. You promised not to do this. Please put down the knife."
Confused, he felt a slicing pain in his arm. Wide-eyed, he looked at his forearm. A tanto was in his hand, covered in blood as it cut through muscle. He could feel the steel grating on bone, as the blood spilled out around him and onto the ground.
Fumbling, his hand let go of the tanto. It slid from his hands and disappeared, the wound slowly healing before his eyes. Flesh knitted to flesh, muscle regenerating like he was watching a time-elapse film.
"What?" he whispered
"Sleep, Ranma," Akane whispered. "It will be over soon. Safe from everyone. Sleep. Make me happy." Her voice caressed him sibilantly, closing his eyes. Her face twisted, distorted, turning into darkness. Her eyes, her beautiful eyes glowing, shimmering like coals.
"NO!"
The world snapped into focus. He pushed his mind closed, closing it, fighting against something someone.
"No," a dark voice screamed.
"I am not your toy!" His mind closed like a trap. There was a thunderous explosion within his mind, and a dark mass was thrown back from him to disappear into the fiery world.
For a moment, Ranma rested, his breathing labored. He had pushed his energy to the limit. He was exhausted as if he had fought for hours against Ryouga, but he knew that Boukyaku had also been pushed to the edge of his own skills. Ranma did not know how he knew that. Maintaining his defenses was easier now, attributing to Boukyaku's waning strength. His mind was free and unclouded. It was as if Boukyaku was occupied with something else.
"Or someone," Ranma growled, hatred boiling just beneath the surface of his voice. Xian Lin's screams echoed torturously in his memory. He remembered the pain and the sudden loss. Now he could not feel her. No, that was not true. If he concentrated, subsuming all around him into his senses, a familiar tingle dwelled beneath it all, muted and distant.
Sickeningly, the tingle flickered, slipping from his senses like a corrupted audio tape. The pauses of silence became longer and longer, and then they abruptly vanished into nothing. "Boukyaku," he whispered darkly, "now it ends."
Climbing to his feet, he surveyed the inferno he was within. Around him the world was consumed by dark flames, but he was safe within his small bubble of control. He was safe for the moment. But where could Xian Lin be?
The dark mountain that had dominated the world before still stood distantly on the horizon. It was the only marker in this world, and Ranma knew Boukyaku would be near it. He could not explain from what the certainty existed, but the mountain was his answer. Boukyaku was there. And if he was there, then Xian Lin was as well.
It was a slim hope. Yet he had won from even slimmer margins.
He could only journey to the mountain, hoping that Xian Lin was there, hoping that she still lived.
Taking a single step and then another, he strode across the blasted earth, his soul probing forward, searching for that brief moment of contact, that spark he knew to be Xian Lin.
For what seemed hours, he trudged hopelessly through the ruined red landscape. Distance, time, space, they had no meaning under the inferno of the sky above and the featureless desert he walked upon. With each step his soul wearied, his reserves of energy dribbled out onto the ground to be absorbed in the red desert like water from a leaking canteen.
The mountain was no closer. In truth it seemed to take two steps back for every he took forward.
Unwilling to admit defeat, he trudged on relentlessly. He would not lose, but as each step pulled more from his reserves of ki, he realized he was not going to make. Somehow, he was being drained by the idol.
When he had been trapped, Ranma had felt a similar thing, but then it had been simple weariness. He had only needed to cleanse his ki through meditation. The syphoning he endured now was more akin to Hinako-sensei's Happi-go-yen.
Ranma's steps slowed and then halted as the thought took form. Could it be possible that the idol or Boukyaku was forcing him to use his ki to remain within this damnable prison? Or was it something different? He had not felt the drain when Xian Lin had been near him, but now, especially after the brief scuffle with Boukyaku, he was losing energy.
It wasn't a conscious effort to maintain the world on his part. Could it be forced?
He frowned. Where had that thought come from? How could he be sustaining a world that he was visiting? Or was it more that he needed to sustain his form?
"I am more vulnerable here," Xian Lin had said, as she sank to the ground. "You are here as a whole being. I am only here of my own volition. I am residing within the statue and within your body. It requires more energy from me."
"And that means exactly what?" Ranma asked. As they had trained, Ranma had grown worried as Xian Lin seemed to wilt under the duress. He had kept the observation to himself since she would taken the comment as an insult, but it did not stop his speculation on why she used up her resources so much faster than him. Finally, much to Ranma's relief, Xian Lin had called the halt, her face haggard and movements lethargic.
"That I need to rest," she murmured as she slipped to the ground, automatically assuming a lotus position. "I'll show you how later, but you don't need this right now, and I am too tired to teach. Just watch over me."
"'Kay," Ranma answered, but her eyes were already closed. In moments, her form became still and distant.
Shaking his head, Ranma settled himself on the hot earth. Xian Lin had showed him how. If it was the same problem, then meditation should fix it, but what was the problem exactly? He wished he knew, but at least he was certain there was a way to fix it.
His head fell to his chest. Closing his eyes, he calmed his mind until there was nothing but his wa. For a moment he floated, absorbing the tranquility.
He noticed the difference instantly. Where before his wa had surrounded him and consumed him, this time, it became a passage, leading away from the prison.
Like an ambush, the path swept him forward relentlessly, drawing him toward a destination. Fear crashed through his heart as the world upended and then he was falling.
Frantically, he lashed out, hoping to clutch something. For a moment a part of him detached and swam upwards, but then it was gone.
Despairing, he plummeted downwards, briefly wondering how Boukyaku had ensnared him this time. Beneath him the glowing pathway was supernovaing in intensity. Was this death? The question flitted through his conscious. If it was, it wasn't so bad, he decided, as the warmth of the light filled him.
As his mind drifted free, and he began to grow lethargic, he felt his descent slow and halt.
The environment around him was a foggy light. Bobbing gently in the bathing light, he sought out an answer. Searching his new prison yielded little of value, so he turned inward and found the solution. The small part he had sent away from himself was still connected to his astral form. He could feel the thin tether of ki disappearing into the haze above, and anchoring him to the idol's own magic.
But where was he then? And where was he falling?
Though he had little ki to spare, Ranma cautiously extended a small tendril opposite his tether. Obviously his destination was there. Innately he knew that Boukyaku was not waiting for him, but whether it was death or something else, he did not know. Curiosity tugged at him with the insistence of a two year old.
Waiting as the tendril spun downward, he cautiously turned his attention back to the idol. Confused for a moment, he gently pressed his consciousness against the tether. For a moment nothing happened, and then, as if through a frosted lens, the world of the idol hazed over his senses.
