Part Two: Monsters and Demons. War comes to Jusenkyō, and the battle to rescue Ranma from Sorcerer clutches will bring out both the best and worst in men.
In the great city of Ōsaka, Japan, the Dōton Canal—or Dōtonbori—connected two parts of the Yohori River. This in itself would be fairly unremarkable, and indeed, when people spoke of Dōtonbori, they rarely meant the canal itself. A stretch of street between two bridges had long since taken on the name, too, and as an accident of history, Dōtonbori became a center of entertainment and attractions in the city. Time had changed the nature of its allure, as time is wont to do. In one era, it housed no shortage of fine women with reasonable rates for their services. In another, it was the Broadway of its time, but alas, the last of those theaters had fallen to American bombs many decades before.
But one trait of Dōtonbori continued to attract tourists from across Japan and the world over—the great variety and quality of its cuisine.
What other place in the world would boast an eight-story restaurant or twenty-four-hour ramen in three different places along the street, headlined by giant three-dimensional billboards with dragons? But beyond traditional dishes, such as sushi and octopus dumplings, or foreign-influenced fried chicken, there was one dish of utmost importance in the area:
It was in search of okonomiyaki that Kuonji Ukyō wandered along Dōtonbori, far west from her own shop in Tōkyō. Dōtonbori was a flashy, extravagant place, representative of all the city in that way. Above the street, many and varied displays lured the unsuspecting visitor to their sponsors' stores. A sprinter raced on a digital track, coasting to the sweet smell of fresh caramel. Down the road, a mechanical crab wriggled its legs and closed its pincers, as if the aroma of hot butter sent shivers down its shell.
Those were long-standing, iconic restaurants on the street, but there was room for upstarts and newcomers, too. Successful businessmen hoping to make greater names for themselves—they would most covet an establishment on Dōtonbori. It was the stuff any aspiring entrepreneur would strive for. From the first moment he pushed a griddle and cart around, cooking okonomiyaki on the sidewalk for the hungry masses, he must've had his sights on a grander prize.
So it was with equal measures of anticipation and anxiety that Ukyō looked upon a two-story restaurant near the eastern end of Dōtonbori. With simple black curtains and a sliding, paper door, it bore no small resemblance to Ukyō's own shop, except where her name would've been, the sign read Kuonji's Okonomiyaki instead.
Ukyō snuck through the line that extended out the door. Inside, batter sizzled and popped over three sets of griddles. Guests eagerly awaited stools by the counters, and the chefs—performers in their own right—twirled their spatulas with flair and style.
"Hey!" The lead chef parted the crowd with his spatula. "You there!"
"Me?" said Ukyō.
"You're the boss's daughter, aren't you? He's been waiting for you."
Ukyō looked about, but the dim lighting hid the rest of the room in muddled, formless shadow. "Where?"
"Upstairs, of course!" The lead chef jerked his head toward a faint, hidden stairwell in the corner. "He's doing a show right now!"
Wasting no time, Ukyō wove between the griddles. She ran up the stairs to the first floor—a smaller, cozy dining area with a balcony overhanging the sidewalk. In the center, a bearded man wielded dual spatulas over his griddle. Under a white spotlight, he spun and juggled three okonomiyaki and caught them on separate plates, to the cheers and applause of his patrons.
Ukyō circled around the griddle, pursing her lips in admiration and interest as her father worked. Near the far end of the counter, she found a stool reserved with a plain white card. Doubtless it was meant for her, and as soon as she took her seat, the bearded chef poured out batter on the griddle in front of her.
"Strange," she said. "I don't remember ordering."
"Call it a chef's intuition," said the man. "Or a father's. I'm glad you've finally taken up my invitation to visit, Ukyō. What do you think of my shop?"
"It's big and flashy, which seems to be the trend around here."
Kuonji sprinkled cheese and seaweed flakes over the batter. "When you build a business in this place, you have to do a little something to match the atmosphere. Make no mistake: I want this business to be successful."
"What businessman doesn't?"
"But I want it to be successful not just for myself, but for my family. That's why I'm glad you're here, Ukyō. I'd thought you would hold out in Tōkyō forever chasing after that boy. Now we can build up a business together, the way it should've been years ago."
Ukyō winced. "My work in Tōkyō isn't finished."
"No. I need to be leaving Japan for a while. My finances won't be able to take that. I need some help."
"It has to do with that Saotome boy, doesn't it." Kuonji's expression was intense and focused as he added shrimp and tuna to the meal. "My dear daughter, separated from me for ten years, refuses to come home because she doggedly pursues a debt of honor, no matter what else it may cost her."
"You don't think they owe us something?" Ukyō demanded. "If that cad Saotome Genma hadn't stolen our cart, you would've had a place like this five years ago. This is business, Father. If you pay for something, you expect to get it. You don't expect a promise to made in bad faith. The terms of the pact you make should be fulfilled. That's the right thing to do."
"So that's why you stay away—you still hope that boy will marry you?"
"I do. We're good friends, and once he starts getting serious about girls instead of getting all flustered around them, I think there's potential between us." Ukyō leaned closer, lowering her voice. "Look: Ranchan's in trouble. At the very least, he's been taken by some bad people, and as his friend, I need to go help him. I need to go save him. I won't be left out of something important again."
Kuonji shook his head. "How strange. I thought you hated him and his father, that you were out for their blood. And now you're back to being chummy with them? To wanting to help them?"
"With Ranchan, not his father. His father can get hogtied to the back of a train and it probably isn't half of what he deserves for being the conman he is. But Ranchan—Ranma—he's a good guy. Why not do what friends do and help out?"
Kuonji turned the disc of batter over, letting it cook on the opposite side. "This isn't how I imagined we'd see each other again. After I gave our cart to Saotome, I had little of my own, too. When you ran off, I spent what I had searching for you, but that didn't last long. Soon I was stranded. I took a job as an assistant chef—at a buffet, of all things. I cut vegetables. I washed fruit. Only when the head chef was ill did I have a chance to show what I could do, and I did. Four years I labored for next to nothing. Three years I spent as head chef of that buffet in Kōbe, but even that wasn't enough. It wasn't my passion. It wasn't my dream. I made friends with a customer there, one who happened to strike it rich. He bankrolled this restaurant in gratitude for all the meals I provided when he was just a working man. I've still yet to repay him in full. Money, daughter, does not come cheaply. I know you have only the shop you rent every month and a few sparse possessions. I heard you'd been ill; that can't have been good for business. I don't want anything material from you. All I wanted was to see my daughter again and build a legacy with her. Is that so much to ask?"
"No, Father." Ukyō looked down, into her lap. "It isn't."
"But now, you're going to go to who-knows-where for that boy. Is he really your friend, or is this part of a blind pursuit?"
"We're close," she said. "And I would give my life for him. Is that wrong, Father? Is it wrong to come here and ask for your blessing?"
With the okonomiyaki going crisp on the hot plate, Kuonji handed Ukyō a small spatula with golden trim around the handle. "No, it's not wrong. Whether I can condone this path you've chosen is one thing, but you are my daughter, Ukyō, and a father should give his daughter support. Go on and see to your friend, whatever else you may want him to be to you. But I won't give you, or lend you, any money."
"I propose something else: I'll send staff to your restaurant in Tōkyō instead. That is my only request: that we use this as an opportunity to renew a relationship as partners, as family. You've been away from me for too long; as successful as this business has been, it means nothing to me without family, without a legacy, to share it with. Allow me this, my daughter. Make it so it won't be ten years before I see you again. That is all I ask."
Ukyō broke off a piece of her father's okonomiyaki with the gold-trimmed spatula and savored the mixture of shrimp, cheese, and other flavors. It took her back to the days of riding around with her father and his cart, traveling the countryside to make a living, and at that moment, the prospect of seeing her father again, once Ranma was safe and they could return home, sounded just fine by her.
One week later, Ukyō's journey took her to the outskirts of Jusenkyō, the place where Sorcerers held Ranma behind their maze of magic. In the fertile woods around the spring ground, the Amazons made their camp, with animal skin tents peppered about the landscape as far as the eye could see. They were a diligent and hardworking people, at least to Ukyō's eye, for they spent their days crafting weapons and other useful materials from the local trees, rocks, and whatever else they could scavenge.
Were that their defining trait, she might've found them easier to get along with, but the Amazons had a hard edge to them, too. At any given time, Ukyō could look about the camp and find two Amazons dueling furiously, trading blows with blunt weapons or even swinging blades around that glistened from their sharp, cutting edges. The Amazons didn't hesitate to practice fighting, even with lethal consequences, and of all the Amazons there, Shampoo was the most fervent in proving her worth. With the red Choker of Silence around her neck, she was utterly mute around her people, but she could challenge any one of them without saying a word. She didn't always win—particularly against those warriors older and stronger than her—but she never failed to put up a good fight, enough that the other Amazons were disgusted with themselves for letting her hang so close or win. Eventually, they stopped accepting her challenges, but Shampoo kept training, even on her own, with cold, single-minded fury. It was written all over her face, and her expression made Ukyō cringe just at the sight.
As dire as the situation was—the Amazons had tried for days to breach the Sorcerers' magic barrier, to no avail—Ukyō preferred a more patient approach. If there were action, she wouldn't want to be sore and beat from continuous training. She woke up an hour after dawn and spent the better part of the morning preparing a good meal—or at least, her closest approximation to one. If rabbit stew were all she could put together, then under the circumstances, it would have to do. It was a relief to be cooking, even out in the wilds. More than the martial ones, culinary arts were an inextricable part of her identity. Even when she'd set her sights on finding Ranma and Genma and punishing them for what they'd done, preparing food was her constant in life. She couldn't give it up, not even to be a better woman for Ranma.
Then again, perhaps what Ranma had needed all along wasn't a better woman but a better person at his side.
"Ukyō, I've got some of those herbs you wanted."
Glancing over her shoulder, Ukyō found the newcomer: Akane. The Tendō girl, with a headband holding her hair out of her eyes, had gone running through the forest at the crack of dawn. Granted, Ukyō was no stranger to an early morning herself, but since she and Akane had shared a tent, she'd grown too accustomed to Akane's early bird habits. All in all, though, it was really unavoidable. There were only so many tents between them. Indeed, just next door to them, Konatsu was sharing a tent with Ryōga and Mousse, just out of propriety's sake.
