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 16: Stormy Weather

by Mark MacKinnon
 

      Akane squirmed in her seat.
     Earlier, she had revelled in the attention she'd received.  After
all, this was what she had wanted for some time now, to cry out that
Ranma was hers, and that she was his.  And now everyone knew, the
news spreading like wildfire through the Furinkan grapevine.  There
were still furtive whispers and giggles within small groups in the
corridors and classrooms, no doubt speculations on what would come
next, as well as more lurid topics.  For once, that didn't bother her.
     What did bother her was quite simple.
     Ranma hadn't shown up for class.
     He'd disappeared that morning, and she hadn't seen him since.
She'd certainly understood that he hadn't wanted to be put on display in
front of hordes of squealing girls; he'd retreated to endure his own trial,
a good-natured ribbing from the male contingent.
     But then she hadn't seen him in gym class.  And now, in Miss
Hinako's class, they had all been given a free period because the
crusading, chi absorbing teacher was nowhere to be seen.
     And neither was Ranma.
     It was quite plain to her what had happened, of course.  Ranma had
done something to provoke Miss Hinako's wrath, and because he was
so stubborn, he was fighting with her somewhere.  It was no big deal,
really, despite the snickers and snide comments that had resulted when
the class at large began to realize which two members of their group
were conspicuous by their absence.  Ranma's attempts to neutralize
Miss Hinako's powers were still quite fresh in everyone's minds, and it
was likely that many of her classmates were anticipating a blow-up if
Akane caught her now-official fiance with his hands on the curvaceous
teacher's "pressure points".
     Well, if that was what they were waiting for, they'd be
disappointed.  Akane was certain that she no longer suffered from the
insecurity that had led her to blow up at Ranma over every little thing.
How could she, after he'd gone so far to show what she meant to him?
She propped her head on one hand, fondling the cool, unfamiliar
surface of the ring with her thumb.
     I wish you were here right now, Ranma, she thought wistfully.  I
wish you were sitting on my desk, leaning over to talk to me.  I wish I
was looking into your eyes right now.  But it's okay, really.  I guess
there's always going to be chaos in our lives.  Still, you'd better not let
Miss Hinako keep you away too long.  Remember, we're going to eat
the lunches we made together, out behind the equipment shed.
     She sighed, glancing out the window at the gray and lowering
sky, and wondered how she would stand the time until lunch, when she
could see him again.

***

     Nabiki tried to take it all in at once.
     The doors, the chamber, the strange blue light ...
     She blinked and shook herself mentally.  Concentrate, she
reprimanded herself.  And she tried, but it was so beautiful ...
     The inside surfaces of the doors.  Start there.  They weren't
flat, intimidating black like the outside.  No, they were blue shimmering
crystal, like every surface inside the chamber, but somehow dimmer.
And there was some sort of pattern there, she saw as she slowly drew
even with them.  No, not a pattern ... what was that?  Paper strips?
     Then she turned, still overwhelmed by the dazzling array of
images that crowded her senses, stepping across the threshold into the
chamber itself, her breath catching in her throat.  She had the immediate
and overwhelming impression of vastness, of space.  The light, which
had been low and subtle, began to intensify as they entered the
chamber, revealing even more of the mysterious heart of the estate.
     The air was cool, but not uncomfortably so, and dry.  That in
itself was not unusual, but it also seemed to have weight, somehow, and
it was as if a mild electric charge wafted along its eddies and currents.
For a moment, Nabiki thought she heard voices, distant and indistinct, a
whispering chorus, but then they faded beyond the limit of audibility ...
if, in fact, they had existed at all.
     The weight of ages pressed in from all sides, along with the
sensation of *otherness*, of terrible/wonderful power, slumbering
and quiescent, leashed by forces beyond human comprehension.  And
above all, there was the sense of mystery, of things unseen, secrets lost
to the vaults of time and forgotten, waiting to be discovered again by
those bold enough to dare the unknown.  An almost vertiginous wave
swept through her, and she sought some detail, something small and
close, to focus on.
     That was when she saw the bodies.
     Her eyes swept across them, and she actually did a double take
as what she had seen took a few moments to register.
     I did not just see that, she told herself with a frown as her gaze
arrested itself and swept back.  I did not. I ...
     "Kunou."  Her voice sounded very small, and for a moment she
was certain he could not have heard her.  Then she realized that he was
standing right beside her, reaching out a steadying hand.  She retained
the presence of mind to pull away ... or perhaps it was just a reflex.  At
any rate, she managed to tear her gaze away from the tableau in front of
her to stare mutely up at Kunou.  He stared back, and whatever he saw
in her face caused his expression to soften somewhat.
     "They will not harm you," he said reassuringly.  "They have
been dead for quite some time."
     "No kidding?" she replied, using sarcasm to cover her
trepidation, the hammering pulse of her heart.  "I suppose you knew
about them?"
     "Yes," he admitted.  "When my brother and I found the bodies
all those years ago, I must tell you we were quite frightened.  We were
not expecting them, you see."
     "Yes.  Yes, I can see as you wouldn't be," Nabiki muttered.
Ignoring her sweaty palms and dry mouth, she edged further into the
chamber.  She noticed now that it was circular and quite large, the
smooth wall curving away in both directions.  There was a round dias
or platform in the centre of the chamber that rose higher than she could
reach, and that kept her from seeing across to the other side.  The two
bodies were leaning against the edge of the dias, near a wide stairway
that led to the top.  There was something odd about them, she saw as
she crept ever closer.  If they had been down here since Kunou was a
boy, they should have been just skeletons by now, but they weren't.
They appeared desiccated, almost mummified.  The flesh of the face
and hands had shrunk tightly over the bones and had darkened, giving
the corpses an unearthly appearance.
     Someone touched her from behind and she jumped, stifling a
shriek.  The shock was so abrupt that her field of vision actually
seemed to narrow for a moment.  She whirled to glare venomously at
Kunou.
     "Do.  NOT.  Do that!" she gritted, her heart pounding wildly.
Although she expected to be ribbed for her loss of composure, he did
not laugh at her.  He just nodded and stepped by, once again holding
the lantern in one hand.  It was no longer necessary; the crystal walls
and floor threw off a diffuse but clear light that banished all shadow.
     Moving easily over to the bodies, Kunou crouched down
beside them, regarding them with a look that was almost tender.
Nabiki followed, albeit reluctantly, until she could get a good look at
the pair of strange corpses.
     "Who were they?" she asked in a hushed voice, her curiosity
overwhelming her trepidation.  Kunou didn't look up, balancing his
forearms on his knees loosely.
     "I do not know for certain," he replied, his voice soft and
somehow rueful in the hushed, otherworldly air.  "But I have come to
some conclusions based on what I saw that day so many years ago,
and what I remembered afterwards.  Here, look closely.  What do you
see?"  Shifting her weight, she studied the pair, noticing details that she
had missed before.  The one sitting upright against the wall was male,
wearing some sort of light armour.  A helmet, probably his, sat
neglected (but not dusty, she noticed that too) off to one side.
     The other one had been a woman.  Petite and clad in a white robe
of some sort, she lay with her head in the man's lap, her long brittle hair
spread out over his legs like sere grass, her arms crossed neatly on her
chest.  And above her folded hands, gleaming softly in the light, was a
pendant ... a pendant in the shape of a dragon's head.  It seemed to
gaze up at her watchfully, its gemstone eyes implacable.
     "So that's it," she said softly.  "The pendant we're after."
Kunou glanced up at her then.
     "Ignore the obvious, Nabiki," he breathed.  "Their last
moments are here, writ large for those who would see.  Look here, and
here."  He pointed, and Nabiki noted the long ragged tear in the
woman's loose robe just under the folded hands, surrounded by stains
of dark rust.  And within that tear, she saw, there was the telltale white
gleam of exposed bone.  Now that she knew what to look for, she
found damage on the man's breastplate too, although it was less
pronounced.   On the gleaming crystal floor, however, there were no
stains.
     "Her wounds were severe," Kunou said, turning his attention
back to the bodies.  "No weapon made that wound, though.  It is torn,
not cut cleanly.  A powerful hand or claw, I should think.  She must
certainly have died soon after.  His wounds are serious, but I do not
believe they would have been fatal.  It took him much longer to die."
He stared for a moment more, then stood and turned to her.
     "Did you notice the doors?" he asked abruptly.  His eyes were
expectant, a strange feverish light glimmering in their shadowed depths,
and she wondered suddenly about him.  What must it be like for
Kunou, returning to this place?  What memories must it stir in the murky
depths of his tortured soul, memories of a happier time, of the brother
he lost?  She watched him carefully as she replied.
     "What about them?" she asked.  He walked back the way they had
come, his feet passing almost silently over the glossy crystal, and after a
moment she followed.
     "I am certain of one thing," Kunou murmured as he walked.  "Those
two were soldiers of the light, and they died defending this place that
day so many years ago.  They died, and they remained down here until
two foolish little boys disturbed their rest."
     "But why?" Nabiki asked, puzzled.  "Why leave the bodies
down here?  If they died fighting to protect the estate, wouldn't they
deserve to be buried in that grove where all the others are?"  Kunou
chuckled, a harsh and bitter sound in the almost oppressive silence.
     "Look here," was all he said, gesturing at the doors.  Nabiki
looked at the inside surface of the doors, her brow furrowed.  There
were the rectangular pieces of paper she'd noticed before, for starters.
In fact, they were on the insides of both doors, and if the doors were
closed, it looked very much like they would match up.  She noted the
pattern without understanding its significance;  three applied crossways,
one vertically, then two more crossways and three more vertically.  The
strips were covered with strange symbols that she couldn't read.
     Then something else caught her eye, and she moved closer.  Upon
careful examination, the inner crystal surfaces of the doors seemed to
be damaged somehow.   A large blotch spread out from about chest
height, reaching irregular tendrils outwards.  The light emanating from
the affected area was dimmer than that of the other areas and at times
flickered uncertainly.  Tentatively, she reached out toward it, but a
strange chill ran up her arm as her fingers neared the surface and she
drew them back.  Kunou watched her the whole time, his eyes hooded
and unreadable, as she made her examination.
     "I have had much time to think on the things I saw that fateful
day," Kunou said at last.  Nabiki noticed that he was running his palm
lightly, almost reflexively, over the hilt of his sword as he talked.  "These
sights used to haunt my dreams, at least until the time when I began to
bury all memory of things which ... disturbed me.  And as the memories
recently returned, I have had a chance to evaluate my theories from a
different perspective.  Shall I tell you what I think happened?"  Nabiki
could have speculated for herself, but she had the feeling that Kunou
wanted to tell her, perhaps even NEEDED to.  So she merely nodded
and waited for him to begin.
     "I have told you of the battle that raged here on that night, of how
the minions of the dark fought their way to the very heart of the estate
before being thrown back.  I surmise that they managed to gain entry
even here, and that whatever foul magic they used to force the doors
caused that damage."  He nodded at the darkened crystal, his eyes
narrow and the muscles along the edge of his jaw tight.  Nabiki had a
sudden premonition that she was not going to like hearing what Kunou
had to say.
     "I cannot say what happened here, save that it is certain there
was a tremendous battle, and that somehow the enemy was finally
repulsed.  The estate was badly damaged, most of the inner circle,
including my grandparents, dead or dying."  He turned again to gaze at
the two bodies, locked in their frozen tableau for decades.
     "And so HE acted.  If there were other survivors, he sent them
away, knowing what had to be done.  The doors had to be sealed, to
protect this place from the enemy should they return ... and, I believe,
to protect the residents of the estate from the power that slumbers
here."
     "The nightmares!" she breathed.  He nodded, not turning to look
at her.
     "Yes.  I believe these doors also acted as seals, containing the
unearthly power that emanates from this place.  When they were
damaged, they could no longer contain all of the power here.  Those
wards were no doubt meant to act as patches, reinforcing the barrier
that protected those living above.  When they were broken, the power
was free to seep out into the estate through the damaged portals.  The
dreams started the very night my brother and I broke these seals, you
see."  I  know, she almost said, remembering just in time that she wasn't
supposed to know that.
     "The doors must have needed to be sealed from the inside," he
continued after a moment.  "And so he closed them, sealing himself
away from the sun that he would never see again.  He did his duty, and
I think ... I think that it must have been easier because of her."
     "What do you mean?" Nabiki asked, cocking her head as she
moved to stand beside him.  Kunou was staring at the bodies, a
distance in his eyes that spanned more than space.
     "She was dead, or beyond help," he said with a tiny wistful
smile that looked out of place on a face she'd never associated with
such emotions.  "And I think he would have found it hard to go on
without her."  He blinked, seeming to come back to himself, and
glanced down at Nabiki, moving his shoulders in a small,
self-deprecating gesture.
     "I fancy that he loved her, you see," he said, almost
apologetically.  "I am not certain why, but for some reason I always
have."  Nabiki opened her mouth to say something, then closed it again.
She looked over at the bodies, almost decided to argue with Kunou,
then changed her mind again.
     Because, frankly, she agreed with him.  There was no particular
reason to believe that the two had been lovers, no hard evidence of any
kind, yet his words resonated strangely in her chest as she gazed at the
doomed twosome.  Perhaps it was just the desire to attach something
noble, something grand and romantic, to their last minutes together.
She studied how the woman's head was pillowed on his lap, the way
his hand was curled near her head, as if he had been stroking her hair at
the end.  There did seem to be a certain intimacy to the way they were
posed.
     Well, then, she decided.  Lovers it is.  Why not?
     "He sealed the doors and then, with his strength failing he went
to her, comforting her if she still lived, mourning her if not," Kunou went
on.  "And as the light in his eyes dimmed, he at least could take comfort
in the fact that he would soon be with her again, and that he had carried
out his duty to the end.  The heart was secure, the estate protected."
His jaw had tightened again, and Nabiki frowned.
     "Kunou ..."
     "Until one day, his brave sacrifice was undone by two ignorant
boys," he grimaced, voice painfully tight.  "He did his best, of course,
but how could he have anticipated us?  How could he have ever
guessed at the string of circumstances that would make a mockery of
his final gesture?"  Nabiki stepped around in front of Kunou, trying to
catch his gaze.
     "Kunou, there's no way you could have known ..." she began
firmly.  He shook his head.
     "An improperly concealed key, warded against evil but not
against foolishness.  An absent father, a distracted ninja, and childish
imaginations fuelled by tales of valorous deeds ..."  He sighed, his
broad shoulders slumping as he rubbed his palm over his face wearily.
     "We broke the seal," he said, his dark eyes seeking hers.
"Unwittingly or not, we set strange forces in motion that day, Kazuhiro
and I.  Even though we fled in panic after seeing the bodies, the damage
was done.  The insidious madness invaded our dreams, and tragedy
overwhelmed our waking lives.  My brother was killed that very night
by a demon which had been drawn here by our actions."
     "You can't know that!" Nabiki snapped.  She recalled the
distant horror in Yukio's eyes as she'd told how Kazuhiro had died,
and how she'd turned to discover that her other son had witnessed the
foul deed.
     "I may not know it, but I do believe it," Kunou told her calmly.  "To
believe otherwise is to strain the limits of credulity.  Everything that has
come to pass sprang from that one mistake.  And, in the end, I never
told my father what we'd done.  Not that it would have made much
difference, I suppose.  It seems likely that there is no longer anyone
capable of sealing these doors, and if there is they certainly would not
be keen to be trapped down here, to die in the dark."  Nabiki had no
response to that, watching in silence as Kunou squared his shoulders
and marched by her, determination replacing worn sorrow in his eyes.
She followed him over to the couple that had lain, undisturbed and
perhaps even forgotten, for almost three decades.
     "All I can do now is try to honour them," he said softly, staring
down with his hand resting lightly on the hilt of his sword.  "Perhaps, in
some way, my efforts can undo some of the damage that I caused so
long ago, and can restore some of what was lost."  Nabiki studied him
carefully, wondering when Kunou was going to stop surprising her.
She'd always felt nothing but an amused contempt for his foibles, his
heedless love for the objects of his affections, his daunting inability to
accept the truth even when his nose was literally rubbed in it.  Only now
could she appreciate the events in his life which had produced those
fault lines in his psyche, and how the pressure of guilt and denial had
acted on those vulnerabilities over the years.
     Kunou, like everyone, was merely a product of his life.  Who
would have guessed it had been such a strange one?
     "Kunou," she said gently.  He glanced up at her, startled,
perhaps by the tone of her voice.
     "Yes?"
     "What did they die for?" she asked him.  "What's up those
stairs?  What IS this place?"  The corner of his mouth twitched slightly.
     "Ah, how could I have forgotten your legendary
inquisitiveness?" he asked, shaking his head.  "The unsatisfying truth,
Nabiki Tendou, is that I do not know."  She blinked.
     "But when you were here before ... Kunou.  You can't be
trying to tell me that you never went up?" she asked, outraged  His eyes
flicked sidelong toward the stairs, and his head slowly turned to follow
until, he was staring directly at them.
     "The chamber did not glow as brightly that time," he said softly.
"There were shadows, and as we crept closer, the lantern light fell upon
those two, and we were frightened.  In the end, we ran away without
even chancing the stairs."  With a confidence she didn't feel, she flicked
her hair back and strode over to the base of the stairs, posing with her
hands on her hips as she turned to regard Kunou archly.
     "Well, here's to second chances," she said, repressing a
shudder as the strange energies in the air seemed to mock her.  Kunou
hesitated, and she frowned.
     "Hey," she said.  "What's done is done, Kunou.  But we're here
now, and who knows what might be waiting in there?  There might even
be answers.  Don't you want to see?  Don't you want to go all the
way?"  His hand dropped to the hilt of his sword again, and he
straightened, squaring his shoulders.
     "Of course," he said, and she couldn't shake the feeling that he
was lying.  But he joined her at the bottom of the stairs, gamely setting
his foot on the first step.
     "Shall we?" he inquired with forced casualness.  He ascended,
Nabiki close behind him.  The soft scuff of their footfalls echoed in the
still air as they climbed, hot anticipation building in her belly.  Even
Kunou hadn't seen this yet ... maybe nobody alive had.  What would
they see at the centre of this hidden chamber?  Could she even
imagine?
     They reached the top, Kunou stopping so abruptly that she
nearly ran into his broad back.  Her protest died on her lips as her gaze
swept past him.
     As it turned out, she couldn't have imagined it.  Not at all.