There was something different about the idol. It was hard to discern through the haze, but it appeared as if a pattern was overlaying the blasted hell-like plateaus and the corroded basalt mountains and cliffs. Dark lines that crisscrossed the world as an intricate web.
As Ranma tried to focus, the white haze shifted and darkened. The other tendril touched its destination and another window opened before him. Unlike the other, this one was not sight, but familiarity, a sense of rightness. A beating heart, a gentle rhythm of breathing.
His physical body, he realized.
Instinctively, Ranma reached out and wrapped the presence of his body around him. It filled him, the ambrosia of the untapped reserves of ki in his mortal husk sluicing through him as if he were the floodgate in a dam.
In rapture, he allowed the ki to infuse him and replace that which he had lost within the statue's confines. Dimly, he began to perceive the world around his body. The fire crackled with intense heat, baking his face and arms. The cool autumn wind brushed through his hair as the crickets chirped their nightly songs. Even Mu Tsu's presence was noticeable, the worried sweat dripping from his brow.
Ranma knew he was but a step away from returning to his human life, but the tether to the idol still held. A slim line of faith that was Xian Lin's hope. And now, with the influx of his body's own power, the frost melted away leaving the secrets of the idol bared to his naked soul.
Ropey sinews of sludge knotted the idol. The physical manifestation of the world disappeared beneath the heavy webs of spiritual decay. Like ripping away the skin of a dead frog, the veins of power and control pulsed in into Ranma's senses, revealed for what they were.
The unexpected, complex weave confused Ranma. Though it sprawled endlessly, the pattern was chaotic. It reminded him of the time he had accidentally destroyed part of the dojo's electrical system. From a distance, he had watched the electrician pull out the charred wires and then begin to thread new wires through the circuit box. To Ranma, the twisting tangle of wires and connections, the several varieties of colour, and the random connection to the circuits made less sense than his calculus assignments. But the electrician seemed to know what he was doing. It was a simple matter of training.
So why couldn't he grasp the concept now?
He was a martial artist. This was his area.
Undaunted, he shifted closer to the idol's domain, ascending on the tether. The world of the idol jumped into clarity, the tiny details revealing themselves as he approached. The heavy cables were immobile, looping and twisting about each other like boneless lovers. Some disappeared into the earth, others branched toward the sky, meshing with the dark veil of knot work above his head. It was oppressive. Even from the outside, Ranma could feel the weight closing about the plane inside the idol. Like a trap, enclosing and holding the world together. It brought images of a willow tree to Ranma's mind. The mass of roots holding tightly the bank, so that the rushing, river water could not erode the nutrient rich soil.
Ranma frowned. It was not that easy. There was an illusive undercurrent running beside the spreading roots of Boukyaku. Although immobile, they seemed to struggle, fighting something that Ranma could not discern from his position.
Ranma slowed and halted as he came to within reaching distance of the thin curtain that separated him from the world of the idol. His tentative hand bridged the gap and brushed the membranous barrier. His danger sense flared. Shifting backwards into a defensive posture, a globe of ki formed in each of his hands, their glow contained only slightly as he watched and searched.
Nothing.
Peace had settled across his senses once more, his mortal husk safe in the real word, his soul isolated from the idol.
Warily, he released the ki, and stepped once more to the veil, and placed his hands on it and pushed.
There was fear. There was the sense of danger. But nothing came as he prepared his body for an attack.
It had to be nerves, or maybe the call of his body, he finally decided.
Pushing harder the membrane bulged outward, resisting his efforts, forcing him back, trying to hold him within. Unwilling to admit defeat and desert Xian Lin, he struggled, his hands pressing against the veil, distending it like a plastic bag.
Screaming like an air raid siren, his instinct warned him off, but he relentlessly continued, letting the curtain wrap about him, enclose behind him and drag him forward as the veil between the worlds tore and birthed him into the idol.
At one moment, it was as if he were pushing through packed earth, and then he was falling, his spirit desperately trying to adjust itself to the new world. About him the dark trunks of Boukyaku's body blurred past him, some seeming to snap at him as he tumbled toward the sleeping nest of asps.
Twisting and grabbing onto the empty spaces between Boukyaku's control, Ranma solidified the air, slowing himself and guiding his feet to a safe purchase between two pulsing conduits of dark sewage.
Gathering himself, Ranma stood still for but a moment to gain his awareness. Above him, a disk of blue rotated like a galaxy in the air, a rope of his own ki breaching the barrier between himself and his body.
For a brief moment it waited and then slid downward, unerringly following his descent until it lay like a shadow at his back.
Satisfied his exit was within reach, the world garnered Ranma's attention. The unending and almost incomplete whorls of the living world reminded Ranma of an anime he had seen once. A large crystalized forest with strange flora wavered in his mind, trying to impose itself over the uninhibited damnation before him. Yet, this did not look enchanting like that forest had, and he certainly did not see any giant insects, although Boukyaku could create those at any moment if he so desired. But then, if he now saw the world as it was, simply a layout of puppet strings, what would Boukyaku's illusions look like?
Delicately picking his path, Ranma began to move along the colorless ground, stepping around the trunks and roots. It was almost impossible. Though space existed, there was no straight path. He was forced to leap over thick knots and twisting labyrinthine walls to make any forward progress, and even then he felt as if he was being led in circles.
At every turn, the black vines seemed to gravitate toward him, slowly collapsing against his position. Dodging beneath one archway and then over a tangle on the floor, Ranma suddenly found himself confronted with a solid wall of black. Mousetrap quick, he launched backwards, but his foot brushed against the black for a moment.
There was no pain, just numbness as his ki bled away into the black, sending the darkness rippling in pleasure, before a shimmer of light folded over the twisting black skin and freezing it once more into a murky waterfall of ice.
Halting his backward movement, Ranma wearily sunk to the ground. His reserves were already being replenished from his physical body, but the brief contact had drained him greatly.
The encounter explained why he had been slowly losing his power as he traveled through the idol without the clarification offered by his anchor to the real world. Obviously, his ki had an affect on Boukyaku in the idol. It sustained him, or gave him more mobility. Ranma thought it was the latter. The solid wall had leapt alive as soon as it had stolen his power. But then what was the shimmering around the black? And why could he not see it any more?
