A Ranma 1/2 fanfic
All Ranma 1/2 characters are copyright Rumiko Takahashi
and are used without permission for non-profit entertainment purposes
only

Doors Best Left Unopened
Part 13: Complications

by Mark MacKinnon
 

     At first, Ryouga's mind just hadn't wanted to accept what was
happening.
     As the mysterious woman began to sink into the dark patch of
shadow as if it were water, though, he realized that it was all too real.
     Just like the tiny trickles of dark on Reiko's pale throat were all
too real.
     Shaking off the paralysing sense of unreality, he bolted forward,
eyes fixed on Reiko's glazed, vacant stare, stretching out his hand
frantically.  He had to reach her.  He had to.
     Because it was for keeps.
     Maybe he'd never really understood that before that day ... that
black, bleak day at Furinkan.  He would never admit it to anyone, but
going in he'd felt a kind of anticipatory thrill, in spite of Ranko's story,
in spite of Jack's warnings.  The enemy had come, and they would pit
their ferocity against the skills of Nerima's best.  And, after a pitched
battle, Nerima's best would emerge triumphant yet again, the menace
defeated.
     Because that was the way it always happened.  Only this time,
it didn't.
     This time, someone had changed the rules.
     He had to reach Reiko in time.  Because, if he didn't, she
wouldn't be held hostage as the prize in some duel.  She'd die.  Or
worse.
     For keeps.
     He lunged for Reiko and her captor as they sank smoothly into
the darkness.  Made a grab for Reiko's arm.
     And missed.
     He sprawled forward, eyes wide with disbelief as the two
women sank smoothly into the patch of darkness.  The pale beauty's
gaze mocked him as it disappeared into the shadow.  He lashed out
blindly, unwilling to accept that he had failed ...
     ... and was entirely surprised when his arm sank into the pool of
darkness right up to the elbow.
     The sensation was odd, cool and strange, but there was no
resistance.  As he flailed around blindly, his hand hit something solid.
He grabbed it and pulled, struggling to get his legs back under him.
Gritting his teeth, he tried to thrust his other arm down to get a better
grip, but it struck solid ground jarringly.  After a moment, he found that
he could reach down into the darkness, but only by pushing his hand
down while touching his other arm.
     The strange darkness eddied and flowed around his arms, and
Ryouga was suddenly certain that if he let go, the dark would seal up
again, leaving only solid ground.  He growled deep in his throat and
pulled back hard.  NOW there was resistance, but he began to make
some headway, and finally he pulled his catch free of the cloying dark.
     A limp hand appeared.  His grip was locked around a wrist ...
Reiko's wrist.  He pulled harder, hoping he wasn't hurting her but not
knowing what else to do.  More of her arm appeared, then her
shoulder.
     When her head finally broke the surface, he grinned
triumphantly.
     "Reiko!" he called.  Her head lolled limply, though, her eyes still
unfocused.  "Reiko, wake up!"
     "Foolish boy," a low, throaty voice chided him.  The other one
appeared behind Reiko, apparently still holding her beneath the surface.
She fixed Ryouga with a stare, her lovely face cold and haughty.
"She's where she wants to be.  Why don't you let her go?"  Ryouga
snarled.  She's not human, he told himself.  I think she's like those ones
we fought before ...
     "You're lying," he growled.  "What did you do to her?"  The
woman's eyes met his, and he gasped as her smile seemed to caress his
skin.
     "Wonderful things," she whispered seductively.  "Would you
like to hear?"  He blinked rapidly, his natural reticence asserting itself
long enough for him to look away from those mesmerizing eyes.
     "Reiko, come on!  It's me, Ryouga!"  Was it his imagination, or
did she blink a couple of times at the sound of his voice?  He tried to
pull her free of the strange woman's grip, but he couldn't.  And he was
afraid that if he tried to get a better grip on her, his opponent would
drag her down before he could react.  Digging his heels into the soft
ground, he got ready to pull as hard as he could without yanking
Reiko's arm out of its socket.
     "All right, handsome, if you're going to be that way, I'll make it
easy for you," the woman said slyly.  Ryouga thought she was just
playing more games until he noticed the inky shadow on the ground
beginning to expand slowly.  His eyes widened as the border crept
toward his feet.
     "That's right, hero," the woman mocked him.  "Either you let
go, or you join the lovely Reiko as my guest in the darkness.  The
sweet, concealing darkness, MY domain.  I rather like the idea of
having you both, actually ..."  Her voice trailed off suggestively, and he
grimaced.  Once the shadow spread, he would have no leverage.  He'd
have to let Reiko go or be dragged in himself.
     No.  I won't let that happen, he vowed silently.  Honour demands
that I do everything in my power to save this girl.  But what else could
he do?  Trying a Shi Shi Hokoudan at this range wasn't an option, not
with Reiko's body blocking most of the other woman.  Anyway, he'd
need his hands free for that.
     "Reiko, I need your help here!" he cried out, his heels slipping
forward slightly, digging furrows in the soft earth.  "Reiko!  Come on!"
If she could grab hold of his arm, he'd have a chance.  Her head
bobbed slightly, and he thought she might be looking at him.  But the
treacherous shadow was encroaching steadily on his position, and he
drew his feet back awkwardly, losing ground and nearly losing his
balance.
     "Reiko!"
     "Let her go, boy," the woman crooned, "or share her fate."
     "No!"  The woman laughed at him as his feet started to slide
forward again, his toes hanging over the edge of the insubstantial
darkness.  Oh man, he despaired, think of something, Ryouga.  Quick!
     Then the shadow was splintered by a blinding flash of light.
The woman shrieked and Ryouga found himself flying backwards, still
holding Reiko.  He hit the ground hard, the blonde landing on top of
him.  Her blue eyes, dazed but aware, looked into his from inches
away.  She drew a ragged breath.
     "You're late," she whispered.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

