A Midsummer Night's Beauty, Part II: Queen of Extreme
by rkOujirou

Author's note: This story is a continuation on the Ranma 1/2 anime, including the OVA's and movies. Therefore, keep in mind that anything exclusive to the manga hasn't happened in this story.

Disclaimer: Ranma 1/2 is not my idea, it was created by a very talented manga artist named Rumiko Takahashi. The only characters I'll claim are my own original characters that I've added into this story. Just so you know.


Chapter 28

"It's hoooootttttt!"

It was another day, another trek through sweltering summer conditions as the group of Ryoga, Meilin and Akane continued on their westward course, presently heading in the direction of the Xian area. A smaller village well east of the city was where the last sighting of Jusenkyo had occurred several days earlier. Thus, their hunt for the sorceress would continue there.

The trio, who were walking off to the side of a large field of sugarcane crops at the moment, had adapted to the suffocating humidity that Mother Nature had unleashed upon them by shedding any excess layers of clothing and rolling the legs of their camouflage pants up past their knees. It was actually fortunate for Akane that she'd finally had to borrow a spare set of Meilin's clothes since her own that she'd been dragged off to China in were worn and torn beyond further use. The black tank tops Meilin wore were perfect for trying to keep cool. Well, perhaps not the color, but the design certainly was.

Increasingly overcast skies pointed to a potential for rain later in the day, something Ryoga was always hoping to avoid given that Akane was still in the dark about his Jusenkyo curse. He did have his umbrella with him, of course, but if something were to happen, seeing P-chan here out in the middle of nowhere in China all of a sudden while Ryoga mysteriously vanished might be too much coincidence for Akane to overlook.

Her dried out mouth hanging open, Meilin grabbed a canteen from her waist and took a healthy swig of water. Everyone was bothered by the heat, but she was always the most vocal about it. "I'll take marching through the snow in winter over this crap any day," she complained.

While walking alongside his girlfriend, Ryoga peeked back at Akane, who was following behind them. Akane, he noticed, seemed unusually distracted, looking all around as if something were bothering her. She'd been especially quiet all morning and into the current midday hours, possibly just trying to lay low after Meilin's outburst last night.

"Akane, it's okay to talk, you know. Meilin isn't mad anymore," Ryoga assured his old friend.

"Yeah, Ryoga made me feel a lot better last night," Meilin chimed in. She held up a few of her fingers. "Three times, even!"

"Hey, Meilin!" Ryoga started to turn red from embarrassment. Appreciative of the reaction, Meilin shot him a playful wink. "A-anyway, Akane, you don't have to be so quiet. Speak up if you want."

"Oh, okay. I guess that had been bothering me a little still," Akane admitted. She continued to look around, though, her attention mostly directed toward the sky. "But, besides that…I feel like I've been hearing something for a couple of minutes now."

"Hearing something?" Ryoga asked.

As Ryoga came to a momentary stop, Meilin took notice and followed suit, as did Akane. Together, the three of them stood and listened. They hadn't been able to hear it before when their focus was elsewhere, but now, even Ryoga and Meilin were able to pick up on it—a buzzing sort of noise the likes of which both of them had become very familiar with.

"Ryoga, that sounds like…"

"Yeah."

All eyes looked upward, and, soon enough, appearing from out of the clouds off to the east was a military transport helicopter. The aircraft was taking a more southwesterly direction at first. But, presumably due to the pilot spotting the three down below, it abruptly altered its course and began heading straight for the military prisoners and their acquaintance.

"That has to be for us. Why are they here, though?" Ryoga wondered aloud. "Are they dropping supplies?"

"No…it shouldn't be time for that yet," Meilin said, the chopper's appearance not sitting well with her. They were always sent messages ahead of time when they were about to be paid a visit, which left something feeling very off about this situation.

Once the helicopter was almost directly overhead, it began to descend. There was a clear intent to land the bird, which ruled out the likelihood of this being a mere supply drop. Down and down the craft came until, finally, it touched down between the three travelers and the crop field nearby.

As the helicopter started to power down, Meilin alone stepped up to it, the wind from the propellers blowing locks of her wavy, white hair off to one side. She hadn't a clue who might come out of the aircraft, but she was going to stay on guard until she knew for sure.

Meilin wouldn't be kept in the dark for long as the door to the helicopter was thrust open in a flash. From within the cabin, a bulky man of Chinese origin poked his head out. "Yo, babe! Want a lift?" he spoke to Meilin in Mandarin.

For Meilin, there was no mistaking the appearance of the crew-cut-bearing meathead before her; not after all the times they'd fought alongside each other since she'd been placed into her current predicament. This man was a fellow member of the special operations unit's Orange Team.

"Ox?" Meilin raised an eyebrow at the sight of her comrade. Ox wasn't the only one there, either. From behind him, numerous hands entered Meilin's view and waved, coupled with vocal calls for the Orange Team's unofficial commander. "Everyone?"

Akane, unclear on the identity of the visitors, leaned over next to Ryoga. "Hey, Ryoga, who are they?"

