Big Human on Campus
After School Sessions
by Black Dragon
I do not own the bible. Actually, I don't even own A bible. Everything I know about Christian lore is gleaned from pop-culture, common knowledge that often turns out to be wrong, and long caps-locked rants from religious fanatics on the Internet. And I felt that was sufficient knowledge to break Christianity over my knee like a piece of balsa wood. Agnosticism is awesome!
"All right, the headmaster's rep is wrapping up, I think," mumbled Yukari, "there are some students with questions, but I fully expect him to blow them off. We're out of time."
Tsukune took several deep breaths as Kurumu dusted and picked at his uniform. He was pretty sure she was just using it as an excuse to rub herself all over him, but at present he found her fussing a helpful distraction.
He and a few of the higher-ranked members of the Protection Committee, including Ranma, Moka, Yukari, and Kurumu, were all standing behind a heavy curtain on the stage of Youkai Academy's main auditorium.
The occasion was a school rally being held by the student council to celebrate the least deadly month in Youkai Academy's history. Tsukune's second month on the job was apparently also the first month that there had been less than ten deaths or disappearances ever since the high school for monsters had first opened to the public (his first month might have managed the feat, had it not been for Saffron's rampage).
Tsukune tried hard not to think about the fact that less than ten fatalities in a single month within an educational establishment was considered a landmark achievement. He also didn't like to think about the fact that if Saffron's multiple deaths were taken into account, then the record would not have been broken. Tobaki had been quite insistent that he be counted at least once despite the fact that he reincarnated, and Tsukune was quite disturbed to learn that the full count of eight grisly murders would have doubled their standing total.
But the main thing that he was trying not to think about was standing in front of the entire school and reading his speech. He'd never known he had a fear of public speaking, because nobody had ever asked it of him before. He'd found a talent for self-righteous lecturing while overthrowing the Enforcers, and thought it totally reasonable that there was no difference between yelling at a stranger about right and wrong and talking to an entire crowd about it. But there was. It was TOTALLY different, and he could already feel the weight of hundreds of people's expectations on his shoulders as he heard the sparse clapping from out in the auditorium. To someone who had spent most of his life blending in and being totally ignored, the feeling was utterly oppressing and immobilizing, which was quite ironic considering how calmly he could now handle a direct and legitimate threat to his life by a bloodthirsty monster.
"All right, the rep is done," Yukari said, drawing back from the stage and turning toward the others, "okay, Hokuto's going to introduce you, and then you're on, Tsukune."
Moka looked grim as she looked at Tsukune's rattled expression. "Ranma, are you SURE Kana can't read the whole thing from backstage while Tsukune just lip-syncs?"
"I told you, it won't work. She's way more shy than he is. She won't be able to project even though nobody would be looking at her," Ranma protested.
Moka turned back to Tsukune, squeezing his shoulder. "Tsukune, relax! You can handle this! Speaking is your best skill!"
"It's your ONLY skill!" Yukari chimed in, technically supporting Moka's statement but doing nothing for Tsukune's self-esteem.
"Okay, I'm... I'm going out there!" Tsukune managed to spit out, holding a thin stack of papers between his hands and shaking like a leaf.
Ranma shook his head. "Yeah, looks like it's come down to this," he nodded at Kurumu, who suddenly looked quite pleased, "do it."
Tsukune blinked. "Do whammhf?" His question was silenced prematurely as Kurumu suddenly grabbed onto his tie and then practically smashed their lips together.
Moka's eyes bugged out as the succubus kissed Tsukune hungrily, grasping onto the hapless boy's head as she moaned seductively.
'Hey, you wanna say something, or are you just going to let them French right in front of you? Seriously, they're almost slobbering on you, here,' Evil Moka groused from within the Rosario.
"STOP THAT!" Moka finally shouted, her cheeks as pink as her hair.
To her surprise, Kurumu did as asked, promptly breaking the kiss and then quickly fixing Tsukune's tie while the boy looked completely stunned.
"That was for luck," the succubus chirped as she took out a handkerchief from her pocket and quickly wiped away the trickle of blood leaking from Tsukune's nose, "now out you go!"
With a rather smug look on her face, Kurumu turned Tsukune toward the open stage and gave him a light shove, forcing the semi-comatose boy out past the curtains.
"And to describe our new safety measures and policies in greater detail is the man who made it all possible," Hokuto said, his glasses gleaming as he gestured to a staggering Tsukune, "our new captain of the Protection Committee, Aono Tsukune!"
Tsukune immediately snapped out of his daze and lurched forward, stepping past a clapping Hokuto and up to the podium at the center of the stage.
"Ladies, gentlemen, and everything else, thank you for attending this rally! And thank you, Professor Richard, for not killing anyone on the way here just to make this celebration ironic!"
Over near the back of the crowd, Richard shrugged the leaking stumps that remained of his shoulders. "It wasn't for lack of trying." Behind him, Kouma and Chopper each held on to a severed arm, each of them looking somewhat worse for wear and extremely annoyed.
Tsukune continued speaking, his voice strong and clear. "Here at Youkai Academy we have a mission! In order to survive among humans we must become humans! But what does it mean to be human? Is it just a certain string of DNA? A lack of claws, wings, or perpetual fire?"
He shook his head, placing his now unnecessary notes face down on the podium. "No, of course not. Humans don't rule the outside world because they were born with the right tools. They're not in charge just because they have numbers. Humans are social creatures, who work together and cooperate for their supremacy! Through the establishment of laws to create order, and respect for their fellow man, humans have risen to dominance! And this wisdom I intend to bring to Youkai Academy!"
Ranma nodded happily as Tsukune started to describe rules of conduct to the students. "Nice work, Kurumu! Look at him go!"
As the succubus preened under the attention, Moka and Yukari watched in slack-jawed amazement.
"Wait, so he can overcome a paralyzing fear with just a kiss?" Moka asked, flushing slightly as she felt a deep sense of regret within her chest.
"So this is the power of a human male's sex drive!" Yukari said, her eyes gleaming.
Ranma nodded. "Yup. Plus, you know, the hypnosis doesn't hurt, either."
Moka and Yukari almost fell over as Kurumu giggled.
"What? What did you do to him?" Moka asked hotly.
"I just used my allure to make him feel completely confident about speaking in front of crowds," Kurumu said, giving Ranma a high-five, "of course, KISSING the target makes the effect more or less permanent. Which is sad, because that means I won't have an excuse to kiss him the next time, but oh well."
"You can't just mess with someone's mind! That's awful!" Moka protested.
"Well, it kinda depends on what you do with it," Ranma deadpanned, "making someone ditch their friend in a really petty revenge plot is a little different than curing someone's fear."
"Heh heh." Kurumu chuckled nervously as droplets of sweat gathered on her brow. "I was kind of hoping everyone forgot about that."
"That would be amazingly convenient, and kind of dumb, too," Ranma noted.
Moka pouted. "Still, you should have asked first! Maybe there was a way to do it without the allure!"
"Yeah, you're right!" Ranma said, snapping his fingers, "maybe we could have used one of your vampire powers to help him!"
Moka's face darkened as Kurumu started snickering.
"I mean, I heard that back in the day doctors used leeches to treat people, right? So I'm sure you're good for SOMETHING," Ranma said with an aggravating smile.
'I really don't understand how you don't want to rip his spine out and strangle him with it,' Evil Moka quipped.
"Looks like Tsukune's wrapping it up," Yukari said as she peeked out onto the stage.
"... Which is why we've placed 'No fire-breathing' signs around such areas, along with the long-established 'No smoking' and 'Beware Professor Richard' warnings next to areas where we store volatile or sensitive materials," Tsukune said, looking somewhat grim.
"It's like people don't appreciate my contribution to the academic process," Richard griped.
"With these few changes, I hope to make our campus a safer place for everyone, and finally realize our headmaster's dream of graduating a surviving majority of each year's student body!" Tsukune continued.
The headmaster's representative, one of the strange men in dark suits, frowned and stepped forward to whisper in Tsukune's ear. "It's my understanding that the headmaster doesn't care about that at all, sir."
Tsukune ignored him, although a vein popped up on his head as he suddenly pointed to the crowd of clapping students. "I will now take questions! Do try to keep them brief though, we don't have much time!"
Numerous hands went up.
"I would remind you that I cannot answer any question about my or Ranma's species, as that would violate school rules," Tsukune said blandly.
The vast majority of the hands dropped.
"Okay... How about you? In the front?" Tsukune said, pointing to a fellow with his arm raised whose other arm was wrapped around a girl's shoulders.
"Morioka Ginnei, of the newspaper club," Gin said, letting his hand drop, "you said that under you, the Protection Committee is going to put a new focus on personal responsibility and NOT killing the students, yes?"
"That is my aim!" Tsukune said firmly. "My predecessor used his position to lord his power and privilege over the students, and I intend to turn that all around! Rules will be applied fairly and enforced consistently! Nobody will be punished for criticizing the Protection Committee, either! I hear the newspaper club had a particular problem with that!"
"Yeah, we did. Thanks," Gin said breezily, taking up a notepad in his hand that wasn't busy feeling up the girl next to him, "got a question, though: if that's your new policy, how do you explain Jikan's death?"
Tsukune blinked. "Jikan? Is that a surname, or-"
"Just Jikan. He was part of the student council until he was assigned to deliver dismissal notices to the Protection Committee," Gin explained as Tsukune's face started going pale, "and then he was torn apart, and his remains burned."
Tsukune swallowed nervously as he felt the gazes of the entire student body waiting for an explanation. "That... That was an unfortunate incident, yes... You see, our treasurer refused dismissal, and took the order... very poorly. This was before I had started instructing the Committee, mind you."
"Fair enough," said Gin, prompting the young human to sigh in relief, "but why is she still on the Committee? Has she even been punished in accordance with your new rules?"
Near the back of the auditorium, standing behind Chopper and Kouma, Tobaki frowned as she planted her hands on her hips.
"Just what is his problem? That happened almost two MONTHS ago! Get over it!" Tobaki complained, though she wasn't loud enough for most of the audience to hear.
"He's with the newspaper club. Part of the liberal media. Go figure," Kouma mumbled, rolling his eyes, "those guys will whine over the dumbest things."
"You could always try killing everyone in his club and then using their blood to print your own paper consisting entirely of threats against his life," Richard suggested, still waiting near the boys that had confiscated his arms.
Tobaki shook her head. "No, they tried that last year, so it looks like it didn't work. Besides, I'm not sure the club currently even HAS other members to supply the necessary materials."
"Also, you know, Aono said not to murder people," Chopper reminded her.
"Right, yes, there's that too," the demon agreed as Richard rolled his eyes.
Tsukune tugged on his shirt collar, finding that it somehow felt unusually warm on the stage. "Punishing our treasurer is... well, I would, but at the time of the killing it was completely within school rules. She filled out the form and everything!" he said desperately, well aware of how stupid his protest sounded.
"Okay, so she got off on a technicality," Gin said as the girl next to him took down a few notes for him, "fine. But why is she still in the Committee? Even if you weren't going to punish her for the unprovoked murder of a council member, isn't this kind of like rewarding her violent behavior?"
Tsukune floundered badly for a response, coming up with nothing. His fear of public speaking had been cured, but he still had no particular skill in making excuses.
Luckily, the person questioning him was Gin Morioka. After watching Tsukune stammer for a moment, the werewolf grew bored and spoke again. "Okay, different question: is the treasurer cute?"
Tsukune gaped slightly, but still took the stupidly convenient out. "Yes, she is, I suppose."
"On a scale of one to ten, with ten being the best, how-"
Tsukune suddenly cut Gin off, looking annoyed. "I don't really think this is at all relevant to the state of security on campus."
"Yeah, I guess not," Gin said regretfully, "you know what is relevant? Murdering the student council."
"She's a six," Tsukune said bleakly, before spying the girl in question near the back exit, "I mean, eight! Definitely an eight!"
"That was stupid," Tsukune complained as he stepped backstage.
Moka promptly came up to him with a towel, which he gratefully accepted to scrub his face and hair, which had been dirtied by sweat.
"I thought it went really well," Yukari said, looking perplexed.
"Yeah, until the whole thing turned into a gossip forum," Tsukune grumbled. Even after Gin had finished grilling him about Tobaki, other students had apparently taken that as an invitation to ask about the other girls of the Protection Committee.
Which, ultimately, was nice for Moka, who was flushed red and smiling broadly, but less nice for Kurumu, who was hugging her knees to her chest as she sat in the corner.
"I don't know what you're so bummed about," Ranma insisted, trying to cheer up the succubus, "a nine is really good, right?"
"It was lower than Moka's," Kurumu mumbled morosely.
"So he has some weird taste," Ranma said with a shrug, "that doesn't mean she's better than you or anything. She's a parasite!"
"YOU also rated higher," Kurumu said darkly.
"Well, yeah, but in my case I deserve it," Ranma said with a helpless shrug, "what am I gonna do, STOP being awesome and sexy? No way."
"I think it's best if we all just forget the last forty minutes ever happened," Tsukune said wearily.
"BWAH HA HA HA HAAA!" That prospect seemed increasingly unlikely as Kouma staggered backstage from the side entrance, trying and failing miserably to contain laughter. "I can't believe that actually happened! Ha ha ha ha!"
Chopper and Tobaki followed, the latter looking annoyed.
"I really don't see how my credentials in the Protection Committee lead to a ranking of the other female members in terms of attractiveness," the yochlol complained, "or why people kept bringing up killing Shikon every time Captain Aono wanted to end the Q and A session."
"Jikan," Chopper corrected, "they said his name was Jikan."
"Whatever," Tobaki said, rolling her eyes, "my point is that killing one person a long time ago shouldn't be such a big deal."
