While Herb wasn't particularly alarmed by the metamorphosis occurring before him, he was hardly in the mood to continue the fight any longer than necessary. Besides which, if Ranma wasn't allowed to complete her recovery and transformation, then he wouldn't have to find out if she were becoming a threat until it was too late. Considering how tenacious she had proven to be already, erring on the side of caution came quite easily to him.
"How tiresome," he muttered, before suddenly firing a powerful blast of ki in Ranma's direction. "It's time to end this!"
Even though she was now in a condition to dodge the oncoming attack, Ranma stood her ground. She was confident that she could now take such an attack from Herb without too much trouble, as opposed to before, but it was primarily to find out whether she could drain at least some of the energy out of the ki blast before it hit her. Also, since she already knew that she could draw in ambient or otherwise uncommitted energy, she thought it better to have the ki blast disperse against herself rather than be allowed to pass by, with the energy out of immediate reach once the ki blast lost its form.
There was another reason behind her choice of action, though she wouldn't be aware of it until after the fact: absorbing energy felt too good to pass up, what with it being too novel to resist. Not only did it feel exhilarating in every sense of the word, but it was accompanied by a soothing warmth, akin to what she would experience while soaking in a hot bath. The combination could be compared to a good workout, feeling ready for more rather than tired, her senses heightened yet curbed by a mild blanket of euphoria — only better.
However, before the ki blast could reach her, it was intercepted by a large boulder, which shattered upon impact. As the debri from it fell all around her, and she took in the energy from the ki blast by continuing to draw in what was around her, she turned her attention away from Herb so she could find the boulder's source.
What she found was Ryoga and Mousse making their way toward her, who were once again in their human forms. While she might have normally felt more relieved for them, even glad, such feelings were very much tempered by the sight of the Kaisuifu that Ryoga had in his possession. Had she left things up to chance, she may very well have been able to unlock her curse without any potential complications.
Well, it's not like she could have predicted such an outcome, and being a succubus might very well be restricted to her cursed form, but neither thought made her feel any better or confident about her situation. Succubi were gender-specific in nature, after all, so she feared that that would become an issue.
"Ranma!" Ryoga called out, as he held up the Kaisuifu. "Now it's your turn to become a... man... again...?"
Rather than throw the Kaisuifu to Ranma as he had planned, he came to a stop some distance away from the person that he had thought to be Ranma and stared at them with a confused look on his face. "Who are you?"
Ranma blinked her eyes, wondering what he could be talking about, when realization struck her. Ryoga was easily tricked by simple disguises, such as putting on a pair of glasses or a hat with a change of clothes, and she figured that her newly-grown horns and elongated ears — not to mention her new wings and tail — were changes that were sufficient enough to fool him. Since Mousse wasn't wearing his glasses, and didn't seem inclined to put them on, she now appeared to be a stranger to both of them.
Before she could come up with a reply, the ground began to shake beneath their feet even as the air was filled with a deep rumbling sound, which prompted Mousse to speak up in alarm. "Wh-what's going on!?"
"Is it an earthquake!?" Ryoga wondered aloud as he looked about himself.
Ranma noticed a long crack form in the ground nearby, and before long it opened up and became a sizeable fissure. The shaking and rumbling continued unabated, and the instability of the mountain made itself even more apparent when the walls of the newly-opened fissure continued to move, closing now instead of expanding even further.
"So, Ranma," Herb said in a casually smug tone, which drew her attention back to him even as his words caused Ryoga and Mousse to look at her questioningly, "your ridiculous efforts seem to have made me careless. Thanks to the power of my soaring dragon spirit, this mountain is about to collapse." His expression hardened, and his gaze locked onto Ryoga. "Before that happens, however, I intend to take back what's rightfully mine."
Ranma interposed herself between Herb and Ryoga, and smirked in a way that she hoped was insufferable to the former of the two's eyes. "I think it's only fair to have you fight me for it, wouldn't you say?"
Herb snorted at that, showing some irritation, but the one to speak next was Ryoga, who'd now had a good look at Ranma's wings and tail. "Ranma...?"
Before Ranma could respond, Mint and Lime came into view as they ran toward Ryoga and Mousse, and everyone directed their attention toward them when Mint angrily shouted, "You! Try to trick us, will you!?"
"Telling us we'd get to see boobies!" Lime added, who was just as upset about it as his companion.
