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 15: The Heart of the Matter

by Mark MacKinnon
 

     The muted light chased itself around and around as she spun the
glass slowly, the slim stem clasped between the first two fingers and
thumb of her left hand.  The light shattered on the surface of the wine,
shards flashing and spinning and reforming, only to do it all over again.
She watched carefully, raptly even, her storm gray eyes narrowed and
watchful.
     The mesmerizing play of light failed to soothe her, and so she
merely stared and brooded.  The sense of events speeding up, of
control slipping away, had increased as the hours slipped by.  She felt
the need to act, to do something, anything, and she knew that need was
dangerous.  Acting impulsively lead to sloppiness, to careless mistakes,
and she couldn't afford any of those.  Not if she hoped to remain at the
top of the heap.
     And, of course, there wasn't actually anything she could do.
That was the truly maddening part.  She could only wait, and that made
her feel helpless.
     Riana loathed feeling helpless.
     She leaned back in the luxurious leather executive's chair,
holding the glass up to catch the light from a different angle.  That didn't
distract her for more than a few seconds, though.  Moodily, she took a
sip not even managing to derive any pleasure from the rare vintage she
was drinking.
     A knock at the door of her study nearly caused her to jump,
although she quickly regained her composure.  Jumping at shadows, eh,
Riana? she asked herself darkly.  That's a bad sign.
     "Come," she said curtly.  Keisuke stepped into the room, closing the
door behind him.  He stood before her, expressionless.
     "She still hasn't returned," he said.  "And we've heard nothing."
Riana nodded, turning her chair to look out the window.  The breeze
was freshening, and she could see dark clouds beginning to skate
across the night sky.
     "I do believe there's a storm coming," she said softly.  A storm.
Yes, that was what she felt.  But this was no mere disturbance of air
masses; some dark electricity was building in the aether, bringing
torrents of chaos and winds of change.  It was the sort of tempest that
could shatter careful plans and intricate plots with its elemental fury.
And she had so much to lose now.  So much ...
     "I could go to Tragus's place, check things out," Keisuke
offered.  She took another careful sip, keeping her worries locked
away, then turned back to face him.
     "No," she replied.  "I can't risk that.  If Lilla was discovered
somehow, then she's on her own."  Keisuke shifted his weight almost
imperceptibly.
     "If she talks ..." he began.  Riana smiled thinly.
     "She doesn't know anything," she pointed out.  "Her
assignment was simply to check up on Tragus.  Hardly anything
unusual."  Keisuke was silent, but Riana knew him well enough to sense
that he was holding something back.
     "Yes?" she asked imperiously.  His mouth twisted into a wry
smile as he realized she'd caught him.
     "Unless Tisa told her about the pendant," he pointed out.  Riana
combed her hair back from her face with her fingers, letting it spill
loosely.
     "Tisa was instructed not to reveal that information," she told
him, a cool edge slipping into her tone.  "She swore not to let the others
know, and she would not break her word to me."  Keisuke crossed his
arms over his broad chest and frowned.
     "I don't like her knowing," he pressed.  "I think her feelings in
this matter make her unreliable."  Riana set the glass carefully on her
desk, flicking the crystal with one long nail to hear the bell-like chime it
made.  Then she placed her hands flat on the desk and slowly stood,
raising her eyes to meet Keisuke's.
     "I decided to tell her for my own reasons," she said, the tone of
warning now unmistakable.  "Are you questioning my judgement?"
Keisuke stood his ground, but something flickered behind his dark,
impenetrable eyes.
     "Of course not," he said tightly.  She nodded, slipping around
the desk.
     "For that matter, what of your own feelings?" she asked
sharply.  "Tisa has nothing to lose if Vaenruth is freed, but you do.
Does that make you unreliable, my dear?  Well?"  Keisuke uncrossed
his arms, lifting his chin slightly, and she saw his nostrils flare.  She
stepped closer and stared up into his blazing eyes.
     "Answer me," she demanded.
     "You can always rely on me," he said, speaking through
clenched teeth.  She smiled insincerely.
     "Well, then.  There is no reason to believe Tisa is unreliable
either, is there?"  She noted the tension in his lithe frame, the way he
slowly clenched and unclenched his fists, the hard-edged tendons that
jutted from his neck above his dark shirt.  She had managed to anger
him.
     "I'm not afraid of him," Keisuke said suddenly.  "Once he's
free, then he won't just be a memory any more.  He'll be here, with all
his faults, and I'll finally be able to win your heart from him for good."
Riana's own anger softened, tempered by her lover's revelation.
     "You will have to subordinate yourself to him," she said.  "If
you don't, he will destroy you.  Will your pride let you do that?"  They
stood close together, and Riana fancied she could feel the heat from
Keisuke's body and smell the drowsy, musky scent of his bare skin.
She placed one hand lightly against his chest, letting her fingers play
lightly over the ridged muscle under the thin shirt he wore.
     "I'll do anything for the chance to have you," he said hoarsely.
"Never doubt that."  She nodded.
     "I don't doubt you, Kei," she said huskily.  "But you have to
trust my judgement.  I know how to handle Tisa.  She would not have
told anyone about the pendant, not after promising me not to."
     "Not even Lilla and Callie?"
     "Not even them," she confirmed.  Staring up into his eyes, she
wondered how she would ever manage to love two men so strong, so
fierce, so stubborn.
     So alike.
     But she would find a way to have them both.  It would tax even her
seductive charms, but she would find some way to keep both Vaenruth
and Keisuke.  There was no way she was going to deprive herself of
either of them, not if she could help it.  Frankly, she saw no reason why
she shouldn't have them both, not if she was clever enough to pull it off.
     "Very well," he sighed.  "You've always been the one person I
could trust.  But I don't like the way things are going.  I have a bad
feeling about all this."  She stepped back, tugging at her blouse lightly.
     "Change is inevitable," she told him, wishing she felt as
confident as she sounded.  "To survive it takes will, strength, good
instincts ... and information.  We have the first three on our side.  I was
hoping that today's activities would provide some of the fourth, but so
far nothing.  That only leaves Lilla."  Keisuke shook his head, the light
catching on the flat planes of his face.
     "She's probably off seducing an entire baseball team or
something," he growled.  "That one is flighty, Lady."  She smiled
mirthlessly.
     "She usually knows her limits," she replied sternly.  "However, if she
has neglected her duties today and returns here empty-handed, I will
see to her punishment personally.  I will not tolerate such behaviour,
and she would make a good object lesson for the others."  Closing her
eyes, she waved one slim hand in the air, summoning power.  Her
blouse and conservative skirt vanished, to be replaced with more
formal court dress.  Her bodysuit was black, covering her from breast
to groin.  Black panels hung in front and behind to the knee, brushing
against the tops of her lightly armoured boots.  Her fingerless gloves
merged with metallic bracers that extended to the elbow.  A combined
shoulder guard/collar arrangement finished the outfit, all black with red
highlights.  She flipped back the cloak that hung from the wide shoulder
guards and strode past Keisuke briskly.
     "Come," she snapped.  "We'll see what my loyal Baenma have
to say about their missing comrade."  Keisuke fell silently into step
behind her as she headed toward the west wing.  It felt good to be
doing something at last, even though she knew this tiny distraction
wouldn't last.  If Tisa had received any news about the wayward
succubus, she would have rushed to her Lady without fail.
     Well, one thing at a time.
     When they arrived, she threw the doors to the meeting room
open and strode in, radiating an aura of displeasure.  Tisa and Callie,
who'd been conversing quietly, leapt to their feet and bowed
respectfully.
     "What news of Lilla?" Riana asked before either of them could
say anything.  Tisa straightened, her emerald green eyes meeting
Riana's gaze without hesitation.
     "None, Lady," she said, keeping her expression mostly neutral.
"She has not checked in, and she was to have returned by ..."
     "I'm well aware of when she was supposed to return, Tisa,"
Riana interrupted curtly.  "Perhaps she became ... distracted.  It would
not be the first time, after all."  Tisa lowered her eyes, colour rising to
her cheeks.  Callie stepped up beside her at that point, tossing her mass
of honey-blonde curls back as she moved.
     "Lady, Tisa told us that our assignments were important," she
said, her tone respectful.  "And Lilla would never leave Tisa to take the
blame for her actions."
     "That remains to be seen," Riana replied.  "In the meantime,
without knowing why she is overdue, I cannot plan my strategy."
Neither Tisa nor Callie had anything to say in response to that, and
Riana shook her head, reminding herself not to lose her temper.  No,
that could wait for later.  She glanced around the room as a slight
breeze tugged at her cloak.  Looking up, she realized that the skylight
set in the high ceiling was still open.  She opened her mouth to order it
shut when something caught her eye ... a movement.  Something ...
     Lilla arrowed through the open skylight, arms tucked against
her sides and wings raked back.  At the last moment her wings flared,
catching the air with a snap, and she spun neatly to land on her feet in
the middle of the floor.
     "Yes!" she crowed.  "A perfect landing!"  She was grinning at
her friends, then slowly turned, following their gazes until she was
looking at Riana's face.  Whatever she saw there caused her to
instantly drop to one knee, head bowed meekly.
     "Lady," she said in a solemn tone.  "I have returned ..."  Riana
stalked angrily over to Lilla's kneeling form and laced her fingers in the
girl's hair, pulling her roughly to her feet so she could stare directly into
her subordinate's clear blue eyes.
     "Lilla."  Her voice was low, silky, but full of menace.  "If I am
not suitably impressed with the explanation for this, I promise you I will
punish you SEVERELY."  She twisted the succubus's head back to
emphasize the point, baring her teeth in a mirthless smile.
     "I understand," Lilla said, but the look in her eyes said clearly
that she might just enjoy being punished.  Riana shook her gently.
     "I think the Borgunma troops would enjoy having a toy to play
with for a little while ... if you catch my meaning?"  Ah.  There was the
fear she longed to see.
     "I understand, my Lady," Lilla repeated, chastised.  Riana
released her hold and pulled a long, wickedly sharp dagger from her
belt, toying with the blade absently while she held Lilla's gaze.
     "Good.  Then begin," Riana instructed imperiously.  Lilla
nodded, but that reckless light Riana had come to know so well had
returned to her eyes.  Either the girl was more foolish than Riana had
ever believed, or she truly thought her explanation would keep her out
of trouble.  Lilla licked her lips slowly, her skimpy spandex top hiding
nothing as her breasts heaved with the fading exertion of her flight.
Ever a creature of habit, Riana thought.  Always trying to charm.  Well,
you won't charm your way out of this one, my dear.
     "Treachery, my Lady," Lilla said, her voice clear and strong.
She reached down and pulled something from her belt, holding it up in
one hand.  A microcassette recorder.
     "The Lady Wynneth conspires with the renegade, Tragus," she
continued.  Riana felt as if she'd been punched in the stomach, her eyes
widening as all thought of Lilla's punishment was instantly forgotten.
No!  The worst possible scenario had come to pass!  If Wynneth
discovered the whereabouts of the pendant ...
     "It's all right here," Lilla went on, a smile playing at her lips.
"But don't despair, my Lady.  All is not lost.  Listen, and hear for
yourself ..."