"Less than two months wasn't that long ago, and we really doubt you've only killed one," Moka deadpanned.
"It still isn't that big a deal," Chopper scoffed.
"Yes, it IS a big deal," Tsukune retorted, "it undermines everything we've accomplished since then that one of my very first actions was to take in Tobaki after she murdered an innocent person."
Ranma shrugged. "Hey, nobody's perfect."
"That's just not imperfect, it's totally wrong!" Tsukune protested.
"Well, I for one am glad you did it anyway, because it would be really annoying to keep track of all the accounts myself," Yukari said with a shrug, "Tobaki pulls her weight, whether or not she made a mistake."
"Failing a test is making a mistake," Moka said humorlessly, "killing someone for delivering a memo is an atrocity."
Tobaki snorted. "So someone who doesn't make mistakes but contributes nothing is better?"
Kouma's chuckling finally petered out as the others argued, his amusement vanishing as the bickering slowly heated up.
"You know, if it's really such a problem for you, we can always go get this guy."
Everyone stopped dead, most of them understandably perplexed.
"No, I didn't know that," Tsukune said, "what are you talking about?"
Moka raised an eyebrow. "Maybe Miss Madaraki could do it? I hear she's really good with this sort of thing."
Ranma shook his head. "There was barely enough of that guy left to put together even BEFORE Kouma burnt his remains."
Yukari snapped her fingers. "The holy dragon came back from death, right? So maybe-"
"That method only works on Netherworld monsters," Tobaki explained, "and even then, it's possible to ruin one so badly that it can't be brought back. I've done it before. You just have to-"
"Not helping," Tsukune interrupted sharply, "anyway, what did you have in mind, Kouma?"
Kouma shrugged. "Let's go to Hell."
Barely an hour later, all the Protection Committee was gathered in their office lobby, most of them seated as Tsukune questioned Kouma about his plan.
"You're being serious? We can actually go into the afterlife, pick him up, and bring him back to the real world?" the young human asked, his voice bordering on incredulous.
Tsukune didn't want to believe something so ridiculous, yet it was hard to form a logical argument against it. Kouma was, after all, a hellhound. Tsukune had seen people killed right in front of him only to meet them later as if nothing had happened. There was nothing about stealing souls from the afterlife that was really any less plausible.
"Well, it's more complicated than that, but yeah, that's the concept," Kouma confirmed.
"How are we going to get into Hell?" Kurumu asked, intrigued.
"I'll use my old employee I.D." the hellhound said, taking out his wallet and sliding out a rather weathered plastic card.
Ranma leaned in to read the card. "Kouma F. Gamaroshi, Security Section C, Gate Division. 'Sin with security!'"
"That was our old division motto," Kouma said, sounding fairly proud.
"Don't you think your card might be deactivated by now?" Yukari asked skeptically.
Kouma snorted. "Hell is staffed by only the laziest, most obstructive bureaucrats in existence. I'd be surprised if they even HAVE a procedure for that."
"So how do we find this Jikan guy?" Ranma asked, scratching his head, "there's gotta be a lot of people in Hell... or former people, anyway."
"We have an office that handles torment assignment. Assuming they haven't lost it, I just have to root through their records, and then we pick him up and bail."
"Is it going to be that easy to abscond with someone imprisoned in eternal torment?" Keito asked skeptically.
"Well, if they had a real guardian working at the gates, no, it'd be completely impossible to get out with a damned soul," Kouma explained with a bitter smile and a vein pulsing on the side of his head, "but without any REAL security it'll be easy."
"Well, what're we waiting for, then?" Chopper asked.
"Wait, hold on, please," Tsukune asked, "Kouma, this IS Hell we're talking about. Just how safe is it to travel through?"
"Not very," Kouma admitted, "with me around, we probably won't be attacked by the devils running the place, but there are plenty of less reasonable nasties, and the terrain is as unforgiving as your so-called kind and loving God."
"Exactly how much sacrilege can we expect on this mission?" Keito asked, crossing her arms over her chest.
"A LOT. This is a specifically Christian afterlife we're talking about," said the hellhound.
"Then I'd like to withdraw from this operation on religious grounds," Keito said, uncrossing her arms and planting them on her hips, "my religion describes a very specific afterlife for me, and I will not accept seeing a guided tour of a different one."
"You're refusing to go on the grounds that your religion will be proven wrong?" Yukari deadpanned.
Keito said nothing, staring hard at Tsukune.
The Committee captain rolled his eyes. "Fine, you can stay behind. Whatever. Anyone else?"
Kana stepped closer to Ranma. "..."
"Kana says that she wants to stay behind too. All the dust and ash might really damage her throat, and she's not that robust," Ranma said, patting the siren on the head and eliciting a contented sigh from the girl.
"We're looking at a lot of fire, right? Not my thing. I'll stay here," Chopper said, falling backward into a chair and causing it to creak loudly in its effort to contain his mass.
"And Shirayuki shouldn't go either," Kouma said, jabbing a thumb at the shock of mussy purple hair barely visible from behind Chopper's chair, "she'd have a snowball's chance in Hell of making it through. Which actually isn't even a metaphor, now that I think about it."
"Anyone else?" Tsukune asked, looking around at his subordinates.
"How do they feel about demons in Hell?" Tobaki asked, raising her hand.
"It depends on which edition you follow," Kouma admitted, "but for the sake of staying as far away from you as possible I have to assume they'll attack you on sight."
Tobaki nodded. "Very well. That Jokon fellow probably wouldn't react very well to seeing me again anyway."
"Jikan. His name was Jikan," Yukari corrected the demon.
"Okay, so the team staying behind will be Chopper, Mizore, Kana, Tobaki, and Keito," Tsukune said, "and me, Ranma, Moka, Kurumu, Yukari, and Kouma will go get Jikan from the afterlife." The young human nodded, smiling brightly. If this mission worked out, he will have redeemed the most serious error in his young career!
"So who's in charge while you're gone?" Keito asked, quirking an eyebrow.
In one sentence, Keito had turned Tsukune's sanguine mood sour. He had no idea how long this trip to Hell was supposed to take. Who of the remaining group could he trust not to cause some calamity while he was away?
Keito was right out; if she didn't usurp him directly, she'd probably lay some kind of trap or do something to turn the student body against him. Leaving things to Tobaki was basically the same as putting Keito in charge, as she would do anything the spider woman said if he wasn't around to contradict Keito. Chopper wasn't much better, as he was dull enough to be manipulated with minimal effort.
Maybe Mizore or Kana? Glancing over at Chopper's chair, he saw Mizore giving Kana the most ambivalent glare Tsukune had ever seen as the siren continued to cling to Ranma, giving the ice woman a smug smile.
'That's not going to work out. If I left either of them in charge of Chopper, the other one would probably be dead when we got back. Which would mean ANOTHER trip to hell.'
"Kurumu?" Tsukune asked, forcing an affectionate grin, "do you think you could stay here to keep things in order while we're gone?"
Kurumu looked surprised at the request. "But I want to go with you!"
"I know that, and I'm thankful, but..." Tsukune chewed his lip as he trailed off, thinking of how to proceed.
"Why doesn't Moka stay behind? Or Yukari?" Kurumu asked.
"But I wanna see Hell!" Yukari complained. "For academic reasons, though. Without the eternal torment."
"I wouldn't mind staying," Moka offered, being quite willing to give up an afternoon by Tsukune's side to avoid going to the worst place in the multiverse.
Tsukune grimaced as he placed his hands on Kurumu's shoulders, gaining her undivided attention immediately. "Listen, Kurumu, there's a reason I'm giving this task to you: you're the only one that has both the sense and the strength to keep Keito in line and prevent the others from committing some horrible or stupid catastrophe."
"I'm RIGHT HERE, you know," Keito groused, eliciting no sympathy at all.
"The only other one who could do it is Ranma, and we're probably going to need him down there. So you're the only one I can trust with this," Tsukune said seriously.
Kurumu almost glowed as she clasped one of Tsukune's hands, her eyes sparkling. "Leave it to me! I'll keep everything in order! The school won't even realize you're gone!"
"Right! Thanks, Kurumu!" Tsukune said, extracting his hands, "we'll leave immediately, so I'm counting on you not to let Keito ruin all we've accomplished so far!"
"I'd really consider it a basic courtesy if you all speculated about my loyalty behind my back rather than right in front of me," Keito fumed.
Once again she didn't get a response, and Kouma beckoned the "rescue team" to follow him. "Come on, we'll take care of this outside."
Tsukune, Ranma, Moka, and Yukari allow followed as instructed while Kurumu waved goodbye to them cheerfully.
Then, as soon as they were out of earshot of the classroom, Moka asked, "So Kurumu is the only one you could trust to be in charge while you're gone, huh?" the vampiress asked, her face darkening.
As Tsukune started to panic, Ranma scoffed. "No, she's not the only one. I could've done it, and probably Kouma too, if he weren't guiding us. Maybe Yukari, in a pinch. I'd just be worried about Keito overpowering her."
Moka's mood seemed to dip further, and Tsukune quickly tried to reassure her. "No, Moka, I just wanted you to stay with us! You can do more to help while we're trying to navigate through the afterlife!"
Moka glanced at Tsukune hesitantly, looking slightly hopeful. "Really?"
Tsukune suddenly turned toward Kouma, "Wait a minute, why are we going outside? How do we even get to Hell, anyway?"
"Huh. He must've been saving that," Ranma murmured to Yukari.
"Smart man," the young witch murmured back.
Kouma wagged a finger in the air as he pushed open the door and stepped outside. "Who do you think you're talking to? Matters of the underworld are my specialty, after all. I can get us there."
As the others gathered near the building entrance to watch, Kouma stepped out into the middle of a field, glancing around at the dry, wasted terrain.
"Yeah, this'll do fine," the hellhound said as he withdrew a small cylinder from his jacket pocket and unfolded it.
"All right, we're heading home!" Kouma said happily as he unrolled a scroll from within the cylinder, which promptly started disintegrating into motes of bright light.
Moments later, a blue beam of light maybe ten feet high appeared in the air before him, and the the center of the line seemed to expand, swelling into a shimmering blue oval that sat on the ground, wreathed in white, glimmering energy.
"Everyone aboard!" Kouma said as he stepped into the oval, disappearing from view as he crossed over entirely into the azure window.
Everyone else looked slightly surprised at the occurrence, though each of them had witnessed far more bizarre things. Ranma was naturally the first to follow Kouma, heedless of any possible danger on the other side.
Moka took hold of Tsukune's hand nervously, causing the young human to get nervous himself, though for a very different reason.
"Well, I was hoping I'd never have to see the land of eternal damnation, but I guess this is it," Tsukune said, his face flushed as Moka's grip tightened slightly.
"I'm scared, but... If we're together, then I'm sure we can manage," Moka said, smiling awkwardly.
"Well, we'd better get a move on before Senpai gets bored of waiting and starts cruising through Hell on his own," Yukari said as she grabbed onto Moka's other hand, instantly shattering the mood.
"Y-Yeah. That would be... awful," Moka said unconvincingly before she stepped forward into the portal with Yukari and a very disappointed Tsukune.
Emerging in Hell was, honestly, exactly as Tsukune had imagined, save for the lack of horrified screaming and agonizing death. A blast of hot air struck him in the face, and he was forced to shut his eyes to protect them from the burning ashes being carried by the gust.
After the hot breeze had passed, he cracked open his eyes.
He was in a cavern about the size of a large room, with the "walls" being massive, jagged stalagmites jutting up in great clusters. These rocks were a patchwork of dull reds and ashen gray, and covered in webs of bright red seams that glowed brightly in the gloom.
On that note, there was apparently no sunlight in Hell; all the local light came from the glowing rocks and several small, scattered pits of magma that bubbled and churned across the ground. The sky was an oppressive, smoke-filled sheet that seemed to perpetually rain flecks of ash and twinkling sparks, and the charcoal clouds hung low enough for some of the taller stalagmites to reach up into the ashen miasma, their peaks obscured by the massive, shadowy cloud.
"Not as bad as I thought," said Ranma's voice, and Tsukune turned in place as he squinted against the dusty air, "I was expecting a lot more screaming."
Ranma had wrapped a handkerchief around his mouth, but otherwise seemed unbothered by the environment.
Kouma stood next to the martial artist, his arms crossed over his chest. "Well, keep in mind that we're just at the entrance to Hell. The real thing is still ahead." Although he sounded rather grim, his tail had appeared and was wagging steadily, betraying his excitement.
"Ugh! It smells terrible!" Moka complained as she walked up next Tsukune.
"Eh, it's still better than most locker rooms," Yukari mumbled as she flipped through a small spell book. "Here we go. Wind shield!"
Tsukune couldn't help but be envious as the dust and ash around Yukari suddenly exploded off of her, leaving the young witch in a bubble of clean air while the dusty air currents parted before her.
Ultimately though, all he could do was mimic Ranma by tying his own handkerchief over his mouth.
"So was that a town portal scroll?" Yukari asked as she joined Ranma and Kouma.
"Yup. It'll stay there until I step through it again," Kouma explained as he pointed to the large blue oval floating over the cracked ground behind them.
"But if you used it that way, then that would make Hell-"
"My home, yeah," Kouma finished.
"And so Youkai Academy would be-"
"The ugly pit of murderous freaks that I beat up for cash and loot," Kouma finished again.
"You're not supposed to be doing that!" Tsukune protested, having secured his handkerchief around his mouth and nose. The air was still painfully hot and dry for his lungs, but at least it kept him from coughing from inhaling the ash.
"Relax, it's not like they didn't have it coming," Kouma assured him, "now if everyone's ready, we should get going. I have no idea how long any of you can really survive breathing this air without choking to death."
The rest of the group wordlessly followed Kouma, each curious (despite themselves, in Tsukune and Moka's case) as to just what kind of horrors awaited them in this blasted, wretched wasteland.
