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 17:  Desperate Measures

by Mark MacKinnon
 

     Someone was shaking him.
     Ranma tried to focus on the face staring down at him, but it was
hard.  His sight blurred, doubling and tripling in a stomach churning
manner.  He should be wary, he knew that with a vague but insistent
certainty, although the reason was unclear for the moment.  Something
about spiders ...
     His vision suddenly came into sharp focus.  He was someplace
dark, lying on his back, and above him were milky white strands of
gauzy material, stretched across space like a giant spider's web ...
     He remembered then, and tried to sit up, his heart hammering
wildly, but someone's hands held him.  Frantically, he tried to break
free, but his limbs were still weak, without strength.  Got to get away,
he thought numbly, got to escape.
     That was when the person holding him spoke.
     "Ranma?"
     Akane?
     "Ranma, talk to me!  Ranma!"  He could see her now in the
dark, crouched over him, her warm eyes brimming with concern and
unshed tears.  Her arms were what held him, and his panic fled as he
realized that she was with him.  If they were together, then everything
was going to be all right.  Everything ...
     More of his memories came rushing back, and his breath caught
painfully .  The spider woman!  If she was still here, then Akane was in
danger.  They had to get out of there, right away.  He struggled to
make Akane understand, but he couldn't seem to speak.  She placed a
finger over his quivering lips, gentle and feather-light, her smile speaking
volumes.
     "It's all right now, Ranma," she murmured.  "I'm here.
Everything's going to be all right.  I promise."  His gaze shifted over her
shoulder as something moved behind her, a shadow amongst shadows.
He opened his mouth to cry out, but the words got tangled maddeningly
in his throat, and he watched with impotent horror as long, slender
spider legs twined around Akane's waist and dragged her back into the
foul embrace of the alluring spider woman.  Akane screamed in shock
and started thrashing wildly, but she was well and truly caught.  Tears
stung Ranma's eyes as the otherworldly beauty sank her fangs into
Akane's throat, and his Akane went limp in her arms, eyes still wide
with fear.  The woman caught his eye and smiled.
     "Now I have you both," she purred.  "And you can watch as I
do to your little girlfriend what I did to you ..."  Slowly, tauntingly, she
moved her lush mouth over Akane's, and he felt a dull pressure building
in his chest as he tried to move, to cry out, to do something,
ANYTHING.  This couldn't be happening, he had to save her, he had
to ...
     Akane!
     Tiny white motes of light began to flow from between Akane's
lips as the other woman moved closer, finally covering Akane's mouth
with her own.  Akane didn't even struggle, but Ranma knew she was
being drained, and he couldn't do anything.  He couldn't help her.
     No.
     No!

     "NO!"
     He sat up, panting, sweat covering his bare chest, shoulders
heaving as he panted.  The blanket pooled around his waist, and he
blinked warily.  The walls were light blue, and sunlight was streaming in
through the window.  What the hell?
     He jumped as the door banged open and Akane rushed in.
She was smiling wildly, and she practically threw herself onto the bed.
     "Ranma!"
     "Akane?"  He wrapped his arms around her uncertainly, as if
she might vanish.  But she didn't, and after a moment he hugged her
tightly, burying his face in the crook of her shoulder.  As he began to
get his laboured breathing under control, he became aware of her scent,
warm and intimate, the fresh smell of her hair and skin.  She was warm
and real in his arms, and for a moment the image of her, helpless in the
spider-woman's embrace, slammed up behind his closed eyelids with
almost physical force.  He forced the foul image away, relief flooding
him.  That had just been a nightmare, not real.  She wasn't in danger.
He hadn't failed her.  She was here, with him, and that was all that
mattered.
     "You've been asleep so long," she whispered, her breath hot in
his ear.  "I was starting to worry."  He pulled back with no little effort
to look at her, and she ducked her head bashfully, eyes full of warm,
unshed tears.
     "Akane, what happened?" he asked.  She glanced up at him,
surprised.
     "You don't remember?" she asked.  Did he?  There was a
confused jumble of fleeting images in his mind, of Miss Hinako, and a
dark place, and the beautiful spider-woman ...
     He flashed on the web then, and the woman's mocking laugh,
and stiffened.
     "Where am I?  How did I get here?" he blurted.  Akane just
giggled, almost giddily.
     "As soon as you ask for something to eat, I'll know you're
back to normal," she sighed.  He blushed at that, still confused, and her
smile faded at his expression.
     "You're safe now, Ranma," she said sombrely.  "And we're
together.  That's what matters."  He nodded, wiping the sweat from his
forehead with the back of his forearm.  He'd find out how she'd
rescued him soon enough.  For now, he could barely think straight, and
all he wanted was to hold her tightly, to assure himself that the dream
had been just that, and that she was safe.  As if reading his thoughts,
she pressed close to him once more, mischief dancing in her eyes.
     "I'm glad you're okay, Ranma," she breathed, her cheeks
flushed and her eyes bright.  He suddenly had trouble swallowing.
     "I'm glad you're okay, too," he murmured.  She leaned closer,
and then they were kissing, all hot slick mouths and frantic passion that
slowly, oh so slowly, tailed off.  Akane leaned her head against his
chest and clasped his shoulders gently as he kissed the top of her head.
He looked down at her, his heart pounding, and as he did he saw
something odd where her blouse gapped at the throat.  It looked like a
small bruise, or maybe a bite mark.  A sudden chill ran through him.
     "Akane," he said slowly.  "What's this?"  He tried to touch it,
but she pulled away from him defensively.  He blinked.
     "Akane?"  She wasn't looking at him, staring down at the bed,
her arms clasped tightly around her body, bangs hanging in her eyes.
     "It's okay, Ranma," she said softly.  "There were so many of
them, and  I was all alone.  I couldn't let anything happen to you.  So I
made a deal."  His heart stopped then, it must have, because the
sudden pain in his chest seemed as though it would tear him open.
     "Akane," he whispered, horrified.  "What did you do?"  She
looked up then, smiling even though the tears were still glistening in her
big brown eyes.
     "SHE promised we could stay together," Akane said softly.
But she said that I wouldn't be enough for you anymore, not after
she'd had you.  So I let her fix things."  He couldn't move, and when he
looked down those soft, silky strands of webbing were everywhere,
holding him tight.  His gaze came up quickly to find Akane crawling
across the bed towards him, and something appeared to be writhing
under her blouse.  It tore easily, allowing the four long spider legs to
burst free from her back.  She reared over him, her tiny fangs gleaming
in the golden light.
     "See?" she whispered.  "I did this for you."  He flinched, a
mewling noise rising in the back of his throat as she leaned closer, those
long spindly legs wrapping around him.
     "Kiss me, Ranma," she breathed.  "You promised to love me
forever, so kiss me ..."  She pressed her mouth against his, and as his
essence began to flow into her the scream that was building in him
finally

broke

     free

     "Mister Saotome!"
     He jerked, the scream catching in his throat.  His notebook slid
from the desk, hitting the floor with a loud thud.  Everyone laughed as
Miss Hinako glared at him.
     "You had better not be falling asleep in my class, Mister
Saotome," the diminutive teacher warned, "or it'll be detention for you
again!"  He blinked, frozen in place.  His heart was still hammering, but
...
     (a dream)
     he was awake
     (all a dream)
     wasn't he?
     No, he thought fuzzily.  I was ... it was all real ... wasn't it?
Didn't I run from Miss Hinako in a warehouse?  There was a giant
spider web, and a woman that ...
     No, THIS is real, part of him argued.  THAT was the dream, idiot.
ALL of it.  Miss Hinako and spider women and all that weird sexy stuff
... man, Akane's right.  You ARE a pervert!
     No, it had been
     (real)
     hadn't it?  But then, was this
     (a dream)
     or real?  Was he awake?  Could he even remember what was
real anymore?
     Snap out of it! he thought angrily.  Get it together, Saotome!
He caught sight of something out of the corner of his eye, turning to see
Akane holding his notebook out to him.
     "Are you okay?" she whispered, looking concerned.  He
studied her carefully.  She looked normal.  Everything did.  He took the
notebook cautiously, eyes darting about as if they might catch
something out of order.
     "Uh, yeah," he replied.  Miss Hinako cleared her throat noisily.
     "If you two lovebirds are through, perhaps we can go on with
the class?"  Akane blushed and sat up straight as everyone laughed.
Ranma sat back carefully, looking at his notebook as the disgruntled
teacher turned back to the blackboard.
     This is real, he thought.  It has to be, everything's so normal.  And I
can feel this notebook, hear the chalk on the board.  I just had a
strange dream about dreaming, that's all.  Yeah.  But I'm awake now.
Really.
     I'm sure of it.
     He felt groggy, though, a touch unfocused.  Things seemed to
lurk at the edges of his vision, vanishing every time he turned to look at
them directly.
     Stop it!  It was just a dumb dream, okay?  What's the matter
with you?
     He glanced over at Akane, and started to relax.  She was real.
She was the most real thing in his life.  He watched her for a while,
warmth spreading through him.  Gazing at the board, her chin in her
hand, she gently clasped the end of her pencil between her teeth in a
way that made his breath catch sweetly.  Sighing, she turned slightly to
look at the clock.  The collar of her school uniform gapped slightly as
she did so, and he froze, the warmth fleeing in an instant.
     There was a mark on her neck. Like a bruise.  Or a bite ...
     She turned to see him staring at her, and smiled.  As he
watched, something wriggled out of the corner of her mouth, something
long, thin, and hairy ... like a spider's leg ...
     No, he thought numbly.  No, no, no.  Please.  No more.
     Akane's mouth opened slightly to let the huge, hairy spider
drop to her desk with a sickening plop.  He heard similar sounds from
all around him, but he was afraid to look.  He didn't want to see, as if
not seeing might make it not real, but at the same time he HAD to look,
because the sounds were getting closer, and the sky itself seemed to
have gone dark ...
     Please.  Please, no more.  This can't be real, it can't.  It isn't.
It isn't real!  I'm still dreaming!  STOP IT, THIS ISN'T REAL!
     And it wasn't.  Not that time.  Or the next.
     Or the next.
     Or the next.
     Or the next ...

***

     Nabiki peered through the gloom, straining to somehow
penetrate the walls of the run-down old warehouse and determine what
was happening.  Akane, she thought, why do you have to be so bloody
stubborn all the time?  If you'd just waited, you wouldn't have had
to go alone.  Did you really think none of the others would come?
     But of course, that was exactly what Akane had thought.  And
although Nabiki was still angry about that, in a way she really didn't
blame her sister.  In Akane's mind, she had won Ranma, and that
meant the others had lost him.  And none of them were particularly
good losers.  If she'd stopped to think about it, really think, then maybe
she would have realized just how selfish she was being, but her temper
and her fear for Ranma had kicked in and driven her to action, ill-
considered as it was.
     All the pain, all the machinations, everything that had
happened had driven the old group apart, perhaps for good.  But in
spite of everything, Nabiki knew in her heart that they wouldn't let
Ranma die.  She was certain of that.
     At least, not if they could help it.
     Dammit, she fumed silently, this is exactly what I didn't want to have
happen!  Foreknowledge was supposed to make our lives SAFER!  I
went into this with my eyes open, but after everything I've seen and
discovered, Akane's the one who's in danger.  And I can't do anything
now but wait out here and hope those guys can fight together and bring
Akane and Ranma out in one piece.
     It was just about that time that she became aware of a presence
behind her.
     The freshening wind had covered any sound that might have
warned her, and her heart leapt painfully as she whirled to find herself
suddenly face-to-face with a dark figure in a long trenchcoat.  Her
stifled squeak caused the figure to hesitate, then step forward where the
light revealed its face ...
     "Yukio!" Nabiki gasped, her heart still racing.  "You scared the
... what are you DOING here?"  Yukio pressed close, peering around
the side of the building.
     "I've been lurking around the estate," she murmured, staring at
the lonely warehouse with narrowed eyes.  "I knew something was
going to happen.  I just KNEW it.  And this time, I wasn't going to wait
to hear that my last child had died."  Her face was drawn, pale but
determined.
     "I heard shouting and fighting, and when I came running I saw
all of you running away, so I followed," Yukio continued, while Nabiki
shook her head in amazement.
     "Yukio ..."
     "He's in there, isn't he?  My son?"  She turned that dark,
intense gaze back to Nabiki, who was once again struck by how much
Kodachi had resembled her mother.
     "Yes," she sighed.  "But listen, Yukio, there's nothing we can
do but wait.  They'll ..."  She broke off as Yukio's gaze slid over her
shoulder, those almond-shaped eyes widening in shock.  Nabiki spun
around, wondering who else could possibly show up.
     The answer turned out to be totally unexpected.
     Dark, hulking shapes loomed out of the night, moving forward
in a loosely formed line.  The best of them was merely ugly; the worst
could have curdled milk just by looking at it.  And there, perched
primly on the shoulder of the biggest creature of them all, was
Furinkan's own Miss Hinako.
     The teacher smiled beatifically when she caught sight of Nabiki,
and that smile chilled like a November rain.
     "Why, Miss Tendou!" she called gaily.  "Fancy meeting you
here!  My, it's a small world!"  Nabiki tried to speak, but her mouth
was painfully dry and her pulse was throbbing in her temples.  The sight
of Miss Hinako sitting, pretty as you please, on that thing's shoulder,
slim legs dangling down and crossed at the ankles and one arm resting
on a horn which curved from the thing's head, just floored her.  Even
after her strange behaviour at the estate, this was too much.
     "What the hell are you doing?" she finally managed to croak.
Hinako cocked her head.
     "Doing?  Well, the good news is we're going to kill all the demons
that have young Ranma," she said with a vicious cheeriness.  "The bad
news is we're going to kill everyone else, too.  Still, you can't win them
all!"  Nabiki felt Yukio's presence at her back, unnaturally still, as if by
not moving she could keep the things from noticing her.  Nabiki shook
her head.
     "I don't get it!" she blurted.  "Why?  Why side with them?  How
could you?"  Hinako tossed her caramel hair back over her shoulder
insouciantly.
     "Because, dear, I AM them," she purred.  "Hinako Ninomiya is
no more.  This body is now mine ... as yours soon will be."  There was
a terrifying rumble, and it took Nabiki a few moments to realize that it
was the sound of Hinako's mount clearing its throat.
     "Tragus, our boys will be in position in the back any second," it
rumbled.  "Can we just kill her and move in?"  Hinako's gaze locked
with Nabiki's, and what the middle Tendou sister saw there made her
skin begin to prickle.
     "Yes," Hinako said softly.  "Yes, you can."
     And then she smiled.

***

     Ukyou tried to control the panic that welled up in her, but it
wasn't easy.  She hadn't told anybody, but after the fight at Furinkan
she'd had nightmares about those creatures, nightmares that had her
waking up in a cold sweat.  In some she was trapped alone in Ranko's
world, the last human prey left as every demon in the whole world
sought her out, chasing her through dark mazes of the ruined city.
     This moment reminded her uncomfortably of those dreams.
     "I was sort of expecting fewer demons," Reiko muttered
quietly, her eyes shifting from side to side.  "Like, maybe, one.  A
couple at most."
     "How many do you think there are?" Ryouga hissed back from
the other side, as those slithery noises continued just out of sight in the
shadows.
     "Let me put it to you this way," Reiko said tightly.  "Oh, SHIT.
Does that answer your question?"  Ukyou tightened her grip on her
spatula, trying not to get distracted.  Ryouga was looking to Kunou's
left flank, she was watching the right.  Reiko seemed to be trying to
look everywhere at once, rubbing her palms on her jeans nervously.
And Kunou was fixated nicely on the guy with the sword ... wait a
minute.  Did he say COUSIN?
     Whatever the hell was going on, all hell was about to break
loose.  She could feel it in the air, like an electrical charge, the sensation
of imminent violence thick and heady.  There was no sign of either
Akane or Ranma, though.  Some rescue this was turning out to ...
     Alerted by the loud crash behind her, she spun and brought her
spatula up quickly into a guard position.  She barely had time to register
that the door had been flung open and that someone was running in
towards them before a bolt of lightning backlit the figures with a harsh,
actinic white light.  Ukyou blinked away the afterimages, making out
two figures running full tilt, and chose the one on the right, her weight
shifting forward even as her vision began to clear.
     "Ukyou!"
     Nabiki?
     She could see now, Nabiki and a woman with long dark hair
tied back from her face, a woman who seemed familiar somehow.
     "Nabiki, what are you doing?" she shouted.  Everyone seemed
frozen in place, even the swordsman and his friends, shocked by this
deviation from the script.  "Get out!  Quick!"
     "Not a good idea!" Nabiki blurted, her eyes wide with panic.
Ukyou's gaze shifted back to the doorway in time to see a huge,
taloned hand reaching in.  Lightning flashed again, two or three huge
sheets of it detonating in the roiling clouds, and as the thunder of rent air
swept over them, the hand closed on the edge of the door frame and
wrenched it loose, the sound lost in the din of the storm.
     The door frame was thrown carelessly into the sky, catching the
first drops of rain that hammered down out of the darkness, and
something forced itself through the hole the unfortunate door had left
behind.
     With that, the storm broke in earnest.

***

     The girl's anguished scream was music to Riana's ears.  A sort
of vital warmth had suffused her now, at the moment of her triumph.
Whiling the afternoon away with young Ranma had been a delightfully
sensual experience, and it had quite relaxed her.  His girlfriend was
quite something as well; pretty enough to look at, but vivacious in her
temper and with a deep and enticing chi.  Nothing compared to
Ranma's, but still deeper than any she'd tasted in quite some time.
     Riana drew the moment out, savouring it.  The girl had the
pendant; no matter what she claimed, she would not have come without
it.  Afterwards, Riana would make her and Ranma into pets, at least for
a time.  Each could watch the other being ravished.  Yes, that sounded
like it had real potential for entertainment.
     But right now, Riana was wondering if the girl, having just been
treated to the sight of her boyfriend, was going to attack.  She figured
the odds were running at about ten to one in favour of that option.  The
girl's gaze shifted back down to Riana, and she quickly adjusted those
odds.  Call it fifty to one in favour.  There was a delicious rage in those
eyes, fierce and unreasoning.  Heat blossomed in her belly as Riana
imagined how delightful it would be to play with the girl, drawing her
into the silky bonds of her web and draining that rage slowly away,
leaving only helpless submission.
     "I have waited so long for this day," Riana murmured, lips
curled into a lazy smile.  "I do hope you're not going to ruin it by being
reasonable."  The girl didn't attack, though, even though her body
seemed to vibrate with rage.
     "What did you do?" the girl asked, her voice tight.  Riana ran
her finger lightly over her lower lip in a vaguely suggestive manner, her
gaze holding the girl's as she did so.
     "Whatever I wanted," she purred.  "And by the end, he was
begging me not to stop.  He couldn't even remember your name ..."
     "LIAR!" the girl shrieked, and this time she DID attack,
launching herself at Riana like a missile.  Riana had been expecting the
attack, though, and sidestepped easily, bringing the edge of her hand
down across the back of the girl's neck as she stumbled by.  The girl
cried out, a sweet sound, and tumbled to the floor.  She bounded back
up, though, more quickly than Riana would have expected, and lunged
again.  This time, Riana stepped in and backhanded the girl, catching
her with a savage blow and throwing her sprawling.  The force of the
impact drove the air from the girl's lungs in a sharp cry, and something
skittered away from her outstretched hand, spinning to a stop on the
cool, cracked concrete.
     The pendant.  Riana licked her lips unconsciously as she finally
saw it, gleaming in the light.
     Hers now.  The boy.  The girl.  The pendant.  And victory.  All
hers.
     One step forward, then another, her movements slow, almost
languorous, hips swaying gently, her flesh tingling with anticipation.  Her
Baenma watched silently as she knelt and plucked the pendant from the
floor, standing to regard it reverently.  With this, the final piece of the
puzzle, she could complete the spell and set her love free.  The pendant
spun lazily at the end of its fine chain, throwing off flashes of golden light
as edges and planes caught the room's illumination and cast it back.
     It really was quite beautiful.  Fitting, really.
     She was still staring at it when something tore through the back
wall of the warehouse.
 
***

     Akane struggled to bring the world into focus.  Whatever else
that woman was, she was unbelievably strong.  Akane's head was
ringing, and she shook it gently, her teeth clenched and her lips drawn
back in a scowl.
     Get up! she screamed at herself.  Ranma needs you, now get ...
the ... hell ... UP!
     She saw her tormentor then, gazing raptly at the pendant, and
realized that she must have lost it when she fell.  Her only leverage was
gone now, and her stomach churned painfully.
     Then she heard a crash, and shouts, and a long, unearthly
screech.  The woman looked away from her and toward the rear of the
building, startled.
     Now, Akane thought grimly.  She gathered her legs under her
and came up off the floor fast, ignoring the pain from her bruises.
Grabbing the woman's wrist before she could react, Akane pivoted
and knifed a kick up into her opponent's face.  She connected with
satisfying force, twisting the arm she still held as the woman fell back.
The strange beauty cried out, losing her grip on the pendant as she
crumpled.  Akane snatched it out of the air and spun, racing toward the
shadows under the loft structure.
     "Lady!" one of the others called out sharply.  "It's the
renegades!  They're here!"
     "More coming from the front!" another shouted.  Akane
ignored them.  She didn't know what was going on, but if it gave her a
chance to get to Ranma, she was all for it.  Whatever it was, the four
women didn't seem prepared for it.  By the time they began to react,
she was already past them, running all out into the concealing darkness.
She stuffed the pendant into the pocket of her skirt, casting about
desperately for a ladder or staircase, something that would lead her to
the top of the loft, closer to Ranma.
     But it was awfully dark under there ...

***

     Wynneth stood at the edge of Shadow, sensing a sudden shift
just beyond.  Something was happening out there.  Screams, and noise,
and fighting.
     Delightful.  The perfect time to launch her own attack.
     She nicked her finger with one razor-sharp fang, casting the
blood down in a series of sharp motions.  It formed a Sign by her feet
and began to glow.  Now the portal between Shadow and the Light
Realm would be held open.  She stood aside and stared at her pack.
     "The way is open," she said in a low, husky voice.  "Go forth
and strike down my enemies.  Your mistress commands it.  Go!"
     They went.  Her devoted servants hurled themselves into the
unknown howling, driven by obedience, and fear, and hunger.  Always
the gnawing, biting, maddening hunger.  And Wynneth, not one to lead
from the front, watched them go with a faint, amused smile.
     Yes, go, she thought smugly.  Draw away any distractions, but
leave Riana to me.  It is time she knelt down and acknowledged me as
her mistress as well.  Far past time.
     With that thought, she stepped across the threshold and into
glorious chaos.
 

***

     Kunou's thoughts whirled madly.  Keisuke faced him
impassively, the hard planes of his face revealing no emotion, yet hate
seemed to pour off him like fever sweat.  Kunou's sword thrummed in
his grip, all contained power, waiting for him to unleash it.
     But he could only stare.  Cousin?  Nonsense.  A trick, to try
and distract him.  Yet ...
     Yet wasn't there something oddly familiar in the lines of his
opponent's face, in the eyes, in the way he set his jaw?  Could it be
true?
     "Come on, boy," Keisuke said softly, yet still his words seemed
to carry an edge.  "Are you man enough to use that pretty sword or
not?"  Kunou shifted slightly, the other matching him effortlessly.
     "I have no cousin."  There were other things he should have
said, but that was what came out.
     "They never told you about me?" Keisuke asked, his dark eyes
gleaming.  "Well, that's no surprise, I suppose.  No doubt they were
ashamed of what they did, of how they treated my mother.  They
wouldn't have wanted to admit to their crimes, would they?  Not those
who fancy themselves just and good."  Kunou was aware of noise
behind him, someone shouting, but his attention was focussed on
Keisuke.  Barely leashed violence clung to the man like a dark aura,
increasing in intensity as he spoke, and Kunou had a pretty good idea
that if he let his guard down even for an instant he wouldn't live to regret
it.
     "I do not know what you are speaking of," he said evenly.
"But if you were truly my cousin, then you would join with us to fight
these creatures."  The man laughed, a sharp, humourless sound.
     "Join you?" he snorted.  "I'm going to kill you, boy, kill you
slow ..."  He trailed off, and Kunou blinked at the terrible tearing sound
from behind him.  Keisuke fell back, eyes widening in disbelief, and
Kunou half turned, risking a quick look back.
     He saw the others, and Nabiki was there, and ... was that his
MOTHER?  And even that paled to the nightmare vision that was
storming in through the ruined doorway.
     For at the head of a pack of baying monstrosities, riding the back of
a huge, horrifying vision from the depths of Hell, was Miss Hinako.
     And she was smiling.
     His sword thrummed madly in his hand, and he just had time to
register that the things were charging directly for them, the others
scattering.
     Then he was swept aside, striking out blindly and trying to stay
on his feet ...