Besides that, watching over Akane was, for Ukyō, a non-negotiable point.
"Bring those over," said Ukyō, motioning to Akane to come closer. "Here, look at these stems. They don't have the right color, and they have these bands going up the sides. These aren't herbs, Akane-chan. They're weeds."
"What? It can't be." Akane squinted, studying the plants in her palm. "I could've sworn they smelled and looked just like you said. I even tasted them, and they were…"
"Ah, ah, I wouldn't—"
Akane snapped one of the stems in two and sucked on the end, promptly going cross-eyed. "That's definitely not an herb."
"First thing a chef does when she comes to a place is identify the local ingredients," said Ukyō. "Not everyone has an eye for it."
"Or the touch for it. I'll bet you never tried to microwave a hard-boiled egg."
Ukyō scoffed. "Of course not. You'd only do that if you were trying to rig an improvised bomb."
Akane chuckled nervously.
"You're not saying—"
"Guilty," said Akane. "The door to the microwave almost took Ranma's head off."
Wincing, Ukyō put all her attention back on the stew, stirring gently. "We all start in different places?"
"That's putting it kindly." Akane looked out, into the forest. At the end of her gaze was a line of Amazon warriors, who formed a perimeter around the unbreached Sorcerer barrier. Sighing, Akane sat down on a log to Ukyō's right. "It all seems so small now," she said. "With Ranma stuck in there, all those petty squabbles and fights seem really pointless, like I was just wasting time I didn't appreciate."
"We'll get him out," Ukyō insisted. "That's what Ranchan would say, isn't it? He wouldn't even hesitate to say so, and neither should we. Then we can all go back to being petty and stubborn teenagers in no time."
Akane laughed. "That's one way to put it, but you're right about that. We have to be strong for him, the way he'd be strong for any of us."
It was an expression of quiet confidence and hope—both things they needed right then—but Ukyō knew they weren't in Akane's character. The youngest Tendō sister could be stubborn and overconfident or sorely insecure and worrying. She was an intense person, but she ultimately meant well, and if anything, this time since Ranma had left Japan had shown one thing: Akane could feel regret. Were they not both interested in Ranma, they could've been good friends.
Instead, Ukyō was merely obligated to keep up with her.
A shout erupted through the camp, rousing Ukyō from her thoughts. All around, the Amazons began to take up arms. Dozens of them scurried north, around the perimeter of the front lines. Shampoo, with her two maces in hand, ran after the growing group of Amazons, and like a hound after a prized fox, Mousse dashed after her in pursuit. "Wait for me, Shampoo!"
"Hey, hey, wait a minute!" Ukyō tossed a pair of spatulas on a string after him, wrapping Mousse up and holding him fast. "Slow down; what's going on?"
"Let me go, Kuonji! This is important!"
"And Akane-chan and I are clueless because we don't speak Chinese. What's the deal?"
"What do you think? It's Sorcerers! Get your weapons and let me go!"
Ukyō eased up on the strings, and Mousse disentangled himself from her spatulas.
"Mousse," said Akane, "show me the way?"
"Of course. Over here."
Ukyō's eyes widened. "Wait—wait a minute, Akane-chan! Give me a minute. I've got to take this pot off the fire, get my big spatula…"
But Akane and Mousse were already off, running in the footsteps of Shampoo and the other Amazons.
"Damn that girl," Ukyō muttered under her breath, and she kicked some dirt over the campfire to extinguish it. She scampered into their tent, retrieving her large battle spatula, and went to follow the rest of the war party. Honestly, what was Akane thinking—running off with nothing but her own two fists to fight magic-wielding Sorcerers? At least the Amazons had bows, swords, maces, and armor. If Akane had one flaw, that was it: she could run into situations way beyond her. In a business, that would cost money and force an inept entrepreneur bankrupt.
Here, it might get her killed.
With her large battle spatula in one hand, Ukyō arrived on the scene, finding a standoff between Amazon archers, who took cover behind logs and rocks, but there was no sighting of Sorcerers or anyone else. Ukyō joined Akane behind a tree trunk, which was as far as either of them dared to look out. "What's going on?" asked Ukyō.
"We sent six men into the illusion," explained Cologne. "Tethered by ropes to the trees here, so they wouldn't lose their way." She pointed out a cut coil of rope around the tree trunk where Ukyō and Akane hid. "It seems they were found out."
"Then we go in and save our people," said Shampoo, borrowing a bow to stand watch with.
"If the Sorcerers have realized our presence, they can attack from that veil of magic and retreat with impunity. We must be cautious, and cautious is what we will be. Look and listen. I doubt the Sorcerers will let this stand for long."
In deadly silence, the Amazons maintained their vigil outside the Sorcerers' illusion. It was nerve-wracking to stand there, waiting and watching yet doing nothing. Ukyō's heart pounded, making her jittery, and it was all she could do to stand there, making not a sound, until a cry came out, ringing through the camp.
Shampoo's bowstring pulled taut, and Mousse let out a length of chain, glinting with barbs and razors just for this occasion. From the thicket, the maze of trees, shadows stirred in the mist. Hands on their heads, five Amazons trudged back to camp, guided by the heavy iron tips of battle staves.
"Hold!" said Cologne. "They have our people; hold!"
The prisoners dropped to their knees. A Sorcerer for each held them at staff-point, and in the center, a girl stepped forward. With dark, reddish-brown hair, she pressed the weight on her staff into her prisoner's neck and looked up, calling to her enemies.
"Who among you speaks for your people?" she said.
Cologne waved her walking stick from behind a tree trunk. "I do," she said.
"If you enter the Maze again, your lives will be forfeit," said the leader, the captain. "We return your people to you as a measure of good faith. We are using the spring ground. Do not trespass."
Peeking out, Cologne eyed the returned men. "That is not all of our people you've taken this time, Sorcerer. There are others."
"They will be returned when our business here is finished," said the leader. "Not before."
"And your business involves Saotome Ranma?"
The leader narrowed her eyes. "Who is that?"
"The young Japanese boy you've taken. Surely you realized he doesn't belong in this land."
"She is not your concern," said the leader. "She will be released with the rest of your people only when we are done with them, no sooner."
"And if I refuse these terms? Perhaps I'd like to negotiate with someone with more clout. You're practically a child. Who commands your loyalty? Where is your captain? I want to speak with Bailu. Isn't he still around?"
"There is no one more senior than me. I am Captain of the Guard, and I command the people—and magic—in line with that position."
"Then prove it, young captain! You will make a fine hostage of my own to take. Archers, fire!"
The prisoners ducked a volley of arrows, but the Captain slammed her staff in the dirt, and the shafts evaporated, withering in the face of the captain's golden magic shell. And when the last archer had emptied her quiver trying to bring the captain down, the wall of the barrier expanded with brutal, relentless force. It picked up the captured Amazons; it shoved dirt, rocks and debris in its wake.
"Akane-chan, down!" Ukyō caught and tackled Akane, pinning her to the ground, and the wave rode over them. Small stones and twigs bombarded Ukyō's back, and the pressure forced her ribs against Akane's.
When the wave subsided, Ukyō rolled to her back, ears ringing. Slowly, the Amazons cleaned themselves of soil and loose bark, but where Shampoo's people struggled to get back on their feet, the Captain of the Guard stood still, her staff in hand, with not a hair on her head out of place.
"We did not have a quarrel until you decided to spy on us," she said. "Leave now, and do not enter the Maze again, or we will have a quarrel with you."
With that, the Captain stepped back, into the illusion, and vanished between the trees.
Cologne's stunt in challenging the Sorcerer captain carried a price—perhaps a small one, but a price nonetheless in bruises, cuts, and scrapes. Few Amazons came out of that debacle unscathed, and the Nerima party fared even worse. The Captain's shockwave had snapped the tree trunk in front of them in two, and flying chunks of that tree had given even Ryōga cause to cradle his side and wince. By far, he was the toughest of them all, and the rest of them were lucky not to be knocked out or maimed—at least, that was Ukyō's opinion. To have attacked so suddenly, so rashly, was unconscionable, and she let Cologne know it.
"What were you thinking?" she roared while Konatsu dabbed at her scrapes with rubbing alcohol. "You could've at least tried to clue some of us in that you were going to attack!"
Her eyes narrow and beady, Cologne hunched over, bearing a firm grip on her walking stick and with a small cut over her eye for her trouble. "This is war, Kuonji. We all know the risks. Do you?"
Konatsu touched a scrape on her elbow with a ball of cotton, and Ukyō winced as the rubbing alcohol's sting took hold. Though it was unpleasant, the sudden pain gave her pause—and time to take in the situation and surroundings. The group had gathered back near their tents, with the Amazons already clearing debris from the perimeter of the illusion. Ryōga was practically hovering over Akane, and if he'd been any more meticulous about searching her skin for wounds, it would've been obscene.
"Liking what you see there?" Mousse cracked. That had Ryōga frozen for a good five seconds as he babbled some excuse to justify his attention.
Across from them sat Shampoo, who had already tended to her own injuries, refusing help from Mousse or Cologne. The holes and rips in her outfit she left unpatched, and the Choker of Silence around her neck glittered in the morning sun. All in all, they'd survived, and that counted for something. Once the pain of the alcohol cleared, Ukyō met Cologne's gaze once again, this time more calmly.
"I'm just saying it'd be nice to be on the same page," she said. "I mean, I went to all the trouble to prepare six different kinds of batter for whatever situations we might face—sticky, explosive, slippery, heat-absorbing, you name it. If I'd known we were going break in attack, I could've used one of them."
Ryōga raised an eyebrow. "Heat-absorbing batter?" he echoed. "Isn't that exactly what batter is?"
"Shampoo come to fight," said the Amazon with the red choker around her neck, "not to bake snacks on battlefield."
Ukyō rolled her eyes. "Maybe baking snacks is the way I fight. If we face one of those flamethrowing bird-men like before, what are you going to do?"