     Reiko was dimly aware of being pulled to her feet and half-dragged,
half carried towards the light.  Her breathing was fast and
shallow, her thoughts muddled, and her blood ran hot with Wynneth's
siren song pounding savagely through her veins.  The bite on her throat
throbbed deliciously, and she clenched her teeth to stifle a moan.
     Caught, she cursed weakly.  Caught so easily.  Dammit!  If
Ryouga hadn't distracted Wynneth at the critical moment, she never
would have escaped.  As it was, she'd barely managed that piddling
little light spell.  Fortunately, it had seemed to disrupt Wynneth's
shadow magic, startling her.
     But that was hardly going to be enough.
     "Where are you going with my new pet, handsome?" that
maddeningly husky voice came from the darkness.  Reiko opened her
eyes to find that Ryouga had pulled her out onto the path, under the
streetlight.
     That was a good move, but it wasn't going to be enough either.
She tried to get hold of her chaotic thoughts, tried to ignore the sweet
seductive need to return to Wynneth's dark embrace, to just let go ...
     Dammit dammit DAMMIT!  She bit her tongue, the pain clearing
her head slightly.  Wynneth had tasted her blood.  Reiko suspected that
would give the witch power over her, although she wasn't sure ...
wasn't sure of anything, just at the moment.  She needed to get away,
to marshal her strength and shore up her defences.
     "Reiko," Ryouga hissed.  "Can you walk?"
     "Mmmm?" she mumbled.  She felt him tense as low, throaty
laughter flowed around them on the warm breeze.
     "We can't stay here," he gritted.  He started violently as one of the
lights farther down the path exploded.  Another popped loudly behind
them, then another, broken glass showering down onto the path noisily.
     "Damn," he whispered.  "Where IS she?"
     "She's ... playing with us," Reiko gasped.  "Ryouga.  Buy me
some ... time ..."  She clutched his shoulder with both hands, her knees
still weak.  Every muscle in her body felt like it had been leeched of its
strength, and when Wynneth's scent washed over her on the light
breeze she nearly fell to her knees.
     "Time?" he whispered back.  "What for?"
     "Please!  Just ... a little.  Trust me," she pleaded.  Managing to
meet his eyes, she saw doubt there.  Well, she could hardly blame him
for that.  They barely knew each other, and now she'd landed him in
the middle of some very deep shit.  And frankly, she wasn't at all sure
she could pull this off.
     Unfortunately, they didn't have a lot of options.  The dark was
closing in on them as the lights in both directions exploded in a shower
of sparks.  Finally, they were standing in the middle of a tiny oasis of
light, the oppressive dark pressing in all around.  She bit the inside of
her lip, forcing herself to concentrate on constructing a spell.
     Don't know how much power I can summon, she thought
desperately.  If it's not enough ...
     "Well, well.  Here we all are."  Wynneth's voice again.  Reiko stood
unsteadily, hoping Ryouga could hold their opponent's attention long
enough.
     "Why don't you show yourself?" Ryouga bellowed angrily.
"Are you afraid?"  More laughter.
     "Oh, how sweet," Wynneth mocked from the shadows.  "No,
handsome.  You are no threat to me.  Reiko would be, had she
managed to resist my advances.  But she didn't, and now she doesn't
want to fight me.  She doesn't want to hurt me.  She just wants to come
to me.  Don't you, Reiko?"  Wynneth's words caressed her heated skin
like silk, and she choked back a whimper.  The spell she'd planned to
use was too complex, no way could she manage it in her condition.
Cold sweat broke out along the back of her neck as she fought the
compulsion to just give in.
     "Reikoooooo ..." Wynneth crooned again, her voice coming from all
around.  Then Ryouga did something strange.  He snatched the
bandanna from his forehead and flung it out into the dark.  There was a
startled cry, and he followed it up with several more in the same
direction.  They didn't fly like cloth but like metal, cutting the air with a
sibilant hiss.  Reiko took advantage of the momentary lull, coming to a
decision.
     There was one spell that she could manage that might work.  Risky,
but it was the only chance she had.  It had the advantage of remaining
mostly inactive until triggered, so Wynneth wouldn't be forewarned.
     Unfortunately, she was going to have to touch Wynneth to
trigger it.
     "What a clever trick."  Wynneth's voice was colder now, the
taunting lilt gone, and Reiko wondered distantly if Ryouga had actually
managed to hurt the witch.
     "Show yourself!" Ryouga demanded again.
     "What's the matter, handsome?  Afraid of the dark?"  With
that, the light over their head shattered, raining tiny slivers of glass down
around them.  She sensed more than saw Ryouga peering intently into
the sudden darkness around them.
     "A little longer," she whispered under her breath, concentrating
desperately.  He made no reply, but she was certain he'd heard.
     "I know what you are!" he shouted.  "We fought your kind
before!  That day at Furinkan!  And we beat you!"  Reiko registered
the words dimly as she fought to keep the intangible pattern in her
mind's eye from slipping away.
     "My kind?"  Her voice was teasing again, but with an edge
now, still seeming to come from everywhere.  Reiko's eyes were
adjusting to the dark, but she knew that would prove little help.  As she
cast about frantically for the final parts of the spell, the old man's dry
lecturing tone seemed to come to her, drilling her again and again.
     You need to be able to summon these patterns instinctively, the
voice told her, and to put them together in the proper order.  In battle,
time will be your enemy.
     "You fought low-lives and scum," Wynneth sneered from
somewhere close by.  "That is why you won.  I am nothing like those
brutes.  They are the club.  I am the razor's edge of killing steel,
beautiful and graceful, striking without warning."  Reiko sensed
Wynneth, saw Ryouga spin out of the corner of her eye.
     "Good-night, handsome," Wynneth said sweetly.  She back-handed
Ryouga before he was turned around, sending him flying several feet
through the air to strike the ground heavily.  Reiko's mouth was terribly
dry, and her heart began to race as her senses filled with Wynneth's
nearness once again.
     Now or never, she thought drunkenly.
     "Wynneth."  She had no trouble putting just the right degree of
longing into her voice.  Wynneth turned to her with a slow, languid
smile.
     "Ah, Reiko.  My pet.  Have I been neglecting you?  That little
spell earlier was not nice, but I forgive you."  She held her arms out
invitingly.  "You do want to be forgiven, don't you?"  Reiko trembled,
clenching her hands reflexively.
     "Yes," she whispered.
     "Then come to me."  Reiko took a step toward Wynneth.
Then another.
     "Rei ... Reiko!"  Ryouga choked out.  He was struggling to his
feet, but he was too far away to help.  Wynneth cocked her head, her
smile mesmerizing.
     "Come to me," she repeated, her voice full of dark promise.  Reiko
stepped into the circle of Wynneth's arms and rested her palms lightly
against the other's chest.
     "Yes," Wynneth breathed.  Reiko forced herself to meet those
dark, compelling eyes.
     "Burn," she hissed.
     And released the power she'd built up.
     It was a modified version of the trigger ward she'd left behind
at the shrine.  White light blazed from her palms, engulfing Wynneth in
cold white flames.
     Reiko had the satisfaction of seeing Wynneth's eyes widen in
shock as the spell hit her.  She shrieked in pain, staggering back and
flailing ineffectually at the cold fire.  Spent, Reiko fell bonelessly to her
knees, watching with a sense of detachment as Wynneth's flawless pale
skin began to blacken and blister.  Her hair swirled around her as she
twisted and spasmed, igniting as well.  Her howls rose in pitch,
becoming shrill and constant.
     "Take that," Reiko whispered giddily.  Then she fell forward,
the last of her strength expended.  The cool grass felt nice on her
cheek, and she closed her eyes, ignoring the distant sound of agonized
screams as a comforting numbness rose up in her mind.
     And when a voice called her name, she ignored that too.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