They all had to admit that their first taste was a profound disappointment.
"Man, I know you told me what they did with this place, but still," Ranma said, shaking his head, "this is just sad."
The party was standing in front of a large, high wall, apparently made out of the same substance as the rocks, with a gap in it that constituted the gates.
The gates consisted of walkway through a metal detector, with a security camera watching the walkway. Standing in front of it was a single portly Caucasian man in a security guard's uniform looking quite surprised, though singularly unhappy, to see people approaching him.
"See what I mean? This place used to MEAN something," the hellhound murmured under his breath. "Anyway, let me handle this."
Kouma stepped up ahead of the others, drawing his ID card out of his pocket. "Checking in. They're all with me."
The guard wordlessly took the card, and held it up as he meticulously looked it over. "And what brings you to the realm of damnation today, Mister Gamaroshi?"
"That would be... Black Citadel repair. They're my engineering crew," Kouma said, snapping up the first excuse he could think of.
The guard frowned as he glanced at the group. "You look like a bunch of kids."
"It's an apprenticeship," Yukari lied before Tsukune had a chance to panic or Ranma had a chance to say something stupid, "with the economy the way it is nowadays, you have to start early."
"Right," the man mumbled as he went back to scrutinizing the card.
"So... What're you in for?" Ranma asked.
"I used to work as a ticketing agent at an airline in the States," the guard said in a dull monotone, "sometimes I would deliberately send a passenger's luggage on the wrong flight, sending it to some other state or even country."
"That's it? That seems kind of tame to earn eternal hellfire," Ranma pointed out, feeling somewhat worried about the strict standards.
The man sighed as he flipped the card around. "I only did it to black people."
As Ranma and Tsukune winced, Yukari scratched her head.
"Wait, racism is a damnable offense now?"
"It would seem so. So you can either be nicer to monstrels or suffer for all time," Tsukune warned the young witch.
Yukari clicked her tongue. "Tough choice."
"Okay, this looks fine to me," the guard finally said, handing the card back to Kouma grudgingly.
"After only inspecting the whole thing three times over? Are you sure? We wouldn't want you to be accused of being sloppy," Kouma mocked, which Tsukune certainly could have appreciated more if they weren't, in fact, using an invalid means of infiltrating Hell under the noses of its rulers.
The guard snorted. "You're good. Your friends are all going to have to fill out guest entry forms, though."
As Kouma and Yukari groaned, Tsukune nodded, finding the requirement entirely reasonable. 'Maybe we should use false names,' he thought to himself, 'I have no idea how seriously Hell takes security breaches and absconding with the dead, but to be safe-'
Tsukune's thoughts on safety and discretion were suddenly interrupted by high-velocity irony, presently taking the form of a chunk of brimstone Ranma suddenly kicked into the camera, ripping it off its mount and sending it bouncing away.
"Hey, what are-" the guard started to stutter in surprise before Ranma suddenly tackled him, wrestling the man to the ground.
"Hey, Eyebrows! Finish this guy off!" Ranma shouted as he pounded the extremely confused sentry in the jaw before rolling off.
Kouma was just as surprised as anyone by the sudden outbreak of violence, but at least it was the sort of surprise he could easily adapt to. Without questioning why this was happening or why Tsukune was stuttering in a panic, Kouma's fist bloomed into a quivering fireball before he leapt at the hapless spirit.
BWOOM! Tsukune gaped as the guard was swallowed by flames and glowing red shrapnel, which didn't actually look much different from the rest of the infernal landscape.
It seemed to be effective though, since when the smoke cleared there was nothing left of the man save a melting police baton slowly rolling under Ranma and Kouma, who were high-fiving each other.
"All right! We're in!" Ranma cheered.
"Ha! No sweat!" Kouma said with a rather uncommon grin. "By the way, why did we just do that?"
"That's what I want to know!" Tsukune shouted, throwing his arms up in the air. "Why did you attack?"
"That guy was going to make us fill out forms," Ranma said irritably as he crossed his arms over his chest, "probably in triplicate."
"Quadruplicate," Kouma corrected.
"What? Why would they even need that many?"
"We're in HELL. Get used to it."
"Wait, no. Don't get sidetracked," Tsukune demanded sternly, pushing aside his initial shock to try and take control of the situation, "why did you think that killing that man was okay just to avoid filling out paperwork? I'd expect this from Chopper or Keito, but not from you, Ranma!"
Ranma stepped back in surprise, clearly not expecting to be reprimanded. "But he was already dead!"
"That doesn't mat-" Tsukune suddenly stopped. "Wait... Actually, I guess that does matter."
"Besides, the guy already ended up in Hell. The forces of the universe decided he was enough of a jerk to suffer for the rest of existence, so it's not like he was innocent," Yukari pointed out. "Unless, of course, you doubt the objective good will of a universe that punishes us forever based on breaking the arbitrary rules apparently established by a creator capable of forcing us to follow such rules from the start. But that would be silly."
After several seconds of awkward and uncomfortable contemplation, Moka finally thought of something to ask Kouma.
"Kouma, what happens to people who die when they're already in Hell?"
As everyone showed considerable interest in this question, the hellhound was quite embarrassed to shrug helplessly.
"I have no idea. There are theories, but they're kind of all over the place. It just depends on what you believe."
"You... have religions in Hell?" Tsukune asked, coming to the logical conclusion of Kouma's last statement.
"Yeah, and they're all the touchy, super sensitive religions always getting up in arms about stupid stuff and splitting into different sects over the smallest little detail. Naturally," he grumbled, "but basically, nobody has any real idea what happens when someone in Hell dies."
"Hurgh!" Donald Jackson, damned spirit and former airline employee, suddenly felt a lurching sensation as his spiritual projection was sent hurtling out of a swirling red portal, finding himself skidding to a stop on what appeared to be an inch-thick layer of ash.
Raising his head in alarm, he started glancing from side to side frantically, completely confused as to what was going on.
The surroundings were, in fact, hardly much different from those he had just left; ash floated through the air, though there seemed to be more of it. Jagged stalagmites running with more red, volcanic veins than back in Hell were scattered about just as before, but in more places. The ground, in the few places it hadn't been completely covered by choking ash, bubbled with lava pits roughly twice as large as Donald was used to.
"Where am I? What is this?" he asked, not really expecting a response.
"You're in Double Hell," answered a deep voice behind him.
Whirling around, Donald found the not unfamiliar sight of a large, black humanoid with massive, curved horns, with its lower body resembling that of a goat.
He was also treated to the somewhat more unfamiliar sight of an identical monster standing behind the first one, stroking its pointed black beard.
"You're not serious," Donald grumbled, less horrified than annoyed.
"We get that a lot," said the second devil, shrugging, "but we are."
"Get up and follow me," commanded the first devil as he turned and beckoned over his shoulder, "you have twice the penance to get through now."
"Will I have to guard an easily breachable gateway by myself?" the resigned spirit asked.
"Nope. Now you have to guard TWO."
"Son of a bitch!"
"Actually, now that I think about it, what happens if WE die?" Yukari asked as she trudged along the jagged terrain next to Moka.
The five high schoolers were now trekking through what Kouma insisted was the main road through Hell to reach the primary facilities. The path was only notable for having slightly smaller stalagmites and lava pits in the way, although Ranma guessed that was mostly because the outer gateway wasn't used very often.
Kouma glanced over his shoulder to answer Yukari. "No biggie. We'll just pick you up along with this Jikan guy. It usually takes some time to get assigned to your torment after arriving, so we'll probably catch you at the assignment office that we're headed toward anyway."
"So we can die with pretty much zero consequences?" Ranma asked, sounding way too intrigued for Tsukune's comfort.
Moka frowned. "What if we're not sent to Hell, though?"
Kouma suddenly stopped, nearly stumbling over a patch of thorn-like rocks. "If you... oh. OH. You mean, like, if you were good and would go to Heaven?" It was obvious by the way he asked that the elemental canine hadn't even considered the possibility. "Okay, yeah, then you're screwed. So Tsukune is gonna need to watch out."
Tsukune blanched. "Just me? What about Moka?" he demanded as the vampiress nodded nervously.
"Vampires are automatic," Kouma said. When Moka started glowering him, he threw his arms up in the air. "What do you want from me? You're damned from the get-go! I don't make the rules!"
"What about Ranma?" Tsukune demanded next.
"Don't make me answer that," Kouma deadpanned.
"Hey!" shouted Ranma to little effect.
"Well, what about Yu..." Tsukune trailed off, "all right, fine. So everyone else is safe," the young human grumbled.
"These standards are too high! This is discrimination of people who happen to like discrimination!" Yukari complained, flailing her arms about. "Our spiritual karma should have a freedom of expression clause! They're condemning an idea!"
Kouma finally started moving again, moving up a steep incline marked by small streams of lava oozing out of glowing holes in the ground.
"All right, now watch out for steam vents and hellworms," the canine warned.
"'Hellworms'? That sounds like some kind of arterial parasite," Yukari mumbled.
"They are, in the sense that they try to get in your bloodstream when they attack," Kouma explained, "of course, most of them are thicker than your arm, Sendo, so they don't really measure up to the 'parasite' thing."
"Where do they live?" Ranma asked, glancing around at the small crevices and numerous smoldering holes that were located on the larger stalagmites. As he searched, he noticed a small, red, winged humanoid about the size of his head zipping about nearby, apparently checking the travelers from well out of arms' reach.
Kouma crested the incline and stepped up onto a cliff, looking out over a vast, blasted wasteland that spat flames into the air periodically. "They live in those little lava streams, just inside the pocket where the lava spills out. It should be fine as long as you don't disturb them somehow."
Ranma climbed up behind the others, but his eyes were locked on the small red creature. It had landed near a pile of smoldering rocks, and started digging through it before picking one up and leaping back into the air.
Then it flew up to a good height and hurled the rock at the incline.
"Whoa!" Yukari flinched back as the stone struck directly into the mouth of one of the lava spigots, almost splashing her with droplets of molten rock.
Ranma stepped up immediately behind her, just in case the witch started to fall or got burned. "Are you okay? That little punk almost got you!"
"Yeah, I'm fine, it didn't-" Yukari's annoyed reassurance was cut short as something suddenly burst from the lava spigot, causing her breath to catch in her throat.
It was a solid, dark red, with a long, rubbery body, just like a worm. Its head was decidedly unlike a worm though, sporting a gaping maw similar to a shark's, full of jagged teeth.
"Watch it!" Ranma shouted, immediately springing forward and grabbing onto the beast's body as it tried to curl around and bite Yukari.
"See? Hellworm," Kouma said, gesturing to the horrid creature as it snapped ferociously at Yukari, who was staggering backwards in her haste to get away from it.
"That is MUCH thicker than Yukari's arm!" Moka complained as she and Tsukune watched the scene in horror.
"Yeah, okay, maybe it's closer to my arm. It's been a while since I was last here," the hellhound admitted with a shrug.
"Stop thrashing around!" Ranma growled as he pulled the hellworm away from Yukari, trying to grab the beast near its head. It was difficult enough just because of the creature's impressive strength, but its skin was also searing hot, probably as a result of coming out of a lava pit.
Yanking it back with one hand, Ranma used the other to seize the hellworm right behind its jaws, finally taking the hateful beast completely out of lunging range of Yukari.
"Are you all right?" Tsukune asked, descending enough to help Yukari up atop the cliff.
"Y-Yeah. Just a little sh-shaken," the young witch said, letting Tsukune help her up onto flat ground, "why is it only going after me? Senpai's the one holding it!"
"Hellworms, like most hell-fauna, instinctively attack the weakest, youngest, and most sinful target," Kouma explained like he was playing the part of a tour guide.
Yukari grimaced as she stared at the hellworm Ranma was still holding firmly while it leered at her, its long, serpentine body lazily swinging back and forth as it curled and coiled in the air. "That's not fair! I only dabble in two, MAYBE three of the seven deadly sins!"
"Yeah, well, you kind of overdo 'lust' for someone who hasn't hit puberty yet," Ranma quipped as the hellworm suddenly swung its body hard to one side, its tail curling up into the air, "hm? Hey, what is it-"
Shwack! Everyone was fairly shocked when the hellworm suddenly whipped its long, powerful body across the fifteen-foot, uphill gap between Ranma and Yukari, striking the witch with enough force to knock her clean off her feet and off of the edge of the cliff.
"Why didn't I prepare FEATHER FAAAAAAAAAALLLLLLLL?" Yukari screamed as she started plummeting toward the ground, holding her hat to her head largely out of reflex.
"Well... she's dead," Kouma mumbled as Tsukune and Moka cried out in shock. He was reasonably surprised, however, that Ranma had other ideas.
The pigtailed boy blasted past the others in a red blur and then dove straight off the edge of the cliff, bringing his hands together in a flawless dive that would have been quite praiseworthy if he was diving toward water rather than jagged stone laced with lava veins.
"Wait! Ranma! There's no point! We'll just get her later!" Kouma called down, though it was quite obvious by now that Ranma couldn't exactly reverse course.
Tsukune crouched down next to the edge of the cliff. "Ranma! If you can throw her back up, I'll catch her!" he shouted, ever confident in his roommate's superhuman abilities.
True to form, Ranma soon reached the flailing Yukari, who was falling slightly slower thanks to the drag on her cape.
"Gotcha!" Ranma shouted as he latched onto Yukari's arm.
Then he started to spin in the air, swinging her around him in a wide circle.
"CATCH!" Ranma called as he let go of the witch, sending her flying upward with only slightly less screaming than she emitted on the way down.
"Almost..." Tsukune mumbled as he started stretching his hand down, trying to judge where he could catch Yukari without losing his balance and being pulled down himself.