***

     Ukyou stared up at the ceiling, hands behind her head.  Just
when everything had seemed like it was getting back to normal, or at
least as normal as things ever got locally, this had to happen.  All this
talk of vampires and sorcery and mysterious quests had her thoroughly
on edge.  She'd had her entire world turned upside-down once already
in recent months, and she wasn't at all anxious to repeat the experience.
     "Hey, Ukyou," Reiko called softly.  She sighed.  She'd thought that
the annoying blonde would have fallen asleep already, as tired as she'd
seemed earlier.  Apparently, no such luck.
     "Yes?"
     "Those guys, Ryouga and Mousse ..."
     "What about them?" Ukyou asked.
     "Is one of them your boyfriend?"  Ukyou turned her head so
she could look at the other girl, sprawled on the floor on a spare
mattress.
     "Why?" she asked suspiciously.  Reiko grinned.
     "I was just wondering," she said, innocence personified.  "After
all, they're both kinda cute."  Ukyou snorted.
     "You can't chase them both," she grumbled.  Reiko's grin
widened.
     "Sure I can," she replied.  "It's easy.  Really, the trick is to get
THEM to do the chasing.  So, IS one of them yours?"
     "No," Ukyou said flatly.  "But if one of them was, would it
make a difference?"
     "Just wanted to know," Reiko answered.  Ukyou nodded.
     "That's what I figured," she sighed. "Look, Reiko.  Things
haven't been too good around here lately.  A lot of hearts got broken,
and I'm not about to just let my friends get played with.  You got that?"
     "Those two are big boys," Reiko shot back.  "They can take
care of themselves, right?  What's the matter?  Jealous?"  Ukyou
spluttered.
     "No, I'm not ... jealous!  I just don't want you to get them into
trouble like you did last night with Ryouga, that's all!"  Reiko's smug
grin seemed to slip for a moment, then she flopped back down on her
back.
     "No worries," she said lightly.  "If your friend can help us out
with the pendant, then I'll be out of your hair in a jiffy.  No fuss, no
muss, no demons.  Hey, it's a pretty simple plan.  What could go
wrong?"  Ukyou turned her head to stare at the ceiling again.
     "I really wish people would stop asking me that," she
whispered morosely.

***

     Wynneth lay on her side in the luxurious bed, head propped up
on one hand.  With the other, she reached out and gently tugged the
wine-coloured silk sheet down to Tragus's waist, exposing the long
lithe line of her back.  Her new partner made a sleepy sound, half-
protest and half-interrogative.  Lazily, Wynneth ran one finger up the
curve of Tragus's spine, eliciting a small gasp when she brushed across
the long, raw scratches she'd left in her passion.
     "You play rough," Tragus murmured, her face still buried in the
pillow.  Wynneth smiled.
     "I prefer to think of it as ... intensity.  And, by the way, I didn't
hear
you complaining at the time," she murmured.  "But if it bothers you ..."
Shifting her weight, she leaned over the other woman, lowering her face
slowly until her breath fanned over naked skin and her long hair
cloaked Tragus's body.  Then she touched her tongue to one scratch
and, in a long, slow movement, traced it along the entire length, letting it
curl up at the end like a cat lapping at milk.  Tragus stiffened and
gasped, knotting her hands into the sheets as the tang of blood burned
delightfully on the tip of Wynneth's tongue.  She sensed something odd,
and repeated her ministrations with a second scratch, going slower this
time.
     There.  Just like when she'd bitten Tragus's lip.  What WAS
that she tasted through the woman's blood?  Her essence, her spirit,
yes, but why was it so strange ...
     Then she had it.  The woman, Hinako.  Her spirit was still
present in the body, somehow twined with Tragus's own.  Her
consciousness was suppressed, kept subordinate, but it certainly hadn't
been destroyed.
     Interesting.  She filed that fact away for the future.  After all, it
never hurt to know someone's weaknesses.  Circumstances could
change, and partnerships could be broken.
     "You ... ermmmm ... are a witch," Tragus gasped as Wynneth
moved to a third scratch, cleaning up the small amount of blood she'd
drawn.
     "Did you ever suspect such pleasures existed when you were a
mere Borgunma, my dear?" she asked, moving her mouth up by
Tragus's ear and lowering her voice to a throaty whisper.  The tawny
beauty chuckled.
     "Never," she whispered.  "You've opened my eyes to a whole
new world."  Wynneth bit lightly at her partner's earlobe.
     "Yes.  And there is more to learn, if you will but follow my
lead," she whispered.  Then she pushed herself up, climbing gracefully
from the seductive warmth of the bed.
     She stretched languorously, feeling Tragus's gaze on her naked
body as she strode over to the closet.  All her appetites had been
sated, but she couldn't rest just yet.  Too much rested on the success of
their plan to obtain the pendant, and Wynneth was determined that
every contingency should be covered.  She began rooting around,
searching for something to wear.
     "Going out?" Tragus asked, clearly disappointed.  Wynneth
nodded absently.  She was slightly taller than Riana, but she was
confident that she could find something suitable for her excursion.
     "I have things to take care of," she said.  She settled on a long
black skirt, slit very high on one side, a sleeveless black top that
fastened around her slender neck and left her flat stomach bare, and a
black leather jacket cropped short at the waist.  She dressed and
checked her reflection critically.
     It would do, she decided.  She found a pair of high boots with
criss-cross lacings up the sides and put them on.
     Perfect.  She turned to see Tragus watching her from the bed,
her expression unreadable.
     "Keeping secrets?" she asked carefully.  Wynneth gave her a
sly smile.
     "Of course, Tragus.  Women always keep secrets.  It's part of
our allure.  You have a lot to learn."  Tragus frowned.
     "Dammit, Wynneth ..."
     "Patience," she chastised.  "All in good time.  I merely wish to
arrange a little insurance for tomorrow."  She turned, seeking out a
patch of shadow dark enough for her to enter the Shadow Realm.
     "Get some rest," she told Tragus as she began to slip out of the
room.  "We have a big day ahead of us."
     "Don't nag," she heard Tragus grumble as she left.  She smiled
to herself.  You have your uses, Tragus, she thought.  And as long as
that is true, I will keep you around.  You are strictly small-time though,
little one, and once you've outlived your usefulness ...
     With that thought, she set out to check on the rest of her pawns.

***

     Tragus watched Wynneth go wistfully.  He had never
experienced anything like the dark pleasures the Aerkinma
Shadowmistress had shown him.  Wynneth could make his blood boil
with just a look, or a word.  He could well imagine that she would be a
formidable opponent, but he was certain she would be equally
formidable as an ally.  After all, they were both after the same things.
     Yes, he was pretty sure that their partnership was solid.  He
would make her want him as much as he wanted her, and then ... why,
the sky was the limit.  Nothing could stand in their way.
     His skin began to tingle, and he looked down in consternation.
Soon, his body shrank, reverting to its younger form.  He blinked.
He'd forgotten all about this.  Spending most of the day absorbing chi
from victims, he'd built up quite a charge, but evidently he'd finally run
out.  And Wynneth didn't know about this yet.  Now he was going to
have to find a source of chi before she returned.
     "Aw, hell," he squeaked.