***

     Riana hit the disconnect button on her cell phone and set it in its
holder.  The red-head lay sprawled across the seats, her head in
Riana's lap, and the sultry Aerkinma stroked the girl's hair idly with her
free hand.  The girl moaned, a low, helpless sound, but did not stir.
Riana smiled.  Her prey would not be stirring in the near future, but
even if she could manage to throw off the effects of Riana's venom, her
arms were thoroughly bound behind her back with thick strands of
spider silk.  No, Riana was taking no chances with this one.  This
shape-changing little red-head was the key to the future.
     She brushed a stray lock of hair back from the girl's forehead,
sensing the deep, vibrant chi in that small body.  Shuddering deliciously,
she savoured the anticipation of what was to come.  There would be
time before the ceremony to play with her new toy.  And afterward ...
ah, then there would be time for EVERYTHING.  Everything she
desired would, at long last, be within her grasp.
     "Lady," Keisuke said deferentially.  She wasn't fooled by his
tone; it was clear to her what was on his mind.
     "What is it, Keisuke?"
     "Was that really wise?"  He watched the road carefully, but
from time to time his eyes would flicker to the rearview mirror, stealing
glimpses of her.
     "The phone calls?" she asked innocently.  "I think one of the
agency's human operatives is necessary to deliver our message.  I won't
risk sending one of ours to the estate in defiance of the Dread Lord's
orders."
     "I meant the other matter," he said, his voice still carefully neutral.
She hid her smile coyly.  She shouldn't really make him work so hard
for this, but her spirits were high and she couldn't help playing a little.
     "Ah, that," she remarked idly.  "Why, Keisuke, I had no idea the
fate of a group of motley Borgunma concerned you so."
     "It doesn't," he grunted.  "The newcomers were rebels and I
thought they should have been dealt with from the start."  She inclined
her head slightly.
     "So you did," she conceded.  "But it never hurts to have
expendable troops lying about.  Now, however, with matters at such a
delicate stage, they have definitely outlived their usefulness."
     "But letting this agency deal with them ..."
     "Keisuke," Riana chided.  "The agency's operatives have
proven useful many times, indulging in dirty tricks and dealing with
embarrassing messes.  That's all they're doing now.  They follow
orders, get paid well for it, and exercise discretion.  That makes them a
useful tool.  And they've always been dealt with through the company,
so they have no direct link to us."
     "I could do this for you," Keisuke pointed out.  "It would be my
pleasure, and that way you could be certain it would be done right."
     "No, I want you close to me through this.  These men are more than
capable of arranging an explosion and fire at a certain run-down
warehouse, all for insurance purposes of course, completely unaware of
the true contents of the building.  I've arranged for the lowlives to have
some victims to play with, so they will be occupied when their
temporary home burns to the ground with them in it."  She leaned back,
taking a deep breath and letting it trickle out slowly.  "I have no idea if
Tragus holds any influence with her fellow companions, but it is not
worth taking the risk.  They die tonight, and good riddance."
     "As you say," he murmured, clearly unconvinced.  However, he
would not argue with her now that her mind was made up, she knew.
"We'll be arriving at our destination soon, Lady.  Is there anything you
require?"  She glanced down, hooking her fingers lightly under the limp
girl's chin so she could tilt her head back.  She smiled wickedly.
     "Yes," she purred.  "As a matter of fact, there is.  I'll be
wanting some hot water."
     "Hot water?" Keisuke asked, puzzled.
     "Yes," Riana breathed.  "This one makes a fetching girl, but I
much preferred him as a boy."  She leaned back again, savouring the
nearness of her goals.
     Soon, she thought.  Soon.