He suddenly felt someone take hold of his arm, and glanced backward as Moka gave him a determined nod and braced herself to hold him steady.
Kouma took hold of his other shoulder, though he looked reluctant. "This is a complete waste of effort, you know. I actually would have ENJOYED not having to listen to her all the way to the offices..."
Tsukune ignored him, and he let himself fall forward as Yukari reached the peak of her ascent, reaching down and grabbing her around her waist while Moka and Kouma kept him from falling himself. "All right! Hold on to me!"
Yukari did so, attaching herself to the human boy's torso like a life preserver as they were both pulled up onto the cliff.
"Well, we saved ourselves from having to pick her up at the place we're going anyway. Good job, team," Kouma deadpanned as the human and witch collapsed onto the ground, overwhelmed with relief. Then he glanced down the slope they had just climbed. "Dick move, by the way."
The hellworm, which seemed to be staring up the incline despite a distinct lack of eyes, made a "Tch!" noise before it slunk back into its lava flow.
"What do we do about Ranma? Is he going to be okay?" Moka asked as she hugged a hyperventilating Yukari to her chest.
Kouma snorted. "If something like an enormous fall into jagged, burning rocks were enough to kill him, I'm pretty sure none of you would be alive right now."
Tsukune nodded, looking somewhat pleased (though it was hard to tell with the handkerchief over his mouth). "We should wait here for him to get back. I'm sure he could manage to get up the cliff on his own."
"What... What's that?" Moka asked nervously.
Kouma shrugged. "Lava eruption. We get them every few hours or so. Usually in incredibly inconvenient places."
Tsukune frowned as he felt the ground tremble beneath him. "So, should we move, or-"
BWOOOOM! He was entirely cut off as an enormous explosion sounded from far below, and Tsukune whirled around as a bright pillar of flame rocketed up past the very edge of the cliff, scorching and blinding him before he stumbled back.
There were a few more explosions from below, though none were as impressive, and Tsukune watched in horror as several more fireballs blasted upward past the cliff edge to shoot into the sky. Moka clung to him in fear as great tongues of flame swept over the ledge, and Yukari pulled her hat down over her head as she curled up into a ball and waited for the shaking to stop.
It was almost a full minute after the roaring explosions died down before Tsukune finally opened his eyes again. His body, as well as that of Moka and Yukari, was blackened with soot and peppered with dying embers. The edge of the cliff glowed red from the heat it was subjected to, and the view from the cliff into the valley below was completely blocked out by rising columns of thick black smoke from below.
Kouma was standing at the edge of the cliff as if he had not budged during the entire eruption, and looked supremely annoyed.
"Great, so now we have to make the same trip that we already had to make to rescue a teammate, except we lose Saotome rather than Sendo. Perfect," the hellhound grumbled as he turned around.
Tsukune and the others were too stunned to respond as Kouma walked past, his every step kicking up glowing embers and puffs of ash.
"Hey, let's get a move on! Before they decide to make him do something REALLY awful, like re-live his childhood over and over," Kouma demanded.
'I can't believe Ranma was finally taken out by an environmental hazard,' Evil Moka complained as her counterpart stumbled to her feet, 'not to mention I won't even be able to gloat about it until the next time Tsukune tries to feel us up. There's no justice in this world.'
Ranma whistled as he stared at the roiling column of smoke.
"Whoah. That was intense."
He was currently standing at the mouth of a cavern that had been drilled into the face of the cliff, having been drawn in right as the earthquake (Hellquake?) had started. Smoke leaked into the hole from the toxic column outside, but the cavern sloped upward so that it didn't fill the entire cave and make it totally uninhabitable for the pigtailed boy.
"Thanks for the hand back there, Mister magma spider!" Ranma said, glancing behind him.
Standing behind the martial artist, poised at the edge of a web made of glittering orange strands, was an eight-legged beast the size of a horse that seemed to be made of igneous rock riven with veins of flowing lava. It had half a dozen eyes - curiously human-like, with eyelids, pupils, and blazing red irises - and scythe-like fangs that looked like tempered blades.
"It is my honor to serve, my lord," the magma spider intoned, its voice echoing grandly and seeming to originate from no particular spot on its body, "it is fortuitous that I was poised to devour the small one with the cape, or I might not have recognized you in time."
"Uh... Yeah, okay. Thanks," Ranma mumbled, wondering why the hellbeast recognized him and why it seemed to revere him. Maybe it was someone killed at Youkai Academy? If that was the case, he didn't recognize the monster, which was rather embarrassing considering it referred to him as "my lord". Ranma decided to just keep quiet about it.
"I was shocked to see you in this land, my lord," the magma spider continued, its many eyes blinking against the smoke flowing over it, "have the forces of Heaven truly gone so far as to forsake their chosen descendant? Is it time that we who crawl rise up and seize this blasted land for the sake of the gods?"
Ranma was only getting more confused the longer the spider-thing spoke, so he decided to hurry and answer. "I'm not actually dead. I'm just here to pick up a guy who we didn't want killed and take him back to Earth."
The magma spider's eyes all widened simultaneously. "You march into the land of the damned and revive the dead?"
Ranma shrugged. "Yeah, pretty much. This is my first time doing it though, so I don't know if it'll work."
"As expected of our lord," the magma spider said reverently, "a moment, please. I have something for you."
Ranma was getting slightly worried about his friends atop the cliff, but didn't want to be rude to the monster that had saved his life and apparently deferred to him like some sort of human god (silly idea as that was).
The magma spider crawled up its web, disappearing briefly in the swirling black smoke that had gathered in the top portion of the hellbeast's lair.
When it descended again, Ranma was fairly stunned to see a familiar hairy brown figure clutching onto the magma spider's thorax.
"Hey, is that Ken? It is you!" Ranma said cheerfully as the large brown tarantula - though with a leg span barely equivalent to a dinner plate, he was decidedly puny compared to the elemental spider carrying him - wiggled his pedipalps excitedly. "I was wondering what happened to you, little buddy!"
"Your servant met his untimely end at the hands of the accursed false gods, may their lying facades melt away before your righteous aura," the magma spider growled.
Ranma once again had no clue what the hellbeast was talking about, so he cheerfully ignored it as he held out his hand for Ken to crawl onto. "Well, I'm really glad you took care of him! Thanks again! I'll take him back with me to Earth."
As the lesser arachnid scuttled over his shoulder and onto his back, Ranma asked, "So why was he in Hell anyway? Some kind of spider sin?"
"The creator did not exactly endow the arachnid family with great fortune upon our inception," the magma spider explained bitterly, "in terms of afterlives, we are largely confined to either this hellplane - mostly as torment props for the arachnophobic damned - or the Demonweb Pits."
Ranma didn't know what the "Demonweb Pits" were, but they didn't sound much more unpleasant than Hell itself. "And you chose Hell?"
"Whether you worship her or not, there is really no getting around the fact that Lolth is a raging, psychotic bitch. At least here they treat us like dumb animals and leave us alone most of the time. It's really not so bad after you evolve a lava-based form."
"Well, SOME people seem to like it here, I guess," Ranma mumbled, thinking of Kouma, "anyway, I should go catch up with my friends. There's a good chance they'll die without me. And then I'd have to go get them along with the first guy, which would be a hassle."
"Understood, my lord," the magma spider intoned, "may you tread safely on your travels. Death to the whiskered devils!"
"Yeah, sure, screw those guys," Ranma mumbled as he walked up to the mouth of the cavern and latched onto the upper lip, feeling that it was cool enough to hold. "Goodbye! Thanks for returning my spider!"
From there it was a rather quick climb to the top of the cliff, as the explosions from earlier had torn great gashes and holes in the rock and left a number of good handholds.
Once he reached the top, Ranma was disappointed, though not totally surprised, to see that there was no one waiting for him.
"The damn ash in the air covers up the footprints, too," Ranma mumbled, kneeling down and finding no trace of his friends' passage, "which way did they go?"
Ken suddenly hissed in irritation, and Ranma glanced upward.
His gaze hardened as he saw the little bat-winged imp from before who had precipitated Yukari's fall off the cliff. It was flittering about several meters in the air, and giggling as if the whole last ten minutes were just a big joke to it.
"You ever had mini-devil before, Ken?" Ranma asked as he kicked at a cracked stalagmite, knocking a bit of stone up into his hand.
The imp stopped giggling, and then turned around in the air and pointed its ass at Ranma before slapping its own rump repeatedly.
Ranma put down the stone he was holding and instead ripped the stalagmite out of the ground.
The imp froze as it watched the human lift the torso-sized chunk of stone over his head like it was a beach ball.
"What's wrong? Not funny when it happens to you?" Ranma asked as he hurled it toward the obnoxious hellspawn.
The imp veered out of the way, but that hardly took Ranma by surprise, and he kicked the smaller stone he had dropped earlier as the little red troublemaker strained to avoid the veritable brimstone comet.
Thwack! The second stone struck it square in the forehead, sending the imp reeling.
"All right, you little bastard, you're mine!" Ranma crowed as he started down the incline leading up to the cliff, although he had to slow down so as not to disturb the hellworms no doubt resting in the many lava spigots.
The imp had just enough time to recover and bolt into the air, barely getting enough altitude so that Ranma's fingers merely grazed its legs as the martial artist leapt up to try and seize it.
Ranma landed hard, and then promptly started coughing. Regardless of how tough and resilient he was, Hell had a very poor atmosphere and his breath didn't come easily. "Get back here, punk!" he shouted between coughs, sprinting after the rapidly escaping creature as his pet spider clung to his back, hissing angrily.
"And here we have Cavern of the Damned, in which the spirits of sinners are hung upside-down and wrapped in thorny vines," Kouma said as he entered a dark tunnel, lit only by the occasional small lava pits that bubbled away on the floor of the cave.
Tsukune and Moka entered silently, the latter gripping the former's hand tightly as he sullenly led her around the lava holes and other terrain hazards. Yukari followed the pair closely, constantly glancing around nervously.
"Up above you can see the countless souls undergoing eternal penance for their transgressions against their God. Not exactly sure what transgression, specifically; wasn't really my department. Probably lying on their taxes or something," Kouma mused, gesturing up to the ceilings where hundreds of tightly-packed people swung and writhed about in pain as the thorn-covered bonds dug into their naked bodies, "every few hours a few of the devil grunts comes along and swats a few of 'em like pinatas, and that causes them to smack into each other, which increases their suffering considerably. So don't ever lie on your taxes."
Kouma looked somewhat annoyed as the others said nothing in response to his tour guide routine, and eventually continued.
"You may have noticed that there's a lot of 'places of the Damned' around here. It's not really supposed to try to make it sound scary or anything, but rather it's a simple designator, like how government buildings will be called 'federal' or 'municipal' to mark who they belong to and what they're used for. So the Cavern, Lake, Pit, Untreated Septic Tank, and Cubicle Farm of the Damned are all places specifically for the torment of sinners, while all the areas labeled 'Devil's', like the Devil's Playground, Proving Grounds, and Freestyle Skateboard Park are all for Hell's worker devils to use when not busy dishing out egregious penance."
Still Tsukune and the girls said nothing, and a vein popped up on Kouma's head.
"So, do you guys wanna see anything while you're here?" Kouma asked, turning around while crossing his arms over his chest, "maybe see a sentencing? Visit an ancestor? Oh, how about we go see the torment of Adolph Hitler? People always get a kick out of that. Or any historical villain, really. Take your pick!"
"Take us to that office, Kouma," Tsukune deadpanned, "no detours."
"Fine, I will, but will you all stop being so mopey?" Kouma said, throwing his arms up into the air. "This is my first trip home in years and you guys are being total downers!"
"My best friend just died," Tsukune said through clenched teeth.
"Oh, so what? We're going to get him right now!" Kouma countered. "Considering how often he picks fights with eldritch horrors, you should be happy that he happened to bite it in the one situation where it's really easy to bring him back!"
Tsukune just glowered wordlessly at the hellhound, so Kouma tried appealing to Moka. "Look, you can't say he didn't have it coming. I warned him about how dangerous this was, and he KNEW that Sendo would be easy to revive! This is the sort of dumb, reckless behavior that annoys you the most about him, right?"
"He didn't deserve to die for saving Yukari," the vampiress said simply.
"That's arguable, but whatever," Kouma mumbled, "Sendo, didn't you want to explore a bit more? Like, to document the secrets of the universe that I've been revealing pretty much non-stop since we got here?"
"I've had enough of this place," Yukari said, shuddering, "I just want to make sure Senpai is all right and then get back to our own world where misery is arbitrary and often inversely proportional to a person's karma."
"Man... You guys are seriously ruining this whole trip," the hellhound complained as he started leading them forward again, unaware of how hard Tsukune was working not to scream at him.
"If it's any consolation," Moka mumbled half-heartedly, "the other Moka thinks that this is all very interesting and wants to know what sort of punishment violent, cocksure martial artists can expect."
"Thanks, that does cheer me up a bit," Kouma said, hopping over another lava pit, "but like I said, that's not really my department. We'll have to ask the assignment office when we get there."
'Must stay quiet. Must stay quiet. Kouma is the key to getting this done. Cannot berate him,' Tsukune thought fervently, biting his dry lips.
The group continued through the cavern to the exit, eventually emerging into a fairly narrow pathway winding through a series of huge lava pits that provided much more light than the cavern.
Ahead of them was a fairly short man with dark skin and curly hair that extended from his head to a thick, curly beard that he frequently combed a hand through in order to clean out the collected ashes. He wore sandals and a toga, and was striding purposefully toward the cavern they had just left.
"Hey Jesus," Kouma said casually, nodding his head as he passed the son of God.
"Peace be with you," Jesus Christ said, bowing his head briefly before he headed on his way.
The group moved on, heading further on down the walkway for several more minutes until Kouma suddenly whirled around.