     Nabiki looked at Akane.  Akane returned the favour.  Then
they both turned back to their sister with identical expressions of
bemusement.
     "The fire department?" they asked in unison.  Kasumi nodded
vaguely, leaning back on the couch.  Nabiki leaned over the back while
Akane sat beside the eldest Tendou sister.
     "Um, sis," Nabiki said, "I'm pretty sure that if the fire
department shows up on your first date, the Japanese Ministry of
Romance is allowed to officially declare it a disaster."
     "Nabiki!" Akane hissed.  Nabiki just looked at her.
     "If you ever get Ranma to take you on a proper date, Akane,
would you actually think having representatives of an emergency service
show up would be a good thing?"  Akane stared back at her, and
Nabiki knew that her sister's irritation was being held in check by her
concern for Kasumi.  Nabiki was concerned as well; she just showed it
in a different way.  She leaned her weight on her arms where they were
crossed on the back of the couch and studied Kasumi's face carefully.
She seemed unfocused, almost vacuous, the way she usually did when
she was dealing with stress.  And Nabiki could detect the faint smell of
alcohol on Kasumi's breath.
     "She's obviously in shock," Nabiki declared.  Akane nodded
sympathetically.
     "I guess it must have been really bad," she said, her sorrowful
gaze fixed on Kasumi's profile.
     "Hmmm?"  Kasumi looked up at her, then at Nabiki.  "Oh, no.
It was very nice."  And she smiled sweetly.  Oh man, Nabiki thought.
Total denial.
     "Nice?" Akane asked tentatively, shooting a concerned look to
Nabiki behind Kasumi's back.
     "So Kasumi, why did the fire department put in an appearance?
I mean, they weren't there to serenade you, were they?" Nabiki
inquired carefully.  Kasumi sighed happily.
     "Oh, no.  They were there to break down the door."
     "Break down the ..." Akane blinked.
     "Well, it was all the smoke, you see," Kasumi explained.
"From dinner burning."  Akane's eyes widened.
     "Oh, no!  Not the dinner you were making?" she gasped.  "Oh,
Kasumi!"
     "Um, and you were where, exactly, during all this?" Nabiki
asked.
     "In the hall, of course," Kasumi said simply.  "I locked us out of
the apartment.  That's why dinner burned, and why the nice firemen
had to break down the ..."
     "Gotcha," Nabiki nodded.  She caught Akane's gaze behind
Kasumi's back and made several drinking motions.  Akane nodded
sadly.
     "So of course there was a terrible mess, and dinner was ruined,
and ..."
     "Kasumi," Nabiki asked with exaggerated patience, "which
part of this do you consider `very nice', exactly?"  Kasumi blinked,
then smiled warmly.
     "Oh.  I suppose I'm not telling this very well," she said,
apologetic.  "Here's what happened ..."

------------------------------------------------------------------------

     Ryouga stood at the corner, an unconscious blonde draped
over his back, wondering just how it was he always managed to get
into such bizarre situations.
     He'd grabbed Reiko after she'd fainted and gotten away from
the park with all due haste.  There was no telling, after all, if the
creature that had attacked them had friends nearby.  After a half hour
of walking, he was pretty sure that they weren't being followed.
     That was the good news.  The bad news was that, not
surprisingly, he was lost.  He'd thought to take Reiko back to
Ucchan's, but characteristically his plan was not working out.
Despairingly, he cast about for a familiar landmark, anything to indicate
which way he should go.  This particular side street was deserted,
which was frankly a mixed blessing.  He didn't have to explain why he
was piggy-backing an unconscious girl, but he also couldn't ask for
directions.
     "Hey."  He choked back a yelp as the soft voice intruded on
his brooding.  Craning his head around he saw that Reiko was awake,
blinking groggily as she pulled her head up off his shoulder.
     "H-Hey," he stammered.  "You're awake."  She grunted.
     "Lucky me," she rasped.  "Where are we?"  Ryouga felt a rush
of heat to his face.
     "I'm not sure," he mumbled.  She stared at him blearily.
     "Not sure?" she asked weakly.  He shuffled his feet.
     "Um, I'm sorta ... lost."  She sighed, and he was painfully aware of
the way in which her chest was pressed against his back.
     "Well, hike on up to that cross street there.  I see traffic, maybe
we can catch a cab."  He nodded.
     "Okay.  How are you, anyway?  Can you walk?" he asked.
His heart stuttered as she laid her head back on his shoulder.
     "No," she mumbled.  "Now get going, okay?"  Trying to
swallow past the lump in his throat, he trotted obediently towards the
distant sound of traffic.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

     Akane pulled her feet up under her, resting her cheek against
her hand where it lay splayed against the back of the couch.
     "Wow," she said softly.  "So everything worked out, huh?"
     "I don't believe it," Nabiki admitted.  "Usually, I associate dating
disaster with Akane."  Akane scowled.
     "Ex-CUSE me?" she grumbled.  Nabiki was not cowed.
     "You know, things getting smashed or blowing up or insane
martial artists fighting in the streets," Nabiki clarified.
     "Come on now, Nabiki," Kasumi said placatingly.  "I'm sure
now that they are an actual couple, Ranma and Akane will have very
nice, normal dates."  Akane fidgeted and said nothing, hoping that
neither of her sisters would notice her discomfort.
     So of course, they both did.
     "Uh-oh.  Trouble in paradise, sis?" Nabiki asked.  Kasumi
fixed Akane with her patented concerned gaze, all moist and maternal,
and Akane knew she wasn't going to avoid the issue.
     "It's just ... this sneaking around is starting to get to me," she
sighed.
     "That's completely understandable," Kasumi assured her.  "It
must be hard, having to hide your feelings all the time."
     "It is," Akane told her.  "Sometimes I just want to shout it out
for everyone to hear."
     "What's stopping you?" Nabiki asked.  "Is it Daddy and
Ranma's father?"
     "Partly," Akane muttered.  "I mean, they'd just go overboard
as soon as we told them ..."
     "Aw, show a little backbone, sis," Nabiki told her.  "Tell them
you're getting married your own way.  Ranma will back you up, right?"
Akane didn't answer, and Kasumi and Nabiki leaned towards her in
unison.
     "You haven't talked to him about this?" Kasumi asked,
concerned.
     "Geez, Akane.  Old habits die hard, huh?" Nabiki added.
"You two never do anything the easy way, do you?"  Akane felt
unaccountably defensive, shifting nervously under the combined gazes
of her older sisters.
     "We just haven't really had time to discuss this," she protested
weakly.  Nabiki shook her head sadly.
     "Akane, what are you waiting for?" she asked.  "You two
should settle this thing so you don't have to worry any more.  Maybe if
you talked more instead of making out all the time ..."  Akane sat
upright, spluttering.
     "Wh-What?  We do NOT ..."  Nabiki pulled out a small,
spiral-bound notebook and, flipping it open, began to read.
     "Seven twenty-two AM," she began in a dry, bored tone.
"Behind the dojo.  Seven forty-eight, hallway by the bath.  Eight
fifty-three, behind the Furinkan High equipment shed.  Twelve oh-six,
again with the shed ..."  Akane lunged across Kasumi's lap, snatching
the notebook from Nabiki's hand.
     "You ... YOU ..." she began, waving the book around in a
threatening manner.  Then something caught her eye and she looked at
the page Nabiki had been reading from.
     It was blank.
     "Oh Akane," Nabiki drawled, "you are just SOOOOO
predictable.  Did you really kiss Ranma behind the equipment shed?"
Akane looked down at her twined fingers, her cheeks radiating heat.
     "Nuh-no, I just ... we ..."
     "Nabiki," Kasumi said sweetly, "you are incorrigible.  When
are you going to give Akane the chance to make fun of YOUR
boyfriend?"
     "Yeah!" Akane shot back, still flushed.  She was puzzled when
Nabiki smirked at them.
     "You mean you guys haven't heard about how I had two guys
fighting over me at school today?" she asked innocently.  Akane,
who'd spent most of lunch with Ranma (behind the aforementioned
equipment shed) shook her head blankly.
     "Really, Nabiki?" Kasumi asked, delighted.  Akane sighed at
the sight of Nabiki's mischievous smile.
     "Well," Nabiki said, studying her fingernails idly, "remember
how that rumour about me and Ukyou was going around?  Let me tell
you a little story ..."