***

     Riana stood still, her heart pounding in her chest.  The tape
recorder, silent now, hung at Lilla's side, the slightly tinny voices having
fallen silent.
     Mine, Riana thought, her shocked daze swept away in an
instant by anger so intense that she actually felt dizzy.
     Mine.  Tragus was my tool, and she took him.  My safe house,
my wine, my lingerie ... and sporting with that low-life in my BED?!
     And worst of all, MY pendant.  The key to my love.  How dare
she?  How ... DARE?  She'd gone too far this time.  It was very
simple, the way Riana saw it.  Wynneth wanted everything that was
hers.  She wanted to take it all away.
     And that just would not do.  No, not at all.
     She blinked, realizing that Keisuke and the Baenma were
watching her carefully, waiting for her reaction to the treachery that had
played out on the tape.  That caused the anger to recede, just enough
so that she could see what was important here.
     Wynneth thought she had all the cards in her favour.  Well,
thanks to Lilla, that was a grave error.  Riana smiled slowly.  Yes.  Oh,
yes.  We'll see who ends up as a plaything, bitch, she thought with
savage glee.
     "Lilla," she said softly.  The succubus started.
     "My Lady?" she responded, just the tiniest trace of trepidation in her
tone.  Riana reached out and cupped the girl's cheek fondly.
     "You've done well," she said softly.  Lilla wriggled happily,
pressing her cheek into Riana's hand.  Wetting her lips with the tip of
her tongue, she gave Riana a sultry yet somehow demure stare.
     "VERY well, Lady?" she asked suggestively, reaching up to
trace her fingers along the back of Riana's hand.  Riana laughed out
loud.
     "You little minx," she smiled.  "You will be amply rewarded for
this night's work, but I'm afraid that such pleasures will have to wait.
We have much to do.  Callie!"
     "Yes, my Lady?"
     "I need twelve of our strongest Borgunma.  Don't use any of
the newcomers," Riana instructed.  Callie nodded, and sped out the
door.
     "Keisuke, go get the truck.  The large one, if you please."  He
looked surprised, but nodded and left as well.
     "Tisa, find me one of our holdings.  It should be large, like a
warehouse, but in a run-down or isolated area."
     "I understand," Tisa replied, turning on her heel.  Lilla bounced
lightly on the balls of her feet.
     "What about me, Lady?" she asked eagerly.  Riana smiled.
She felt the urge to smile a great deal now.  Soon, she planned to have
everything she wanted.
     "I want you to fly over this factory that Tragus spoke of.  Take
pictures, scout the area thoroughly.  I want no surprises tomorrow.
And stay out of sight."  Lilla beamed.
     "You can count on me!" she chirped.  Executing a courtly bow
far too formal for the circumstances, she launched herself into the air.
Her wings sprang from her back, unfurling to catapult her through the
skylight.  Riana found herself chuckling at the succubus's antics.
     Oh, she was in a very good mood now.
     She returned to her study, locking the door behind her.  Then
she went over to the full-length mirror along one of the walls.  Waving
one slim hand in the air, she conjured a card.  It looked like a standard
security access card, but it was featureless save for a red pentagram on
one side.  As she held it up against the mirror, the pentagram began to
glow brightly and the surface of the mirror clouded, becoming a swirling
gray mass.
     "Password?" a soft, feminine voice inquired.
     "Vengeance."  The surface of the mirror became insubstantial and
faded away, becoming a doorway.  She stepped through easily.
     The room on the other side of the portal was a fair size,
although it appeared smaller because of the clutter.  I really have to do
something about all this one day, she told herself ruefully.  It would be a
fine mess if I couldn't find what I was looking for.
     That turned out not to be a problem, though.  There were
several items she thought might come in useful for the next day's events,
but there was one in particular that she sought, and she knew just
where to find it.  Stopping in front of a low glass-topped cabinet, she
lifted the lid and gazed inside, ignoring the jewelled dagger and three
beautiful crystalline spheres.  She only had eyes for one thing.
     Riana lifted the item out almost reverently.  It was a slim collar,
made of something like looked and felt like black leather.  On the
inside, arcane symbols  were carved into the material, and her skin
tingled with their nearness.  It appeared quite common, but Riana knew
better.  Such items as this were devilishly hard to make and, as a result,
very rare.  In fact, she hadn't seen another since coming to this world.
No matter.  One would be enough for what she had in mind.
     She reached into the cabinet again, pulling out a fine silver chain
with a tiny key on it, watching it spin lazily in the dull yellowish light.
     Excellent, she thought, caressing the collar gently.  After all,
once I have Wynneth, I'll want to be keeping her.
     And I'll bet this looks just lovely on her, she added to herself
with sly humour.  Why, she'll even like the colour.

***

     The screams had died away fairly quickly, dissipating into the
dread winds of Shadow.  Wynneth stood, casually watching her pawns
as they drained every last drop of blood from their treat.  The way they
swarmed the victim he wasn't even visible, just a shifting mass of bodies
from which grunts, snarls and wet smacking sounds could be heard.
     Under other circumstances, they would have sickened her.
They were, after all, lesser creatures, mere nightfeeders ... no, not even
that.  Little better than animals, really.  But then, that was because she
had made them so.  With her blood she could make a human into a true
vampire much as she was, a creature of beauty and art, a graceful
predator.
     But that was dangerous.  At this point, without any resources,
the last thing she wanted to do was to create a rival.  A rival could be a
threat, but a tool simply did as it was told.  A tool was useful, and could
tip the balance in a tight situation if used properly.  And, of course, a
tool was expendable.  One could always construct more.
     So she had, over the years, created her pack.  Keeping them
penned in Shadow, away from prying eyes, had been imperative.  She
was strictly forbidden to turn any human without Riana's express order,
and any one of these would spell a death sentence for her if they were
to be discovered.  But of course, none of the others could slip into
Shadow, the strange half-realm that existed just outside the world of
light, and so her secrets remained hers alone.
     Until now.  Now, the stakes were too high to hold anything
back.  Not that she expected anything to go wrong; it simply paid to be
prepared for the worst.
     Since the meal seemed to be over, she snapped her fingers, the
sound sharp and clear.  Her pack raised their heads at once, scenting
the strangely dead air, then breaking away from the tattered remains
and loping to her side in their strange, almost animal gait.  There were
twenty-one of them now; she could have made an army, but they would
have proven unmanageable unless she'd watched them constantly.  No,
with her latest acquisition, her servants had reached the optimum
number for her uses.
     She smiled tolerantly as they milled around her, brushing
tentatively as they passed, anxious for her touch.  Some of them wore
little more than rags now, although most wore clothing that was still
recognizable.  They were all painfully thin, some almost skeletal, which
was hardly surprising.  She kept them half-starved deliberately.  Too
much blood might breed contentment, and the strength to start
wondering.  She didn't want that.
     "Hello, my dears," she purred, reaching out to stroke the head
of one of her favourites.
     "Mistress," he whined, wriggling in pleasure.  Red eyes blazed
all around her as they circled and shifted, fighting to be close to her.
     "Settle down now, my pets," she scolded.  They cringed away,
then tentatively began edging closer again.  She was, after all, the centre
of their universe, their beloved mistress.  They remembered nothing of
what they once were; their only thoughts were to feed and to please
their mistress.  Wynneth nodded with satisfaction as they once more
began gently butting their heads into her waist and legs, anxious for
attention.
     "How are you, my dears?" she crooned.  "Did you enjoy the
treat I brought you?"
     "More?" Yusaku asked plaintively.  She remembered the
defiance in his eyes as he'd come at her that day years ago.  There was
none of that in his gaze now.  She reached out and stroked his hair
fondly.
     "Not tonight, pet.  But maybe soon."  She picked out one of
the pack who was hanging back.  She wasn't as thin as the others, and
her clothes were mostly intact.  Ah, yes.  Her most recent acquisition.
Would she still be troublesome?  Only one way to find out.
     "Heel!" she commanded.  Immediately, the milling forms shrank
back, crouching or kneeling.  She walked imperiously to the crouching
form, stopping to stare down at the tangled brown hair that trailed
down its back.
     "Come, pet," she said sweetly.  The girl whimpered, shifting
skittishly.  "Come, let me see you," Wynneth insisted.  She held her
hand out, palm down.  The girl peered up from under her matted bangs,
red eyes filled with uncertainty.  She cocked her head, then rose to butt
her head against Wynneth's palm like a cat demanding attention.
Wynneth let her fingers trail down the girl's cheek and under her chin,
her long nails scratching gently.  The girl fairly purred in response.
     "Nice," she mumbled shyly.
     "Stand," Wynneth said softly.  "Let me see you."  Grasping the
girl's chin lightly, she urged her to her feet.  Staring into the girl's eyes,

she relived the conquest in her mind.  This one had been strong, and
had fought long and hard to be free.  In the end, though, she had
succumbed.  In truth, it had been a risk to take this one, but Wynneth
had been unable to resist.  It had been a challenge, and she did so
enjoy a challenge.
     "Now, pet," she murmured, looking into the girl's eyes.  "Who
is your mistress?"
     "You are," the girl answered breathlessly.  Wynneth nodded.
     "That's right.  But suppose I was to go away ..."
     "No!" the girl blurted.  "I ... I mean ... please, don't leave me,
mistress.  Please ..."  Wynneth framed the girl's face with her hands,
moving closer.
     "Do you need me then, pet?" she asked.  The girl licked her
lips, her gaze trapped by Wynneth's own.
     "Yes ..."
     "And do you love me?"
     "Y-Yes."  Barely a whisper, that time.
     "Well, then.  If you always serve faithfully, I will keep you."
The girl's eyes lit up, and she bowed her head to rub her cheek against
Wynneth's chest, nuzzling gently.
     "I will," she promised.  Wynneth smiled, stroking the girl's hair
fondly.
     "I believe you, sweet Ayako," she replied.  A snap of her fingers
called the others over once more, and Wynneth surveyed them
confidently.
     Her pawns were ready, if needed.  Now all that remained was
to get her hands on that pendant.  Once that happened, she could finally
begin to seize control from her rival.
     And her vengeance would be so very, very sweet.

***

     The news had spread like wildfire.
     Nabiki couldn't even see Akane, but it wasn't hard to tell
where her sister was.  She would be somewhere in the middle of that
crowd of jabbering girls.  Nabiki shook her head.  All that fuss over a
little ring.
     Still, she had to admit that she was impressed.  Ranma and
Akane actually seemed to be making headway.  They'd managed to
make the decision to bring their relationship into the open, a feat that
had most days seemed beyond them.  They'd also managed, with a not
inconsiderable amount of help from Ranma's mother, to avoid being
married on the spot as soon as they'd done so.  At this rate, those two
would become boring and domestic in no time at all.
     The prospect was mildly unnerving, but Nabiki figured that she
had enough unpredictability in her life now, what with her position with
the Kunou estate.  Still, sometimes she did miss the old days.  The
chaos had been quite entertaining at times, not to mention profitable.
After all, she didn't want to lose her edge.
     As she watched the raucous crowd of girls mobbing her sister
in the school yard, a solitary figure caught her eye, and her heart sank.
     Ukyou.  Damn, she'd forgotten all about her.  Nabiki watched as
Ukyou gave the crowd a wide berth and came towards her, uniform
jacket open at the collar.  Her expression was carefully neutral, but
Nabiki could tell she wouldn't have to be the one to break the news.
     "So, I guess you already heard," she said sympathetically.
Ukyou gave her an elaborately casual shrug.
     "Kind of hard to avoid it," she said glibly.  "Everyone's talking
about it.  I just saw Ranma over on the soccer field talking to a big
bunch of the guys, too.  I guess it's about time, eh?  I mean, since he
doesn't have any other fiancees to worry about any more."
     "Ukyou ..."
     "No, I mean it," Ukyou insisted.  "I guess I'd be pretty damned
mad if, after everything he said to me, he ended up not being serious
about her.  This is good.  Really."  Nabiki grinned wryly.
     "Sure," she replied.  "So, you're holding up okay?"
     "Yeah," Ukyou said, reaching back to fiddle with the handle of her
spatula idly.  "Yeah, it's time to get over this, I think.  Maybe I'll go
over later and say congratulations."
     "Really?" Nabiki asked.  Ukyou glanced over her shoulder at
the crowd, then turned back and sighed heavily.
     "Well, maybe I'll wait a few days," she said weakly.  "Or a
week ..."  Nabiki chuckled.
     "That's the spirit," she said.  "No sense in rushing things."
Ukyou nodded glumly.
     "Anyway, Nabiki," she said firmly, "that's not what I wanted to
talk to you about.  There's something strange going on, and I need to
talk to you about it."
     "Something strange?" Nabiki asked dryly.  "In Nerima?  I am
in shock."
     "I'm serious," Ukyou told her, and Nabiki could see by her
expression that something was weighing on her friend's mind.  "Listen
to this ..."