"They're…our team," Ryoga answered, just as surprised by the arrival as his partner was. "What in the world are they doing here?"

At the helicopter's door, Ox gave Meilin a lazy sort of salute. "What's up?" he greeted his commander. The pleasantries, however, would end there. "Wait, screw that! What the hell are you doin' way out here, Commander?"

"Huh? What do you THINK we're doing? We're trying to find Jusenkyo so we can burn the hag to a crisp and make sure she'll never come back," Meilin retorted incredulously. "What are YOU doing out here is the question."

"Wait, what? Didn't you see the order from last night, Commander?" Ox inquired, genuinely curious if Meilin might be suffering from memory loss. "We were supposed to pick up you and your boy this afternoon at that spot you were stopped at, but then we went there and you were gone, so we had to go lookin' for your asses!"

"Order?" Meilin batted her eyes. "What order?"

"The friggin' order! The one to go to Joketsuzoku!" Ox exclaimed. "They found something Jusenkyo wants there, so they're using it as bait. And we're all being shipped off to back them up."

"Joketsuzoku? That Amazon village?" Meilin asked.

"Damn right! They're purposely leaking out the info so Jusenkyo hears about it. Then, when she shows up, BAM! Ambush from an assload of us and the Amazon chickies that live there!" Ox explained the plan that the higher-ups had put together. "She'll never make it out in one piece!"

This was all news to Meilin. What Ox was saying actually made sense, though. Combining the might of the military and the Amazons like that wasn't a bad move at all considering the opponent. "It's a good idea. Still," she turned back to Ryoga briefly, speaking in Japanese to accommodate him, "…did we get any messages last night?"

"Messages? No. I checked this morning and there was nothing," Ryoga told her. "Why? What are you guys talking about?"

"Whatever, who cares? Let's just get going," Ox interrupted, apparently done with talking about the miscommunication for the time being. "By the way, Commander, who are these guys with you?"

Meilin saw right away that this could become tricky. If their orders were to go to Joketsuzoku, Akane would, of course, have to go along with them. That meant Akane was going to be around the rest of the Orange Team for a while, and they were going to want to know who she was. Obviously, problems would arise if her involvement with the Jusenkyo matter became known, though. Meilin would just have to keep things short and to the point, she figured.

"The girl is Akane," Meilin said, gesturing to the youngest Tendo daughter. "She's just…tagging along for a bit. I'd prefer it if you all ignored her."

"Hmm," Ox gave Akane a quick looking over. Thankfully, he wouldn't pry any further for now. "What about the other one?"

"The other one? That's Ryoga, you idiot," Meilin replied in a dry tone.

"I know that!" Ox snapped back, not appreciative of the insult. Raising a finger, he pointed in the direction off behind his commander. "I meant HIM!"

Unsure who Ox was referring to, Meilin turned her head and looked back over her shoulder. In an instant, everything about her demeanor changed. Her eyes widened and her jaw dropped, that calm but confused state replaced with panic and dread.

Ryoga and Akane, too, turned around, and gasps were drawn from the both of them as they laid eyes upon the same thing that Meilin had.

Standing right out in the open, her black cloak sticking out like a sore thumb amongst the green landscape, was the resurrected sorceress herself, Jusenkyo. Her scythe sitting at her feet, she raised her left arm where a bright light shone at the tip of her sleeve.

Ryoga, Meilin and Akane all knew what was coming. Ryoga grabbed the petrified Akane, and together the three of them dove out of the direct path of Jusenkyo's impending attack.

Meilin looked toward the helicopter as she fled, just hoping she could warn Ox and the others in time. "RUUUUUUUNNNNNN!" she screamed with all her might.

Too little, too late. Mercilessly, Jusenkyo unleashed her attack, firing an enormous beam of magical power that threw Ryoga and company off to the side before swallowing the helicopter entirely. The aircraft immediately exploded, showering the surrounding area with fire and debris.

The bright, horizontal pillar persisted for another couple of seconds before dissipating. The roar of the blast was gone, and a disturbing quiet set in.

As small pieces of the helicopter fell around them, Ryoga, Meilin and Akane slowly looked up. In the wake of Jusenkyo's attack, they found no shortage of destruction waiting for them. A wide trench of scorched earth sat along the path where the beam had traveled, going straight through the sugarcane field and continuing on as far as the eye could see. As for the transport helicopter, there was almost nothing left of it. Most of it, along with those inside, had been incinerated by the blast.

The three martial artists were stunned at the sight. It was eerily similar to the last time they'd witnessed Jusenkyo's monstrous attack, only this time it wasn't just one of their comrades perishing before their eyes as Gibbon had. This time it was all of them.

As she sat there taking it all in, Meilin, on the brink of tears, felt a pain overtake her heart. She hadn't known those of the Orange Team for very long. They were a reckless, rowdy bunch that could grate on her nerves at times. But, all of them had respected her. And now they were gone, dead at the hands of Jusenkyo. Every single one of them. They'd all done things they weren't proud of in life, but still…they deserved better than this.