"That won't be an issue," Akane said quietly. "As far as I know, there was only one Saffron, and Ranma killed him to save us—to save me."
"Indeed, we must focus our efforts on the enemies in front of us, not the ones from the past." Cologne started drawing in the dirt around the campfire, creating a narrow, deep mark with her walking stick. "If the Sorcerers wished us eradicated from this place, they would've brought great force. This new captain of theirs is no Bailu. Her mercy speaks of weakness, and that is what I sense now. We will have to stand vigil overnight, to make sure no Sorcerers overfly the camp, while we work on a new strategy. It seems clear the Sorcerers know when we are within their illusion, so we must penetrate it quickly, before they can respond."
"You have something in mind for that?" asked Ryōga.
"Indeed. Tell me—how far can you throw a spear?"
The idea was simple: while no man could navigate the Maze on his own, and a whole party could spend years in there and never escape, all that was needed was some kind of guide or anchor to the outside world. The Maze around the Sorcerer village was too large to penetrate this way, but at Jusenkyō, it might be just thin enough.
For the rest of the day, the strongest Amazons took up spears with rope tied on as tethers and practiced hurling, like Olympians at the javelin throw. Ryōga joined them, putting up impressive numbers in terms of distance thrown, but his spears had the remarkable tendency to drift from their intended marks. When one of them sliced through a large tent of Amazons, Cologne could only keep him away from the rest of the spears for the day.
"Honestly," she'd muttered, "it must be quite a curse you bear, Hibiki Ryōga, if even everything you touch gets lost."
Ryōga wasn't alone in this effort. Shampoo, with her own strength, could hurl a spear a good and long distance, perhaps three-fourths as far as Ryōga could, and with better accuracy. Mousse, on the other hand, quickly resorted to his arsenal of hidden weapons. First, he tried a long chain to spin a ball on a rope and let it fly, but as he spun around, he lost control, and it was all anyone in the camp could do to duck before the chain cut them down in two.
The plus side of this fiasco was that there'd be plenty of lumber from the felled trees.
"Mousse will get brothers and sisters killed before we fight one Sorcerer," Shampoo observed, shaking her head.
Beyond the three of them, the others in the Nerima party played a smaller part. Konatsu had become enamored with the idea of playing nurse to Ukyō, and he went running around the camp in a pristine white nurse's outfit, tending the wounded with a smile.
"Isn't that a bit strange?" Akane wondered aloud. "Taking a costume on a trip like this?"
"He is a ninja," Ukyō pointed out. "I saw him take a whole suitcase of costumes with him—police officer uniforms, clown suits, even a tuxedo like something out of a spy movie. Makes me wonder if there's a lucky girl he's going to wear that one for."
Akane laughed nervously at that but said nothing.
For her part, Ukyō took up a spear once, but seeing she was hardly at half the distance others were covering, she decided it'd be fruitless to spend all day practicing when strength should be conserved for the battle to come. Akane wasn't so restrained, spending half the day throwing spears over the forest. She shouted to the high heavens just to get a few more ounces of strength from her arms, buying maybe fifteen meters of distance for her effort, but she was still well short of Ryōga's mark, or Shampoo's. Yet still she ran out again and again, trying to push a little harder each time. If nothing else, the girl was stubborn.
And that stubbornness could put her in jeopardy.
By late afternoon, the Amazons started getting a lick of sense, and on Cologne's order, they rested—some of them, anyway. There seemed to be some commotion over the heavy siege weapons that had arrived a few days after war party made camp, but Ukyō didn't see how those weapons would matter, or even what they could be used for. The forest around Jusenkyō was thick, and it made the passage of heavy vehicles difficult. Still, Cologne oversaw this last-second hammering and nailing, which proceeded past dusk at a frantic pace. The only person still crazy enough to be out—aside from the builders—was Akane, who practiced various kicks and punches to the light of their campfire.
"Aren't you just a little tired?" asked Ukyō, peeking out of her tent from the warmth of her sleeping bag.
Akane thrust her knee forward, striking the gut of an imaginary foe. "I don't think I could sleep. I just keep thinking Ranma's in there somewhere, and I'm not ready."
"Staying up all night trying to push yourself won't help."
"Maybe it won't tomorrow, but at least right now, I can focus on breathing and technique, instead of anything else."
"Like what happens if we don't find him? If we don't rescue him?"
Akane wiped at her brow, nodding. "Yeah. If it all comes down to a matter of seconds—between getting him back and losing him—I don't want to feel like there was something more I could've done."
"There's nothing wrong with feeling that way, but you've got to be smart about it. What would Ranchan say if he saw you doing this right now?"
"He'd say I'm pushing myself too hard." Akane pursed her lips in contemplation. "I'm not sure he'd even want me here."
Clearly this conversation wasn't going to wrap itself up in a tidy bow anytime soon. Ukyō unzipped the sleeping bag and sat upright in the cover of the tent. "What makes you say that?"
Standing by the fire, Akane looked out to the horizon and folded her arms, shivering. "Well, if Ranma were here, he'd want to do things himself. Or maybe he'd ask Mousse and Ryōga-kun to go along, because they're strong like he is. When the Phoenix people took Shampoo, Ranma went off with those two and his father. He didn't want me to come—he thought it'd be dangerous for me to get anywhere near this place."
"He's the one in trouble. He doesn't get to tell you what to do now."
"No, but he was concerned, and his reasons haven't changed, even though he's not here. Have I ever told you about when we first met?"
Ukyō shook her head.
"It was raining that day, so Ranma was a girl at the time, right? And I think he felt it'd be embarrassing to reveal his curse, and he didn't want to stay long, so he just pretended to be a girl."
"A girl who was supposed to marry you?" joked Ukyō.
"Father fainted at the thought!" Akane laughed. "But anyway, I'd heard Ranma was a martial artist, and I asked him to spar. Even back then, he was so good I couldn't even touch him, and he didn't bother fighting back. He just dodged and dodged until I finally threw a punch into the wall in frustration, and he poked me on the back of the head. That really showed me the gap between me and him was so big, and even up to now, I haven't been able to close it, not very much at least. Ranma knows that. He thinks I need to be protected, and he's probably right. It's not smart, being here, but it's something I have to do."
"Because you had a part in making him go."
Akane jolted at that, like her heart had stopped in her chest.
"So did Shampoo," said Ukyō. "And so did I. I let him down."
Ukyō winced. "Never mind. I'm just saying—that's what good and honest people do. They repay their debts. Trust me; I know all about that. Come tomorrow, we're going to do whatever it takes to get Ranchan back, right?"
Nodding, a look of determination and sternness came over Akane. Gone was her creeping doubt and worry, and she met Ukyō's gaze boldly. "Right!" she said, and she put out the campfire, heading into the tent to get some sleep. Ukyō was grateful for that—it was hard enough to settle in and rest with Akane constantly grunting and shouting out there. It seemed all the girl had needed was a little encouragement, for no sooner did Ukyō blink than Akane was in her sleeping bag and out like a light. Ukyō scooted away from Akane, lest the girl's violent tossing and turning give Ukyō a black eye, but it was a start. She'd put Akane's fears to bed.
And in doing so, she'd emboldened Akane to go into harm's way, something Ranma never would've wanted. She could've just as easily told Akane to be realistic, to leave this fight to others who could withstand it. It would've made the girl despondent and unhappy—or maybe she would've tried all the more to prove herself able—but at least she'd be unquestionably safe.
Still, Ukyō shut her eyes and hoped to forget her dreams overnight. In the end, it was Akane's decision to make. Ukyō had just given her own opinion, and she shouldn't care one way or the other what Akane chose to do.
Regardless of what harm might come to Akane in the battle to come.
A morning tremor stirred Ukyō from her slumber. It was barely light, and Ukyō fished through her belongings for a flashlight and switched it on. With the rumbling of the earth, even the dirt on her sleeping bag jittered.
"I guess that's our wake-up call," mused Ukyō. She reached over, nudging Akane. "You still here?"
"Mm, yeah." Akane rubbed at her eyes. "What's going on?"
"That's what I'd like to know." Ukyō climbed out of her sleeping bag, finding herself surprisingly awake and alert. There was going to be a battle; she needed to be prepared. She filled her bandolier full of throwing spatulas. She cleaned off the edges of her battle spatula and tied a half-dozen batter bombs to her belt. This cold and methodical preparation routine gave her shivers.
"You okay?" asked Akane.
"Yeah, fine, it's just…" She felt the edge of a throwing spatula. "I haven't been this prepared for a fight since I went to track down Ranma."
"You really must've wanted to punish him."
There was no denying that. She'd spent ten long years abandoning her femininity, training by the sea (which turned out a pointless exercise, considering the salt air and spray had a tendency to ruin whatever she cooked), yearning for the day when she'd track down Ranma and Genma and avenge the dishonor she'd been dealt. She'd abandoned her father and let that resentment and hurt burn within her.
But Ranma had welcomed her back into his life as a friend—and maybe something more. All that hate and loathing evaporated, almost overnight, and while they hadn't yet gone beyond friendship, she was happy, happier than she ever had been in the years since Genma ran off with her father's cart. All that anger had isolated her, made her cold and ruthless. To go into battle and feel that way again was nothing she looked forward to, even if done in Ranma's name.
With packets of flour and tempura flakes tied to her belt, Ukyō looked out the tent, into the twilight. "Come on," she told Akane. "Let's see what's up."
The two girls left their tent, finding Mousse, Konatsu, and Ryōga outside. Shampoo stood further off, by herself, with her maces strapped to her back. The ground rattled, and Ukyō swayed slightly on her feet.
"What's happening?" asked Ukyō. "I thought you guys were going to help find us a way in."
"We will," said Ryōga, "but the old woman is organizing something to help out. Have a look."
He pointed up the slope, away from the Sorcerers' barrier. At the top of a small ridge, a series of wooden ballistae gathered, with warriors pushing them into position and the ground rumbling with the group's movement. Amazons trudged up the ridge with mammoth iron bolts—the missile weapons the ballistae would launch when the time for war came.