***

     In the impenetrable gloom, Akane nearly ran headlong into the
stairs, managing to pull up short only at the last moment.  Her heart was
hammering in her throat as unearthly shrieks and howls broke out
behind her, echoing strangely in the cavernous warehouse.  It sounded,
literally, like all hell was breaking loose.
     But she didn't turn to see.  She didn't WANT to see.  All that
mattered was getting to Ranma before they did.
     Feeling her way around the end of the cold metal railing, she
found the first step and started up.  Her eyes were adjusting, and she
could make out the rising stairs ahead of her in the gloom.  She
pounded headlong up the stairs, the one hand trailing lightly over the
pitted railing her only concession to personal safety.  The space where
the loft opened up to allow access was a square of pulsing light,
illuminated by the red glow of that circle and punctuated by whatever
was happening out on the floor.  That couldn't be good news, but at
least it helped her see where she was going.
     She was nearly at the top when the entire staircase lurched
sickeningly.  Akane was thrown hard into the railing, crying out in pain
and alarm as she teetered, disoriented.  The stairs shifted again, sharply,
and there was a terrible noise as the metal tore apart.  She lost her
balance, and for one heart-stopping moment she was certain she was
going to fall.  Lashing out blindly, her hand closed over something cold
and solid, and she held on with desperate strength as her legs swung
out into space.  The stairs collapsed with a deafening metallic din that
drowned out her cries, and she twisted her body so that she could grab
on to the piece of railing that led up to the loft with her other hand.
     Fighting back a drowning tide of panic, she pulled herself up,
clambering awkwardly onto the abbreviated length of stairs that
projected downwards from the loft.  The entire staircase had been torn
away like tissue paper, ending between one step and the next in a
jagged border of metal.  Once Akane had managed to pull herself fully
onto the remaining steps, she glanced down into the darkness below.
     Something large hulked in the shadows, the twisted remnants of
the staircase gripped in its huge hands.  It was using the staircase as a
weapon, bludgeoning something that was out of her line of sight.
     Akane wanted to whimper, to cry, to scream.  It just wasn't
FAIR to have to fight things like this!  It just wasn't!  She did none of
these things, though; cautiously, she scooted around on the shaky
remnants of the stairs and crawled up onto the loft.  Once she was
there, she breathed a shaky sigh of relief.  Whatever had destroyed the
stairs had apparently not been after her, and she had a moment to catch
her breath ... a moment she desperately needed.
     Drawn by a horrible fascination, she crawled closer to the edge
of the loft, peering down into the chaos below.  Her gaze was drawn
first to the glowing circle, the four beautiful women still standing in its
eerie light.  They appeared to be trying to protect it from the onslaught,
striking out desperately as a wave of monsters swept towards them,
only to be blunted by even more monsters fighting back with
unrestrained ferocity ...
     Akane let her gaze wander, dumbstruck.  Creatures out of
darkest nightmare, creatures like those they had faced at Furinkan that
dark day, milled about wildly, darting in and out of the impenetrable
pools of shadow.  Their bellows and shrieks filled the air with an
unearthly cacophony, a sound to make a person's blood run cold.  But
below the horror, there was confusion in Akane's mind.
     Because the things seemed to be fighting each other.
     She watched them clash, fangs and claws and barbed tails
drawing dark lines of greenish blood, with the occasional flash as
something breathed fire or struck lightning from its hooves.  There
seemed to be no sense to it that she could see, just a chaotic melee, a
horrendous free-for-all.  Still, whatever the reason, they were clearly
more interested in fighting each other than chasing her.  Now, if only her
luck could ...
     Her breath caught in her throat as the swirling mass shifted.
There was a girl down there, towards the back and barely visible,
laying about herself frantically with something large and metal as she
fought her way through the battle.  Akane lost sight of her moments
later, but the image remained frozen in her mind.
     Ukyou?  It HAD been Ukyou, but how?  Had they followed
her here?  Had they really come to help Ranma?
     She caught sight of Kunou then, space clearing around him as
he swung his sword in deadly glowing arcs.  He seemed to be searching
for someone, but from her vantage point she could see he was nowhere
near where Ukyou'd been.
     Then she saw another person running headlong into the fray, much
closer to vantage point.  She didn't recognize him at all.  He was
followed closely by a small group of people, all unarmed.  Something
about them seemed strange to Akane, but she couldn't pin it down.
Then, as she watched in disbelief, the lead figure launched himself onto
the broad back of one of the battling monstrosities ... and began
BITING it.
     The enraged demon flung the raggedly dressed man away easily
with a sweep of its tail, but another immediately took his place.  And
the one who'd been flung to the floor with bone-crushing force bounded
to his feet again easily, as if unaffected by the blow.
     Akane edged back from the scene of carnage, looking around
her numbly.  It was too much to take in.  She just had to concentrate on
one thing at a time, and that one thing was saving Ranma ...
     (if he's even alive)
     "Shut up," she hissed venomously.  That traitorous little voice in
her head fell silent, but reluctantly.  He HAD to be alive.  HAD to be.
And she was going to get him out of this.
     She looked up, picking him out of the high shadows easily.  His limp
form was still spotlighted, suspended in the clinging strands of the
strange web.  Now all she had to do was figure out how she was going
to get up to him.  The web had to be anchored to the open rafters and
walls, but she couldn't see into the dark reaches of the ceiling.  And
anyway, he was too far from any wall to climb up and grab him.  There
were stacks of crates piled further back in the spacious loft, lurking
ominously in the shadows, though.  Maybe she could pile some up so
that she could reach him.  Chancy, but it was worth a try.  She moved
tentatively away from the light, trying to fight back the sense that time
was running out.
     Hold on, Ranma, she thought desperately.  I'm coming, so just
hold on.
     Then something grabbed her from behind.

***

     Wynneth stood still, cloaked in the shadows, regarding the
scene before her with wonder.  Borgunma were hurling themselves at
each other with savage glee, their cries rising above the fray in a steady,
bloodcurdling din.  Her pack had joined the fight, attacking anything
that moved, driven half-mad by hunger and their fear of and devotion to
their mistress.
     Wynneth hadn't expected anything like this.  Her plan had been
to draw Riana's loyal supporters away, then strike from the shadows.
This was totally unexpected.  How ...?
     She frowned and concentrated.  Ah!  There.  She'd tasted
Tragus's blood, and so could sense the lovely renegade's presence.
That must be it.  Tragus had escaped the earlier trap, and somehow
had discovered where the ceremony was to take place.  Some of these
Borgunma must be the rebels who'd come through the portal from the
other world.
     All well and good, but there was one major problem with
Tragus and her bunch showing up as they had.  Riana had pulled in
close to the spell-circle she'd laid down, along with her Baenma.  The
spell wasn't completed yet, which meant Riana didn't have the pendant.
That was good.  Unfortunately, she seemed intent on protecting her
partially completed circle, which was bad.  There were no shadows
deep enough for Wynneth to use that close to a magic circle, and with
Riana flanked by her fiercely loyal Baenma, a frontal assault would be
folly.  Plus, she would have to worry about being trampled by the
hordes of battle-frenzied Borgunma while she was distracted.  But she
couldn't risk Riana completing that spell ...
     Wait.  She cocked her head, sending a ripple through her cloak
of midnight hair.  Somewhere, mixed in with Tragus's bloodscent and
the milling awareness of her pack, there was something else.
Something familiar ...
     A slow, wicked smile spread across her face.  Someone else
who'd known her dark kiss was here tonight.
     Reiko.
     Yes, she thought.  My lovely Reiko.  How utterly perfect.
     Silently, she blended into the haven of dark shadows.
     And called out to her prey.

***

     This was madness.
     Reiko dodged frantically between two demons, both of whom
seemed more intent on tearing each other apart than on her.
Fortunately.
     They'd all become separated in the initial attack, and now she
was trying to fight her way to the periphery of the battle.  That seemed
like it would be moderately safer than being here in the middle of the
action.  Of course, in this case "safer" was an entirely relative term.
She concentrated, raising her hands in a graceful motion and unleashing
a bolt of lightning to clear her path, then bolted through the resulting
opening.
     Reiko had learned of demons during her studies, and had even
fought a couple with the old man.  She was completely at a loss,
however, to explain just what the hell was going on here.  These things
seemed more intent on killing each other than in hunting the humans in
their midst, which made no sense to her at all.
     Of course, there was no sign of the damned pendant.  Reiko
cursed under her breath as she crouched in the lee of a stack of
mouldering wooden crates.  She would never, ever admit this out loud,
but the old man was the only person she would have done something
like this for.  In her whole life, he was the only person who'd ever given
a damn about her, and even though she still hadn't forgiven him for
going and getting himself killed, his dying wish was quite plain.  Retrieve
the pendant that was her birthright.
     So here she was, but this was getting ridiculous.  If it had been
for anyone else, she'd have run from this insanity and never looked
back, but Reiko Hisikawa didn't turn her back on those she cared
about.
     Not like some people.
     She edged carefully around the crates, trying to remain
unnoticed in the shadows.  She could sense the magic signatures of
those two swords, slowly but surely moving towards each other
through the press, and beyond that the steady thrum of whatever spell
was being cast deeper into the warehouse.
     The magic of that spell throbbed in her awareness, and she
fought the urge to rub her bare skin.  The sensation that power evoked
was dark, evoking an almost atavistic fear in her gut.  She recognized
that sensation, having felt it only once before.
     Necromancy.  Someone had laid down a magical pattern of
some sort, either a containment ward or possibly a circle of summoning.
Whatever it was, people had died to make it.  And now the circle was
alive with the power of those sacrifices, alive but somehow incomplete,
as if it was waiting for something ...
     The pendant?  As soon as she had the thought, she knew it
must be true.  The pendant was the missing element in that spell, that
was why the demons wanted it so badly.  But they didn't have it yet, or
they'd have completed the circle.  And she was pretty sure that
completing the spell would be bad, at least for them.
     She was watching the roiling battle so closely she didn't notice
that she had company until a voice came out of the dark.
     "Psst!  Reiko!"  She jumped; she couldn't help it.  Her heart
hammering wildly, she turned to see Nabiki and some woman crouched
between some crates along the wall.
     "Dammit, you scared the hell out of me!" Reiko snapped.
     "Where are the others?" Nabiki asked, her face appearing pale
and drawn in the dark.  Reiko shook her head.
     "Don't know," she sighed.  "We got separated.  Geez, what a
madhouse!"
     "You're a sorceress," Nabiki said tightly.  "Can't you do
anything?"  Reiko scowled.
     "Oh, sure!" she snapped.  "I'll transform into Magical Super
Girl Reiko and send them all away with my magic wand!"  Nabiki
blinked.
     "I'll take that as a no," she said dryly.  Reiko took a deep
breath.
     "Look," she said in a low, even voice.  "Whatever caused this
fight, it isn't going to end until most of these things have slaughtered
each other.  The best we can do is stay out of the way and try not to
get noticed."
     "I can get behind that plan," Nabiki nodded.  "But what about
the others?"
     "My son is out there," the woman chimed in.
     "And my sister," Nabiki added.  Reiko glanced over her
shoulder.
     "Let's hope they all have the common sense to stay ..."  She
trailed off, eyes widening.  Nabiki frowned.
     "Reiko?" she asked tentatively.  Ignoring her, Reiko half-raised her
hand to her throat.  The bite mark there, still hidden by the unobtrusive
band-aid, had begun to throb again, gently but insistently, burning with
an unwholesome heat.  She shuddered as a cloak of phantom silk
seemed to slither over her skin.  Her nostrils flared slightly as they
caught a faint ghost of a scent, enticing and compelling, a perfume that
promised dark pleasure and willing submission, one she associated with
pale skin, ruby lips, a mane of blackest night and eyes to drown in ...
     "Wynneth," she whispered.  The phantom sensations vanished,
but the bite mark still throbbed.
     "What?" Nabiki asked.  Reiko ignored her, a sudden icy panic
blossoming in her gut.  The very thought of Wynneth made her afraid in
a way the rampaging demons hadn't.  The compelling vampiress had
stripped her of her control, had trapped her will in a silken vise with
frightening ease.  And the worst part was that she would be able to do
it again, if given half a chance.  Reiko had no illusions about that.  The
most frightening thing about Wynneth was that she could make her prey
WANT to surrender, even knowing what she was.
     That was why she had to die.
     Reiko scuttled away from the startled twosome, staying low
and close to the wall as she moved.  Maybe it was reckless to go after
Wynneth, but it beat waiting for the witch to come after her.  Because
she would, of that Reiko was certain.  Once Wynneth had her fangs
into someone, she wouldn't let go.  But Reiko had hurt her before, and
this time she'd be certain to finish the job.  If she could take advantage
of the confusion to strike quickly, before Wynneth could slip away into
the shadows, she could end things here, tonight.
     That certainly beat the alternative of lying awake every night,
waiting for her pale suitor to slip out of the darkness and ravish her
again.
     The wall shook as a hulking demon with six arms slammed his
unfortunate opponent into it somewhere ahead of her.  She froze until
the combatants had moved away, then edged forward again.  It
wouldn't do to stop and think about what she was attempting; if she did
that, she'd probably lose her nerve.  As it was, she had to call up
Wynneth's mocking smile to bolster her anger.  Anger was better than
fear.  Anger would let her become the hunter instead of the hunted.
     The almost subliminal buzz of the waiting spell was somewhere
ahead and to the left, not visible through the churning mass of bodies
but clear to her nonetheless.  If Wynneth was behind this whole thing,
that was where she'd be.  But there was no way that Reiko was just
going to charge straight in.  She was angry and she was afraid, but she
wasn't stupid.  Catching the witch off-guard was the only way to do
this.
     She slipped forward again, straining for a clear view of the
source of the magic as she came even with it.  There was a deep, even
glow, and she caught glimpses of several women around its perimeter,
but nothing clear.  Her best chance seemed to lay on the other side of
the circle.  There were fewer creatures fighting between the glow and
the loft that extended across the rear half of the warehouse.  If she
could get back there, she might have a clear shot at her enemy.
     But it's awfully dark under there, a little voice whispered in the
back of her mind as she lurked behind a support pillar, uncertain.  And
the dark is HER element.  What if she's waiting in there for you?  Reiko
twitched as Wynneth's lush scent came to her again, as if thinking of the
woman had conjured it.  But it was stronger this time, almost as if ...
     A pale hand clamped over her mouth, cutting off her startled
cry as a slim arm snaked around her waist.  She was pulled back
sharply, off-balance, against someone behind her.  Lush lips brushed
her ear gently, and a low, throaty voice whispered seductively, hot
breath fanning against her skin.
     "Reiko.  Fancy meeting you here, pet."  The sensation of
something soft gliding along her bare arms caused Reiko to glance
down, eyes widening.  Thick, glossy locks of raven hair were twining
down to her wrists, immobilizing her arms.  Her cry of alarm was
muffled by Wynneth's strong hand, and her heart was pounding with a
mixture of fear and something she didn't want to think about.  Struggling
only resulted in Wynneth pulling her closer and chuckling huskily into
her ear.
     "Oh, pet, you struggle so prettily," she crooned.  Reiko fought
down her panic, struggling to concentrate over the hot, maddening
pulse of the bite on her throat and the sensation of Wynneth's power
weighing on her like a suffocating blanket.  She tried to reach for her
power, to call it up, and it was like trying to push through syrup.
     "Oh, how naughty," Wynneth purred.  "Trying to burn me
again, pet?  I had envisioned some more ... pleasant diversions for our
evening."  Wynneth's free hand strayed lazily from Reiko's waist,
making its way slowly up her body until it reached her throat.  Reiko
whimpered as long, blood-red nails traced the edges of the band-aid
that covered the bite mark, then slipped under the corner and slowly
peeled it back.
     "Now why did you cover that up?" Wynneth breathed.  "I
marked you so that everyone would know you belonged to me."
Reiko's blood seemed to be on fire as it pounded through her veins,
and panic fuelled her frantic struggles.  If she didn't break free soon, she
wouldn't be able to at all.  But the medusa locks coiled tightly around
her wrists and arms were joined by more entwining her waist, capturing
her in a silken prison, and Wynneth's mesmerizing presence seemed to
be blocking her from calling up her magic.
     Just like last time, she thought desperately.  Do it just like last
time and burn the bitch.  Do it!  The thought that, entwined with
Wynneth as she was, she would also be burned didn't bother her the
way it should have.  She was frantic to be free.
     Wynneth traced the throbbing bite with her nails, and Reiko's
legs nearly buckled.  She cupped Reiko's cheek with her other hand,
turning her head until their eyes met.  Reiko whimpered at the flood of
dark compulsion that swept through her as Wynneth's gaze found hers.
Those eyes were as she remembered them, light drinking pools of
bottomless darkness, drowning pools that pulled her into their inviting
depths.  Wynneth chuckled again, a low and confident sound.
     "One bite allows me to cloud your mind when we're this
close," she murmured against her captive's cheek.  "After two bites,
you'll be even more ... pliant."  Reiko tried to scream, a hopeless
eruption of outrage and fear, but the sound died in her throat, emerging
as a quiet whimper that made Wynneth smile wickedly.
     "Now, Reiko," she breathed, pulling the girl's head back
gently.  "Don't be afraid.  It won't hurt.  In fact, it's going to feel
sooooo ... pleasant ..."  As Wynneth's mouth traced lightly down the
line of her jaw towards the bared punctures on her neck, Reiko
trembled with impotent rage, but that emotion seemed strangely distant,
muffled by the thick cloak of Wynneth's mental control.  Gently, lush
lips grazed the pulsing wound in a teasing motion, brushing across the
skin like a lover's kiss, then again, but this time revealing the sharp
points of her fangs.
     Come on! Reiko screamed into the void where her power
should be.  I need you now!  Burn her!  Burn!  Please oh please don't
let her please ...
     But there was only the void, dark and comforting and peaceful.
     Safe? a tiny, tremulous voice asked, and the voice was hers.
Wynneth's mouth pressed against the tender flesh of Reiko's throat,
lips parting slowly to allow those tiny fangs to dance along the wound.
     It's a lie! Reiko half sobbed, straining to reach her power,
straining to deny that part of herself that sought refuge in the dark
promise being offered.  A lie!  She's not safe!  Fight, damn you!  Fight!
     Then twin pinpricks of hot pleasure flared at her throat, and the
soft, welcoming darkness was rushing up to meet her, swallowing her
cries, enfolding her in its irresistible embrace.
     And she was lost.

***

     Intolerable.
     The word continued to rise above the inarticulate fury that beat
at Riana like a thing alive.
     Simply intolerable.
     These low-life scum were rebelling against her, their mistress,
their Lady, their BETTER.  Somehow, they'd slipped the snare she'd
set for them and found their way to this place, and now her triumph was
slipping away in a noisy tide of brawling, common peasants.  She
glanced back at the circle, still secure for the moment, then edged
toward her Baenma.  The three stood with their backs to the circle,
looking outwards, Callie and Tisa holding weapons.  They'd already
been forced to use them.
     "Tisa."  At the sound of her name, Tisa nodded.
     "Hard to say right now," the green-tressed bodyguard reported
grimly.  "Their forces and ours seem pretty evenly matched.  That's the
only thing that has spared us having to repel any sort of massed charge
here."  Her gaze swept the chaos steadily.  "If things change in the
enemy's favour, though, we'll be in a bad position tactically."  As usual,
Tisa's grasp of the situation was dead on.  Even with the spell
incomplete, none of their kind could cross the circle, so their backs
were secure.  But if the tide of battle swung the wrong way, they could
quickly find themselves trapped against that barrier.
     The need to pursue the girl with the pendant was intense, but
Riana knew she needed to stay close to the circle.  If it were somehow
disrupted, she would have to begin the spell again, and that was no
longer an option.  Not now.  And if she couldn't go herself ...
     "Lilla!"
     "My Lady?"  Lilla glanced her way quickly.
     "Take to the air," Riana instructed.  "Find that girl.  I do not
care what happens to her, but I need that pendant!"  Lilla nodded once,
and launched herself into the air, sleek black wings spreading with a
snap.  Riana turned back to her remaining lieutenants.  Keisuke was out
in that mess, doubtless seeking his cousin with murderous intent.  She
couldn't begrudge him that; in fact, she'd arranged things just that way.
But now that events had been set in motion, she was certain that
Keisuke's fury could not be controlled.  She'd seen to that.  Still, that
didn't stop her from wishing that he was at her side right now.
     "Lady."  Something in Tisa's voice told her that there was yet
more bad news.
     "What is it, Tisa?"  The long line of Tisa's back was stiff with
unspoken fury.
     "Vampires."  That one word told Riana that, no matter how
bad she thought things were, they truly could get worse.  She saw now
what had caught Tisa's eye; a human form dressed in rags was clinging
to a hulking Borgunma, chewing at the enraged creature's neck like a
rabid dog, seeking blood.  He was plucked off and tossed into the
crowd, but another quickly took his place.
     "That bitch," Riana breathed, rigid with rage.  Wynneth had
obviously been preparing to move against her for some time.  The fact
that she'd revealed her servants now meant that there was no going
back for any of them.  Wynneth had to win here tonight; if she didn't,
she knew that Riana would destroy her for this outrage.
     But how did they know where to find us? Riana screamed silently.
How?
     "There's Tragus!" Tisa shouted, pointing.  The renegade
appeared briefly before being swallowed up again by the crowd, her
slight form wreathed in a nimbus of light.  Tisa began to step forward,
and Riana reached out a hand to restrain her.
     "Tragus knows the true threat here," she said darkly.  "She will
come to us, and when she does you must kill her.  Wynneth must also
be here, and she is by far the greater threat."
     "Oh, Riana," a low, throaty voice purred, amused.  "You do
say the sweetest things."  She whirled sharply to see her rival emerging
from the concealing darkness under the loft, her pale face seeming to
float in the darkness at first, matched by a flash of long, icy leg.
Wynneth glided out towards them, her long black cloak swirling around
her as she moved, hair sweeping out behind her in a luxuriant dark flow.
A stray Borgunma started towards her as she crossed the floor and she
turned her head slightly to catch its gaze.  It froze, caught by her eyes,
then quickly decided to seek less dangerous prey.
     "You," Riana snarled as Wynneth stopped a safe distance
away.  Wynneth inclined her head slightly, as if accepting a compliment.
     "Come now, Riana," she murmured.  "Didn't you always
suspect it would come to this between us?  We both have ambitions,
but only one of us can come out on top."  It was almost eerie, carrying
on such a matter of fact conversation while chaos swirled all around
them.
     "And you think to fulfill your ambitions by killing me," Riana
said flatly.  Wynneth smiled, but there was no humour in the curve of
her ruby lips.  Only hunger.
     "Kill you?" she asked softly.  "Oh, you won't be that lucky,
lovely Riana.  I have not forgotten the humiliation of my defeat at your
hands.  This time, you will submit to me.  I think you'll make a fine
blood concubine, once you're properly ... broken."  Riana laughed out
loud, her eyes narrowed to slits.
     "Bold talk, Wynneth.  But your mangy servants have deserted you
to hound the lowlifes.  Poor discipline, just like their mistress."  Riana
felt Callie and Tisa beside her, poised to spring at her command.  She
wanted to lure Wynneth further from the deep shadow before she
unleashed them, though.  Earlier, when it had appeared she would catch
Wynneth and Tragus together near the school, she'd made plans to
take her rival alive.  Now, she knew that might no longer be feasible.
Still, if she could manage it, she would.  Wynneth would die, but her
death would be slow, deliciously lingering, and would be an object
lesson to all who would challenge Riana or try to take what belonged to
her.
     "Quite the contrary, Riana," Wynneth shot back with a sultry
smile that set Riana's nerves on edge.  "My servants are wonderfully ...
obedient."  She raised her slim arms, causing her cloak to part in a
gracefully theatrical motion.  Her lithe form seemed almost suspended in
the inky shadows within the concealing mantle of the cloak, shadows
that were strangely impenetrable and seemed to obey Wynneth like a
well-trained pet.
     As Riana watched, a hand emerged from that
darkness as if it were the surface of some black, placid lake.  An arm
followed, then a swath of blonde hair, startlingly bright against all that
darkness.  Wynneth lowered her arms to lightly embrace the girl as she
slipped from Wynneth's personal shadows, and Riana frowned.  That
girl seemed oddly familiar somehow.  There was nothing jerky or
controlled about her movements, but Riana knew this one was in
Wynneth's thrall.
     "Now, pet," Wynneth said, just as the shock of recognition hit
Riana.  She'd seen pictures of Reiko Hisikawa, and now she was
seeing her in the flesh.  And from the sudden sharp sensation of
summoned magic, her theory about the girl's abilities was correct.
     And she was Wynneth's tool.
     Then the girl was raising her hands, and a sheet of crackling
force erupted outwards.