Ranma shook his head. He did not have time to discern the answer. In truth, he had very little time. Dawn soon would be upon him, and he needed to finish before the moon set a few hours later.
Traveling on the ground was obviously not working, he decided quickly. With a sinking feeling, he surveyed the dense wall in front of him, and the now closed passage behind him. Hurriedly, he glanced around, and found a few openings, high above his head, where it thinned into strands rather than full nets. Closer to him, a small depression in the dark wall grudgingly allowed a sliver of light through, probably enough for his body to just squeeze through.
It was far above him, but he was an astral being at the moment. Had not Xian Lin informed him of the lack of limitations on an astral form. He just hoped she was right about it.
Ranma gritted his teeth, gathered his strength and leapt for the opening.
It hung perhaps a hundred feet above him, but his leap carried him much farther, arcing him up over the waterfall, and then into the maze of branches between earth and sky. Realizing his mistake, Ranma desperately lashed out, seeking a safe purchase for his ki. Rushing toward the ceiling, he prodded between the deadly black icicles.
Dimly he remembered the shimmering around the waterfall, and tried to brush beside a bridge as he shot past. Not quite touching the hungry structure, he felt his ki catch against something and then there was a shimmering surrounding his ki, trying to immobilize it.
Fighting desperately, Ranma kept his energy flowing past the shimmering, but used it like a foothold, and pushed against it. The strange energy tried to hold him down, but he was fast. A burst of power, and he was nudged in a different direction.
Ranma smiled. The actually dynamics of what he had attempted were unimportant. He had done it, and he could do it again.
A single thought sent several tethers out to touch against four different black structures, just barely touching the shimmering film. Three of them hit, but a small miscalculation caused him to brush against Boukyaku's form with the last. Weakness spread like a virus through his astral body, but he now knew how to fight it. Quickly breaking contact, he opened his mind to his body and replenished his lost reserves. At the same time, he layered his ki around Boukyaku's power so he was pressing against only the multi-hued surface.
A moment later he solidified his astral body and all four anchors. He stopped instantly, as if he had never even been moving. The four fingers of his ki dissipated and then coalesced around his body. Absorbing the energy, Ranma allowed his human form to return as he floated in the air, considering his next move.
He was safe from danger for the moment. Surveying the world around him, however, his sense of security plummeted. What he was supposed to do from this position?
This was not the same world as before. Before, the distant mountain had called him to it, giving him a goal. But this? Despair rose in his heart as Ranma gazed at the confusing maze about him.
It might be easier to only see the mountain and the blasted earth and scorched sky.
No, that would lead to his death. About him lay the true danger of Boukyaku's prison. If he saw only the illusion, Boukyaku would leech his ki away. Ranma needed to see it this way, but he needed the world as well.
So why couldn't he?
Obviously the complex weave gave thee world its form. Ranma smiled in delight. He just needed to find the pattern and then he could see both, be able to read it.
No. That did not sound right. More importantly it felt horribly wrong.
"You're wasting time, moron," he muttered under his breath. "Xian Lin needs you."
With a stray thought, Ranma extended a small finger of ki past one of the branches behind him and shoved off the translucent film about it. Gently moving forward, he continued with small fingers of his ki, keeping him away from the vertical stalks of Boukyaku's power.
They were less dense at this height, so he did not need to pay as much attention to what he was doing.
Instead, part of his mind probed outward, questing for a small light that might be Xian Lin. The rest of his conscious watched the world around him. He was fascinated at how easy it was to manipulate and control his ki. In truth, he could create patterns with his ki, pushing off from several things at once to push him into complex maneuvers.
He somersaulted between two tangled vines, and then launched himself upward, bracing himself against a massive trunk hanging ponderously above him. For a moment he watched his ki branch out across the rippling surface around the dark power. It steadied for a moment, almost melding with the ethereal power, before retreating back towards his arm.
He glanced down briefly and almost screamed in horror. His arm was not there. Instead a swirling blue and white amorphous form bulged from his shoulder. Every part of his body from which a piece of his ki had extended was now a mass of energy.
Startled, he shot out several tethers and brought himself to a halt. As his ki retreated from the world to his body, the amorphous parts began to solidify. In moments, what had been a mass of chaos was his right arm.
Perplexed, Ranma pushed a part of ki outwards from his hand. He watched in wonder as his skin became clear and one of his fingers stretched outward, losing any semblance of humanity until only a long wisp of bluish-white stretched from his rapidly deteriorating hand and arm. There was no pain, and he could still feel his arm and hand, but they just were not the same.
Suddenly, he began to laugh as his mind connected everything. He remembered the time Xian Lin had allowed herself to shift into a true spirit form.
In front of his eyes, she had melted into a ball of pure white energy. Then she had begun to move about, small pieces of her body pressing against the world, moving her along like hundreds of tiny legs. Approaching him, she had wrapped herself about his body, sending thousands of tendrils across him and through him, rooting herself to his body for a moment, until there minds were so fully linked that he could hear every thought she created.
Rooting? Where had that word come from?
Ranma did not know, but it made sense. And was that not what this was about him? It looked like a forest, but could it not just be roots of Boukyaku's spiritual form, trying to latch onto the idol and control it?
The possibilities were staggering. If all the dark conduits about him were just the way Boukyaku controlled the world and spread his influence across it instead of his actual form, then a central body existed somewhere. A concentration of power and awareness that he could find. Like the melding Xian Lin had done to him, a mind existed somewhere within the idol.
And when he found that, he would find Xian Lin.
Giddy with his discovery, Ranma reached out with his awareness. He examined the world around him, looking for a pattern that would lead back to Boukyaku.
There.
He saw it among the many knots above him. There were larger spikes that seemed to all be radiating from the same place. He could not see it yet, but they disappeared into the distant horizon. Boukyaku was there. He was sure of it.
Grinning, he pushed against the world and shot himself forward at a tremendous speed. His body shimmered into a bright blue-white ball as he sped through the dark network Boukyaku was using to control the idol. Ahead the darkness began to deepen, and a giant pillar appeared in his mind's eye. Boukyaku waited there, and Xian Lin with him.
Ranma sped onwards, his mind beginning to form a battle plan.