Ukyō looked to Mousse out of the corner of her eye, watching the ballistae roll into position. "You guys don't mess around, do you?"
"When it comes to Sorcerers, no," he said.
With the ballistae lined up behind them, the Nerima party moved up to the perimeter, where the bulk of the Amazons amassed. With Cologne at their head, the warriors brought swords and bows to bear. It was a tense few minutes while the last few ballistae were armed and loaded, and Ryōga, Mousse, and Shampoo headed to the back to retrieve their spears, but at last, sunlight streamed through the forest around Jusenkyō, and it was at that first crack of dawn that Cologne raised her walking stick, silencing the whispers of the crowd.
"Come, brothers and sisters," said Cologne, standing at the edge of the Maze. "The time of the Amazons is at hand. Do you stand ready to defend the Tribe?"
The Amazons shouted, thrusting their weapons into the air, and Ukyō readied her battle spatula, holding it firm with two hands. She looked to her right. "You ready?" she asked Akane.
"I'll have to be. For Ranma's sake, I'll have to be."
True enough; at that point, there was no chance to turn back. Amazons surrounded them on all sides. The party would push forward, and the only choice was to move with them.
"Dawn breaks, and with the first light comes the tide of battle," cried Cologne. "Let us tarry no longer; warriors, pull!"
The ballistae strained and torqued, hurling a volley of heavy bolts overhead. Individual warriors threw their own spears to join the barrage, and the ropes their spears carried fell to the earth for others to pick up and follow. A rope dropped from the sky at Ukyō's feet, and she picked it up, offering a hand-hold for Akane, too. The war party stalled at first, but as more and more warriors found a guide rope to lead them in, the group trickled forward. It was a slow process, and for that, the procession into the Maze was deathly quiet. To the untrained eye, the Maze was no different from an ordinary landscape. Indeed, that's what Ukyō saw, too, but when she followed the trail of the rope with her eye, it seemed to do impossible things—winding about in coils and curves on the ground, leading nowhere at all. That was the illusion, not the forest around them. Ukyō kept her head down, looking only at the rope in her hands, and inched forward with careful steps.
Still, there was a sense of urgency to the war party's movements through the Maze, for Sorcerers could come at any time to catch them. They wouldn't be safe until they'd reached the springs. So when Ukyō stepped beyond the tree line, into daylight, it was a profound relief. The ballista bolts lay about a hundred paces in from the forest, and the war party moved up there, with the first warriors on the scene huddling around and establishing a perimeter of defense. Two lines of archers moved to the front, the front line taking a knee while their comrades stood, so both lines could fire at any threat. Cologne herself paced at the front of the archers, eyeing the clear blue sky. When she was satisfied, she hopped onto a crate in the middle of the foothold camp, to call out for all her people to hear.
"They do not come for us yet, brothers and sisters!" she cried. "Go now and find the Sorcerers that channel the illusion. Find them and disrupt their concentration, so that we may bring our full numbers to bear!"
The Amazons split into three parties—one to penetrate the mountain and search there, two to scour the mountainside itself. Cologne herself would lead one of the mountainside parties, and Ukyō and the rest of the contingent from Nerima would go with her, alongside Shampoo and Mousse.
Thus, their journey into Jusenkyō was by no means finished, for the Amazon war party still had the bulk of the thousand springs to cross before reaching Mount Kensei. This too was treacherous, for though cutting across the springs was the most direct route, one wrong step could end in a disastrous curse.
"Are you sure we can't take a small detour to find the Drowned Man spring?" asked Mousse, salivating over the pools around them. "I'm sure Ranma would understand."
"Priorities, duck boy," said Cologne, at the head of the pack. "There will be plenty of time to find the spring once we've rooted the Sorcerers out of this place."
"You mean there will be plenty of time after we've marched them back to their village, right up to the waterfall, where the prince—"
Cologne whacked at Mousse with her walking stick, knocking him off balance. "Perhaps I need to douse you with water right now; a duck wouldn't be nearly as much of a bother."
Mousse stumbled, falling backward, and he landed on his rear with a—
Cologne froze, holding up a clenched fist to stop the rest of the party. "What was that?"
Shampoo glanced out of the corner of her eye. Keeping her voice low, she said, "Mousse falling on ass?"
"He may have a lot up his sleeves, but Mousse isn't that heavy," observed Akane. She put a hand to the ground, feeling the earth with her palm. "Is it something coming?"
Ukyō quickly glanced at the mountain, then back behind them. There was nothing obvious in sight, but the waters of the pools jittered, splashing and sloshing about.
"Akane-san, step back," said Ryōga, coming between her and a nearby spring with his umbrella in hand. "If I must, I'll protect you with my own body to keep you from being cursed."
"That's sweet of you to say, but what would happen if you end up cursed because of that?"
"Not much would change," muttered Cologne.
Akane and Ukyō looked to each other. Just what was that supposed to mean?
KA-WHOOSH! A spring erupted, shooting upwards in a tower of curse water. Halfway down the spring ground, the column of water rose like a geyser, but it soon lost steam, collapsing back to the earth in a tainted shower. Amazons fled from the eruption site, fleeing to preserve their humanity against whatever might curse might fall.
"Move, double time, to the mountain!" cried Cologne. "They know we're here!"
A brisk march across the grounds devolved into an all-out sprint. The three Amazon parties sprinted across the thousand springs, putting their safety and humanity on the line as the ground shook and rumbled underfoot. That wasn't all, either: high in the sky, little specks floated, casting an array of devastating magic at the Amazons. Bamboo poles in the springs rose from their pools and rained back down at the invaders like missiles from orbit. Rays of frost iced over the ground, making the way across impossibly slick. With the earth moving unpredictably, Ukyō found herself on ice, coasting like a man on a hockey rink without skates. Most of the others leapt away to safety, but Akane floundered, waving her arms to try to keep balance.
"Hold on to me!" Ukyō caught Akane by the elbow and pulled gently to bring them together. "Don't go coasting into a spring now!"
Akane glanced past her, in the direction they were sliding. "You know, about that—" She pointed meekly ahead at a set of bamboo poles, sticking out of a spring.
"Let's go left—"
"Steer to the right—"
The girls pushed and pulled at each other, and their confused movements sent them tumbling to the ground. Ukyō banged her right shoulder on the ice, and the girls slid into the spring—
Landing on its frozen surface.
"Whew!" cried Akane. "Lucky!"
Finding the spring frozen over thanks to magic, yes. Seeing the cracks form in the surface from their landing spot, however…
Ukyō unclipped from her belt a can of springy noodles, and she hurled them like a rope away from the spring. "Need some help here!" she yelled. "Anybody got the footing to grab that?"
In a blur, Konatsu skipped over the icy ground, finding a patch of unfrozen earth. He took up the noodle rope, wrapping the end around his hand. "I've got you, Ukyō-sama! Get ready!"
Akane and Ukyō struggled to their feet, staying crouched to keep their centers of gravity low. Konatsu turned around and tugged on the noodle rope like an ox moving a cart. He pulled the girls out, and just in time too, for the waters under the frozen surface bubbled and frothed, breaking up the thin ice.
"We need these Sorcerers off our backs!" cried Cologne. "Archers!"
Arrows shot into the air, but the Sorcerers flew high above, and when an arrow came close, they merely soared higher, out of reach. Even Ryōga's bandanas, which he hurled repeatedly in an endless stream.
"Aren't you running out of those?" asked Mousse.
"No," said Ryōga. "Why would I?"
"So, do you hide them up your sleeves or in your hair? I'm just trying to compare techniques here."
Cologne bonked Mousse over the head with her walking stick. "Fight now; talk later! Use something in those sleeves of yours to bring those Sorcerers down or get us some cover!"
Ukyō took a canister from her belt. "I've got this. Mousse, do you have a match or a light I can borrow? I don't want to burn one of my bombs."
"Just say the word," he said.
"Great. Here we go!" Ukyō tossed an open canister of flour, letting it tumble through the air and spread the white powder overhead. "Now!" she shouted.
Mousse raised his arms, an unusual gesture to throw a lit match, and—
FWOOSH! Jets of flame spewed from his sleeves, and the heat tingled on Ukyō's face. The flour ignited, casting the sky aflame, and the rest of the party quickly ran out from under the falling, burning powder.
"A flamethrower?" cried Akane. "You have a flamethrower?"
Mousse blinked. "Yes, of course. Why wouldn't I have a flamethrower?"
A ball of frost plowed through the smoke above, and while most of the combatants leapt high, two Amazons had their feet frozen in place and started hacking away at their bindings with swords and knives.
"What are we doing putting up a smoke screen?" Ryōga demanded. "We can't see anything up there!"
"And they can't see us down here," noted Cologne. "Shampoo, take a bow."
A fellow Amazon was hesitant to hand over his bow, but Shampoo took it firmly and a quiver. She feathered an arrow on the bowstring, and Cologne's suspicions soon proved correct. A Sorcerer flew in low, through the smoke cover, to get a better look.
"Wound him," Cologne instructed.
With a nod, Shampoo let the arrow fly, and it stuck in the Sorcerer's thigh. The Sorcerer dipped briefly with a groan, but he maintained altitude long enough to turn tail and flee for the mountain.
"He will return to their main camp," noted Cologne, "where the Sorcerers who channel this mayhem surely reside. That is where we'll neutralize the threat. Come!"
Cologne's party followed the wounded Sorcerer with Shampoo and Konatsu watching him via binoculars. On Cologne's order over the radio, the other two groups engaged the Sorcerers, working their way to the base of the mountain, away from the danger of the cursed springs. As pools began to erupt in twos and threes around Jusenkyō, Cologne's party tracked the wounded Sorcerer up the mountain. The trails were winding and vulnerable, and to gain time, the group used a combination of ropes and chains to climb.
With most of the Sorcerers' attention on the springs themselves, the initial resistance as they climbed was light, but what started as a couple Sorcerers buzzing overhead, collapsing the trails and opening cracks in the mountain, developed into a fierce race to Sorcerer camp. Ukyō felt she could hardly go five steps before a ball of fire would zoom overhead, melting rock on the path, or a landslide would wipe out an entire section of mountain.