***

     Lilla soared up over the carnage, thankful for the high ceiling.
Borgunma battled each other the way they usually did, without any
pretence of strategy or subtlety, content to match power against power.
Lilla caught sight of two swordsmen fighting their way closer to each
other, and would have loved to watch what happened when they met.
Unfortunately, she had more pressing matters to attend to.  She caught
sight of the odd human form down below, including a girl with long
brown hair climbing one of the support pillars to escape the press, but
no sign of her quarry.
     She dearly hoped that the girl wasn't still under the loft.  Lilla's
wings would give her no advantage in that confined space.  But, as she
swooped back in that direction, she finally caught sight of the girl up on
top of the loft.  A tall, cadaverous Borgunma had her from behind, and
had leaned in to whisper something in the shocked girl's ear.  Whatever
is was, she didn't like it much.  With a snarl, she stomped on her
captor's foot, pivoting to drive her elbow straight back into his nose as
he loosened his grip.  His howl of pain was audible even this far away
over the general din, and as he instinctively released the girl she
grabbed his bony arm and executed a perfect throw, tossing the
enraged Borgunma over her shoulder with such force that he cleared
the edge of the loft and dropped to the floor below.
     Impressive.  This could end up being fun.  Lilla raked her wings
back and dove down, catching the girl square in the back before she
could turn and driving her headlong into a stack of crates.  The
succubus landed gracefully on her feet with a showy flourish.  Her
opponent, on the other hand, didn't fare nearly so well, crumpling
untidily in a heap before struggling to her feet to face Lilla.
     The girl stood, shoulders heaving as she gasped for breath, and
glared at Lilla.  Her short dark hair was tousled, and her dark eyes
were wide and a little wild in her pale face.  Her dress, some sort of
school uniform, was smudged with dirt, the long skirt swirling as the girl
hastily adjusted her stance.  She would have been pretty enough, Lilla
supposed, under ordinary circumstances.  But here and now, cheeks
flushed with high temper, eyes blazing, her passionate fury made her
beautiful.
     Lilla focussed on the girl, tuning out the battle below as she
warmed herself in the glow of the girl's rage.  Lilla was a creature of
high passion and low appetites, something she never bothered to deny.
It was just her nature, and she accepted it.  Now, her blood already hot
from the surprise attack, she met her opponent's gaze and felt an
answering heat rise in her.  It had been too long since she'd indulged
herself in the savage joy of battle; their Lady did indeed keep them on a
short leash these days.
     She had been instructed to get the pendant.  Nobody had said
she couldn't have a little fun while she did it.
     "Mmmm," Lilla sighed while she let her gaze wander
provocatively over the girl's body.  "Well, kitten, here we are."  The
girl scowled fiercely.
     "The name," she spat, "is Akane."  Lilla smiled.
     "Akane.  A lovely name.  I'm Lilla, and I've been sent to get
that pendant.  Now, we COULD do this the easy way ..."  She trailed
off suggestively.  The girl hesitated, and for a moment Lilla was afraid
that she was going to be sensible after all, denying the frustrated
succubus her chance to play.
     "Bring Ranma to me," Akane said firmly.  "Then I'll be happy
to talk trade."  Lilla glanced up to where the boy dangled, limp and
helpless, suspended in her Lady's web.
     "Sorry, sweetie," she said.  "I just can't do that."
     "Because you have no intention of letting him go at all, do you?"
Akane asked tightly.  Lilla shrugged gracefully.
     "I just follow orders," she smiled.  "The boytoy stays tied up
until my Lady gets what she wants."  Akane's answering smile was thin
and humourless.
     "Then I guess we'll be doing this the hard way," she said
simply, bringing her hands up in front of her in a ready stance.  Lilla
watched her appreciatively.
     "A tough girl," she breathed, idly twining her fingers in the hair
in front of her ear.  "I have a weakness for tough girls, you know."
Akane tossed her head, a contemptuous little motion that set Lilla's
heart racing, and snorted.
     "If you want the pendant," she growled, "why don't you come
and get it?"  Lilla held her hands up in front of her face, crossed at the
wrists, and watched as her nails slowly lengthened until they were as
long again as her hands.  Then she smiled hungrily at the shocked girl
facing her.
     "Oh, I fully intend to," she purred.  "Come, kitten.  Let's
dance."

***

     Damn.
     The creatures were giving him wide berth, likely because of his
blade's angry glow, yet Kunou could not seem to find any of the others.
His frustration was steadily mounting as he tried to charge through the
fighting mob without being trampled.  He felt that this was his operation,
and so responsibility for its disastrous failure must rest on his shoulders.
Certainly, he hadn't anticipated anything remotely like this.  The foul
beasts were fighting each other, although for reasons completely
beyond his comprehension, and the only saving grace to the entire
debacle was that they appeared more intent on each other than on him.
     At least, for the moment.  Still, he had not even managed to
locate Akane or the pig-tailed girl, much less help either of them.  He'd
allowed his people to be scattered in the charge, and worst of all,
Nabiki and his mother were in here.  He'd last seen the two running for
shelter along one wall, and could only hope that they were safe.
     Oh, what a marvellous rescue you've engineered, a little voice
mocked from deep inside.  How fortunate that you've decided to
shoulder the burden of Guardian of the House of Kunou.  It might be
somewhat more impressive, however, if your entire rescue force did not
themselves require rescue before the end of the operation ...
     He clamped down on the self-doubt hard, difficult though that
was.  The best idea he'd been able to come up with was to force his
way deeper, towards the glow in the heart of the building, in hopes that
the others would do the same.  A sudden parting of the bodies in front
of him, though, brought him up short.
     There, facing him, was Keisuke, who claimed to be a Kunou.
Claimed to be his cousin.
     A lie, he told himself angrily.  Just as the false Kodachi in the
garden was a lie.  An attempt to deceive, to confuse.  Lies are the
life's blood of the enemy.
     But part of him was not convinced.  Something in the man's
easy stance, in the lines of his face, the curve of his jaw, the angle of his
brow, was tantalisingly familiar.  Something ...
     "Well," Keisuke said with that same dark grin, swinging his
sword in a short arc as he stepped forward.  "As I was saying before
we were so rudely interrupted, it's time to see who's the better
swordsman in our family."  Kunou stiffened.
     "Your claim is preposterous," he snapped.  "You are no kin of
mine.  I have no cousins."  Keisuke stopped for a moment, cocking his
head.
     "What of your father's sister?" he asked in a deliberately casual
voice that was belied by the tension in his lithe frame.  "If she'd had a
child ..."
     "My father was an only child," Kunou replied.  Keisuke began
moving forward again, and Kunou backed up carefully, hoping to make
his way closer to one of the walls where he wouldn't have to worry
about his back.
     "You really believe that," Kesiuke said, his voice flat.  "So
that's how it is.  They made my mother an un-person, erased her
existence."  He continued his slow advance, dark eyes gleaming with
some wild, barely contained emotion.  Kunou was frankly puzzled by
this approach.  Why didn't he attack now, surrounded by his allies?
What was the purpose of this charade?
     "You speak in riddles," Kunou replied, eyes narrowed.  "Do
you seriously expect me to believe that my father has lied his entire life
about ever having had a sister?"  Keisuke's lips pulled back from his
teeth in a motion that was more snarl than smile.
     "That is hardly the worst secret your precious family has kept,"
he growled.  "Oh, I can see it in your eyes, boy.  "Why does he go on
so?  Why not just attack?"  Isn't that what you're wondering?"  The
light seemed to dance along the edge of Keisuke's blade, being sucked
in as it ventured too close to the dark blade.
     "Perhaps," Kunou allowed, keeping his voice neutral.  If he
could keep Keisuke talking, he might be able to find a defensible spot
to fight.  That was his immediate concern.
     Nonetheless, he kept listening.
     "Oh, foolish boy," Keisuke hissed, his eyes flaring with deep,
old hatred.  "You have no idea how long I've waited for this day.  It
wouldn't do to rush things now, when the moment is finally at hand.
And it won't be perfect unless you understand, truly understand, the
wrongs that have been committed."
     "Against you," Kunou said.  It wasn't a question, but Keisuke
surprised him.
     "Against my mother," he spat.  "My mother, whose only crime
was to love unwisely.  She died surrounded by strangers, alone,
frightened.  I imagine how it must have been for her sometimes, in the
dark, when sleep won't come.  And my only comfort comes from
knowing that you will all pay for what you did to her."  A long, lizard-
shaped terror ventured within the clear space the two men walked in,
and Keisuke lashed out with his sword, sending it shrieking back the
way it had come.  At no point did he even take his eyes from Kunou.
     "A poor way to treat your allies," Kunou said flatly.  Keisuke
grinned, a feral expression.
     "This disgusting rabble?  I do not serve them," he replied scornfully.
"She whom I serve uses me to keep these beasts in line.  They fear me,
as they should.  As you should."  Kunou smiled back.
     "I shall have to disappoint you," he said.  "I am not afraid of
you."
     "Oh, but you will be," Keisuke murmured, the rictus of a grin
vanishing in an instant.  "As she was.  Surrounded by such ugliness as
these vermin, denied by her people, her family.  I will make you feel her
pain before you are allowed to die, boy.  I have sworn it."  Kunou shot
a quick glance behind him.  The wall was in sight, clear of combatants
although he would have to be careful around the shadowy stacks of
crates.
     "I cannot help but think you believe what you say," he said to
Keisuke cautiously, trying to keep him talking and distracted.  "And yet,
your tale makes no sense to me.  If my father truly had a sister, why
would he hide her existence all these years?  Why would our clan deny
her so thoroughly?"
     "Here we are, boy," Keisuke said, his voice a low rumble.
"This area will certainly suffice for our duel, will it not?"  Kunou realized
with a chill that, far from being distracted, Keisuke had known exactly
what his opponent was doing, and had allowed it.
     "And as for your questions, I can shed some light there as well.
You see, there is something you do not realize."  Keisuke stopped,
sword hanging loose at his side, his dark eyes locked with Kunou's.
As Kunou watched in shock, ripples seemed to run along Keisuke's
body under his long black coat.  The skin of his hands pulled tight
against the bones, and his dark eyes began to glow an angry red.
Kunou brought his sword up instinctively, causing Keisuke to burst out
laughing.
     "Now you see," he said, his voice curiously soft.  "Now you
understand."  Kunou just stared at him, dumbfounded.
     "You are one of them," he breathed.  Keisuke smiled
unpleasantly.
     "Not quite, boy.  You see, my mother was Misao Kunou, your
father's older sister.  And although the Kunou family and the demon
clans were constantly at war, she managed to fall in love with an
Aerkinma, one of the Lords of the High Court."
     "No," Kunou whispered.
     "Oh, but it's true, boy.  She loved the enemy.  When the inner
circle found out, they were horrified.  But the worst was yet to come
for those good, fine men and women."  His voice was dark with bitter
venom, and Kunou stood frozen in spite of himself.  He couldn't believe
this tale, it was just too fantastic.  And yet ...
     "For you see, she had been careless in her youthful passion,
had my mother, and was found to be with child.  A monster child."
Keisuke stopped, his face contorting, and looked away.  When he
looked back the unsettling rippling had stopped, and his eyes were
normal again.  Normal, but full of rage and pain.  And Kunou knew one
thing; for certain then.  Keisuke was not acting.
     "And so they planned a ceremony to kill the foul thing in her
womb.  She tried to fight them, but they would not listen.  That night, as
they prepared to do the deed, her lover and his people attacked the
estate, planning to liberate her.  That was a black night for both sides,
boy, as I'm certain you are aware."  Kunou realized he was referring to
the night almost thirty years before, when his grandparents and so many
others had died.  His thoughts spun with the implications of Keisuke's
story.  It seemed impossible, but what if it was true?
     "And so the survivors carried her away from her people, saving
her from a dangerous and possibly fatal mystic procedure.  After that,
all attempts by my mother to contact her family were rebuffed.  They
wanted nothing more to do with her.  She was unclean, vile, and would
likely have been killed on sight had she gone back to the estate.  And
so it was, in the end, that she died giving birth, surrounded only by the
few survivors of the High Court and their servants, outcast for daring to
love the wrong man.  She was denied the love and comfort of her
family, and I was denied my mother."  He fell silent, his face set and
expressionless.  Then he raised his eyes to Kunou's again, and Kunou
saw that the anger was still there, simmering beneath the surface, but it
had been pushed back by something else.
     Anticipation.
     "Now, boy, you know of the crimes against my mother by your
family," he said softly.  "She was not strong enough to make them pay
for her humiliation, for making her die alone in the dark.  So I have
carried this pain for her these many years, and now I will have revenge
in her name.  I will make the arrogant, unfeeling House of Kunou pay
for its crimes."  He brought his sword up to chest height, arm cocked
back, blade angled slightly down, and smiled grimly.
     "Beginning," he breathed, "with you."
 
***

     Akane shifted her weight slightly, trying to size up her opponent.
The woman was slightly taller than she was, with glossy, shoulder length
black hair that framed her pale face, deep blue eyes with cat-like
pupils, and long, tapered ears.  She was not like the beasts they'd
fought before, but she clearly wasn't human.  Akane watched with
trepidation as Lilla's black wings shrink into her shoulder blades like
magic.
     Like magic?  Hell, it WAS magic.  Just like the way her nails grew
long and straight, like blades.  Akane didn't want to waste time fighting,
but she had no choice.  She couldn't go after Ranma until she beat this
woman, so she'd just have to try to beat her quickly.
     Lilla launched herself forward unexpectedly, with such speed that
Akane barely had time to react.  The unearthly beauty came in low,
sweeping her arm in a long arc, then leapt straight up, flipping in mid-air
to land back where she'd started.  Akane blinked.
     So fast!  She started to step back, then felt a breeze against her
legs.  Glancing down, she was dumbfounded to see that her long skirt
had been sheared off at mid-thigh, cloth fluttering to the floor, and the
front of her school uniform gaped from navel to just under her sternum.
     "You're really quite lovely," Lilla said, her voice suggestively
low and husky.  "I want to see more of you.  In fact, by the time we're
done, I want to see ALL you have to offer."  Her lush lips curled into a
lazy, mocking smile, and Akane's shock was replaced with anger.
How dare the witch toy with her?
     "Come on and fight me!" she blurted.  She rushed forward, but
Lilla suddenly wasn't there.  A tearing sound as she spun prompted
Akane to look down.  A long expanse of her narrow waist was now
visible, and as she stood there, one sleeve slipped gently down her arm
and fluttered to the floor.  On the next pass the rest of the waist was
gone from her dress, and she had to hastily tie a knot in the remainder
of the skirt to keep it from falling away completely.  Lilla just watched
her patiently.
     "Yes," she murmured appreciatively.  "That's MUCH better.
Although there's still too much of that dress for my liking ..."  Fairly
trembling with rage, Akane sprang forward, lashing out with a vicious
kick.  Lilla spun away from it with maddening ease, her hands blurring
forward towards Akane as they clashed.  When Akane spun around,
Lilla was gone again.  She barely ducked in time to avoid a blow from
behind.
     "Not bad," Lilla said.  "But you're going to have to start
impressing me, or this is going to be over way too soon."  Her superior
tone seared Akane's ego like acid, and her fists were clenched so
tightly that they trembled.  Her dress had been reduced to a skimpy
two-piece outfit, the skirt tied low across her hips, her top sheared off
just below her breasts and the collar sliced open so deeply that the top
of her bra showed.  One sleeve was gone completely, the other missing
from the elbow down.
     It was clear that Lilla was playing with her.  It was also clear
that she didn't know just how bad an idea that was.  Akane was
fighting for Ranma, and she would not be beaten.  It was time to teach
the snotty bitch a lesson.
     Akane's perception narrowed, her breathing slowing and her pulse
smoothing out, until Lilla was all she saw.  The other girl stood, one
hand on her hip, watching Akane casually.  She exuded lazy grace, as if
she wasn't facing a determined opponent at all.
     "Well?" she asked, sounding bored.  Akane could see that her
nails had returned to normal.  Overconfident, are we? she thought with
grim amusement.  Well, let's see how you like THIS.
     Akane uncoiled, letting the strength of her legs propel her
forward like a bolt of lightning.  This time, though, she dropped low as
she reached Lilla, planting her hands flat on the rough wooden floor of
the loft and spreading her legs in a V, spinning around to spear her legs
out and up in the opposite direction from her attack.  Lilla, who'd
moved so quickly Akane had nearly not seen her and was now behind
her, was caught square in the small of the back by Akane's feet and
propelled across the loft to crash heavily to the floor.  Akane flipped
neatly to her feet, watching with great satisfaction as Lilla slowly
regained her feet.  She seemed to have some trouble catching her
breath, too, Akane noted gleefully as she glided closer, looking for an
opening.
     "Not bad," Lilla conceded, her smug smile gone for the
moment.  There was a glint in her eye, though, that was not at all
comforting.  "You've finally decided to get serious, huh, sweetie?
Okay, then ... let's do it!"  Lilla spun and leapt straight up, arcing so
high that she was momentarily lost in the shadows high above.  Akane
was already moving, knowing that to remain in one place was asking
for trouble.  She caught a glimpse of motion out of the corner of her eye
and dove, rolling away from a savage kick and coming up to her feet in
time to see Lilla bearing down on her.  She sprang away, hitting the side
of a stack of crates feet first and springboarding off of them neatly.
Lilla's fist crashed through the mouldering wood, and then they were
facing each other again, the only casualty Akane's remaining sleeve..
     "I knew you'd be fun," Lilla breathed, almost seeming to glow
with savage joy.  Akane didn't bother to rise to the bait this time,
unleashing a barrage of lightning fast punches.  Lilla dodged and wove,
avoiding them with animal grace, not bothering to counter or launch an
attack of her own.  Akane was backing her opponent into a corner,
though, and soon she'd have nowhere left to retreat to.
     Then, as Akane pressed her advantage, Lilla's hand snaked out
and caught Akane's wrist in mid-strike.  Lilla pulled Akane off-balance,
using her opponent's momentum to spin Akane as she moved.  Before
Akane could react, Lilla was pressed up against her from behind,
trapped arm twisted up and locked behind her back, Lilla's other arm
snaking around her throat, pulling Akane up and back tightly against her
foe.
     "Oh, dear," Lilla breathed in her ear.  "What a troubling
development this is."  Akane struggled, but she had no leverage from
her position.  Only the balls of her feet were still in contact with the
floor as Lilla made a low, throaty purring noise, her breath hot against
Akane's ear.
     "Let me see, now," she breathed.  "Where could that pendant
be?"  She let her hand stray across Akane's shoulder and down slowly.
     "Hmm," she murmured.  "Not heeere ..."  Akane flushed
angrily as Lilla pressed even more tightly against her, seeming to take
great pleasure in her search.
     "Not here either," she continued, her hand sliding lower.
Akane gritted her teeth.  There weren't many places to look; thanks to
Lilla's attacks, she only had a brief version of her dress top and a
drastically abbreviated skirt.  The shallow pocket was still intact,
though.  Akane could feel the weight of the pendant against her leg.
Lilla's hand slid past it, though, her fingers slithering over Akane's bare
thigh in an intimate manner.  Akane stiffened, but Lilla wrenched her
captive arm even higher up her back, a not-too subtle warning that
caused Akane to stifle a gasp.  Then Lilla's mischievous hand began to
creep slowly higher, over Akane's bare belly, nails digging in lightly, not
quite hard enough to draw blood.  Her taunting hand came up to the
bottom of Akane's cut-off top, and Lilla chuckled in Akane's ear.
     "Well," she whispered.  "Maybe it's here."  Akane stiffened
with shock as Lilla's hot, wet tongue traced a line along the edge of her
ear, the witch's hand slipping up under the loose top and gently
squeezing Akane's breast.  Bellowing with outrage, Akane finally
wrenched free, spinning and lashing out with a kick all in one motion.
Lilla was gone, though, back-flipping out of range to stare insolently at
Akane.
     "You made me lose my place," she said teasingly, biting down
on her thumbnail in an oddly girlish gesture.  "Now 'll have to start all
over again."
     "Pervert!" Akane blurted, arms crossed tightly over her
breasts, her skin still tingling from Lilla's blatantly intimate attentions.
What the hell was this woman's problem?  Did she think she could treat
this fight so casually?
     "Oh, my dear," Lilla said with a lascivious smile.  "If you think
THAT was perverted, you should have seen the way Lady Riana was
carrying on with your little boyfriend earlier."  Akane froze, and
something in her expression must have amused Lilla, because she threw
her head back and laughed.
     "Oh, yes," she continued carelessly.  "She's quite an
accomplished seductress, is my Lady.  She did things to that boy that
made even MY blood boil."
     "Shut up," Akane whispered.  She'd heard this earlier from the
white-haired witch, but it was lies, all
     (Your Ranma is delightful.  And a very good kisser.)
     lies.  They were only trying to
     (He'll never be satisfied with you after having tasted
the exotic pleasures of a real woman.)
     distract her.
     "He resisted at first," Lilla went on blithely, watching Akane out
of the corner of her eye.  "But no mortal can resist us for long, Akane
my sweet.  He was quite receptive to her by the end ..."  Her opponent
continued with her taunts, her words driving icy spears into Akane's
chest.
     Not true.  None of it.  Ranma loved HER.  Akane felt a hot,
welcome rage rising behind her eyes in a blood red tide, and she
opened herself to it.  Lilla shouldn't have told such lies about her
Ranma.  She shouldn't have been smiling so smugly, and she REALLY
shouldn't have treated Akane with such contempt.
     Akane remembered how it had felt, being cradled in Ranma's
arms after she'd nearly been killed during Ranko's first appearance.
She thought of way the head-strong, tongue-tied boy had taught her
"kitchen katas", his presence next to her sweet and comforting.  She
thought of the way he'd forced himself to talk about how he felt, how
he'd done it for her.  And her thumb traced the cool ring on her finger
as she remembered his face, gorgeous blue eyes catching the tawny
golden rays of the setting sun as he held out a ring box for her, his face
so eager and nervous and hopeful all at the same time.
     Her Ranma.  And they'd hurt him.  That thought called up the
churning fury, white hot and immediate, and she welcomed it, no longer
fighting to be calm.
     "I don't know what you want," Akane interrupted Lilla's taunt, her
voice deceptively gentle.  "But you really shouldn't have hurt Ranma.
That was a mistake."  Lilla looked at her in amazement, as if she'd
performed a really interesting trick.  Then she opened her mouth to say
something.
     Akane moved.
     She let that rage explode within her breast, ceased letting it control
her and instead used it, riding the tide of her fury like a quicksilver bullet
express, streaking forward as the world seemed to slow.  She saw
Lilla's arm sweeping out towards her, and had all the time in the world
to leap to the side.  Defying gravity, she ran for several steps along the
side of a crate, flipping to the floor over Lilla's spinning kick.  There
was a rushing sound in her ears and an almost crystalline clarity to
everything that she'd never experienced before.  Lilla's knife-edged
nails drove straight out at her, glinting in the low light, and Akane
sensed more than saw the opening as it appeared.  One hand caught
Lilla's wrist as she extended, and then Akane was slipping along the
inside of her opponent's outstretched arm, using her momentum and the
coiled power in her hips and shoulders to unleash a series of
devastating body blows.  Lilla's head snapped forward, eyes wide with
shock, as she was driven back under Akane's assault.
     Akane tucked one leg in close to her body, bent in half at the
knee, then spun and unwound it straight into Lilla's jaw.  The sensation
she felt when the witch flew sprawling across the floor was an
incredible rush.  There was no more time for hesitation or self-doubt.  If
she wanted that smug smile off Lilla's face, she was just going to have
to remove it herself.
     Well, so be it.
     Lilla was up and moving quickly, a snarl on her lips, and Akane met
her in mid-air, the two clashing in a savage series of strikes and blocks.
They pushed away at the same time, landing lightly to spin and rush
together again.  Lilla was fast, and strong, but she didn't have Akane's
training in martial arts combat.  They clashed again, whirling around
each other, parting and coming together like partners in some lethal
dance.  Akane caught Lilla's arm and spun, locking the elbow and
throwing the other woman, but Lilla managed to spin in mid-air and
land on her feet, launching a kick at Akane's head.  Akane blocked
with her own leg, then the two sprang apart again, only to clash in
another leap.  Akane was caught and thrown to the floor, rolling as she
hit and barely avoiding Lilla's shattering kicks that splintered the wood
as she tried to score a hit on the rapidly moving girl.  Akane bounded to
her feet, back-flipping away as Lilla pressed forward, then going high,
planting her hand on Lilla's head and springing over her.
     Again they met, and again, finally ending up facing each other across
the floor.  Akane's blood screamed through her body, her skin slicked
with sweat.  A line of stinging heat had etched itself across her
chest, and a glance showed that she was bleeding from a shallow cut
just above her breasts.  Lilla had landed a couple of other slashes as
well, but none of them were serious.  And now her opponent no longer
looked fresh and smug.
     And, most importantly, that superior smile was gone.  In its
place was a wary, almost respectful gaze as both combatants tried to
catch their breath.  Lilla was bruised, her tight black top torn and dirty,
and a thin thread of blood trickled from the corner of her mouth.
     "Well," Lilla gasped.  "I guess I shouldn't have underestimated
you."  Akane smiled thinly.
     "I guess you shouldn't have," she agreed breathlessly.  That
strange clarity was still with her, almost like an extra sense, probing
Lilla's stance, her very aura, for an opening.  Akane had to finish her so
she could get to Ranma, and now she was beginning to believe she
could.  She really could.
     They were both startled by a loud concussion from below.
Akane blinked as several bright streaks of light arrowed up past them,
detonating in fiery explosions against the ceiling.  Now that she thought
about it, things down there had been getting pretty noisy while she'd
been fighting.  The battle, incredibly, actually seemed to be heating up.
     "Well, well," Lilla said, dark amusement tainting her throaty
voice.  "This isn't good."  Akane followed her gaze and stifled a gasp.
Fire had broken out in the wooden rafters above them, a fierce orange
blaze of light and heat.  Fingers of rippling flame danced along the
webbing that soared amongst those rafters, and as Akane watched in
horror, she could see that they were spreading inexorably towards
where Ranma hung, helpless.
     "Well," Lilla said, her tone low and silky.  "Time's running out,
and our fight isn't over yet."  Akane dropped her gaze, panic beginning
to grip her as the reality of the situation set in.  Even if she just gave Lilla
the pendant, how would she reach Ranma in time?  Lilla watched her
face carefully, smiling at what she saw there.
     "Well, Akane?" Lilla demanded.  "If you give me what I want,
I'll leave you alone to try and rescue your man."
     "Why should I believe you?" Akane asked, fighting to keep the
desperation from her voice.  Lilla cocked her head, her glossy bob
brushing the tops of her shoulders lightly.
     "Let's just say I'm not immune to the charms of true love," she
said, the taunting lilt absent from her voice, and for a moment something
seemed to lurk behind those bold blue eyes, something Akane couldn't
identify.  Then it was gone, and Lilla was smiling that arrogant smile
again.
     "A pity we can't finish our fight, though," she murmured.  "Now, my
pendant?"  Expressionless, Akane fished the pendant from her
abbreviated skirt pocket, gripping the strangely shaped head so tightly it
broke the skin of her palm, letting the chain dangle loosely.  She walked
slowly towards Lilla, stopping just out of arm's reach.
     "How do I know you won't interfere?" she asked tightly.  Lilla's
smile broadened.
     "You don't.  But your options are, shall we say, limited."  She
stared into Akane's eyes, her cheeks still flushed and glowing from their
fight.  "And one other thing," she added as Akane reluctantly began to
raise her hand.
     "What?" Akane asked, eyes narrowed.  Lilla reached up to
trace the edge of the trickle of blood that ran from the corner of her
mouth down her chin.
     "Clean this off for me," she murmured, her stare cool and imperious.
"With your dainty little tongue."  Her stare, her mocking smile, her very
stance dared Akane to refuse.  Akane stared, unable to hide her shock
and outrage at the demand.
     "Pervert," she whispered hoarsely.  Lilla propped one hand on her
hip and raised her chin slightly, still holding Akane's gaze.
     "The fire, Akane," she breathed.  "It's getting closer even as
we stand here.  Any delay could be fatal.  Do you really have time to
argue about this?"  She didn't, of course, and the witch knew it.  Lilla
watched her swallow nervously, her lips curled in a wicked smile of
anticipation as Akane took one step closer.  Then another.  That smile
widened ever so slightly as Akane bit her lower lip, fetchingly reluctant,
bracing one hand lightly on Lilla's shoulder as she held the pendant out
with the other, slowly rising up on her toes.  Lilla reached to take it
even as her lips parted in anticipation, slit pupils widening into dark
pools.
     "Good girl," she whispered huskily.
     Akane sprang.
     Her body twisted, legs thrust straight up, as she used the hand
on Lilla's shoulder as a fulcrum, snatching the pendant away with the
other just as Lilla's fingers were brushing it.  As she slipped down
behind her tormentor, she slipped the dangling chain over the startled
woman's head like a noose, yanking it tight as she planted her knee in
the middle of Lilla's back.  Lilla was forced to her knees, and Akane
rode her down, maintaining her leverage and praying that the chain
wouldn't break.
     It didn't.  It appeared to be more than strong enough for her
purposes, digging into Lilla's unprotected throat as Lilla's hands came
up, frantically clawing at the tight chain.
     "Freeze," Akane hissed.  Lilla obeyed, a strangled noise
escaping her open mouth.  Akane leaned closer, her knee still in the
woman's back.
     "Listen closely!" she snapped, sparing a glance for the situation
above.  The flames were closer to Ranma now, and whole sections of
the billowing web were now ablaze.  She turned back to Lilla.
     "Can you fly carrying me?" she asked, her voice tight with urgency.
Lilla nodded frantically.  Akane smiled.
     "Good girl," she said mockingly.  "Then here's what you're
going to do ..."