------------------------------------------------------------------------
 
     It was driving her to distraction.
     Reiko stood wearily, her palms flat on the edge of the vanity,
leaning all her weight on her trembling arms, and struggled to clear her
thoughts.  Her head hung down, unbound hair obscuring her face as she
muttered under her breath.
     She hated this.  She hated the impersonal, antiseptic atmosphere of
this generic hotel bathroom.  She hated that Ryouga had practically had
to carry her through the lobby.  She hated the curious if surreptitious
stares she'd gotten from the desk clerk.  She hated ...
     Weakness.
     Sighing raggedly, she reached up with one hand and raked her
hair back over her shoulder.  There, stark against the pale flesh of her
throat, was incontrovertible evidence of her weakness.  The tiny twin
puncture wounds were reddened and slightly swollen, and she stared at
them in the mirror, idly surprised at how small and inconsequential they
looked.
     While it may have looked innocent enough, the bite was
throbbing exquisitely, sending dull pulses of pleasure thudding through
her body with every beat of her heart.  She brushed it lightly with her
fingertips, gasping aloud as the sensation quickly sharpened, stealing her
breath and her strength.
     Swell, she thought as her breathing slowed once more.  The
great heir of the sorcerous family legacy gets a vampire hickey.  What a
chump I turned out to be, huh?  Always telling the old man what hot
stuff I was, how I could handle anything.  Then some slinky vamp puts
the moves on me and reels me in before I even know what's going on.
If it hadn't been for Ryouga, I'd have ended up as some undead
lapdog.  Boy, kiddo, when you screw up you really do it in style, huh?
     Her reflection looked unimpressed with the mental tirade, blue
eyes staring back out of a bloodless face.  So what now? they seemed
to ask.
     Good question.  First things first.  She fished in the small bag on
the counter, pulling out a box of band-aids.  Trying to keep her
thoughts ice cold, she pressed it carefully over the incriminating bite
mark.  It didn't really help much, but at least it hid the evidence of her
folly.  She supposed that the wound should really be purified somehow,
but there was nothing she could do about that for the time being.  The
old man could have done it easily, of course.
     Just another reminder that she was on her own now.  Any
lessons she hadn't already learned about sorcery would likely never be
taught now.
     Like what to do about the unwholesome burning of a vampire
bite.

     She stripped off her clothes quickly and tossed them on the
floor, pulling on the plush bathrobe that the hotel provided and belting it
tightly around her waist.  Then she brushed her hair out and tied it back
tightly.  Regarding her reflection critically, she frowned.
     "You're stalling," she told herself.  Trying to ignore the fatigue
that was stealing over her, she squared her shoulders and walked out
into her room.
     Ryouga was perched on the edge of one of the room's comfortable
chairs, clearly ill at ease.  He looked up as she appeared, standing
abruptly.
     "So," he said, rubbing his hands together.  "Are you, ah, feeling
better?"  She grimaced and walked over to the bed.
     "A little," she told him.  She stacked the pillows up at the head
of the bed and laid back with a heartfelt sigh.  At least her weariness
was making it a little easier to ignore the constant throbbing of the bite.
She waved Ryouga over to the chair near the bed.
     "Sit down for a sec, would you?  I want to talk."  He sat,
tentative, his eyes on hers.
     "What is it?" he asked warily.  She closed her eyes for a
moment, then opened them in a hurry.  Big mistake.  If she closed her
eyes, she was going to fall asleep, and she needed to get this out of the
way first.
     "Well," she said grudgingly, unable to put it off any longer, "I guess I
owe you thanks for helping me out back there."  He blushed and
looked down at his hands.
     "Oh, that ..." he began modestly.
     "Even though you were three hours late," she added before he could
get carried away with that whole modesty thing.  His shoulders hunched
forward.
     "Um," he said.
     "Where the hell were you, anyway?  I waited for you, you
know," she grumbled.  Ryouga shifted, fidgeted, and squirmed.
     "I, ah, got lmmmph," he muttered.  She frowned.
     "You got what?"
     "Lost."  The word was small and sheepish, and she blinked,
thinking she must have misunderstood.
     "Lost?"
     "Yes."
     "Lost."
     "That's what happened ..."
     "What is it with you and getting lost?" she asked irritably.  "It's only
a ten minute walk from the restaurant to that park at the most.  Frankly,
that's a pretty lame excuse, Ryouga.  Are you trying to insult my
intelligence?"  He looked up at her, and she was struck by the anger
and misery in his eyes.
     "I swear on my honour that's what happened," he said in an
even voice, only his burning cheeks giving away his discomfort.  "I ...
get lost very easily.  I have a really ... um, bad sense of direction."  She
blinked.  Either he was a very good liar, or he was actually telling the
truth.
     "You're kidding," she said flatly.
     "I'm afraid not," he muttered.  He looked so abashed that she
decided to let it go.  For the moment.
     "Anyway, Ryouga, the point is I asked you to meet me at the park
for a reason," she went on.  "I have a problem, and I think you might be
able to help me."
     "You mean with those demons," he said grimly.
     "No.  I mean, well, yes, now, but ... wait a second."  She tried
to shrug off the seductive warmth of the plush bathrobe and the
implacable pull of the soft bed.  "Didn't you say something to Wynneth
about fighting her kind before?"
     "Well, the things we fought were monsters," Ryouga clarified.
Reiko chuckled mirthlessly.
     "Oh, she was a monster too, Ryouga," she said sourly.  "Don't
go thinking that she wasn't just because she was beautiful.  She's no
better than any ugly, slime dripping gut-ripper.  In fact, she's worse.
Those other ones can just kill you.  There are worse fates than that.
Much worse fates ..."  She realized she was starting to ramble, and
another yawn overcame her.
     "I should go," Ryouga said, standing.  "You're tired ..."
     "No!"  She blinked rapidly, caught between the seductive need
to sleep and the dull but insistent throbbing at her throat.  "I still need to
talk to you about something."  She yawned again, her jaw popping, and
shook her head.
     "I think it better wait until tomorrow," Ryouga said firmly.  She knew
he was right.  She was in no condition to be talking about such a
delicate matter right now.
     "All right, listen.  Will you be at the restaurant tomorrow?" she
asked, rubbing one palm over her eye.
     "Sure, I should be there all day," he said cautiously.  She
grunted.
     "Good.  Because I really do want to talk to you about something
important, and this time I want to make sure you attend our
conversation."  He blushed at that, she noted with satisfaction.  She
hadn't properly chewed him out for being late yet.
     Of course, he HAD saved her, so she could probably let his
tardiness slide.  Just this once.
     "It's a fair hike back to the restaurant," she added.  "You
should take a cab.  After all, I wouldn't want you getting ... lost."  He
blushed again.  Geez, she thought, what is it with this guy?  I've never
seen a guy this tough who was so bashful.
     "I don't have any money," he told her.  "It's okay, I'm used to
walking ..."  She ignored him, leaning over to grab her purse off the
night stand.
     "Here," she said, holding out a couple of bills.  "This should be
enough."  He gaped at her.
     "I couldn't accept ..."
     "Ryouga.  I'm serious about this.  Now take the money."
     "But ..." he mumbled, digging one toe into the carpet.  She grinned
mirthlessly.
     "Relax.  I've got lots.  I just had a rich relative die.  Now take it
and go."
     It took more effort than it should have, but she finally got him to
accept the money.  Only, of course, after promising to pay her back.
At that point, she wouldn't have cared if he'd offered her one of his
kidneys.  She felt completely drained, and the door had barely shut
behind Ryouga before she'd turned out the lights, crawled under the
blankets and fallen asleep.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