"Can we get a better idea of where we're going?" Ukyō shouted over her shoulder, batting a fireball away with her spatula. "We're sitting ducks out here, and I never liked cooking with duck anyway!"
"Lost sight of the Sorcerer somewhere past the last ridge," Konatsu reported, scanning the sky with his binoculars. "Is there any place around here they could be channeling that spell?"
Akane looked to Ryōga.
"What is it?" asked Ukyō.
"There is something close," Akane admitted. "Some place from when we fought the Phoenix people before."
Ryōga crouched back behind against the sheer wall of the mountain path. "There's something close?"
"Honestly, Ryōga-kun, can't you remember?"
"I remember places fine; it's just getting there that's the problem!"
Akane pointed up the mountain to a bowl-like formation in the rock, one with a gaping hole in its side.
"The Phoenix and Dragon," muttered Ryōga.
"What is that?" asked Ukyō.
"The sources of Jusendō, where Akane-san touched the Kinjakan and…" He grimaced.
"That must've been hard to watch."
Ryōga shook his head. "Ranma took it harder."
Without another word, the party moved on under Akane's direction. Cover of smoke (thanks not only to Ukyō's flour but Konatsu's dedicated smoke bombs) shielded them from a more thorough assault for a short time, but a sweeping wind came over the mountain, pushing the smoke away and buffeting the party as it traveled.
"Isn't there something you can do to get those Sorcerers off our backs?" Ukyō shouted over the din.
"Briefly, perhaps!" cried Cologne, her robes whipping in the wind. "if we're close to our target, it may keep the Sorcerers occupied long enough." She clicked the transmit button on her radio. "Bring in the dragon riders; let our people blot out the sun!"
Ukyō went cross-eyed. "You have dragons?"
"Wait and see," said Cologne, smiling slyly.
Wait they did, clinging to the inside wall of the mountain path, ever watchful that the rocks above could come tumbling down in the wind, but Sorcerers and Amazons battled all the way down the path, back to the springs. Thanks to their thin numbers at the very front of the pack, they'd drawn less attention. Despite the adverse conditions, they were relatively safe—safe enough to wait it out until pink and white beasts loomed high overhead, their tails winding in the wind.
"You really do have dragons," said Akane, craning her neck upward to see.
Cologne cackled. "That's what we want you to think. You see, it was never a real problem getting into the Sorcerers' illusion. You can always do that from the sky. The problem is getting back out."
"Why's that? The dragons can't fly up and out?"
"Not when they're kites, Tendō."
As they flew out from in front of the sun to the east, the pack of "dragons" became clear—warriors glided from the sky on painted, decorative kites. Their long, flowing tails were merely glittering ribbons with a lightweight frame of thin wood. The Amazon riders swooped in from above, diving on the airborne Sorcerers and knocking them out of the sky. Kites and bodies smashed into the mountainside, but the Amazon warriors were no worse for wear, and nearby archers eagerly took the chance to shoot their grounded foes once the dust cleared.
"Show us the way, Tendō," said Cologne, stepping out from cover.
"My memory's a little hazy," Akane admitted. "Mousse, Shampoo, maybe you two can lead?"
"Of course," said Mousse. "We want to find the faucets—the ones that have the faces of the Chinese premiers on them, right? That's what they looked like to me, at least. Perhaps a bit more colorful, and less ugly, and—"
Shampoo stopped Mousse's mouth with her hand. Silently, she gestured with one of her maces for the group to follow while Mousse was left to drift at the back of the group, in a blissful daze. Such was the power of Shampoo's touch on him, but there was no time for anyone to dally, and Cologne's prod as she rounded out the group roused him from his stupor.
The path to the was winding and difficult, for the Phoenix and Dragon Taps lay at the bottom of a large, collapsed chamber. Without delving into the mountain and its passages, there were only two points of access: from above, where the roof of the cavern had been, or from below, through a gap in the side wall of the depression, leading only to a sheer mountain wall. Cologne elected to come from above, knowing it would lose time but give them a better view of what opponents they faced. Indeed, when the party made it around to the top ring above the Taps, they felt safe enough to wait there and scout out the Sorcerers before making their move.
"There, by the base of the Dragon," said Cologne, pointing below while gazing through binoculars. "I count eight Sorcerers, and the water responds to their spell."
One of the pairs of binoculars made their way to Ukyō, and for the first time, she got a close look of the crater below. Two large, colorful, painted monuments stood in large pools of frothing water. One was a dragon, its head pointed straight at the sky, and Ukyō thought she saw a line across its neck, like its head had been rearranged somehow. The other was a bird, a phoenix, but that monument was broken, and the head of the bird lay separated from its neck, which was all that rose above the water level.
By the edge of the pool, eight Sorcerers meditated, kneeling in a circle, and the water near them bubbled and frothed.
"It can't be that easy," said Ukyō. "They're hardly defended."
"Don't be deceived," said Cologne. "The moment we set foot in that crater, we will be hard-pressed to return. The Sorcerers know that, and they will be watching. Mousse, Shampoo, Hibiki—fend off any counter-attack. The rest of you should disrupt the spell so the rest of our people can move on the mountain unencumbered. Drive the Sorcerers away from the water. It is no coincidence they have chosen this place to work their magic. There must be a close connection here to the rest of the springs, and I believe there is great magic here, too."
"Magic?" asked Akane.
"Don't you feel it? Even someone untrained in manipulating ki to their advantage can sense when it shifts and moves." Cologne closed her eyes, feeling the rock beneath them. "Yes, there is a source here. Perhaps the fount of the springs is what interests them, capable as it is of such many and varied curses. Perhaps it's something else…. Whatever it is, we will deny them its use. Let us go now, before we're discovered."
With a smattering of archers to cover their approach, the party descended into the crater. Whatever Cologne felt—strength of magic, something powerful—Ukyō could only shiver in the morning air. "Akane-chan, stay close," she said, tightening the strap holding her spatula to her back. "We don't want to lose track of each other."
Akane nodded, saying nothing, and the girls climbed over the edge to scale the inner wall.
"Perhaps we can save ourselves some time, hm?" Cologne toed the edge and jumped off with all the pomp and ceremony of a woman in a stroller crossing a busy street. Shampoo tied her maces to her back and followed without a word.
"Wait for me, Shampoo!" Mousse, at least, rummaged through his sleeves to find a small drag parachute, which helped break his descent, one bearing a strange design.
Akane stared down as Mousse drifted below. "Does that parachute—"
"Have Shampoo's face on it?" finished Ukyō. "With hearts? Yeah."
"Okay. So, how can we get down there before all the fighting is over?"
At that, Ukyō frowned. She unpacked two canisters of noodles, which sprang out to an impressive length once released. She tied the long strands like rope around a nearby boulder and offered one bundle to Akane. "Ryōga, you've got that umbrella there. I take it you're covered?"
He gawked. "Do you know how much this thing weighs?"
"So that's a no?"
With a sigh, Ryōga hopped down the slope, using the open umbrella to slow his descent as he skipped to the bottom. Konatsu glided down, using extensions of his ninja attire to slow his fall. Akane and Ukyō followed, repelling down the sheer wall with the bundles of noodles serving as ropes. The girls guided themselves about halfway into the crater, and—
TCH-CHEW! A beam of golden ki drilled into the crater wall. Noodles in Ukyō's bundle sheared and snapped, and though a small handful of strands held, Ukyō fumbled and clawed at the sheer face of the mountain for a handhold.
"Here, take my hand!" Akane shuffled over, wedging her foot into a crack in the rock face. She reached with her fingers, and Ukyō grabbed Akane by the wrist.
"You ready?" asked Ukyō.
Taking a deep breath, Ukyō released her strand of noodle rope, grasping Akane's arm with both hands. Akane grunted and strained to keep them steady, and Ukyō swung beneath her like a pendulum, but Ukyō took a page from Tarzan, taking up the bundle at a point a few feet beneath Akane and clung to it.
"You okay?" Akane called from above.
"Yeah, I'm going to climb down first!"
Akane nodded. "I'll be right here."
Ukyō repelled the rest of the way down gradually, cognizant that any sudden move could jeopardize Akane's position above, but the Tendō girl held steady, and when Ukyō found the bottom, she started downward on her own. Only then, with the danger of her own descent passed, did Ukyō look about the rest of the crater. As Cologne expected, the Sorcerers came out in force to defend themselves. The Sorcerer Guard, around a dozen in number, had engaged Cologne and the rest of the party. Lightning shot through the air, striking Ryōga's umbrella and running through him to ground, but Ryōga pushed through it, grunting through each step as he approached his foe. Where fireballs hurtled, Konatsu's smoke bombs cut through them, dispersing the flames. The earth itself moved by the Sorcerers' will, with rock jutting out of the ground in spiky, piercing formations, but Cologne nimbly hopped and jumped from danger at the slightest shaking under her feet.
But there was no one more difficult to defeat or more stalwart than the Captain of the Guard, who protected her men by the edge of the pool with a large, dome-shaped bubble of ki. Shampoo bashed and beat on the barrier with her maces, but each time she struck the shield, her weapons were repelled in a faint flash and high-pitched sound. At the Captain's rear, Mousse hurled a barrage of explosive eggs, sapping the barrier's strength with each impact. The Captain pointed him out, signaling to her men, and on cue, a pressure wave rippled through the crater, driving the egg bombs back in Mousse's face. He hid behind his robes, protecting himself, but the damage was done: the Captain, facing only one foe, dropped her invincible shell, collected her ki into her staff, and swiped at Shampoo. Her staff traced out a line that emanated forward, and it shoved Shampoo into the crater wall.
Shampoo shook off the attack, wiping her sleeves clean of dust. "You only make Shampoo angry like that!" she cried.
A sparse, glowing beam pulled from Shampoo's chest, connecting her to the Captain's hand. The beam weakened Shampoo, forcing her to a knee, but while the Captain sucked the energy from her, the impervious shell protecting her channelers stayed down.
That was the key. The Captain could defend or attack, and perhaps she could switch between the two at will, but she couldn't do both at once, not with that barrier.