"Meilin," Ryoga spoke his partner's name. Quietly, he was the first to get to his feet.

Raising her head, Meilin watched as Ryoga slid his umbrella out from the straps that held it. Allowing his backpack to fall to the ground, he gripped the umbrella tightly in his hand, turning a ferocious glare on Jusenkyo.

Meilin understood right away the meaning behind Ryoga's actions. "Yeah," she said, her voice laced with anger and determination. Now wasn't the time to grieve. Now was the time to fight. Drying her eyes, Meilin stood herself up, and, removing her snake sword from the sheath on her back, she took up her position at Ryoga's left side.

"Y-you guys?" Akane shakily uttered, still yet to stand. "You're not going to…"

"Akane, I want you to go into those crops and hide. Don't let Jusenkyo see you until this is all over," Ryoga instructed his one-time love interest. "We're ending this right now."

Akane didn't argue. This was what they had been planning all along, after all. Without protest, she stood herself back up. "Be careful. Both of you," she pleaded with them.

While Akane ran and took refuge in what remained of the tall sugarcane field, Jusenkyo began to move. Using her foot, she kicked her scythe up into the air and took it into her right hand, twirling it around several times before pointing it out ahead of her towards Ryoga and Meilin. This, it appeared, was her way of issuing a challenge.

"Not running this time, huh? Fine by us," Ryoga declared. It was an unfortunate day for this confrontation to take place as the overcast skies would make using his Happo Solar Flare nearly impossible, but Ryoga would find a way to get through this. Happo Solar Flare or no, Jusenkyo was going down.

"Let's go say hello, honey," Meilin suggested. Apart from her special sword, a gourd and the contents of several small packs were also ready for use at her waist. "Remember, watch her free hand. If we can't keep it busy, she'll charge another one of those blasts."

"I know," Ryoga assured her.

With that, the long wait was over. The lives of their fellow Orange Team members and the numerous others killed by Jusenkyo on their minds, Ryoga and Meilin sprang forth with every intent of burying the resurrected sorceress, this time for good.

Meilin being the quicker of the two, she came in ahead of Ryoga and readied her compacted sword to strike. Jusenkyo, still using only her right hand, reached back with her scythe and took a swing at the approaching warrior. Their blades clashed as Meilin used her sword to deflect the attack, each weapon jolted by the force of the other.

Ryoga entered the fray right after, thrusting the point of his umbrella right up toward Jusenkyo's face. The sorceress swiftly raised her weapon up, using the scythe's handle to defend herself. Ryoga's strength, however, would push Jusenkyo right up off her feet, knocking her back a yard and forcing her to regain her footing.

Ryoga and Meilin pushed forward, unrelenting in their assault. Faced with repeated attacks from Meilin's sword and Ryoga's umbrella, Jusenkyo was, for the moment, completely on the defensive as she used her scythe solely for protection. The ability to fend off both of her opponents was, in itself, impressive, though. Jusenkyo was incredibly quick with her weapon, something that Ryoga and Meilin hadn't gotten to see during their first encounter with the sorceress.

After a heated exchange of attacks, Meilin and Ryoga both swung down and connected with their weapons at the same time, the combined force driven into the handle of Jusenkyo's scythe and pushing the soles of her feet down into the soil. Jusenkyo wasn't about to let herself continue to be bullied around, though. With her lower body firmly planted, she used that traction to thrust her scythe outward, and, amazingly, was able to knock both Ryoga and Meilin back with that move alone.

As the Orange Team duo was able to see, Jusenkyo wasn't just fast; she also had some physical strength to her.

Without a word to each other, Ryoga and Meilin changed up their approach. Once Jusenkyo had pushed them back, they split up. Meilin went off to one side of the sorceress and created some distance between them. Ryoga went to the other side, but maintained his close range with the enemy.

The first one to resume the attack would be Ryoga, who closed in and clashed weapons with Jusenkyo again. The sound of metal striking metal resounded with every strike as Ryoga kept up his aggression. Meanwhile, on the other side of the sorceress, Meilin had gotten as far away as she needed to be. Reaching back with her snake sword, she unleashed it from afar, the sword's segments cutting through the air as they extended outward to lay into Jusenkyo.

Seeing the ranged attack closing in, Jusenkyo backed away from Ryoga for the moment and used her scythe's blade to swat away the lead segment of Meilin's sword. It would only provide a brief respite, however, as Meilin maneuvered her sword to come back at Jusenkyo again. Just as before, Jusenkyo knocked the blades aside, and then did so once more as Meilin tried to strike a third time. By now, though, Ryoga had caught back up to the sorceress.

With Ryoga nearing, Jusenkyo thrust the tip of her scythe's handle outward in an attempt to drive it into the boy's gut. Fortunately, Ryoga proved too alert to be hit by such an attack. Before the metal handle could land, he reached out and grabbed hold of it. Then, using the weapon to boost himself up into the air, Ryoga took a sharp swing at Jusenkyo's head with his leg.