***

     Kunou felt a dizzying sense of vertigo, and the very air seemed
to press in against his skin.  The sword and the key both seemed to be
resonating powerfully with each beat of his heart, thrumming and pulsing
as they came nearer to ...
     What?
     "What is that?" Nabiki asked, her voice hushed and, for once,
all traces of her customary archness thankfully absent.
     "Perhaps we should go see," Kunou murmured.  "Are you by
any chance afraid of heights?"  She threw him a quick glance.
     "Not normal heights," she said flatly.  He nodded knowingly,
then set out with her close behind.
     The flat top of the dias formed a narrow ring several feet wide,
and they stood side by side on that surface at the top of the stairs,
staring in wonder at the sight before them.  The dias appeared to be
hollow, a shaft at least a couple of hundred feet across plunging straight
down into the earth.  Directly in front of them was a wide bridge that
was formed from the ubiquitous blue crystal.  It extended out over the
shaft, ending at a round platform located at the shaft's centre.  Kunou
took a tentative step out onto the bridge, placing his palms flat on the
waist-high railing and peering down.
     Because the inner surface of the shaft consisted of the gently
glowing crystal, Kunou could see that it extended straight down for a
very, very long way.  Perhaps forever, his befuddled senses insisted.
At any rate, he could see no bottom, only straight smooth walls
arrowing away into infinity.  Cool air wafted upwards in a gentle
breeze, and it seemed to him that a subtle babble of voices was carried
on it, voices that whispered and gibbered and screamed and argued
and warned that this was no place no place for no place ...
     No.  No voices.  Only the wind.
     "Uh, Kunou," Nabiki said tightly.  "Am I crazy, or does this
thing go up as far as it does down?"  Happy for an excuse to look
away from the dizzying depths, he followed Nabiki's gaze upwards.
     His mind rebelled at what he saw.
     "We did not come down far enough for that to be possible," he
said, feeling his eyebrow twitch.
     "I know that," Nabiki replied reasonably.  "You know that.
The laws of logic and common sense, however, have not yet been
informed."  The shaft did appear, in fact, to extend upwards for a very
long way, perhaps miles.  Which, of course, was totally ludicrous.  It
couldn't possibly extend that far without breaking out into open air.
They should, by rights, be able to see the sky.
     "An illusion," he announced with a resolve he did not feel.  "A trick
of light and distance."
     "Right," Nabiki said in a tone that clearly indicated what she
thought of his explanation.  The rogue breeze ruffled his hair lightly, and
again it seemed as if voices rode it, mocking and sobbing and warning
of madness which lurked in places where man's laws and knowledge
held no sway.  A line from a poem came to mind as he stood there:
     "Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
      Through caverns measureless to man
      Down to a sunless sea."
     He didn't realize he'd spoken the words aloud until Nabiki shot
him a black look.
     "Oh, thank-you," Nabiki muttered tersely.  "That was VERY
comforting."
     "If you are seeking comfort, you have definitely come to the
wrong place," Kunou informed her.  She gave him a crooked grin.
     "Point taken," she replied dryly.  "Well, then.  The only thing
left is for us to cross the Gorge of Eternal Peril and see what's out there
in the middle.  Right?"
     "Having come this far, that would seem to make sense," he
agreed, noting absently how dry his mouth was.
     "You first," she said magnanimously, and he realized that she
was as nervous as he was.  No, be honest, he told himself.  Nervous
does not do this feeling credit.  Exhilaration, terror, anticipation, awe ...
any and all of those would apply.  And yet, he never seriously
considered turning back.  This was his struggle now, his burden to
shoulder, his duty to fulfill.  He owed it to all those who had served the
cause over the years, those who, like the strange couple below, had
died of that service, their deaths sometimes harsh or lonely, but always
premature.  Someone had to remember their sacrifice, and honour it.
     And so he started across.
     The bridge seemed to be an extension of the rim of the shaft,
and it thrust out into space, unsupported in any way that he could see.
It was reassuringly solid, though, feeling as firm and unyielding as the
floor as he strode out.  Preferring not to be tempted by the mesmerizing
depths, he kept to the middle of the bridge, not at all surprised when
Nabiki stepped up beside him.  He noticed her rubbing her forearm
with one hand, as if chilled, and indeed there were goosebumps along
the back of her arm.  He was certain, however, that they were not
caused by anything as mundane as temperature.
     "You feel it too," he said.  It was not a question.  The sense of
something, some throbbing, pulsating power lurking just beyond the
periphery of human perception, was increasing.  There was another
brush of phantom voices against his mind, maddeningly
incomprehensible, then gone.  Nabiki looked as if she were going to fire
off one of her patented wisecracks for a moment, then she swallowed
and looked away.
     "Yes," she admitted.  "What IS it?  Do you know?"  He smiled
ruefully.
     "It is the power that sleeps here," he said softly as they walked.
"I have always thought of this power as a thing alive in some way,
although dormant.  Perhaps it is a fallen god, or something that lived on
our earth when it was young, something that still somehow remains."
     "A god," Nabiki breathed.  "And you control it."
     "No," he snapped, more harshly than he'd intended.  She
frowned, and he took a breath.
     "No," he repeated, softer this time.  "We do not control it.  We
guard its resting place.  THAT is our duty.  Listen to me, Nabiki.
Remember the dream, the tower and the eye?"  Something flickered in
her eyes at that.
     "I'm not likely to forget," she replied flatly.  He nodded his
understanding.
     "I think that dream is a warning of sorts.  The tower represents
the resting place, and the eye represents the being itself.  When called
forth, awakened, its mere gaze wreaks havoc upon everything.  That
could mean that it is antithetical to us, or that it possesses knowledge
that man is not meant to have."  Nabiki cocked her head and gazed up
at him, an unreadable expression in her eyes.
     "That's an interesting theory, Kunou, but maybe you've got it
wrong," she said with an unnerving half-smile.  His eyes narrowed.
     "What do you mean?"
     "You think this thing is alive, and this is its resting place that
must be defended.  Well, have you considered that this place might be
a prison?  Maybe this creature wanted to destroy us, and so it was
imprisoned a very long time ago, and your people were charged with
guarding it.  That would explain why it destroys everything in the
dream."  Icy talons toyed with the flesh at the nape of his neck.  He
never had considered things that way, had he?  And as he thought
about Nabiki's words, he couldn't bring himself to believe that the
power sealed here was evil.  Destructive, perhaps.  Dangerous, most
definitely.  But not evil.
     "It is all just speculation, though, is it not?" he asked with
deliberate casualness.  Nabiki nodded knowingly.
     "All right, Kunou.  Have it your way.  But tell me something, do
you think this thing, if it is alive, is aware of us?"  He had wondered that
himself, many times.  But Nabiki's question made him think of the latest
dream, the one void of the otherworldly terror he had come to expect.
He had dreamt of the day he and Kazuhiro had ventured across the
threshold of this place, had dreamt of seeing the pendant.  Then, mere
days later, this sorceress showed up, claiming ownership of said
pendant.  He'd wondered at the time, and now wondered again: had
the dream been random?  Or had something been sending him a sort of
message?  Was it possible that the Eye of his dreams had dreams of its
own?  Did it dream of strange little creatures who lived bizarre little
mayfly lives, fought and loved and died under the light of sun and moon
and stars that were denied to it, perhaps forever?
     And if so, had it come to know them, understand them?  Was it
trying to help Tatewaki Kunou, or did it want to engineer its own
freedom?
     So many questions without answers.
     "I cannot answer your question," he told her at last.  "Perhaps,
in the course of things, we shall find some answers.  Somehow."
     "Well, we're about to answer the one about what's out here,"
she said, a kind of low-key manic intensity tinging her voice.  They
were nearly at the centre of the shaft, and he studied their destination
carefully.  The bottom of the round platform curved down below them
in an oblong spherical shape, like half of an egg.  Above the platform
several large slabs of crystal hung, motionless and completely
unsupported, in the air.  They were roughly diamond-shaped, wider in
the middle but tapering to narrower ends which were flat instead of
pointed.  An even dozen of these slabs, each appearing as large as a
man, formed a ring around the periphery of the platform.
     Then there was the platform itself.  It was quite wide, and he
could make out some sort of obelisk or marker in the middle of it.  It
towered over them as they came closer, its peak even with the eerily
floating slabs,  narrower at the top than the bottom.  To his eyes it
appeared to be made of some dark material, but as they stepped
tentatively onto the platform, he saw that he was mistaken.  It, too, was
made of the blue crystal.  The reason it appeared dark was that the
crystal lacked the cool, even glow that pervaded the chamber.  They
stepped closer to it, and he had to suppress a shudder as a single voice
whispered through his mind briefly, the strange musical words tauntingly
close to comprehension before they danced away.
     They regarded the object with a silence that was almost
reverent.  Kunou gingerly moved closer, ignoring the unsettling
sensation of gut-twisting disorientation that swept through his body like
an icy mist.
     "What is it?" Nabiki whispered.  He shook his head.  Frankly, he
had no earthly idea.  The pillar was featureless and dark, but within
there was just the faintest impression of slightly darker lines, writing
perhaps.  He squinted but couldn't make anything out.  Hesitantly, he
reached his hand out.
     "Kunou!" Nabiki hissed.  He ignored her, letting his fingertips
brush lightly against the smooth surface of the pillar.
     And there was a blinding flash and he heard
     he heard
     a chanting, many voices raised as one in a soul-numbing choir
filled with longing and adoration and madness and he heard
     he heard
     a thrumming, as if a titanic heart was beating within the earth,
driving molten lava through the veins of the world, and he
     he
     he saw.
     He SAW.  He saw
     he saw
     a titanic wall of darkness rushing toward him, swamping
everything.  Something, too small to see clearly, was in its path, and just
before it was swallowed there was a flash of blue light.  Then the
rushing darkness overtook it, churning and roiling with all the rage and
hatred of the light that ever was.  And he saw
     he saw
     a girl, a girl he didn't know.  She was tall and had long dark
hair, tied tightly back, and a severe expression, and she was staring at
him as if she couldn't figure out whether to be angry or not.
     "Tatewaki Kunou," she said frostily, "are you trying to make a
fool of me?"  And he saw
     he saw
     his sister, her dark eyes blazing angry red as she crushed a back
rose in her fist, droplets of blood oozing through the clenched fingers to
drip slowly from her trembling hand.
     "Don't feel sorry for me," she hissed.  "Don't you dare.  You're
going to suffer for everything you did, everything you BOTH did.
You're going to suffer a hundred times worse than I did, I promise you
that.  Oh, how you're going to suffer!"  And he saw
     he saw
     his hated foe, the cur Saotome, only there were two of him
again.  One had a long braid down his back, the other a stark white
streak in his hair, and a wind played over them as they stood beside
each other.  One let a strange, key-shaped piece of crystal dangle from
his fist, swinging it in slow arcs as he spoke.
     "I just can't help feeling sort of ... guilty," he said, shaking his
head.
     "Don't," the other replied.  "Akane approves.  And I think
yours would have, too."
     "And you?  What do you think?"  A grin.
     "I think you bit off more than you can chew, my friend."
Laughter, genuine but trailing off all too soon.  The one holding the key
stared into its depths as if mesmerized.
     "Yeah," he said softly.  "The story of my life ..."
     and he saw
     the key in the hated Saotome's hand, glowing with a searing
blue fire, expanding in his view as the image fragmented, becoming
many, becoming different, becoming all possible
     all
     possible images every possibility too
     many to focus
     on ...
 

     "KUNOU!"  He jerked, snatching his hand back and
stumbling, off-balance.  There was a pounding in his chest and he drew
great shuddering gasps, as if he'd been running.  He struggled to regain
his balance, his equilibrium, blinking rapidly.
     He was in the middle of the inner chamber, standing on the
platform in front of the obelisk.  With Nabiki.  Yes.  He rubbed one
hand over his face, noting absently that it came away moist with sweat.
     "Hey, Kunou.  You okay?" Nabiki asked cautiously.  The wary way
she was studying him made him wonder exactly what she'd seen.
     "Yes," he lied, his voice sounding raspy and stiff.  She frowned,
glaring at him with her hands on her hips.
     "What happened?" she demanded.  He rubbed the back of his
hand cautiously.
     What HAD happened?  Those visions, one running into another
.. it felt as though he'd been standing there for an eternity, but they had,
like dreams, faded on his awakening, leaving only a few scattered
remnants behind.  Were they the dreams of the sleeping titan, like those
that invaded his nights above the ground?  But no, there was nothing of
otherworldly madness there.  It had been like ... seeing events that had
happened, like an especially vivid memory.
     But memory was a poor choice of words, since he had not
witnessed any of those events.  For instance, that girl, the one who'd
been angry with him, her face was unfamiliar.  If not memory, then
perhaps the future?  His skin prickled, pulling tightly over his bones at
the thought.  But again, no.  He'd seen his sister, and she was not in his
future.  Her future had been cut short by her love for an unworthy
knave on a blood-soaked day not so long ago.  No, no future for
Kodachi.
     He recalled the way the images had split at the end, and his
eyes narrowed thoughtfully.  Possible futures, then.  Perhaps that was it.
Some could never come to pass, like his vision of Kodachi, but others
might yet occur.  And then he remembered something else, the key
shaped crystal he'd seen in one of the Saotome twin's hands.  It was
familiar to him somehow, the memory lurking maddeningly below the
surface, refusing to come forth.
     "All right," Nabiki said, snapping him out of his reverie.  "I
guess I'll just have to find out for myself."  She turned and stepped
forward, reaching out to the obelisk.  He caught her hand just before it
reached the dark surface and held it tightly, waiting until she turned her
arch gaze to him.
     "Problem?" she asked innocently.
     "I do not believe that is wise," he chided.  "The experience is
most ... unsettling."  She sighed and pulled her hand back.  He let her.
     "Explain," she prompted him.  He shook his head.
     "I am not certain that I can," he admitted.  "It was like seeing
visions ..."  She frowned.
     "Like those dreams?" she asked.  He shrugged.
     "Yes and no.  At any rate, I do not think it wise for us to
meddle with this further.  I, for one, have learned the hard way that
meddling with things one does not understand can bring tragedy.
Perhaps the writings in the catacombs can shed more light on the
purpose of this structure.  In the meantime, I suggest we retrieve the
pendant and leave things be."
     "For now," Nabiki added.  He nodded.
     "Yes.  For now."  They turned and started back, and he
marvelled at the cold and majestic beauty of this place, the heart of the
estate's secrets.  For so long he had lacked the courage to face this
place again, to dare the threshold as he and Kazuhiro had on that fateful
day.  Now he was glad he'd finally come again, all the way this time.  If
he was to be the Guardian, then he wanted to know what it was he
guarded.  And why.  He still had no answers to most of his questions,
but he told himself that he would find answers.  He was determined,
and his determination would see him through.
     Eventually.

***

     Reiko stood, her feet on one rung of the ladder, her crossed
arms supporting her chin and resting on the edge of the roof.  Ryouga
hadn't seen her yet, and was still going through his exercises.  She
watched him with a tiny grin playing at her lips.  The guy could be so
bashful, she never would have believed how good he was at martial
arts.  He moved smoothly, flowing from one movement to the next,
using some sort of umbrella as a weapon at times.  Judging from the
sky, he'd need that for more than just a weapon before the day was
out, too.
     Finally, he stopped, a fine sheen of sweat covering his face and
bare, smoothly muscled arms.  He bent over to snatch a towel from the
edge of the roof, and she impishly stuck her fingers in the corners of her
mouth and gave a loud wolf-whistle.  After taking a moment to
appreciate how his pants pulled against his tight butt, of course.
     "Nice view!" she called as he shot upright, red-faced.
     "R-Reiko!  Um, what are you doing up here?"
     "I woke up, and nobody was around," she said casually.  He
towelled off and walked towards her as she pulled herself up, sitting on
the edge of the roof, her legs dangling down inside the open trap door
that led into Ucchan's.
     "I thought I should let you sleep," he told her sheepishly.  "You
looked pretty worn out, and what with Wynneth and all, you must not
have slept much the other night."  Reiko grimaced.
     Wynneth.  That witch had haunted her dreams again, always
with her eyes full of dark promise, drawing in the unwary with honeyed
words.  In those dreams, Reiko had ended up as the beautiful
vampiress's plaything, always unable to resist her spell until it was too
late.  In reality, though, she swore that things would be much different
when next they met.  Assuming Wynneth had survived her spell, of
course.
     "Yeah, I feel better," Reiko admitted.  "So, Ukyou went to
school?"  Ryouga nodded.
     "She said she'd talk to Nabiki today, feel her out about talking
to Kunou.  I'm sure she'll have something to tell you by the time she
gets home," he told her.
     "Good.  I'd like to get this over with so I can get on with my
life," she sighed.  "That stupid old man and his letter.  What was he
thinking, anyway?"  Ryouga stared down at her, a small crease
appearing between his eyebrows.  She returned his gaze easily.
     "What?" she asked.
     "I was just wondering, what happens when you get this
pendant?  Are you going to go off hunting down demons?"  She stared
at him blankly for a moment, then broke out laughing.
     "Oh," she chuckled as Ryouga looked confused.  "Oh, that's a
good one.  Me, an intrepid demon-hunter?  I think not.  If I run across
Wynneth again, I'll make sure she gets what she deserves.  Otherwise,
I plan to steer clear of that kind of trouble."
     "But," Ryouga frowned, "I don't understand.  You're a
sorceress, right?  Isn't that what you've been trained for?"  Reiko
suppressed a surge of temper.
     "Look," she said shortly.  "I never asked for this power, and all
my life it's been nothing but trouble for me.  Well, once I fulfill my last
obligation to the old man, I'm going to start doing things my way.  I'm
sure this power can start making my life easier instead of harder."  She
swung her legs in slow, alternating arcs, and waited.  It was clear to her
that Ryouga wasn't going to let this go.
     "But you know the truth," he blurted, proving her right.  "You
know there are more of these things out there.  How can you not do
anything to stop them?"  Gripping the edges of the opening, she pushed
herself back and up so she could get her feet under her.  Standing, she
still had to look up slightly to meet Ryouga's eyes.
     "Ryouga, listen to me.  Demons and spirits and their ilk, they've
ALWAYS been with us, and they always will be, living in the shadows
and lurking at the edges of our world.  I learned all about the hidden
world in my studies.  If you remain ignorant of them, you're safe.
Mostly, anyway.  But if you go searching them out, then you end up in
the sort of shadowy struggle that can do bad things to you ... and death
isn't necessarily the worst that can happen.  If you go looking for
trouble with these things, you'll find it.  Be sensible and leave it alone."
He stared at her, disbelief in his eyes, disbelief and something else.
Don't you judge me, she wanted to shout.  Don't you dare judge me,
because you don't know me at all, so just don't.
     But she didn't.  And her cheeks felt warm under his vaguely
accusing gaze.
     "I can't leave it alone," he said at last.  "I can't just stand by
when people are in trouble.  It wouldn't be right."  She felt an
unreasoning anger at his words twist itself tightly in her gut, and she
lashed out at him.
     "Right?" she snapped, hands clenched at her sides.  "Is that
what you call it?  Right?  You fought before because you thought it was
right, and what happened?  That Kunou girl died.  Remember her?  She
died, and they stuck her in the cold ground and gave her a fancy
gravestone with some poetry, does that sound like a fair trade for a life
to you?"  He pulled back a little, his eyes widening at her vehemence.
     "That's not ..." he began.
     "Dammit, Ryouga, grow up!" she spat, unable to keep her anger
contained.  It felt good to let it out, it always felt good, even if Ryouga
didn't deserve to be the brunt of it.  "You know what?  Nobody knows
she died to save them.  And they probably wouldn't care if they
did know.  A martyr's death is pretty cold comfort, Ryouga.  And it's
not for me.  That's not how I want to go."  He just stared at her,
speechless, and she felt her righteous anger drain away, leaving her
feeling limp and foolish.
     "Ah, forget it," she muttered, turning away.  "Why do I bother,
anyway?  I'm hungry, I'm going to see if there's anything to eat."  She
climbed down the ladder, berating herself.  This is a restaurant, genius,
she told herself darkly.  There's a high probability that there just might
be some food here.
     Once inside, she headed for the grill area.  An odd disquiet ate
at her as she recalled the look on Ryouga's face, and she shook her
head angrily.  The hell with him, she thought angrily, him and his naive
notions.  I'm right.  I KNOW I'm right!
     Still, that nagging feeling of disquiet just wouldn't leave her alone.