At Ukyō's side, Akane touched down at the base of the crater. "How does it look?" she asked.
"Not good, but that girl over there is the key, I think. If we can distract her, we can break through. I'll go in and keep her attention. When she brings down her shell, go after the people casting that spell."
"But what about you? I can help take her!"
"That's not important; I'll be fine. Don't put yourself in too much danger. Disrupt the spell and then get out, okay?"
Ukyō unclipped a trio of batter bombs from her belt and hurled them the Captain's way, but the girl was too fast—she broke her draining beam and set her sights on Ukyō instead. Ukyō closed the gap, swatting at the Captain, but the girl raised her golden shell. So far, so good. Ukyō just had to tempt the Captain to go on the offensive. She put both hands on her battle spatula and drove every ounce of strength into her blows. Reckless swings battered the barrier; they went against every instinct to stay grounded, to maintain a good defense even after attacking. She was leaving herself open, and hopefully, the Sorcerer captain would see that and be tempted to strike.
Sure enough, the barrier fell, and the Captain grabbed at Ukyō's spatula, pulling her in. One-handed, she yanked Ukyō around and dragged her off her feet. The Captain's staff blasted Ukyō in the back, and Ukyō's nerves lit aflame, like a thousand pins stuck in her fingers and toes. She cried out, falling to her knees, but on the inside, she was glad, for with the barrier down, she glimpsed Akane soaring in, her battle cry echoing through the crater. Akane pounced into the middle of the channeling circle, and by the edge of the frothing, bubbling water, she performed a sweeping kick, knocking the Sorcerers off their feet.
"Nice work, Akane-chan!" cried Ukyō, but her enthusiasm was short-lived. The waters of Jusendō began to bubble over, chaotic and volatile.
The Captain towered over Ukyō, staff in hand. "You dare to disrupt a spell you can't possibly understand," she said, her Japanese slow but coherent. "Do you have any idea what will happen now, with the magic interrupted, having no place to go? I don't."
The ground shook, freeing loose boulders from above. Through the hole in the crater wall, Ukyō glimpsed the thousand springs, and what she saw there filled her with dread, for one after another, the pools erupted—not in a directed, controlled fashion as the Sorcerers had done.
Every spring went up like a geyser, showering the whole area in cursed water.
"Akane-chan!" she cried. "Get away from the water!"
The source pool spewed a tower of water over the crater. Ukyō ran to try to get Akane clear of the column, but the water came down fast. The Captain raised a shell to protect herself, but that would do nothing for Ukyō. The torrent buried her and swept her away, slamming her body into the rocks and blanketing her in darkness.
She shook—from the cold air on her wet skin, from the pair of hands that jostled her. Ukyō blinked as daylight reached her eyes again. Feeling battered and sore, she sat upright, wincing.
"Good, you're awake," said Cologne, for once without her customary walking stick. "I'm glad you didn't require too much resuscitation."
"Resuscitation?" Ukyō glanced about. She sat on a raised outcropping next to the gap in the crater wall. Cursed waters gushed and flowed from the breach, trickling down the mountain. A pair of Amazon archers stood with them, trying to squeeze the water from their bowstrings. Mousse, reduced to duck form, vainly tried to dry his glasses with his fathers while Shampoo the cat shivered in the morning air. Konatsu cradled Akane's pet P-chan—where did he come from? "Okay, wait, who resuscitated me? What kind of resuscitation are we talking about?"
"Mouth-to-mouth, of course," said Cologne.
"Do you really want an answer to that question?"
At that, Konatsu went as red as a beet, and Cologne snickered.
"Akane-chan could've," said Ukyō. "She's here, right?"
Cologne shook her head. "Tendō was at the right next to the pools when they erupted, wasn't she? I have not seen her."
"What? Is Ryōga looking for her?"
The old woman pointed out the piglet. "The only thing Hibiki is doing right now is tracking down truffles."
"Don't kid around with me!"
"You didn't know?"
Ukyō stared down the piglet, who squirmed and cowered in Konatsu's arms. He was wearing a bandana, but…no, it couldn't be. That would mean Akane had cuddled and cradled…Ryōga?
"I'm not thinking about that right now," said Ukyō, shooting a hard look to the piglet. "We need to look for Akane-chan."
"How?" said Cologne. "With whom? Where? Look around. There are four of us not reduced to impotent animals. The whole of the springs have erupted, and we are without communication, without reinforcements. The Sorcerers will recover from this catastrophe faster than we can. We must retreat."
"Retreat? No way! We can't leave her behind!"
"There are many we're leaving behind, but we must do what is best for our lives. One can always fight another day."
"I don't care about the others; we are not leaving that girl behind!"
Cologne narrowed her eyes, striking a offensive stance. "What do you think I will do for your arguing? Do you think I'll let you walk away on your own? They'll capture you. They'll torture you for information on our numbers, our strength. I can't allow that, Kuonji Ukyō. I'll kill you myself if I must. We stay together, or we leave the dead behind. That is your choice."
Drawing a throwing star, Konatsu stepped between Cologne and Ukyō. "No one harms Ukyō-sama. It is my sworn duty to protect her."
"So we fight," concluded Cologne. "So be it. I have fought for lesser purposes and against stronger foes. Do what you feel you must, and I will do the same."
Konatsu raised his hand to throw the shuriken, but Ukyō caught him by the elbow. A fight would do them no good, so Ukyō tried something else instead. "Akane-chan?" she cried out. "Can you hear me?"
"Kuonji, quiet!" hissed Cologne, but Ukyō raised a hand to silence her. She only listened, but there was nothing. The crater had been decimated, awash with water. It was quiet, with the faint cries of men and the rushing of water the only sounds to be heard. Not a single bird sang.
And Akane wasn't there to call back to her.
"Are you satisfied now?" asked Cologne. "Come, then. Let us escape this crater before more Sorcerers arrive."
Meekly, Ukyō nodded, and both Cologne and Konatsu left their fighting stances. It was all she could do to keep her breathing steady and level, for in leaving Akane behind, Ukyō had failed her—and failed Ranma, too. That was the one thing he'd asked her to do, and she couldn't get it done.
"Did you hear? The Chinese girl from the cat restaurant—she tried to kill Tendō Akane!"
Ukyō had heard. She'd been there. She'd seen it all. She could still hear the shattering of glass as Shampoo had shoved Akane's hand through the transparent upper panel of one of the building doors. Shampoo was strong and powerful; she'd reduced Akane to little more than a ragdoll to play with at her pleasure, and yet Ranma did the same to her in seconds. All throughout, he hadn't said a word. He'd seemed shocked, if anything, when he realized what he'd done, but before that…
She shuddered to think about it. Ukyō had known anger for ten long years as she'd prepared for the day she'd confront Genma and Ranma over the humiliation they'd dealt her, yet her slow-burning resentment couldn't have held a candle to what flared up in Ranma's eyes.
What a change it was. That morning, Ranma and Akane had come to class as the talk of the school, and there had been all this unjustified attention about the wedding and their trip to China. Ukyō had found it all irritating at the time; compared to the scene of carnage by the courtyard entrance, however…
Well, time healed all wounds. The door to the courtyard was taped off while building consultants assessed the damage and the best course of repair. As far Ranma and Akane, they retreated to the nurse's office, skipping the next class.
And the one after that. It felt like a week, but that was only because Ukyō suffered through lectures, oblivious to the actual lessons and exercises, for Ranma was gone, and the only reason she'd enrolled in that school was to be close to him. With him staying at home—staying with Akane—this education seemed entirely meaningless. In her life, there were two things of any importance: her cooking and Ranma. The former was her passion of the mind and soul; the latter her passion of the heart. Nothing else mattered.
So when mid-afternoon break came and Ranma had yet to return, Ukyō slipped out of the classroom and headed for the nurse's office. Ukyō wasn't the only one with this idea. A small gaggle of students crowded around the door, but the nurse blocked the entrance sternly.
"This area is for those in need of medical attention only," she said. "I can't allow anyone to just come inside."
"Saotome's still in there, isn't he?" asked a boy. "Didn't look like he was hurt."
The nurse sighed. "I'm not without compassion, but all of you are like Paparazzi trying to catch a story. I won't have it."
"Well, I'm not," said Ukyō. "Can't I come in? My fiancé's in there."
"Really now? He said his fiancée was the girl I had to treat."
"It's complicated. What do you expect with a boy who changes into a girl when you dump water on him? Things can be strange around here."
The nurse stared, bewildered.
"Must be the only person in the school besides Kunō who doesn't know," said a bystander.
"Listen," Ukyō went on, "dump a glass of cold water over his head, and if he doesn't change into a cute, short, busty girl, I'll walk away."
The nurse frowned, but she hesitantly locked the door behind her. A faucet began to run, and it wasn't long until—
"What the hell?" came Ranma's voice, growling yet distinctly female in tenor. The door swung open, and the speechless nurse motioned for Ukyō to come inside, much to the chagrin of the other students, who were left out.
The nurse had set up a white curtain, blocking the view from the door. Ukyō gently pulled it aside to find Ranma sitting at Akane's bedside. While Ranma griped about the water in his hair and clothes—"Do you seriously dump water on people because someone tells you to?" he asked the nurse—Akane slept peacefully, marred only by a bundle of bandages around her hand.
"How is she?" asked Ukyō.
Ranma pursed his lips, watching Akane intently. "She's okay. The nurse gave her something for the pain. Sleeping is better; it keeps her calm."
"That's good. And how are you, Ranchan?"
"Me? I'm fine. I ain't got a scratch."
Even if he had been scratched, Ranma would shrug it off if it served him, if it made him look stronger for it. That didn't mean much, and Ukyō wasn't talking about physical wounds anyway. "Akane-chan's in good hands here. Why don't you come back to class?"
He shook his head, firm and forceful. "Shampoo could come back."
"I don't think so. You nearly broke her arm."
"She's lucky I didn't do more than that!"
The nurse glared at Ranma, touching a finger to her lips. In frustration, Ranma grabbed the fabric of his pants on each leg, bunching up the cloth.