***

     Ukyou clung to the pillar tightly, sparing another glance below.
The thing didn't appear to have any eyes on its smooth head, but she
could have sworn it was looking right at her.  It grasped the wooden
pillar in its huge claws and began to shake, the tremors travelling up to
where Ukyou was perched.
     Oh, boy, she thought.  This is bad.  A quick sweep of the area
didn't hold any better news.  The things were fighting almost
everywhere she could see, although bubbling pools of green goo on the
floor indicated that there had already been some casualties.  Strangely,
she could make out some people in the mix, fighting the creatures
unarmed, but she was sure they weren't part of her group.  The only
person she could recognize was Kunou, his sword glowing fiercely over
by the far wall, as he faced off against the guy who'd claimed to be his
cousin.
     Boy, she thought as the support began to creak alarmingly.
This isn't going too well.  She laughed then, almost giddy with fear and
adrenaline.  She was faced with the choice of dropping to the floor and
fighting Mr. No-face, or waiting to be dropped to the floor, getting
trampled, and then probably eaten by Mr. No-face.
     Some choice.
     As she was reaching back for her slung spatula, though, the
creature roared in pain, arching its back as several yellow and black
disks hit it together.  Wild joy filled Ukyou as a familiar figure arrowed
out of the crowd, slamming into the pain-wracked demon and throwing
it across the floor.
     "Ryouga!"
     "Ukyou!  What in the world are you doing up there?" he called.
She grinned ruefully.
     "I was trying to find everybody else, but I got treed," she called
down.
     "Have you seen Ranma or Akane?" he asked as he glanced
around him.
     "No," she replied.  "I can't see anybody except Kunou."  At
that moment, her gaze shifted and she blinked in surprise.
     "Miss Hinako?" she asked.  Ryouga began to turn, but he was
too late.  Miss Hinako brought her hands up in front of her.
     "Hello, children," she said cheerily.  "And good-bye!"  She
unleashed a chi blast that caught Ryouga and threw him back, shattering
the already weakened support.  Ukyou's world lurched abruptly, and
there was a sudden rain of debris from above her.
     Then she was falling.

***

     Exquisite.
     Everything about the experience was just as exquisite as
Wynneth had dreamt it would be.  First, there was the almost liquid
pleasure of utterly controlling Reiko, making her wield her powerful
sorcery at Wynneth's whim.  Reiko's power exploded against Riana's
hastily erected shield, throwing the Aerkinma Lady to the ground.  Then
Reiko turned, cupping her palm and casting a bolt of force at Tisa and
Callie, throwing them both into the surging mass of fighters not far
away.  Wynneth saw Andrei, Kenji and Ayako near the fallen Baenma
and spared a moment to reach out to them mentally, nudging them
towards those two.  She wanted to ensure that they were kept busy for
a while.  Through her blood link she could sense the others of the pack
in their wild feeding frenzy, helping to keep the battle chaotic and away
from the circle.
     Yes.  Just exquisite.  She glided up behind Reiko, resting her
hands lightly on the girl's slim shoulders.  They watched together as
Riana struggled to her feet, Wynneth hungrily, her pet with a neutral
expression.  Wynneth would see devotion on that beautiful face one
day soon, but for now her control was of necessity firm.  Even with two
bites, she couldn't risk Reiko breaking free.  The memory of those
mystic flames consuming her body with searing, white-hot pain ensured
that she would not make that mistake again.  Ever.
     "Well, Riana," she purred contentedly.  "Let me introduce you
to my newest pet.  But you already know her, don't you?"  She
stroked Reiko's loose hair, a proprietary gesture, and favoured Riana
with a smirk.
     "You brought other friends, Wynneth," Riana observed flatly.
"You've obviously been planning this for a while."  Wynneth raised one
eyebrow.
     "Surely you didn't think I would accept my humiliating defeat so
easily?" she asked archly.  "Oh, I've been planning my revenge for
years, my dear.  And tonight, I'll finally have the power I deserve.
And you, Riana, will find out what it feels like to submit to a hated
enemy."  She smiled slowly, making sure the tips of her fangs showed
between her parted lips.
     "Oh," Wynneth crooned, "this is going to be such fun.  Reiko."  She
gestured and Reiko turned towards a hulking green-skinned Borgunma
who was charging in from the crowd.  Whether he was one of Riana's
intent on rescue or one of the renegades looking for softer prey, she
really couldn't say.  Nor did she care.  She felt the thrill of power
through her link to Reiko as the girl unleashed a thin wedge of force
which arrowed away, striking the enraged creature head on.  The
expression on his face was priceless as he staggered a couple more
steps, his body falling in two pieces.
     Riana took advantage of the momentary distraction, throwing
her arms out from her body.  Thin, supple strands of webbing fired
from under her fingernails, snaking out to twine around Wynneth and
Reiko.  Wynneth couldn't summon shadows to her this close to the light
of that cursed circle, but she didn't really need to.
     "Reiko," she said calmly.  Reiko bent her head slightly, and the
webbing stiffened and shattered like glass.  Riana cursed, then threw a
spell-bolt.  Impressive enough, but the bolt splashed harmlessly off
Reiko's shield.
     "Ah, Rianaaaa," Wynneth sighed, drawing her rival's name out
teasingly.  "Isn't she marvellous?  And very powerful, as you can see.
Tragically, she doubts her power even as she is forced to embrace it,
for it has brought her nothing but pain.  In my service, though, she has
no compunctions about using her full potential.  Because she would do
anything for me.  Isn't that right, pet?"
     "Yes," Reiko said coolly.  Wynneth slipped her hand around
the girl's shoulder and caressed the delicate bite mark on her throat,
smiling as the girl shuddered under her touch.
     "Yes, Mistress," she corrected.
     "Yes, Mistress," the girl repeated obediently.
     "Very impressive, Wynneth," Riana spat.  "But if you're so
keen on revenge, why don't you fight me yourself?"  Wynneth smiled
sweetly.
     "Oh, don't worry," she told her rival.  "I'll be finishing you
personally.  But my darling Reiko aches to demonstrate her devotion to
me.  Don't you, pet?"
     "Yes, Mistress," the girl repeated softly.  Wynneth beamed.
     "You see?" she asked.  Then the smile became harder, uglier,
and she met Riana's eyes, feeling the stubborn Aerkinma resisting her
call with all her strength.
     "You nearly had him back," she taunted.  "Too bad things
aren't going to work out for you, Riana.  Still, you'll forget about him
when you're mine.  Eventually."
     "You haven't won yet, witch," Riana growled.  Wynneth just
smiled.
     "Reiko," she said.  "Why don't you show Riana what you can
do?"
     Content, Wynneth stood back and watched her new pet go to
work.

***

     From her precarious perch, Akane caught terrifying glimpses of
the carnage below.  Fortunately, she was too busy clinging to Lilla's
back and avoiding the buffeting of those black wings to spend much
time sightseeing.  With her free hand she held the pendant's chain
snugly around the girl's throat, although she didn't have very much
leverage from this position.  If Lilla was going to try something, it would
be soon.
     Unfortunately, Akane didn't have much choice in the matter.  If
she didn't reach Ranma, and quickly, he was going to be killed.  Lilla
swooped upwards, hovering near the rafters, and Akane tightened her
grip on the chain in a none-too subtle gesture.
     "I need to get closer!" she shouted.  Lilla regarded the
spreading flames critically.
     "If a piece of flaming web falls on us, we're history!" she
shouted back.  Akane could see the danger, but she wasn't going to be
dissuaded.  Having come this close, almost close enough to touch him,
there was no way she was turning back.  Not for anything.
     "If you don't do what I tell you, YOU'RE history!" Akane
snarled, yanking on the chain.  Lilla twitched, her body going rigid, and
she twisted her whole body as she tried to turn towards Akane.
     That move saved Akane's life.  She had the impression of a
sleek shape, mottled gray-green, arrowing towards her, and reacted
instinctively.
     She jumped.
     Claws raked the space where she had been, and Lilla cried out
as the heavy form collided heavily with her, its thin membranous wings
folding around her either from the force of the impact or by design.
Either way, her own wings were entangled and they fell together in a
long arc towards the floor.
     Akane saw all this in the moments she was airborne.  Her leap
had taken her towards the rafters, and she tucked her legs tight against
her body as she passed close to some open flames.  Uncoiling at the
last moment, she managed to snag a solid section of the rafter with one
hand, although the way it lurched under her weight told her that she
wouldn't be hanging there for long, one way or the other.  Both ends of
the beam were aflame, and it was beginning to give way.
     She could see Ranma, though.  And, with the beam on fire and
about to collapse, there was only one way she could reach him in time.
She reached up with her other hand, taking a firm grip on the small
section of beam that remained safe, and began to swing her legs in a
pendulum motion.  With enough momentum, she might be able to hurl
herself across the intervening space and reach Ranma ...
     Would.  Not might, *would* be able to!  The beam creaked
and shifted again, heat from the fire causing the skin on her hands and
arms to tighten painfully as it crept closer.  Now or never, she thought
giddily, and as her legs swung forward again she let go of the collapsing
beam, tucking into a ball and twisting so that she flew towards Ranma
head first, arms outstretched.
     For a moment, she was certain she had miscalculated and
would plunge to the floor, but she managed to get one arm around
Ranma's bare waist as she fell past, her momentum carrying her
through the weakened web.  As the strands parted, clinging to her face
and hair, she snaked her other arm up to join the first around Ranma's
waist and hung on, gasping for breath as her heart pounded wildly.  Her
ballistic arrival had torn Ranma partially free of the confining web, only
several thick strands that wound down his right arm to his chest now
holding them both up.
     For a moment Akane just hung there, aware of the warmth of
Ranma's bare skin under her hands.  Blood and sweat were
intermingled there, making his body slick, but for an interminably long
moment all she could think about was that heat.
     He's alive, she told herself, almost dizzy with relief.  I know for
sure now, he's really alive!  She craned her head up to see his face, and
froze.
     His eyes were closed, mouth slack, but what had caught her
attention was his hair.  Unbound as it was, it mostly obscured his face,
but from this angle she could see that a thick lock, extending from
crown to a point hanging in front of his nose, had gone pure white.
     "Ranma," she whispered, her voice tight and strengthless.
"What did they do to you?"
     Get a grip! she told herself, fighting down the tide of fury that
threatened to overwhelm her.  You're not out of the woods yet, girl!
     Indeed she wasn't.  For now she had Ranma, but no way to
get down.  The fire was coming closer to them, and if the web didn't
give way first the rafters certainly would.  Akane held on tight, her
cheek pressed against Ranma's abdomen, and glanced down.  The fitful
glow of the fire revealed little of what was below them, but judging from
where the glow of the circle was, Akane knew that they had to be
over the loft.  She hoped.  Her momentum had set them swinging at the
end of those strands of webbing, and she was uncertain whether their
arc of swing took them out over the concrete floor.  To make it worse,
they were spinning slightly as well, disorienting her.
     Had Ranma been conscious, it wouldn't have been that much of
a problem, but in this state he wouldn't be able to protect himself when
they fell.  So she was going to have to do it.  The strands holding
Ranma's arm above his head began to part under the encroaching fire,
and Akane took several deep breaths to ready herself.  As the strands
finally gave way, she pulled herself up, wrapping herself around
Ranma's limp body and pulling him tightly against her.  The sensation
of free falling was at once exhilarating and terrifying, and she closed her
eyes, squeezing Ranma tight as she braced for impact.
     Don't worry, she thought as they fell.  Don't worry, Ranma, I'll
protect you.
     I promise ...

***

     Ukyou struggled to her feet, and for one panicky moment she
was certain she'd lost her spatula.  Then her hand closed around the
cool grip, and she breathed a sigh of relief.
     Her relief was short-lived, though, as something grabbed her
from behind and hoisted her into the air.  She yelped, flailing wildly as
she was tossed aside like a rag doll, managing to get her feet under
herself as she crashed to the floor.  She rolled, immediately having to
dodge two titans who were locked in combat, stomping back and forth.
That brought her to a momentarily clear area, and she hefted her
spatula warily, looking around for Ryouga.  Whatever had gotten into
Miss Hinako, she hadn't been fooling around with that blast.
     Ukyou saw someone not far away, a dark-haired man with his
back to her, and grinned.
     "Ryouga!" she shouted with relief.  At the sound of her voice,
he turned toward her, and she saw at once that he wasn't Ryouga.  His
shirt was dusty and torn, revealing a gaunt, almost emaciated chest.  His
cheeks were also sunken, as if he were half-starved.  And his eyes ...
     They glowed, a deep, baleful red.  He stared at her and started
across the floor, his rictus grin revealing long, sharp fangs.  She was
only distantly alarmed by those, however.
     His eyes were strange, not human, yet somehow compelling.
She couldn't seem to look away from them, even though they were
filled with dark hunger.  Her spatula hung at her side, forgotten, and she
stood there, trembling, wanting to run but also wanting to stay, to look
into those eyes forever ...
     Why, I don't know what I was thinking, she told herself faintly.
He's not ugly.  In fact, he's quite beautiful.  I should throw my arms
around him and give him a big hug, that's what I should do ...
     He was close now, almost close enough to touch, and those
eyes seemed to expand to fill her whole world, burning with unholy
hunger and need, and for some reason her pulse seemed to be
pounding in her ears ...
     She blinked.  The red glow was gone, and she stepped back
instinctively, suddenly aware of her heart pounding dizzily.  The eyes
staring into hers were now an ordinary brown, and looked puzzled.
Seconds later, they tilted as the man's head toppled from his body,
falling to bounce off the floor with an unsettling hollow thunk.  Then
body folded up and joined its head soon thereafter, leaving Ukyou
staring, dumbfounded.
     "Nihao!"  That voice.  She jerked her gaze up to see the lovely
Chinese amazon smiling at her.  In one hand, Shampoo had a long,
wickedly sharp-looking sword, and Ukyou couldn't help but notice that
she looked completely unfazed by the chaos.
     "Shampoo!" she blurted.  "What ... when ..."  Shampoo
ignored her, bending down to retrieve the head from the floor, lifting it
by the hair and examining it like a fresh melon at market.
     "Shampoo thinks it will do," she murmured with approval,
dropping the bloody prize into a brown sack at her waist.  Ukyou
shook off the last of her strange lethargy.
     "What the hell are you doing?" she demanded.  Shampoo
regarded her innocently.
     "Shampoo need to get head," she explained.  Ukyou blinked.
     "Come again?" she asked weakly.  Shampoo just sighed.
     "No time to explain," she said.  "More monsters to fight!
Come!"  And with that she was off into the crowd.  Ukyou watched
her go, unable to shake the feeling that Shampoo felt right at home in
the midst of the carnage.
     "Ukyou!"  She turned, and this time it WAS Ryouga.
     "Hey, are you all right?" she called.  His shirt was torn and
blood oozed from a gash on his arm, but he just nodded impatiently.
     "I just saw Akane and Ranma!" he blurted.  "They fell from
there!"  He pointed towards a part of the ceiling that was on fire, and
Ukyou stared in shock.  What had they been doing up there?
     A low, multi-legged thing with three tails skittered around a
small knot of combatants and charged towards them, but before Ukyou
could do more than get her spatula up a flight of silvery blades knifed
down into its back, pinning it to the floor.  Mousse landed beside her in
a flurry of white robes, adjusting his glasses fussily.
     "What in the world is going on here?" he asked, looking
around warily.  Ukyou sighed.
     "Sugar, we have no idea," she informed him.  "But I'm glad
you're here.  We need to get everybody and get out of here fast."
     "That sounds like an excellent plan," Mousse agreed soberly.
     "Okay, then.  Mousse, if you go that way, you should be able
to spot Kunou, and I think Nabiki's over by the wall."  He blinked
owlishly.
     "She's here?" he asked, shocked.
     "Long story.  She's with a woman.  Find them and get them
out, then tell Kunou to meet us up there.  Ryouga and I will try to get to
Ranma and Akane.  Once we have everybody, we can haul butt outta
here."
     "Don't forget Reiko," Ryouga broke in.  Ukyou frowned.  She
HAD forgotten Reiko.  But Ryouga, of course, hadn't.  Why did that
irritate her so?
     "Yes, yes," she gritted.  "Although the witch probably already
high-tailed it, considering how little she wanted to be here."
     "Sorceress," Ryouga corrected primly.  Ukyou smiled
insincerely.
     "Whatever."  They started off, but Mousse called out and
pulled something long from his voluminous sleeve, tossing it to Ryouga.
It was a heavy umbrella, metal like the ones Ryouga usually carried.
     "The fire is spreading," Mousse said shortly.  "And there's a
storm outside.  If the roof goes, it's going to get very wet in here."
Ukyou grimaced.  P-chan and a small white duck wouldn't have much
chance against this lot.  Ryouga saluted with the umbrella.
     "Thanks," he said.  Mousse smiled faintly.
     "You have to survive, Ryouga," he said.  "We haven't finished
our fight yet."  With that he bounded off into the gloom.  Ukyou turned
to Ryouga, scowling.
     "Hey!" she growled.  "You guys aren't STILL fighting, are
you?  Ryouga?"  He grinned.
     "Come on, we've gotta go!" he called, running forward to
spring over a tangle of spiky, armoured and slimy bodies.  Ukyou
snorted.
     "Men!" she spat wearily.  Then she followed him into the heart
of the battle.