Jusenkyo hurriedly ducked, narrowly avoiding having her head kicked in as Ryoga's foot went sailing over the tip of her cloak's hood. As Ryoga came back down, Jusenkyo broke her weapon free of his grasp and took a swing at his neck with the blade. Ryoga quickly raised his umbrella to guard, and the weapons collided yet again. Neither gave an inch.

With Ryoga able to keep an eye out for her blade again, Meilin whipped her snake sword around at Jusenkyo, who used her scythe to push off of Ryoga's umbrella and retreat back for a little breathing room. Jusenkyo batted the sword's segments aside again, but Ryoga was right back on her, and this time he brought something different.

Taking his umbrella into his left hand, Ryoga raised up his right and drove his index finger into the earth at Jusenkyo's feet. "Bakusai Tenketsu!"

Faced with a hail of rubble that exploded up from the ground, Jusenkyo took to the air, springing high, high above her opponents with ease. Just as with the first time they'd met Jusenkyo, Ryoga and Meilin were amazed at how effortlessly the sorceress could leap so far up into the air with such speed. But, thanks to that first encounter, the military prisoner pair also knew that Jusenkyo would react this way to Ryoga's Bakusai Tenketsu.

As Jusenkyo descended back toward the ground, she suddenly found herself enveloped in a thick smoke. One of the packs on Meilin's waist was filled with extremely potent smoke bombs, and, using prior experience to predict the sorceress's movements, she had left Jusenkyo temporarily blinded. Now it was time to make use of that advantage.

No sooner had Jusenkyo touched down when Meilin's snake sword sliced through the smoke and right into her left sleeve. Jusenkyo raised her scythe and defended herself as best she could with limited vision as the sword's segments came back again and again. But, while Jusenkyo was focused on the sword, something else began to come flying her way. A number of Ryoga's bandanas, sharply twirling through the air, entered the cloud of smoke and tore into Jusenkyo's cloak, opening cuts at the waist, chest and shoulder.

Finding herself at a serious disadvantage, Jusenkyo batted back Meilin's sword and bolted out in the direction it had come from. Within half a second she had exited the smoke, the damage done to her clothing there for all to see. Jusenkyo continued to charge at Meilin. The former member of the Seven Lucky Gods backed away while attacking with her extended sword as the enemy approached, the sorceress still defending with her scythe without trouble despite the hits she'd taken. The exchange wouldn't stay one-on-one for long, though. Jusenkyo had to end her offensive charge prematurely as Ryoga abruptly came in from the side, cutting off her path to Meilin. He drove his finger down into the earth with another Bakusai Tenketsu, sending a barrage of dirt and stones shooting outward.

Jusenkyo retreated to avoid the blast, and Ryoga followed in hot pursuit. Jusenkyo was about to give him a taste of his own medicine, though. As she landed, the sorceress swung her scythe into the ground, spraying bits and pieces of earth at the incoming martial artist—a move she'd previously used to mask her escape during their last encounter. However, Ryoga was well-equipped to handle the results. He reactively opened his umbrella, using it to shield himself and his eyes from the stones and dirt as he pushed forward. Once he was through, Ryoga closed up his weapon and went right back at Jusenkyo with a short-ranged assault.

Ryoga continued to unload strikes with his umbrella, and, although Jusenkyo was still managing to deflect the swings with her scythe, things weren't looking as even as they had been up until now. Ryoga's relentless attack alone was now pushing Jusenkyo back.

"Ryoga!" Meilin shouted from well off behind her partner.

Knowing what was coming, Ryoga took one last swing with his umbrella that knocked Jusenkyo back onto her heels. But, rather than hanging around to follow up on the blow, he surprisingly turned and dove for cover.

Once Jusenkyo regained her balance, she looked ready to chase after her fleeing opponent. That plan of action would quickly be nixed, though, as she spotted a live grenade bouncing to the ground in front of her. With little time to spare, Jusenkyo was now the one running again as she sprung into the air just before the grenade exploded.

What Jusenkyo didn't realize was that she'd jumped out of the frying pan and right into the fire. By the time she came back down, there was another grenade ready to detonate right at her feet. Again she jumped away to avoid damage, but she couldn't get away unscathed this time around. The grenade went off, the force of the blast ripping a sizable hole in the midsection area of Jusenkyo's cloak and sending her tumbling.

The one behind the explosives was Meilin, who had a number of them in her packs along with the smoke bombs she'd used earlier. She rather liked putting the grenades to work—one of the very few perks she actually enjoyed from being in her position as a military prisoner.

It wasn't difficult to see who was getting the better of things at this point. If not for the sweat covering their skin, Ryoga and Meilin wouldn't have even looked as if they'd been involved in a fight. Meanwhile, Jusenkyo's clothing was being shredded bit by bit. Thus far, she simply couldn't compete against the teamwork of her adversaries.

Ryoga and Meilin didn't know what kind of damage had been done beneath that cloak the sorceress wore, but it was definitely more than they themselves had taken. One thing they hadn't done so far, however, was force Jusenkyo to use her left hand. Needless to say, they hoped to change that.