--6--

It was an hour before dawn as the China Airline's 747 rolled to a halt among a row of docked aircraft oat the concourse. Below, luggage handlers and others were popping the lower cargo holds and beginning to unload the baggage. A fuel truck was already moving into place as the gangway slid against the smooth skin of the plane and mated with it.
Shan Pu felt and heard all of this as she fidgeted in her seat, waiting for the embarking to begin. Although this was much better than being shipped in a box, Shan Pu did not like it. There was something wholly unnatural about packing onself into a machine that looked like a giant pickle with wings. For all she knew, they could be trying to pickle people in the confines of the ghastly device.
That and the people.
She disliked the tight confines and the dozens of people complaining and talking incessantly as they milled about looking for their seats, or taking care of their children. It was so undisciplined. Any battle march that included such disarray resulted in lost respect for the Amazon warriors and the Battle Chief. And then to watch all of these people meekly sit and await whatever fate the pilots decreed for them? How could people trust them? Most of them were men, and soft foreign men at that.
With no other choice, Shan Pu endured the wait. Once, she had tried to force her way out of a crowded train. Although most Japanese appeared docile, she had received several bruises and more than several unwanted and indecent contacts before she could make her way outside the train and into the angry presence of the police waiting on the platform. Luckily only her pride had been hurt in that encounter. A stern warning and a long lecture was the price she paid for her impatience, and she would not allow that to happen ever again.
Her warrior pride would never allow it. Especially at this time and place. It would be a great affront to her great-grandmother if Hyu Chin should find any reason to be displeased with Shan Pu's self-introduction.
For several long minutes, Shan Pu stared out the small window as the plane disgorged its passengers. Finally, when there were only a dozen or so people on board, Shan Pu stood, gathered her bags from the overhead and swept gracefully down the aisle and out into the gangway.
She ignored the oily taste of the air and the stench of burning fuel and rotting garbage from the nearby harbour. The gangway passed in a blur as Shan Pu flowed through the slower passengers and erupted into the main concourse, dodging around a reuniting family.
As soon as she was free of the main gathering of the crowd of reuniting relatives, friends and milling businessmen and women, Shan PU rooted herself to the floor and scanned her surroundings, taking in the situation as she had been taught. Everything was filled into threat and non threat. Most of the people fell into the latter, only the military and police officials registered as a threat.
Shan Pu frowned. Hyu Chin had to be waiting somewhere.
Scanning the people once more, Shan Pu took her time. A woman, leaning on a cane and hunched against a support column, was drinking what appeared to be tea. She was older, nearly fifty, Shan Pu decided. Her dark hair, pulled tightly into a conservative bun, was shot with silvery gray, but her skin was surprisingly free of lines and wrinkles.
Her honed sense indicated the woman was not a threat, but it also said that she wasn't someone to be ignored either, which either meant she was focused on something else, or was a master of the Arts.
As Shan Pu watched the woman, she glanced up at the young Amazon and gave a small, almost imperceptible gesture. Shan Pu's eyes widened momen- tarily and then she nodded her head and began to walk toward the customs desk.
She passed through quickly as she flashed her Chinese citizenship papers and travel VISA. Most of the custom agents were too busy with several indignant Americans to pay Shan Pu more than a cursory glance, and that glance was more appraising of her salient features than any desire to contradict her claim of citizenship.
The woman was waiting for Shan Pu, as she exited the customs desk and entered the main concourse. A grandmotherly smile lit across the woman's face as Shan Pu approached.
"Shan Pu. It is nice to Finally meet you," The woman said in the Amazon dialect, confirming her identity.
"Elder Hyu Chin," Shan Pu replied respectfully, bowing her head. "I hope I have not caused you undue hardship in meeting me here."
"Not any great discomfort," Hyu Chin replied lightly. "Look at me child."
Obediently, Shan Pu raised her head and regarded Hyu Chin. Up close, Shan Pu reorganized her initial impression of the Elder in front of her. She was older than she appeared, maybe nearing eighty or ninety, not nearly as old as her own great-grandmother, but still a very respectable age.
Her skin, though unwrinkled, was well tanned and worn from years of hard living. Her eyes, a deep brown, regarded Shan Pu like those of a lazily circling eagle, contemplating, unhurried, and deadly. This was a woman to be feared.
She was also totally unfamiliar to Shan Pu.
Since Kuh Lon had told her of Hyu Chin, Shan Pu's hope had been that she had at least meet the mysterious Hyu Chin during her life, but such was not her fate. Of course, this did not disturb her. Between all Thirteen Clans of the Amazons, many of the Sisters did not know all of the others. Besides, it was obvious that Hyu Chin was serving as either a Watcher or an Agent in the modern China.
Since the Mongol occupation of China several hundred years previously, the Amazon Clans had been required to influence the politics and military policies of the current regime in power. Thus the Watchers and Agents had been sent into the world to deal with those who would interfere with the Amazon Clans. Today especially, with the People's Republic in firm control of China, it was even more important for the Amazon Clans to remain hidden and free of interference. As far as Shan PU could figure, Hyu Chin might have been absent from the Clans for more years than Shan PU held in her entire life.
"You have your mother's features, and her strength," Hyu Chin stated, breaking Shan Pu's thoughts. "I was saddened when I heard of her death. She was one of my best students. Just as I hear you are Kuh Lon's best student."
"I am shamed to admit that I am not the Revered Kuh Lon's best student anymore," Shan Pu answered quickly and softly. She was glad they were speaking the tongue of the Clans. To admit such a failure openly so all the outsiders milled around her and listened would have been unbearable.
"Ah, yes. Kuh Lon has spoken at length of your future husband, what was his name?"
Ranma's handsome face flashed through Shan Pu's mind as the conversation shifted to her husband. "Saotome Ranma," Shan Pu answered obediently, not without some warmth. She did not notice though. She was preoccupied with her own thoughts. That Hyu Chin was making her repeat something she obviously already knew bothered Shan Pu.
"Say his name again."
Puzzled, Shan Pu questioned Hyu Chin with her eyes.
"Say it."
"His name is Saotome Ranma," Shan Pu stated.
"You give his name too much deference, " Hyu Chin snapped. "He is your servant, your husband. Do not give him a place above you. I do not understand Kuh Lon's dealings with him, but it is obviously you have allowed him too much control over you. Are you an Amazon, or some subservient foreign woman?"
"Shan Pu is an Amazon Warrior!" Shan Pu cried indignantly, pulling herself upright. "I am the best warrior of the Joketsuzoku Clan, and I bow to no man."
"Good, remember that. He is a man. He is your husband. Do not forget that, or I will make sure his life is taken from him and you are punished." Hyu Chin spun on her feet, surprisingly spry for her bent carriage. But then, Shan Pu suddenly realized, that was also a ruse. This woman was dangerous.
"Is my husband here yet?" San Pu asked offhandedly as she fell in beside Hyu Chin.
"Not yet, Child." Hyu Chin responded softly. "But Kuh Lon said he would be here at the end of the month, that still gives him a few days to show up. Do not worry. He knows where to meet us, and we will be watching, or rather you will."
"I will?" Shan Pu queried. "Will you not be here to guide us to Joketsuzoku?"
"No," Hyu Chin said, shaking her head and glancing around quickly as if checking for someone. "There are two people here, a young woman and man looking for your husband."
"Akane?" Shan Pu asked quickly, anger building under the surface. The girl had tricked her. That violent wench had broken her word, for that she would die.
"No." Hyu Chin's answer killed Shan Pu's anger.
"Then who is it?" Shan Pu asked, kicking herself mentally. She had completely forgotten the conversation with her great-grandmother before she left. The stress and the meeting with Hyu Chin had uncentered her. For a warrior that was a horrible realization.
"One Kuonji Ukyou. She seems to be an adequate martial artists, and rather taken with your husband."
"I know her. She is a martial artist who bases her style on her profession of cooking. It is very limited, but powerful if you do not pay attention. She could be a good Amazon if she were to get past her hang ups."
"Just as I observed. I am pleased to see that you are perceptive as always," Hyu Chin complimented. "I have not seen the other one more than once. He is a young man with a bandanna and carries himself like a warrior. He has great strength, and he is driven by a great deal of heavy emotion. Anger, hurt, depression. He is very dangerous."
"That would be Ryouga," Shan Pu answered. "He is one of the few people who can hold his own against my husband. He is very dangerous. Even my great- grandmother refuses to teach him anymore. She says that he is much too unstable and dangerous to others and himself." Shan Pu left out the fact that she thought her great-grandmother had made a mistake in even training Ryouga in the first place. The Hibiki boy was too unstable. Nothing good could come out of his desperation to have Akane and defeat Ranma.
"True but they are resourceful. They are asking about Joketsuzoku and how to get there. They are also looking for Ranma. I need them out of town before he arrives, and I cannot have them stumbling upon the village. Because of that, I will be leading them to northern Qinghai Province and leaving them with a guide who will make sure they are lost in the mountains for a long enough time to get your husband to Joketsuzoku and finish the marriage ceremony."
"They will not be hurt, will they?" Shan Pu asked fearfully. Though Ukyou was a rival, and Ryouga had been a rival and an ally, Shan Pu could not condone any action that would bring about their deaths. Especially if that death was begotten dishonourably.
"No, they will be led safely back to Hong Kong eventually. Do not fear, I am not heartless. They are just an inconvenience." Hyu Chin paused as the pair of them exited the airport and made their way into the bustling activity outside the airport. "But we must talk of things."
"What are those?"
"You must make sure Ranma stays with you through the first leg of the journey. I have train tickets that will take you and Ranma to Yongren in Yunnan. From there you will follow the Yangtze River north until you reach Dege in the Szechewan Province. Do you know where that is?"
"Yes, I do. Great-grandmother mentioned that I was to wait for you in the training ground north of the city."
"Correct. It should take about three weeks for you to get there, since it is in the mountains and most of he distance will have to be done on foot. Don't ride with people. Make sure no one remembers Ranma and you passing. I will meet you at the training ground within a week of you getting there. From there we will head to Joketsuzoku. We should be there before mid-November."
"I understand, Revered Hyu Chin. I will not disappoint you."
"I don't expect you to do so." Hyu Chin stated. "Come, we have much to do before tomorrow afternoon, and I need to make sure you have the appropriate papers and the money to get the supplies you will need for the trek to Joketsuzoku. The mountains are very dangerous in the winter."
Shan Pu followed Hyu Chin as they flowed into the current of people, cars, and noise that eddied through Hong Kong. Shan Pu was smiling al the time. She would have Ranma to herself for three weeks. She needed to make sure she had the proper herbs and a few other items. She was not going to let this opportunity pass her by while she slept. Ranma needed to realize his place, and somehow she needed to make him realize it.