***

     Nabiki held on to Yukio's arm, feeling the barely repressed
tension that sang through the other woman's body.  She wasn't
absolutely certain that Kunou's mother would do something stupid if
she let go, but it seemed like a good idea to play it safe.
     From where they were hiding they had an excellent view of the
fight.  Nabiki had heard enough of the conversation between the two
men to understand what was going on, but her hastily whispered
conference with Yukio hadn't been terribly enlightening.  As far as
Yukio knew, her husband had no siblings.  This Keisuke seemed
sincere, though ... sincere in his anger as well as in his desire to kill
Kunou.
     Nabiki peered out from her hiding place desperately.  Fighting
still raged all around, and escape, even if she could convince Yukio to
try, seemed impossible.  Reiko had taken off earlier and not returned,
and she hadn't seen any sign of Ranma or her sister, much less the
others.  Of course, they were all fighters, so at least they'd be able to
defend themselves.
     Unlike some people, who could only hide and hope they didn't
get caught by something hungry.
     She watched Kunou and Keisuke circling each other warily,
swords at the ready.  Nabiki didn't know much about actual fighting
techniques, so she had no idea if either man had an advantage.  They
were of similar build and both had magic swords, which kind of evened
out in her book.
     Of course, Keisuke could make his eyeballs glow, but she
wasn't at all convinced you could win a swordfight with a technique like
that.
     Then the two sprang together, swords clashing, and the fight
was on in earnest.
     And it quickly became apparent to her that, magic swords
notwithstanding, Keisuke seemed to have the upper hand ...

***

     Lilla danced nimbly away from an enraged Borgunma who was
busily trying to dismember his opponent.  She hadn't seen glorious
chaos like this in far too long, and her blood sang with the savage joy of
it.  Her joy was somewhat muted by the fact that Akane had managed
to elude her, but she wouldn't dwell on that for the moment.  Perhaps
later she and the feisty girl could finish their dance.  The airborne critter
that had suckered her had paid for its impertinence with its life, and
now all Lilla had to do was find her esteemed Lady and watch her
lovely gray eyes light up when she saw what her succubus had for her.
     Lilla fingered the pendant that still hung around her still tender neck,
smiling widely as she imagined what rewards she might ask for.  Then
she caught sight of a familiar tousled blonde mane and sprang forward,
using her wings to boost her over a particularly nasty set-to.
     Callie was fighting off a couple of scrawny but hungry-looking
vampires.  Generally she fought with paired blades, but she appeared to
have lost one somewhere.  As she plunged her remaining sword into
one of her attackers, it became lodged in the vampire's rib cage, and
the other closed quickly from behind to take advantage of her
momentary vulnerability.  Lilla soared in, her nails extending as she
plunged her hand through the unwary thing's chest, her hand protruding
from the other side with the withered heart clasped in it.  The vamp
collapsed, and she pulled her hand free in time to see Callie finally
decapitate the other one.
     "Hey!" she called, grinning widely.  "Why are you way over
here?"  Callie looked rattled, and Lilla's grin slipped slightly.  It wasn't
like Callie to be unsettled by mere carnage and bloodshed.
     "Lilla!  Where in the nine hells have you been?" she demanded
angrily.  Lilla blinked.
     "The Ice Queen sent me to get the pendant thingie, remember?"
she asked peevishly.  "And I got it!  See?"  She fingered the pendant,
but Callie looked unimpressed.
     "Dammit, you were playing with that girl, weren't you?" she
asked tightly.  Lilla felt her own temper rising, fed by her
embarrassment at letting a mere girl almost get the better of her.
     "So what?  I'm entitled, Callie!  Damn, it's been too long since
we could cut loose like this!"
     "Wynneth's here," Callie said shortly, cutting off Lilla's rant.
"And she's got that girl sorceress under her spell.  Lady Riana's in
trouble, and we haven't been able to get to her!"  Wynneth?  A chill
skittered across Lilla's skin.  That explained the vampires, anyway.
This was bad.
     "Where's Tisa?" she asked.  Callie inclined her head.
     "Over that way, last time I saw her.  I thought about rallying the
troops, but you know how hard it is once they get their blood up like
this.  They won't listen to one of us."  Lilla nodded, flexing her talons.
     "Look, you go get Tisa, then head for where her Ladyship was.
I'll meet you there."
     "What?  Are you crazy, girl?  You can't take on Wynneth and
that sorceress alone!" Callie exclaimed.  Lilla smiled seductively.
     "I don't intend to," she murmured.  "I'm going to do what I do
best ... something sneaky.  Now go!"  She leaned in and gave her
friend a quick kiss, then bounded away, snapping her wings out to lift
her above the fight.
     Something sneaky, yeah, that was the ticket.  And she had just
the perfect diversion.
     It might even work.

***

     Wynneth sighed contentedly.  Riana had collapsed again, hair
hanging in a tangled mass around her face, bare shoulders heaving most
becomingly.  Reiko raised her hands again, but this time Wynneth
stepped forward.
     "Enough, pet," she said silkily.  Obediently, Reiko stepped
back.  Wynneth stared down at her rival, crumpled in an untidy heap on
the cold floor, and smiled.
     "I reserve the right to finish her myself," she purred, exulting in
her victory.  How long she had waited for this day!  Riana would bow
to her, and her accursed lover would stay stuck in that damned crystal
forever, leaving Wynneth the most powerful Aerkinma in Tokyo.  With
no competition, she could consolidate her power base, creating her
own little empire.
     "Reiko my pet," she crooned, brushing her fingertips lightly
over the girl's cheek.  "Go stand guard over there.  I don't want
Riana's loyal bitches spoiling my moment of triumph.  If anyone tries to
interrupt me, deal with them."  Reiko nodded.
     "Yes, Mistress," she murmured, walking towards the fighting.
Wynneth turned back to Riana, watching with great delight as the
battered beauty tried in vain to stand.  She strutted over to stand above
Riana, taking her time, revelling in the other's pain.  The battle seemed
very far away just then, as if it were only the two of them in the entire
world.
     "Oh, how the mighty have fallen," she mocked, kneeling
gracefully.  She reached out and grabbed a handful of Riana's hair,
pulling her up so that she could stare into her rival's face.  The dusky-
skinned woman was bruised and bleeding, but her beauty was
undimmed.  In fact, the scent of her blood only aroused Wynneth
further.
     "The victory ... is not yours," Riana gritted, fighting to focus.  Her
court dress was badly torn, revealing enticing expanses of bare skin.
Reiko had forced Riana to exhaust her reserves of magic, even making
Riana revert from her spider form when she'd tried to attack that way.
Wynneth gazed down at Riana, full of wicked good humour.
     "Of course it is," she murmured huskily.  "My dear Reiko is just
an extension of my will, after all.  They all are.  The strongest will
dominates and controls, and they do my bidding.  As you will, my
dear."  Riana made a strangled sound deep in her throat.
     "Never!" she hissed.  "I'll die first!"
     "Oh, no," Wynneth breathed. "I'll never allow that.  I want you
to serve me ... in every possible way.  I think I'll dress you in slave's
silks and chain you to my throne ..."  She trailed off suggestively, the
horrified widening of Riana's eyes giving her a rush like a rare and
powerful drug.
     "But first, of course, I want to taste you," she whispered.  "I've
always wondered how your blood would taste, Riana.  Now come to
your Mistress."  She drew the weakly struggling woman closer, her
senses filled with the scent of her hot skin and silky hair and, underlying
it all, her sweet, rich blood.  All hers now.
     Victory.
     And then she felt it, a sudden surge of power, tingling against
her skin, a not-unpleasant prickle of mystic energy.  Her eyes widened
slightly, and she tightened her grip on the defiant Riana.  Something was
happening here, something not of her design, and at this point she didn't
want any surprises.
     "What have you done?" she hissed menacingly.  Riana's
expression closed down, denying her captor any hint of what she was
thinking, but she wasn't quite fast enough.  Wynneth caught a glimpse
of the fleeting emotion in Riana's eyes.  Riana could feel it too, but
whatever it was she hadn't done it.
     Something was definitely wrong.  Wynneth crouched over her
prey, questing about like a huntress scenting the wind.  The magic was
powerful, raw and potent, and it was building in strength.  Some
undercurrent of the power tweaked her subconscious, spoke to her of
danger.  She snarled instinctively, baring her extended fangs.  She was
the most dangerous thing here, her, Wynneth!  But the sensation
continued to creep up under her skin, and she began to wonder if she
should take her prize and seek the sanctuary of the shadows.
     Then a stooping succubus collided with her like a missile, and
all three women went down in a tangle of limbs.

***

     The thin finger of sweat that trickled down Kunou's back was
ice cold.
     With each pass, it became apparent that his opponent,
whatever his true identity, was a very skilled swordsman.  Keisuke was
strong and exceptionally fast, and Kunou was having trouble getting a
handle on the other man's fighting style.  The numerous slashes in his
clothing were testament to that fact.  Only a couple of those slashes had
drawn blood, including one across the cheek, but Kunou had the
deliberate impression that they easily could have been much more
serious.  As it was, they felt strangely cold, perhaps due to the power
of his opponent's sword.  But one thing was painfully clear.
     Keisuke was playing with him.
     "Come, come," his opponent mocked as they circled again. "If
you don't start putting up more of a fight, my revenge is going to end
too soon.  And I've so looked forward to this day, boy."  Kunou
snarled, launching a flurry of strikes at the other man.  Keisuke blocked
them all somehow, countering with an attack of his own that caused his
blade to slide down the length of Kunou's, the hilt guards locking
together.  That left them face to face, straining against each other.
Kunou could feel the angry thrumming of his sword, as if the blade
detested being in contact with Keisuke's ebon weapon.
     Keisuke's eyes met Kunou's over their entwined blades, and
something unspoken seemed to pass between them.  Kunou could see
plainly that his opponent planned to kill him, and enjoy doing it.  And
while Kunou bled from several small cuts, Keisuke was as yet
untouched.
     "You're the Guardian?" Keisuke asked contemptuously.  "To
protect anything you need strength, boy.  But you're not strong.
You're a weak fool taken with your own importance, playing at being a
hero."  The muscles in Kunou's arms began to tremble, a tiny fine
vibration, as he fought to push his tormentor back, to gain a momentary
advantage.
     "I will not allow the darkness to prevail," he gritted in response.
Keisuke laughed out loud.
     "How will you stop it, boy?" he sneered.  "You couldn't even
save your own sister from what I hear, or your loyal servant.  You're
no good to anybody, boy.  I'll be doing you a favour by killing you."
Kunou's lips peeled back in a snarl, Keisuke's taunts piercing his
control.
     "I WILL avenge them!" he growled.  Keisuke's eyes narrowed
angrily.
     "Vengeance is for the strong, boy," he said in a low, venomous
tone.  "Let me show you."  With an angry howl, Keisuke threw Kunou
back, their swords disengaging with a metallic shriek.  Keisuke
dropped his point to the side, meeting Kunou's eyes boldly.
     "You can't hope to beat me, boy," he said, a slight smile on his
lips.  "My hate is old, well-nurtured.  While you were wasting your
days under the sun, neglecting your family and your duty for your own
indulgent pursuits, I was being honed by anger and rage, by the hate
and fear of those around me, and by the knowledge that the only way I
could restore any honour to my mother's memory was by destroying
you."  His fingers tightened on the hilt of his sword until the knuckles
were white, but only his eyes gave away the depth of his fury.
     "And you," he breathed through clenched teeth.  "You, who
were given everything, treasured it not.  So the time comes to pay for
your sins, Tatewaki Kunou.  The sins that left our clan's power
defended by a foolish fop better suited to beating high-school boys with
a stick than fighting a real fight."  Kunou's wounds stung and his
muscles burned, but that paled in contrast to the red-hot rage
Keisuke's words kindled in him.
     "I have pledged myself to defend MY clan," he shot back,
"with all my strength, and my life if need be!  I AM the Guardian!"
Keisuke snorted.
     "You are nothing," he spat.  "You aren't even the master of that
weapon.  Shall I show you what such a sword can really do?"  His foot
slid forward as he turned his sword slightly, the blade glinting darkly.
Kunou raised his own blade to defend against another lightning charge,
anger pulsing in his chest like a thing alive.  Strangely, though, Keisuke
didn't move.  Instead, his eyes narrowed, and he smiled thinly as he
brought his sword up in a slow arc.  Kunou blinked as the almost
subliminal sensation of power in the air intensified.  The darkness
around Keisuke's blade intensified, drawing in the light, and his own
sword seemed to pulse in response.
     Then, with a cry, Keisuke brought his blade down sharply.
Darkness seemed to fling itself from the arc of his swing, knifing out
towards the disbelieving Kunou, who barely had time to realize what
was happening before the bolt slammed into him.
     He tried to cry out as he was flung back, but his chest felt
frozen, icy talons of pain searing his nerves.  His own sword slipped
from his strengthless hand as he hit the floor and slid back into a stack
of mouldering crates with a bone-jarring crash.  Sparks of light
exploded behind his eyes, and the room seemed to spin wildly.  He
became aware of the soft tread of someone approaching, and managed
to roll onto his side and lever himself partway up on his arms.  As his
vision began to clear, he could see his sword, its light dimmed, lying far
out of reach across the floor.
     Then a foot intruded into his field of vision, and as he fought to
draw a full breath the tip of Keisuke's sword came down to hover just
above the tip of his nose.
     "Pitiful," the man said.  "Simply pitiful.  You are the culmination
of our line?  You?  No wonder our clan is a laughingstock."  Fighting
the pain, Kunou craned his head so he could see Keisuke staring down
at him along the line of his blade, dark glee dancing in his eyes.
     "You expect me to beg?" he asked, his voice tight with the
lingering chill that wracked his body.  Keisuke smiled.
     "There's a thought," he said softly.  "But then, you're nothing
but a disappointment, boy.  Making you beg wouldn't be a challenge."
The mocking smile vanished easily.
     "And your existence offends me," he continued darkly. "Good-
bye, Tatewaki Kunou.  Die as you lived, an embarrassment."  Kunou
tried to forced himself up as Keisuke drew his sword back to strike,
tried to find the strength to leap, but his body was reacting too slowly.
He watched with detached fascination as the sword reached the
apogee of its slow swing.  His eyes met Keisuke's defiantly as the dark
blade began to descend.
     And stopped.
     A feeling of unreality stole over Kunou as details began to
creep into his mind.  Keisuke, his eyes widening, startled.  The yellow
ribbon that wound itself around his wrist, pulling his sword hand back.
Both men turning to see a figure not far away, her feet braced firmly,
pulling the ribbon back with both arms, her dark hair tied back in a
ponytail, her eyes narrow with anger, her mouth twisted into a scowl
that he remembered so well ...
     Kodachi?  No, impossible ...
     Then her voice broke over him, words laced with desperate
fury.
     "Leave my son alone!"

***

     Ryouga made his way forward, fighting when necessary, but
avoiding trouble whenever he could.  Ukyou was not far away, her
worried gaze lingering on the enraged creatures all around them.
Fortunately, two humans seemed to be a low priority for the battling
beasts, and they attracted little attention.
     Still, their passage was by no means safe.  Burning pieces of
debris were raining from the ceiling, and fitful glows in the dark told
Ryouga that there were other, smaller fires that would soon become a
problem.  And they seemed to be in almost as much danger of being
trampled as they were of being deliberately attacked.  Ryouga briefly
caught sight of Shampoo leaping in a high arc over the battle off to one
side, then she was gone again.
     There was a sudden commotion ahead of them, and he caught
sight of a ripple travelling straight along the floor, like an invisible
shark's fin cutting through water, and then demons were flying in every
direction.  Ryouga lost sight of Ukyou in the ensuing commotion,
springing to the side to avoid being crushed by a gray-skinned
monstrosity performing an ungainly belly-flop.
     That move brought him face-to-face with Reiko.
     He grinned in relief, for he hadn't seen the girl since the initial
attack, and although he suspected she could take care of herself,
secretly he'd been worried.  She looked none the worse for wear,
though, calmly casting spells that kept the raging monsters away from
her position.  Behind her for the first time he could clearly see the
source of the eerie red glow, a circle containing a large crystal obelisk
of some sort.  The light seemed to be pulsing in time to some unseen
heart, the pulses slowly speeding up, and he wondered if that was bad.
He decided it probably was.
     "Reiko!" he called, stepping around a fallen demon who was
beginning to dissolve into a noxious green puddle.  She turned slightly to
look at him, and his grin faltered.  Her expression didn't change, her
blue eyes flat and unaffected by his appearance.  Remembering her
temper, he frowned uncertainly.
     "Hey, Reiko," he repeated.  "Are you okay?"  She stared some
more, and something began to tickle at the back of his mind.  He took a
step closer.
     "What's wrong?" he asked, trepidation beginning to build.
"Come on, Reiko, we've got to find Ranma and Akane ..."  He broke
off, stunned, as she brought her hands up, weaving them in a simple
pattern in front of her, lips moving as if she was reciting some sort of ...
     Spell?
     Then she thrust her hands out, and a shimmering ball of fire was
streaking towards Ryouga's head.

***

     Riana felt the breath driven from her as something slammed
them to the ground, and then she was lying on her back, staring up at
the ceiling.  There was a red glow from her circle, pulsing now, and a
flickering orange one somewhere off to the side, but she couldn't really
deal with that just then.  She was battered and exhausted from fighting
Wynneth's pet sorceress, and ...
     Wynneth?
     Her thoughts snapped back into focus with painful alacrity, and
she struggled to sit up, gasping at the pain of dozens of smaller wounds.
There was no time for weakness; those wounds would heal.  If she fell
under Wynneth's control, she might never win free.
     Turning towards the sounds of struggle, a bolt of hot exultation
surged through her.  Lilla!  The scrappy succubus was all over
Wynneth, slashing and striking with wild abandon.  Riana gritted her
teeth and tried to get her legs under her.  Lilla had bought her a chance,
and she couldn't waste it.  She still had her little surprise, the one she'd
brought to the old factory earlier to help her handle her rival.  Lilla was
game, but she wouldn't be able to keep the Aerkinma Shadowmistress
occupied for long.  Riana would only have one chance.
     She tried to force the change to spider form, but that damned
sorceress's spell still lingered, making it too difficult to summon the
concentration.  Very well, she'd do this the hard way.  She slipped her
gloved hand inside her belt, pulling the supple black collar out, careful
not to touch it with her bare skin.  It was primed now, the tiny black
gems almost invisible against its surface gleaming blackly.  All she had
to do was get close enough to use it.
     She watched as Wynneth quickly regained her equilibrium and
countered Lilla's fierce attack.  Spitting like an angry tigress, Wynneth
caught Lilla's wrist as she tried to slash, her other hand snaking out to
grip the startled succubus's face.  Lilla wailed, stiffening, and Riana
knew that Wynneth was drawing the heat and vitality out of her with her
touch.  As Lilla's struggles slowly began to weaken, Riana gathered
herself.  Wynneth's back was only partly towards her, but this would be
her best, perhaps only, chance.
     She leaped, weary muscles protesting vigorously as she
slammed into Wynneth's back, the hand with the collar groping madly
for purchase.  Wynneth stumbled and half-turned, throwing Lilla away
from her viciously as she tried to get a grip on Riana.  Riana plunged
her hand through Wynneth's swirling hair, gasping as a thick lock
snaked around her wrist and tried to draw it back.  She flailed
frantically, for a moment certain that she was going to fail, here in some
dingy warehouse, surrounded by blood-crazed low-lives.
     Then the collar brushed the bare skin of Wynneth's throat, and
that was all it took.  Riana lost her grip on it as it began to writhe like a
thing alive, winding itself tightly around the slim pale column of
Wynneth's throat.  The confining hair fell away from her wrist, falling
limply down Wynneth's back, and the Shadowmistress stumbled to her
knees, hands flying desperately to her throat.  Riana rolled away,
coming to her knees and glaring triumphantly at the stunned woman.
     "Surprise," she rasped.  Wynneth's eyes blazed with hatred as
they met Riana's, but the mesmerizing pull that usually lurked there was
absent.  With that enchanted collar on, Wynneth couldn't pull any of her
tricks.  No slipping into shadows, no mind control, nothing.
     Of course, she was still dangerous.
     She climbed to her feet with chilling grace, towering over the
kneeling Riana.
     "The key," she said, her voice low and dangerous.  "Now."
Riana tried to keep her expression neutral.  Wynneth was still in far
better shape than she was, and this would all be for naught if the bitch
just thrashed her and took the damned key.
     Then a shape was rearing up behind Wynneth, and her mouth
gaped open in silent shock as something drove her to her knees.  An
enraged Lilla drove another savage kick into the kneeling woman's
back, throwing her to the floor, then leapt on her back, straddling the
dazed beauty.  She grabbed a double handful of Wynneth's luxuriant
mane and pulled the woman's head back sharply.
     "This is for Callie!" she snapped, driving Wynneth's head into
the floor with a sickening thud.  She pulled it back up.
     "And THIS is for Tisa!"  Another thud.  This time when she
drew Wynneth's head back, a thin trickle of blood snaked down the
pale skin of her forehead.
     "And this one's just 'cause I'm having a bad day!"  Thwack!
Riana grinned.  She'd had worse experiences than watching Wynneth
get bludgeoned.  Unfortunately, she couldn't take the time to enjoy this
further just now.  There would be plenty of time for that later.
     "Lilla," she commanded, pleased that her voice was steady.
"That will do for now."  Lilla's gaze came up to hers, wild and feral,
and for a moment Riana thought the succubus might defy her.  Then,
slowly, a little of the tension went out of her.
     "But Lady ..." she protested.  Riana smiled.
     "I want her whole and able to fully appreciate her captivity,"
Riana replied with her ususal hauteur.  "Now hold her."
Comprehension dawned in Lilla's eyes, and she smiled grimly, slipping
one forearm under Wynneth's chin and drawing her head back.
Wynneth's eyes blinked rapidly, managing to focus as Riana crawled
towards her.  Her eyes widened as she suddenly understood what
Riana meant to do.
     "No!" she shrieked.  Bucking and twisting, she tried to break
free, but Lilla held her tightly as Riana placed her hands gently on
Wynneth's shoulders.  She leaned forward, placing her mouth next to
the panicking woman's ear.
     "I guess you don't get to taste me after all, Wynneth," she
purred.  "That prerogative is reserved for the victorious."  Then she
pressed her mouth against Wynneth's bare shoulder and bit down, her
small fangs sinking into the cool, firm flesh there and injecting her
powerful venom.  Wynneth jerked against her with a cry, and Riana
knew she had to be thinking of the last time she'd succumbed to Riana's
venom, and how she'd woken as a prisoner, bound in the spider's web.
This time, however, she would not be bargaining for her freedom.
     Wynneth's struggles tailed off quickly and her body went limp,
sandwiched between Lilla and Riana.  Riana pulled back, watching as
her hated enemy's eyes fluttered and slid half-closed as the venom
overwhelmed her, and sighed deeply.
     Close.  Very close.  But she was still free, and ultimate victory
could still be hers.
     "Lilla," she breathed.  "First discovering the conspiracy, now
coming to your Lady's aid in time of crisis.  Your rewards will fulfill
even your wildest fantasies."
     "But wait, there's more," Lilla grinned.  "I got the pendant!"  The
pendant?  Riana's heart soared.  The circle could be ... could be ...
     She stopped.  A nagging thought had been trying to get her attention
for some time now, and she recalled the sensation of power that had
distracted Wynneth.  A quick glance at the circle revealed that it was
no longer shimmering with contained power, but pulsing wildly.
     "Lilla, my sweet," Riana said cautiously, "what did you do ...
exactly?"  Lilla followed her gaze, seeming to notice the building power
for the first time.  Bolts of red energy started to arc between the pattern
of the circle and the crystal it contained.  Bluish bolts arced back,
splashing against the invisible barrier in a coruscating sheet of light.
     "Um," Lilla said.  "Well, I thought if I put the pendant at the
open point on the pattern the circle would close and distract Wynneth
... and, well, it seemed like a good idea at the time."  Oh, damn.  Riana
looked around them, finding what she sought as the sensation of
building magic continued to intensify.
     "There!" she snapped.  "Bring her, Lilla, we must take cover over
there!"  Lilla hoisted the limp form of Wynneth and followed, looking
confused.
     "Lady?" she inquired.  "Isn't the spell going to work?"  Riana
looked back over her shoulder, fear and awe warring in her breast.
     "Oh, I'd say it's going to work, Lilla," she said tightly.  "In
theory, the conflicting forces break the seal and free our Lord."
     "In theory?" Lilla asked, sounding alarmed.  Riana had neither
the time nor the inclination to discuss just how risky this untested spell
was with her succubus.
     "I suggest you keep your head down," was all she said.
     Behind them, the conflict of energies grew.
 