***

     He wasn't exactly certain when consciousness returned to him.
His strange, fevered dreams just seemed to merge and swirl and
change, and then he realized that his eyes were open.
     Weird, he thought blearily.  Dreaming about some woman
kissing my neck, and giant spiderwebs ... but why was Miss Hinako in
my dream?  And ... and ...  He frowned, struggling to concentrate.
     And where the hell am I?  This isn't my room ...
     Ranma tried to move, but his body responded only sluggishly,
and his mouth was painfully dry.  He lifted his head with effort, trying to
penetrate the shadows around him.  White, filmy strands ran off in
different directions, and now that his mind began to clear somewhat he
saw that he was hanging upright, bound in them.  His arms were out to
the sides, thoroughly entwined, and the silky strands criss-crossed his
body and legs.  Below him there was a circle of light, but he couldn't
seem to focus on it.
     What's going on?  What the hell is ...
     Slowly, it began to come back to him.  Miss Hinako luring him
to that building, him running through the dark, the web and the cruel
beauty who'd bitten him ... it had all been real.
     He tried to swallow his panic.  Just what had he stumbled into
this time?
     Okay, concentrate, he told himself sternly.  Take stock of the
situation.  Trying to make his eyes focus, he looked around carefully.
He seemed to be suspended high above the floor in some dark, cool
place.  Gauzy shrouds of webbing arced away into the darkness, and
here and there he saw silk-wrapped bundles suspended in the
deceptively beautiful web.  Craning his neck he looked up, but he
couldn't see the ceiling above him.  Gingerly, he tried to move, but he
had no strength in his limbs, and the strands of webbing held him fast.
     There's a way out of here, he told himself blearily.  There must be.
And I'll find it.  Because Akane's waiting for me.
     Akane ...
     He felt something strange then, and stiffened, his senses alert.
There, again.  A slight pulling in the webbing around his body, as if
someone was pulling at it.
     Or climbing it.
     His eyes widened as something emerged out of the darkness below
him, travelling with unearthly grace along the web.  The creature saw
him watching, and smiled.
     It was that woman, the one from before.  Same dusky skin,
same mane of white hair, same sultry smile.
     The long spider legs emerging from her back, those were new.
     As she moved closer, Ranma gritted his teeth and tried to pull
loose, but his struggles only seemed to wind the strands more tightly
around him.  Attempts to focus his chi also failed, and he tried to hold
back the dark tide of panic that threatened to overwhelm him as the
woman drew ever nearer.
     Whatever she was, she certainly wasn't human.  And he was
totally at her mercy.

***

     Riana had been aware as soon as her new acquisition stirred.  The
sudden tension in the strands of her web spoke volumes to her.
Nothing happened in her web that she was unaware of.
     Nothing.
     So she crept closer to her prey, watching from the shadows as
he took stock of his situation, testing his bonds, trying to shake off the
effects of her venom.  It was quite diverting, actually, but soon she'd
had enough of merely watching.  A boy once more, he was quite
fetching in his silken bondage, blue-gray eyes seeking comprehension in
the mysterious layers of shadow.  Yes, he really was quite a delicious
treat, one such as she had not enjoyed in a long time ... handsome, with
an underlying cockiness that she would quite enjoy stripping from him.
And that deep, compelling chi ...
     She hungered for him.  And, after allowing her anticipation to
build until it was maddening, she revealed herself.
     The look on his face when he saw her was precious, and she
revelled in his futile struggles, savouring the thrum of tension that sang
through the silky strands, part of the dance of predator and prey.
Licking her lips languorously, she crossed to him, then climbed up to
where he was hanging, using her spider legs to hold herself suspended
in front of him.
     "Well, gorgeous, we meet again," she purred.  He scowled, fear and
anger mixing in his eyes deliciously.  The tendons in his neck stood out
sharply as he tried to draw away from her with absolutely no success.
     "What's going on, lady?" he demanded.  No pleading yet.  She
was impressed.  "What do you want?"
     "I have what I want, pretty boy," she replied playfully.  She ran her
gaze brazenly down his body, then back up until her eyes met his once
more.  The flush on his cheeks showed that he was not unaware of the
nature of her interest.  Smiling, she reached out her hand, letting one
slim finger trace the edge of his cheek, the ruby nail slipping down over
the edge of his jaw lazily.  Coming to rest just over his Adam's apple,
she held it there until he swallowed nervously, the taut skin of his throat
twitching.
     "Come on," he said hoarsely.  "This is crazy."
     "Oh?" she asked with one raised brow.  Holding his wary gaze,
she brought her hands together at his throat, undoing the high collar of
his red shirt.  The material parted, showing the shadowed hollow of his
slim throat, and she sighed with delight.
     Then she moved down to the next fastening.  The boy tried to resist,
which only inflamed her hunger further.  Riana slowly undid the shirt all
the way to his waist, then looked up with a wicked smile and framed
the red-faced boy's neck with her hands.  She could see the confusion
in his eyes now as he wondered what the hell she was doing.  Well, he
would find out what his fate was to be.  All in good time.
     Riana drew her hands down slowly, slipping over the curve of
his shoulders and then down along his chest inside his shirt, relishing the
heat of the captive boy's skin, the ridges of lean muscle.  She let her
fingers trail teasingly to his narrow waist, lingering there before drawing
them back up to his chest again.  The boy's breathing had become
somewhat ragged, but there was still defiance in his eyes.
     Good.
     "Look ..." he began again.  Riana wet her full lips slowly while
she gazed deeply into his eyes, then curled her fingers and drew her
long nails down his chest, applying gentle pressure.  His eyes widened,
and he shook his head angrily.
     "Will you cut it out?" he blurted.  She just smiled again,
retracing the path her nails had just taken.  This time, though, she used
enough pressure to break the skin, drawing blood.  The boy gasped
with pain, his body tensing instinctively.
     "Hey!" he gritted.  Riana pulled her hands out of the loose shirt,
gripping the edges and pulling them roughly apart so she could see his
upper body.  Bowing her head, she let her tongue trace one of the long
welts, eliciting a hiss from her captive.  Then she drew back and
captured his gaze again.
     "Mmmm," she growled huskily.  "You are a delight, pet."  He
winced but thrust his face forward as far as he could.
     "Ranma Saotome," he informed her with quiet fury, "is
nobody's pet."  She brought one hand up to her mouth, fastidiously
licking the traces of blood from her nails with slow, lapping motions.
     "Ranma," she drawled, trying the name out, tasting it.  "It suits
you.  It looks like I've caught a real wild one in my web this time, but
that's all right.  It's been a while since I've had the opportunity to break
a stallion."  The  boy glared back at her impotently.
     "I don't know what this is all about," he grimaced, "but I think
you've got the wrong guy here."  Riana flexed her spider legs, bringing
the full length of her body against Ranma.
     "Oh, no," she breathed.  "I've definitely got the right guy."  She
wound her arms around his neck, reaching behind his head to fiddle
with his pigtail.  Using one long nail she sliced the string that he'd used
to tie it, ignoring his protests as she raked her fingers through his thick,
silky black hair.  The pig tail unravelled easily under her ministrations,
and she sighed with delight as his hair cascaded loosely down around
his shoulders.
     "That's a very good look for you, Ranma my pet," she said
softly, moving her mouth next to his ear as she languorously toyed with
his unbound locks.  Nipping lightly at his earlobe, she chuckled throatily
as he jerked his head away.
     "If you think you can get me to cooperate with you this way,
you're wrong," he spat.  "I'm not that easy."
     "You are my prey, boy," she breathed into his ear.  "Your
cooperation is irrelevant.  You see, I'm not trying to convince you to do
anything.  I just want you."  Slowly she pulled back so she could see his
face, her body still pressed against him firmly.  His eyes were wide with
shock and disbelief.
     "Y-you ... you're crazy!"  She growled deep in her throat.
     "It looks like I'll have to teach you some manners, boy," she
purred.  Slowly, she moved her face closer to his, her lips curling into a
lazy smile as he turned his head away stubbornly.  Plunging her fingers
into the lush softness of his hair, she twined the long silky locks around
her fingers tightly.  Then she forced his face back to hers, but slowly, oh
so slowly.  He fought her, but he was still drugged by her venom and
couldn't muster enough strength to resist.  Soon they were face to face
again, their noses nearly touching.  She stared possessively into those
blue-gray eyes, roiling with fury and hate, and she trembled with
excitement.  This one was going to be FUN.
     "Time for your first lesson," she whispered.  Reaching up with
her free hand, she pressed her thumb against his lower lip and pulled it
down, then pressed her mouth firmly against his.
     And started to feed.
     For a moment he remained motionless, apparently determined
not to give her the satisfaction of a reaction.  Then, suddenly, his lean
body arched sharply against her, and he cried out, his voice muffled by
her mouth.  He tried to struggle again, but she held him tightly, her eyes
lidded with pleasure as she swallowed his soft, guttural pleas.
     After a few moments she drew back a bit, watching hungrily as
tiny white motes of light drifted from Ranma's slack mouth and into her
own.  Then she clamped her open mouth over his once more, evoking
another muffled cry.  This one was weaker, though, and his futile
struggles were tailing off as his strength and vitality flowed into her
through their intimate contact.  Soon, she relaxed her grip on his hair,
stroking her fingers through the tangled, silky mass slowly as she drank
him in.  She realized through a haze of pleasure that she had wrapped
her human legs around the boy's lean hips, pressing against his length as
if she could meld her body with his.  This allowed her to feel the tension
leaching from his muscles as they rocked gently together in the cradling
strands of her web.
     His cries had faded to soft moans now, much more pleasing to
her ear, and she toyed with him, drawing her lips along his to create a
silken friction, then pressing in again and drawing hard.  Against her
chest she could feel the delicate sensation of his heartbeat, like the
fluttering wings of a trapped bird.  His hot flesh burned invitingly
everywhere it touched her, and she let the pleasurable rush of feeding
on the boy's chi rush over her like a skilled lover's touch.
     Finally, she pulled her mouth away from his, gasping, and let
her head fall back, her hair cascading down to her hips in a tumbled
mass.  She moaned, a throaty, sated sound, and with exquisite
slowness brought her gaze back to rest on her delicious prey.
     Some victims died the first time, of heart failure, or shock, or
just because their chi was shallow and easily depleted.  Not this one,
though.  She laughed wildly, leaning in to trace the salty lines of sweat
on his throat with slow, teasing strokes of her tongue.  She'd fed to
satiety for the first time in ages, yet the boy was hardly affected.  He
might last weeks at this rate, if she was careful with him.
     Riana brushed unruly locks of hair from her pet's face with an almost
maternal tenderness.  Ranma was trembling in her arms, taking huge,
shaky breaths, his eyes closed.  Sighing, she embraced him tightly, and
this time he did not fight back at all.  Her long nails caressed the back
of his neck as she ran her tongue along the line of his jaw to his ear.
     "Mmmmm," she breathed huskily.  "I knew the moment I saw
you that you were something special, Ranma."  Playfully, she nibbled on
his earlobe, and once again he was too weak to pull away, groaning in
a low, strengthless voice.  Then she pulled back, gripping his chin lightly
so she could tilt his head back.
     "Open your eyes, pet," she crooned.  He groaned again, another
shudder running through his lithe frame, and she pricked the soft flesh
under his jaw with one sharp nail.
     "I said, open your eyes," she repeated, her tone sharper.  He
did, fighting to focus on her as she nodded with satisfaction.
     "Very good," she murmured.  She began removing his shirt,
tearing it where necessary to get around the strands of webbing that
held the boy in their silken embrace.  Her smile, she knew, was not at
all comforting as she gazed down into the gorgeous boy's eyes, tainted
with fear now.
     "Time for lesson number two ..."

