A Ranma 1/2 Fanfiction
All Ranma 1/2 characters copyright Rumiko Takahashi
and are used without permission
 

Doors Best Left Unopened
Part three: Secrets in the Dark

by Mark MacKinnon
 

     Riana stared blankly at the indicator as the numbers counted
down towards the parking garage level.  Things had become unsettled
since their guests had arrived, and she'd been reminded uncomfortably
of how routine their lives had become these past few years.  Being
forced to wait was beginning to dull her edge, and she wasn't the only
one suffering so.
     However, she was in charge, which made everyone's state of
readiness her problem.  At least she had her project to keep her
occupied.  Her lush lips curled up slightly at the thought, then relaxed as
her amusement slipped away.
     The card key was in her pocket.  She could travel to the secure
sub-basement easily, see her love again ...
     No.  She had too many things vying for her attention just now
to indulge herself.  Perhaps tomorrow.
     After all, it wasn't like he was going anyplace.
     She sighed as the elevator began to slow.  She wished he were
here now.  It was so hard, dealing with these undisciplined newcomers.
There had already been problems, and she didn't need any distractions.
Not now.  Not when their goal might finally be within reach.
     She straightened her skirt and brushed impatiently at her blazer
as the doors opened.  She stepped through with the same unconscious
arrogant grace that was evident in every movement she made, only to
stop short.  She brushed a lock of waist-length white hair back over her
shoulder with one dusky hand and frowned.
     "Jubei?"  She'd called down from her office.  The car should be
waiting for her here, but there was no sign of it.  Honestly.  What could
be wrong now?  She fought down a surge of irritation and started to
walk through the garage towards where the Mercedes was parked.
     The garage was deserted at this time of night, and the clacking
of her high heels on the concrete floor echoed hollowly through the cool
air.  She frowned again, slowing as some instinct warned her of danger.
She could see the Mercedes now, its nose poking around the retaining
wall.  But there was no sign of Jubei.
     "Jubei?  Where are you?  Answer me!"
     A dark form appeared at the corner of the wall, slumping
forward to collapse bonelessly onto the hard concrete floor.  She
stopped, startled.  She recognized the man instantly.
     "Jubei!"  Before she could move, another figure emerged
from the concealment of the car's parking slot.  Dressed in a skintight
black leather skirt and bustier, the heels of her thigh-high boots clicked
loudly in the sudden silence, taking up the rhythm that had faltered when
Riana had stopped.  She tossed her head imperiously, flipping her long
tawny mane over her shoulder in a practised movement.  The stranger
moved toward Riana with slow, languorous strides, hips swaying in a
sensuous manner.  A lazy smile graced her lips, and she was holding
something between the first two fingers of her right hand.
     Riana squinted in disbelief.  It looked like ...
     It was.  A five-yen coin.
     "Good evening," the woman purred throatily.  "I hope you
don't mind me dropping in like this, so unexpectedly.  I'm afraid I don't
have an appointment."  Riana's shock was replaced with growing rage
at the woman's impudence.
     "I don't know who you are, you silly bitch, but you just made
the biggest mistake of your life," Riana growled.
     And she changed.
     Four long arachnid legs burst from her back, tearing through
her jacket easily.  Her long red nails lengthened and grew even sharper,
her fangs extended and her mouth came alive with the taste of her
sweet venom.  And her eyes shifted from their normal icy-gray,
beginning to glow a baleful red.  She hissed at the intruder.
     The stupid woman didn't react.  At *all*.
     Riana snarled.  Somehow, this woman had gotten past her
security perimeter and had taken out Jubei.  She would have to be
treated as a serious threat, but she couldn't be killed.  Not right away.
She'd have to be kept alive long enough to answer a few questions.
     "Oh come now, Riana.  What a terrible waste of an expensive
jacket."  Riana blinked.  The woman knew her name?  Bad.  Very bad.
     "I don't know who you are," she began, moving forward with
her spider legs twitching menacingly, "but ..."
     "What?  You've forgotten me so soon?  Ah, but of course, you
don't recognize me in *this*."  So saying, the other woman gestured at
her body, her cold gaze never leaving Riana's.
     "I don't know you," Riana replied flatly.  And she didn't, but
there was something familiar here.  Something ...
     "Oh, come now," the other woman drawled smokily, stepping
deliberately within reach of the long, claw-tipped legs.  "I realize you
must be angry at me for disobeying you, but I was ..."  She smiled,
dropping her voice.  "Ssssoooo hungryyyyyy," she breathed.  Riana
gaped.
     "Tragus?  Is that ... really you?"  The woman favoured her with
a silky smile.
     "In the flesh," she said.  "Or rather, in someone else's flesh.
So.  How've you been?"