***

     Ryouga dodged and wove and danced wildly, staying one step
ahead of trouble.  On the bright side, none of the bad guys showed any
inclination to come anywhere near them.
     The dark cloud around that particular sliver lining was that
Reiko was, for some reason, trying to kill him.
     The air was sharp with smoke as the fires began to spread, and
he didn't at all like the way that glowing circle was beginning to act up.
Ryouga had the definite feeling that things were about to get even
worse, hard as that might be to fathom, and he wanted very badly to
vacate the immediate area.
     But he couldn't go without Reiko, and she wasn't cooperating.
     He dropped flat, balanced on his hands and the balls of his feet
as a bolt of lightning snapped over his head, then sprang forward,
waving his umbrella to distract the sorceress.  Talking wasn't getting
him anywhere; he was going to have to take more drastic measures,
and soon.  He'd lost Ukyou and still hadn't seen any sign of Akane and
Ranma, and the longer they stayed in this place the more likely it
became that they wouldn't be leaving.
     He tossed the umbrella ahead, popping the shroud open to hide
his leap.  Reiko looked around as the umbrella clattered loudly to the
floor, but he was already soaring over her head, and by the time she'd
figured out what he was up to he had wrapped his arms around hers,
pinning them to her sides.  He hoped she couldn't cast a spell like this,
a mental image of Wynneth consumed with pure white flames making
him shudder.
     "Reiko, stop it!  Listen to me!" he shouted as she kicked and
struggled in his grip.  As he held on to her, his saw something that made
his blood run cold.  There, at the base of her throat, the bite mark
Wynneth had made was exposed, the band-aid that had covered it
missing.  It looked raw, and he had a sudden awful insight into what
might have happened.
     "Reiko, come on!" he groaned as her struggles increased in
ferocity.  "It's me!  Fight her, Reiko, like you did before!"  The sudden
prickling of heat along his skin told him that she was summoning magic,
getting ready to cast a spell.  Dammit, he despaired, what am I gonna
do?
     Then she jerked in his grip, some of the tension draining from
her body, her head slumping forward.  The sensation of heat vanished,
and Ryouga frowned.  Was she faking?
     Then she gasped, and started flailing again, frantically this time.
     "No!" she screamed.  "No, don't!  Don't touch me!"
     "Reiko!  Stop it!  It's me, Ryouga!"  She froze in his arms, and
he felt a fine trembling in her lithe frame.
     "R-Ryouga?" she stammered.  He released her, and she turned
unsteadily, staring around in confusion.  "What ... I don't ..."
     "I think you're okay now," he sighed with relief.  He didn't
know why, but he was very glad, because the situation appeared to be
getting worse very, very quickly.  He watched as Reiko blinked the
confusion from her eyes, one hand rising slowly toward the mark on her
throat.
     "I was ..." she murmured.  Her eyes widened, and she
whimpered deep in her throat.
     "No," she whispered.  "Oh, no."
     "Reiko, we ..."
     "NO!"  She screamed out loud, whirling in an angry circle.
"OH WYNNETH YOU *BITCH*!  YOU'RE GOING TO DIE FOR
THIS!  DO YOU HEAR ME?"  As Ryouga watched, astounded,
Reiko began throwing bolts in all directions, a choked, furious sob
working its way painfully from her throat.  Tears streaked down her
face as she raged, her voice raw with fury.  Even though he'd only just
met Reiko a short time before, she'd always seemed pretty controlled
to him, alternating between flirtatious and sarcastic, with only the
occasional hint of anything darker lurking under the surface.  Her
present wild rage was so sudden and intense that he froze up in the face
of it.
     But only for a few moments.  It appeared that Wynneth had
indeed been controlling Reiko, but for some reason her control had
been broken.  He understood Reiko's desire for revenge, but now was
definitely not the time.  He shouted her name, moving up cautiously
behind her.  She continued to ignore him.
     "COME ON OUT AND TAKE YOUR MEDICINE, BITCH!"
she shrieked, shoulders trembling, almost beyond reason.  Ryouga
grabbed her arm as she started forward into the surging battle, and she
spun, eyes wild, stumbling, only Ryouga's reflexes keeping her from
hitting the floor.  He scooped her up easily in his arms, ignoring her
feeble struggles.
     "Let me go," she gasped, pressing weakly against his chest.  "I
have to kill her.  Ryouga, listen, I have to.  She'll get me if I don't ..."
     "What we have to do," he replied grimly, slipping one foot
under his umbrella and kicking it up to his hand, "is get out of here.  I
think that thing is going to go boom!"  The blonde lay mostly limp in his
arms now, her wild fury spent, as he ran for cover wondering how
much time they had.  Seconds later, a blue bolt of energy sizzled by
him, striking a wide-eyed lizard creature square in the chest and
knocking it flying.  Ryouga winced.
     Well, that answered THAT question ...

***

     Nabiki gaped.  Yukio had broken free, vaulting smoothly out of
their concealed nook as Keisuke had stood over her son, preparing to
strike the final blow.  As she moved, she pulled something from under
her trenchcoat, raising her hand high to unleash it towards the
unsuspecting Keisuke.
     A gymnastics ribbon.  It looked, in fact, much like the one her
daughter had habitually used, and Nabiki wondered numbly if Kodachi
had actually gotten her interest in gymnastics from her mother, or if her
mother, cut off from her children, had cultivated the skills in order to
feel closer to her children.
     Then the woman had snared Keisuke's arm, and was pulling
him away with all her strength.
     "Stay away from my son!"  Nabiki winced as she heard those
words.  Dammit, Yukio, she thought, why'd you go and say that?
Haven't you been paying attention?
     Even if she had been, it was clear only one thing was on her
mind now.  She had her hands close together at the handle of the
ribbon, pulled back over her shoulder, the ribbon taut between her and
Keisuke.
     "Tatewaki, run!" she shouted.  Nabiki couldn't take her eyes off
Keisuke, though.  The expression on his face changed from surprise to
shock, and then something dark and most unpleasant.
     "Son?" he asked, his voice deceptively quiet.  Kunou was
scrambling on hands and knees towards his sword, but for the moment
Keisuke was ignoring him.  He had eyes only for Yukio.  With a feral
grin, he dropped his sword, snatching it with his free hand before it
could fall too far.  In one smooth motion, he'd sliced through the
ribbon, and was lunging towards Yukio.  Nabiki's heart leapt into her
throat as he moved, slashing left handed with his sword.  Yukio, off-
balance, managed to back-flip away from him, back-pedalling
frantically.  Nabiki saw the dark blood oozing from a long slash high on
her chest and her hands locked painfully around the edge of the crate
she was sheltering behind.
     Grinning, Keisuke shifted the sword back to his right hand,
stalking Yukio hungrily.  She moved back with a grace that Nabiki had
never noticed before, drawing him away from her son.  Nabiki wanted
to do something to help, but there was nothing she could do except
watch helplessly as Keisuke drew ever nearer, swinging his sword in
short, vicious arcs.
     "I don't have my mother," he breathed, something dark and
ugly roiling in his voice.  "I see no reason why he should have his."
Then he was moving so quickly that Nabiki almost couldn't follow him,
coming in close to Yukio.  She somehow managed to sidestep his
lunging blade, but he backhanded her across the face with the back of
his fist so hard that she flew threw the air, collapsing in an untidy heap
on the floor, where she lay unmoving.  Instead of pursuing her, Keisuke
turned, and Nabiki saw that Kunou had retrieved his sword and was
charging, blade held low and parallel to his body.  Keisuke sprang to
meet him, and Nabiki took advantage of the diversion to run out to
Yukio.
     She knelt over the fallen woman, almost afraid to touch her.
Yukio moaned, blood trickling from her split lip, her eyelids fluttering
weakly.  She was still bleeding from the cut in her chest, although the
trenchcoat soaked up the blood and made it hard to see how serious
the cut was.  Nabiki pulled Yukio into her arms, causing her to moan
again, and wondered if she could drag the woman back to where they'd
been hiding.
     She looked up to see Kunou hammering at Keisuke's sword
furiously, driving the other man back.  Keisuke didn't seem worried,
though, taunting his opponent mercilessly.
     "I'll kill her first, boy," he snarled.  "I'll let you see your mother
die before I send you to join her!"  Kunou just redoubled his attack,
and the two sprang apart, swords at the ready, gazes locked.
     It was then that Nabiki noticed the first bolts of energy hitting
the walls around them.

***

     Something sharp was digging into her side, and there was a lot
of noise coming from somewhere nearby.  Damn, Ranma and his father
are going at it early today, Akane thought blearily.  How's a girl
supposed to get any sleep?  But something nagged at the edge of her
ragged semi-consciousness, something important, and the noise
wouldn't let up, and how the HELL was she supposed to sleep with
this thing sticking in her ribs anyway?
     So she opened her eyes, and reality came at her in a dizzying
rush.  There was an ugly red pulsing glow from somewhere, and
something above was burning ...
     Ranma!  She sat up abruptly, various aches and pains making
themselves known, but nothing that seemed too serious.  She was lying
on a pile of half-rotted cloth, surrounded by shards of wood, one of
which had been poking her in the side.  When they'd fallen, they must
have landed on one of the old crates and broken it.  But where was
Ranma?
     She caught sight of a bare arm nearby, but something blocked
her view, something low and hunched, something that smelled like
rotted meat mixed with ammonia.
     "Soft," it mumbled in a voice choked with liquid.  "No claws,
no spines, no scales ..."  It shifted, and Akane could see the thing
lowering its long, toothy snout towards the unconscious Ranma, its skin
glistening in the uncertain light.
     "Soffffft ..." it breathed joyously, the snout opening impossibly
wide.  Akane broke free of her horrified paralysis at that, hurling herself
forward with a hoarse cry.
     "LEAVE HIM ALONE!" she shrieked, swinging a length of
wood she didn't recall picking up in a vicious arc.  It broke against the
thing's head, and the creature fell back with a startled cry, arms
half-raised.  Akane barrelled right into it, spearing the jagged end of the
wood into the creature's face.  It howled in pain, and she hammered the
improvised stake home with desperate strength, dimly aware that she
was screaming too, a long, wordless cry of pent up fear and rage.
Finally the thing, which was not much taller than she was, turned and
ran frantically, blinded by its own blood.  Akane watched as it ran right
to the edge of the loft, crashing through the rickety railing and plunging
out of sight.
     She was vaguely aware that she should have been horrified, but
her capacity for horror had been pushed to the limit already.  The
predominant emotion she felt now was simply the need to protect
Ranma and escape this madness.  Quickly she turned and crouched
beside him, examining him in the flickering light.  There were no tooth
marks on him that she could see, only the long oozing scratches on his
chest that had been there before, and a bruised bite mark on his neck.
None of his injuries looked too serious, but there was that strange white
streak in his hair.  And he was still unconscious.  She knelt beside him,
tears stinging at her eyes.  Fiercely, she knuckled them away, slipping
her arms under his bare back to pull him close to her.
     A few tattered strips were all that remained of his shirt, although
his pants were mostly intact.  His skin was hot, almost feverish, and
slick with a thin sheen of sweat and blood.  He moaned softly through
parted lips, but didn't awaken.  Akane felt something tighten in her
chest, and she buried her face in the crook of his shoulder for a
moment, knowing she didn't have time but unable to resist the impulse.
     She drew a deep, shaky breath, breathing in his scent, and
tightened her arms around the flat muscles of his back.
     "I'll get you out of this, Ranma," she whispered.  "I promise.
So don't you worry.  Because I love you, remember?  For ever and
ever."  Her throat threatened to close up on her, and she snapped her
head up angrily before it could.  Time enough for crying later.  Now,
Ranma was alive, and if she was going to keep him that way she had to
get out of this hellhole.
     She struggled to her feet, arms still wrapped around Ranma's
chest.  He was dead weight, and she shifted uncertainly.  Akane was
strong and in good shape, but Ranma was awkward, his weight shifting
as his limbs flopped about.  It would have been easier if he had been in
girl form, but there was no water handy, so she would just have to
make do.
     A series of flashes drew her attention to the open area below.
She couldn't see much from where she was, but as she watched bolts
of blue lightning, mixed in with red ones, began arcing through the air,
becoming more frequent even as she stood there.
     No way could this be good.
     She began looking around frantically for the stairs, recalling only
after she began moving that they'd been torn away.  Great, she thought
sourly.  Now how am I supposed to get down?  Jumping with Ranma
poorly balanced might get one or both of them hurt, and a simple
sprained ankle could jeopardise their chances to escape.
     Behind her, there was a sound, low and tooth-rattling, like
someone tearing a boulder apart.  It began to rise in intensity, and the
loft was illuminated by the almost steady discharge of bolts from below.
Akane lowered Ranma to the floor and draped herself on top of him
protectively, eyes closed against the glare, trying to ignore the panicked
howls rising up through the warm, acrid air.
     What now? she asked silently, gritting her teeth.  What ELSE could
possibly happen?
     Then the floor shuddered once, twice.  Something snapped
below her, and the floor lurched downwards sharply.  Akane didn't
know whether to laugh or cry.  Something, probably those bolts, was
snapping the supports that held the loft up.
     Well, she thought giddily as she tightened her hold on the
comatose Ranma, at least I won't have to worry about how to get
down ...

***

     The roar rose to an earsplitting shriek, splitting the air like a
wedge of sound.  A solid column of blue and red light twisted together
and rose from the circle, smashing though the roof of the warehouse
and out into the storm.  The pulses of red light from the pattern on the
floor were so fast now they were practically solid, and huge bolts of
energy arced out at random, smashing holes in the floor, walls and
ceiling when they weren't impacting the increasingly panicked crowd.
A hot wind streamed off the column, fanning the flames of scattered
fires and blowing debris around in a storm to match the one happening
outside.
     Finally, just when it seemed as if the chaos would never end,
there was a shattering explosion from within the column of light.  The
concussion blew out all the small windows that lined the edge of the
high ceiling, throwing demon, vampire and human alike to the ground.
Shards of blue crystal were hurled with deadly force in all directions,
some striking the walls with an oddly beautiful chiming tone as they
shattered.  Others struck flesh, and there was nothing beautiful about
that sound at all.
     For a long, startled moment, everything seemed still, as if
nobody could believe what had happened.
     Then the bedlam resumed.  In earnest.

***

     Riana staggered to her feet.  The spell had been more powerful
than she had imagined, and since the final element had been introduced
without the proper incantations the release of energy had been
uncontrolled.  She peered out from behind the scarred remnants of the
support pillar, trying to see through the smoke and haze.  Bodies lay
everywhere, some getting up, others not.  But there was only one that
concerned her right at this moment.  She darted forward, unnoticed in
the carnage, passing effortlessly over the perimeter of the spent circle.
Shards of blue crystal were everywhere, mostly small splinters that
crunched under her boots this close to the centre of the effect.  Such
power!  The seal MUST have been broken, but could he have
survived?
     Then she saw him, lying motionless at the exact centre of the
circle.  With a cry, she hurled herself to the floor beside him.  His face,
which she had not seen clearly for nearly thirty years, was pale against
the dark cascade of his hair, bloodless.  She tried to swallow, but
couldn't.  No, it couldn't be.  After all this time, he couldn't die in her
attempt to free him.  That just couldn't happen.
     Timorously, she stretched out her hand, bloodied and shaking,
towards his face, still so handsome, so perfect.  She closed her eyes for
a moment, then opened them and brushed her fingers against that
bloodless cheek.
     The skin was pliant, soft, although cool to the touch.  Trembling, she
ran her fingers up the curve of his jaw and across his lips, the lips that
she had tasted so many nights ...
     She gasped aloud as she felt the soft susurration of breath,
snatching her hand back as if burned.  Alive!  He was alive!
     She tore at his tunic, pressing her ear to his chest.  Yes!  His
heart beat slowly, but he was alive!  As she pulled back, she could see
that the crystal shards arrayed around his body all pointed outwards.
Being at the heart of the spell had been like being at the heart of a
hurricane.  He'd been protected, unharmed by the titanic forces that
had sundered the seal.  A joyous laugh bubbled up in her throat, but
died as she heard howls and screeches rising through the smoke.
     He was alive, but she didn't know what effects his long
imprisonment might have had, and at any rate he was unable to defend
himself.  And this place was dangerous still, what with Tragus's
renegades and Wynneth's lackeys.  She tried to lift him, but her battle
with the sorceress had left her spent.  It would be horribly ironic if she
managed to free him after these many years, only to lose him because
she lacked the strength to take him to safety!
     And she wasn't leaving without him.  She cast about, but Lilla
had been sprawled dazed on the floor and had been left behind in
Riana's haste.  I need help, she thought desperately, I need ...
     She threw her head back and called the name that came to her
with troubling ease.
     "Keisuke!"

***

     Nabiki huddled around Yukio, slowly lifting her head as the
ruckus died down.  The stacks of crates had collapsed, and a large
hole had been blasted in the wall not far away.  Through it, she could
see that the fury of the storm outside had not abated.  Sharp shards of
crystal had rained around them, some embedded in the walls and floor,
glinting with an incongruously lovely light.
     The blast had thrown Kunou against the wall, and he slowly
pulled himself up, somehow managing to hold on to his sword.  Nabiki
looked for Keisuke, entertaining the notion that he'd been impaled with
a large chunk of that crystal, but no such luck.  He staggered out of the
smoke, looking distressingly healthy, and stood glaring at them from a
short distance away.  Whatever had happened, he'd been as surprised
as the rest of them.  Kunou pushed off the wall and staggered over to
where Nabiki and Yukio were crouched on the floor, raising his sword
into a guard position.  Keisuke laughed.
     "Going to protect them, boy?" he asked, his voice a dark rumble.
"This should be entertaining."  There were unearthly sounds emerging
from the shattered interior of the warehouse, and Nabiki had the urgent
need to be somewhere else.  Kunou just stood there, panting hoarsely
while keeping his sword up, the only thing between them and the
dangerous stranger.  Keisuke was a fair distance away, but after the
way she'd seen him move that didn't make Nabiki feel at all safe.
     "Let them go," Kunou said flatly.  "I shall fight you.  I am the one
you want to punish, remember?"  Keisuke laughed.
     "Bargaining for their safety?" he asked with a vicious smile.
"How noble, COUSIN.  But I want to see you suffer.  I want you to
see how powerless you are to save them."  Kunou stared back
expressionlessly, and Nabiki swallowed against the lump in her throat.
Could Kunou beat this guy?
     "Keisuke!"  They all froze as the woman's voice pierced the
clamour, high pitched and frantic.  "Keisuke!  I need you!"  Nabiki
watched as Keisuke hesitated, turning to gaze into the smoke and haze.
Then he turned back to Kunou and set himself as if to charge, blade
coming up quickly.
     "KEI!"  There was panic in that voice now, and that seemed to
decide the matter somehow.  The man shot another quick glance off in
the direction of the cry, his internal struggle clear on his face.
     "Cherish every minute, boy," he growled at last.  "You don't have
many left.  I can finish you any time I wish."  Then he was gone, the
smoke swirling in his wake.  Kunou slumped visibly, sheathing his
sword in one smooth motion and turning towards them.
     "She's hurt, Kunou," Nabiki said quickly.  The sight of blood
on Yukio's dark coat had unnerved her more than she cared to admit.
Kunou stared down at the semi-conscious woman, his face unreadable,
and Nabiki wondered exactly what was going through his head.  Was
he remembering every little betrayal, all the old, dearly held hatreds?
Was he trying to decide if he wanted her to live, or just enjoying the
sight of her in pain?  Nabiki didn't want to think he would do that, but
the scene she'd witnessed between them had been full of raw,
screaming emotional agony, and there was no telling just what that sort
of twisted family history would reap.
     Finally, he stooped, scooping the woman up into his arms
woodenly, still with no hint of emotion on his face.  Nabiki stood
quickly, watching them together.  There was no hint in his stance or
demeanor that she was his mother, or that she'd been hurt trying to
save him.  They might have been strangers in the aftermath of any
disaster, one assisting the other.  He turned toward the hole in the wall,
and suddenly she couldn't stand it any longer.
     "Kunou!" she blurted.  He stopped, not turning, and she took a
deep breath.
     "She was trying to help," Nabiki said, willing him to understand.
"She ..."
     "Nabiki Tendou."  His voice was low, even, and as neutral as
his face.  "The other I have shared with you, and been grateful for your
insight.  But mind me.  This is personal.  This is true family business."
He half-turned so he could see her, and still he was maddeningly
composed.
     "Do you understand?" he asked.  She scowled.
     "Kunou ..."
     "Good," he replied, as if she'd agreed.  "Now come.  I must
get you to safety before I can search further for your sister and the
others."  He stepped through the gaping hole and into the pouring rain,
and Nabiki, after taking one last look around, quickly followed.

***

     Tisa knelt in the rubble, trying to shake off the narcotic effect of
the vampire bite.  The one that had gotten her, a girl with two long
matted brown ponytails, was kneeling in the shards not far away,
cradling something in her hands and moaning, rocking back and forth in
a mindless rhythm.  Tisa decided not to waste time wondering why the
vamp had broken off her attack just before the spell went berserk.  The
important thing now was to find Riana.  If Wynneth had been
responsible for the explosive release of energies, then Riana might have
been caught in it.  She might be hurt, or worse ...
     Don't think that way! she told herself, climbing dizzily to her
knees.  Someone caught her just as she started to fall, and she gasped
as strong hands pulled her upright.
     "Callie?"
     "Damn, Tisa, you look like crap!" the blonde grimaced.  "But at
least you're alive.  Lilla was too, last I saw."
     "And Riana?" Tisa asked tightly as Callie began half-dragging her
through the smoke.
     "She wasn't in control of that spell at the end," Callie said
carefully.  "Tisa ..."  Just then a voice called out loudly, and Tisa's head
snapped up.  Riana!  It WAS her!  The fact that she was calling
Keisuke's name dimmed her joy only somewhat.  Callie chuckled
ruefully at her friend's expression.
     "Maybe you'll be lucky," she said, "and he won't have
survived.  That'd improve your chances slightly, eh?"
     "Oh, shut up," Tisa sighed.  But now she was smiling.

***

     Akane staggered under Ranma's weight.  She'd slung one of
his arms over her shoulder and had the other around his waist, half-
dragging him away from the wreckage of the collapsed loft.  Between
sliding down the collapsing floor and crawling out of the shadows into a
dim, smoke-filled space, she'd become completely disoriented.  She
had no idea which way to go to find the way out, so she pretty much
picked a direction at random and went with it.
     The sounds of battle had more or less ceased, but there were plenty
of moans and shrieks still rending the hot, acrid air, as dimly seen forms
charged past in the haze, sometimes coming together in a flurry of limbs
and claws and teeth.  Mostly, thought, she got the impression that
everyone was more concerned with getting out alive than fighting to the
death.
     At least, she hoped so.
     A deafening clatter from somewhere off to the left led her to
believe that at least part of the roof and wall had collapsed.  She
wondered dimly if the rain would keep the building from burning
completely.
     Ranma was still limp and unresponsive in her arms.  Her body
ached from the abuse that had been heaped on it, but she continued to
push.  Once Ranma was safe, only then could she collapse.
     A form appeared out of the smoke not far away, wandering
aimlessly.  Unlike the monstrosities running around them, it appeared to
be human.  Akane opened her mouth to call, then froze as the man
turned towards her.
     His clothes were rags, every bone in his face jutted through his
papery skin, and his eyes began to glow a dull, baleful red as they met
hers.  Immediately, she began to feel a strange lassitude stealing over
her, and she tried to blink.  The creature began loping towards them,
moving more like an animal than a human, and she fought to free herself
from that mesmerizing gaze.  She finally managed to tear her eyes away
and felt her strength return, but it was too late.  The thing was almost on
her, and she turned instinctively to shield Ranma with her body,
marshalling her last reserves of will to fight.
     Then the man-like creature was stumbling, a look of almost
comical surprise on his face as five small blades thunked into his chest.
He turned to see where they'd come from, still more surprised than
hurt, and a large flat metal object hit him full on, propelling him away
into the smoky gloom.  Akane's saviour turned to her then, lowering her
spatula slowly as her brown eyes took in the scene.  Akane just stood
frozen, uncertain whether to laugh or cry.
     Ukyou.
     Dammit.