***

     Akane rushed through the halls, ignoring calls from small groups
of girls along the way.  She'd looked everywhere, talked to everyone
she could think of, and still nothing.
     No one had seen Ranma since that morning.  Nobody knew
where he was.  And she was starting to worry.
     Just a little, of course, and it was foolish.  She KNEW it was
foolish.  Ranma could take care of himself, and anyway it wasn't all that
unusual for him to miss classes.  Miss Hinako seemed to still be out as
well, so he could be serving some sort of demented detention.  Or she
could be chasing him all over Nerima.  It wasn't that big a deal.
     Except, of course, that he wasn't here, and she missed him.
She'd looked forward to eating their lunches together, but he hadn't
been anywhere to be found.  She'd wanted to steal glances at him
during afternoon classes, but again, no Ranma.
     What's this? she asked herself ruefully.  One day without just
seeing him constantly, and you're in withdrawal?  Oh, you've got it bad,
Akane.  She ran her thumb over the cool silver of the ring, the sensation
still novel, and couldn't help but smile.  Wherever he was, he'd be back.
After all, he'd promised, hadn't he?  And they'd share a laugh about his
misadventure, and then they'd have the rest of the night together.  And
tomorrow.  And all the days after that.
     But still, she missed him right now.  She wanted to touch his
hand accidentally-on-purpose, make him grin, maybe even make him
blush.
     It was almost scary how badly she wanted to see him.
     She decided to swing by the equipment shed before she left, to
see if he was waiting for her there.  On the way, though, she was
brought up short when a figure stepped out from behind a tree, standing
directly in her path.  She gasped with horror as she recognized the
woman.
     "Miss Hinako!"  Running up to the teacher, she skidded to a stop
just in front of her.  The normally sultry teacher looked as if she'd gone
twelve rounds with a bulldozer.  Her dress was torn and stained with
blood in places, her hair a tangled mess, and her face badly bruised,
one eye nearly swollen shut.  She smiled weakly, her split lower lip
looking raw and painful
     "Miss Tendou," she rasped.  "I suppose I must be a sight."
     "What happened?" Akane cried.  "Who did this to you?"  Miss
Hinako shook her head.
     "There's no time for that," she said grimly.  Akane felt her
horror swept away by anger.
     "Come on," she said firmly.  "We'll get you to the nurse's office
first, then ..."  Miss Hinako reached out and grasped Akane's arm
firmly.
     "No," she said.  "We have to find Mr. Kunou.  Have you seen
him?"  Akane frowned, puzzled.
     "No," she said.  "I think he's already gone home.  What ...?"
     "Then we have to go to the estate," Miss Hinako said, her torn
mouth set determinedly.  "And quickly."  Akane resisted the taller
woman's efforts to pull her along.
     "Wait," she said.  "I don't understand, why do we need to see
him?  What's going on?"  Miss Hinako stared down at her, and
released her arm slowly.
     "Miss Tendou," she said softly.  "Akane.  There's been an ...
incident."  And as Akane stared at her, uncomprehending, she heard
the words that made her heart stutter:
     "It's Ranma.  He's in trouble."

***

     Ukyou sighed deeply as she let the door swing shut behind her.
The only saving grace of her day had been that she hadn't had to face
Ranma.  Strangely, he hadn't shown up for any of his classes.  Akane
hadn't looked worried, though, so Ukyou figured it couldn't be too
serious.  The idiot had probably just gotten in trouble with the principal
again.
     She dropped her bag and started unbuttoning her jacket as she
walked into the back.  So.  He'd given Akane a ring.  Well, he certainly
wasn't wasting any time, was he?  But then, why should he?  He'd
made it clear what he wanted, and now he was going after it.  And if
Ukyou had been the one he'd wanted, she'd have been ecstatic instead
of mildly depressed, wouldn't she?
     Aw, come off it, Kuonji, she told herself.  This was inevitable, right?
So pick your ass up off the floor and get on with your life.  They're
going to be married one day, and what a sight you'd be if you were still
moping about how he didn't love you.  You got to vent right to his face,
what more do you want?  A pound of flesh?
     I will congratulate them, she decided suddenly.  I'll walk right
up and say it.  It'll be worth it just to see the expressions on their faces,
and what the hell.  It's not like I have to go to the wedding ...
     Oh, please, God, don't let him invite me to the wedding.
     She noticed Ryouga cleaning out the storeroom as she walked
into the back, and smiled.
     "Hey," she said.  He looked up, smiled back.
     "Hey.  It's getting dark out, huh?" he said with a glance toward the
ceiling.  She nodded.
     "Yeah.  I think we're going to get a storm tonight.  So, where's
our sorceress?  Make herself disappear, did she?"  His expression
made Ukyou wonder just what had gone on between the two while she
was gone.
     "She's up on the roof," he said with deliberate casualness.
Ryouga wasn't able to hide his feelings easily, and it was plain that he
was unhappy.  Before she could pursue the matter, though, the phone
rang.  She scooped it up on the third ring, juggling the receiver while
shrugging out of her jacket.
     "Ucchan's Okonomiyaki," she said cheerfully.
     "Good, you're there."
     "Nabiki!  What happened to you?  I looked around for you at
lunch, but you were gone," Ukyou said.  "What happened?"
     "I spoke to Kunou about that matter we discussed, and he
wanted to come back here and get right on it."
     "Here?  Where are you?"
     "The estate," Nabiki told her.  "And we found the pendant.
Can you bring this sorceress over?  Kunou wants to meet her."  Ukyou
folded her jacket over the back of a stool while she wedged the
receiver against her ear with her shoulder.
     "Well, she didn't want to meet with Kunou if she didn't have
to.  Orders from above, or something."
     "Yes," Nabiki replied dryly, "so you said before.  But if she
wants the thing, she's going to have to convince him that it actually
belongs to her, and you can tell her I said so.  If she's determined to get
it, she'll have to come over and make her pitch."  Ukyou grinned.
     "I'll tell her," she promised.
     "Well, you should be quick about it," Nabiki said.  "It looks
like rain, and soon."  Ukyou glanced at the front window.
     "Yeah, I know.  Listen, I'll tell her what you said.  If she's as
anxious to get this thing as she says, I'm sure she'll agree.  Really, she
has no other choice, does she?"
     "No," Nabiki said.  "She doesn't.  This promises to be an
interesting evening, Ukyou.  Possibly even entertaining."  Ukyou twirled
the phone cord around her fingers idly.
     "Then I'll bring Ryouga," she said.  "I'm sure he could use
some entertainment.  See you soon."
     "Ciao."
     Ukyou hung up and sighed.  Well, well.  So the pendant really
was there after all.  Hmmm.  Maybe now they'd finally get some
answers.
     She went to find Reiko.

***

     Nabiki hung up the phone and turned back to the table.  Kunou
looked up from a stack of books expectantly.
     "Well?" he asked.  She shrugged.
     "Ukyou's going to talk to this Reiko, but she thinks it's pretty
likely that she'll agree.  After all, what choice does she have?"  Kunou
grunted in reply.
     "What choice indeed?" he asked wearily.  "If she is, indeed, the
rightful owner."  Nabiki walked over to the desk and looked down at
the pendant that Kunou had removed, with reverent care, from the long
dead woman down in that chamber.
     "What's so important about this thing, anyway?" she asked,
poking it gingerly with one finger.
     "I only wish I knew," Kunou sighed.  "It may simply be a
symbol, a badge of office designating its wearer as the head of a clan of
sorcerers.  Or it may be some sort of magical artifact.  Unless we can
turn up something in these books, we really have no way of determining
which is the case."
     "Oh, really?" Nabiki asked, raising one eyebrow.  She picked
up the pendant and turned it over.  "Oh, my.  There's something written
on the back.  Let's see, here.  `Danger, magical artifact.  Consult
owner's manual before operating.  Do not operate while under the
influence.  Do not store near open flame.  Made in Taiwan.'  Well, that
solves that."  Kunou gave her a beleaguered look.
     "Would that I had thought of that," he said dryly.
     "Yes, would," Nabiki sniffed, setting the pendant back down.
He shook his head.
     "Have I told you lately what a trial you are?" he asked.  She
cocked her head.
     "Not lately," she remarked.  He closed his eyes and worked his
shoulders.
     "Have I mentioned, then, that I feel fortunate to have your
assistance in these matters?"  Nabiki blinked, just staring as Kunou
opened one eye to peer up at her.
     "Although I believe I shall never understand what drives your
insatiable curiosity, sharing this burden has helped me keep matters in
perspective, when they might otherwise have threatened to overwhelm
me."  Nabiki leaned forward, her palms on the desk, examining Kunou
critically.
     "Was that a thank-you?" she asked in disbelief.  Kunou's
mouth quirked up into a half-smile.
     "Thank-you," he clarified.
     "Was that an offer of a raise?"
     "Let us not become carried away by the moment."
     "Ah, Kunou.  What else is the moment for?" she asked lightly.
"After all, I am your co-conspirator."  His eyes met hers, and he leaned
back slightly in his chair, resting his chin in his hand.
     "Yes," he mused quietly.  "Co-conspirator.  And, oddly, one of
the few people I can trust."  She felt oddly touched by his admission,
and instinctively sought to lighten the mood.
     "Well, let us not become carried away by the moment," she
said haughtily.  She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye.  "Uh-
oh.  You nearly smiled there, Kunou-baby.  You must know that if you
crack a smile, they'll revoke your Grim Samurai Avenger status.
You're probably already on probation for not gazing moodily out the
window and making a cryptic remark about the coming storm."  He
dropped his head with a sigh.
     "You," he muttered, "are incorrigible."  But he nearly smiled
again, and Nabiki considered that a good sign.  He seemed much more
stable these days, emerging from the shadow of his sister's death, and
Sasuke's.  And she felt like she was making progress unravelling the
mysteries of the estate.  After seeing the heart of the catacombs, her
resolve had become even stronger.  She wanted to find the answers, to
discover what that was so far beneath them, and why it was there.
Everything.  She wanted to know everything, and she wouldn't accept
that maybe those answers were buried too deep.  It was all going to
work out, she could feel it.
     And this sorceress was another bright spot.  Nabiki planned to
make a pitch to this girl, try to bring her on board.  Someone like that
would be invaluable in the new inner circle that they needed to build,
and this was too good an opportunity to pass up.  Yes, things were
definitely beginning to fall into place.
     They both looked up when the knock came at the door.  A
man entered at Kunou's summons, and Nabiki recognized him as one
of the few household staff who were around during the day.
     "Pardon me, Master Kunou," he said, "but a gentleman just
called at the front gate.  He would not leave his name, simply insisted
that I give this to you."  He handed a large, plain manila envelope to a
puzzled Kunou, then bowed politely and left.  Kunou held the envelope
up, turning it over in his large hands.
     "Nothing to indicate who sent this," he remarked.  "I wonder
what it could be?"
     "Gee, how will we ever find out what's in it?" Nabiki asked
with what she regarded as an appropriate degree of self-restraint.
"Short of opening it, I can't think of a single thing!"  Kunou glared at
her, removing an ornate silver letter opener from the top drawer with an
exaggerated flourish.  She grinned as he slit the end flap with one
smooth motion.
     The contents of the envelope slid out onto the top of the desk.
And she stopped grinning.  There was a sheet of paper with something
written on it, and what looked like a diagram or map at the bottom, but
that wasn't what caught her attention.  It was the photo, the glossy
colour image of a red-headed girl wearing a red Chinese shirt that did
that.  The girl appeared to be unconscious, suspended in some sort of
white net.  From outside the fringes of the photo, a hand reached in,
pulling the girl's head up so her face was plainly visible.
     In the stunned silence that reigned, Nabiki remembered the
look on Akane's face the previous night as she'd shown off her new
ring, and Ranma's bashful pride as he endured good-natured ribbing.
Dammit, Ranma, she thought numbly, what have you gotten into this
time?  You idiot, you'd better not make my baby sister cry.
     Then Kunou picked up the note and began to read.

***

     Akane squinted into the freshening wind.  The clouds had
gotten darker and lower, bringing an odd, early twilight.  The darkness
was echoed in her heart, shadowed by foreboding.
     Kidnapped.  Ranma had been kidnapped.  Her brief
conversation with Miss Hinako had played over and over again in her
mind as they ran to the estate.
     There were many of them.  They did something to Ranma.  He
wasn't moving, the last time Miss Hinako had seen him.  These people
wanted something, something Kunou had, and they'd trade Ranma for
it.
     Akane grimaced.  Nothing about this made sense, but then what
else was new?  She was under no illusions that Kunou would do
anything to help Ranma.  Not unless she ... convinced him to help.
     She was in sight of the main house when a weak cry from
behind brought her up short.
     "Akane ... wait!"  Glancing over her shoulder, she saw Miss
Hinako stagger and almost fall.  The battered teacher caught up to her a
few seconds later, gasping for air.  Akane still didn't know why she'd
insisted on coming along.  Her injuries must have made it painful to run,
but Akane was in no mood to be patient.  She had to talk to Kunou
right away.
     "Are you all right?" she asked.  Miss Hinako nodded, and
Akane smiled weakly.
     "We're almost there," she assured the other woman.  "Just a
little further.  Come on!"  She reached out and grabbed Miss Hinako's
arm, fairly pulling her along as she stormed up to the door, and through
without pausing.  With no idea where to find Kunou within the spacious
main house, she resorted to calling his name, reasoning that he would
find her.  Fortunately, he was nearby.  She saw a door open down one
hallway, and Kunou appeared, clearly befuddled by her appearance.
     "Akane Tendou," he said, frowning.  "What are you ...?"  He
stopped dead as he caught sight of Miss Hinako, his eyes widening in
shock.
     "What ... what has happened?" he asked as Akane stomped up
to him.  "Who has done this cowardly deed?"  His consternation was
rapidly turning to anger, and he stepped forward to take the battered
teacher's arm.
     "That's what we need to talk to you about," Akane replied
evenly, trying to remain calm.  "We ..."
     "Akane?"  She turned to find her sister staring at her.
     "Nabiki?  What are you doing here?"
     "Me?" Nabiki replied.  "What are YOU doing here?"  There
was an odd expression on Nabiki's face, but Akane didn't have time to
worry about that.  She followed Kunou and Miss Hinako into what
appeared to be a large, well-appointed study.  Kunou was very
solicitous, easing Miss Hinako gently into a chair.
     "It's Ranma," Akane said tightly.  "He's been kidnapped."
Nabiki didn't react, but before Akane could consider her sister's odd
lack of reaction, Kunou spoke up.
     "Saotome has also been kidnapped?" he asked incredulously.
Akane turned to him.
     "What do you mean, also?" she asked.  As she turned,
something on the cluttered desk caught her eye.  She felt a chill skitter
down the tender flesh at the back of her neck, and she moved closer.
Nabiki reached out and grasped her arm gently.
     "Akane, listen," she began.  Akane shook her off roughly and
reached out, plucking a photograph off the desk.  She held it up so she
could study it.
     It was Ranma.  He was in his girl form, and appeared to be
unconscious.  The edges of the photo quivered as her hand began to
tremble with a potent mixture of fear and rage.
     "What's going on here?"  Her voice was low and rough,
reflecting the turmoil in her soul.
     "I believe this explains everything," Miss Hinako murmured.  Akane
moved so she could read over the other woman's shoulder.
     The note was chilling in its brevity and tone.