***

     In the end, the choice was made for him.
     On one side of the school, Akane Tendou was being mobbed
by squealing girls.  Extricating her would be a challenge, to say the
least.  Tragus circled the building, looking for the other potential bait.
And when he found his quarry skulking near the equipment shed, he
had to repress the urge to laugh out loud.
     Ranma Saotome was alone.  That figured, now that Tragus
thought about it.  He was easily embarrassed, and had no doubt quickly
tired of the good-natured gibes of his male classmates.  This particular
spot was rumoured to be popular with couples among the student
body, and Tragus noted with amusement how eagerly Ranma looked
up at his approach.  Expecting his sweetie, no doubt.
     Well, this was going to be the first disappointment of his day.
And things were only going to be getting worse from here on in.
     "Oh, Miss Hinako," Ranma said, his anticipation evaporating as
he recognized the teacher.
     "Were you expecting someone else, Mr. Saotome?" Tragus
asked playfully.  The boy flushed slightly and looked away.
     "Naw," he muttered, scuffing the ground slightly with his foot.
     "Oh?  I thought you might have been waiting for Miss Tendou,"
Tragus said, laying one finger along the side of his cheek thoughtfully.
"Although your note did say to meet at the old factory ..."  He watched
as Ranma's head snapped up.
     "Note?" he asked, puzzled.  "What note?"
     "I overheard some of Akane's friends talking about it," Tragus
told him blithely.  "She received a note from you asking her to come to
the old factory down by the river.  I was just going to check and see if
you two had left the property.  That's a no-no, you realize."  Ranma
was beginning to look frantic as Tragus prattled on.
     "But I didn't write any letter!" Ranma blurted.  "Are you sure she
went?"
     "Oh, yes.  Her friends said she left fifteen minutes ago," Tragus
said innocently.  "Now that's odd.  If you didn't write the letter, who
did?"  Ranma's expression hardened and he spun on his heel.
     "I don't like this," he growled.  "Not one bit."  And with that,
he was off and running.  Tragus watched him go, letting a predatory
smile creep to his lips.  Ranma was headed the wrong way to see
Akane on the other side of the school, still mobbed by girls.  In fact, no
one was likely to take note of him as he dashed recklessly across the
field towards the back gate.
     Well, well, Tragus thought as he set out in pursuit.  The pig-
tailed girl it is, then.  Let the games begin.

***

     "Ah, Kunou-baby.  Practising your brooding skills?" Nabiki
asked.  He looked up from where he leaned against the wall, arms
crossed loosely across his chest.
     "How very droll," he responded.  "For your information,
Nabiki Tendou, I am not brooding.  I am merely holding myself aloof
from the cacophony of meaningless babble that passes for social
interaction here at Furinkan."  Nabiki nodded.
     "So you heard, I take it?" she asked.  He peered at her from
the corner of his eye.
     "If you are referring to the news surrounding your lovely sister
and that blackguard Saotome, I have indeed.  And although I would
think she deserves better, far be it for me to appear petty."
     "Oh, very far," Nabiki agreed with a straight face.
     "And so I wish them well," he plowed on, not deigning to
acknowledge her.  "If you are concerned that I might continue my futile
efforts to woo your sister, your fears are for naught.  Recent weeks
have cast a cold and merciless light upon my thoughts and deeds, and I
now know that my affections are not reciprocated."
     "Swell," Nabiki interrupted. " But enough about you ..."
     "There will be other women," he continued, glaring at her.
"After all, I am not without my charms ..."
     "Yes you are," Nabiki assured him.  "Now, if I may climb over
your hordes of admirers for just a moment, I need to talk to you."
     "Sarcasm ill becomes you," he told her darkly.  She smiled
sweetly.
     "Sarcasm becomes me very much," she replied.  "Everybody says
so.  Now, we need to talk about business matters.  If you take my
meaning?"  He sighed, and some of the easy bantering atmosphere that
had been between them fell away.
     "Very well," he said.  They slipped down the hall and ducked
into an empty classroom.  Once the door had closed behind them, he
turned to her, crossing his arms again.  He probably thinks it makes him
look authoritative, she thought wryly.
     "Well?" he asked.
     "Well, I just had a VERY interesting talk with Ukyou," she told
him.  "And to get right to the point, she and Ryouga met a girl that
claims to be a sorceress."
     "Indeed?"  That had his attention, all right.
     "That's not the half of it.  Apparently, she claims that there's
something on your estate that belongs to her family, and she wants it
back," she continued.  Kunou frowned, a furrow appearing between his
eyebrows.
     "Something that belongs to her family?" he repeated.  "How
very odd.  Just what is this item she intends to lay claim to?"
     "Some sort of pendant in the shape of a dragon's head ..."  Nabiki
broke off, astonished.  Kunou's body had gone rigid, his eyes wide with
shock.  "Kunou?  What is it?"  A tiny tremble ran through his frame,
and he turned to her slowly.
     "The pendant," he whispered, his voice hoarse.  Nabiki
watched him carefully.  She certainly hadn't expected this reaction.
     "You know what she's talking about?" she asked slowly.  "You
have it?"  He blinked, seeming to focus on her suddenly.
     "It cannot be coincidence that she has come now," he said
firmly.
     "Clearly," Nabiki agreed dryly.  "So, would you care to let me in on
this, Kunou?"  He stared at her for long seconds, his eyes dark and
unreadable.  Then, as if coming to a decision, he nodded once.
     "Come on," he said, breezing by her.  She turned, confused.
     "Wait a minute!  Where are we going?"  He looked back over
his shoulder, and the fierce determination she saw in his face took her
aback.
     "I cannot avoid this any longer," he informed her.  "We are going to
open a door, you and I ... a door that was meant to have remained
closed."
     "Be still my heart," she grumbled.  But she followed.
     And she was smiling.

***

     Wynneth had been both huntress and hunted in her life, and
although she by far preferred being the former to being the latter, she
hadn't survived so long by being careless.  When she began to emerge
from a dark pool of shadow into the building Tragus had chosen, some
instinct caused her to freeze.
     Danger.
     She remained cloaked in shadow, only partially in the Realm of
Light, head cocked.  Although she couldn't pinpoint exactly what had
alerted her, she had no intention of ignoring her instincts.  There was
something wrong here.  Something was not as it should be.  Could
Tragus be planning a double cross already?  This would be a poor time
and place for it, but she couldn't dismiss the possibility out of hand.
     The longer she hung there, poised on the verge of entry, the more
convinced she became that she was not alone.  But she heard no
tell-tale heartbeats, no soft exhalation of breath, scented no hot blood.
If someone was here, they were masking their presence in a way no
ordinary human could.
     The smart thing to do would be to leave, but she couldn't do
that just yet.  She needed to know more.  If Tragus was planning to
betray her, he was making a fatal mistake.  And if it wasn't Tragus ...
     Well, the alternative was certain to be much worse.  But, one way
or the other, she needed to know for certain.  She was confident in her
ability to remain here, undetected on the verge of Shadow.  She would
wait and see what developed.
     And then she would act accordingly.

***

     Panic made Ranma reckless.  There was no concrete reason
for his panic, he kept telling himself.  After all, there could be a perfectly

innocent reason for that note.
     Unfortunately, he didn't think the reason would turn out to be at
all innocent.  In his life, strange occurrences never turned out to be
innocent.  And Akane, his Akane, had gone off to meet someone
claiming to be him.  In an abandoned factory, where there'd be nobody
to see.
     No, he just couldn't come up with a reason for this that didn't
make his gut clench and twist.  A wave of fury, dizzying in its intensity,
swept over him without warning.  If anything happens to her, her told
himself grimly, then someone's gonna pay.  If anyone hurts her ...
     Akane.  Please be all right.
     He didn't slow as he approached the boarded up front gate.
He knew there were numerous small holes in the fence, used by those
who wanted to explore the musty interior of the hulking structure, but
he disdained their use, leaping easily over the fence in one bound.
Skidding to a halt near the pitted wall, he wrenched open the door,
ignoring the pained screech of rusted hinges as he plunged into the
shadowed interior.
     Dusty beams of faded sunlight slanted through the old, used up
air inside the main building.  The interior was a labyrinth of stacked
crates and half-demolished walls, narrow paths snaking off into the
shadowed depths.  Ranma stood in a patch of light, breath loud in his
ears as he quested for any sign of life.
     "Akane?" he called.  "Akane, are you here?"
     "You're wasting your time," a voice came from behind him.  He
whirled to see Miss Hinako standing in the doorway, breathing hard.
He glared at her.
     "What's that supposed to mean?" he demanded.  She shook
her head, resting her hands on her knees for a moment as she tried to
catch her breath.
     "My, you certainly can run," she said at last.  He felt his
impatience boiling over.
     "What did you mean ..." he began.
     "Akane's not here," she said simply.  He froze, the teacher's words
sinking in slowly.
     "But you said ..."
     "Oh, that," she sniffed.  "I lied."  Ranma blinked.
     "You ... lied," he repeated slowly.
     "Yes, my dear," Hinako said cheerfully.  "You see, I wanted to
get you here alone, and this seemed to be a good way to do it."  Oh,
yes.  He was definitely beginning to get angry.  Miss Hinako could be a
bit of a flake, but this was over the top even for her.
     "So Akane's safe," he said, containing his anger with an effort.
     "Oh, quite safe," Hinako smiled.  "You, on the other hand, are
not."  So saying, she brought her hands together to form a circle, and
shouted, "Happo No Coin Return!"  A chi bolt blasted out, catching
Ranma flat-footed.  He was slammed back into a stack of crates,
feeling the wood splinter under him before he bounced off and hit the
floor.  Shaking his head, he pulled himself up off the floor warily.
     "What the hell did you do that for?" he demanded.  Miss
Hinako always had a reason for "disciplining" the students, as
demented as those reasons sometimes were.  Ranma just couldn't
understand what she was thinking.
     "I can't tell you that," she said huskily.  "It would ruin the
surprise."  She flipped a coin into the air and caught it neatly between
her fingers, a sly smile playing at her lips.  Slowly, she began to move
toward him, her tight dress hugging her curves provocatively ...
     Wait a minute.  The incongruity finally hit him.  Miss Hinako
had fired off a chi bolt at him ... and she hadn't reverted!  She was still
in her adult form!
     This whole thing was just getting stranger by the minute.  One
thing was for certain, however; he couldn't let her drain his chi.  As she
raised the coin towards him, he sprang away, dashing down a narrow,
twisting path between towering stacks of old crates.
     Mocking laughter chased him through the shadows.