--7--

The land sloped downward before him. Like a nest of snakes, the venomous tentacles of Boukyaku's strength coiled and slithered about the depression, burrowing and rising. A boiling sea of sludge waiting to leech his strength beneath its destructive weight.
Above him hung the ponderous mirror of the sea at his feet. Brooding like a typhoon, it swirled and coalesced in dark patterns before spinning immobile tendrils out over the sky, cocooning Ranma between heaven and hell. And in the center, the sea geysered upward, and the sky bleed downward in a perverse mating that brazenly defied nature. And from that obscene joining a dark void gaped open and beckoned with ravenous glee.
For a moment, a fanged maw billowed hungrily open, the throat a burning hell of torment and flame. The heat spiraled outward to scrape across Ranma's tightly held barriers.
Floating between the two webs, Ranma surveyed his options with a weary heart. Defeating Boukyaku appeared an impossibility, but in truth a victory was defined by an achievement, not a kill. He simply needed to find Xian Lin, free her, and escape to his body with her. And with that, he won.
Simple in theory. Simple in reality, but this was not reality. Here there were no men arrayed before him in battle gear. No, even though it was a single opponent, how could he fight an opponent that was in itself an entire world, a gateway, and a state of being?
In their last fight, Ranma had thrown sandbags against the rising flood waters. Against the incessant waves, he had become a breaker, pitted and decayed from overuse. Spray had crashed over his and Xian Lin's efforts by the shear volume of Boukyaku's form. With the seething sea above and below him, Ranma understood Xian Lin's retitience to stray into the crater during that first battle. If she had been seeing what he was, her fear of their failure had been well founded.
Roughly cursing his inattention, Ranma turned to the problem.
How did he approach the vast pillar he had once taken as the dark form of Boukyaku?
A small prickle in his mind warned him, but that was all he got.
Below him, The coiling veins seethed and a dozen sprayed upward viciously. Sharpening as each approached, they streaked toward the impassive Ranma. With a crushing thought, he gathered his ki and waited. Dodging would waste valuable energy, but here his ki was his body.
As the points impacted the shield, Ranma reacted naturally, rolling with the blow as if it were a punch. Like mud, his ki parted for the deadly points, surged around them, and then snapped the hardened hate like thin reeds.
Relaxing, Ranma let the remnants of the attack dissipate as Boukyaku slunk back in agitated defeat.
Impassive, Ranma assessed his safety before turning inward. Lessons hard learned had taught him Boukyaku fought like a lurking scorpion, striking quickly and secretly, injecting his poison in debilitating doses.
Once present the venom lulled and dulled the sense like soft piano music before bed. Then the visions, the uncertainty, the twisted belief of betrayal and self-defeat.
He had succumbed to it once before, but he was on guard.
And now Xian Lin danced beneath the snake's mesmerizing sway.
Hatred stained Ranma's soul briefly. Anger and rage quickly followed, tattooing him with their burning colours. Few touched those Ranma loved and were left standing.
From his stance, the situation was an information problem. He needed to know if Xian Lin was ere, and if she was here where. Intuition dictated that she was in the very center of the maw. Boukyaku would be most powerful there. His conscious would reside there, and it was there he would retreat if things became difficult. Although Ranma was sure, Boukyaku thought little of retreat.
From their previous meeting, and the ones so far, Boukyaku had shown himself to have little intelligence, or at least limited intelligence. Although hi traps were subtle, they had a predictability about them; a set pattern in the way they blossomed.
So, in Ranma's view, the most obvious answer should be the right one. However, why did Boukyaku take Xian Lin? Did Boukyaku want him to rescue her, or at least try? That seemed plausible, but it felt wrong.
Embraced by his wa, Ranma found the entire situation confusing. He felt as if he were on the line of balance but being blown off of it by a subtle, yet incessant, breeze. Boukyaku drew him here for a reason. Boukyaku took Xian Lin, and he had been tormenting Xian Lin to get Ranma to appear in the idol. But why?
"Too scared to do anything but watch, Boy?" Boukyaku's rumbling voice insulted with a dreadful glee.
"Nah, just waiting for you to roll out the red carpet," Ranma snapped back. He was not going to lose his composure to this opponent.
An amused chuckle answered Ranma.
There was silence for a few moments as Ranma gazed across the chaotic field, searching for the safest, or at least quickest, avenue of attack. Maybe if he weakened one side with a few attacks, large attacks at that, he might push Boukyaku off balance. But would that be enough time to find and rescue Xian Lin? He doubted it.
"It is interesting to watch you, Boy. You cannot hurt me here."
"I did last time," Ranma growled in frustration.
"Ah yes, last time. Well, last time, I am sorry to say, you were tied to the idol, and so you could. This time, you are an observer, Boy. A simple observer."
Ranma controlled his emotions. It was just another game. Xian Lin had told him that Boukyaku used lies and self-doubt to confuse and win. Just like the bridges of flame he had passed over the last time, Boukyaku's words were empty threats. "Well then you are either too weak to destroy me, or just lazy and sick," Ranma shrugged. "Yah never know exactly what I might've learned while out of your little playground here. So you might just wanna give Xian Lin back and we call it even. I won't kick your ass, and well, I get what I want."
Ranma let his arm distort and become a long blade of blue-white ki. Looking at the white, he concentrated, forcing the blue into the rest of his body until only a pure blade of white remained. "I know this will hurt."
"I am sure it will, Boy. Just as each one of Xian Lin's screams will hurt you." A dark chuckle rumbled through the air, and the net in the sky began to swirl in the opposite direction, small tendrils reaching down toward Ranma.
Ranma noticed them and kept his eye on them, but otherwise ignored Boukyaku's move. If it was a feint, he would not be taken in by it. If an attack, well, he would be ready. "You won't touch her."
"I have, many times, and I am at this very moment."
Rage flared across Ranma's senses, his aura surged outward, and he almost raced into an untimely death before he calmed himself and returned to his senses. "You cannot win that easily."
"Oh no, I will win easier than that. You see. I told you the truth. You are an observer. You can maybe hurt me. You can maybe even defeat me, but it will be the death of Xian Lin. I hold her life. She is not a part of the real world, nor of this, so she is free to be manipulated and controlled by me. You are not a part of the idol, so it won't help me defeat you.
"So, it would seem that we are at a slight impasse. Do you not think?"
Ranma remained silent, mulling over Boukyaku's words. He was telling the truth, Ranma was sure of it, but there was something underneath all the words. It was like dealing with Nabiki. He knew she was trying to deceive him, but not how. What was Boukyaku after?
Freedom? That is what he had been told. Boukyaku needed a mortal body to inhabit. Since he was not an Amazon, he was a perfect candidate. But he had already covered that avenue. Mousse knew what to do, and there was no way Boukyaku could learn the way out of the death that waited him in Ranma's mortal husk. So Ranma was prepared to lose everything. But if he could save Xian Lin . . . if he could give her the time to get out . . . and the information. It just might pay the debt and make Boukyaku suffer. And Akane also.
Ranma pushed the small voice away. Sometimes the debt of honour had to be paid and could not be ignored.
"I guess we are," Ranma shrugged. "I can beat your ass into the ground. I know I can. But you'll kill Xian Lin."
"Yes, and I will enjoy it, Boy."
"But wouldn't you rather be free?"