After returning her gaze to Herb, Ranma firmly ordered, "Ryoga, Mousse, take the kettle and get off the mountain before it collapses." Expecting some amount of hesitation and/or inquiry, she added, "I'm trusting you to keep it safe until I'm done here."
Ryoga and Mousse exchanged glances before they nodded their heads in unison and proceeded to run away, but Herb wasn't of a mind to just let them go. However, the ki blast that he had fired at their backs had been intercepted by Ranma, who had punched through it from the side. The dragon prince silently watched as the remains of his attack gathered into tendrils of energy and flowed into the redhead, and for the first time he had to quell a growing sense of doubt regarding his ability to deal with her.
As the sight and sounds of Mint's and Lime's pursuit began to fade into the distance, Ranma turned to confront Herb with a stony expression on her face, ready for their final engagement. "Let's finish this."
Herb looked unimpressed, if not outright bored, though was nevertheless wary. "I've defeated your ultimate move. You have no more hands to play."
"Is that so?" Ranma replied, who was now smirking mischievously. "Well, you know how you couldn't fight at your full potential until you were male? It just so happens that I wasn't fighting at my full potential, either."
Herb frowned at that, but prepared to initiate the next round of combat regardless, by assuming a fighting stance. As long as he didn't use any attacks that projected ki, he figured that he wouldn't have much to worry about: after all, he was confident that he was the better — overall — fighter. So, when he saw Ranma reach up and grasp the collar of her shirt with both hands, as if in preparation to bare her breasts once again, he disregarded it because he didn't expect anything different to happen.
However, much to his surprise and confusion, the impact that her breasts had on him were very strong and rather different, to the point where it almost felt like a physical blow. Rather than taking his first step toward battle, he found himself rooted to the spot and slightly unsteady on his feet, feeling inexplicably warm in the face and anxious in the belly. His heart raced and his breathing was no longer calm and measured, even though he hadn't yet been active to the extent that would tax him in any significant way.
With her breasts still exposed, Ranma began to approach Herb in a casual yet sexy manner. "It's funny how things work out. At first you think you've got the advantage, but it turns out to be a weakness instead."
"What... What do you mean...?" Herb managed to ask, after he tried and failed to shake off the effect that Ranma was having on him. As things stood, he was having a hard enough time trying to keep himself from staring at her, with said staring not being limited to her exposed breasts.
Ranma soon stood before Herb, with barely an inch to spare between her chest and him, and proceeded to look up at him with an impudent smile. "Well, it just so happens that succubi prey on men. And, because you're related to dragons, your affinity with male energy makes you even more vulnerable to them than normal."
Between his pride, a poignant dislike for his position, and the unwelcome rise of fear, Herb was finally able to make his body listen to his commands properly. With a desire to do something about the smile on Ranma's face, his first order of business was to take advantage of their proximity. However, much to his shock and dismay, his fist was caught, seemingly without any trouble, and Ranma's smile only grew as a result.
Before he could do anything else, he was disoriented by a sudden bout of dizziness. He tried to pull away and attack with his free hand, as soon as he realized that his energy was being drained directly from his body, but he soon found his other fist captured as well. As he felt himself weaken further, to the point where he could no longer stand on his feet, for the first time he began to experience a real fear for his life.
When he had been drained nearly to unconsciousness, he felt the vice-like grip on his fists vanish, and without that "support" he soon found himself falling the rest of the way to the ground. He could do little more than move his eyes by then, and they focused on Ranma as she looked down at him with an impassive expression on her face.
"You know," Ranma said softly, to the point where her words were difficult for Herb to hear over the rumbling of the ground beneath his head, "I thought about killing you, considering all the things that you've done, and the fact that you even tried to kill me." Herb's eyes widened when she took out the Chisuiton, which — until then — he had completely forgotten about. "I'm especially unhappy about what I had to do in order to beat you, so I think that this is only fair."
After she finished speaking, she went over to a recently-formed fountain and filled the Chisuiton's pail with water. Upon her return, she procured water from the pail with the ladle and — without delay or ceremony — proceeded to douse Herb with it, which locked his — now her — curse once again.
Ranma was far from cruel, even though she appreciated the horror being expressed in Herb's eyes, so she added, "I can't really blame you for how you were raised, so I'll tell you what: once you've learned to respect females, seek me out and I'll be willing to unlock your curse."
When an outcropping of rock began to crumble nearby, and a boulder from it threatened to roll over a defenseless Herb, Ranma was prompted to spread out her wings in preparation for flight, and took one of the prince's hands.
"Anyway, let's get out of here."