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

     "Ninomiya Hinako?"  Tragus nodded, lounging back on the
plush sofa.
     "Yes, that's her name."  Riana was regarding her ruined jacket with
a rueful expression.  Sighing, she tossed it into the garbage can and
settled into her high-backed leather chair.
     "Perhaps you should start at the beginning," she said darkly.
"Starting with when you went hunting against my express orders."
Tragus let a mocking grin come to his new face.  Riana, who'd reverted
to human form, had her arms crossed and was giving him her best icy
glare, but he wasn't worried.  For the first time since he'd met her,
perhaps for the first time ever, he had the upper hand.  And he intended
to make the most of it.
     "I was hungry, so I went looking for some ... diverting prey.
And I found some."  Riana leaned forward, elbows on her wide
mahogany desk, fingers steepled carefully.
     "When I took in all the survivors I could find of your
disastrous attack on this realm, I made it quite clear that you would
obey me," she said coolly.
     "Because you are Aerkinma," Targus said, bitterness tinging his
voice.  Riana raised a careful eyebrow.
     "I have heard how the Upper Court of your daemon realm was
destroyed, but you are no longer where you were.  The Aerkinma still
exist here, and we rule over all those of the Lower Courts.  That is
simply the way it is.  You would do well to remember that."  Targus
favoured her with an insincere smile.
     "I'm hardly likely to forget," he said sweetly, enjoying the sultry
sound of this body's voice.
     "Good.  Then tell me how you've managed a spirit possession
of a human.  You are no Baenma to have accomplished such a thing."
     "No.  Just a lowborn, a foot soldier," he sneered.  "And yet I have,
and my presence in this body is very nearly undetectable.  Even you
didn't sense me until I revealed myself.  Eh, Riana?"  The sour look that
flashed across Riana's features was enough to confirm that.
     "Then how?" she asked again.  Tragus smirked, savouring the
moment.
     "You have it wrong," he said smoothly.  "*She* possessed
*me*."
     "Impossible."
     "But true."  Tragus related the story of his meeting with Hinako
in the alley, and of her power and its unexpected effect.  Riana listened
in silence.
     "So your body was destroyed?" she asked at last.  Tragus
nodded.
     "Somehow, she absorbed my entire life force.  Still, no matter.
I like my new body just fine."  He ran one hand slowly up the front of
the leather bustier, his touch lingering on the swell of his breast.  He
looked at the icy Riana mockingly.
     "Why did you take so long to contact us?" she asked.  Tragus
continued his explorations, his smile growing wider as a faint expression
of distaste rose to Riana's face.
     "Well, I don't remember what happened at first.  Gradually, I
began to return to awareness.  I've remained hidden in the woman's
mind, gathering my strength, seeing what she sees, knowing what she
knows.  Tonight, I waited until she was asleep, then took control.  And
came here."
     "And when she awakens?"  It was Tragus's turn to look
uncomfortable.
     "I don't believe I am strong enough yet to overcome her will
while she is awake," he confessed.  "Soon, I think ..."
     "There are some among our number who may know some way
for you to deal with the woman's spirit," Riana mused.  "I am not
familiar with any cases of this sort amongst your kind.  If you were
Baenma, you would be able to leave the body and reconstitute yourself,
but as you are ..."
     "I feel no pressing need to leave this body," Tragus sniffed
haughtily.  "It has definite advantages."
     "Indeed?  Such as?" Riana asked coolly.
     "This energy draining ability, for instance."
     "But the woman cannot drain one of us," Riana said
dismissively.  Tragus narrowed his eyes, and with a lazy smile raised a
five yen coin.
     "Happo Five-Yen Satsu," he hissed.  Surprised, Riana began
to stand, radiating her dark battle aura.  Then she caught herself on the
edge of the desk as her strength began to drain away.
     "Tragus," she gasped.  "Stop it.  You ... I'm warning you ..."
Tragus gasped in pleasure as Riana's energy flowed into him.  Her chi
was different from a human's, dark and wild and wonderful.  It would
be so easy to keep going ...
     But no.  He still needed Riana, and if he tried to take over now,
the others would fight him.  He cut off the flow of power, smirking as
the Aerkinma leader leaned heavily on the edge of the desk, head
bowed, her hair hanging down and obscuring her face.  Standing
smoothly, he walked over to her, standing so close that their bodies
were almost touching.  He slid his fingers under Riana's chin and lifted it
until he could see her eyes.
     They were glowing an angry red.
     "I drained your bodyguard, remember?" Tragus taunted in a low,
husky voice.  "He may be hiding in a human body, but he is still one of
us.  Now that I'm in here, this body can drain any daemon, even a
stuck up, self-important witch of the Upper Court."
     "Take your hands off me," Riana hissed venomously.  With a
light laugh, he slipped his arms around her narrow waist.
     "Or you'll do what?" he asked tauntingly, pulling her close.
The prospect of humiliating one of the arrogant Aerkinma excited him,
and his body responded in unfamiliar but enticing ways.  Riana's eyes
burned hotter, and her arachnid legs burst again from her back, their
talons curving around to menace Tragus from behind.
     "Or I'll tear you apart," Riana snarled in his face.  It appeared
he hadn't drained nearly enough energy from her to be safe.  Oh, well.
Live and learn.
     He'd know better next time.
     "You really don't want to do that," he said easily, letting Riana
slip from his arms and stagger behind the relative safety of her desk.
     "Oh, I really do," she breathed, fists clenched.
     "You know, there was quite a pitched battle at the point where
we came into this world," he said, studying his fingernails with affected
casualness.  "I only caught the tail end of it before Rakosh was
destroyed by that old woman, but I saw some interesting things.
For instance, one of the combatants was wielding a blade possessing
the most ... curious magic."  Riana froze, still glaring at him.
     "Go on," she gritted.  Tragus smiled.  He knew he had her.
     "That same young swordsman happens to be one of my Miss
Hinako's students ... a certain Tatewaki Kunou.  Did I mention she's a
teacher at the local high school?  Just think of the things she might learn
about him, being in such a position.  What a valuable source of
information.  Wouldn't you say?  Certainly not a resource to be treated
lightly."  Riana scowled, causing Tragus's smile to widen.
     "Oh, I've got to run, Riana my sweet," he said in a light,
mocking tone.  "But I'll be in touch.  And," he added, letting a
lascivious gaze linger on her body, "if you're *very* nice to me, I may
share whatever secrets I unearth.  Oh, and don't get up.  I'll see myself
out."  He left the seething Aerkinma leaning on the desk and opened the
door to the outer office.  On the way out he paused to smile sweetly at
Jubei, who was just regaining consciousness on the secretary's desk.
     Yes, he thought triumphantly as he left the office.  It was a good
feeling to finally be in control.
     A very good feeling, indeed.