     The more Ryouga thought about it, the more worried he
became.  That creature tonight, the one who'd looked like a beautiful
woman, had spoken like she'd known about the fight at Furinkan.
     He'd wondered about the demons that had escaped from
Furinkan, of course.  But, as weeks had passed and no word had come
of them, he'd assumed that they'd all been dealt with, possibly by that
guy Jack and his organization.
     Now he had to wonder.  The one that had attacked Reiko could
easily have passed for human.  What if there were more of them
around?  That particular thought gave him a chill.  He still remembered
the horrible screams as their attacker had staggered back, wreathed in
those unearthly white flames ...
     That was another matter he wanted answers on.  Reiko had
done that, as well as calling up that ball of light that had broken the
shadow circle in the ground.  Neither effect seemed to be any sort of
chi technique, at least not as far as he could tell.  He was curious to find
out  how she'd done that, and what she might know about the creatures
who'd attacked at Furinkan that day.
     And of course he was anxious to find out why she wanted to
talk to him.  She seemed very insistent.
     He chuckled ruefully, berating himself for worrying so much about
what she thought.  After all, this Reiko was a stranger who just waltzed
on into his life and starting making demands.  He didn't owe her
anything, did he?
     Of course, that argument might have held a lot more weight if he
hadn't expended so much effort trying to meet up with her tonight ...
     The taxi pulled up in front of Ucchan's, and he shook himself
out of his reverie and paid the driver.  The casual way Reiko had
offered him the money had irked him, even more so because she'd had
a point.  He could have taken hours to find his way back here, if he'd
managed it at all.  Still, he was going to pay her back.  He didn't like
being indebted.
     Fishing out the key Ukyou had given him, he let himself in and
padded softly across the floor.  He slipped into the back area and
headed for his room, only to be surprised by a sudden flood of light.
     "Ryouga!"
     "Ukyou?"  He squinted.  She stood in the open door of her
room, dressed in a large white t-shirt that hung down to mid-thigh.
     "Hey there," she said.  "I wasn't sure if you were going to
make it back tonight."  He grinned crookedly.
     "Me either," he told her.  "Better late than never, though.  Um,
I hope I didn't wake you up."  She shook her head.
     "Nope.  I was just reading.  So, do anything fun?"  Reading?  It
seemed rather late for that, but he didn't press the issue.  He wondered,
though, what he should tell her about that evening's encounter.  He
didn't want to worry her needlessly; perhaps it would be better if he
spoke to Reiko further before deciding what to tell her.
     "Well, uh, not really ..." he began before noticing that Ukyou was
squinting at something on his t-shirt.  "What?"  Wordlessly, she reached
out and plucked something from his shoulder, holding it up to the light.
He blinked.
     It was a long, blonde hair.  One of Reiko's, obviously, from
when he'd been carrying her.  She stared at it, expressionless.
     "Um, that," he said quickly.  "I can explain ..."
     "You don't have to explain anything, Ryouga," she said mildly,
opening her fingers to let the hair fall.  "It's your business."  She smiled
sweetly.  He answered with an uncertain grin.
     "Yeah. But really ..."
     "Well, it's late.  Good-night."  She shut the door softly.  His
mouth opened and closed for a few moments, all thoughts of the
evening's battle temporarily forgotten.
     "It's not what you think," he told the door plaintively.  Predictably,
the door did not respond.  After a few moments, he turned and shuffled
down the hall.  The whole incident left him feeling curiously defensive.
After all, he didn't want Ukyou having the wrong idea.  Not that there
would be anything wrong if he had ... but he hadn't, even though Ukyou
obviously thought he had ... but it was nothing like that ... it was all just
a misunderstanding, after all.  And it was important that Ukyou
understand that.
     It was just ... important.
     Resolving to clear things up in the clear light of day, he turned with
a sigh and trudged to his room to get ready for bed.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

     Kunou sat bolt upright in his bed, breath catching in his throat.
He blinked a few times to clear his vision, clenching and unclenching his
hands warily, as if testing that they still worked.
     That dream.
     He listened to the rhythm of his own breathing, head cocked.
No screams.  No icy sweat, no shuddering breaths.
     Just the dream.
     It hadn't been an ordinary dream.  Long ago he'd come to
recognize the difference between ordinary dreams and the dreams of
madness that came as they would in this house.  This had definitely
been one of the latter.
     But.
     But it hadn't been.  There'd been none of the sense of dread, none
of the icy talons of fear that clawed their way out from the soft
underbelly of the dark subconscious.  He had simply ... remembered.
     The events of that day so long had replayed themselves in his mind.
As with the other dreams, it had been as if he was not dreaming at all,
but awake in another place, experiencing things, aware of them.
Except in this case, for the first time, the sense of madness had been ...
absent.  Everything had seemed almost painfully ordinary.  In fact, it
was as though his senses had been unnaturally acute, perceiving every
little detail.  And though he had known what was going to happen as
events unfolded, he hadn't been afraid.
     He remembered the feel of his brother's hand, the way the
lantern light flickered, yellow and warm.  He remembered the feel of the
air, cool and damp.  He remembered the door.  The door that was to
remain unopened.  And then ...
     He remembered more.  Curiously untainted by a young boy's
panic, he recalled the sight of tattered cloth, the flash of white bone, and
...
     And a soft golden glow.  He rubbed his hands over his face,
frowning.  Yes.  The pendant, the one that looked like a dragon's head.
He remembered that, too.  Only ...
     Only it hadn't been glowing that day.  He was sure of that.  It
had gleamed dully in the light of the lantern, but it definitely had not
glowed.  But in the dream, in which everything else had been just the
same, that one detail was the only inconsistency.
     That pendant.  His sudden convulsive shudder was not caused
by the cool air of his room.  He stared off into space, considering the
implications of what had just happened.
     It was as though whatever it was that dreamed madness had
suddenly, in a moment of lucidity, sent him a message.
     The idea that this presence might, somehow, be aware of him
chilled his blood, causing the flesh on the back of his neck to prickle
painfully.
     He fought back the creeping sensation of atavistic dread with a
snarl.  Fool, he breathed silently.  You swore on the memories of your
sister and noble Sasuke to face your duty, so face it!  If, for the first
time, these dreams have purpose, then that is what matters, not your
petty fears.
     The pendant.  Was it important somehow?  But why that item
out of the dozens in the catacombs?  And why now?
     Setting his jaw, Kunou climbed out of bed and set about
dressing.  Questions.  Questions he had.  What he needed was
answers.
     He set out to find some.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