***

     Tragus smirked as he watched Ranma disappear into the
shadows.  The boy no doubt thought that he was now in control of the
situation.  What a fool.  Tragus's lovely new ally was the mistress of the
shadows, after all.  Between them, they would run the boy to ground
easily.
     But not too easily, Tragus hoped.  He intended to enjoy this
little diversion.  The previous night had only whet his appetite for
diversions, both the carnal and the more ... subtle.  Thankfully, he'd
been able to get out and drain the chi of an unsuspecting night
watchman, returning before Wynneth.  He wanted to keep his condition
secret from her for as long as possible, although he couldn't quite
articulate the reason even to himself.  It wasn't a matter of trust; he
already knew he couldn't trust her unreservedly.  No, it was more a
matter of not wanting to appear weak in front of her.  Or foolish ...
     Bah!  He chastised himself mentally as he moved slowly into the
shadows.  He was thinking like a lovesick puppy!  Best to keep his
mind on the matter at hand.
     He hoped Wynneth would wait for him to show up before
subduing Ranma.  He wanted to watch.
     With a smug grin, he slipped through the shadows, edging
around an unidentifiable piece of rusted junk.
     The cold metal blade that emerged from the dark to graze his
throat caught him completely off-guard.

***

     Ranma dodged through the narrow, twisting alleys formed by
the stacks of crates, heedless of the danger of obstacles, trusting his
reflexes to keep him out of trouble.
     He didn't know what the hell Miss Hinako was up to, but she'd
really picked the wrong person to torment.  After all, he was the one
person who could block her powers.  And here, in this deserted
building, he wouldn't have to worry about looking like a total pervert
when he hit those five pressure points on her body.  After she was
under control, then he'd get her to tell him what was going on.  First,
though, he needed to find a good place for an ambush.
     He suppressed a sigh.  After giving Akane that ring, he'd
figured his life could only get easier.  When would he ever learn?
     Dusty beams of sunlight penetrated reluctantly through the
grimy skylights in isolated clusters, rarely making it all the way to the
floor where tottering walls and hulking shapes cast their impenetrable
shadows.  He spotted an open area to his right and veered toward it
recklessly, only realizing at the last moment that the strange, subtle
shimmer in his path was not a trick of the capricious light.  He barrelled
headlong into something, trying and failing to get his arms up to protect
himself.  Whatever it was, it stretched, giving a little under his
momentum before forcing him back.  He struggled wildly, but the
milky strands were sticky and entangled him even more thoroughly as
he thrashed.  Finally, panting with exertion, he stopped struggling, trying
to assess just how much trouble he was in.
     He was completely enmeshed in some sort of net that stretched
across the gap in the crates.  No, not a net.  It almost looked like a
giant spider's web, and that thought gave him a shudder.  He didn't
want to meet a spider that could spin a web THIS big.
     His arms were caught out to his sides, and he tried without success
to bring them together.  The strands were silky and seemed almost
delicate, but acting together they would give a little but not break.  He
couldn't move his arms more than a couple of inches, and his feet barely
brushed the floor.  Shaking his head angrily failed to help, only causing
several smaller filaments to catch in his hair.  Without leverage, he
couldn't seem to do anything.  He needed another option.
     The sound of high heels clicking hollowly on the cold cement
floor drifted to him through the cool, musty air.  He gritted his teeth,
waiting for Miss Hinako to appear out of the shadows.  How the hell
had she managed this, anyway?
     A lithe female form appeared across the space in front of him,
the one he'd been heading for.  She approached the isolated patch of
light in the middle of the floor languidly, moving with a lazy, almost
contemptuous, ease.  But when she passed through the light, her
passage brushing tiny dancing motes from her path, Ranma could only
stare in confusion.
     It wasn't his demented teacher after all.
     Moving with sinuous animal grace, the stranger approached.
She had dusky skin that contrasted with her mane of flowing white hair,
and her gray eyes regarded him with amusement.  He watched as she
slipped out of her light gray trenchcoat, revealing a sleeveless white
bodysuit and matching high boots.  She thrust the coat negligently out to
one side, and he blinked as a shadowy form appeared to take it,
melting back into the dark silently.
     "Well, well," the woman murmured, her voice husky and
intimate.  "What's this?  A poor little fly, all unwary and alone, has
become entwined in my web."  She moved closer until she stood less
than an arm's length away, and cocked her head, her lush ruby lips
twisting into a frown.
     "I do hope you're the right one," she mused.  "You don't look
like a girl to me.  Still, the day won't be a total waste one way or the
other.  You are quite beautiful, my young prey."  She leaned closer, and
the stunned Ranma caught a whiff of perfume, feminine and mysterious.
"And you have blue eyes," she purred.  "I'm partial to blue eyes, you
know."  Finally, he found his voice, anger overcoming his shock.
     "Hey!  What's going on here, lady?  Let me go!"  She ran her
fingers through her hair, flipping it back over her shoulder flirtatiously.
     "What?" she asked.  "After I went to so much trouble to catch
you?  I think not."  She reached out one slim finger, running it lightly
over his cheek as she held his gaze teasingly.  He flinched, but couldn't
pull back very far as she traced the line of his cheekbone with her long
nail.
     "Mmmm, you are a tasty morsel," she whispered.  "One way
or the other, I will enjoy you.  And your chi is sooooo ... deep."  She
gave him a predatory smile, and he felt his gut clench.  He didn't know
what the hell was happening, but he knew one thing.  He didn't want to
be hanging around while this gorgeous lunatic made goo-goo eyes at
him.  In fact, all he really wanted was to be back at school with Akane.
And speaking of chi, if he could manage to get his hands close enough
to generate a burst, he might tear through this webbing, or at least
dislodge whatever it was anchored to.  He concentrated, letting his aura
flare to life.  He'd had quite enough of being on display.
     "Better stand back, lady," he gritted, glaring at her as he clenched
his fists tightly.  "This could be dangerous ... for you!"  She moved, but
not back.  The hungry smile never leaving her lips, she easily slipped her
arms through the web that ensnared him.  He stiffened with shock as
her arms twined around his waist and she came up fully against him,
pressing her body into his as she brushed his cheek with her mouth.
Her hot breath sent a tingle down his spine in spite of the outrageous
predicament he found himself in.
     "H-Hey!" he blurted.  She ignored his protest, her mouth
slipping to his ear, her hot, intimate breath and lush scent making him
flush in spite of himself.
     "Silly boy," she whispered.  "The spider has ways of subduing
her prey.  Delicious ways ..."  Her voice trailed off, and suddenly he felt
her mouth, hot and soft, pressing against the side of his throat.  He
barely had time to wonder what the hell was going on as her lips
parted, her mouth pressing against taut flesh tantalizingly, and then he
gasped as two points of fire blossomed within the softness of the kiss.
The fire quickly turned to ice, and he felt her arms tighten around him as
he tensed, crying out hoarsely.  From the points on his throat, the
tingling ice spread with horrible speed throughout his body.  His arms
and legs went rubbery, the strength draining from them so quickly he'd
have collapsed if the web and its lovely mistress hadn't been holding
him up.
     He was aware of the woman pulling her mouth away from his
throat, and of her body, still pressed tightly against his.  With an oddly
detached terror, he realized he could still feel everything, but he
couldn't move, couldn't make his body obey him.  There was a rushing
sound in his ears, and his vision began to narrow.  He could see the
cruelly beautiful face of the woman who'd bitten him, regarding him with
a look that was almost tender.  And, behind her, he could see Miss
Hinako's face, watching him, her features set in an expressionless mask.
     You, he thought through the blind panic that was beginning to
overwhelm him.  You set me ... up ... you ...
     Akane ...
     Then the darkness rose up and pulled him inexorably down.