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

     Riana looked up as Jubei staggered in.
     "My lady, are you all right?"  She sighed.  She would deal with
Jubei's lapse later, but for now she had more important concerns.
     "Yes.  Only my pride is hurt.  Go and get the car ready.  I'll be
down shortly."  He nodded woozily, and stumbled out.  Riana forced
herself to stand away from the desk, forcing the reversion back to her
human form.
     This was an unexpected development, to say the least.  And a
somewhat unwelcome one, as well.  Still, if Tragus could get near the
Kunou boy, then surely that wouldn't be a violation of her orders.  It
was worth the risk to find out what the situation was inside the Kunou
estate.
     And if the Dread One was angered, well, she hadn't given
Tragus permission to do anything, had she?
     In that case, he'd just have to take his punishment.
     That thought warmed her as she began casting about for
something to wear over her ruined blouse.

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

     Tragus sat on the bed with a sigh.  He'd just made it; the sun
was beginning to rise and he could feel the little fool's thoughts stirring.
Once she was awake, he would have to hide his presence from her
again.
     But not for much longer.  He was becoming accustomed to this
body, and soon he'd be able to wrest control from her whenever he
wanted.  No longer condemned to be merely a Dorgunma, lowest of
the low amongst daemonkind, he would rule the daemons that he and
his brethren had found already existing here, on this world they'd
intended to rape.  And that bitch Riana ...  he would enjoy breaking
her.  But he wouldn't kill her.  Oh, no.  She'd be his trophy, always
cringing at his feet as a symbol of what it meant to underestimate him.
     Smiling, he began to strip off the tight leather.  The body was
still in its adult form, and he smiled fondly, regarding it in the mirror.  He
was able to use the energy this body absorbed much more efficiently
than that dolt of a girl, and thus could maintain this form much longer
than she could.  She'd been noticing the effects of his presence, of
course:  the pleasure that accompanied using her power, the ability to
remain in adult form longer ...
     But she had no idea what was causing the changes.  And by the
time she found out, it would be far too late.
     Someone else would be in control.
     Throaty laughter trilled through the cool morning air as Tragus
prepared to dump the excess energy and revert back to child-like form.