     (The old man stood in front of the shrine, his robes fluttering in
the breeze.
     "What are you afraid of?" he kept asking her.  She just shook
her head.
     "I'm not afraid!" she shouted back.  "Not of anything!  Not like
HER!  I'm just not gonna be controlled by it!"  Her words brought a
familiar expression of sorrow to the old man's face.
     "Your power comes with a heavy burden," he said.  Familiar
words, words that never failed to enrage her.
     "It's MY power and I'll do what I want with it!" she snapped back.
He just smiled, his eyes full of regret.
     "I wish we had more time," he said softly.  Then the wind
kicked up, and she had to shield her eyes.
     "Old man?  Hey!  Where'd you go?"  She looked around,
panic rising in her chest.  The shrine, her home, was gone.  As was the
old man.
     "Hey!"  Her voice echoed hollowly in the emptiness.  "Anybody?"
     "Anybody?" a husky voice asked.  She turned to see a park
behind her, a lithe shadow emerging from the trees.  "Don't you mean
me?"
     "Wynneth," Reiko hissed.  "You took away my home, didn't
you?"  Wynneth walked up to her, her beautiful features set in a
haughty smile.
     "It wasn't really your home, was it?  It was all just a lie.  After
all, shouldn't a girl be with her mother?"  Reiko fell back a step as if
struck.
     "You don't know what you're talking about," she told her nemesis,
but her words were without conviction.  Wynneth wet her lips in a
slow, sensuous manner, closing the distance between them again.  A
hot pulsing began at the base of Reiko's throat as the lissome vampiress
drew near.
     "Oh, I know," she said lazily.  "I know you ... intimately."
     "Burn!"  Reiko shrieked.  She raised her hand, but nothing
happened, and Wynneth chuckled throatily.
     "Where is your vaunted power, girl?" she taunted as she came
closer.  Reiko was rooted in place, unable to run.
     "BURN!" she screamed desperately.  Still nothing.  Wynneth
smiled again.
     "So the truth is finally known.  Under that tough facade, you
really are a weak, ineffectual little girl ..."
     "Shut ... shut up," she stammered, panic rising in her.
     "You never wanted the power, did you?  That's why you
submitted to me so easily.  You didn't want the responsibility."
     "SHUT UP!" she screeched, her fists held close to her sides.
Wynneth wagged a finger at her disapprovingly.
     "That's just like you, Reiko.  So disrespectful.  You are a very
bad girl, aren't you?"  Reiko shook her head, wishing desperately for
the power to stop the witch's taunts.
     "No!"
     "You ARE bad," Wynneth breathed.  "Everyone knows it.
That's why you were drawn to me."
   "You're lying!" she wailed, trembling with impotent rage.  Wynneth
just smiled that sly, maddening smile, her eyes lidded and confident,
unaffected by Reiko's protests.
     "Always fighting, getting kicked out of schools, staying out late,
drinking ... you're a disappointment to everybody, Reiko Hisakawa.
So stop with all the pretense.  What has your life been, after all?  What
has this great power meant to you?  Let's see some truth, shall we?"
Wynneth asked lightly.  A figure appeared off to the side.  Reiko
instantly recognized it as herself as a young girl.  Tears were coursing
down her face.
     "I'm afraid of it," young-Reiko whimpered.  "Why do I have
to?  Why?  Please don't make me, Grandfather.  I know what Mother
said, but I don't WANT to!"  Then the girl vanished and another figure
appeared magically out of the dark, and it was her again, this time
wearing a school uniform from a couple of years previous.
     "It's all because of this stupid power," adolescent-Reiko said
softly, staring at the ground, a creased piece of paper clenched in one
hand.  "All of it.  Everything.  And you knew all along.  It's nothing but a
curse, and I hate it.  I HATE IT!"  Reiko turned helplessly as another
version of her appeared, this time looking much as she did now.
     "Don't talk to me about duty, old man," double-Reiko growled
to empty air.  "Or destiny either.  I could care less about that stuff.  If I
gotta have this power, then I'm gonna use it for myself!  That's how it
should be!  After all, what's it ever gotten me?  Huh?"  Silently, that one
also disappeared into the surrounding dark.  Reiko saw a new figure
appear, and gaped in horror.
     This one was her as well, but not as she'd ever been.  The new
her was clad in a black, racy outfit like something out of a sex club.
Skin tight material barely covered her breasts, sweeping down to a
narrow V between her legs, cut high over the thigh.  A tail dangled
between her stockinged legs, and it seemed to twitch almost like it was
real.  The other her wore high-heeled pumps and black lace gloves, and
black cat ears protruded from her blonde hair.
     Worst of all, though, was the black choker she wore.  It had a
little silver bell on it, just like a housecat's.  Cat-girl Reiko stood
submissively, head bowed, hands clasped primly in front of her.
     "Ah," Wynneth purred.  "My pet."  She let something dangle
from her hand, and Reiko noted with mounting horror that it was the
end of a leash.
     "No," she murmured, trying to make her legs move.  They felt
like they were mired in syrup, and she began to panic as she saw the
leash perk up into the air, weaving like a cobra as it seemed to scent
the air.
     "You never really wanted that power and responsibility,"
Wynneth said sympathetically to cat-girl Reiko.  "As my pet, you won't
have to worry about all that.  You won't have to worry about ...
anything."  Cat-girl Reiko nodded, eyes locked on the leash as it
wove hypnotically toward her.
     "Hey!" Reiko shouted.  "HEY!  Don't just stand there, idiot!"
Cat-girl Reiko gave her a vacant smile.
     "Why not?" she asked, her voice sweet and demure.  "This
way I won't have this responsibility anymore.  I won't ever have to
worry about failing again ..."  The leash snaked closer, and cat-girl
Reiko tilted her head back so that it could snap on to the collar.
Reiko's eyes widened in disbelief as a smirking Wynneth reeled her
contented catch in.  Wynneth reached out lazily, scratching cat-girl
Reiko behind the ears with her long, blood-red nails.  Cat-girl Reiko
arched her back and purred, a throaty feline sound that made Reiko
want to scream.
     "A good girl would have said no," Wynneth told Reiko, regarding
her through lidded eyes.  Reiko wanted to reach out and smash them
both for this.  Unfortunately, although she was moving her feet she
couldn't seem to get any closer ...
     "Well, now.  What should I do with MY power?" Wynneth
mused.  She turned her gaze on Reiko, who was running in place.  "Ah,
I know.  You are bothering my pet.  You've got to go."  She turned to
cat-girl Reiko and smiled fondly.
     "You know what to do," she murmured.  Cat-girl nodded happily,
then turned to Reiko, a terrifying blankness in her eyes.  Reiko tried to
call out, but her voice seemed frozen as cat-girl raised her hand, palm
out.
     No, she thought desperately.  No, no, no ...
     "Burn," cat-girl Reiko whispered.
     And Reiko burned ...)
 