Jusenkyo rolled to a stop, slow to get up after being rocked by the grenade blast. It was an opportune time for Ryoga to charge in and continue putting pressure on the sorceress, and that was exactly what he did. At the same time, Meilin, still hanging back for now, grabbed the gourd from her waist. She had a little something special in mind.

Once back on her feet, Jusenkyo found herself defending against Ryoga's umbrella right off the bat. Over and over their weapons clashed until Ryoga began to hear something coming in from behind him. He got in one more shot and stepped aside, watching as the lead segment of Meilin's snake sword soared in and smashed up against the blade of Jusenkyo's scythe.

Meilin was running back in toward the sorceress now, bringing her sword back around and slamming it into Jusenkyo's weapon before allowing Ryoga to take back over. With a flick of her wrist, Meilin recalled her sword, returning it to its single-bladed appearance as she came nearer.

Feeling the strength of Ryoga's umbrella swings, Jusenkyo was backpedalling again. This was all Ryoga needed to do for the moment—just keep the sorceress busy and focused on him. If he could do that, it would open up a window for the one whose footsteps he heard approaching from behind to do some real damage.

Listening closely for just the right time, Ryoga swatted Jusenkyo's scythe back again, and yet again. Eventually, his ears told him that his partner was in position to strike. Abruptly dropping to a knee, Ryoga watched as Meilin soared overhead, planting her foot against his shoulder to give herself a boost.

With her sword in her left hand, Meilin drove the blade into Jusenkyo's scythe, using it to keep the ghastly weapon out of the way. Then, breathing in heavily through her nose, Meilin gave Jusenkyo a taste of her real attack. The white-haired girl unleashed a searing blast of fire from her mouth, spraying it directly into Jusenkyo's face. The upper portion of Jusenkyo's cloak was set ablaze, and Meilin, raising her right leg up, tacked on further damage by drilling her boot into the sorceress's chest.

Jusenkyo was sent flying from the kick, the hood of her cloak burning up into nothing as she fell flat against the grass. Ryoga and Meilin had been looking for a significant blow, and they'd gotten it.

"Good work! That was perfect," Ryoga said of their teamwork-aided attack.

"How'd that feel, bitch?" Meilin snarled at the fallen sorceress, using her hand to wipe some of the leftover liquid from her gourd away from her mouth. "Let's get a look at that ugly face of yours!"

Jusenkyo was slow to move as the fire burned away her hood. She raised her right arm, still with scythe in-hand, to cover her face. Surprisingly, though, she was making no effort to put out the flames. Surely the fire searing the skin on her head had to be immensely painful, Ryoga and Meilin figured. So, why? Why wasn't she trying to stop it?

The flames had died down once they reached the shoulder area of Jusenkyo's garb, but not before scorching the hood enough that the remaining shreds of it slid away from her head. Behind her right sleeve, Jusenkyo's face was now exposed. She sat her body up and, gingerly, she rolled over, using her left elbow to push herself up to her knees.

Ryoga and Meilin saw Jusenkyo's upper body turn towards them. She was looking their way, but what was she hiding behind that sleeve of hers? That was something they were about to find out.

Slowly, Jusenkyo lowered her right arm and what lay behind it was unveiled to her opponents. Ryoga and Meilin had seen some disturbing things in the past months, but the reality of what Jusenkyo had been concealing was enough to startle even them.

"Wh-…what the hell…" Meilin stammered, shocked at what she beheld.

Ryoga, feeling nauseous, had to cover his mouth.

Jusenkyo's face, or lack thereof, was nothing more than a charred, blackened skull.

"That's impossible! Is she...nothing but a skeleton?" Meilin looked upon Jusenkyo in disbelief. "How can she even move around like that?"

Although there were greater questions about Jusenkyo at the moment, Meilin also couldn't help but notice how bad of shape the sorceress's skull was in. The burns on it were horrendous, much worse than what her flame-spitting attack could have done in such a short amount of time. Whatever had caused those burns had been done by someone else.

By now, Ryoga had settled himself down some. He didn't understand either how someone who was nothing but bones had been fighting them up until now, but this was Jusenkyo after all. As much havoc as she'd caused, expecting the unexpected was practically a requirement for survival against her. The real question was, how would you go about killing something that shouldn't logically be alive in the first place?

"Meilin," Ryoga spoke up, an idea sparking within his mind, "…if her body is really only a skeleton, there shouldn't be anything holding her up but her spine. If we can just get one good hit in right above her hips…"

Meilin understood what Ryoga was getting at. "She'd be broken in half. She'll be a sitting duck for us," she realized. "All right, Ryoga. Let's do this!"

While Ryoga and Meilin were conversing, Jusenkyo stood herself back up, her empty eye sockets fixated on the two that had put some hurt on her.

In the midst of the temporary lull, Akane, positioned well away from the ongoing battle, was peeking through the crops she was hidden within. She'd been watching the fight unfold intently from the very beginning, and she didn't plan on looking away until it was all over.