"Okay, seriously? NOBODY is even going to say anything?" he demanded. "We just passed Jesus FREAKING Christ, and you all are so absorbed by the temporary loss of Ranma that you aren't even curious?"
Tsukune looked annoyed by the outburst. "Well, it doesn't matter much to me. I'm not Christian."
"I'd kind of hope that after visiting Hell itself and seeing the horrors inflicted upon unrepentant sinners that you'd consider converting," Kouma deadpanned.
Tsukune sighed wearily, obviously thinking of this conversation as a chore. "Kouma, can you tell me why Jesus isn't in Heaven?"
The hellhound perked up instantly as he started moving down the path again. "Actually, he does live in Heaven. In fact it's a sore point with his dad that he keeps coming down here."
The group walked in silence for several seconds before Moka reluctantly asked, "Why would he visit this place?"
"Well, that's the funny thing about Christ," Kouma said as he turned at a fork in the path, leading the group away from a towering black fortress that loomed in the distance, "he's always been into the martyrdom and redemption thing. So instead of spending all his time in Heaven playing harps or whatever, he sneaks down into Hell and frees the tormented souls, redeeming them and sometimes engaging in epic Kung-Fu duels with the devil legions."
Kouma gestured to several bare iron pillars stuck in the lava. "See those? Normally there are damned souls chained to them and being constantly seared from the heat. Jesus just heads in and messes up all the torture, all the while preaching about righteousness and light and whatever. He's like Hell's Osama Bin Laden."
Kouma suddenly stopped and snapped his fingers. "Hey, that's right! The Americans got that guy, didn't they? We should track him down and see what-"
"KOUMA," Tsukune said through clenched teeth, "hurry up and take us to where Ranma is."
"Gladly," Kouma muttered bitterly, "since apparently you guys are a total drag if he isn't around. Hmph."
"Get - huff! - back here - huff! - you little - huff! - pudgy brat!"
Ranma was breathing hard as he jogged around a large, flat-topped stalagmite, the little imp hovering ahead of him just out of reach.
Although initially it had been worried about the impressive abilities of the mortal, once it had taken Ranma's measure - particularly his difficulty breathing in the dry, ash-filled air - it had turned the vengeful pursuit into a merry game, and cackled delightfully at Ranma's frustration.
"Keep giggling, pipsqueak," Ranma growled as he wiped a sheen of sweat off his brow, "one misstep and you're headed straight to... wherever people go when they die in Hell."
The imp, either because of the threat or because it just wanted to make Ranma angrier, suddenly shot up into the air and then landed atop the stalagmite, grinning wickedly as it stuck its tongue out at its pursuer.
"Oh, think you're safe up there, do you?" Ranma asked.
The imp cackled.
"Get him, Ken," Ranma said with a smirk.
The imp's laughter died a horrible painful death right before it did the same, courtesy of Ranma's deceased pet spider which had been dropped off there earlier to wait in ambush. Ken leapt onto the miniature devil from behind, clinging to its leathery red skin while its fangs sunk deep into the imp's neck and filled the flailing creature with venom.
Ranma sighed as he sat down at the base of the stalagmite, ignoring the agonized squeals and hateful hissing as he stared at the gloomy horizon.
In the distance he could see a large black fortress, which was really the only structure large enough to be seen over the choking gray clouds that wafted through the underworld like floating, slow-motion rivers.
"Well, they'd probably do all the admin stuff inside, right? Might as well do it all in a castle," Ranma mused.
He hopped up to his feet, feeling somewhat refreshed by the brief rest, though he was terribly thirsty. "Ken, finish up and let's get a move on!"
The giant spider stabbed his fangs deep into the twitching, rubbery imp body, and took nearly a minute slurping up his victim's blood and bile before lightly pushing the withered husk off to the side, letting it roll down the side of the stalagmite before he crawled back down to his master.
Collecting his spider from the rocks, Ranma started jogging in the direction of the castle.
The Torment Assignment Office was built into a series of hollowed-out caverns in the side of what was probably a volcano (if for no other reason than Tsukune couldn't see the top and it seemed like EVERY mountain in Hell was a volcano). It was fairly easy to spot on approach, as there were a number of large red humanoids leading struggling naked people away in a constant stream, which one would have expected from the "original" entrance to Hell.
"All right, now you all should wait here," Kouma said, halting them, "I'll go and get the info on where Ranma and Jikan are, assuming Ranma isn't still waiting to be processed."
"I want to go too," Tsukune insisted, "maybe I can-"
"AONO," Kouma said loudly, startling the others with his suddenly serious tone, "look, I know you're worried about Ranma, and you have that whole 'human diplomacy' bonus going for you, and I respect that. Really. But this is the infernal underworld, and they play rough here," the hellhound explained, "if things go wrong somehow, it's much better for you to be here, where you can escape, than in the office, where you'll be surrounded. Like we discussed, I won't be able to get to your afterlife."
Tsukune grimaced. "I never imagined that eternal reward for being a decent person would be such a problem."
"Twisted irony is our specialty," Kouma agreed, "now wait here."
"Man, doesn't the devil ever get thirsty? I haven't seen any sign of water since we got here," Ranma complained as he trudged across the cracked wasteland, his pet spider still clinging to his back, "why didn't I think to bring any water down here? This sucks."
In front of Ranma loomed the giant black fortress, although it still seemed a great distance away. With the physical limitations brought on by the horrid environment and increasingly severe thirst he couldn't sprint there, and he found an ordinary pace of travel annoyingly slow.
He was fairly engrossed in his grumbling, to the extent that he wasn't really paying attention to his surroundings until some of his surroundings started shouting at him.
"Hey! Hey you! You're not a devil, right? Help me!"
Ranma was startled out of his thoughts, and promptly noted there was a pit of black sand that was set just off the path ahead, hardly distinguishable from the cracked black wasteland surrounding it but for the fact that it didn't have thick, glowing veins of lava seeping through it.
There was also a head poking out of the sand. A man's head, of vaguely Asian descent, with flesh that was dried and scorched to the extent that there were actually thin plumes of smoke rising from his skin.
Ranma promptly jogged over to pit, looking alarmed. "Whoa, are you okay?"
"I've been baking in sand for years, do you think I'm okay?" the man snapped as Ranma crouched down next to him, "look, just hel-GYAAAH! On your back! What the here is that?"
Ranma blinked. "What, Ken? He's my spider. Relax, he won't hurt you." He dug his hands down into the black obsidian grains, grimacing as he felt the heat for himself. The sand felt hot as coals, and as he moved his hands through it, he could also feel larger, sharp grains that would prick his skin like thorns.
"It's n-not like I'm scared of spiders at this point, exactly, but why is it on you?" the man asked.
"He's just a pet. Now hold on." Ranma finally dug deep enough to take hold of the damned soul's shoulder, and grunted as he pulled the tortured spirit free of his prison, glittering black sand spilling over the ground all around them.
As soon as the man was free, he promptly fell to his knees with an expression of intense relief, apparently forgetting all about Ranma's spider for the moment.
Ranma watched him closely (at least, Ranma watched his upper torso closely; the man was naked), and noticed that the spirit's skin, which was burnt and shriveled for obvious reasons, seemed to recover before his eyes, expanding and turning a healthier shade.
"Wow, you heal fast," the martial artist remarked, somewhat envious.
The man panted heavily as he sluggishly moved himself off of the pit, Ranma right behind him. "It's so that we can feel our torment more keenly. It would not do if we were to ever get numb to the pain, I guess."
Ranma suddenly felt much less envious. "Oh, wow... Not good," he mumbled awkwardly, "so why'd you end up here? What'd you do wrong?"
"I cheated on my wife," the damned soul grumbled, "and I lied about it. Not too much besides that."
Ranma clicked his tongue. "You can't do that, man. It aint right."
"Yeah, thanks, I realized that after the first few days of baking like a damn pie," the adulterer grumbled, "anyway, thanks for granting me a few moments' rest from my torment. I'm sure a devil will be along soon to put me back in that pit."
As the man bowed glumly, Ranma shrugged. "Why don't you leave, then?"
"Huh? How? You can't just leave Hell," he insisted.
"Well, I just walked into it, and I don't see what you have to lose, here," Ranma said, scratching his head as he pointed behind him, "it's a bit of a walk, but if you go straight back, hang a right at the big plateau - there should be a dead imp there at the bottom - and then go down the steep incline with all the lava spouts and follow the lava streams, you should get to the gate. I took out the guard and there isn't a family of big scary Hell monsters guarding it anymore, so you should be home free until you reach the portal."
The man looked completely awestruck. "Are... Are you serious? I can escape? I can be FREE? How can I ever thank you?"
"Just don't cheat on your wife anymore, okay?" Ranma asked, crossing his arms over his chest.
"Pff, how can I do that?" scoffed the damned soul, "the marriage thing clearly stipulates 'til death do you part'. I bought it, so now I'm free of any religious obligation to hold this guy back!"
Ranma grimaced as the rescued spirit pointed at his own crotch. 'I think he might be missing the point, here,' the martial artist thought grimly. "Okay, well, if you won't do that, can you take my spider back with you and drop him off in the world of the living? I'm heading toward the big spooky castle and I don't want him to get killed. Again."
The man looked distinctly uncomfortable with this plan, but nodded reluctantly. "All right, fine. Give 'im here."
Ranma gestured sharply with his left arm out, and the tarantula scuttled over his shoulder and then out onto his arm, eventually climbing hesitantly onto the spirit's chest.
"Whoa... He, uh... kinda tickles," the man said, clearly nervous as he tried to work out where to hold the eight-legged beast.
"Now no biting, Ken," Ranma lectured into the tiny beady eyes atop the spider's head, "you just stick with the lowlife until you're back at the school, okay? And if anything happens, just make a break for it."
The tortured spirit probably would have complained (unironically) of his being described as a lowlife, but the man instead gasped and pointed behind Ranma.
"They're here! The devils! It's over!"
"What?" Ranma turned around, and frowned as he saw a dark shape approaching in the distance, barely visible thanks to the obscuring ash. "All right, I'll handle this, you go and-"
Ranma glanced back behind him, and sighed as he saw that the damned soul was already a good distance away, fleeing in the direction Ranma had indicated earlier.
"Well, at least he's taking Ken with him. Now let's see what this jerk wants."
Said "jerk" approached quickly, managing a loping jog that covered the cracked, flinty ground quite well. Once it was close enough for Ranma to make out, he could see that it was a large, red, male humanoid creature, boasting a thick musculature and a pair of twisting horns protruding from its brow. He had a whip-like tail about a meter long that thrashed back and forth like and unruly snake, and the creature was holding a bronze trident over his shoulder.
The hellbeast slowed quickly as he approached, looking quite confused at the sight of Ranma standing in the open and clearly waiting for him.
"Well, we don't have Miss Nekonome around to explain what you are, but I'm gonna guess 'devil'," Ranma said blandly.
The devil gave Ranma a curious look, and then snorted, a small cloud of flickering embers spurting from his nostrils. "Insolent mortal! Back to your penance!" Shouldering his weapon, the devil reached forward to seize Ranma with a large, clawed hand.
Ranma slapped the hand away. "Naw, I'm not doing time here. I'm just looking for... wait, what did Kouma call it?"
The devil snarled and swiped at Ranma's face, but the martial artist ducked before stepping back.
"It was some kind of office, does that ring a bell?"
"Your future torment increases with your every move, worm!" the devil hissed as he suddenly brought his trident down and stabbed it forward.
Ranma moved to the side, allowing the weapon to stab past him, and then seized the haft with one hand while one leg snapped up and struck the devil's arm, jarring the trident loose. Then in one smooth rotation Ranma brought the polearm back around before stabbing it into the shocked devil's abdomen.
"Now I remember!" Ranma said suddenly, brightening as steaming black fluids oozed from the new wounds in the hellbeast's stomach, "it was called the Torment Assignment-"
Thud! Ranma trailed off as the devil fell over, the bronze trident wobbling unsteadily as its owner seemed to slowly boil away on the spot, leaving only a puddle of dark oil-like fluids and a bleached skeleton.
"Well, I'll just remember it for the next guy I find, then," Ranma murmured as he started on his trek again, "there's gotta be someone who knows where... wait, is that another sand pit?"
He frowned as he spotted another one of the torturous prisons on the side of the path, complete with a human head in the middle.
"Looks like I've got a lot of work to do," Ranma grumbled as he jogged ahead, leaving the crumbling bones of the devil behind him.
"Okay, look, I know I'm not supposed to be here, but I've got a reason," Kouma said, looking frustrated but surprisingly calm about it, "it's not like I'm hurting anyone, here. I just need to look up some info."
The creature he was speaking to was a very large devil with massive, elephantine legs and arms like industrial lifters.
"I don't know, Gamaroshi. I don't want this on my performance review," the devil grumbled, glancing next to them at the line of naked humans being dragged away by other devils, "you know how touchy Beelzebub can get during the end of the fiscal year, and my bonus-"
"Okay, look, I'll cut you a deal. You know I live in the human world now, right? I have access to all kinds of stuff," Kouma said with a smirk, "you do me a solid, and then you can contact me back in the land of the mortals and get me to send you something nice."
The guard devil looked startled by the proposition. "You mean like a PlayStation 2?"
Kouma snorted. "PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, two PlayStation 1's, your call. Whaddya say?"
"I say nothing, because I saw nothing," said the devil, his gaze rising so that he was staring straight forward.
Kouma shook his head in contempt as he walked into the office, barely managing to keep clear of the long line of struggling mortals and growling devils.
'What a loser. Willingly breaching security for the sake of one of the humans' useless toys!' the hellhound thought. 'If it were me I would've disemboweled anyone who dared to bribe me! This place has gone straight to... well... someplace worse than Hell, I guess. Ah, there's the desk!'