Ukyō cleared a place on the bed, sitting gently not to disturb Akane. "Are you really okay, Ranchan? To be honest, I've never seen you fight like that."
"It was hardly a fight," he muttered.
"You're right. You had Shampoo at her mercy. I'm not saying she didn't deserve it, but still—you're antsy. You're on edge. Maybe you'd rather be talking to Akane-chan, but she's asleep. Who are you going to talk to but your friend Ucchan?"
His expression soured at that. "She almost died, you know."
"You never would've let Shampoo do that."
"I'm not talking about right now. I mean in China. She put herself at risk for me twice. I really thought she was dead. She was cold. I couldn't hear her breathing. I—"
"It's okay." Ukyō took his hand and grasped it, giving him an anchor and support. "You saved her, didn't you? It had to be you."
He scoffed. "Well, of course it was me. Who else can get this tomboy here out of all the trouble she wanders into?" He shook his head again, staring at Akane's face. "Geez, what did she do? What was she doing talking to Shampoo? Something must've set that crazy Chinese chick off."
Ukyō looked to the head of the bed, where Akane slept peacefully. Oh, what she wouldn't have given to be Akane right then. The rumors were true; something had happened between Akane and Ranma, something to solidify a bond between them that was difficult to shake. Her sacrifice—whatever it was—had earned her Ranma's devotion. Why else would he stay with her even while she slept?
Still, Ranma's concerns were at least somewhat justified. Ukyō had never thought Shampoo would give up on Ranma without a fight, but this attack of hers was bold. In full view of most of the school, she didn't care who saw her.
"I think she must've just snapped," said Ukyō. "I don't know why, but she said Akane shouldn't have come back."
Ranma twitched, and he met Ukyō's gaze. "You heard all that?"
"How long were you there, Ucchan?"
"Not long?" Ukyō tried to pull her hand away, but the pressure on her fingers increased. "Maybe a minute or two before you got there; that's really it."
"A minute would've been enough to stop Shampoo from shoving Akane's hand through that glass. Didn't you try to stop her?"
"I couldn't! She had Akane-chan in her clutches; if I moved any closer, Shampoo would've killed her right then and there!"
Ranma stared at her, and instinctively, Ukyō looked away. Shampoo had had Akane cornered. She'd threatened Ukyō not to approach. What else could she have done? Did she have the aim to hit Shampoo's hand with a throwing spatula and knock the mace out of her hand? Could she have wrapped up Shampoo's arm in noodles and given Akane the time to escape?
No, Shampoo was too quick, too fast, and if Ukyō had provoked her, Akane might've been ended before Ranma could even arrive.
And if Shampoo had succeeded, Akane would've been gone, Shampoo would've faced Ranma's wrath, and of the three of them, only Ukyō would've been left.
But that was insane! She didn't—she hadn't deliberately left Akane to Shampoo's mercy. She just couldn't think what else to do!
"When you came to the wedding yesterday, you came with bombs," observed Ranma. "Why?"
"Didn't you two say just this morning it wasn't your idea? I knew it couldn't have been what you wanted. And don't forget—I have an interest in you, too."
Ranma looked away. "And you do what you have to do to protect what you care about. That's fair."
"Glad you see it my way."
"That you and Shampoo hit me with those bombs was just a mistake."
"You really meant to hit Akane instead."
"Well, of course. I—" Ukyō caught herself. "No! That's not—that's not what I meant! They were just these little things, honest! Harmless, right? They hardly had you stopped for more than a second. She wouldn't have been seriously hurt! I mean, they weren't meant for her. They were just supposed to be a disruption!"
"Give me a good reason to believe that," he snapped. "Give me a reason to think you don't want her out of your way."
Ukyō trembled. What was he saying? That she was no better than Shampoo? That she'd done something so heinous, so appalling, all out of selfish desire and need? It wasn't true, not an ounce of it, but could she prove that to him? Could she prove that to herself? When she cooked those special okonomiyaki in her kitchen, what was it that kept her going—the thought that Ranma would be saved from a wedding he didn't want or the jealousy and hurt from imagining Akane at his side as he took vows with her?
Try as she might to expose it, the specter of selfishness haunted her, and it refused to be banished or dispelled. And for that, she wept. Ranma's accusation had cut to her soul. When they'd reunited after ten years, he'd found a good and happy girl buried beneath ten years of hatred and anger, but without his love, that vindictiveness and greed could never be defeated.
Seeing Ukyō's distress, Ranma's next words were calm yet steady and firm. "You can't do that again, Ucchan," he said. "If you ever hurt her, if you ever stand by while she's in danger, then you've made your choice. Do either, and you won't be my friend anymore—never mind anything about fiancés. Promise me you won't do that."
Biting her lip, Ukyō nodded. "I promise, Ranchan," she whispered.
"Thanks," he said, and that was all. He set his gaze back on Akane, and when the break between classes came to an end, Ukyō silently excused herself—not just from the nurse's office but from school, too. Ranma had all but made his choice, and it wasn't her. It wasn't her, yet she couldn't be angry with Akane, either. She'd promised. She'd promised Ranma. If she ever wanted a chance with him, if she treasured his friendship at all, she could only shut those feelings out of her mind, lest the darkness in her heart take over.
Unlike some people, Ukyō upheld her promises. If Akane was going to China to help save Ranma, Ukyō would go too. She had to. Even if Ranma had really turned his eye toward someone else, Ukyō couldn't bring herself to disappoint him. That's what her father couldn't have hoped to understand. Her pursuit of Ranma had gone far beyond just what she wanted or what she was owed. She had an obligation of her own to fulfill.
And she'd failed in it. Akane was missing at best, dead at worst. In the rush to get off the mountain, Ukyō had precious little time to dwell on this matter, and for that, she felt strangely thankful. If the party had sat in one place doing nothing, she might've jumped out of her skin.
But the only jumping to be done was atop fragile, wobbly bamboo poles. At the base of the mountain, the springs had flooded, rendering any crossing on the ground impossible. Only the bamboo in each spring lay above the sludge. Cologne had no trouble leapfrogging across, nor did Konatsu as he carried Shampoo and Ryōga, but Ukyō found the experience uncertain and terrifying. One wrong step, and who knows what curse she would bring upon herself. She could turn into a dog or a rat or worse—much worse. Below her, animals writhed in the springs' waters, and their forms were strange and varied. Fish flopped in the shallows with the ears and tails of cats. Birds swooped in, but where their beaks should've been, they had snakes' mouths instead.
Overall, it was definitely better not to look down. Ukyō was having a hard enough time hopping from one bamboo pole to the next. They were narrower than her foot and shook with each landing. Little wonder people fell into the springs all the time—even Ranma and his father. Given the consequences if she fell, Ukyō resisted any sense of urgency, even knowing it might slow down the group. If she ended up cursed into a helpless monstrosity, what good would she do them?
That caution was just and sound, but the time lost didn't help matters. When the group finally found solid ground to set foot on, they started trying to find their bearings. The foothold camp was the only way back through the Maze, and if there were reinforcements to be found, they'd be there, but on the eastern end of the cursed spring ground, a plume of smoke rose over the trees, casting a pall on the midday sky.
"A campfire?" asked Konatsu.
Cologne narrowed her eyes. "I don't think so. Come, quickly!"
With Mousse flying overhead, the remaining members of the party rushed over soggy ground to the foothold camp. Flames took hold in the trees, burning brightly. Vainly, the Amazons tried to fill buckets from the springs, hoping to douse the flames, but a pack of pesky Sorcerers hovered over the camp, out of the arrows' reach.
"You there!" shouted Cologne, taking aside a foothold defender. "What's the situation here? We must bring those Sorcerers down. Where are the fireworks?"
"We've used everything we brought with us inside, Speaker!"
Cologne cursed under her breath. "Then we have no choice. Give the instruction to fall back to outside the illusion. We can't afford to be trapped here, understand?"
Fighting through the smoke, the party found the guide ropes back to the outside. Some were already on fire, reduced to tatters by the onslaught. Though the smoke stung her eyes, Ukyō held an arm over her forehead to block what she could, and she and Konatsu shuffled their way into the maze, bringing a trio of animals—Mousse landed on Ukyō's shoulder, along with Konatsu's pair—to safety, too. She coughed and wheezed, but as long as she felt the rope between her hands, she knew that stinging sensation in her throat and lungs would soon pass.
"Kuonji, down!" Cologne called from the front.
Get down for what? In all the smoke she could hardly see a thing, but she did feel something—a warmth on her face and arms, coming from in front of her, like standing before a lava lamp or a radiator or…
Or a giant wall of fire?
Ukyō tossed two handfuls of explosive tempura flakes at the wall, and the blasts opened a breach at the base of the wall. Still, the bulk of the wall passed around them, and scattered embers caught Ukyō's bow, Konatsu's sleeves, and Ryōga's spotted bandana.
"SQUEE!" The little piglet took off running, frantic and panicked.
"Get back here, you dumb pig! You want to get lost?" In vain, Ukyō tried to catch him with noodle rope, improvising a lasso, but the small target was too quick and nimble to be caught. "Konatsu, keep a hold on these noodles. I'll be damned if we lose Akane-chan and Ryōga today!"
"And I'd never forgive myself if I let you leave the guide rope," said Konatsu. "Please, Ukyō-sama, you've done all you can. If either of us lost our grip, we can't be sure we'd find each other again."
Konatsu could be so sure about her. He seemed to see her with sparkles and glitter, and all that for what? Because she helped free him? Sure, it was a good thing to do, but how she helped him shouldn't cloud his judgment. That nagging feeling that she still hadn't done enough gnawed at her, but she let out a resigned sigh. "He's got something coming to him if Akane-chan doesn't know who he is, but being lost in a place that's impossible to navigate even for ordinary people—that's cruel."
"We'll bring it down and find him," said Konatsu. "And Akane-sama, too."
With arrows shooting into the treetops around them, Ukyō and Konatsu struggled through the smoke and emerged on the outside of the Maze, but the situation there was hardly any better. From above, Sorcerers rained fire on the Amazon camp. It spread like a disease through the woods. It infected the ballistae, eating away at the weapons' springs. The tremendous energy stored within them released, hurling pieces of wood and metal over the camp.