Now, with Ryoga and Meilin ready to go on the attack again, Jusenkyo raised her scythe up. But, to the puzzlement of her opponents, she then took the weapon and tossed it aside.

"What?" Ryoga blinked, confused by the move. "What is she doing?"

For Jusenkyo, it was time to switch things up. Taking her right hand, she knelt down and slammed her palm against the ground, then whipped it off to one side.

At that very moment, Meilin yelped with surprise as she, too, was thrown off to the side, and with her went a huge wave of soil that left behind an eight-foot-deep hole in the earth.

"Meilin!" Ryoga shouted as he watched his girlfriend hit the ground, a mess of dirt falling all around her. He had no idea what had just happened, but he was set on stopping Jusenkyo before she could do it again.

Ryoga charged the sorceress with a purpose, his umbrella gripped tightly and poised to strike. Jusenkyo, though, lifted her hand into the air and brought it down sharply, the bones of her index and middle fingers pressed together. All of a sudden, the task of running became much more challenging for Ryoga as he instantly felt a great weight forced down upon him.

His knees buckling, Ryoga dropped down onto all fours. Though he attempted to push himself back up, try as he might, he couldn't do it. It was as if the planet's gravity had been greatly increased exactly at the spot where he stood. "Heavy!" he groaned through his clenched teeth. "What…is this?"

One half of the Orange Team duo may have been down, but the other was now up again. "Ryoga, she's using her magic!" Meilin yelled to her man, snapping her snake sword out toward the sorceress from a distance.

With the sword's segments extending her way, Jusenkyo moved her right hand and pointed it at Meilin. As the sorceress's palm faced outward, an extremely violent gust of wind roared from out of nowhere. It was enough to not only blast away Meilin's sword, but also Meilin herself as the seasoned warrior was blown back onto the grass.

As soon as Jusenkyo had moved her hand to target Meilin, the weight upon Ryoga was also lifted. He didn't doubt Meilin's belief that this was Jusenkyo's magic at work. Given how she had let up on him while attacking Meilin, though, it seemed there was only so much the sorceress could do at one time. Still, this offense of hers was much more effective than using her scythe had been, which left one to wonder, why hadn't she used it sooner?

There had to be a reason for that, but Ryoga didn't have the time to think about it right now. Once he was back up, he bolted for Jusenkyo again. Unfortunately, Jusenkyo flicked her wrist upward well before he could get in range, and the very ground Ryoga stood upon was, in turn, elevated nearly twenty feet into the air in the form of a large pillar.

After being shot up into the sky, Ryoga was now in a freefall. Jusenkyo, looking to capitalize on the boy's awkward position, raised another pillar of earth to strike him. Ryoga was ready for it this time, though. As the pillar approached, he drove his index finger straight into the top of it.

"Bakusai Tenketsu!"

The pillar shattered, showering the land with dirt. Jusenkyo quickly summoned a third pillar, but it would be disposed of by Ryoga just as fast as the second one had. Finally, the martial artist was able to land safely on the ground again.

"Damn, we can't even get near her!" Ryoga thought to himself, his frustration starting to show.

Ryoga moved in again, and Meilin, after righting herself following the gust of wind that had sent her for a loop, was also back on the attack. While running toward Jusenkyo to get the sorceress in range of her sword, Meilin reached back with her weapon. She was about to unleash the blades again when, suddenly, the ground beneath her gave way.

"Wha-!" Meilin gasped.

Meilin dropped down into a large hole that had opened up under her feet, falling right onto her backside. The worst was yet to come, though. As Meilin looked up, she saw hanging right above her all of the soil that had been removed to make that hole she sat in. The dirt poured down into the opening in a hurry, completely burying Meilin underneath. The unofficial commander of the Orange Team was entirely lost from sight.

"Meilin!" Ryoga cried out.

With his attention diverted to the plight of his partner, Ryoga became an easy target. He, too, felt the ground give way beneath him, dropping him into a smaller hole that went up just above his knees. The hole quickly filled in with dirt that, unlike with Meilin, was packed down tightly around Ryoga's legs, temporarily immobilizing him.

"Damn it!" Ryoga growled, trying to yank his legs free of the ground. It shouldn't have been extremely difficult for someone of his strength, but, somehow, it was proving to be a chore. It was then that Ryoga noticed a chill start to run through his lower body. Reaching down, he planted his palm against the earth. It was cold. Really cold. "She…she froze the ground?"

Far off to Ryoga's side, a wave of soil exploded up from the ground. An arm popped out from beneath, and soon, so did the dirt-covered head of Meilin. She had managed to dig part of herself free, taking large breaths of air after having been buried as she had. Digging the rest of herself out, she believed, wouldn't take long.

But, as Meilin looked toward Jusenkyo, she realized that time wasn't on her side. Within the left sleeve of Jusenkyo's cloak, a light was starting to shine.

Meilin understood everything perfectly now. Jusenkyo had just been buying time while she was preparing another one of her blasts of magical power. The only reason she was trying to manage with just her scythe before was most likely because there was some limit on how much magic she could use while readying the attack.