***

     Riana sighed with pleasure as her venom overcame the boy's
resistance, his body going limp against her.  This one was a find, all
right.  His chi was deeper than any she'd found in a human, promising
pleasures such as she hadn't experienced in years.  She cupped his chin
and tilted his head back gently.  His eyes were half opened, only white
showing as they rolled back in his head.  Oh, yes, he was a treasure
indeed.
     But not the one she'd been promised.  Shifting her demeanor
effortlessly from sultry to icy, she turned her attention to their other
visitor.
     "Well, Jubei," she said with a cold glance over her shoulder.
"What's this you've found?"
     "Just some trash, Lady," her bodyguard said easily.  Tragus
stood in front of him, arms secured behind his back, trying hard not to
show his fear as he watched the others emerge from the shadows.
     (And wasn't it odd to be referring to Tragus as "him" in that
lovely shell, while not thinking of Tisa as "her" while she cloaked herself
in Jubei's form?  Very well, "her" for the traitor then.  It would soon
cease to be an issue one way or the other.)
     "Ah, Tragus," she murmured, letting a dangerous smile creep to her
lips as she carefully disentangled herself from her new toy.  "What a
pleasure to see you again."
     "You'll pardon me if I don't offer to shake hands," Tragus
returned woodenly.  Riana walked slowly over to the captive, the
echoes of her boot heels against the concrete reverberating in the
musty air of the high-ceilinged building.  She stopped directly in front of
Tragus, almost touching her, and felt her smile widen with anticipation.
Without warning, she delivered a savage backhand, rocking the tawny
beauty's head back.  Tragus staggered and fell sprawling, unable to
break her fall with her hands bound.  Riana nodded, and Jubei quickly
bent down and hauled Tragus unceremoniously to her feet again.
     "You've been an irritant from the first time I met you," Riana hissed,
staring into Tragus's wide eyes.  A trickle of blood snaked from the
corner of her mouth, and her breathing was rapid and shallow.  So.
The ambitious lowlife was afraid.  Well.  Too late to be afraid now.
She should have shown some sensible fear back when it could have
done some good.
     "You took liberties with me," Riana went on, her eyes narrowed
with cold fury.  "I detest that.  You mocked me.  I'm not at all fond of
that, either."  She leaned forward until the tip of her nose brushed the
other woman's, holding those wide hazel eyes with her glare.
     "But your death warrant was not signed until you conspired
against me," she hissed.  She saw comprehension dawn in those eyes,
and knew that the lowlife was about to start squirming, trying to elude
the snare.  Just like any of its ilk.
     "Wynneth told you that?" Tragus asked quickly.  Look, Ri ..."
Riana backhanded her again.  She wouldn't allow this low trash to soil
her name by speaking it with that unbearable familiarity.  And this time
she used the other hand, the one upon which she wore her signet ring.
Tragus's lower lip split badly, blood spraying as her head snapped
back again.  This time Jubei kept her from falling.
     "You may address me as LADY," Riana snarled.  "And only
when I give you leave to speak.  Do you understand, traitor?"  Tragus's
head hung loosely, her hair obscuring her face, but Riana saw the head
nod weakly.  Growling, she plunged her hand into the dishevelled mane
and yanked the lowlife's head back so she could look into those
terrified eyes again.
     "I asked you a question, traitor," she spat.  "You will answer
when I speak to you.  Now, do you understand?"  Blood ran freely
from Tragus's mouth, pooling under her chin to drip off slowly.  The
sight warmed Riana's heart.
     "I understand.  Lady."  The words were almost whispered, but
Riana smiled nonetheless.
     "Good," she crooned.  "Now then, traitor.  There was to be a
girl.  Instead, there is a boy.  Have you bungled once again?"
     "There's a curse," Tragus muttered, her voice hoarse and
strengthless.  "On him.  Splash him with cold water and he turns into a
girl.  Hot water turns him back."  Riana held the lowlife's head
immobile as she considered her words.
     "And the Kunou boy ... he loves this one as a girl?" she asked,
disbelief clear in her tone.  Tragus flinched.
     "Yes, because he doesn't know about the curse!" she blurted.
"That's the truth, Lady, I swear!"  Riana released her and stood back,
casting a thoughtful glance at the boy hanging limply in her web.  Could
this story be true?  If so, what a marvellous toy this one would be!
     "Lady, the traitor is lying, stalling for time," Jubei growled.  "She
hopes that her accomplice will come and save her, no doubt.  Let me
take care of this trash for you, once and for all."
     "Ah, yes," she smiled.  "Tragus did embarrass you the first time she
came to me in this lovely shell, as I recall.  No doubt you'd like a
measure of revenge."  Tragus swallowed, her throat clicking dryly as
Riana gave her an appraising stare.  Then she turned to Callie, still
half-hidden in the shadows.
     "Well?" she asked curtly.  Callie bowed.
     "We set the warning spells as you instructed," the blonde replied.
"But we never detected the Lady Wynneth's presence.  Of course, this
place is large and there are many nooks and ..."
     "Yes," Riana sighed, waving her hand negligently.  "Somehow,
she sniffed out the trap.  That bitch, she's got a real nose for trouble.
Still, now that she's dared conspire openly against me, I'll have an
excuse to hunt her down.  Remain alert, however.  Although unlikely,
she still may show."  Callie nodded and faded back into the darkness as
Riana turned her attention back to Tragus.
     "Well," she said.  "You obviously chose to trust the wrong
person, Tragus.  And that mistake will cost you.  Jubei, take this lowlife
trash out of my sight.  It turns my stomach to have to look at it."  Jubei
grinned as he pulled the pale woman back sharply.
     "May I execute the traitor for you, Lady?" he asked, not
bothering to hide his eagerness.  Riana sniffed.
     "I think not," she replied haughtily.  "Tragus has much to answer for.
Her life is mine to take.  At any rate, she must be kept alive until I've
determined whether she's telling the truth about this curse.  However,
you may punish her for past transgressions if you like ... just as long as
she is conscious when I come for her."  Tragus cried out in alarm as a
grinning Jubei pulled her towards a nearby alcove.
     "Lady, please!" she begged.  Riana smiled sweetly.
     "This is the fate of a traitor," she said casually.  "And if you've
lied to me about this curse, you'll die slowly."  Of course, Tragus was
going to die slowly anyway, pleading for the release of death.  The
lowlife had tried to rise above her station, had mocked Riana at every
turn, and had dared to plot against Riana's plan to revive her beloved.
She would make an example of the scum that none of the other
newcomers would soon forget.  And she would enjoy doing it.
     "Lilla," she said softly.  The lithe succubus emerged soundlessly
from the shadows.
     "My Most Revered Lady," the succubus replied, bowing deeply.
"How may I be of service?"  Riana stared her new acquisition up and
down, wondering how he'd look without the baggy clothes.
     "Find me some cold water," she bade her servant as she chewed
idly on her thumbnail.  "Let us see if we have our bait or not."

***

     One disadvantage to his new body that Tragus had been
unaware of was quickly becoming obvious.
     It felt pain very keenly.
     He swung helplessly, head bowed, wrists handcuffed over his head.
The short chain joining the cuffs had been looped over a low pipe that
ran across this sheltered alcove, and as a result he was suspended with
his feet barely brushing the floor.  Feeling his ragged breath burning in
his throat, he raised his head to see Jubei regarding him critically.
Tragus tried to glare at the man, but he feared the effect was somewhat
diminished by the fact that one of his eyes was nearly swollen shut.
Also, his ribs ached horribly and blood ran freely from his split mouth.
     Jubei was clearly a man who enjoyed his work.
     "You know," Jubei said, studying his knuckles casually, "I was just
thinking about that time you ambushed me in the garage."  Tragus
gritted his teeth, trying not to cry out again.
     "I remember, already," he mumbled.
     "That made me look very bad in front of my Lady," Jubei
continued as if Tragus hadn't spoken.  "She was most unhappy with
me."  Without warning, he slammed his fist into Tragus's bruised ribs,
and Tragus cried out shrilly despite his resolve.  He saw Jubei grin
through a blood-red haze.
     "I hate when that happens," Jubei sighed.  "I've wanted to take out
my frustrations for a while now, and just when I thought I wouldn't get
to, here you go and screw up and get yourself nailed.  Life is grand,
isn't it?"
     Not from where I sit, Tragus thought, his breath coming in
ragged spurts as he fought to keep calm.  He couldn't help wondering if
it had been Wynneth who'd betrayed him.  But that didn't make sense,
because if Tragus was caught here, Wynneth didn't get Ranma.  No
Ranma, no bait ... and Wynneth wanted that pendant badly.
     Well, if she hadn't betrayed him, she sure as hell wasn't here to
bail him out.  If he didn't think of something before Riana confirmed the
curse, he was dead meat.  But what could he do?  What ...?
     As if in answer to his thoughts, a tingling, pins-and-needles
sensation began to spread all over his body.  His hot, broken breath
caught in his throat as hope finally swelled large and tantalizingly close.
Yes, he thought, oh YES!  He chanced a quick glance up at the metal
cuffs cinched tightly around his wrists.  Yes, it might ... no, it WOULD
be enough.  But it would all be for naught if this maniac Jubei just
stepped in and grabbed him.  He'd have to distract his captor at just
the right moment.
     Tragus stared impassively at Jubei as the tingling intensified.
The bodyguard was casually sizing him up for another well-placed
blow, tugging lightly at his jacket sleeve as he ran his flat impassive gaze
over Tragus's battered form.  This is it, Tragus thought, taking a deep
breath.  Make it the performance of a lifetime, or it'll be the LAST one
of your lifetime.  Jubei was about to take a step forward when Tragus
let his gaze flick over the man's shoulder, his eye widening in shock.
     "Wynneth, help!" he shouted.  Jubei spun, reaching inside his
coat with one hand as Tragus's body finally reverted.  The renegade
was pulled upwards as his arms shortened, and for one long, horrifying
moment he was certain that his hands were not going to shrink enough
to free him.  When they did, he plummeted suddenly to the floor,
stumbling slightly before forcing his pain-wracked body into a dead run.
He was aware of Jubei, turning back from the shadows to gape at the
small form fleeing toward one of the narrow alleys, hesitating only for a
moment before he gathered himself to give chase.
     Tragus dearly hoped that would be enough.

***

     Tisa spun instinctively as Tragus cried out, reaching for her
knife as she desperately searched the shadows for some sign of
Wynneth.  She'd come after all!  As her fingers slid around the hilt of
her knife, though, she heard a thump from behind her and turned back
in time to see a young girl running into the shadows.  She blinked,
unable for a moment to reconcile the young girl with the empty
handcuffs dangling loosely from the overhead pipe.
     Tragus?  But how ...
     Cursing, he took off in pursuit, shouting for help.  Damn it!
He'd known about the punk's chi draining abilities, but nobody had said
anything about him being able to change form!  Tisa rushed headlong
after the fleeing girl, already lost in the shadows.  Damn, this place
was a maze!  If Tragus got too far ahead, she'd never find the idiot.
And Riana would definitely not be pleased.
     She plunged down the narrow passage, twisting and dodging,
aware of faint footsteps echoing from somewhere ahead, and loud
shouts from back the way she'd come.
     And then a hand clamped over her mouth, pulling her back
sharply, and something soft brushed against her neck.  Then there was
a brief spike of pain, and she tried to cry out, but the hand muffled her
voice, and anyway it didn't hurt anymore.  In fact, it felt nice, warm and
intimate, and her vision began to go black as her strength drained away
..