***

     Ukyou stood there, completely at a loss.  She'd had a rough
night, or so she'd thought, but seeing Ranma and Akane like this
shocked her speechless.
     Akane's dress was mostly gone, only a scrap of skirt, barely
decent, and a swatch of top that left her waist, arms and most of her
shoulders bare remaining.  There were long, bleeding gashes on one
arm and across her shoulder and chest, and her hair was tousled, her
skin was smudged with dirt and soot, and her eyes were wild.  And yet,
she looked strangely beautiful, as if her inner ferocity had been
unleashed as all the trappings of civilized behaviour had been stripped
away.
     She was supporting Ranma, who was obviously in bad shape.
His head hung down, loose hair obscuring his face.  His bare chest was
striped with raw scratches, and strands of something white clung to his
pants and wrists.  Ukyou shrugged off her shock with an effort.  Time
for explanations later.  For now, they needed to get out before the
entire building came down around them.
     She started forward, and something surged in Akane's eyes, a
wild, fey anger, tinged with possessiveness.  She turned her body as if
to protect Ranma from Ukyou, and the young okonomiyaki chef
stopped dead in her tracks.  She slung her spatula slowly, holding up
the other hand in a placating gesture.  The funny thing was, she wasn't
even angry.  Maybe that was a good sign.
     "Akane," she said gently.  "He's yours.  I know, okay?  Everybody
knows.  It's over.  He PICKED you, don't you get it?  There's nothing
to be afraid of now.  So let me help, and we can all get out of here."
Something seemed to flow into Akane's eyes from the edges, pooling
there, quenching the wild fires somewhat.  She blinked, and a slight
flush rose to her cheeks.  Her throat worked as she swallowed, a shiver
running through her slim shoulders as she looked away.
     "Ukyou," she whispered.  "I'm sorry."  Something told Ukyou
those words were about more than the here and now.  They held some
strange resonance that touched Ukyou's heart, and rippled through her
like a gentle shock of recognition.
     "Yeah," she replied softly.  "Me, too."  And she found, to her
surprise, that she was.  Whether or not that changed things between
them remained to be seen.  She slipped under Ranma's other arm,
pulling it across her shoulder, and pulled him upright.  With the two of
them, they'd be able to handle the unconscious Ranma easily.
     "That way, I think," Ukyou murmured, pointing with her free
hand.  Akane nodded, and they set off silently, wrapped in a strange
intimacy.  She loves him so much, Ukyou thought for the first time,
peering at the determined girl out of the corner of her eye.  And really,
it's not so bad.  It doesn't hurt so much anymore.  I guess I'm really
going to be able to accept this.
     And she was mildly shocked at the thought that sprang up,
unbidden, in the wake of that realization.
     I'm glad.
     Something large ran past them, and they tensed warily, but it
didn't slow down.  They started moving again, and just as the wall
came into view another form loomed out of the smoke.
     "Ryouga!" Akane gasped with obvious relief.  Ukyou's own
greeting died in her throat.  Ryouga's sudden appearance should have
bolstered her spirits, but the thing that caught her attention was the
blonde girl curled up in his arms, head resting cozily against his chest.
Reiko's eyes were closed and she looked pretty comfortable to Ukyou,
and for some reason that didn't sit well with her.  No, not at all.
     What's the matter with you? she chided herself silently.  Stop
acting so foolish!  Even if you don't like her, if Ryouga wants to let her
cuddle up to him that's certainly no business of yours, is it?
     And really, it wasn't, but for some reason an irrational anger ate
at her every time she glanced over at them.
     "Is everybody okay?" Ryouga asked, worry evident in his eyes
as he stared at Ranma's limp form.
     "I for one will be a lot happier when we're out of here," Ukyou
growled.  Shrieks rose and fell in the background, and there was a
sudden sound of rending metal, followed by an ominous creaking as the
damaged building shifted.
     "What about the others?" Ryouga asked.  That thought had
occurred to Ukyou as well, and she was torn.  She wanted to go
looking for them immediately, but burdened as they were they'd be in
real trouble if they ran into serious opposition.
     "We've got to get these two out first," she said finally.  "Once
we know they're okay, we can circle the building and go in from the
other side.  That's the last place I know Kunou and Nabiki were ..."
     "Nabiki?" Akane blurted, shocked.  "She was here?"
     "Long story," Ukyou gritted, chiding herself for speaking so
carelessly.  "Anyway, first things first.  Let's try to find an exit."
     "No need to get fancy," Ryouga replied, grinning grimly.  He
marched over to the wall and shifted Reiko in his arms to free up a
hand.  The blonde stirred, murmuring drowsily and reaching up to twine
her arms around Ryouga's neck, lacing her fingers together loosely at
the nape.  Ryouga stood there, cheeks flaming and a goofy grin on his
face, and Ukyou's temper flared again.
     "Any time, Ryouga!" she snapped, and he jerked guiltily.  One
jab blew out a large section of wall, and he snapped his umbrella into
position before stepping out into the downpour.  With a quick glance
over her shoulder, Ukyou helped Akane drag Ranma through.
     And then they were out.
     There had been times that night that Ukyou had wondered if
she would ever leave that building, and she gasped with pleasure as the
cold rain drummed in hard lines against her skin.  The sensation was
both cleansing and refreshing.  Even Ranma felt lighter.
     Then she turned her head and realized why.  Of course he felt
lighter; the cold rain had triggered his curse.  Ranma-chan hung limply
between them, her hair now red except for that strange white streak.
Ukyou hoped Ryouga didn't turn around, because in her
current state of undress Ranma-chan's bountiful assets were swinging,
wet and unencumbered, as they ran.  Ukyou might even have felt a
twinge of jealousy if they hadn't been bruised and striped with blood.
     They dashed through the rain, a long forked bolt of blue-white
lightning casting the world briefly into stark relief.  Ranma-chan was
light enough that either one of them could have carried her, but Ukyou
didn't want to stop and negotiate, not now that she'd actually gotten
Akane to accept some help.  Anyway, it was faster with both of them,
and faster was better as far as she was concerned.
     Ryouga led them around a couple of buildings and into the lee
of a smallish storage shed with lengths of pipe stacked against one end.
The doorway was protected with an overhang, and they crouched there
out of the rain, huddled together protectively.  They couldn't see the
warehouse from where they were; more importantly, anything leaving
the warehouse couldn't see them, either.
     Ryouga's eyes bugged out as he finally noticed Ranma-chan's
transformation and her nakedness.  Knowing that Ranma-chan was
really a boy was one thing, but even Ukyou had to admit it was hard to
keep that in mind when faced with the reality.  Then Ryouga set Reiko
gently against the wall, which finally prompted her to open her eyes,
and stripped off his torn shirt, handing it to Akane.
     "Here, use this," he said gently.  Akane's grateful smile touched
Ukyou's heart, as did the tender way she pulled the yellow tunic over
Ranma-chan.  Then Akane pulled the girl close to her, eliciting a low
moan.
     "We've got to go back," Ukyou said at last.  Having finally
gotten out, the last thing in the world she wanted was to go back in.
Nabiki might still be in there, though, and Kunou, Mousse and
Shampoo could all be trapped.  She wouldn't be able to live with
herself if she didn't make sure they were all right.
     "Ranma?"  Akane's voice was tremulous, tinged with hope,
and Ukyou turned to see the red-head stirring in Akane's arms.
Ryouga grinned, although Reiko just slumped against the wall, hand
against her throat, staring blankly into the darkness.  Ranma-chan
stirred again, eyelids fluttering weakly.
     "Ranma, wake up," Akane urged, moisture gathering in her
eyes, and Ukyou let go a breath she hadn't known she'd been holding.
Ranma-chan moaned, her head rolling from side to side, then slowly her
eyes opened.  They stared upwards for a few long seconds, then
struggled to focus.  Akane leaned forward so Ranma-chan could see
her, a huge smile of relief spreading across her face.
     "Ranma," she breathed.  Ranma-chan gazed up into Akane's
face.
     And screamed.
     Her arms began flailing wildly, and Akane, numb with shock,
was forced to let her go as she pushed herself away violently.  Ranma-
chan fell to the ground, scuttling backwards awkwardly, her eyes wide
with terror, chest heaving.  Ukyou could only stare, dumbfounded.
     "Ranma?" Akane asked, her voice plaintive.  "What's wrong?
What ..."  She reached out, and Ranma-chan screamed again, a high,
terrified wail.
     "Nuh!" she blubbered.  "Nuh!  Nuh-no!  Duh-don't TOUCH
me!  Stay ... AWAY!"  Akane was frozen, her hand still held out
imploringly, and they all watched in disbelief as Ranma-chan drew her
knees up to her chest, wrapping her arms around them and staring out
from under her dripping hair, eyes tinged with fear and madness.
     "Make it stop," she whispered, but Ukyou had a feeling she
wasn't talking to any of them.  "Make it stop make it stop oh please I
want it to stooooOOOOP!"  Akane collapsed, tears spilling over and
down her cheeks as she stared helplessly at the raving girl, her fierce
determination apparently deserting her at last.  Ukyou looked back and
forth between the two of them, a hard lump of ice in her chest, and for
the first time in her life she wanted Ranma to look at Akane and smile,
and tell her he loved her.
     But Ranma-chan just crouched there, rocking, her eyes queerly
empty, and whimpered in the back of her throat.
     And Ukyou felt a chill that had nothing to do with the rain.
     When they'd escaped, she'd thought they had won.  Now, she
had to wonder.

***

     Riana clung to Keisuke's arm, feeling the cold rain snake down
her bruised skin.  Keisuke's body was warm, but Vaenruth's was cool,
dangerously so, even wrapped in Keisuke's torn coat.  Still, the seal
was broken now, and after all this time she could see him, touch him.
She would nurse him back to health, even if she had to nourish him with
her very life's blood.  Weary, she let herself lean more heavily into
Keisuke, though only partially from fatigue.
     "I'm sorry I interrupted your vengeance," she murmured.  His face
was stony, giving away nothing.
     "I'll finish the boy later.  Let him stew in his own juices,
knowing I'm coming for him."  Her gaze travelled down to the man
cradled in Keisuke's strong arms, then back to the younger man's face.
     "I know how hard this is for you," she said.  His jaw twitched,
but he said nothing.  "Please, Kei ..."
     "Only for you," he said, his voice so low she had to strain to
hear it.  "Only for you would I quit the field against that fool to rescue
my rival.  I wonder if you understand what that cost me?"  She did; that
was the hell of it, she did understand.  And she loved him for it, and it
gnawed at her that that might not be enough.
     "I'd hoped you and your father would first meet under better
circumstances," she said sadly.  "It is my fondest wish that you two
should be friends ..."  Keisuke's curt laugh cut her off.
     "Friends?" he asked incredulously.  "If we are anything alike,
that shall not happen."  She squeezed his arm, frustration building.
     "Kei, the three of us together!  Think of it!  We'd be
unstoppable!"  He looked down at her, those dark eyes shadowed with
some black amusement, and she frowned, puzzled.
     "Riana."  There was a tone in his voice she didn't recognize.
He sounded almost rueful.  "You are an incredible woman, but you
seem to have developed a blind spot about us.  We both love you, and
I suspect neither of us will be willing to share your heart with the other.
We will both strive to win you, but only one will succeed.  Ironically, if I
were the sort of man who would be satisfied with half-measures, I
hardly think you ever could have loved me."  That stung, because she
suspected it was true.
     "You'll see," she said stubbornly.  "I won't give up."  He
looked away.
     "No," he agreed.  "I'm certain you won't."  They were almost
to the truck when they met Lilla, carrying the unconscious Wynneth
slung over her shoulder.
     "There you are!" she cried.  "You ran off so quickly after the
explosion that I lost you!"  She glanced at the limp form in Keisuke's
arms.  "Is he ...?"
     "He will be fine," Riana said briskly.  "But we have to get him
back to the mansion.  Have you seen Tisa and Callie?"  Lilla grinned
and pointed, and Riana turned to see the two bedraggled Baenma
emerging from the darkness, Tisa limping and being supported as they
came.  Tisa looked at the limp form of Vaenruth expressionlessly, while
Callie goggled at Lilla.
     "Lilla!  Is that ...?"
     "Yup!" Lilla crowed.  "Our Lady collared the witch!"
     "You should have left her inside to burn," Tisa said flatly.  Lilla
pouted.
     "Nothing doing!" she chirped.  "I'm due a pretty big reward,
and I know what I'm asking for!"
     "What of the renegade, Tragus?" Riana asked, ignoring the byplay.
     "I saw her when I was fighting the vampires," Tisa replied,
sounding weary.  "She was fighting towards the circle when she was
taken from behind.  I saw her go down, bloodied.  I never saw her
again after that."  Riana nodded, ignoring the distance in Tisa's gaze.
With luck, Tragus was dead.  If not, then she'd hunt the fool down
later. At any rate, it was time to seek the sanctuary of their stronghold.
     Riana was silent as the truck loomed up out of the rain, black
sides glistening wetly.  She'd send one of the others back later to try to
collect any of their Borgunma who'd survived.  For now, though, her
only priority was getting Vaenruth to safety.
     Be afraid, little humans, she thought with dark glee.  Our long
time of waiting is nearly over.  Once my love is strong, we will become
your nemesis once again.  And this time, we will succeed where we
failed thirty years ago.
     Enjoy what little time remains to you.  Soon, we will rule this
place, and you will belong to us.

***

     Ranma-chan's face was pale against the sheets, her unbound
red hair framing her delicate features.  Akane sat there on the edge of
the bed, Ranma-chan's cool hand clasped tightly in her own.  The other
girl didn't stir.  Ryouga had carried the frantic but weak red-head here
before he and Ukyou had rushed back to the warehouse.  Ranma-chan
hadn't calmed down until Doctor Tofu had touched her sleep point.
She probably didn't even know that Akane was there, but Akane
stayed anyway.
     She didn't hear anyone come into the room, but suddenly
someone was slipping a blanket over her shoulders, covering the
remnants of her ruined school uniform.  The arms stayed around her
shoulder, and she recognized the warm scent from a childhood full of
mishaps.
     "Are you all right?" Kasumi asked softly.  She had been with
the doctor when they'd called, and had come to the clinic with him.
Akane supposed they'd interrupted a date.  She wished she could care.
     "I've never seen him like that, Kasumi," she whispered
helplessly.  "He was hysterical, just crying and crying.  They must have
really hurt him."
     "Tofu says his physical injuries are not serious," Kasumi

murmured.  Akane reached out to brush at the lock of white hair that
swept across Ranma-chan's forehead.
     "But they did something to him," Akane said tightly.
"Something that made his hair go white like that.  And ... and the way
he screamed, oh Kasumi, he wouldn't even let me touch him!  It was
like he was afraid of ME ..."  Kasumi's arms tightened around her as
the tears threatened to spill once again, and here, in the safety of her
older sister's arms, she let them come freely.
     "Ranma isn't afraid of you, Akane," Kasumi crooned.  "He
loves you, remember?"  Akane sniffled.
     "Buh-but ..."
     "He loves you," Kasumi repeated firmly.  "And you love him.
Everything will be all right, Akane.  You'll see."  Akane huddled in her
sister's arms, wishing she was as certain.  Everything that had seemed
so sure in her life only the day before was now suddenly perilously
unstable.  But she did know one thing.
     Whoever had done this to her Ranma was going to pay.  She
would see to that.
     No matter what, they would pay.

***

     "I wish you'd reconsider," the doctor said.  Nabiki silently
agreed, but Yukio only shook her head.
     "I do not want to go to the hospital," she repeated firmly.  The
doctor, whose name was Akemi, sighed and looked at Tofu.
     "That slash was nasty, and she lost some blood," Akemi said in
clipped, professional tones.  "Those stitches should be okay if she
doesn't move around too much for a couple of days, anyway, and she'll
need to rebuild her strength.  She may have a mild concussion, although
her pupillary responses check out okay.  If she won't go to the ER,
have someone wake her every hour tonight, okay?"
     "I'll see to it, Akemi," Tofu said.  The woman sighed.  When
Tofu had called a doctor friend of his to come in, Nabiki'd somehow
expected a grizzled old guy with a bow tie.  This Akemi was thirty-ish,
stylish and attractive.  Her straight dark hair was parted in the middle
and framed her oval face, barely brushing her shoulders.  From her
tasteful makeup, expensive perfume and the short skirt and silk blouse
she wore under her borrowed lab coat, Nabiki surmised Tofu had
interrupted something more than a night at home watching T.V.
     The two conferred while Nabiki slipped closer to Yukio.  The
bruise on her face was turning an ugly shade of purple, and she moved
stiffly because of the bandages on her chest.
     "She's right, you know," Nabiki sighed.  "You really should go
to the hospital."  They were in the examining room, while Ranma-chan
and Akane were ensconced in Tofu's small office on a fold-out bed.
     "I will be fine," Yukio replied softly.  "Where is my son?  Is he
all right?"  Nabiki sighed again.
     "The doc looked him over.  He's a little ragged around the
edges, but trust me, your son can take a beating with the best of them."
Yukio nodded, and Nabiki was suddenly certain the woman wanted to
ask if he'd inquired about her.  He hadn't, and that fact pissed Nabiki
off.  She thought about lying to make Yukio feel better, then decided
not to.  She'd probably get caught out, anyway.
     "I'm going to go see what he's up to," she said instead.  "You
lie down and take it easy, okay?"  Yukio nodded and reclined slowly
on the examining table, wincing only slightly.
     "The not knowing," she said softly as Nabiki turned to go.
"That's the worst, isn't it?"  Nabiki paused.
     "They'll all make it back," she said, wishing she was as
confident as she sounded.  Apparently, Ryouga and Ukyou had gone
back looking for them even as they'd been making their way here.  She
was worried about them, and Mousse and Shampoo as well.  She
wouldn't wish being trapped in that madhouse on her worst enemy.
     She stopped by Tofu as Akemi left in a swirl of tantalizing
scent, her heels clicking sharply on the floor.
     "Nice of her to come out on a night like this," she said.  Tofu
glanced at her.
     "Eh?  Oh, yes.  Akemi's a friend.  She and I go way back."
Nabiki raised an eyebrow.
     "Good thing Kasumi didn't see you with her.  She'd have been
jealous."  She was only half-joking.  They'd seemed very chummy.
     "Oh, I doubt that," he replied absently.  "Akemi would be
much more interested in Kasumi than me."
     "Oh," Nabiki said, feeling foolish.  "I see."
     "I'm going to go check on Ranma again," he said, pulling an old
looking, leather-bound book from a crammed shelf.  Nabiki tried to
read the title but couldn't.  She suspected it might be Chinese.
     "So, how is he really?" she asked, her voice low and
conspiratorial.  Tofu sighed.
     "Physically, not too bad.  His chi, though, as far as I can tell,
has been ... disturbed.  Violated.  Drained, somehow."
     "Miss Hinako does that all the time," Nabiki pointed out.
Mentioning the teacher's name reminded her of their encounter that
evening.  She still hadn't spoken to anyone of what the woman had said
to her, but she had warned Ukyou and Ryouga to be careful.  The
warning had been unnecessary; apparently, they'd already run afoul of
the thing in her body.
     "This is somehow different," he replied, running his hand
through his hair in a boyish gesture.  "Deeper, more ... I don't know,
intimate, somehow.  I've never seen anything like it."
     "But he'll recover?" Nabiki asked.  Tofu gave her a lopsided
grin.
     "I'm pretty sure he'll recover fully," he told her.  "But that sort
of drain ... unlike with our Miss Hinako, I think repeated exposure
could kill a person.  Whatever did this to him is very dangerous."
Nabiki forbore to point out that it could hardly be more dangerous than
the horde of raving monstrosities she'd spent her evening with.  There
was no point in confusing the issue now.
     "Hey, doc," she said.  He turned back, hand on the doorknob.
     "Yes?"
     "Make my idiot baby sister let you treat her, okay?  She looks
like she was run over by a truck."  He grinned slightly, a comforting
expression.
     "Don't worry, Nabiki.  I've had plenty of practice at patching
Akane up.  As long as I don't try to separate her and Ranma, I'll be
able to get her to cooperate."  He went into the office, and Nabiki went
out into the waiting area to see if Kunou was still there.
     He was, although apparently not for long.  She caught him
getting ready to go out the door.
     "Kunou.  You're not thinking of going back there, are you?"
she asked.  He shook his head gravely.
     "I have heard the news reports, Nabiki.  The fire department
and police are there in force, although heaven only knows what they
will make of their findings."
     "I doubt they'll find much," Nabiki said.  "Those demons melt
when they die, and the fire should have taken care of any other strange
things.  Unless ..."  She trailed off.  Unless there were human bodies,
she'd started to say.  Kunou noted her hesitation.
     "Your sister and the others made it out safely," he reminded
her.
     "Yes, but Ukyou and Ryouga went back."
     "At that point, I believe the survivors were more intent on
fleeing the aftermath of whatever happened than in fighting.  They will
be fine," he assured her.  She only wished she believed him.
     "So where are you going?" she pressed.  He tucked his
sheathed sword into his sash, squaring his shoulders.
     "There is someone I must speak to," he said evasively.
     "Well, can't it wait?  It's late, and your mother is in the other
room all beat up."  His eyes narrowed, becoming cold and hard.
     "I thought I had made myself clear on that point," he said,
looking down at her.  Nabiki repressed the urge to say something
biting.
     "Look, Kunou," she sighed instead, "I know there's bad blood
there, okay?  And maybe you're right, maybe I'm out of line for sticking
my nose into this, and if I am then I'm sorry.  But I have to say
something here.  Just a couple of months ago I wouldn't have wasted
much time talking to you, because, let's face it, you were a blithering
idiot most of the time."  He gawked at her, completely taken aback.
Well, good.
     "I ..." he began.  She cut him off with a curt gesture.
     "Let me finish.  I happen to know Akane took Ranma to check up
on you when you missed school after Kodachi's death, and tonight
everybody ended up following your lead when we went to that
warehouse."  Well, more or less, she added silently, but playing to his
ego couldn't hurt.
     "Your point?"  He was more puzzled than angry now.  Good.
     "My point, Kunou-baby, is that you've changed.  In just a few
short months, you've changed a lot.  And because of that, people are
acting differently around you.  How would it have felt if Akane had held
a grudge over all the stupid crap you put her through, with your
unwanted declarations of love and getting every guy in school on her
case every morning?  Or if tonight, everyone decided there was no
point in listening to a delusional egomaniac like Tatewaki Kunou when
there was real trouble?"  She stared up into his eyes, watching as her
words struck home.  Some of the hardness went out of his stare, and
he shuffled slightly.
     "Right," she said softly when he didn't reply.  "The point,
Kunou, is people make mistakes, people act badly, but they can
change.  And sometimes it's worth looking at things, deciding whether
or not to cut someone a little slack, especially if you've benefited from
that sort of thing yourself.  There, that's all I'm going to say on the
subject."  She turned to go back inside, hesitated, then turned back to
him.
     "No, that's not all," she immediately contradicted herself.
"She's your mother, dammit, and okay, maybe she couldn't be there
when you guys were kids and you needed her, but she's here now, and
she's trying!  She could have been killed tonight, but all she cared about
was making sure you were okay!  Doesn't that count for anything?"
Kunou looked bemused in the face of her tirade, then turned around,
opening the door.  He stood there for a moment, facing out into the
rain-soaked darkness, poised to step through the doorway.
     "Yes," he said finally without turning around, his voice soft.  "Yes, it
does.  Just how much remains to be seen."  Then he was gone, the
door closing gently behind him, and Nabiki shook her head, making a
sound that was half snort, half laugh.
     "Well, that's something I guess," she muttered.  Then she went
back to check on the injured.