In a panic, Meilin turned toward the location where her partner was struggling to move. "Ryoga, that beam of hers is charged!" she screamed. "GET OUT OF THERE!"

Hearing that bit of information was concerning enough for Ryoga, but Jusenkyo's next move was even more so. The sorceress shifted her left arm and faced her palm in Ryoga's direction, aiming her signature attack directly at him.

Ryoga's level of urgency went through the roof. Reaching back, he used his Bakusai Tenketsu on the hardened ground at his feet. The earth broke around him at last, pelting his body with chunks of frozen dirt in the process. He ignored the hits as best he could, climbing out of the hole and pushing himself to get out of the impact area of Jusenkyo's impending blast. The sorceress was moving her hand as her target ran, though, making sure to keep it locked onto him. And she was about to fire.

"Crap, crap, crap! I don't know if I can get away from it!" Ryoga thought aloud frantically. "Move, body! Move! MOVE!"

"Ryoga, look out!"

Hearing a familiar voice off behind him, Ryoga briefly peeked back over his shoulder while he moved. The one who had called out to him, he saw, was the same one who was supposed to be hiding herself in the crops. It was Akane, and, for some reason, she was presently rushing toward him.

Ryoga could understand what Akane was thinking. She didn't want to see him get hurt. But, there was no way for her to help in this situation. Ryoga would have to get out of this on his own.

Intent on saving himself, Ryoga set his attention back on Jusenkyo. Something had changed, though—something that made his heart sink in his chest the moment he saw it. Jusenkyo was no longer looking at him. Having turned her horribly burnt skull, those eye sockets of hers now appeared to be focused on something else: Akane Tendo.

Immediately, one single word went through Ryoga's mind. "No…"

Just as her head had, Jusenkyo's left arm moved as well. It, too, was soon facing Akane.

"No!"

Ryoga, digging his feet into the ground, rapidly switched directions. He wasn't even thinking anymore—only reacting. Rather than running away from Jusenkyo, he was now heading straight for her.

Akane, seeing that Jusenkyo had her in her sights, skidded to a halt. The terrified expression that came over her said all that needed to be said.

"Don't do it!" Ryoga shouted at the ill-intentioned sorceress.

Jusenkyo didn't waver as the boy approached, the light within her sleeve growing brighter and brighter.

In his desperation, Ryoga took his umbrella and launched it at Jusenkyo in an attempt to prevent her from doing what she was about to do. "STOOOOOOPPPPPPPP!"

Ryoga could only watch in dismay as Jusenkyo reached out with her right hand and caught his umbrella, throwing it to the ground. There would be no stopping her.

Horrified and without hope of escape, Akane looked to her old friend one last time for help. "Ryo-!"

That was the last thing Ryoga heard. Before his tearful eyes, an enormous beam of magical power exploded outward from Jusenkyo's palm. The swath of destruction was immense as the beam ripped through the land, incinerating everything in its path. The thunderous roar of the attack assaulted the ears of Ryoga and Meilin until, just as it had earlier, the light dissipated and vanished.

The aftermath of the blast was no less startling than it was after Jusenkyo's first such attack. The huge trench of scorched earth left behind spoke volumes of the power the sorceress had been building up while fighting. This time around, the amount of lives lost wasn't as great. The significance of those lost for Ryoga, however, was monumental.

Ryoga, completely ignoring Jusenkyo, looked to the area where Akane had been. Absolutely nothing remained. There was no sign of Akane. Not a trace.

Ryoga's mouth was dry. His eyes burned with tears. He couldn't believe this was real. He didn't want it to be real. Akane, his first love, his friend…was gone.

While time may have stopped for Ryoga, it hadn't for Jusenkyo. Looking to the side, the sorceress noticed that one of her opponents was in a daze. Unfortunately for Jusenkyo, Ryoga's lover hadn't let the tragedy unfolding before them take her mind off of her objective.

With Jusenkyo looking away, Meilin's snake sword came slicing through the air and struck the sorceress's spine just below her skull. The blade made a clean cut through the bone, sending what remained of Jusenkyo's head rolling to the ground.

"No more living for you," Meilin hissed.

To Meilin's shock, though, the rest of Jusenkyo's body didn't fall. Not only that, but it began to move even without its skull. Her magical power depleted, Jusenkyo, sensing that Ryoga was easy prey, dashed straight for the martial artist to finish him off.

"You're kidding me!" Meilin gasped. Without a second to spare, she took off after the sorceress. "Ryoga, look out! Snap out of it!"

Ryoga didn't budge.

Meilin reared back with her sword, but she wasn't sure it would make it in time to stop Jusenkyo. "Ryoga!" she screamed.

Jusenkyo lunged forward and raised her right arm up. Looking to use the points of her finger bones to drill through Ryoga's chest, she snapped her hand out to strike and the tips of the bones touched against Ryoga's skin. That, however, was as far as they would get.