***

     Callie couldn't believe it.  Tisa, she groaned inwardly, how
could you let that weasel get away?  She'd passed the handcuffs, still
hanging from the pipe, and felt her heart sink.  Directing the two
Borgunma with her down different passages, she'd taken the one she
felt most likely to be correct herself.  She concentrated as she ran,
trying to sense something through her link with Tisa.  That link was
tenuous enough at the best of times, but she rarely felt anything at all
when Tisa was inside that stupid man's body.  She caught a flash of
something though, something like panic, and it confirmed that Tisa was
ahead of her somewhere.  Then there was nothing for a time, and she
cursed again.  The bitch goddess of fortune seemed to have it in for
them, all right.  Had she once again given them a gleaming hope, only to
snatch it away at the last moment?
     Then Callie felt something, an awareness bursting into her
thoughts loudly, and she stumbled, nearly falling ...
     (pain shock confusion pain)
     'Tisa?" she whispered.
     Then she was running all out, heedless of the risk to herself ...
     (darkness)
     "TISA!" she screamed.  Her shoulder slammed painfully against
a projecting crate, spinning her half around, but she recovered and
pushed on, spurred by the certainty that Tisa was in trouble, very bad
trouble indeed.
     "TISA ANSWER ME!"
     (it's dark)
     Hurtling around a cluster of fallen crates, she nearly tripped
over something on the floor, and she skidded in something dark and
liquid, something that smelled familiar, like old copper.
     Blood.  So much blood ...
     She dropped to her knees in it, pulling the limp male body from
the cold concrete floor and cradling it in her arms.  The head lolled
back, and she could see where the blood was coming from.  The throat
had been cut with savage force, and arterial blood was pumping from
the gaping wound ... but so weakly, there must be almost none left ...
     "Tisa," she said, her voice shaking as she pulled the horribly
loose head around.  A gurgling noise emerged from the slack mouth,
and the eyes were terribly unfocussed, staring at nothing.  Callie knew
she was nearly out of time.  The great danger for those with the talent
she and Tisa shared was that if the host body died, the possessor died
as well.  And with a wound such as this, the shock and pain could
cause the possessor to become fatally disoriented, slipping away with
the stolen body while freedom was tantalizingly close.
     "Tisa," she said, louder now.  The glazed eyes didn't focus.  "Tisa,
come out.  Tisa, darling, you've got to come out RIGHT NOW.
Please ..."  The body shuddered, wet raspy breaths trailing off.  Callie
ignored the blood soaking into her bodysuit as she grabbed a handful of
hair and yanked Jubei's hateful face around so she could stare directly
into the eyes, pressing her free hand against the gaping wound in a futile
gesture.
     "DAMMIT TISA LISTEN TO ME!  COME OUT!"  The light
was fading from those eyes, the blood down to a trickle, and Callie felt
her last chance slipping away.  Her chest felt tight, and she choked
back a sob.  Not like this.  After everything, not like this.  It couldn't
happen this way.  It just ... just ...
     "Please," she whispered.  "Please, little sister, don't go.  Stay
with me.  Please."  The body convulsed once, more of a twitch really,
and the mouth worked slightly.  There was a weak gurgle, and as the
eyes rolled back, a green mist emerged from the slack mouth, flowing in
a cloud to the floor nearby.  Callie gasped, then tossed the body of
Jubei aside as the mist coalesced into a female form curled into a ball,
long green hair obscuring her face.  Tisa coughed raggedly, then started
taking great, whooping breaths, her hands pressed frantically against
her throat, and Callie wrapped her arms around the other girl from
behind, pulling Tisa tightly against her own body.
     "C-can't ... buh-bur ..." Tisa gasped.  Callie held the trembling
girl tightly, stroking her hair with one hand as she whispered comforting
words into one tapered ear.
     "You're all right," she murmured comfortingly, rocking Tisa in a
gentle rhythm.  "It's just the transfer effect, darling.  You're out now,
you're not hurt.  You can breathe, come on now, I'm here.  Take deep
breaths, okay?  Deep and slow.  That's it."  Slowly, Tisa lowered her
shaking hands from her unmarked throat.  Callie blinked away tears as
the other girl stared at them as if she'd never seen them before.
     "I was luh-lost," she rasped, a fresh set of tremors seizing her
lithe frame.  Callie squeezed her tightly, drawing Tisa's head down to
her shoulder.
     "I know," she crooned.  "I know.  But I've got you now.  You
made it.  You're going to be all right."  Slowly, Tisa's breathing evened
out and she managed to raise her head slightly.  Callie knew she was
looking at the bloody ruin that lay behind them.  After a moment, Tisa
gently placed her hands on Callie's shoulders and pushed herself back.
Callie reached out, tenderly brushing a stray lock out of Tisa's face,
which elicited a shaky smile.
     "Oh, boy," Tisa said breathlessly.  "Oh, boy.  That was bad.
That was ..."
     "You're all right now," Callie smiled, relief making her feel
giddy.  Tisa laughed humourlessly.
     "For a few moments, maybe," she pointed out raspily, running her
fingers nervously though her hair.  "But you might have wasted your
time, love."  Callie blinked.
     "How can you say that?" she blurted angrily.  Tisa looked
around them and sighed.
     "Because," she replied ruefully, "when she finds out that Tragus
escaped, our Lady is going to bloody kill me."

***

     Wynneth sank deep into Shadow, struggling to contain her
rage.  Somehow, that bitch had discovered her plan.  Somehow ...
     She'd initially suspected Tragus, of course.  However, as she'd
slipped through the building, remaining just barely below the surface of
Shadow as she'd expertly eluded the snares set for her, she'd sensed
Tragus's presence.  Since she'd tasted her new partner's blood so
recently, she was able to home in on her and take a peek.
     Watching Tisa in Jubei's lean body torture the hapless Tragus had
convinced Wynneth that she was wrong on one count.  Whatever had
happened to derail her plans, Tragus had not been behind it.  Either
that, or she was stupid enough to get caught in her own trap.
     When Tragus had called out her name, she'd been caught off
guard.  Could Tragus possibly have sensed her presence?  But no,
Tragus had been looking in the wrong direction, and as Jubei turned,
she *changed* somehow, shrinking, slipping free of her bonds and
fleeing into the labyrinthine depths of the old building.
     And Wynneth had desperately seized upon the opportunity that
presented itself.
     She had managed to get ahead of Tisa, taking her by surprise.
She'd been forced to smash though the Baenma's defences, gulping her
hot salty blood as she forced the bodyguard to submit to her.  Such a
lack of art and subtlety left a bad taste in her mouth, but there was
nothing for it.  Wynneth had needed to find out if she knew where
Riana would be conducting the ceremony.  And, as she'd suspected,
Tisa had indeed known.  And now Wynneth knew as well.  Having lost
the bait, she would be forced to resort to more direct measures to
prevent Vaenruth's revival.  Not really her style, but at least she still had
a chance.
     Slitting the helpless man's throat with his own knife, she left him
to die on the cold floor, aware of the imminent arrival of reinforcements.
Even if Tisa survived the death of her host body, Wynneth had ensured
she wouldn't remember what had happened.  The others would assume
that Tragus had ambushed his tormentor, and the wound on Jubei's
throat was sufficiently brutal that the tell-tale fang marks had been
eradicated.
     So.  Although she'd lost one opportunity, Wynneth not yet beaten.
As far as Riana knew, she'd never showed up here at all.  And the
arrogant witch was unaware that Wynneth knew where the ceremony
was to take place.  Wynneth smiled slowly, secure in the embrace of
her beloved Shadow, letting her anger dissipate.
     Let those fools believe that victory was theirs.  Riana and her loyal
retainers were going to learn the hard way that Wynneth was not so
easily beaten.