"Break out the fireworks!" cried Cologne. "Light up the sky, brothers and sisters!"
From burning tents, the Amazons rescued bundles of fireworks. It took little to find an open flame to light the fuses, and the brilliant shower of rocket trails formed a rainbow in the morning sky. Cologne herself took a pack of six fireworks, and with a pair of straps, she wore them like a warrior wears an armored suit.
"You can't be serious," said Ukyō.
"On the contrary, Kuonji, you have yet to see me be serious. This is an ancient technique, dating back to the tenth century. That said, fireworks were notoriously less reliable back then. There are no verified accounts of this technique succeeding until 1891."
"And this makes it a good idea?"
"Have some faith in an old woman, won't you? I'm not as frail and fragile as I look."
The fireworks lit, and a burst of thrust kicked up dirt and dust. Cologne rocketed skyward, spiraling to the stars. How she steered Ukyō couldn't guess, but Cologne piloted her fireworks pack expertly, making a beeline for an airborne Sorcerer, and a colossal punch swatted the foe from the sky. With a colorful trail in her wake, Cologne guided her fireworks to two more Sorcerers, bringing them down same as the first, and when there were no more enemies in sight, she turned back on the sputtering fireworks. She cut herself loose, and as the fireworks exploded overhead in a bizarre cacophony of light and sound, she stuck a landing on the scorched earth, no worse for wear.
"Impressive," said Konatsu. "What do you call it?"
Cologne dusted herself off, going back to her usual slow and deliberate gait. "Uncomfortably warm," she said, "but effective."
She motioned to more of her men for additional fireworks, but the gesture was unneeded. With three of their number wounded, the Sorcerers in the sky hesitated to press the attack. The onslaught of fire leveled off for a time, but still, the bulk of the base camp had been eaten away by flames.
"They knew when we were coming," Cologne observed. "They could sense us as soon as we set foot in their maze. Every second, we're losing more and more of our arms, our supplies, our people, and if the Sorcerers come back in force, we will lose this place. The only solution is to go where they cannot find us."
Cologne called over an aide to spread the word—the Amazons were going to retreat, leaving their dead and missing behind, with no hope of rescue, no salvation, or escape.
Unhindered by Sorcerer pests, the Amazons retreated to the cliffs above and around Jusenkyō, where the dragon riders had made their perch to breach the spring ground from the sky. Their camp was small and ill-equipped, however, with little food and water to support the larger force—what was left of it. Dozens of Amazons had been cursed in the eruption of the springs, taking on bizarre and unsightly forms. Monkeys with bird claws for hands gestured and howled wildly, and lizards with giant, insect-like compound eyes slithered about the cliffside camp, buzzing like gnats. And for all these malformed and helpless creatures, there was hardly enough hot water to go around. What the Amazons did heat and boil, they tried to save after turning their brethren back to human form, collecting the spent water in pans.
And then there were the wounded—the ones with burns that turned their skin unnatural colors, the ones whose eyes went red with irritation from smoke.
It all made Ukyō ill. Really, she was a chef and a martial artist, proud of her skills in both, but a warrior on a strange battlefield she was not, and the sights she saw there gave her chills.
"Please, hold still, Ukyō-sama," said Konatsu, applying ointment to a burn on her shoulder. "I'm trying to be gentle."
"I'm hardly hurt. There are Amazons out there with burns over half their bodies."
"It's my duty to tend to you."
"Good that some people can hold up their ends in this world," she muttered. "Unlike me."
Konatsu hesitated, and he peered around her to catch her eye. "What do you mean by that?"
Ukyō pressed her lips together, stern. "I told her to go attack those people channeling that spell. I said I'd be the distraction. I thought that would make it easier for her, that it would put her in less danger, but it didn't. When she was up late last night, she had doubts about going, and I could've told her to stay behind. She'd have been safe that way, but I encouraged her instead. I stood by while Shampoo was attacking her. I brought bombs to her wedding, and I didn't care what happened to her. All along, I only cared about what I wanted, and that was Ranchan."
Konatsu put down the bowl of balm and circled around Ukyō, looking her in the eye. "That's not true. You protected her when the Sorcerers came to the camp yesterday. You've been right by her side this whole trip. You offered me a home and freedom when you didn't even know me. You may doubt yourself, Ukyō-sama, but I don't doubt you."
It was good someone had faith in her. Even her father had doubted her, and Ranma had taken her to task, but this was no time for doubt or hesitation. Ranma was still in Sorcerer hands, and at best, Akane was missing somewhere on the mountain. And Ryōga, too, had been lost in the Maze.
Konatsu pointed down the path, and to their mutual surprise, they saw a tiny black piglet trudging up the cliffs. Weary, scratched, and bruised, Ryōga looked about ready to collapse, but Konatsu dashed ahead to rescue him.
"How on earth did you make it out?" asked Ukyō, studying the wounded pig. "Did you get blasted clear of the illusion or something?"
Konatsu placed Ryōga atop a metal pan and poured, and hot water restored Ryōga to his human form. Konatsu hurriedly offered Ryōga a blanket to protect the boy from shame. "There were explosions and flames all over the place," he explained. "I really couldn't tell you. It's like when I end up in another city; I don't even notice that I got there."
"Chalk it up to Ryōga-sama's sense of direction, yeah?" said Konatsu.
Perhaps. At the least, it was a relief one of their number was safe after all. After that, Ukyō had only one question. "Does Akane-chan know?"
Ryōga shook his head, glancing away in shame.
"Then this—" SLAP! "That's for her dignity, and I expect you'll apologize to her when we get her back, right?"
"You think we can find her?" asked Ryōga. "You think we can get back in there and save her? I'd give anything—do anything—to see that she's safe."
Ukyō sighed, letting the last spurt of adrenaline ebb off. "So would I."
With Ryōga recovered after all, the party from Nerima gathered by a ledge overlooking the springs, with Shampoo, Mousse, and Ryōga damp and draped in ill-fitting robes.
"We were disadvantaged from the start," Cologne concluded. "If the Sorcerers can detect us in their Maze as soon as we set foot in it, they will always know that we're coming. I hoped we could surprise them with overwhelming force, but this magic they've unleashed on the spring ground—they are either ingenious for it or reckless. Perhaps both."
The Nerima party gathered by a ledge overlooking the springs, with Shampoo, Mousse, and Ryōga, who was still damp and draped in ill-fitting robes.
"Our footholds are not safe," observed Cologne. "The best we can do is send some of our people inside with no established means of escape and give them a way out when they are ready. A large team will be discovered. I suggest something smaller—an elite, guerrilla force who will scout out the Sorcerers, discover the channelers' location, and kill them. I assume you will go, Shampoo?"
"Shampoo prove her worth to the Tribe, absolutely," she said.
"And you, Mousse?"
He took a pair of hands into his own. "Shampoo, I would follow you anywhere. I am always honored to stand by your side."
"All well and good," said Cologne, "but you might want to let go of Hibiki, yes?"
Ryōga yanked his arms away, leaving Mousse aghast. "For Akane-san's sake, I would go too, if you'll have me. She can be like a prickly flower, dangerous to the touch, but all living things need care."
Cologne rolled her eyes. "Sentimental and poetic. How touching." She looked to Ukyō. "I believe that leaves only you and your servant boy, Kuonji. You are not a warrior of my people; you aren't obligated to follow my lead, and I think it is clear the dangers the Sorcerers face to the unprepared are great indeed. Nevertheless, I think we all know your answer."
Cologne was right about that. Before, just knowing Ranma was in danger would've been enough to convince her, for if Ranma weren't safe, Ukyō's hopes for a future with him would be dashed. Now, he may already have made his choice—a choice that didn't include her.
So why go to China at all? Because Ranma was still a friend, or she hoped to be a friend to him. He'd asked something of her, and as much as it tugged at her heart to do it, she would fulfill that promise no matter what. She had a responsibility toward Akane, and following through with it would prove to Ranma she could be relied on.
More than that, it would prove to herself that the girl who brought bombs to the wedding, who stood by while Akane was being attacked and threatened with death, was but a small part of her. She could control that part. She could hold it in check—or at least, she wanted to.
"We can go in there and bring down the magic zone those Sorcerers have put up," she said. "What then?"
"If we can bring it down, then the whole of our war party will descend on Jusenkyō, rescue Ranma and our people, and take what Sorcerers we can to get answers, to find out why they've emerged."
"And find Akane-chan," said Ukyō. "She's still alive."
"What you do with your lives once the illusion is brought down is your business," said Cologne. "But if risk capture by the Sorcerers, I will kill you myself than let the secrets of my people reach them. Am I understood?"
It was a fair condition, for Ukyō would accept nothing less than success.
The promises a girl makes to others have only as much worth as she assigns to them. She can choose to uphold them or break them at will, and the cost to doing either is something she must continually weigh. Sometimes, the promises she makes may be in conflict with what she wants for herself, but to break them would impugn her honor—indeed, the very goodness of her soul.
As daylight waned on the Tibetan Plateau, Cologne assembled the new party, composed of denizens from Nerima ward, elite Amazon archers, and two of the finest warriors in Shampoo and Mousse. Cologne led the party herself, and she alone held the spear that would guide them by rope into the spring ground. That rope she would cut herself, for the party would bring down the Sorcerer illusion or never leave at all.
And Ukyō stood with them. To keep her promise to Ranma, she would put her life at risk and search for Akane until every inch of Jusenkyō had been scoured. To keep her promise to her father, she would exercise restraint and caution, even on this dangerous mission, so that she'd come back home alive when it was all over. She had nothing to remember her promise to Ranma by, but with her hairbow burned and in tatters, Ukyō used the spatula with golden trim to keep her hair in place.
"Well then," said Cologne, standing before the edge of the Maze, spear in hand. "Are we ready?"
The members of the guerrilla party nodded, and with that Cologne turned her shoulder to the illusion, hurling the spear high and far. The trailing rope fell to the earth below, and Cologne took up the line in her hand.
"Let us go then," said Cologne, "where no one to help us may reach."