     "NO!"
     She was hunched over, the blankets pooled in her lap, panting
as sweat ran freely down her face, dripping off the end of her nose.
She clenched her fists and pounded the mattress furiously, making little
strangled sounds deep in her throat.
     A dream, she realized, the panic beginning to fade.  Just ... just a
dream.  That's all.
     Yeah.  Just a dream.
     Damn.  Oh, damn.  She hunched over herself, wrapping her
arms around her chest and rocking slightly in place.  That had been a
bad one.
     Finally, her pulse began to slow toward something approaching
normal, and she felt fear being replaced by an all-too-familiar unfocused
anger.  Boy, every night's a Freudian party in my unconscious, she
thought sourly.  Whoopee.
     Almost reflexively, she raised one hand to her neck.  There was
no collar, of course, just the band-aid over the still bothersome bite.
Her hair hung down in her face, and she pushed it back impatiently with
both hands, willing her muscles to unknot as her breathing gradually
slowed.  Blearily, she gazed around the dark hotel room, and for a
moment she felt a pang of homesickness so powerful that it was nearly
physical.  She didn't want to be sitting here in this unfamiliar bed in this
unfamiliar city.  Unfortunately, she had no home, no place to go, no
place where she belonged ...
     She caught herself slipping into self-pity and snorted.  Big deal,
she told herself angrily.  Once I do what I came here to do, I can go
anywhere I want, do anything, be anyone.  That's gotta be worth
something.
     Right?
     But of course, she had no answer to that, only more questions.
Like, for instance, the local demon population.  The encounter with
Wynneth had shaken her more than she cared to admit, and she hadn't
even begun to examine the implications of the demoness's presence in
Tokyo.  Something was buzzing at the back of her mind, and she shook
her head.  Tokyo, she thought ruefully.  Traffic jams, pollution, noise ...
so now they can add demonic predators to their list of municipal
problems.  Well, big deal.  It has nothing to do with me anymore ...
     (you're a disappointment to everybody, Reiko Hisakawa)
     She dug her fingers into her shoulders, groaning as the stiff
muscles resisted her probing.  Just what I need, she thought sourly.
Lectures from someone who drinks blood for fun.  Like she knows
what I've been through ...
     She froze, the sweat on her skin seeming to freeze in place.
     (You disappoint me, Reiko Hisakawa)
     "Whoa," she whispered.  "Wait a minute here ..."
     (I'd expected you to pose far more of a challenge)
     Wynneth had taunted her in the park, played with her.  But ...
(You disappoint me)
     ... but how had she known ...
     (Reiko Hisakawa)
     ... Reiko's last name?
     I never told her that, Reiko thought numbly.  And ...
     (I'd expected you to pose far more of a challenge)
     And Wynneth had talked almost like she knew all about Reiko.
But how was that possible?  Unless ...
     Unless she'd been LOOKING for Reiko.  Unless she was
involved with the one that had attacked the shrine and killed the old
man.  Reiko knew that the trap she'd left behind had been sprung, and
had assumed she was safe.  But if that creature hadn't been alone, then
Wynneth might not be the only one looking for her.  There might be
more.
     And she was registered here under her own name.
     She was out of the bed almost before she had time to form the
intention.
     She had to get out of this place.  Fast.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

     The rising sun threw golden flashes off the window of Ucchan's
okonomiyaki.  Reiko's reflection stared back at her, looking as
uncertain as she felt.
     She had thrown on a pair of jeans and a t-shirt, and she
suddenly realized that with her carryall slung over her shoulder she
looked just as she had when she'd come to this city.  That thought did
not cheer her in the least; it merely served to remind her that she hadn't
accomplished a damned thing yet.  What was supposed to be a simple,
final task to be completed before she could get on with her life had
instead turned into a morass of strangeness.  She was no closer to
getting the pendant or finding this Sasuke character, and she'd nearly
fallen under the control of a vampiress to boot.  And the realization that
there might be more demons looking for her had sent her fleeing from
her hotel room at an ungodly hour, seeking the feeble sanctuary of an
all-night doughnut shop.  After three cups of mediocre coffee, she'd
finally decided to seize the initiative.
     And that was how she found herself in front of an okonomiyaki
restaurant at 6:30 in the bloody morning.  The sad reality that she had
nowhere else to turn didn't sit particularly well with her, but her options
were basically slim and none.  Sighing and regarding her reflection
critically, she tugged at her braid with small, fussy motions.  She'd
braided her hair in the shop's rest room, and she wasn't quite satisfied
with the result.  Finally, though, she had to admit she was stalling ...
which was quite unlike her.
     All right, so she owed Ryouga one.  A big one, to be brutally
honest.  And she was about to ask him for ANOTHER favour.  So
what?  He was a guy, wasn't he?  A little flirting and he'd be eating out
of the palm of her hand.  No problem.
     She pounded on the door, ignoring her misgivings.  The sooner
I get this over with, she told herself firmly, the sooner I can leave all this
behind.  She pounded again, and was rewarded with the sound of
footsteps approaching from the other side.  Placing one hand on her
hip, she smiled archly, adopting a cool, sexy stance.  Don't give him a
chance to talk, she told herself.  Take the initiative ...
     Unfortunately, when the door opened, it wasn't Ryouga who stood
revealed.  Reiko was hardly disappointed, though.  An attractive young
man in a school uniform stood there, trying to button his jacket up at the
throat.  He stopped when he saw her, his hands falling slowly to his
sides.  His long, glossy hair was tied back tightly, highlighting smooth,
even features and eyes that were as pretty as a girl's.  Oddly, he had a
bandolier of small spatulas slung across his chest.  He stared at her,
obviously taken off-guard.
     "Hi there," she said with a slow, sexy smile.  He didn't smile back.
     "I'm sorry, we're closed," he murmured in a pleasant, melodious
voice.  Not bad, Reiko thought.  If I was here on pleasure instead of
business, maybe I'd let him take me out.  Well, who knows?  He may
have his chance yet.  Those eyes ...
     Aloud, she told him, "Yes, I know, but I need to see Ryouga."  The
handsome stranger frowned, cocking his head cautiously.
     "Ryouga?" he asked.  "Now?  It's kind of early, you know.
Couldn't this wait?"  She stepped closer to him, lowering her voice as
she stared directly into his eyes from close range.
     "But it's very important," she said huskily.  She was gratified to
see the boy's cheeks flush, and he blinked nervously.  "I'm sure if you
just let him know I'm here, he'll want to see me."  Letting her bag slip
to the floor, she reached up and lightly grasped the collar of his jacket,
buttoning it for him.  She was certain to take her time, brushing lightly
against him as she worked.  When she was finished, she looked up into
his deep green eyes again without moving back.
     "I'd be very ... grateful," she breathed warmly.  The blush had
spread all the way down to the collar of his jacket, she noted with glee,
and he swallowed as he stepped back out of the doorway.
     "Come in," he said tightly.  "I'll tell him you're here."  She
smiled and grabbed her bag, stepping inside.  Hmmm, she thought as
the boy disappeared into the back.  The shy type.  Maybe that's just
what I need ...
     Gah.  What she needed was to find Sasuke and the pendant
and get out of town before things got hot.  Still, it was always an ego
boost to know she could fluster a guy so easily.
     She looked around, bouncing lightly on her toes.  The place
was spotless, chairs upended on top of the tables, stools lined up with
military precision by the counter.  Idly, she wondered who the boy with
the spatulas was.  She didn't recall having seen him there on her
previous visits, just Ryouga and that girl chef.
     She looked around as Ryouga came out of the back, wearing a
black tank top and sweat pants and looking mildly alarmed.  Pleasantly
tousled from sleep, his rugged features and masculine frame were an
intriguing contrast to his roommate's more androgynous charms.  He
combed his fingers through his spiky hair, padding barefoot across the
floor as his roommate watched without expression.
     "Reiko!  Is everything all right?  Did Wynneth find you again?"
The charming smile she'd summoned congealed on her face as she ran
those words through her mind forwards, then backwards, then
forwards again.
     "Ryouga," she said slowly, "that's impossible.  She's dead.  Right?"
He sighed in relief, apparently not noticing the tension in her body.
     "Well, I wasn't sure," he said sheepishly.  "I mean, I don't have
much experience with vampires."
     "Dead?" his roommate inquired politely.  "Vampires?"  They ignored
him.
     "Wait a minute," Reiko pressed.  "After I hit her with that spell,
you finished her off.  You DID finish her ... right?"  Ryouga was staring
at her blankly.
     "How could I do that?" he asked.  "First, she was staggering
around, burning, and then she charged into the shadows and
disappeared again ..."  Her bag fell from nerveless fingers, thudding
loudly in the quiet restaurant.
     "Disappeared?" she squeaked.
     "Um, yeah ..."
     "And you didn't think to MENTION this to me before?"
     "I thought you knew ..."
     "Excuse me?" the roommate interjected politely.  Reiko ignored
him.
     "I was unconscious!" she growled.  The she drew a deep breath.
"So let me get this straight.  Not only did you not finish her, you let her
escape through that portal of hers?"  Ryouga frowned.
     "I didn't have a chance to get to her," he objected, flushing.
"Anyway, she was burning with that white fire that you hit her with ..."
     "Excuse me?" the roommate repeated, a little louder.
     "You ... IDIOT!" she blurted.
     "What?" he asked, defensive.  "I mean, what's the problem?  I
thought it was more important to get out of there in case she had
friends!  Anyway, she must have crawled off somewhere to die.  She
was on FIRE, Reiko ..."
     "I couldn't get much strength into that spell, Ryouga!  She might
have survived it!  And if she did ..."  She reached up to touch the
band-aid on the base of her throat.  "She'll be coming after me again ..."
     "EXCUSE ME?"  They both looked over to where Ryouga's
roommate was standing, glaring at them.
     "I don't suppose," he said quietly, "that anyone would like to
tell me just what the hell's going on?"