***

     Riana didn't bother to hide her displeasure.
     "Changed shape, you say?" she asked coldly.  Tisa nodded,
her eyes downcast.  Callie was surreptitiously supporting the still shaky
Baenma bodyguard while simultaneously trying to avoid notice.  There
were dark blood stains on both Baenma, more on Callie who looked
like she'd knelt in it.
     "Yes, Lady," Tisa said meekly.  "I was caught off-guard.  While
giving chase, she somehow got behind me and cut my ... Jubei's throat."
     "It was a near thing, my ..." Callie broke in.
     "Silence," Riana snapped.  She didn't raise her voice; she
didn't have to.  They both stiffened and fell silent as Riana turned to
regard the wet redhead now suspended in her web.  On the one hand,
she definitely had her bait.  Still, such a blunder was disturbing,
especially when things had reached such a delicate stage.  And who
would have thought that braggart Tragus would have had the foresight
to hold back some aspect of her powers?  Damn!
     "The loss of Jubei will be inconvenient," she said at last, her
voice edged with ice.  "He is known at the office.  There will need to be
explanations.  I am most displeased."
     "I take full responsibility, Lady," Tisa said, bowing her head.
     "Yes," Riana agreed.  "Your punishment will be severe, but
fortunately for you, it must wait."  She ignored the misery obvious in
Tisa's forlorn posture and turned to Keisuke.
     "There was no trace of Wynneth?" she asked curtly.  He shook
his head.
     "None of our warning spells were tripped, Lady," he informed her.
"But I would feel more confident if ..."
     "I am fully aware of the limitations of our efforts here," she
interrupted.  "However, I am inclined to think that Wynneth got wind of
our presence somehow and decided not to make an appearance.  She
prefers treachery, Kei."  The uncharacteristic use of that diminutive was
not lost on Tisa, Riana noted with satisfaction.  Well, good.
     "A direct confrontation is not her style, especially when the
odds are stacked against her," she went on, favouring him with a brief
but warm smile.  "Now, we must not tarry any longer.  Any further ...
lapses of judgement might seriously jeopardize this operation."  She
looked straight at Tisa as she said that, and again her barb found its
mark.  "Lilla, did you get the photo?"  Lilla nodded, her usually
mischievous demeanor muted by her concern for Tisa.
     "Yes, Lady," she said evenly, holding it up.
     "Good.  Keisuke, cut our guest loose and take her to the car.
I'm making her your personal responsibility."  Keisuke grinned, his
dark eyes sparkling with delight.
     "I won't let you down, Lady," he promised, drawing his sword.
     "I know you won't, Kei," she smiled.  Tisa looked like she
wanted to curl up and die, shoulders hunched slightly, no trace of her
usual brisk efficiency visible.  "The rest of you clean up and get to the
truck ... except you."  She pointed at a hulking form standing immobile
in the shadows.
     "Me?" it inquired in a deep, gravelly voice.  She smiled.
     "Yes.  I want you to go and dispose of the body.  I want
nothing left behind to tie me to this place."  The hulk shambled out of
the dark, cocking its lumpy head inquisitively.
     "Er ...whaddaya want I should do wit' it, Lady?" the imposing
Borgunma asked uncertainly.  Riana sighed, reminding herself that
Borgunma were useful for their strength and expendable nature, not for
their intelligence.
     "The body will still be warm," she pointed out.  "Eat it."  The
hulk, whose name she had forgotten (and had never regarded as
important anyway) grinned, revealing a mouth full of long, sharp teeth.
     "Yes, ma'am!" it roared with enthusiasm.  Keisuke came up to
her with the red-head slung easily over his shoulder, and she motioned
him to follow.  When Tisa fell in behind them, Riana stopped.
     "Keisuke can drive," she informed the bedraggled girl.  "You
go back in the truck with the others."  Tisa flinched slightly, but nodded.
     "Yes, my Lady," she said woodenly.  She turned and walked
slowly over to the others, who were busy cleaning up traces of the
web.  Every line and angle in her body spoke loudly of pain, Riana
mused.  Well, too bad.  Her failure must be punished.  Riana couldn't
allow incompetence in her most valuable minions.  Tisa was going to
hurt a whole lot worse before Riana was satisfied she'd gotten the
message.  Then she sighed.
     Tragus was still out there, but no longer constituted much of a
threat.  She'd hunt the renegade down herself when this was over and
delight in her death.  As for Wynneth, she'd suffered a crippling blow
here today.  Now that her plot against Riana was exposed, she too
would be hunted.  Riana intended to ask her lover for the privilege of
dealing with that bitch when the time came.  With her enemies thwarted
and directionless, it was hard not to feel confident about her prospects
for success.
     "Come on, Keisuke," she said with a sly smile.  "We've much
to do, and I can't wait to play with my new toy."

***

     These tunnels hadn't gotten any more comforting since she'd
last been in them, Nabiki reflected.  And Kunou's refusal to discuss his
odd reaction to this pendant was definitely beginning to annoy her.
Despite her annoyance, though, she stuck close behind him ... just to
keep from tripping over something in the dark.  It wasn't like she was
nervous or anything.
     Even when the echo of their footsteps made it sound like they
were being followed ...
     They approached the point where they'd entered the storeroom
before, and Kunou stopped.  She opened her mouth to make a remark,
but before she could say anything Kunou had set off again.  She hurried
to catch up, anticipation rising in her as she realized where they were
going.
     "The pendant's not in with the other stuff?" she asked.  Kunou
shook his head.
     "No, it is not," he murmured.
     "And down here is where you said, if I recall correctly, the
heart of the mystery resides," she went on, striving to keep the
excitement from her voice.  "I do hope this is impressive, Kunou.  You
know how I hate being let down."  He glanced over his shoulder at her,
his eyes dark and unreadable.
     "I trust you will be sufficiently impressed," was all he said.
They came to the imposing door at the end of the wide passageway
and stopped.  Kunou fished an ornate key out of his pocket and held it
up to the light.  Nabiki frowned.
     "Hey," she said.  "The other doors down here aren't locked.
Last time, you said it wasn't necessary."  Kunou smiled humourlessly.
     "This door requires ... added security," he said simply.  "As
well as the ones beyond it ..."
     "MORE doors?" she asked suspiciously.  "You hauled me
down here to show me MORE doors?"  He stared at the heavy key in
his hand, his attention seemingly caught by the gleaming blue gem set in
the wide end of it.
     "This door," he murmured.  "I was told it was best left
unopened once, a long time ago ... it seems like forever.  But once it
was opened, there was no turning back."
     "Doors were made to be opened," Nabiki pointed out
impatiently.  Kunou looked up from the key as if only just remembering
that she was there.
     "I will remember that you said that," he said, his voice full of
something that might have been bitterness, or sorrow, or melancholy,
but was probably some mixture of the three.  He inserted the key into a
lock that looked like it could withstand anything short of a nuclear blast.
She watched carefully, and so did not miss the tiny glimmer of light from
the gem as Kunou turned the key.  Strange patterns, etched in bluish
light, flared briefly on the door's surface when the lock clicked open.
Nabiki recognized those patterns; they were similar to the ones Kunou
had showed her on the storeroom door.  Slowly, Kunou withdrew the
key and turned the door handle, strangely bright and clean against the
dark surface of the door.  He stopped and looked back at her, the
lantern picking out the sharp planes of his face, giving his features an
almost devilish cast.
     "Nabiki Tendou," he said gravely.  "You, who are so fond of
secrets, will no doubt be pleased to know that, to the best of my
knowledge, no one has passed through this door in years.  Not since I
was a child, in fact.  Not since ..."  He trailed off, staring at the door as
if it might leap out and bite him.
     "Not since?" she prompted.  He sighed.
     "Not since the last day of my brother's life," he said heavily.
She could only stare as he pulled, the solid door swinging out
soundlessly.  The last day ...?
     Kunou stepped through the doorway, and she gave herself a
sharp mental shake, following.  There was another set of stairs, this one
widening as it descended.  They reached the floor below fairly quickly,
Nabiki trotting smartly to keep up with Kunou's longer strides.
     "What happened that day, Kunou?" she asked as they reached the
smooth stone floor.  "Did you ..."  Her voice caught in her throat as the
lantern revealed more of this chamber.  It opened up around them, the
ceiling rising high above.  The most breathtaking feature, however, was
directly in front of them.  A tall, arched doorway was blocked by two
huge doors that soared high over their heads, meeting at the centre of
the arch so precisely that there barely appeared to be a seam between
them at all.  Kunou walked slowly towards the imposing portal, and
Nabiki followed, a feeling of awe almost overwhelming her.
     Something about these doors felt ... ancient, somehow, and
they evoked a feeling of dread in her at the same time as they seemed
to kindle a wild and reckless joy.
     "Oh, boy, we have got to open those."  She didn't realize she'd
spoken aloud until Kunou answered her.
     "Yes," he said, so quietly that she had to strain to hear him.
"You feel it, do you not?  There is something here, something ... a sense
of great and terrible mysteries, of things long buried and anxious to be
discovered.  It is almost a compulsion.  Kazuhiro and I felt it back then,
of course, and in the end it overcame our fear."  Nabiki stepped
forward so she could see his face.
     "Wait a minute," she said slowly.  "Are you telling me that you
guys opened THOSE doors too?"  The corner of his mouth twitched
up for a second, and his eyes seemed to be staring at something only he
could see.
     "Oh, yes," he whispered.  "Having come this far, having finally
dared the forbidden, we could not resist just one look.  Just one quick
peek.  We had to know, you see.  We HAD to."  She understood
completely.  Because, standing there before those strange and
somehow unearthly portals, she also felt that compulsion, that burning
need to know what lay beyond.
     "Well?" she asked, excitement and impatience creeping into her
usual deadpan demeanor.  "What's in there?  Come on, Kunou, you've
brought me this far!  Don't think for a moment I'm going to be satisfied
with just this much!"  He shook his head, still staring into space.
     "By this point, I assure you I know better than that," he
murmured.  "Fear not, Nabiki Tendou.  We have indeed come here on
this day to open these doors once more.  You are about to see a sight
few have ever gazed upon.  Now, please stand back."  He moved until
he was facing the doors, and Nabiki noticed that there was an
indentation in the middle of the doorway, where the two doors met.  It
appeared to be in the shape of a key, and moments later Kunou
confirmed her suspicion by taking the strange key and holding it out in
front of him, staring at the crystal embedded in the end.  For long
moments, nothing happened.  Then ...
     Nabiki watched, fascinated, as the crystal in the end of the key
began to pulse strangely, FLASH-flash, FLASH-flash, FLASH-flash.
It took her a few moments to puzzle out what that pattern reminded her
of, then she had it.
     A heartbeat.
     Then the matching indentation in the doors began to glimmer,
then pulse with a deep blue light, matching the pulses of the key.
Kunou spread his fingers slowly until his hand was completely open, but
the key remained where it was, hanging motionless in the air.  Nabiki
watched raptly as the key slowly began to move towards the doors, the
pulsing light of the crystal growing stronger with its proximity to the
doors.  She took a breath and unconsciously held it as the key drew
nearer, finally sliding into the matching depression with an almost
inaudible click.  The strange crystal stopped pulsing then, its light
becoming steady and bright, like a beacon.
     Then the light began to spread, spearing outwards in lines along the
surface of the doors themselves, like liquid fire filling invisible grooves.
Shapes appeared, patterns that suggested profound meaning which
lurked just at the edges of comprehension.  The light of the lantern was
quickly overwhelmed as the key, its eldritch work apparently done,
detached itself from the doors and floated back to Kunou's
outstretched hand.  There was a sound, a low thrumming just at the
limits of audibility, and the doors shuddered and began to swing
outward smoothly.
     No hinges, Nabiki thought dizzily.  And look at the size of those
suckers!  How the heck do these things work, anyway?  Kunou
clasped his hand tightly around the key, his body blocking her view as
the doors opened fully, leaving the path beyond unguarded.  The lure of
the unknown pulsed in her blood like fire, no, like DESIRE, and she
ached to bolt past Kunou and gorge herself on it at the same moment
that she burned to draw out the moment now that the outcome was
inevitable.  Turning, Kunou's dark gaze settled on her face, and
whatever he saw there made him smile, a small but genuine break in his
impassive mien.
     "It is time," he said simply.  She nodded, her mouth dry, her heart
pounding wildly.
     Together, they stepped forward into the heart of the matter.
 

end part 15