     Tatewaki Kunou;

     We have the girl.  Bring the dragon head pendant to the
specified location tonight or we will return her in pieces.  Come alone.
Her fate is in your hands.

     The note was unsigned, and accompanied by a map showing
the "specified location".  Akane studied that map intently for a few
moments before looking up to meet Nabiki's eyes.
     "How long have you known about this?" she asked flatly.
Nabiki sighed.
     "The note just arrived, shortly before you did," she said
wearily.  "Akane ..."
     "Why?" Akane blurted angrily.  "Why Ranma?  What does he
have to do with any of this?"
     "I know not," Kunou said grimly.  "Clearly, the red-headed girl
was chosen in order to get to me.  Why Saotome might have been
taken I could not say."  Akane just stared at him, momentarily unable to
vocalize her fury at his obtuseness.  Miss Hinako found her voice
before Akane, and spoke up.
     "But do you even have this pendant?" she asked casually.  Kunou
nodded.
     "I have it," he said.  "But there is a problem.  The person who
claims to be the rightful owner is coming here even as we speak.
Hopefully, she will consent to using it in this matter."
     "And if she doesn't?" Akane asked, biting off her words
angrily.  Kunou smiled at her reassuringly.
     "I will go to this girl's rescue, no matter what," he told her.  She
ground her teeth together, willing herself not to shake him until his
eyeballs rolled like dice.
     "We can't just stand around here!" she shouted.  "We have to
do something!  Just give them the stupid thing, why don't you?  It's not
worth a person's life!"  Kunou regarded her gravely.
     "It ... may be more complicated than that," he said slowly.
     "It's not complicated to me," Akane growled.  "Not at all."
     "I agree," Miss Hinako said frostily.  "Why don't you show us
this pendant that is more important that a girl's life, Mr. Kunou?"
Nabiki frowned at that, staring suspiciously at the teacher, but Kunou
just nodded, reaching into his shirt and retrieving a golden pendant.
Akane started to move closer, but before she could Miss Hinako leapt
from her chair with a speed belying her condition and snatched the
pendant from a startled Kunou with one hand.  Her other hand came
up, a coin glinting between two fingers.
     "Happo Five-Yen Satsu!"  A glow surrounded Kunou, flowing
back into Miss Hinako.  He staggered and fell to his knees, shock in his
eyes.  Akane watched, dumbfounded.
     "What are you doing?" she cried.  The sultry teacher turned to
her with a sly smile.
     "Sorry, dear," she said.  "This is my ticket to the big leagues.
But don't worry.  If I know Riana, your boyfriend is already dead."
She began to raise her hands, but Akane was barely aware of the
danger.  Her vision went red, and a silent scream built to a wail in her
bones and sinews and blood.
     "LIAR!" she screamed, launching herself forward.  She didn't
understand what was going on here, why Ranma had been kidnapped,
or what Miss Hinako was up to.  She knew only one thing for certain.
If she lost that pendant, she lost her best chance of getting Ranma back.
     The ferocity of her attack allowed her to get close to Miss
Hinako before the teacher could unleash her chi attack.  Akane collided
with the taller woman and they both careened off the table and
sprawled across the desk to land on the floor.
     "Stupid little bitch!" Miss Hinako screeched.  "If you mess with
me, I'll see you die slow!"  Akane recoiled from the uncharacteristic
venom in her teacher's voice, scrambling to get a grip on the pendant.
Miss Hinako yanked it out of reach, though, and leapt to her feet.
Akane was between her and the door, so she turned and hurled herself
through the window with a crash.  Akane didn't hesitate to follow,
tucking herself into a ball instinctively as she passed through the window
frame in order to avoid the jagged shards of glass, rolling as she hit the
ground.  The heavy overcast threw everything in the yard into deep
gloom, and she could barely make out Miss Hinako's form receding
through the trees toward the wall.  Pushing herself to her feet she sped
in pursuit.

***

     Nabiki knelt beside the woozy Kunou, helping him to his feet.
     "Come on, Kunou!  Snap out of it!" she urged.  "Akane needs
help!"  He shook his head, leaning heavily against the table.
     "I do not understand," he mumbled.
     "Me neither," Nabiki admitted.  "But Miss Hinako's behaviour has
finally gone from weird to dangerous, and now she's got the pendant.
Now come on!"  She pulled him toward the door, impatient with his
weakness.
     Things were happening too fast, events were spinning out of
control ... and Nabiki had a very bad feeling about this whole affair.
     A very bad feeling.

***

     Tragus charged through the trees, trying to ignore the sharp
pain in his side, as well as the assorted complaints his stolen body kept
broadcasting from what seemed like every single area.
     Escaping from tight spots is getting to be a habit, he thought
ruefully as he ran. Second time in one day.   His breath rasped in his
throat, and his lungs burned, but exultation washed away some of the
pain.  He'd done it!  He had the pendant!  Now Riana would have to
deal with him, and after what she'd put him through, he was determined
to extract the dearest price possible.  Jubei's life, for starters.  After
that, well, just how badly Riana wanted the pendant would be the only
limiting factor.
     Of course, maybe Wynneth would care to out-bid her rival.
That could prove most ... interesting.
     Tragus grinned with fierce joy as he caught sight of the wall
ahead.  Such a trusting soul, that Akane Tendou.  She'd believed his
story, and brought him right to the pendant.  Now he had everything he
needed.  Everything ...
     "Yaaaaaah!"  A streak came arrowing from above, slamming
into him with bone-jarring force and knocking him roughly to the
ground.  He rolled across the cool grass, losing his grip on the precious
pendant in the process.  In a panic, he staggered to his feet to find
himself facing a very angry Akane.
     "You," Akane growled in a low, feral voice.  "You lied to me,
didn't you?  Why?  Why are you doing this?"  Tragus's eyes flicked left
and right in short, sharp motions, trying to catch sight of the pendant in
the gloom.
     "It's just ... a misunderstanding," he said sweetly.
Unfortunately, he'd already overplayed his hand with the girl.
     "I'm a stupid little bitch?" Akane asked tightly.  "You'll see me
die slow?  Ranma's dead?  Oh, I understood all that.  I don't know
why you're doing this, but that's not important right now.  I've got to
save Ranma, and you're going to give me that pendant."
     "Fat chance, honey," Tragus spat, bringing his hands up and
pressing the fingers together to form a circle.  Howling, he fired off a
powerful chi bolt at the enraged girl, but somehow she seemed to blur,
dodging at the last second.  The bolt slammed squarely into the base of
the towering tree that had been right behind Akane, and it splintered
and shifted, toppling directly towards Tragus.
     Aw, hell, he thought, forcing his battered body to move as the
tree toppled noisily to the ground in a flurry of snapping branches.  He
avoided the brunt of the collapse, but some of the branches caught him
across the back and legs, adding several painful welts to his collection.
He pulled himself to his feet and let out a shrill cry.
     "Oh you little BITCH!" he shrieked.  He couldn't see the
pendant anywhere in the tangle of branches and foliage.  He couldn't
see Akane either, but as soon as he could he was going to tear her
annoying little head off.  And, to make matters even worse, he caught
sight of that simp Kunou approaching from the house.  He clearly
hadn't recovered from her draining attack yet, but he was pushing
ahead gamely.  And he had his sword out.
     "Please, Hinako-sensei!" he called.  "Let us stop this insanity!  You
are hurt and confused ..."
     "Confused?" Tragus screamed back.  "I'm not confused,
moron, I'm PISSED OFF!"  He fished out a coin and raised it,
triggering a chi drain to replenish his stores.  Kunou, still woozy, was
unable to dodge, his eyes widening in alarm.
     But, to Tragus's astonishment, the blade of Kunou's drawn
sword flared with blue light, and no strength flowed into his body.  He
stared down at the innocuous coin, then back up at the sword.
     Oh, perfect.  Just incredible.  Now Kunou had the means to
block his power.  He could try another chi blast, but he didn't have
much left, and another blast would mean going small.  And it might not
even work, if the damned sword could block it.  Add to that the fact
that a very angry girl was lurking somewhere in the tree behind him, and
Tragus knew that he had pressed his luck as far as was advisable.
He'd escaped one trap today; time to see if he could make it two.
     So he pivoted and ran, angling away from the fallen tree and
towards the wall.  Kunou stumbled into a run, but was not back to full
strength yet, and couldn't make any headway.  Tragus got close to the
wall and launched himself frantically, almost missing his grip on the top.
He hung there for a moment, trying to find the strength to pull himself
up.  Finally, Kunou's cries loud in his ears, he managed to get himself
level with the edge of the wall, swinging one leg over and rolling until he
could drop awkwardly to the other side.
     Each breath was agony now, and his muscles were limp with
exhaustion.  If Kunou made it over the wall, Tragus was in serious
trouble.  Kunou likely wouldn't use deadly force since he didn't know
the truth about his dear Miss Hinako, but Tragus couldn't afford to be
caught.  There was still a dead body in his apartment, and far too many
questions that he couldn't answer.
     He staggered toward the street, squinting as bright lights swept
towards him.  He waved his hands over his head frantically, well aware
of how he looked as he stumbled into the street.  The oncoming car
slewed to a stop with a squeal of tires, and Tragus had the passenger
door open in a flash, throwing himself inside, against the startled driver.
A man in his late twenties stared back at her, dumbstruck.  Perfect.
     "Hey ..." he began.  Tragus threw his arms around the man and
stared at him, eyes wide.
     "Please!" he pleaded.  "They're chasing me!  They'll kill me!  Drive,
quickly!"  He gaped for a moment, then put the car in gear and punched
the accelerator.  The little car surged forward with another painful
squeal of tires, the passenger door swinging shut as it sped away into
the darkness.  Tragus continued to cling to the confused man, letting
him think his exhausted trembling was really fear.
     No pendant.  But he DID know where Riana was now.  And if
he stopped her before she could get the pendant and perform this ritual,
then all bets were off, and his earlier failures would be rendered moot.
And he knew just where to find the help he needed.
     To hell with the Aerkinma and all their stupid power games.  It
was time for some good old fashioned mayhem.

***

     The tree came crashing down in a confusion of branches as
Akane rolled away, springing to her feet nimbly.  She didn't know what
could have possessed Miss Hinako, but one thing was for certain.  The
older woman wasn't holding back at all.  That blast might have crippled
Akane had it connected.
     Very well.  The kid gloves were off.  Akane started to move
forward, intending to use the fallen tree as cover for her attack, when
her foot struck something hard.  She glanced down, then stopped.
     The pendant.  Miss Hinako must have dropped it.  Akane
scooped it up carefully, stiffening as she heard a shouted exchange
nearby between Kunou and Miss Hinako.
     Madness.  How had everything gotten so insane?  Just that
morning, she had been the happiest girl in the entire world, walking to
school beside her true love.  Now, less than twelve hours later,
everything was falling apart.  Her hand trembled, the pendant's fine
chain swaying gently with the motion.  She tightened her fingers
convulsively around the odd pendant and straightened up abruptly.
     No.  Things weren't going to go bad on her.  She wouldn't
allow it.  She was going to fix this, right now.  Pivoting sharply, she ran
away from the tree and Miss Hinako, and toward the wall where it
formed a corner.
     "Akane!"  The shout brought her up short, and she glanced
back to see Nabiki running toward her.  Nabiki's eyes lit up when she
saw what Akane had in her hand.
     "All right!" she crowed.  "You got it!  Look, Kunou's chasing
after Miss Hinako.  You better go help him."
     "No," Akane said.  She was impressed by how steady her
voice was.  Nabiki stopped, staring at her quizzically.  They stood like
that for a few moments, and Nabiki's eyes narrowed.
     "Akane," Nabiki said slowly.  "Give me the pendant."
     "No," she repeated.  Nabiki stood very still.
     "Don't think what you're thinking, Akane," she said, a pleading
note in her voice.  Akane backed slowly away.
     "You saw that picture," she murmured imploringly, willing Nabiki to
understand.  "You read the note.  They'll hurt Ranma.  I won't let that
happen."  Nabiki spread her arms slowly.
     "Akane, don't be rash.  Listen, Kunou's here, and Ukyou and
Ryouga are coming too.  They'll ..."
     "What?  They'll WHAT, Nabiki?"  Akane felt a tremor in her
lip, fought to quash it.  "They'll help?  They'll race to Ranma's rescue?
Hey, we could call Shampoo and Mousse too!"  She glared at her
sister, unreasoning anger threatening to swamp her.  "Maybe once,
Nabiki, it would have worked like that.  Once, but not now."
     "Listen to yourself!" Nabiki blurted.  "What are you going to
do, rescue him by yourself?"  Akane smiled then, sadly, and she felt a
hot stinging in her eyes.
     "If I was in trouble, Ranma would come for me," she
whispered.  "Alone, hurt, he'd come.  No matter what.  Because he
loves me.  And I love him, and I'm not going to do any less for him.  I
won't let him go without a fight."  With that, she spun and leapt, making
it to the top of the wall easily.
     "No, Akane!" Nabiki shouted behind her.  "You don't
understand!  Akane, WAIT!"  But she didn't wait.  The time for waiting
was over, so she sprang off the  top of the wall, hitting the ground
running.  That map had been very clear, and Akane knew where she
had to go.  She glanced down at the pendant as she ran, and the
streetlights gleamed off her ring.  That gorgeous silver flash seemed to
race along her nerves and straight into her soul.
     All the things we're going to do together, Ranma, she thought.
All the things we'll be to each other, the children we'll raise, the life
we'll have.  I won't let them take that away from us, Ranma.  I swear
it.
     I won't let anyone take that away.  No matter what.
     And on she ran, into the coming darkness.