Aside from the barely directed chaos of mortal souls being rapidly judged and dragged away screaming to their fates, there was a single window off to the side that was only used by the denizens of Hell to request information, rather than having a direct role in the judging and tormenting process.
Kouma walked up to the desk, which was manned by a single female devil who was delicately filing her horns, which curled down under her ears like a ram.
"Hello, I'd like to make an information request," Kouma said, crossing his arms over his chest. "I'm looking for a pair of souls."
The devil woman glanced at him, and then put down the rusted iron file she had been using. "Name?"
"The first is some schmuck named Jikan. Came in a little less than two months ago. Method of death was being flayed alive by a demon."
The devil woman nodded and snapped her fingers, causing a manila folder to appear on her desk in a puff of flame. "And what information in particular are you looking for?"
"What kind of punishment he's enduring, and where that sector is," Kouma answered.
"Sector H-17, being forever cut by jagged pendulum blades," she replied. "And the second soul?"
"A troublemaker named Saotome Ranma. Died about an hour or so ago. He might not actually be assigned yet."
The devil woman nodded. Then she stared straight forward for several seconds before frowning.
"Hmm. I'm not getting anything for that name," she mumbled.
Kouma suddenly staggered backward, and he felt his blood chill almost to room temperature. "But... No, that's impossible! The record must have gotten lost, or... or maybe it hasn't been processed yet!"
"The records are generated at the time of death, so that isn't an issue... unless, of course, he went to a different afterlife," the receptionist pointed out.
Kouma's jaw worked soundlessly, unable to form words as the full implications of what he was hearing dawned on him.
Ranma was gone. Dead. Permanently removed from the mortal coil. Neither he nor Tsukune or the two annoying, horny teenage girls back at Youkai Academy would ever see him again.
There was a part of him that wanted to be happy at the prospect, but he just couldn't be. For all Ranma's talent in annoying people, he was still someone who stood by Kouma and the Protection Committee when they needed him. He was benign, maybe even heroic.
This led the hellhound to yet another harrowing thought: why had he assumed Ranma would suffer for eternity? Ranma had perished saving Yukari with barely any thought to his own safety and regardless of all the trouble Yukari had caused him in the past. In fact, Ranma had ALWAYS been ready to put himself at risk to help others. In disregarding that, Kouma had spit on Ranma's kindness and sense of justice, and reduced the man's memory to that of an obnoxious clown.
"Ah, I see now," said the she-devil, "I checked Death's files. Mister Saotome isn't actually dead yet."
In an instant Kouma's guilt was washed away, and the hellhound slammed a fist down onto the countertop in front of him, causing a small burst of flames to shoot up. "That IDIOT! And he didn't even say anything before we left? What's wrong with him?"
The devil woman shrugged, looking completely uninterested in Kouma's outburst. "I can't say... Is there anyone else you need to find? Maybe Saotome Genma, his father?"
Kouma blinked, his anger vanishing. "His dad's dead?"
"Just a moment," the receptionist asked as she tilted her head to one side, "huh. Actually, no. Death has had a work order in place for more than a year now, but the soul is still in arrears."
Kouma quirked an eyebrow. "Seriously? That can happen?"
Genma Saotome strolled casually through the neighborhood on his way back to the Tendo household, ignoring the occasional pointing and staring from the few people around who weren't used to seeing a panda ambling along the sidewalk like it belonged there.
As he rounded a corner, the cursed martial artist halted, spotting something odd in the middle of the street.
It was a plate of rice balls and bamboo sticks, planted next to a sign that read "Free panda food" next to a rather large tree.
Genma glanced up at the tree's branches, noticing that there was a net poised over the plate of food, stretched between the branches and suspended by a rope.
That rope extended down to a peg that secured it tightly to the ground, while next to it a black-cloaked figure crouched in some bushes, a massive scythe held at the ready to cut the rope.
Genma's eyes narrowed ever so slightly.
Ambling up to the plate of food, Genma stopped just outside the net's radius, staring at the meal left out on the sidewalk.
Then he raised his arms up to either side, as if he was about to hug-tackle someone.
And then he swept his arms together, causing a sign with the words "Kishin raishu dan" on it to go flying off to the side.
More importantly, it also sent a wave of shimmering, razor-sharp air up into the tree, slicing through one of the branches that supported the rope. The net and the line holding it up dropped down, and then the line caught on another branch and swung the net right on top of the rather surprised cloaked figure.
A litany of curses in a tongue no human could hope comprehend boomed from the foliage as Genma leapt upon the food, scarfing down the rice balls in seconds and taking only marginally longer on the bamboo.
Then, with a few scraps of bamboo still falling from his jaws, Genma thrust a sign into the air.
"Meep meep, bitches."
Genma then dashed down the road, leaving only the obligatory cloud of dust and an empty plate behind him as Death snarled in fury and hatred.
"Well, that's just great. So he's still alive, just lost in Hell," Kouma groused, "if the jerk would just lay down and kick the bucket, this would have been so much easier."
The she-devil at the counter quirked a well-trimmed eyebrow. "Why would a mortal who isn't dead be in Hell?"
"Because your security SUCKS now, that's why," Kouma answered matter-of-factly, "anyway, thanks for your help. That's all I need."
"Before you go, would you fill out a customer satisfaction survey?" the devil woman asked, taking out a form and laying it down on the counter, "in order for us to serve you better in the future."
Kouma shook his head as he turned away. "Nah, I'm in a hurry."
"I am required to advise you that while it is your choice, failure to fill out a survey WILL result in you being attacked by wasps made of knives," the receptionist warned.
Kouma halted. "Wait. Wasps made of..."
Bzzzzzzzzz... The hellhound trailed off as a wasp at least the size of his hand emerged from somewhere above, dropping in front of him to hover in place menacingly. It wasn't exactly made of knives, but rather had an unreasonably large, scalpel-like blade attached to each of is legs, mandibles, antennae, and a particularly nasty-looking spike emerging from its abdomen.
"Right. I forgot we had these, actually," Kouma grumbled as he turned back to the she-devil, "fine, can I borrow a pen?"
"No," the devil woman said simply, smirking as the wasp started circling Kouma's head.
The hellhound frowned, staring down at the survey sheet, and then up at the buzzing hellwasp, and finally back at the receptionist. "You take ironic customer service much more seriously than I remember."
She nodded. "The economy has been tough on everyone," she explained grimly as the wasp reared its stinger back and attacked.
"So what do we do if Kouma can't find them?" Yukari asked. She was currently leaning against Moka's chest as the girls sat next to a lava flow, the vampiress keeping close to Yukari as to benefit from the witch's air bubble.
Tsukune dearly wished to join them, as he already felt thirstier than he had ever been in his life and his hair probably contained half his body weight in soot by now, but he restrained himself. Mostly because it would involve him feeling up an eleven year-old and sandwiching her between him and Moka.
He wasn't entirely sure Yukari would disapprove, honestly, but he was intent on keeping the question moot.
"Then we move on to the next office. Or boss, or whatever," Tsukune said, his voice slightly hoarse, "if we can't find Jikan, then that's unfortunate, but we WILL find out what happened to Ranma."
"Hey! Kouma's coming back!" Moka said, brightening as she spotted the hellhound's human form through the dust with her superior vision.
Tsukune was wringing his hands as Kouma approached, though he was soon forced to put aside some of his concern for Ranma to make room for concern for Kouma; the hellhound had several gashes over his face and arms, as if he had been cut by several small knives. Oddly enough, it was his right hand that was most scarred and bloodstained.
"Kouma? What happened to you?" Tsukune asked as the native hellbeast walked past him.
"I just had to fill out a questionnaire with my own blood while using a 'pen' that was trying to stab me to death," Kouma said with an uncharacteristically calm shrug, "no biggie. More importantly, I found out where Jikan is."
Tsukune felt his heart sink into his stomach at the way Kouma said it, having obviously excluded Ranma on purpose. "And Ranma?"
A vein popped up on Kouma's head. "Turns out our buddy Saotome never bit that bullet after all. Somehow the bastard's still alive and kicking."
Tsukune felt relieved at first, but his dread grew as he considered that information. "Wait, so that explosion-"
"Either he dodged it, or he's a lot more resistant to fire than we thought. Even I couldn't have just shrugged off that eruption," Kouma groused, "really, this wouldn't happen if he'd just tell us his damn species already."
Moka fought the urge to roll her eyes. "Well, is he injured?"
"Is he still back at that cliff?" Yukari followed.
Kouma sighed wearily. "I don't know. So long as he's alive, Hell doesn't really have much to do with him."
"So how will we find him?" Tsukune asked, "should we double back where we came?"
"Are you sure you could handle that, Tsukune?" Moka asked in concern as she squeezed Yukari to her chest (much to the witch's delight), "you don't look like you're handling this atmosphere well."
"Besides that, if the guy survived being swallowed by fire, then there's no point in us worrying about his life NOW," Kouma groused, "he can find his own way. We should get Jikan and get out of here."
Tsukune grimaced, hating the idea of abandoning a possibly injured Ranma to the stingy mercies of the underworld, but eventually had to concede the point to Kouma.
"All right, since we know where our original target is, we'll get him and hopefully meet up with Ranma on the way or at the portal home," Tsukune decided, "if we don't find him, then we can leave Kouma at the portal to wait while the rest of us go back and think of a new strategy."
"Sure, whatever," Kouma said as he started to trudge down the path, "pretty sure it's unnecessary. I'd be more worried about setting Ranma loose in Hell than unleashing Hell on Ranma."
"You're being ridiculous," Tsukune insisted as he and the girls followed the hellhound, "even Ranma isn't invincible. What's he going to do in Hell that would be so terrible?"
"At the ready!" snarled a large devil in shining obsidian armor, holding a wicked-looking halberd over his shoulder.
A dozen more devils in identical wargear aimed their shadowy weapons at a pair of massive, bronze-lined double-doors.
Bang! The doors shuddered as something hit them, but the guards did not flinch, their gazes smoldering with hate and determination.
Behind the ornately equipped hellbeasts was a particularly large devil, this one with skin the color of fresh charcoal and thick, long, night-black hair that covered his head like a lion's mane around the two twisted horns that sat atop his head. His lower body, rather than being humanoid like that of most of the other devils, looked like the hind legs of a goat, complete with large cloven hooves. He was dressed from head to hoof in glittering golden chainmail, with a variety of opulent accessories hanging from multiple piercings.
There was also a massive bronze throne in the room, which would have been totally eclipsed by the devil were he not crouching behind it in fear.
"When that fool breaks through, I'm going to give my obligatory Final Boss speech, then you all jump him!" demanded the bigger devil.
"Yes, my Lord Satan," growled the leader of the Infernal Guard, levering his own halberd at the doors as the shook once more from a heavy impact.
"How did he get past the main gates? Did he sneak in or just kill anything in his way?" mumbled one guard devil as the hinges to the door strained painfully.
"Silence! Keep your weapons and your thoughts aimed at the enemy!" the lead devil snapped.
As the heavy doors finally collapsed inward, Satan stood up and to the side of his throne so that it was slightly less obvious he was using it for cover. "So you've made it this far, have you? Impressive, but your journey ends here, Ghost of Spar-" then he halted and quirked an eyebrow, "wait, you're not Kratos. What's going on?"
Ranma panted as he dropped the enormous bronze maul he had used to hammer open the doors. He had a large gash on one flank and a few cuts on his arm, but most of the dried fluid spattering his clothes was obviously devil ichor. He had also put away the handkerchief, as the air inside the fortress was clean enough for him to breathe easily, if not still ten degrees warmer than he liked.
"Where is the torment assignment office?" Ranma demanded, balling hands into fists as he glanced around at the weapons surrounding him.
All the devils in the room were silent, until Satan finally asked, "You're... looking for the assignment office?"
"That's right!" Ranma said, clenching his jaw as he held an aggressive combat stance, "also, if there's a water fountain or something around here, that would be awesome. I'm REALLY thirsty."
The captain of the Infernal Guard glanced back at Satan. "My lord?"
The ruler of Hell stepped up in front of his throne, stroking his beard. "So, who are you, exactly?"
"My name is Saotome Ranma!" the martial artist shouted.
"Oh-ho! And Saotome Genma would be your father, right?" Satan asked, grinning.
"That's right! I'm the son of Gen-" Ranma suddenly deflated, "wait, how do you know that name?" he asked fearfully.
Satan kept grinning as he suddenly jumped back to land seated in his throne. "Welcome, mortal, to my abode! I am Satan, lord of Hell and paragon of evil!"
Suddenly he clapped his hands sharply. "Captain! This man asked for refreshments, did he not? Stop pointing weapons at him and see to it!"
The other devils quickly shouldered their halberds and stepped back, and the captain offered a quick bow before rushing out the broken doors.
"Now then, Saotome, let's chat!" Satan said, clearly rather happy about this unexpected intrusion.
Ranma, on the other hand, was increasingly uncomfortable with this situation now that it didn't involve fighting and apparently DID involve his father. "So, uh, how about that office?"
"Oh, that? It's in the other direction, way across the main lava river," Satan explained, "you're pretty far off."
"Aw, are you serious?" Ranma groaned, "why didn't any of your guys just TELL me that rather than trying to stab me?"
"Well, it IS their job to make sure that mortal souls are kept in unspeakable agony for the rest of time," the ruler of Hell explained with a shrug, "but I can understand your frustration. I'll have a talk with them."
Ranma winced. "Ah... I doubt that."
"Wow, it's gotten busy all of a sudden, hasn't it?" asked one of the Satan twins as he passed out armor to a line of rather confused-looking devils. "Is there a skirmish going on in the first underworld, or what?"