"Do you offer me your soul in exchange for hers?" There was laughter bubbling behind it. The tendrils from above were hovering lower, almost within striking distance of Ranma's form.
Ranma tried to ignore them as he formulated his next statement.
"And what if I did?" Ranma steeled himself, offering a silent prayer that Akane would eventually understand, that she would accept the letter.
Joyful, mocking cackles filled Ranma's mind as Boukyaku enjoyed the moment.
"I'd refuse it," Boukyaku finally answered in glee.
"What?"
"You are useless, Boy. Haven't you figured it out yet? She didn't want you to return. Xian Lin was surprised you were here. Why? Can't you figure it out?"
Ranma shook his head. She had said they shared emotions because they were connected, but she had not wanted him to come. But the dreams had been so real. So terrifying. But she had been safe when he arrived, safe and simply lonely.
Which meant she had not been in danger. It meant that he had come here for no reason, except to put her in peril. But if she hadn't been in danger then why did the dreams . . .?
"You bastard," Ranma whispered.
"Now you see," Boukyaku chuckled. "The Judgement was broken. I cannot do anything to you. And all you can do is watch while her soul is consumed. She will die because of you, Boy. My revenge is complete!" The insane, gloating cackle increased and the center maw began to writhe and pulse.
Anger coursed through Ranma's aura. He did not notice the small tendril slipping to within inches of him, waiting and hovering expectantly. Ranma only felt the helpless rage as the dark maw began to part and the figure of Xian Lin appeared, her body impaled upon dozens of the writhing snakes of Boukyaku's eternal hate and hunger.
"Let her go! Let her go or I'll kill you!"
"You cannot do anything human. You cannot touch me or her. She is dead!"
"No!"
Ranma gathered his focus, harvested his rage. Boukyaku had admitted that he could be defeated, and there was always a chance that Xian Lin might survive.
In the distance Xian Lin lifted her head. Across the massive crater, Ranma saw her begging eyes. He heard her mewling cries of pain. And as their eyes met, he felt her burning pain, her desperation, her sadness, and the fear. Fear for his life Fear for his safety. And beyond that her love and longing, and the desire that he just leave.
Ranma almost did. He almost allowed her wishes to control him.
Then Boukyaku tore at her soul, and her scream rent the air like the wail of a grieving mother. It cleaved his mind in two and allowed the rage to burn across his aura and consume him.
And then Boukyaku struck.
His tendril of hate slithered in as Ranma screamed in articulate rage, his ki gathering for the attack. And then it touched. And then it twisted Ranma's emotions. Rage became hate, dark, purposeful, and powerful.
Alone with his rage, Ranma could not control it, and as swept away by the rising flood.
As with Hiryu Shoten Ha, Ranma's soul became ice. The world became clear, the idol, Boukyaku, himself, and his body outside. He could sense the different harmonies of ki in his aura, his blue and the white that was Xian Lin. They pulsed in time with his thoughts as he shot forward like an arrow of light, cleaving through the darkness of Boukyaku's writhing nest.
Ranma was water as he wound through the mass of Boukyaku. Venomous snakes that struck for him, found air as he launched away and moved even closer to the center. He was air as he slashed through dozens of the snakes which rose to impede his way. He was fire as his hate burned forth in raw gouts of energy that lashed the earth and sky, cleansing the dark presence of Boukyaku and leaving only barren red soil. He was the mountain as he pressed onward toward the center as an avenging angel of death, his ki brushing of the annoying wind and rain Boukyaku hoped to wear him down with before the end.
But he was an avalanche. HE was a striking hawk. He was a dragon, and a god as he waded through the cancer of dark filth that filled the prison of the idol.
Ranma was aware of the world. He was aware of Boukyaku but it was not important. He wanted Xian Lin safe. He allowed his emotions to do the work. His hate and anger and rage reacted as they thought best. Nothing could touch him, and Ranma felt Boukyaku's fear as the last line of defenses vanished beneath his blazing white sword of ki as if they were the rocks and he the rising flood.
The center of Boukyaku stood before him, and Xian Lin was struggling weakly. He was there a moment later, his ki slicing through the entangling mass of leeching scum.
Xian Lin was screaming at him, but Ranma was beyond words. He kicked free of an grasping glob of darkness, and then blasted a hole in the gaping maw with a brief thought. Another struck his body, and he crushed it with an errant thought before turning to the center again. Six quick, short balls of ki cleared his path and he rushed heedlessly forward.
Xian Lin was struggling, still impaled upon the dark spikes that held her. Seeing this, Ranma fell upon them like a rabid animal, his hands and feet tearing and clawing through each dark spike, pulling the broken pieces from Xian Lin's astral form, or disintegrating them with another ki blast.
There was no patter to his attacks, just inhumane savagery,. A bestial rage infested Ranma, his hate driving him onward to destroy Boukyaku and save Xian Lin. And then he touched her.
And the spikes disappeared, and then she was in his arms, and he felt his heart lift in joy as the darkness of hate began to recede, and then Boukyaku was laughing. His cackling filling Ranma's hate filled thoughts.
"Fool! You have lost the game, Boy. You have lost and now you are mine!"
Realization struck Ranma as the small piece Boukyaku had left inside him flared to life. The heavy emotions of hate and anger clawed in on Ranma, immobilizing him and slowly atrophying his form.
"Ranma let me go. Save yourself."
"No!" Ranma screamed, his voice filled with pain as the dark emotions began to eat away at his soul. "I owe you," he gasped. "I will not let you die. He can't have my body!"
"Then go back, Ranma!" Xian Lin wept, pulling her form away from his. "I will stay. I deserve to die here. It is my fault you came back."
"Neither of you will survive," Boukyaku preened.
The world began to burn, and Ranma and Xian Lin screamed in pain. Even through the pain. Ranma felt Xian Lin's suffering, and he knew he had to save her. He had made that choice before he came to the idol. He had made a promise. Boukyaku may have tricked him, but Ranma would still win.
Reaching within himself, Ranma found the part of is body where he loved those around him. It was untainted and pure, burning brightly inside him. Grasping it like a bat, he swung it toward Xian Lin's screaming form.
For a moment there was a still peace in his mind as he broke from Boukyaku's hold. For a moment he was at peace as his love and devotion roared out from is center and washed over Xian Lin. "You can't have her!" Ranma screamed as he struck.
Xian Lin cried out in protest, but she could do nothing and was thrown back from Ranma and Boukyaku, freed from the dark form and from the pain.
Boukyaku cry of rage watched over Ranma and seared into his mind, but he was at peace. Xian Lin was safe.
"Ranma."
The voice filtered into his mind.
"Go away, Xian Lin. Please leave here. You can go to my body. Take it, it is yours, please. You deserve a life. You deserve freedom."
"Not without you. Please, don't do this Ranma. Don't!"
"Write Akane's name on the ground when you wake. Mousse will kill you if you don't. Please, Xian Lin. Do this for me."
"Ranma!" her voice sobbed desperately in the vaults of his cloudy mind. The pain was unbearable. Everything was becoming hazy, indistinct.
Ranma realized he was losing his identity. His soul, and he softly began to weep in despair and pain.
"Xian Lin . . . I'm sorry," he whispered, reaching out with his love for her, trying to console her, and then reaching beyond her. "Akane. Akane! Tell her. I Love . . . love . . . I love you . . . Akane. . . ."
Boukyaku grasped Ranma tightly and slammed home several spikes of his being, wrapping and cocooning Ranma, and then he reached for the very center of Ranma's being and began to tear at it, and Ranma's soul . . .

