Let the Curtain Fall

Lo! thy dread Empire, Chaos, is restored;
Light dies before thine uncreating word:
Thy hand, great Anarch, lets the curtain fall;
And universal darkness buries all.
-The Dunciad


Ranma recovered quickly from the teeth-jarring impact of the boulder, even as his enemy did the same. The howling cyclonic winds on which he hovered quickly tore the stone away. He could not afford to acknowledge the pounding pain in his head, the burning of his skin as speeding sand tore and flailed him raw; he could neither blink nor turn away to alleviate the pain: too much was at stake.
With smooth, sure twists and steps he wove his way nearer his opponent, dodging and ducking wayward stones still caught in the maelstrom of his own making. Ryouga's 'reinforcements' proved more help than hindrance: as he moved in closer, riding the chunk of rock and ice he was firmly attached to by his weapon, the boulders provided extremely good cover. Necessary cover, for with a cry of "Why, you!" Saffron began to unleash savage dual blasts of energy, incinerating every and any threat that neared his person.
And yet, in doing so, his enemy revealed a desperation that his earlier posturing had served to conceal. Th . . . this panic, Ranma realized, there's no doubt about it! Saffron's weak--he's vulnerable to simple kicks and punches! Galvanized by the recognition that his foe might not, after all, be invulnerable, the martial artist swooped in during a moment's distraction on his enemy's part. "Eat this!" he screamed, "Chokusetsu Shuuda Ryuuseikyaku!" Concealed until the last instant by his crystalline boulder, carried nearer by the fierce winds of the Hiryu Shoten Ha, he swung around the pole of the Gekkaja and, already moving with considerable momentum, drove his full weight into the 'Meteor Leg Direct Strike.'
Without a sound, eyes open but empty, the lord of Phoenix Mountain tumbled away into the center of the cyclone. Ranma felt a savage, bitter pleasure as Saffron disappeared among the violent turbulence that swirled at the root of the Hiryuu Shouten Ha. "Serves you ri. . . ," he started to mutter, when a rumble from below cut him off. His eyes widened in disbelief--and fear--as unnatural and terrifying power swelled and ballooned outward from the center of the tornado. The hungry, plasmic bubble swallowed everything that the winds carried into its mass. Before he could even think of disengaging, Ranma felt himself being drawn in as the swell below him collapsed in upon itself. A great gout of flame reached towards him; only by placing his crystalline boulder between himself and the attack did he manage to survive.
Out of the fiery upheaval below rose a figure. Saffron spread his wings wide. He suffused the very air with his primal glow, and his gaze as he fixed his antagonist with undisguised contempt was both beautiful and terrible to behold. How like an angel he looks, thought Ranma, then dismissed the errant idea. No time, no room for distractions. Focus. Focus on the flying beat of your own heart, on the thrill of blood rushing through your body. On the icy chill pressed to your chest.
"Ha!" said Saffron, lips curling up in a sneer, "Looks like you've gotten a little too carried away, peasant. It is over."
Ranma braced himself for the worst, thinking, dammit, if this fight drags out any longer, Akane and I are both. . .
And then Saffron was calling to the heavens, arms spread and glowing with manifest rage: "Phoenix Mountain Royal Family Ultimate Technique!" He brought his arms together, crossed at the elbows, and sudden fire erupted about him.
"A fireball!" Ranma exclaimed, as the Lord of Jusendo completed his attack.
"Tenka Shunmetsu Koukyuudan!"
-Not- a fireball, Ranma realized, as the full might of Imperial Armageddon blast was revealed, looming surrealistically before him. Unending flame filled his sight, the horizon stained red with its taint, and in the face of that awful power he knew that there was nothing he could do. Who was he, who was -he-, young, human, mortal, to assume such an arrogant air and presume to oppose something so primal, so immortal? He was nothing but a man, suspended between heaven and earth. Nothing but a man, hanging at the threshold between scorching light and unknowable darkness. Nothing but a man with a soul of ice and an impossibly chill pressure gripped against heart and chest.
There was a brief, epiphanic, eternal moment, suspended between full realization, awareness, and oblivion--a moment in which all suddenly became clear, in which, finally, he understood--a moment before the flames consumed him--and then. . .

. . . with a strangled, startled yelp, Ranma bolted upright in bed.
The sheets stuck tenaciously to his sweat-soaked body. His heart pounded in his chest as he sucked down rapid gulps of air. "Shit," he muttered. "Shit." The room was empty. This momentarily surprised him, but as his head cleared, so did the unease at waking alone. It was -his- room, after all, his bed and clothes and furniture, so of course he was alone. His father would be with his mother in their own room now; they were back in their own house. It's probably for the best that Pop's not here, Ranma thought, if he heard me screaming like that in the middle of the night, he'd be going on and on 'bout how womanly I sound.
And yet, though he loathed to admit to himself how shaken the dream -- that damned, recurring, haunting dream -- had left him, he almost wished for the company to alleviate the nagging fear his nightly phantasm left behind. Nagging, pathetic fear, for what had he to worry about? Waking up in the middle of the night like this, screaming about some stupid fight that happened months ago, he told himself, what's wrong with me? It's not like I lost or anything, not like Akane . . . died or nothing. I kicked Saffron's ass. . .
_primal flame, heat; pervasive chill of death_
But it had been so close, so very, very. . .
_love lying dead in his arms, too late, too slow_
_glorious suspension between Heaven and Earth_
Ranma shook his head to clear it of the last tenacious fragments of meaningless images. He shook his head and turned over in his futon. He willed himself back to sleep. After all, as his mother had reminded him frequently over the last week, he had a very big day tomorrow.

Begins in:

Let the Curtain Fall Act One, Chapter One: Higher Education