Ryoga and Mousse had managed to escape the mountain before they became entrenched in battle with Lime and Mint once more, due to the latter's projectile attacks eventually slowing them down enough for Lime — who was the slower one of the two — to catch up with them. Since they were — not that they would ever admit it — outmatched, Ryoga had tried to take the advantage with a full-powered shishi hokodan, but Lime and Mint had been able to use their experience with it before to avoid it. That had left trickery, in the form of pointing at non-existent boobs, but even idiots learn from their mistakes eventually, and the last time was still fresh in their minds, which had begun the chase in the first place.
Fortunately for them, the sight, sound and feel of a mountain crumbling so close by was very hard to ignore. After a moment of watching the spectacle, and wondering about the person that they had left behind, they both realized that their opponents' backs were turned to them as their attention continued to be held by the crumbling mountain. After sharing a look that confirmed what the other was thinking, they acted quickly and struck the two from behind, and for the second time that day they managed to render them unconscious by using such a tactic.
Hoping to avoid further trouble from them, at least any time soon, Mousse pulled out a length of chain from his voluminous sleeves and tied them up with it. Once he was done with that, he rejoined Ryoga and they both watched as the remains of the mountain began to settle into a giant pile of rubble. As they did, they both thought of the same question.
"Do you think he made it?" Mousse eventually voiced said question.
Ryoga didn't answer immediately, as he struggled to figure out how he should feel about his rival. Not only had Ranma placed his cure after their own, despite being backstabbed for what they had thought would be a cure for their curses, which had — in fact — put them into the same boat instead, but he had trusted them with the Kaisuifu even though they each had something to gain from Ranma being unable to become a guy again.
Before he could formulate an answer, a familiar voice said, "As if I'd be done in by something like a falling mountain."
Ryoga and Mousse turned to face the source of the voice, and found Ranma casually standing behind them with a female Herb lying unconscious at her feet, who had lost consciousness during their flight from the mountain. The wings, tail and horns were gone, which made Ryoga wonder what had been up with such a disguise. Well, they were features reminiscent of a dragon, so he could imagine why they would have been used, considering what had been used against himself too many times to speak of...
When no answer was immediately forthcoming, Ranma crossed her arms and frowned. "What? Disappointed?"
"Ah, no," Ryoga responded awkwardly, before he was able to compose himself. "I just wasn't expecting to see you behind us."
Ranma shrugged her shoulders. "Well, you know me: full of surprises."
Ryoga rolled his eyes at that, before he took out the Kaisuifu and held it out to Ranma. "Anyway, you want this or not?"
Ranma accepted it without a word, who wasn't in any mood to tease him. She was more concerned about whether the Kaisuifu would still work on her, and the fear that it wouldn't pretty much killed whatever humor she would have normally expressed at such a time. After taking a deep, calming breath, she prepared herself for the worst and raised the kettle above her head.
As the hot, steaming water poured over Ranma's head, Mousse and Ryoga were the only ones surprised when it failed to produce the expected result. While foul play may have normally been the reason for why such a thing would happen, they had both felt indebted enough to Ranma — for the effort that she had put into saving them from living out the rest of their lives as animals to not resort to trickery or backstabbing... again, that is.
"It didn't work?" Mousse spoke up, both surprised and baffled.
"But it worked for us..." Ryoga added as he stared at Ranma, feeling the same as Mousse did on the matter.
Ranma sighed and lowered the now-empty kettle to her side, with her shoulders slumping in the process. "I kinda figured that this would happen."
Ryoga blinked his eyes confusedly. "You did?"
Realizing that she had spoken aloud, Ranma laughed nervously and tried to cover for her mistake. "Er, yeah. Something... happened while you guys were gone."
"Something happened?" Ryoga echoed, his brow furrowed. "Like what?"
Since she didn't want anyone — for the time being, at least — to know the truth, Ranma quickly thought of a way to avoid having to come up with an explanation. "Why should you care?" She turned her back on them and began to walk away. "Anyway, let's leave before someone sees us."
Mousse and Ryoga glanced at each other before they shrugged their shoulders and followed after her, leaving the three unconscious individuals from the Musk to fend for themselves. While they were curious about Ranma's situation, they didn't care to an extent that might be mistaken for concern.