--8--

Screamed. Her voice pierced the night calm, sending birds to flight and lighting windows in nearby houses. Tearing at her vocal cords, it ripped through her throat and into the open like a terrified child as she struggled in her sheets.
He was dead. Her subconscious wailed in grief. Her voice shattered in an endless crescendo of pain.
Tears flowed down her cheeks as the sheets twisted around her, tightening about her arms and chest. Drowning as her horrified wail died, she was unable to breathe, her mouth still wide open in silent agony.
He was dead!
Eyes gapping, she panicked, desperately trying to breathe. Thrashing about, The world fell out from beneath her and then rushed to meet her side as she slammed into the wooden floor. Fire raced across her arm and shoulder, burning brightly and briefly before the welcoming ice of numbness claimed her senses. The pain woke her, and a thin tattered breath passed her lips. Her voice reedy, she began to cough, her breaths growing in strength; however, The horror of her waking and the nightmare still entrapped her like an unseen thorn bush at night.
Terror and helplessness mounted as she struggled, fighting the sheets, her lungs, The memory.
He was dead!
She was alone.
Curling up, she sucked in her breath and breathed out a choked sob. Begging for oblivion, she whispered his name like a protective ritual.
Then she was being lifted, a soft voice comforting her. Unfocused and tear streaked vision watched the four figures huddling about her. A diaphanous curtain fell between her and the figures. It was soft and smelled faintly of flour and spice. Hair, light brown hair.
"Kasumi!" her voice pleaded.
"Shh, it is alright. It was just a dream. Just a dream."
"He's dead. I can't feel him. I can't see him. He just disappeared." Burying her head in the warmth in front of her, she cried softly, her voice muffled and distant. "He just disappeared. It was such a pleasant dream. He was holding me, and then nothing . . . nothing. . . ," her voice whispered and faded to a sobbing sigh. As her voice died, she lifted her head. Searching, she sought out that part of her heart that gave her hope, that shown with the love Ranma had given her. It was that spot that told her when he was behind her, when he was looking at her, when he was safe.
Emptiness.
A glaring void clutched her heart, mocking her pain, as it built a wall before her doomed, frantic attempts to find Ranma's love.
Then the horror whitewashed her face, as a wail escaped her. "I can't find him!"
Her voice cracked and Akane sobbed wretchedly as she hid her face in the soft cotton covered bosom.
"It was just a dream. Everything will be fine in the morning."
Over and over the reassurance caressed her and lulled her abused and torn emotions. The void retreated as she was loved. Her sniffles ceased, and her eyes dried as she let the cooing melody rock her gently back into sleep.
"Mother. . . ," she whispered longingly as she Finally closed her eyes and surrendered to the seductive call.
A single tear fell and shattered against Akane's dark hair. Kasumi held her younger sister softly, cooing wordlessly. Kasumi remembered when her own mother had done the same to dispel her nightmares.
Through watery eyes, she watched the horizon burn into a new day against the city lights.
She was a mother to Akane now.
But who was supposed to soothe the distraught mother?

--9--

A forge-red bronze sky burned on the horizon as Mu Tsu made his way back toward camp, two full canteens of water slung carelessly over his shoulder. Although being careful on the rocky slopes, he was hurrying to get back to the fire and Ranma. He did not want to take a chance that his sensei would be in danger because he decided that hot water would be best to have around just in case something happened to him at the wrong moment. And knowing the Jusenkyo curses, he was sure that his curse would be activated at the exact wrong moment.
Once out of the last patch of rocks, Mu Tsu briskly covered the last couple hundred feet to the dancing flames of their campfire. Ranma-onna was still in silent repose, her chest barely rising and falling as she breathed.
Putting down the canteens, Mu Tsu checked for signs of consciousness, but even physical contact did not dislodge Ranma-onna from her meditative trance. Sighing in frustration and impatience, Mu Tsu filled a pot with water and placed it on the flames.
The waiting was wearing on him like he carried Buddha's statue. Though he considered himself patient due to his decade long pursuit of Shan Pu, he hated the fact that he was just an observer in a life and death struggle. He was a final trump card to beat a thing whose nature few Amazons even knew.
Of course, this was Ranma he was worrying about. If anyone could come through against Boukyaku, than Ranma could. Had he not done it before when the actual Judgement was in effect? So why could he not do it know when he was no longer subject to the idol's power?
Ranma was strong, spiritually and physically. Over the past months, Mu Tsu had at times been overwhelmed by the shear magnitude of Ranma's aura. In practice it just seemed to radiate from his body, searching the world around Ranma like it was another sense.
The fact that even he could feel it told Mu Tsu that Ranma was still learning how to use his aura, but that clumsiness disappeared quickly when Ranma set his mind to it. Even in the past days, Mu Tsu had watched spellbound as Ranma unconsciously began to control his aura and ki with much greater dexterity.
Soon Ranma would be unbeatable. It was just a matter of. . .
"No!"
The pain-filled scream ripped Mu Tsu away from his maudlin thoughts to Ranma-onna. She was convulsing in the dim morning light, her eyes wide open, her mouth open in a silent scream of pain.
Stumbling, Mu Tsu darted across the fire to come to rest next to Ranma- onna, one hand resting on the tanto, The other reaching for Ranma-onna's brow. Nearly six inches from her face, Mu Tsu snatched his hand back as a wave of intense heat washed over his hand and arm, leaving reddened flesh and a few blisters.
Ranma-onna's face twisted and jerked spasmodically with each short breath she drew. ". . .can't . . . her . . ." The words floated eerily from Ranma-onna's open mouth.
Shocked, Mu Tsu watched in terror, The hand holding the tanto shaking uncontrollably. He was lost. What was he supposed to do now? Ranma was in trouble. HE was losing. He was dying!
That thought jumped him into action. Scrambling backwards, he grabbed the pot from the fire. Hopefully the water was hot enough. He was not sure this would work. But Ranma had told him he needed his cursed form to beach the barrier. Maybe his normal form would drag him back to the world.
As he approached Ranma-onna, however, he was halted as she spoke again.
". . . Lin . . . leave . . . my body . . . take . . . please . . . you deserve . . . ."
Did Ranma want Xian Lin to take over his body? Was he giving his life away for a cursed Amazon? The thought rocked Mu Tsu from his cultural foundation. Some sins were so ingrained in the Amazon psyche that they literally brought about nausea and shame when mentioned. Xian Lin's transgression was one.
And now Ranma was going to free her? Give her his life? Let the cursed Amazon live in his place? Never!
But it was Ranma's wish.
Mu Tsu was held rigid by his indecision, his arm cocked to throw the hot water. He could not allow himself to free Xian Lin, but he could not turn his back on Ranma. He owed his sensei more than his life.
". . . Lin . . . Akane . . . sorry . . . love you . . ."
The last words were cut off in an inhuman scream of pain that echoed across the campsite and shattered against the face of Mt. Ureshino. Then it died, and Ranma's body became still, no breath moving her chest.
No movement.
No a slight flutter at the throat.
No more time to agonize. Ranma needed him in one way or another. He owed his sensei that.
Mu Tsu threw the boiling water at his sensei, drawing the tanto in the next instant just in case.