***

     Kunou stood rigid, ignoring the aches and pains and the cold
tendrils of water that snaked down his back.  He was totally focussed
now on the matter at hand.  The door opened in response to his sharp
rapping, and a tanned face stared out at him gleefully.
     "Tatchi!  Hey, you come ta see da Big Kahuna on a night like
dis?  What da big oh-ccasion, huh?"  Kunou met his father's gaze
implacably.
     "Perhaps you would invite me in," he suggested.  His father
looked puzzled at that, but backed away from the door to allow his son
to pass.
     The inside was garishly decorated with posters of Hawaii,
statues of girls in grass skirts, and ugly furniture.  It suited his father
perfectly.  The older man trotted across the room, his bright tropical
shirt and shorts almost painful to look at.
     "Dis be quite a week for da Big Kahuna," he grinned.  "It be
jus' like ol' home week!  Befo', dat woman come ovah heah, an' now
you!  Hey, have a tipple wit' you ol' man, eh?" he chortled, holding up
a bottle of something dark.  Kunou felt his cheek twitch.  He hadn't
known his mother had come here.  It surprised him that she would have
dared confront her estranged husband.  But perhaps it shouldn't have,
not after this night.  She had shown a courage that had startled him.
     "I did not come here to drink with you, old fool," he said
evenly.  "I came because we need to speak of certain matters.  I have
questions, and I am quite certain you have the answers."  His father
spun the cap off the bottle with one neat, economical motion, and drank
directly from the neck.  He took a long pull, then lowered the bottle and
wiped his mouth with the back of his large, square hand.
     "Hey, I been tellin' ya befo', Tatchi.  I don' nevah need ta be
talkin' bout all dat stuff.  Dat's jus' some bad hist'ry, ya know?"  There
was something peering out from under his amiable facade now, as he
glanced surreptitiously at the katana in his son's sash.  It could have
been anger, or fear, or resignation, or some combination thereof.  "Why
ya wanna be carryin' dat t'ing fo', anyhow?"  Kunou smiled mirthlessly.
     "Because that bad history, as you so succinctly put it, had quite
an active evening."  His father took another drink.
     "Hey, what I been tellin' ya?  Dat way be some old way.  Dat
way ain't gonna save nobody, da Kahuna see dat now.  Put dat toy
back in da' magic box, Tatchi.  Da Tree gonna be yo' salvation!  Da
Tree dat serves da Eye gonna cleanse ..."
     "Tell me about your sister."  It was surprisingly satisfying, the
way his idiotic father broke off in mid-sentence.  Many times in the
past, he had wished for a way to make the old man stop raving and
acknowledge him, but never had managed it.  Now, though, he clearly
had something.  The blood had drained from his father's face, and he
stood frozen, eyes wide, bottle held loosely, as if forgotten, at his side.
     Nabiki Tendou had taught him something very valuable by
ferreting out his family's secrets the way she had.  All you really needed
was a single handle.  He had never had one to use on his father before,
but now he did.  And once you had a firm grip on that handle, it was
time to turn it and keep turning it until something popped out.
     Kunou just stood there, patiently waiting.  The colour slowly
returned to his father's face, and that idiot grin returned as well, but it
was shallower now, as if it had been pasted on, and badly at that.
     "Ay, Tatchi, da Kahuna ain't got no ..."
     "Was her name Misao?"  Another hammer blow, but this time
his father recovered far more quickly, taking another quick hit off the
bottle.
     "You talkin' nonsense, boy."  Oddly, the island accent seemed
to fade as his father's face flushed with anger.  "I done tol' you once.
Now maybe you jus' oughta go."  Kunou felt as if the skin of his face
was pulling tightly against his skull as he fought to keep his expression
bland.
     "I think not," he said evenly.  His father scowled.
     "Don' push me, boy," he growled, his voice deep and guttural.
"Play wit' yo' friends, not wit' me.  Dis heah ain't no game."
     "Oh, I understand that.  Far better than you do, I think.  Now,
let us speak further of your sister."  His father's free hand knotted into a
fist, and the tendons in his neck jutted angrily.
     "You vexin' me, Tatewaki," the old man said quietly.  Kunou
wasn't fooled.  He knew his father's temper, knew it was close to
boiling over.
     "I met my cousin tonight," he said.  There was a long,
interminably drawn out moment where time seemed to stretch, and it
seemed to Kunou that everything was bathed in a strange, harsh light.
He watched with detached fascination as his father's pupils shrank to
pinpricks, an almost imperceptible shudder running through his body as
if the words had substance and had actually struck him.  That familiar
calm settled over Kunou as his fighting instincts took over.
     The bottle, he though almost dreamily.  Shock wins, he'll drop
it.  Anger, he'll throw.
     He threw.
     The throw was sloppy, a side-arm motion tainted with rage, but
Kunou was ready anyway, leaning aside just enough so that it missed
his head, exploding against the wall behind him.  His father was
advancing on him, face mottled with rage.
     "LYIN'!  OH TATCHI'S LYIN'!" he bellowed, hands raised as he
charged.  "L'IL BOYS DAT TELL LIES GOTTA BE PUNISH ..."
Kunou's draw was smooth, the sheathed sword striking his father
under the breastbone with satisfying force as he extended under his
father's raised arms.  It felt good to watch as the old man stumbled
back, gasping for breath, and collapsed, taking a stool from the bar
with him as he toppled to the floor.  Kunou walked over to him, slowly
replacing the sheathed sword in his sash as he went.  The temptation to
use more force than necessary, enough force to cause serious injury,
had been frighteningly seductive.
     He stood over the other man, watching impassively as his father
drew in mouthfuls of air with painful sounding wheezes.  Something had
gone out of the older man with that blow, and as he watched his father
slowly recover what few wits he possessed, Kunou was struck by a
strange certainty.
     "You knew about him, didn't you?  You have known that I had a
cousin all along, and yet you never said anything."  His father glared up
at him from where her lay, arms wrapped around his waist, that insipid
little palm tree bobbing merrily on his head.
     "Him?" the old man rasped.  "It!  Unclean, an abomination,
travesty!"  Kunou stared down, knowing it would all come out now,
strangely saddened by his father's words.
     "So it is true, then," he murmured.  "Thirty years ago, they
gathered to deal with your sister and her unborn child."  The old man
blinked, slowly straightening.
     "What?" he asked.  "What you talkin' bout, boy?  Dat's
nonsense!"  Kunou watched as the old man tentatively got to his feet,
but offered no assistance.
     "He spoke of the injustices committed by our family against his
mother," Kunou said carefully.  His father bent with great care, righting
the fallen stool, and retrieved another bottle from the bar, ignoring the
shattered remains of the first.  Taking it with him, he staggered over to a
leather recliner and fell into it with a heavy sigh.
     "In-justice," the old man said, drawing the word out, rolling it
around in his mouth as if tasting it.  "Let me ask you somethin', boy.
You have a nice talk wit' your cousin?  All nice and civilized, like?"
     "He wanted me to know why he was taking revenge," Kunou
replied carefully, leaning against the wall and crossing his arms.  His
father laughed, a harsh and bitter sound.
     "Sure.  Sure he did.  I suppose it be too much to hope you kilt
him when the talkin' was done?"
     "Our fight was interrupted," Kunou replied smoothly.  "From
what he said, I expect to be seeing Keisuke again, however."  His
father chuckled, still mirthless, and took a drink.
     "Keisuke," he muttered.  "Well, well, well.  Fine name for a
monster, eh?  Cousin Monster Kunou?  Dat's a fine joke, don' you
think?"  Kunou said nothing.  He could see all the fight had gone out of
his father.  He looked old and tired, and was clearly working up to
telling what he knew.
     "You've known the truth all these years, but said nothing," Kunou
said.  Not accusingly, just a simple statement.  His father laughed yet
again, taking another long drink.  He seemed well on his way to getting
drunk, yet seemed more rational than Kunou had seen him in a long
time.
     "Truth?" he spat.  "Oh, yeah, Tatchi.  I done lived wit' da truth
for a long time, but I don't think you heard much a' dat tonight.  You
want to know the truth?  Huh?"  Kunou cocked his head.
     "That is why I came."
     "Injustice!" the old man snarled.  "Dey slink in de dark, boy.
Dey don't know nuttin' about troooooth, boy.  About love, about
anything like dat.  Some of dem, dey look beautiful but don't be fooled,
boy.  Dey all got black vileness in dey hearts!  Wicked!  All of 'em!"
The thick accent was beginning to creep back in around the edges, but
his father still seemed to be on track, so Kunou just waited.
     "My sister," the old man said at last.  He took another drink
straight from the bottle.  Scotch, Kunou could see by the label.
     "My sister," he said again, his gaze distant.  "Ah, she was
somethin'.  A real beauty, an' da apple of her daddy's eye.  Stubborn,
too.  Willful.  Like YOUR sister ..."  He trailed off, frowning.  Kunou
hoped he was thinking of Kodachi, and that those thoughts haunted
him.
     "She was older'n me, boy, was Misao.  And all da boys
wanted her, but she was picky 'bout dem.  Could afford ta be, if'n you
want da truth.  Would sneak out some nights wit' her friends, go to
clubs, like dat.  Kid's stuff.  But one night, she met him."  Silence fell as
the old man sat there, taking another drink, lost in his memories.
Kunou had never heard any of this before, and was strangely
fascinated.
     "Him?" he prompted at last.  The old man started.
     "Oh, yeah," he breathed.  "She kep' it quiet at first, sneakin'
around.  I figured it was jus' some stupid girl stuff, didn' bother me
none.  Den I started hearin' rumours aroun' school, dat she was
steppin' out wit' some fancy older guy.  Didn' think much at first,
y'know.  Always was rumours 'bout her from jealous boys.  But t'ings
went on for some time, and she started ta gettin' bolder.  An' it turned
out dere WAS a man, older, real handsome and real slick.  I seen him,
jus' the once, when I was sneakin' aroun' and caught dem kissin'
outside da wall one time."  Kunou shifted, watching his father carefully.
The old man hardly seemed aware of him anymore.
     "Well, Misao, she nevah did lissen ta me much, an' anyhow,
wha'd I care if she was playin' around wit' some guy?  Only dis guy
ended up bein' trouble.  Y'see, he was one'a dem."
     "The enemy."
     "Oh, yeah.  Mostly, dey ugly outside as dey are inside, but not
dis one.  He was a looker, enough ta make a pretty high school girl's
heart go pitty pat, and all charm an' honeyed words.  And, like any a'
his kind, he knew how ta use temptation an' lust ta ruin a person.
Misao, she fell for him real hard.  She'd a' done anything he asked, by
the end.  And he wanted so little ..."
     "Her virtue," Kunou said softly.  His father's head came up,
and he laughed out loud.
     "Dat too, boy.  Dat too, an' she give dat to him along wit' her
heart.  But see, he started tellin' her a story.  See, his clan was long
time rivals of da Kunou's.  Dere be bad blood between dem, all over
stuff what happened a long time ago, involvin' sorcery an' da like.  An'
now, dere was no way dey could be together, 'cause dere families
wouldn't allow it.  But he had him an idea.  Dere was gonna be a big
meetin' at da Kunou estate one night, an' if she would jus' take dem l'il
wards off da back gates for him, da ones dat kept sorcerers from his
clan out, den he could petition da assembled clans for her hand.  Dey
would have ta respect his courage in comin' before dem dat way, right?
Him all alone, humble, askin' ta put old bad blood aside?  He'd be a
hero if it worked.  If not, maybe he'd be punished, or even worse, but
for her he'd risk it.  An' what girl could resist dat, eh, Tatchi?  A man
risking all to woo her, facing da whole family, sorcerers an' all, by
himself?"
     A chill had settled in Kunou's heart, spreading out slowly.  He
remembered, a long time ago, asking his father about that night.  He
remembered the time his questions had earned him a blow in anger.
     "Course, when da time came, he didn't show up alone," the old
man continued bitterly.  "Oh, no.  He brought ev'ry nightmare in his
arsenal, did he.  And dere wasn't nuttin' to keep dem out when dey
showed up."
     "That night," Kunou whispered.  "Treachery allowed the enemy
to storm our gates ..."  The old man just sat there, staring into the
bottle.
     "She was foolish," he said after a time.  "But Misao, she was
jus' sixteen.  An' she was in love."  He made a sound, half-laugh and
half-choke, and took another hit off the bottle.
     "Love," he echoed hollowly.  "You see dat, Tatchi?  Dese
t'ings, if'n dey can't tear you down wit' claws an' teeth an' black
magic, dey gonna get you some othah way.  Dey masters of vile
seduction, of temptation.  Dey can turn you heart against you'self, make
you want to betray ev'ryt'ing you believe ..."  He hung his head, leaning
his forehead against the bottle.
     "Dat sword ain't gonna help you against dat, boy," he
muttered, his words beginning to slur.  "Dat's what you ain't
unnerstood yet.  But you will."  Kunou felt an ache in his chest, for that
girl so long ago, her bright and naive heart betrayed foully.  How must
she have felt, watching a tide of darkness sweeping over the estate's
unsuspecting defenders and knowing that she had been the instrument
of their doom?
     "The child."  His voice was loud in the room, and his father's
head snapped up, bleary eyes turning to him.
     "Ah, yes," he said, choosing his words deliberately through a
haze of alcohol.  "Da story ain't quite over yet.  See, we was hiding in
da house, an' she saw him, her loverboy, leadin' da charge.  Dat's
when she finally knew what it was all for, an' she cried, Tatchi.  I
wanted to hate her for what she done, but she fell on da floor and cried,
and I held her, an' she tol' me all of it.  Includin' da one t'ing dat puts
lie to Cousin Monster's l'il story, boy.  Ya see, we huddled dere as da
screams an' da fightin' went on, an' she tol' me what she'd jus' found
out f'sure dat day.
     "She was wit' child.  They'd been careless one time, an' she
was gonna have HIS baby, an' nobody knew but da two of us.  An'
she was scared, bad scared, 'cause she saw what he was dat night, an'
she knew what dat baby was gonna be."
     "What happened to her?" Kunou asked, his voice tight.  His
father kept staring into the depths of the bottle, as if the story was
playing out there before his very eyes.
     "I tried ta protect her, but dat spider-bitch came down t'ru da
roof," he said quietly.  "Half monster, but so beautiful ... any man
would'a run to her arms, given himself to her willingly.  So beautiful, yet
dat beauty hid such wickedness ... dat was when I understood how
Misao could'a been fooled, truly understood ... an' it was dat woman
took her away, an' Misao was still alive den.  I figured dey would've
killed her, though.  I really did.  But I guess dey kept her alive, least
long enough ta have da baby.  Bastards."
     "Perhaps they had other plans for her, had they won," Kunou
murmured.  The old man shrugged.
     "Mebbe."  His voice was definitely slurred, and his cheeks
flushed with alcohol.  Kunou shook his head.
     "The truth must have shattered the survivors," he said sadly.
     "I nevah told'em," his father mumbled.  "Nevah told nobody da
trut'.  Let'em t'ink dey was betrayed.  Seein' her cry dat way, den
believin' she was dead at dere hands... I jus' couldn' tell.  Wouldn'a
changed nothin'.  Wouldn'a helped nothin'.  We da only two dat know,
now."  Kunou stared at him.  He'd never told anyone.  And yet, in a
way he was right.  How could it have helped anything afterwards?
He'd believed his sister dead, and hadn't wanted to besmirch her
memory.  And the dazed survivors must have had bigger concerns in
the aftermath.
     "So, boy," his father said in a low, flat tone.  "Cousin Monster,
he lyin' ta you.  Let dat be a lesson.  Dey lie.  Dey all lie.  Can't trust
'em."  Kunou wasn't convinced.  Yes, Keisuke's story was false, but
he'd believed it.  Kunou was certain of that.  His cousin hadn't had
anything to gain by lying, not when he'd intended to kill Kunou anyway.
     Which meant that he himself had been lied to along the way.  That
fact might prove important when they met again, as he was certain they
would.  A new chapter in the struggles of his family was just about to
begin, and Kunou knew he needed every advantage he could muster.
     Kunou pushed off the wall and moved over to the door slowly.
He'd heard what he'd come to hear, gotten the answers he needed,
although he was no longer certain just what he could do with them.  But
now he needed to get away from here, away from the shadows of the
past.  He turned to his father, slumped bonelessly in the chair.
     "Your wife was injured tonight," he said.  "I can tell you where
she is, if you wish to know."  The old man didn't look up from his
bottle.
     "Faithless bitch," he said, no heat in his voice.  "She'll infect
you wit' her cowardice, boy.  Stay away from dat one."  Kunou stood
there, poised with his hand on the doorknob.
     "Do you really think so?" he asked, his voice deceptively mild.
"I wonder.  When Kodachi died, she came to her grave, came to face
my anger, even though she was afraid.  Our sins and pain flow back
through our lives like a tide, but in the end she came when she might
have hidden.  She came to mourn her daughter, and to ask forgiveness,
and you did not.  I will not forget that, old man."  Then he opened the
door and stepped through into the waning storm, leaving his father
looking old and beaten in his pathetic little sanctuary, safe but
worthless.
     And he wondered if, in the end, the Kunou clan would be able
to persevere, or if it would eventually crumple under the weight of
accumulated sorrow.
     Some days, he felt certain the latter was inevitable.

***

     They came close to the clinic, walking slowly, and Ryouga
could tell by the lights that everyone was still there.  He glanced at
Ukyou again, wondering what to say, but she didn't seem interested in
talking.
     He really couldn't blame her.
     As they came nearer, he caught sight of someone huddled in
front of the building, partially sheltered from the still heavy rain.  Her
head was bowed wearily, but it was Reiko.  He wondered what she
was doing outside.
     "Go see what's wrong," Ukyou said flatly.  "I'll go inside."  He
opened his mouth to say something, then closed it.  Now just wasn't
the time to argue.  Ukyou turned and went inside as he walked over to
where Reiko was sitting, knees drawn up against her chest.  Her
clothes were damp, and she shivered slightly.  Ryouga had only the
black tank top he'd been wearing under his tunic and he wasn't cold,
but then the cold really didn't bother him.
     "Hey," he said.  She glanced up disinterestedly.
     "Ryouga," she said.  Her face was drawn, and she looked
about ready to fall asleep.  He crouched down beside her, umbrella
sheltering them both.
     "Why are you out here?" he asked, puzzled.  She looked away.
     "It would take more than a doctor to help me, Ryouga," she
said quietly.  He blinked.
     "Are you hurt?  I can ask ..."
     "Ryouga."  Now there was a hint of anger in her voice.  "Don't
you get it?  You saw me tonight.  You saw what she did to me."  He
understood what it was all about then.
     "Wynneth," he sighed.  Her mouth pulled into a scowl.
     "Wynneth," she repeated darkly.  "She humiliated me.  I was
just a puppet in her hands.  She caught me so easily, just like the first
time, and now I've got two of her bites."  She sat there, hands clenched
on her knees, and Ryouga felt a sudden tingle of alarm.
     "Does that mean you'll become a vampire?" he asked tightly.
She turned to him, seemingly surprised by the question.
     "No," she replied.  "It doesn't work that way, not even with
ordinary vamps.  To become a vampire, the victim needs to be drained
over a period of time.  Then the vamp starts feeding the victim on its
own blood, and when the time is right, the victim can be turned."
Ryouga blinked.
     "Oh," he said.  He hadn't known any of that.  He was pretty
sure that wasn't the way it worked in the movies, but Reiko seemed to
know what she was talking about.  "Then why is getting bitten so bad?"
     "Because," Reiko said tightly, "it gives the vamp more power
over you.  And Wynneth is special, not just a vampire.  She's bitten me
twice, and I wasn't able to stop her either time.  I'm afraid to find out
just how much control she'll have over me now."
     "Can't you do anything?"
     "Believe me, I intend to find out," she said darkly.  "My best
plan was to kill her, but I don't know if I can even get close enough to
her now."
     "But you broke free tonight," Ryouga pointed out.  Reiko
laughed sourly.
     "No," she said.  "I wish I'd done that myself, but I didn't.
Something must have disrupted her hold on me."
     "Oh."  She stared at the ground for a time, and he finally
remembered that he had something which might cheer her up.
     "Here," he said, digging it out of his pocket.  "I found this when
we were poking around the warehouse.  It's not even scratched."  She
stared blankly as he held out his hand, gazing blankly at the pendant
that lay in his palm.
     "So that's what caused me all this trouble," she murmured,
finally taking it from him.  "Hardly looks like much, does it?"  He
shrugged.
     "I guess," he replied.  She seemed to finally notice something
outside her own misery, staring up at him with a faint crease appearing
between her brows.
     "What's wrong?" she asked mildly.  "Did something happen?"
He sighed again, standing and glancing at the clinic.
     "Just come inside," he said softly.  "You'll hear everything."
 
***

     Nabiki emerged from the examination room to see who had
returned.  Ukyou stood in the doorway, head down, water dripping
from the ends of her long hair.
     "Hey," Nabiki greeted her, trying to disguise her relief.
"You're back.  Where's Ryouga?"
     "Outside with Reiko," Ukyou said coolly.  Nabiki blinked.
     "Hey, I'd forgotten all about her!" she exclaimed.  She'd
wanted to talk to the sorceress about joining Kunou's little group,
discreetly of course.  After tonight, it was going to be hard to keep
those matters secret.
     "Wish I could," Ukyou mumbled.  Nabiki frowned.
     "Everything okay?" she asked.  Ukyou came in from the
entranceway, and Nabiki noticed that she had something clutched in her
hand.  "Hey, what's that?"  Wordlessly, Ukyou held it up, and Nabiki
frowned.  It seemed to be a bundle of white cloth, and at first she
couldn't figure out what it was.  Then she noticed the diamond-shaped
emblem, and it suddenly resolved into a recognizable item.  She
swallowed, picking her words carefully, as if she might affect events
already past.
     "Hey," she said weakly.  "Hey.  Isn't that Mousse's robe?"
Ukyou nodded.
     "We managed to get in and look around before the fire
department arrived," she murmured.  "No monsters left, luckily, but
these were near the robe."  She held up a pair of glasses with the other
hand, one lens shattered and the frames badly bent.  Nabiki swallowed
again.
     "Was he ... I mean, is he ...?" she asked, not certain she wanted to
know.  Ukyou's shoulders slumped.
     "I don't know," she whispered.  "We found his robe and
glasses, and a couple of knives and chains on the floor nearby, but we
didn't find him."  Her gaze was heavy with frustration, and Nabiki
nodded.
     "Okay," she said quickly.  "Okay, let's think about this.  You found
his robe, so maybe he got wet."
     "It was dry when we found it," Ukyou said tightly.  "And it's
torn here."  She showed Nabiki the long tear, edged with a dark, sticky
stain.  Nabiki took a deep breath.
     "Is that blood?" she asked.  Ukyou nodded.
     "There was more around where we found the stuff," she added.
"We called the Nekohanten on the way back.  Shampoo's there, but
he's not."  Nabiki shook her head.
     "Let's not jump to conclusions," Nabiki said firmly.  "His glasses
are here, so maybe he's just lost.  You know, wandered into the rain,
turned into a duck, and is now flying around in the dark.  He'll find his
way home soon.  I'm sure of it."  Ukyou just stood there, staring at the
handful of cloth and the broken glasses.  It was clear she was thinking
of the wild scene at the warehouse, and all the fates that might have
befallen Mousse.
     "I hope you're right, Nabiki," she murmured.  "I really hope
he's okay.  Please, let him be okay."
     "Come on in and see the doc, Ukyou," Nabiki said
comfortingly.  "Everything will be all right.  You'll see."  Nabiki led the
discouraged girl into the examining room, hoping fervently that her
words would turn out to be true.

***

     The night dragged on, the storm expending itself against the
unyielding city, finally failing in the hour before daybreak.  The new day
finally dawned bright, clear, and fresh, scattered clouds quickly
vanishing beyond the horizon.  Invigorating, the warm sun rose high into
the sky, its rays drying the rain-kissed city, and the city revelled in the
gorgeous warmth of the approaching summer.  Cars honked, birds
sang, dogs barked and children laughed.
     But Mousse did not return.
 
 

End part 17
 
 
 

     Okay, now repeat after me: "He knows what he's doing.  He
knows what he's doing ..."  Yes, that ending isn't quite what many
people expected, and many plot threads have been left dangling.  All I
can tell you is that it was intentional, and not to despair.  These thread
will be picked up when this storyline continues.  Next up, though, are
two interludes which will help to advance the overall story of The
Shadow Chronicles.  Hope you've enjoyed the story so far, and keep
in mind that there's still a lot of story to come.

Later.

Mark MacKinnon
May 1st, 1999