Despite the exertions of recent hours, and having gone without sleep since yesterday morning, they traveled well into the evening, until they reached the nearest town. They still had some money left over from what they had earned while working at the ryokan, but they had opted to spend it on train tickets instead of on a night at a hotel, even though they had lost all of their food and camping supplies on the mountain. They didn't much care for the idea, which had left them just enough money for a few snacks, but they had decided that it would be better to deal with the inconvenience so they could be back in Tokyo within a day or two instead of finding a place to work and taking a week or two to earn more money than what they would need for the trip back.
Since it was below freezing outside, and they were no longer able to ignore the cold without something significant driving them forward, sleeping outside with nothing more than the clothing on their backs was out of the question. Unfortunately, since Mousse had prioritized keeping weapons on his person before they had begun their journey, and had left such things as sleeping bags, blankets and extra clothes to their backpacks, that made finding a suitable shelter a must.
While it wasn't much of an improvement over sleeping outside, they found access to a stairwell from the roof of a building and considered spending the night there. Once they were fairly certain that they wouldn't be disturbed by anyone during their stay, they settled in and tried to get some rest.
Sleep came quickly for Mousse and Ryoga, who had nothing else to worry about beyond the train ride home, but Ranma's mind was so preoccupied that she didn't even bother to close her eyes. Not only did she have to worry about her relationship with Akane, or of being a demon, and a succubus of all things, but she also had to contend with the fact that she might be female for the rest of her life. Between that and wondering what to reveal or keep secret about herself and her situation, and to whom which would apply, sleep itself seemed like a dream.
Eventually, out of frustration, she got up from her resting place and went outside, hoping that the chill air would help take her mind off of her problems. What she ended up doing, however, was pace back and forth while her concerns continued to trouble her.
Once she grew tired of doing that, she sighed and leaned her back against the entrance of the stairwell. She proceeded to cross her arms, due more to the cold than anything else, and look up at the star-filled sky, feeling depressed and lost. While she wasn't the type to seek out help unless it couldn't be helped, there were times when she really needed it, and now was one of those times.
Unfortunately, up until recently she'd never had anyone to really confide in. Of those that she could now take into consideration, either they weren't close enough to her, or they were too closely connected to the subject matter and she didn't know them well enough to be sure how they would react to whatever she might want to say to them. If she told the wrong person the wrong thing, her attempt to avoid certain scenarios could very well blow up in her face.
When she considered trying to take her mind off of her problems by indulging in her ability to fly, it suddenly occurred to her that she might just have someone that she could turn to. While she had less experience with her mother than any of the other people that she had considered talking to, said mother wasn't going to be affected by her situation in the same way, and she didn't think that her mother would go out of her way to ruin her life. After all, her mother could have done that during her first visit, but had kept her ancestry secret, and had even favored her existence as a human instead of wanting her to become a demon.
Besides, she felt that it would be a good excuse to find out what kind of relationship they had as mother and child, or what it could become. If she was going to be stuck as a succubus, who better could she relate to? And depending on how things turned out, it would likely be more ideal to have someone like her mother to help her get acquainted with the demon world.
Upon coming to the decision to contact her mother, she took out the cell phone that had been left in her care and dialed her number. She wasn't sure if she would be available, since she didn't know what time it was where she was from, or what kind of schedule she had, but she figured that she would have to call to find out anyway.
The line picked up in the middle of the third ring, and she was a bit relieved when she heard her mother's greeting. Since she wasn't sure how to broach the subject that had inspired her call, and she hadn't planned on how to proceed, she decided to start the conversation as casually as she could.
"Ah, Ranma," her mother answered, who sounded pleasantly surprised. "And just what might your demonic mother be able to do for you?"
Ranma chuckled awkwardly. "Um, well... I was wondering if I could come and visit you. I, uh... I kinda need some advice."
She heard her mother release a sigh before she said, "Oh, dear. You've taken after your mother, haven't you?"
"Er, yeah," came the lame reply.
The silence that followed made her worry about what her mother's response might be, until she finally heard, "...Alright. It will take me a few minutes to adjust my schedule before I can open up a portal to your location." There was a pause. "Are you sure about this?"
"I'm sure," she replied resolutely. "I mean, you're my mom, right?"
"I am, indeed," her mother replied in a soft tone.
They ended the call there, and Ranma began to wait for the portal to appear, wondering if she had made the right decision. Her future was looking very uncertain, and she wasn't sure where this new facet in her life would take her. She could only hope that things turned out well, all things considered.
When the familiar, heart-shaped portal finally appeared, she stared at it for a moment, having second thoughts. Then she shook her head to clear away her doubts, took a deep breath, and stepped through the portal with as much genuine optimism as she could manage.