Author's Notes:

--Translations--

RELATIONS AND TITLES:

Otousan/otousama - father Okaasan - mother oneechan/neechan - older sister imoto - younger sister oniisan - older brother oyaji - old man, disrespectful form of father jiji - very disrespectful term for an older man ojisan - older man or uncle obaasan - older woman or aunt obaba - grandmother hiibaachan - great-grandmother same musume - daughter tsuma or kanai - one's own wife otto or shujin - husband -san - everday ending for a name. Takes place of Mister, Ms,or Mrs. -kun - more informal ending, used to refer to subordinates or friends -chan - ending that denotes affection or can mean little on a pet. Used
mostly for children and teenage girls -sama - very respectful. Like Lord or Lady. Means you are less than them sensei - master, teacher, doctor, or officer. -sempai - generally an older person, more of a mentor than anything

OTHERS:

kissaten - coffe house, tea house hajimemashite - customary greeting the first time people meet. It means,
basically, it is nice to meet you doozo yoroshiku - customary part of gretting. Meansbasically, please regard
me favourably. Note: there are several different introduction orders
but they all involve this phrase and the one above. Often meishi
(business cards) are exchanged at the same time. En-go - go-between. The honourable relatiuonship. It is not considered
proper to approach someone unless someone else acts as a go-between a
mediator who knows both parties. Being a go-between is big business
in Japan. sukebe - pervert otoko - male onna - female otoko no hito - man onna no hito - girl Soo-desu - It is so - or - that is so Hai - yes Iie - no masaka - impossible wa - center. A state of meditatvie trance. fuwa - discord, the opposite of wa ki - soul chi - energy of the soul and life sakura - cheery blossoms -fu - as in Okayama-fu, means Prefecture -ji - means temple, so Sansui-ji is the Temple of Sansui zabuton - the pillows that Japanese kneel on when they are at a table
or in a seiza position seiza - position of kneeling tatami - floor mats, these are made of tightly woven reeds or rice. A
room's size is usually indicated by the number of tatami, i.e. a 6
tatami room shoji - rice paper doors, light and airy. Shogi - Japanese form of chess Go - a Japanese game involving black and white stones where you try to
turn as many stones to your color as possible cha - tea chasen - the bamboo wisk used to prepare the tea in the chawan chawan - the tea bowl cha-no-yu - proper name for the Tea Ceremony gomen/gomen nasai - sorry arigato - thank you ne - a term similar to Right? Or eh? Denotes question requiring an
affirmative answer. ja (dewa) mata - well, again... sort of like see ya later sayonara - good bye shitsuree shimasu - exuse me - good bye oyasuminasai - good night ohayo - good morning konnichi wa - good afternoon (used until 5pm) konban wa - good evening sumimasen - pardon me and in some cases thank you meiyo - honour ai - love soshite - and (used for sentences, but I misused it and don't want to
change it) Of course, as I thought about it, I realized it still
worked as a kind of progression. Soshite literally means "and then"
so the title could be translated as a type of journey, honour, love,
and then hate. Of course, that is pushing it. nikushimi - hate

I didn't use all of them, but I'm trying to compile a section of commonly used words in my fics...

I don't have a translation for the song in the begining. It is a more recent folk song, from around the 1950s's or 60's that can be sung to chikldren. It has something to do with spreading your wings and finding your dreams and flying away. It is actually very nice and is song slow and very beautifully, the notes generally ranging from low C to high A. As soon as I find the translation, I will put it on the story.

Author's Notes:

Well, it has been a very long time. Actually, longer than i wanted it to be, but I could never find the inspiration nor the time to work on MASN. This in and of itself is shorter than I wanted it to be, which is promtping a Chapter 10 for part 4. The next chapter should be of similar length as this so I am actually glad I am cutting it down in size, a 200+ kb post is not my idea of nice to my readers.

anyway, I don't want to explain anything at this point. A lot of the stuff going on in here is a reflection of my studies of yin and yang, Zen, Tao, and a few other Eastern Philosophies over the last year and a half. I am setting up the next large event in Ranma's struggles for individuality and freedom. SO pelase bear with me if you do not understand some of what went on. It is not indtended to be understood instantly, but more as a time unfolds and you can slowly begin to see the center of the blossom, hidden behind the parting petals. My, I have to stop reading poetry.

Anyway, this is a very rough draft. If you have any comments or criticisms about the part, please refer them to my email account, either one.

until next time Joseph A. Kohle

----*----*----*----*----*----*----*----*----*----
All rights and priveleges to Ranma Nibunnoichi
belong to Rumiko Takahashi. The characters of her
series are used without her permission for the
purpose of entertainment only. This work of fic-
tion is not meant for sale or profit.

All original characters are the creation of the
author. All copyright privileges to these chara-
cters are reserved for the author.

This story is a product of the author's hard work
and imagination. Do not modify, add to, or make
use of any part of this work without the author's
knowing and written consent. Please feel free to archive
this work.

Comments and criticism are welcome.
Written by Joseph A. Kohle, (c) January 2000.
Send all comments to jakohle@worldnet.att.net
or to j_ashira@hotmail.com
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