***

     Ukyou knew things were going to go badly when they rounded
the corner only to be confronted with a dishevelled, sword wielding
Tatewaki Kunou.  He was glaring down the road, shoulders heaving
from exertion, sweat beading on his forehead.  Glancing sidelong at her,
his mouth turned down into a scowl.
     "Had you but been a few moments earlier, we might have had
her," he grumbled.  Ukyou smiled.
     "Fine, thanks.  And you?" she asked sweetly.
     "Had who?" Ryouga asked.  Reiko, Ukyou noticed, was
regarding the drawn sword with trepidation.  Ukyou couldn't really
blame her for that;  Kunou looked a little ragged around the edges, and
there was a feverish light in his eyes that was not at all comforting.
     "No matter," he muttered, shaking his head.  "Come, we
should check on Nabiki and her fair sister."  With that, he turned and
leapt, awkwardly levering himself over the top of the wall.  Reiko
turned to Ryouga, an expression of disbelief on her face.
     "Tell me that wasn't Kunou," she pleaded.  Ryouga scratched
the back of his head ruefully.
     "I'm afraid it was," he admitted.  Ukyou sighed.
     "Come on," she said wearily.  "We might as well find out what
he's rambling about."  Reiko muttered something under her breath that
might have been a curse, but followed.  Having come this far, it
appeared she wasn't about to back out now.
     On the other side of the wall, they found Kunou hunched over,
trying to catch his breath.  Nabiki was running towards him, and the
look on her face confirmed Ukyou's fears.  Kunou might get worked
up over any little thing, but whatever had Nabiki looking so worried
had to be serious.
     "She eluded me," Kunou gasped, shaking his head.
     "Who did?" Ukyou asked patiently.
     "Miss Hinako," Nabiki told her.  "She drained Kunou up at the
house before she snatched the pendant."
     "She WHAT?" Ukyou blurted, stunned.
     "Wait a minute," Reiko broke in.  "MY pendant?  This woman
took MY pendant?"
     "Why would she do that?" Ukyou pressed.  Nabiki shook her
head impatiently.
     "She's gone completely whacko," Nabiki spat.  "That's not the
worst of it, though ..."
     "So this woman got away with my pendant," Reiko repeated,
her mouth set in a tight line.
     "Yes," Kunou said.
     "No," Nabiki contradicted.  Everyone looked at her.  She
smiled weakly.
     "The good news is Miss Hinako doesn't have the pendant.
The bad news is, Akane does.  And she's gone to rescue Ranma."
     "Rescue?" Ukyou asked blankly.  What was this?
     "Who's Akane?  Who's Ranma?"  Reiko looked as confused
as Ukyou felt.  Nabiki waved her arms before everyone could start
talking at once.
     "There's no time!" she said loudly.  "I'll explain everything on
the way!"
     "The way to where?" Ryouga asked.  Nabiki grimaced.
     "To keep my idiot kid sister from getting herself killed," she
said flatly.

***

     The arsonist had been a pleasant surprise.
     Tragus had caught the man in the midst of his work, adding his
chi to the store he'd taken from the good Samaritan who'd picked him
up.  The rush of pleasure, added to the buzz of energy, helped offset
the pain from his injuries.  He'd cheerfully flung the man's limp body
over his shoulder and strode into the decrepit building.
     As he wound his way into the depths of his former home, he began
to realize why nobody was around to challenge him.  The thin sound of
an agonized scream hung in the dank, soiled air, and made him smile
unpleasantly.
     Smart, Riana, he thought.  Very smart.  It probably would have
worked, too.  But now it's going to work for me.
     He made it all the way to the inner sanctum before he was even
spotted.  Several of the Borgunma turned from the entertainment to
gaze curiously as he marched boldly into the light, still lugging the
unfortunate would-be arsonist.  He slung the poor bastard to the floor
in front of Carg's hulking form.
     "Well, well," Tragus said contemptuously, looking at the
bloodied remains in the centre of the ring of rapacious Borgunma.
Some of the poor humans were still alive.
     That situation promised to change in the immediate future.
     "Tragus," Carg rumbled.  "You're back.  And you've brought
your own party favour.  How very conscientious of you.  Looks like he
put up a fight, though, judging by your face."  Tragus shook his head
slowly.
     "Carg, I thought you were smarter than this," he said sadly.
     "He was smart enough to get the Aerkinma bitch to give us
some humans to play with!" a voice shouted from the darkness.  A
ragged cheer went up, and Carg smiled self-importantly.
     "Yes," he rumbled.  "Much more than you, with all your pretty
words, could do," he pointed out.  Tragus smiled.
     "Yes, how very convenient," he said pleasantly.  "While you
fools were in here gorging yourselves, there was no one to catch our
guest here getting ready to set this crummy old hell-hole on fire."  Dead
silence.
     "What?" Carg asked finally, his voice rusty and unpleasant.
"What are you talking about?"
     "Oh, come on, Carg," Tragus spat.  "Riana suddenly decides to
give in to your demands by giving you live prey to toy with?  Use your
brain!  She was keeping you occupied while her human minions put the
torch to your humble home!  A nice clean fire, and no bodies to explain
away afterwards ... and you bought it, pal."  Carg scowled, not a sight
for the faint of heart.  Which the would-be arsonist apparently was, as
he squirmed on the cold hard floor.
     "Why?" Carg growled menacingly.  "She needs us ..."
     "As of tonight, you became expendable," Tragus replied easily.
"She's performing a ritual to revive her boyfriend, some high mucky-
muck lordling.  You guys went from being useful to being a threat just
like that."  No doubt because of their connection to Tragus, although he
forbore mentioning that little tidbit.  "That's just like the High Court,
though, isn't it?  Huh?  I mean, isn't this why we rebelled in the first
place?"  The only sound now was a  distant sobbing from one of the
unfortunate humans huddled on the cold cement floor.  Carg shifted, his
piggy eyes gleaming in the low light.
     "This ritual," he said slowly, fury leaking into his voice like dirty
water from a sieve.  "You wouldn't happen to know where it's taking
place, would you?"  Tragus grinned.
     "I'm here for ya, Carg," he said cheerfully.  "I scored detailed
directions, and if we hurry we can take them before they finish the
ritual.  Hell, after a full scale revolt, one Aerkinma Lady and a few
pretty Baenma are nothing!"
     "And their Borgunma troops," Prokno pointed out uneasily.  Tragus
sighed.
     "Geez, how'd we ever even START a freaking revolution with
old women like you?" he snapped.  "The Ice Queen tried to fry you all
tonight!  Are you just going to take that?"  A roar rose up, rattling the
rafters, and Tragus nodded.
     "All right, then!  Let's pay them back for every insult, every
slight!  Let's pay them back in BLOOD!"
     "One second," Carg rumbled, picking the whimpering arsonist
up off the floor by his foot.  He hoisted the man until they were face to
face, the terrified human hanging upside down from Carg's huge fist.
     "Fire, huh?" Carg asked politely.  The man blubbered.
     "I-it was a simple insurance job!" he squeaked.  "I din't know,
okay?  I din't know you was here!  Nuttin' personal, right?  I won't say
nuttin' to nobuddy!  I swear!"  Carg smiled.
     "I got issues," he said, "with fire."  Then he bit the hapless
man's head off with one motion and tossed the body over his shoulder.
It hit the floor with a meaty thud, and several of the assembled laughed.
Carg chewed carefully before swallowing.
     "Nuttin' personal," he added pleasantly to more laughter.
Then he raised his head and bellowed, "WHO'S FOR SOME FUN?"
As one, the rebel Borgunma surged forward, and Tragus smiled
viciously.
     Screw subtlety, he thought.  Riana, I'm gonna see you stomped
flat, you and all your followers.  I'll teach you what it means to mess
with me.
     Yeah, I'll teach you.  Right before I kill you.

***

     "<Well, well,>" Cologne said thoughtfully.  "<That was quite
interesting.>"
     "<What was, great-grandmother?>" Shampoo asked.  The
Nekohanten was empty as people rushed home to beat the coming
storm.  Cologne limped over, her sightless eyes covered by a plain
black cloth that she'd tied around her head.  The sight of her ruined
eyes had been frightening customers away, so it had been necessary to
do something to cover them.
     "<I just had a very interesting telephone conversation with
Nabiki Tendou,>" Cologne continued.  Shampoo saw Mousse poke
his head into the kitchen from the eating area, surprise plain on his face.
Shampoo suspected her own expression was not unlike his.
     "<You're kidding,>" she said flatly.  "<What could she have
possibly wanted to talk about?>"
     "<Well, she seemed to be in quite a rush,>" Cologne
remarked.  "<But basically, she wanted to inform me that there was a
nest of demons here in town, and that they are on their way to deal with
it.  Since you have been charged with seeking out such creatures, she
thought it only polite to invite you.>"
     "<Polite?>" Mousse asked incredulously.
     "<Shut up, Mousse,>" Shampoo sighed.  She was studying her
great-grandmother's face carefully.  "<Do you think she was telling the
truth, great-grandmother?>" Cologne smiled enigmatically.
     "<Let me just say that I've no doubt she told me only as much
as she thought I needed to know.  There is certainly more going on here
than meets the eye.>"
     "<Why didn't Ranma call himself if he wants Shampoo's
help?>" Mousse asked bitterly.  "<He's just showing his true colours as
a craven coward.>" Shampoo gave him an even stare.
     "<This has nothing to do with Ranma,>" she told him coolly.
"<I have been charged to investigate these things and bring back
trophies, and I can't do that if I can't find them.  This is an opportunity I
can't afford to pass up, even if the others will be there.>" Mousse
scowled.
     "<Just like that?>" he asked.  "<You're just going to go running
off to help them after everything that happened?>"
     "<You're not listening to me, Mousse,>" Shampoo shot back.
"<I'm not going for them.  I'm going to fulfill my charge from the council,
and that's all.  Ranma will have to take care of himself.>"  And she
repeated that to herself, even though there was a strange, wistful ache in
her chest.  It won't be like that last time, she thought, when we all
fought together.  Why does that make me feel so sad?
     "<I still say he's taking advantage of you!>" Mousse blurted as
Shampoo began retrieving her weapons.  Shampoo snorted.
     "<Well, you don't have to go,>" she pointed out reasonably.
Cologne cleared her throat.
     "<Oh, Nabiki mentioned that Ukyou was with them as well,>"
she said casually.  Mousse stiffened.
     "<Oh, er ... is she?>" he asked with deliberate casualness.
Shampoo ignored him, snatching an umbrella from the closet.  A nest of
demons.  What if she could somehow secure ALL the trophies she
required in one fell swoop?  Her standing in the eyes of the council
would surely skyrocket!
     And if she had to face Ranma and Akane, well, then that was
what she must do.  She was not afraid, not of demons and certainly not
of seeing those two again.  She'd show everyone that her loss to
Mousse had been an aberration, a fluke.
     And besides, she was bored.  These days she found herself
spoiling for a good fight.
     "<Where?>" she asked simply.  Her great-grandmother smiled
knowingly and began relaying the directions.

***

     Akane stood before the door, knowing that the rapid pounding
of her heart was not totally attributable to her recent exertion.  She
squeezed the pendant tightly and took a deep, calming breath.
     It's okay, she told herself.  Once they get what they want,
they'll have no reason to keep Ranma.  And if they try, I'll make them
sorry.  A burst of hot fury swept away any doubts that tried to surface,
and she grasped the pitted door handle and pulled.  The heavy metal
door looked old and battered, but it opened soundlessly.  Before she
could think about what she was doing, Akane forced herself to cross
the threshold.
     The interior was cavernous, the high ceiling invisible in the
gloom.  Low partitions and stacks of crates had been pushed back to
the walls, leaving a clear path straight in to the centre of the building.
Akane thought she saw something lurking in the shadow of one of the
large support pillars, but before she could decide what to do about that
a figure stepped forward from out of the threatening dark.
     He appeared to be in his early to mid-twenties, tall and well-
built.  His dark hair was combed back and hung straight down below
his collar.  His cold, narrow eyes were dark as well, and his long black
duster swirled around him like a disembodied patch of night as he
walked.  In one hand he held a scabbarded katana.
     Akane thought he might have been quite handsome under other
circumstances.  As it was, the look he gave her made her flesh prickle
and tighten.  The way he moved, the way he carried himself, told her
that this one was a skilled fighter.
     "Where is Tatewaki Kunou?" he asked in a low, even voice.
She straightened, glaring back at him.
     "I came instead," she replied, surprised that her voice didn't
shake.  He stared at her for a moment, the only sign of emotion his
flared nostrils.
     "Do you have it?" he asked at last.
     "I get Ranma first," she replied stubbornly.  She kept the pendant
cupped in her hand, out of sight.  There was no way she was giving it
up until she had Ranma back.  He looked like he was going to argue
until a woman's voice spoke to him from nearby.
     "Send her in, Keisuke," the voice said smoothly.  Akane
glanced around, searching for the source of the voice but finding nothing
but a large, ugly spider on one of the pillars.  The man, Keisuke,
grunted and waved her forward.  Marshalling her courage, she walked
on toward a large pool of light, trying to ignore the slithering noises in
the darkness all around her.
     And if she wanted to falter, she just kept envisioning Ranma's face,
and that gave her all the courage she needed to go on.