------------------------------------------------------------------------

     The morning jog had become something of a ritual already for
Tragus.  He definitely enjoyed the feel of his new body as it flexed and
raced along the twisting paths of the nearby park, muscles burning with
exertion, but that wasn't the reason he'd begun doing it.
     Put simply, he needed his morning fix.
     Even with the changes his presence had caused in this body, it
couldn't maintain its adult form for an entire night.  That meant that he
woke each morning in that putrid little girl form that he'd come to
despise.  So each morning, he donned loose-fitting shorts and a t-shirt
and set off into the park.  And somewhere on the paths or from the
cover of the bushes, he would find a victim and drain some chi,
triggering the pleasurable rush that transformed his body into its leggy,
lithe, powerful state.
     It was hard to say which he craved more: the sensation of
draining chi, or the power that came with this sensual female form.
     Not that he had to choose, of course.  He always ended up
with both.  And it was a hell of a great way to start of the day, beating
out coffee and a muffin by a fair margin.
     He let himself into the apartment, admiring the way the thin
cotton t-shirt clung to his sweat-dampened body.  He was quite
enjoying being female, even if this body had some drawbacks.  Now, if
he could only get a handle on that idiotic Kunou boy ...
     He stopped short, some instinct warning him of trouble.  It was
always a good idea, he'd found, to listen to his instincts.  They'd saved
him more than once.
     And right now they were telling him he was not alone.
     Fishing out a coin from his pocket, he moved quietly through
the entryway and into the living room.  The sun was just up, and
shadows were everywhere.  That triggered a memory, and he cocked
his head slightly.
     "Wynneth?" he called softly.
     Silence.
     He moved quietly across the room, easing the door to the bedroom
open with his foot.  It swung halfway before hitting something solid.
There was a soft, indistinct noise from the bedroom, and he could smell
something now as well, something burnt.  There was another scent
underlying that, a nauseating sweet smell that caused his stomach to
churn reflexively.
     Suddenly, he wasn't anxious to see what was waiting for him.
Unfortunately, there was nothing for it.  Readying himself, he reached
through the partially opened door and flipped on the light.
     There was something on the floor all right.  He eased into the
room, looking down in horror at the thing pulling itself weakly from the
shadowed reaches of the half-opened closet.  Its skin was a mass of
blackened tissue, cracking open in many places to allow a thick clear
liquid to ooze out.  Its ragged scalp was showing on one side, although
there was still some dark, lustrous hair left on the other, which swept
down and mercifully hid the face.  The legs seemed mostly untouched
below mid-thigh, and they worked feebly against the carpet, propelling
the ruined form out of the closet with painful slowness.  Slowly, Tragus
crouched down beside the quivering form, holding his hand over his
nose and mouth as the smell began to intensify.  The skin was still pale
and flawless in the few patches where it was intact, and that night black
hair ...
     "Wynneth?" he asked tentatively.  The thing on the floor quivered,
trying to turn its head.  Tragus reached out cautiously and brushed the
hair back.  One pain-maddened dark eye peered back at him, and he
grimaced.  Half of her face was almost intact, but the other was a mass
of rippled burns, the eye on that side sealed shut.  Wynneth's breathing
was laboured and painful sounding, and as he bent over her the one
good eye somehow managed to focus on him.  She made a gurgling
noise, but no words came out.
     Tragus swallowed his bile as it tried to rise.  He needed to
know what had done this, at the very least so he could stay the hell out
of its way.  He noticed that Wynneth's feet still disappeared into the
impenetrable shadow that she'd emerged from.  Gritting his teeth, he
reached down to pull her all the way out.
     He didn't realize his mistake until he got his hands under her
arms and pulled.  Charred flesh crackled and pulled loose, and
Wynneth screamed, a high, gurgling wail that tore loose from her throat.
     Then, mercifully, she stopped.
     Her good eye rolled back in her head, and Tragus could only tell
that she was still alive by the awful liquid sound of her breathing.  He
stood up, holding his stained hands away from his body, looking with
disgust and dismay upon the ruined remains of what had been a
beautiful and powerful Aerkinma lady only the previous day.
     "So much for our partnership," he grumbled.  "Now what the
hell am I supposed to do?"
 
 

end part 13.