The second twin shrugged as he leaned on a pike. "There's some mortal jerk running through Hell freeing trapped souls and killing the devils who try to stop him."
The other twin shook his head as he walked down the line. "A mortal killed you guys off? Double lame."
"Yeah, well we got the last laugh," grumbled one of the devils bitterly, "he asked me where the Torment Assignment Office was as I lay dying, impaled on my own weapon, and I never told him he was going in the completely wrong direction!"
"Yeah, we sure showed him," deadpanned the devil next to him who then raised his hand, "excuse me, Lord? Or, Lords, I guess?"
The two masters of Double Hell turned toward him, and the lowly soldier continued, "So if we're in Double Hell because we died in Hell, what happens if we die here?"
"Then you go to Scary Town," the Satan twin handing out armor said, stepping next to the devil and holding out a breastplate.
"Wow. That place must REALLY suck," muttered the next one down the line.
"Eh, it's not bad in the fall. Now armor up, boys! You're all working double shifts from now on!" the other Satan proclaimed, eliciting groans from the assembled devils.
The captain of Satan's bodyguards soon returned with an iron goblet, and handed to Ranma with his head bowed.
As nervous as Ranma was, he took the goblet without hesitation, and barely halted before he drank it, noticing that it was a rich red color.
"Wait, what is this? Wine?" Ranma asked.
"Blood wine. Only the finest for guests of our lord," hissed the captain, his forked tongue briefly poking out from between his lips.
"That's... just a name, right?" Ranma asked awkwardly.
"What do you think?" Satan deadpanned, planting his cheek against his fist as he leaned his elbow against his throne's armrest.
"I can't drink blood!" Ranma said, grimacing, "I'd be no different than the vampires!" He handed the goblet back to the captain of the Guard, who looked confused.
"Well, as beverages go we've only got the blood wine and Pepsi Blue," Satan explained, "so just how parched are you?"
Ranma wordlessly snatched back the goblet and took a deep gulp, trying to keep from tasting it.
"Anyway Saotome, let me cut to the chase: your father Genma made a deal with me, and that deal means that your soul belongs to me," Satan said happily as Ranma finished draining the goblet.
"Yeah, I figured," Ranma grumbled as he handed the empty cup back to the guard devil, "so what was the deal about?"
"Well, once upon a time, an up-and-coming martial artist was seriously regretting his choice of instructors, and as men often abused and humiliated are won't to do, he hatched a plan to get his revenge upon the one responsible for his suffering."
"Happousai?" Ranma asked.
"Yes, precisely," Satan said, his grin revealing rows of dagger-like teeth, "Genma had a plan, but he was afraid. There were too many things that could go wrong. He needed insurance, and I just happened to be in a position to provide when I heard a random prayer for help in securing vengeance," the massive devil steepled his fingers, "that's the sort of thing I can get behind, you see."
Ranma grunted. "Well, at least it was for a better cause than usual this time."
Satan chuckled. "Oh, yes. And such a two-for-one deal was impossible for me to pass up!"
Ranma looked surprised at this. "He offered up his own soul too?"
"No, but you can't really sell your son to the DEVIL without ending up here anyway," Satan explained blithely.
Ranma looked away uncomfortably. He'd seen what was done to the people here, and it was certainly bad enough that he had freed every one of them he'd met, despite the fact that it was almost guaranteed that they had earned their fate. And he was going to have to undergo that as part of a business deal?
"Look, I'm not gonna let you torture me 'cause of my Pop," Ranma declared, glaring up at the blazing red eyes of the lord of Hell.
"Oh, no, I wasn't going to!" laughed the devil, clearly amused. Then he pointed to a random member of his bodyguard. "Minion! Fetch Lucy at once!"
Ranma blanched. What was this about? Was he going to have to do some sort of pit fight? Or end up as food? "Hey, wait! Just what is 'Lucy'?" Ranma demanded.
Satan's smile stretched even wider. "Why, Lucy's my daughter! And your fiancee!"
Ranma was silent for several seconds as the guard devil stepped out of the throne room.
"Sooooo... on second thought, just what ARE the different kinds of torture around here?" Ranma asked as sweat started beading on his forehead that had nothing to do with the heat. "That sand pit thing seems like a bit too much, but do you have something that's like, half that painful? I mean, what are my options, here?"
"Pft!" Satan snorted as he leaned forward. "You don't have any options! I didn't take possession of your soul just to laugh at seeing acid dissolving your face over and over!" He briefly gestured to his antechamber. "As you might have guessed, decent men are hard to come by around here. The devils are nasty by design, and the damned souls have quite an assortment of 'issues', never mind that banging the boss's daughter for all time isn't much of a punishment."
Then Satan pointed at Ranma. "That's why I needed a soul that wasn't on track to end up here. Someone relatively upstanding and decent, but still underhanded and twisted enough to get by down here. So I started making deals to get souls in advance. Sometimes they turn out rotten, so the investment goes sour and they just end up in the pits, but you've turned out okay, so I'm declaring you my new son-in-law."
Before Ranma could protest, the door to the back of the throne room opened, admitting two devils.
The first was the guard that had left, but the second was a very female devil in a slinky black dress that Ranma could only assume was the aforementioned "Lucy". Her skin was like red satin, and her hair was a long, ash-white waterfall that stretched down to her knees behind her. She possessed a thin spade-tipped tail and a pair of small, curved horns that curled forward from the sides of her head, but other than that her body was quite human in form, if not human in a curvaceous, comically oversexed way that immediately got Ranma wondering how Kurumu was faring back at the academy.
"Ah, there she is," Satan said fondly, gesturing to the top-heavy devil who began inspecting Ranma silently, "Saotome, this is your new wife, Lucy. What do you think?"
Ranma stared at the she-devil, then glanced at Satan. Then he stared at Lucy some more, and then took an even longer look at the lord of Hell.
"I think... she doesn't look anything like you," Ranma pointed out, perplexed. Size and lower torso shape aside, she should have at least been the same color, right?
Satan's smile became somewhat strained. "She takes after my ex-wife. Primarily in that they're both whores."
Ranma winced at that, although Lucy seemed to ignore the comment completely as she circled the pigtailed boy.
"Not bad," Lucy finally said, her voice rich and husky as she planted her hands on her hips, "now show me the goods."
Ranma blanched as the red woman pointed at his groin, and Satan clicked his tongue.
"Lucy, that's rude! The man is here to get to know you, too!" the ruler of Hell chided, "at least show him your body as well!"
"As you wish, Daddy," Lucy said, pinching the shoulder strap of her dress.
"Wait, wait, WAIT!" Ranma suddenly shouted, surprising the two royal devils and causing them to stop.
"There's something weird about this whole arrangement," Ranma said, turning back to Satan, "when are you supposed to get my soul, anyway?"
Satan quirked an eyebrow. "As soon as you die, I take full possession. So I'm sorry, but-"
"No, I'm sorry, but I'm not dead," Ranma declared.
This was apparently a stunning revelation for everyone in the room, as Satan, Lucy, and even the nameless guards looked utterly perplexed.
"Actually, my lord," the guard captain said uncertainly, "I did notice that he was... well, breathing a little bit more than a typical disembodied soul. Or a lot more, rather. He also hasn't healed that flank wound yet, which is odd for a spirit."
"Then... what are you doing in Hell?" Satan asked, cocking his head to one side.
"I just broke in with a buddy to steal back the soul of this guy we didn't want killed," Ranma explained, his nerves calming considerably, "I'm totally heading back to the mortal realm after this."
Lucy's eyes widened, while Satan scratched at his beard.
"Huh. I, uh, I gotta be honest with you," said the ruler of Hell, "this entire conversation kind of hinged on you being dead and your soul legally bound to your father's contract."
"So now we're just wasting each other's time," Ranma guessed.
"Yeah, pretty much," Satan admitted, "so anyway, now that you know where-"
"Wait!" Lucy suddenly shouted, drawing her father's attention. "Hold on! Couldn't we get married anyway?"
As Satan raised an eyebrow at her, Ranma blanched.
"When you think about it, there's nothing in the contract that stipulates that the marriage and soul seizure are necessarily related, just that they both occur. Thus since we've happened to meet before Saotome's death, there's no specific reason why we can't marry anyway."
"She sleeps with a lot of lawyers," mumbled one of the guards to Ranma as way of explanation.
The martial artist ignored him. "I have a reason. Or really, three reasons, but they're all the same: I'm engaged already," Ranma said, crossing his arms over his chest, "so if that first guy I freed was right, then I'll be single again when I die, but for now I really can't marry you."
Lucy grit her teeth as Satan shrugged.
"Well, that's no biggie. A human lifetime is hardly..." he trailed off as his daughter suddenly walked up to Ranma and seized his arm.
"Can I speak to you? Privately?" Lucy whispered, her voice utterly serious and possessing none of the sensual allure from before.
"Lucy, where are you going?" Satan asked before Ranma could respond, leaning forward in his throne.
The she-devil flinched. "I'm just... Uh... taking him to the cellar for some illicit, premarital sex. Yes, that's right."
"But I-" Ranma's protest was cut off as the she-devil slapped a hand over his mouth.
Satan frowned. "Okay, but make it quick. And go easy on him; in this heat, he needs to retain his fluids, still being alive and all."
"Sure thing, Daddy," Lucy mumbled, not really listening as she shoved Ranma out through the shattered doorway into the hall.
Lucy frowned as she walked among the broken skeletons of dead devils and their scattered weapons, clearly lost in thought.
Ranma was also thinking intently as he followed her, but opted to speak his mind. "You know, if it weren't for the fact that he runs a horrible torture dimension, Satan would be a pretty cool guy," he admitted, "I mean, I've met plenty of people way less reasonable and more dangerous."
"Daddy has a... challenging job," Lucy said reluctantly, "and a bit of a PR problem as well."
"Which probably isn't going to get any better with all the people I set free back into the world of the living," Ranma admitted, "I hope that turns out okay."
Lucy turned around, looking very serious. "All right, enough about Daddy; let's talk about us. What's it going to take to get you to marry me?"
"Hopefully a martial arts duel even bigger than the fight against Saffron, preferably in SPACE," Ranma said with a grin, "but otherwise I'll probably kick the bucket in-"
"No, I mean NOW," Lucy said, planting her hands on her hips, "I'm open to deals. Anything you want. Material wealth, magic power, whatever. If you want to keep the other girls, we can do a harem end. I can make it happen."
Ranma gave the buxom hellspawn an incredulous look. "Wait, why are you in such a hurry, anyway? Why do you even want to marry me?" While she had certainly seemed interested from the beginning, her attitude didn't suggest she was hopelessly infatuated with him. And despite all the accusations of how loose she was, the daughter of Satan seemed to be deliberately trying to marry him rather than just seducing him as she had told her father she was going to do.
Lucy clicked her tongue in annoyance. "Fine, I'll level with you: I want to get out of Hell and into the mortal realm."
Ranma blinked. "You do? Why?"
"WHY? Have you taken a look around?" Lucy snapped, waving her hand in the general direction of the exit and kicking a dropped glaive, "you know, when humans end up here it's because they turned away from God and gave in to a host of dark lower impulses, surrendering to temptation! Do you know what me and the other devils did to end up here? We were BORN on the wrong side of a divine barrier!"
"The more I learn about cosmic justice, the less just it seems," Ranma deadpanned.
"Exactly! Do you know what it's like to grow up in this... this..." Lucy bit her lip angrily as she even failed to finish the sentence, "you can't even call it a hellhole because that isn't an analogy! This place is literally the low point of comparison for every other lousy place in the universe! Except Scary Town during the Spring. All the time while I grew up I was constantly taunted by the complaints of the humans about all the incredible things they had to leave behind and the decadent comforts of their mortal lives! And I might never get another chance to experience it at all!"
Lucy hesitated for a moment. "Well, that's what I get from some of the damned, anyway. You are from one of the REAL countries, right? Like the United States, or the Korea that isn't constantly starving to death?"
"Even better!" Lucy said, brightening as she smiled for the first time since Ranma met her, "being a sexual deviant is practically required for citizenship! I'll barely even stand out!"
"Okay, hold on," Ranma said, rubbing his forehead, "I'll give you that this place is awful, but aren't you, like, a Hell princess? Your dad is Satan, the ruler of this entire plane or whatever. That doesn't seem so bad to me."
Lucy once again crossed her arms under her breasts, nodding solemnly. "It's true. I am the second most esteemed creature in the Inferno. I have a castle, with all the primitive comforts that medieval-level technology in a resource-strapped realm can manage. I have a legion of slaves and warrior devils to cater to my every whim. The legacy of the second most powerful creature in all the universe belongs to me. And I can have any man I want, from the lowliest hellspawn to ancient spirits of human men so adept at satisfying their lovers that it poisoned their souls and damned them eternally. My immortal life is better than that of any other in Hell."
She spoke softly but reverently as she listed her privileges, and then glanced at Ranma briefly before her expression fell and her eyes narrowed.
"But believe me when I say that I would trade ALL OF IT for a modern flush toilet and an iPhone."
"Huh," Ranma mumbled, scratching the back of his head, "okay. Fair enough. But still, what does that have to do with marrying me?"
"You might not have caught on, since you seem to prefer 'handiwork' to 'paperwork'," Lucy mumbled, gesturing to the devil remains that littered the floor, "but aside from all the torment, Hell is one giant web of bureaucracy. Which is actually just a different flavor of torment, now that I think about it."
She shook her head. "Anyway, for those of us who aren't just popping into other dimensions to steal souls from their penance, it's not easy to just go to the mortal realm. Or ANY other realm."
"Still waiting for the marriage thing to make sense," Ranma muttered, looking bored.