Though he appeared to be out of it, Ryoga had reached out and grabbed Jusenkyo by her wrist. Jusenkyo tried to pull away, but she was caught in a vice too tight to escape from so easily. Slowly, Ryoga turned around to face her. There was an immeasurable sadness in his eyes. That wasn't all, though. There was also an unforgiving hatred, and, letting that hatred guide him, Ryoga took Jusenkyo's arm and bent it around behind her body.

Attempting to jar herself free by other means, the sorceress took her left hand and tried to jam her fingers through one of Ryoga's eyes. Ryoga, though, caught that wrist as well. Doing the same as he had with the first, he pulled the arm behind Jusenkyo's back.

Jusenkyo was now incapacitated, and Ryoga wasn't done with her yet. With his arms around Jusenkyo's waist, he pulled her toward him into a crushing bear hug.

Meilin, who had been running to save her partner, brought herself to an abrupt halt. She couldn't risk attacking with her sword when Jusenkyo was literally right up against Ryoga. Then again, she wasn't sure she needed to. "Ryoga…?"

Jusenkyo's bones squirmed within Ryoga's grasp, but, no matter how much she wriggled around, she wasn't having any sort of luck escaping from the martial artist.

"Akane…" Ryoga somberly choked out the name of the precious one he'd lost. "You give Akane back. GIVE HER BACK!"

Ryoga let out an ear-piercing howl, bringing voice to the awful pain he felt in his heart, and an enormous pillar of red chi energy was simultaneously expelled upward from his body. High above his head the chi energy gathered in the sky, building and building into one staggeringly large mass. This was something he hadn't shown in a very long time: the true form of his Shi Shi Hokodan attack.

"Wh-…what?" Meilin stood gawking at the ferocious display of energy. She'd never had the chance to see Ryoga's Shi Shi Hokodan, much less the perfected version of it. She knew just from looking at it, though, that no one standing below that mass in the sky was safe.

Trusting that Ryoga knew what he was doing, Meilin spun around and fled for safety.

With her arms pinned behind her, Jusenkyo was helpless against Ryoga's brute strength. The chi energy poured from his body, feeding and feeding the collection up above. Eventually, the flow of energy stopped. The attack was prepared, and Ryoga, his head drooping, voided himself of chi.

Though Ryoga was in such an empty sort of state, Jusenkyo still couldn't break the grip he held on her. There wasn't a single thing she could do to defend herself.

The buildup of chi energy came crashing down like an asteroid and slammed into the spot where Ryoga and Jusenkyo stood. The power unleashed was tremendous, sending a shockwave across the land that threw Meilin right off her feet as she ran. The ground shook violently, and every blade of grass and crop within view was blown back, some ripped right out from their roots.

By the time things had settled, a sizeable crater sat at the point of the Shi Shi Hokodan's impact.

As tiny bits of grass and soil rained down from the sky, Meilin slowly raised her head to look around. She'd always known Ryoga had skill, but the level of power she'd just seen was beyond anything she'd expected from him. It was terrifying.

Meilin worked her way back to her feet. Naturally, her eyes were drawn to the newly-created crater. In a way, it was just as breathtaking as the damage done by Jusenkyo's blasts. It left Meilin, who had always considered herself quite strong, feeling strangely out of place. Whether it was the truth or just an exaggeration on her part, right now, in this moment, she felt as though she was in the presence of two monsters that she couldn't even compare to.

Eager to check on Ryoga, Meilin began staggering forward until, suddenly, she felt her foot hit something. Looking down, she would find sitting at her feet the charred skull that she had cleaved from Jusenkyo's body.

The skull wasn't moving, but Meilin didn't care. Raising her boot up, she stomped down onto it mercilessly. The first strike broke the skull apart. The repeated ones that followed smashed it into bits. Meilin wasn't going to allow any chance of Jusenkyo coming back again.

Satisfied that she'd done the necessary damage, Meilin left behind the mess of shattered bones and hurried toward the crater. "Ryoga!"

Meilin ran up to the ledge and peered down inside. The crater, she quickly noticed, was even deeper than she'd imagined. She wasn't interested in that, though. She was interested in what lay at the crater's bottom.

Inside the massive hole in the earth, nearly twenty feet down below ground level, Ryoga Hibiki stood tall all by his lonesome. At his feet lay the black cloak Jusenkyo had worn, a smattering of bones strewn about beneath it. Jusenkyo's body, as it were, was in pieces, decimated by the vast power of Ryoga's Shi Shi Hokodan.

With tears streaming down his face, Ryoga buckled, dropping to his knees. "Akane," he whimpered.

"Ryoga…" Meilin looked down upon her lover with pity.

Overcome with grief, Ryoga cried out as he slammed his fists down into Jusenkyo's remains.

After an extensive search, the resurrected Sorceress Jusenkyo had finally been defeated at the hands of Ryoga and Meilin. The cost of their victory, however, was immense. They had lost their ragtag group of comrades known as the Orange Team. And, even more gut-wrenching for Ryoga, they had lost Akane.


End of Chapter 28