***

     "What was that all about?" Ukyou asked as they ran to catch up to
the others.  Nabiki glanced back at the phone booth and grinned.
     "I had a hankering for ramen," she said.  It Ukyou a moment to
get it.
     "No way," she said, disbelief heavy in her voice.
     "What, you're hungry?" Reiko asked over her shoulder.  "I thought
we were trying to catch up to your sister!"
     "They won't come," Ukyou said, ignoring the confused sorceress.
"There's no way."  Nabiki shrugged.
     "I didn't mention Ranma," she said.  "Just that there are
demons ..."
     "You think," Reiko pointed out.
     "Let's say it's likely," Nabiki returned.  "Ranma's mom was
telling us that the amazon council wants Shampoo to hunt up some
demons for them.  So we'll see, won't we?"  Ukyou frowned.
     "That's tricky," she said.  Nabiki looked unconcerned.
     "That's right," she admitted.  "But I have this feeling that we're
going to need all the help we can get tonight."  She glanced over at
Reiko, who scowled.
     "Don't look at me!" she snapped.  "I'm just trying to get that
damned pendant back!"  Nabiki shrugged.
     "Whatever you say," she conceded.  Ukyou watched her friend
carefully.
     "Nabiki, how come I get the feeling you know more about this
than you're letting on?" she asked finally.  "None of this really seems to
surprise you."
     "That's just because I'm a pessimist," she shrugged.  Ukyou
was unconvinced but let it drop.  There would be time to discuss this
later.
     She hoped.
     How bad is this going to be? she asked herself.  Last time we
barely made it.  Kodachi died and Cologne was crippled, and we were
all together then.  What's going to happen if we have to fight?  I don't
want anyone else to die ...
     There.  She'd thought it, the unthinkable.  It had happened
once, it might happen again.  Why did this darkness have to cast its
shadow over their lives?  Why?
     She thought of the picture, Ranma's girl form bound in a strange
web and helpless, and she shuddered.  You hurt me as badly as I've
ever been hurt, Ranma, not once but twice.  But no matter what
happened between us I hope you're all right, Ranma.  I really do.
Akane looked so happy today, showing off her ring, and even though I
once believed that I would be the one you married I don't hate her for
being happy.  I just want everything, finally, to be all right.  That's all.
Is
that so much to ask?
     Kunou had stopped up ahead, peering around the corner of a
large, corrugated steel shed.  They soon caught up to him, clustering
together in the shadows.
     "Well?" Nabiki demanded.  Kunou looked unhappy.
     "That is the place," he said softly.  "I just caught sight of your
sister entering that door as I arrived."  Nabiki groaned.
     "We're too late," Ryouga sighed.
     "No," Kunou replied.  "This simply means we shall have to go in
after her."
     "People," Reiko said, a crease between her eyebrows, "there is
a SERIOUSLY bad vibe coming from inside that place."
     "There's a surprise," Ukyou said sourly.
     "I don't see any guards," Ryouga frowned.  "Anybody else?"  No
one could spot any, although the gloom around the front of the
weathered old warehouse was dispelled by a single, naked bulb above
the door.
     "If they are demons, they'll likely be waiting just inside, out of
sight," Reiko muttered.
     "Out of sight of who?" Ukyou grumbled. "This whole area's
deserted."  Reiko's answer was drowned out by a peal of thunder and
a freshening of the cool wind.
     "Kunou," Nabiki said impatiently.  "My sister is in there,
remember?  What are you waiting for?"  He nodded.
     "I am going in," he announced, drawing his sword in a smooth,
practised motion.  The blade gleamed with a deep blue-white light that
dispelled the shadows around them.
     "So much for stealth," Ryouga sighed.  "Well, I'm in."
     "Me too," Ukyou said.  They turned to look expectantly at
Reiko, who shifted angrily under their combined gaze.
     "This isn't what I had in mind," she grumbled.  "I don't usually
do freebies."
     "Think of it as payback," Ukyou said acidly, "for Ryouga
saving you from that vampire the other night."  Ryouga looked
uncomfortable, staring at his feet as an angry flush rose in Reiko's
cheeks.
     "Fine," the sorceress snapped.  "But after this, we're even, and I
don't ever want to hear about that again!  Now let's go."  They began
moving toward their destination.
     "Be careful," Nabiki called from her hiding place.  Ukyou
waved back.
     Careful.  Yeah, that would be nice for a change, wouldn't it?
     The old warehouse hulked menacingly in the dark, and an
actinic flash lit up the sky as lightning speared down out of the turbulent
clouds somewhere in the distance.  Thunder reached their ears some
seconds later, but the interval was shorter than the last one had been.
     The storm was getting closer.

***

     "Who-EEEE!  Looks like we're in for a good one!" Prokno
crowed.  Half of their group was spread out in the shadows,
approaching their target from the front.  The rest would attack from the
rear.
     "Yes," Tragus agreed.  "Nice night for a slaughter."  He was
riding on Carg's shoulder, taking in the sights.  Ah, it had been too long
since he'd been involved in a good blood-bath!  Wynneth's talk of
machinations and the subtle domination of your enemies had sounded
intriguing at the time, but there was just something about full-out raging
chaos that made your blood sing.
     "Just like the Blasted Plains all over again," Tragus sighed.
     "Except we don't have any Hellbeasts on our side this time,"
Carg pointed out.  Tragus shrugged expressively.
     "We won't need any," he replied.  "Now, let's get ready to
charge, shall we?  And remember, if you can, kill Riana first.  Without
her leadership, the others'll be easy pickings."

***

     Wynneth paused at the threshold of Shadow.  Her destination
was so close she could feel it, and she had in fact slipped a little way
into the Realm of Light at one point.  The partially completed spell
throbbed in her awareness like a rotten tooth, but Riana obviously
hadn't obtained the final element yet.
     And Wynneth meant to see that she never did.
     "All right, my darlings," she purred, turning to face her pack.
"I'll hold the way open for you to come through.  And remember,
everyone you come across is to be killed ... except the woman with the
white hair.  She is mine, and anyone who steals her from me will suffer."
They shifted and whimpered at her glare, but she was satisfied that they
understood.  She turned back to the point where she would be going
through.
     This was the last thing Riana was going to expect.  That was
why it was the perfect plan.
     Victory, at long last, was within her grasp.  Victory and
revenge.
     A beautiful combination.

***

     Kunou was first through the door, and immediately the hairs on
the back of his neck stood up, almost painfully erect.  Something was in
the air, like a powerful negative charge.  The sword's glow intensified,
and he glanced at it ruefully.  Yes, it was going to be hard to sneak
about with the sword out like this.  Fortunately the eldritch light did not
blind or dazzle, even when he looked directly at it.
     And anyway, he seriously doubted they had arrived unobserved.
     His hunch was borne out moments later as someone stepped
into his path from the shadows.  He tensed, the others stopping behind
him.  The form stepped forward with easy grace, revealing to Kunou's
surprise not a demon, but a man.  The stranger studied Kunou with a
crooked grin.
     "Step aside," Kunou said with authority.  "We have come for
Akane Tendou and the red-headed girl.  If you do not attempt to
impede us you will not be harmed."  The dark-haired stranger
chuckled, moving to stand directly in front of Kunou, just out of sword
range.  Kunou noted the sheathed katana in his hand and smiled faintly.
     "So," the man said.  "You must be Tatewaki Kunou.  I was so
afraid you weren't going to show up."
     "Indeed?" Kunou asked archly.  The stranger's grin widened.
     "Oh, yes indeed.  I've been looking forward to meeting you for
a long, long time.  This promises to be quite an occasion."  He brought
his sword up, grasping the hilt with lazy grace, and slowly drew out the
blade.  Kunou's sword immediately began to thrum in his hand, and his
eyes widened with shock.  The blade of the other sword gleamed with
a strange black light that seemed to flow within the ebon blade like
liquid night.  A line of fine symbols ran along the blade near the back,
and Kunou felt a tightening in his chest.
     It couldn't be.  But it matched the descriptions in the stories his
father had told him so long ago.  That sword had resided in the vaults
beneath the estate until the day of the great battle thirty years previous.
And now ...
     "Who are you?" he asked, his voice hoarse.  The stranger let
his sheath fall to the floor, the clatter loud in the sudden silence.  Kunou
was aware of the others spreading out behind him as dark forms began
to shift and shuffle in the surrounding dark.
     "Ah, how rude," the stranger said easily, but he was no longer
smiling.  "Allow me to introduce myself.  I am Keisuke Kunou, rightful
heir to the lands, titles and powers of House Kunou.  I am your elder,
your better ... and your cousin."  He brought the black sword up,
flowing into a stance that Kunou didn't recognize.
     "And I am your death, boy," he sneered, his eyes cold as death.
"Come, if you are not afraid, and let us see which Kunou is the better
swordsman."

***

     Akane tried to ignore the movements in the shadows, her heart
pounding wildly as she came closer to the light.
     This was wrong.  Worse than wrong.  This was spooky,
strange, and thoroughly unsettling.  She was beginning to suspect that
these were not ordinary criminals, not even the sort of weirdos that
sometimes showed up in Nerima and wreaked chaos on their lives.
No, something here was wrong, BAD wrong, something that made her
skin crawl.  Something like ...
     Like that day at Furinkan, when those horrible things had come
at them in waves, screeching and gibbering and trying to pull them all
down.
     Ranma, she thought desperately.  Please, Ranma, where are
you?  Please be all right ...
     She came to the brightly lit area, but what greeted her there
didn't set her mind at ease.  On the bare concrete floor a large, six-
pointed star had been drawn in what looked like (but hopefully wasn't)
blood.  Strange items resided at five of the six points; the sixth was
empty.  In the centre of the star was a large slab of some sort of blue
crystal that stood taller than a man.  A darker shape was visible inside
the crystal, hinting at an almost human form.
     A woman with long white hair stepped forward to meet her.
She was exotically beautiful, wearing a strange white outfit with high
boots and a cape.  The three women flanking her were just as exotic,
but they didn't appear as human.  Their strange eyes and long, tapered
ears lent them a sort of unearthly allure, and they all regarded her with
an unsettling hunger.
     "Well, well," the dusky-skinned one said in a low, throaty
voice. "I wasn't expecting young Kunou to send such a fetching
messenger."  She smiled lazily, cocking her head as Akane tried to
force her panic back down into the depths.  Those three aren't human,
she thought numbly.  I think I'm in trouble.  But Ranma's fate was
riding on her performance, and she looked the other woman in the eye
and spoke with defiance.
     "Let me see Ranma," she said flatly.  The woman managed to
appear unimpressed, merely raising one elegant eyebrow.
     "Business before pleasure?  Very well," she smiled.  "There
was to be an item.  A pendant.  You have it?"  Akane stared at her
impassively.
     "Not with me," she lied.  "It's safe.  Once I have Ranma, I'll
tell you where to find it."  A good plan, that.  She'd considered doing
just that, but she hadn't been willing to take the chance that they might
hurt Ranma if she didn't bring it.  She'd hoped she could bluff her way
out; now that plan seemed foolish and ill-considered.  The other woman
studied her for a moment.
     "Ah," she breathed.  "So.  Ranma is yours, is he?"  Akane must
have showed some reaction, because the woman smiled again, her ripe
lips curving wickedly, and she clasped her thumbnail between her teeth
in a sensuous, lazy motion.
     "Well?" Akane asked tightly.  If she only had to face these
three, she thought she might have a chance.  She saw a couple of
swords, but no guns.
     "Your Ranma is delightful," the beautiful stranger purred.  "And a
very good kisser."  Akane started.
     "W-What?" she stammered.  The woman's smile widened.
     "Oh, yes," she crooned.  "We spent the day getting to know
each other.  You really should thank me for housebreaking him for you.
And with two such delicious bodies, we were able to have all SORTS
of fun ..."
     "Liar!" Akane blurted before she could stop herself.  The
woman stopped smiling.
     "You're a pretty enough thing," she said coolly, "but quite
unsophisticated.  I'm afraid I've ruined your Ranma for a mundane girl
such as yourself.  He'll never be satisfied with you after having tasted
the exotic pleasures of a real woman."  Akane felt the heat rising in her
cheeks, and she fairly trembled with rage, her fear all but forgotten.
Who did this witch think she was?
     "Don't believe me?" the woman asked innocently.  "Perhaps
you'd care to ask him yourself?"  She snapped her fingers, and a pool
of light appeared above and behind her.  Akane's gaze was drawn to it,
and she felt a stutter in her chest as her gaze took in the chilling scene.
     There was some sort of loft back there, and above it were
strands of silk and billowing sheets, like a great spider's web.
Suspended in the strands was the pale form of a young man.  His arms
were bound out to the sides, hands dangling loosely.  Shreds of red
shirt hung from his waist, his dark hair unbound and falling loosely about
his face and shoulders.  His chest was streaked with dark blood, and
even from this distance she could see that he was still, so very, horribly
still ...
     Something in her, something that had been drawn taut by the
days events, snapped, rushing out all at once.
     And she screamed.
     "RANMAAAAAAA!"
 

end part 16