Satan's daughter sighed as she rolled her eyes. "In a nutshell, in order to gain passage to the mortal realm, I need to be a citizen of a mortal country in a way consistent with that country's immigration laws. The easiest way to do that is to marry a current citizen. As in, a living, breathing human. As in you."
"That's stupid," Ranma deadpanned.
"Don't complain to me about it! I've tried all the other ways!" Lucy shouted, her tail going ramrod straight as she clenched her hands into fists and glared at him. "No immigration department will process an application from the 'daughter of Satan'! Damn my hereditary Lawful Evil alignment!" She huffed angrily, and then seemed to calm down as she met Ranma's eyes again. "It was a stroke of insane luck that the man I happen to be promised to ALSO happened to barge his way into Hell without fulfilling the usual prerequisite of dying first. I CAN'T let this chance go to waste!"
Ranma broke eye contact uncomfortably, scratching the back of his head. "Look, it's not that I don't want to help, but marrying you is sort of..." he pursed his lips, uncharacteristically thinking of what to say before his mouth ran off without his brain, "well, I've seen that philanderers end up in the baking sand pits, and if my fiancees find out that I married someone else behind their backs, then I'll be ending up in one way too early."
"A major part of adultery is the betrayal! It wouldn't count in this case because it's a marriage of convenience!" Lucy protested.
"Yeah, I'm way past trusting that the universe will see reason when judging me. Not happening," Ranma said, shaking his head.
Lucy bit her thumb anxiously as she tried to think of a new strategy. "Okay, wait. How about this: we get married just long enough for me to get my green card, then we divorce immediately. The whole thing can be a secret and we won't have to see each other again until we're both back in Hell. Actually, we won't even need to see each other during the fake marriage! One signature on a marriage license, and you're done with your part! I'll take care of EVERYTHING! All I need is a signature!"
The she-devil was gleefully hopping up and down at this point, and Ranma couldn't help but feel guilty at his reluctance (he also felt other emotions at the sight of Lucy's breasts bouncing like volleyballs, but stamped them out quickly as usual).
"Are you SURE that your Hell laws recognize divorce? So there won't be any technical adultery?" Ranma asked.
"Yes!" Lucy said.
"And you'll keep this a secret from everyone I know?" Ranma asked.
"YES!" Lucy said even louder.
"And you'll take care of the divorce as soon as you're straight with the government?" Ranma asked.
"YES! FIRES BELOW, YES!" Lucy screamed in joy and anticipation.
Knock! Knock! "Hey, would you two hurry up and finish? We have to start cleaning out those bodies. And whatever fluids you're leaving behind," asked a rather bitter-sounding voice from the opposite side of the door leading to the hallways.
Ranma and Lucy both glanced at the door in annoyance, and the former sighed heavily.
"All right, I'll do it."
Before he knew it Lucy had seized him into a crushing hug, black tears crawling down her cheeks as she squeezed her formidable chest against his.
"Thank you, Ranma! You've made me the happiest girl in the underworld! Which is a really lousy standard, I know, but still!"
"Okay, okay, great," Ranma mumbled nervously as he worked to pry his newest fiancee off of him, "but you said I could ask you for a favor, right? A major one?"
Lucy nodded vigorously. "Horrific and disgusting forms of sex are not off the table!"
"That's... neat," the martial artist said weakly, wondering just what he could expect in his future eternity of unholy matrimony, "but no. Can you get me something to write on and a pen? I need to take care of that marriage license, but I also have to write a letter..."
"I can't begin to express my thanks for the depth of your mercy, Lord Aono!"
Kouma groaned. "Well, can you FINISH expressing your thanks? I'm sick of having to hear about it."
Currently the hellhound was leading Tsukune, Moka, Yukari, and one other person through the unmanned Gates of Hell, idly kicking the useless metal detector as he passed by.
The person at the rear of the party was a rather large, hairy beast with long, huge claws who was wearing Tsukune's jacket around his waist like a loincloth, and was otherwise naked. He seemed intent only on searching out the exit, though he was also careful not to step ahead of Tsukune, who he was trailing reverently as the leader of the Protection Committee hobbled along while leaning on Moka, having nearly exhausted himself.
"Don't mock me, hellhound!" the hairy monster, Jikan, snapped, "you have no idea what torments-"
"YES, I DO," Kouma promptly snapped back, "I used to work here. It wasn't my first time to the pendulum blade works. Don't think that I don't understand; I just don't care."
"Oh. Right," Jikan mumbled, "well at the very least I wish you wouldn't disparage Lord Aono's efforts like that!"
"Yeah, yeah, hats off to the fearless leader," Kouma grumbled, "now let's get our tails out of here before said leader dies of heat stroke."
"Wait," Tsukune rasped, clutching Moka's shoulder as he looked around feverishly, "is Ranma-"
"We can wait for him on our own, Tsukune. You need to get out of here!" Moka protested as she pulled the weakened human along.
"H-How long will you wait?" Tsukune gasped out as he limped along behind the vampiress.
"We can't wait forever," Moka said grimly, catching sight of the swirling blue portal as they pushed their way through the fog of ash, "but you can't put yourself at risk for Ranma's sake! What he did was heroic-"
"Moderately heroic. At BEST," Kouma interrupted.
"... Thank you, Kouma," Moka said disingenuously, "anyway, Ranma knows the risks he takes better than we do. He wouldn't want you to suffer on his account, even if you could help him by staying behind. For now, it's better for you to get to saf-"
"Oh, there he is," Yukari said, suddenly waving behind the group, "Senpai! Over here! We're ready to go!"
A sweatdrop rolled down Moka's head as Tsukune whirled around in surprise.
"Ranma! You're back! You're alive! You're..." Tsukune trailed off as he and everyone else noted the big red ball of sex following the martial artist around the bend, wearing only 6-inch stiletto heels and barely enough black fabric for half a window curtain, "bringing back a devil prostitute?" he asked, the exhaustion impeding his usual politeness.
Kouma in particular seemed stunned to see the woman, and pointed a trembling figure at the she-devil while the others looked on in confusion. "That... That's... She... Lu-"
Ranma stopped in front of the group of his classmates plus the guy he assumed they were there to rescue, and suddenly held up his hands to silence his friends.
"All right, look. I know what with the explosion and me being gone this whole time you all have a lot of questions for me right now, and her being here isn't helping," the martial artist pointed behind him at the scantily-clad devil, who offered a silent smirk and a small wave to the assembled students.
Then he sighed. "But it's a long story, and it involves like three or four OTHER long stories, so can you all just believe me that you're all better off not knowing so we can go home?"
"But she's-" Kouma started to say, only for Ranma to interrupt him.
"Seriously man, it's best if you just leave it alone."
Tsukune hesitated for a moment, but eventually shrugged. "Yeah, okay. We can do that. Let's get the here out of Hell," he mumbled as he staggered into the shimmering blue portal.
"Wait, was that a joke, or has the dehydration started causing brain damage?" Yukari asked as she followed Tsukune through the portal. Moka followed a moment later, looking rather uncertain but definitely being more concerned with Tsukune's well-being than with any newcomers.
"Well, let me tell you, after I get back to school I'm going full-tilt Christian," Jikan explained as he approached the portal, "I've learned my lesson! I'm definitely not coming back here again!"
Lucy raised an eyebrow as she followed the clawed monstrosity. "Bugbear, right?"
"Yes. What about it?" Jikan asked, turning his head right before he stepped into the gateway.
"Yeah, it's not really gonna help. You're definitely coming back," deadpanned the she-devil.
Jikan made no move to go through the portal, his fanged face darkening. "Wh-What?"
"What can I say; afterlife isn't fair. Now move it woolly, I want to try a McFlurry!"
Kouma kept staring at Ranma as Lucy shoved the horrified bugbear through the portal.
"You... You KNOW that's Satan's daughter, right?" the hellhound asked, pointing through the magical gateway.
"It was heavily implied that she probably isn't," Ranma answered as he approached the portal, "you know, technically. I guess he did still raise her." He hopped through the gate before Kouma could ask any other questions, eager to leave the twisted and hateful environment of the Inferno.
Kouma was about to follow him, but hesitated as he stepped into the portal, glancing back at the dark clouds strewn with toxic ash and the jagged rocks seething with molten lava.
"Some day... I'll be back for good," he mumbled fondly, squatting down and fondly running a finger through a crack of magma that split the plate of brimstone he was standing on, "wait for me, okay baby? It'll be all-"
He was suddenly interrupted by Yukari's voice emanating from the portal. "We can HEAR you on the other side, you know."
His face reddening terribly, Kouma practically leapt into the gateway, and with a shimmering wink, the portal closed.
Tsukune drank greedily from a large water bottle as he stepped through the halls of Youkai Academy with Moka alongside him, glancing about at the interior.
He gasped as he finished off the bottle, feeling as if he had been brought back from the brink of death. "Well, I have to say, first impressions look good," Tsukune said, looking about the empty halls of the school, "no fires, no riots, and there's slightly less blood on the floor than usual. It looks like Kurumu can handle things without me after all."
Behind the pair were Kouma and Ranma, who appeared to be exchanging heated whispers such that Tsukune and Moka couldn't hear them. The others had already left, having their own affairs to tend to.
Tsukune led the way up to the Protection Committee's offices and then pushed the door open.
"Kurumu, we're... back..."
As soon as he opened the door, dozens of heads rose and turned to look at him. The entire lobby had been converted into an empty space with a great pile of pillows in one corner. The empty space was mostly being filled by students, most of them in their casual clothes and holding some sort of present, and all of them on their knees. Most had turned to stare at the newcomers, but those that didn't had their heads bowed in supplication.
Kurumu lounged upon the pillow pile, wearing a silk bath robe that was deliberately tied way too loosely to conceal much of her breasts and legs. Standing over her, Kana - dressed in a slave toga - had her wings out and was steadily using them to fan the succubus, while a similarly dressed Mizore waited on the other side, holding a bottle tightly against her body.
Kurumu lazily started to turn to see who had entered the room. "Who comes before the Head Magistrate Kurono? If it is more of those naked people ranting about devils and hellfire, then-" she did a double-take when she finally realized who was at the door, and she bolted upright with such haste that her robe almost came completely undone (causing all the male students looking at Tsukune to rapidly turn around again).
"Tsu-Tsukune! You're back!" Kurumu said, her face flushing as sweat started rolling down her forehead. "Uh... hi! Want some chilled cider?" she asked, gesturing to Mizore and her bottle.
Tsukune wordlessly approached the pillow throne, picking his way around the scattered supplicants.
"Now wait, I know it looks bad, but there's actually a perfectly good reason for this!" Kurumu said desperately.
Mizore quirked an eyebrow. "No, there isn't."
"Silence, slave!" Kurumu shouted instinctively before she shook her head, "I mean, shut UP, Mizore!"
"Kurumu..." Tsukune started, staring up the succubus and trying not to get distracted by the view he had directly up her robes.
The succubus winced.
"Good job," Tsukune finally said, "this is a better outcome than I had any right to expect. I'm proud of you." Then the human boy turned away and started heading toward the back, "I just have to take down a few notes for the student council, and then I need a shower. You're relieved. Please fix the lobby."
As Kurumu let out a gasp of relief, Kana deadpanned, "..."
"Do NOT tell him about that part," Kurumu hissed, being the only one close enough to overhear her.
"So this is what happens when me and Tsukune aren't around to keep her in check," Ranma mumbled as he looked around at the students silently praying on the floor.
"Well, you, Aono, and Akashiya. Kurono IS the second most popular girl in school," Kouma said with a shrug, "by the way, where's your... ah... tag-along?"
"Lucy wrote down my contact info and directions to the nearest Apple store and took off," Ranma said, leaning against the wall, "and good luck to her. Hopefully we won't have to see each other again for a LONG time."
"Uh huh. You didn't, uh, happen to sell your soul while we were down in Hell, did you?" Kouma asked, raising one of his bushy eyebrows.
"It was sold before I got the chance," Ranma grumbled, "so I sold something else. But it was worth it, I think."
"We're making a WHAT?" asked the captain of the Infernal Guard, his tone incredulous.
Satan shrugged as he held up a scroll. "We're making a new afterlife. For spiders. Evidently Saotome felt that it was pretty messed up that spiders don't have a 'good' afterlife, so he wanted me to build a paradise for the spiders that lead good, honest lives."
The lesser devil looked perplexed. "What constitutes a 'good, honest life' for a spider?"
Satan frowned as he scratched at his beard, "Well, he is a human, so it probably means choosing the right religion. We'll need to consult some of the greater spiders to figure out the specifics. Send someone to dig around among the Soviets and find a soul to build some of those big, oppressive-looking statues of whoever their god is. And we'll need to design a micro-ecosystem for hunting and stuff, since it's pretty much all spiders do."
Satan smirked. "This could be fun, actually! It will be nice to design something without the express intention of creating or assisting abject misery!"
The captain bowed. "It is as you will it, my lord."
"And while we're at it, why stop at spiders?" Satan asked, standing up from his throne thoughtfully, "they're hardly the only creature that ends up in Hell by default. Maybe it's time we treated the Inferno exclusively as a punishment rather than just a dirty slum for everything they don't want up in Heaven! We've been using the same twisted 'justice' for millennia, but maybe it's time for a change! We'll tighten our standards! Update our moral paradigm! Maybe start a parole system!"
He grinned as he nodded to himself, obviously pleased. "Yes. It's about time that things around here got an overhaul. I run a prison, not a garbage heap, and I'll no longer foist damnation upon those who haven't earned it!"
The lesser devil looked dubious. "What about vampires, my lord?"
"No, screw those guys. Everyone else will get a fair shake, though," Satan explained as he sat back down.
"Of course, my lord. We will begin at once."
Spitting on the Forces of the Universe that Regulate Life and Death: Session Complete
Need to remember to ask Kouma about a few legal details about divorce. - Ranma Saotome