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

     Hinako opened her eyes groggily, squinting into the bright
morning sun.  Yawning, she rolled over and peered blearily at the
clock.  Time to get up already?  She'd gone to bed at a decent hour,
but she hardly felt rested at all!
     She threw back the covers and sat up, stretching.  Then she
caught sight of herself in the bedroom mirror and stopped dead.
     Something ...
     Something was looking out at her.  Out of her own eyes.
Something alien.  Something
     (Huuuungryyyy)
     yes, *hungry* ...
     Then she blinked, and the eerie sensation vanished.  She shook
her head, rubbing at the goosebumps that had broken out all over her
arms.
     "Just the remains of a bad dream," she muttered, her high-pitched
voice sounding loud in the early morning quiet.  "That's all."
With that, she got up and went to get dressed.
     Oddly, some of her clothes were sitting in a heap in the bottom
of her closet.  She knelt and sorted through them carefully.
     A leather bustier and skirt, and a pair of the most sleazy boots
she'd been able to find.  She'd never worn any of this in public, and not
out of modesty.  She just knew that if she dared, she'd revert back to
her kiddie form at the worst possible time.  She'd bought the stuff on a
whim, anyway; she couldn't really remember why.  And it shouldn't be
lying there in the bottom of her closet.  She was certain it hadn't been
there the night before ...
     (Maybe it was.  You probably just forgot, that's all.  No big
mystery.)
     Yes.  That was probably it.  That was the most likely
explanation, wasn't it?  And worrying about something this ...
     (Trivial)
     ...yes, *trivial*, was going to make her late.  She hunted for
something decent to wear, the matter of the misplaced clothing slipping
her mind easily.
     A strange and enticing hunger stirred in her belly, making her
anticipate her first draining of the day.

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

     Kunou dreamed.
     It wasn't one of *those* dreams, the mad ones that ate away at
his sanity like acid.  It was, refreshingly enough, a good old-fashioned
nightmare.
     In it, he stood in front of the door once again, only this time the
light was dim, yellow, and flickering.  He'd been told not to open the
door because
     (Some doors are best left unopened)
     but he had to.  He didn't know why he had to, but in the
strange logic of dreams he just knew.  He held his hand out, and in it
was a key.  At least, he knew it to be a key although it was strangely
shaped and seemed to be made of a bluish crystal.  It was nothing he'd
ever seen before.
     He blinked, and the door swung wide, silent and ominous.
     But I didn't do anything, he said silently.
     <You did enough>, someone replied.  A figure stood in the
doorway.  It was his brother.  Kazuhiro.  He was still six.  He'd always
be six, now.  He'd never be any older.
     <Hiro-niichan>, Kunou said. <Come away from there.  It's
dark.  Come away from the dark.>
     Kazuhiro just smiled.
     <I won't tell!  I promise!  I'll never tell, so come away!
Please!>
     He was looking up at his brother now, because he was four
again, and Hiro-neechan was bigger, he was smarter, he was braver.
     <I can't, Tatchi,> his brother said, and his smile was sad now.
<If I come away, our sister will be all alone.  I can't leave her all alone.
Because ...>
     <NO!  We'll close the door!  And everything will be like it was
before!>
     <Master.> He turned, and Sasuke was there, unmindful of the
fatal wound in his chest.
     <Sasuke, tell him to come away!>
     <He can't, master.  The dark owns him.  It owns us all.  Soon,
it will come for you, too.> Kunou turned back to the door, and now his
brother had a little girl in his arms, a girl with dark hair and large,
frightened eyes.  And in his hand he had the key.
     <Why do you have the key?> Kunou asked, a feeling of
unreasoning dread beginning to rise in his chest.
     <Don't you remember?> Kazuhiro asked.  Then the dark
began to advance like a viscous fog, obliterating his brother and sister
from sight.
     <Don't you remember?> his brother's voice came again.
Kunou turned to run, but the stairs were gone.  Each wall now had a
door, and each door in turn opened.  Kodachi stood in one, wearing
her leotard, looking at him calmly.  Then something rammed through her
back and jutted out her chest, and the darkness swallowed her as well.
Sasuke stood in the third door, his solemn gaze not changing even when
a bloody wound appeared over his heart.  The darkness took him, as
well.
     Kunou turned to the last door, his heart pounding in his throat.
He knew he would see his own face there.  He knew it.
     But he was wrong.
     <Burn in hell, Tatewaki Kunou,> she said.
     <Nabiki?>
     <All by yourself.> Then her angry countenance was swallowed
by the dark, which began to force him to the centre of the room as it
advanced from all directions.
     He drew the sword, *his* sword, but there was only an empty hilt.
The dark rose up, and he screamed
     and he

     Woke.
     Bolting out of the nightmare, bedclothes falling away, icy sweat
running freely down his face and chest.
     Awake.
     He gasped for breath, wondering for a moment if the scream
had intruded into the waking world.  He didn't think so.  His hands
clenched and unclenched reflexively and his body trembled.  He willed
it to stop, but without success.
     A dream.  Just a dream.
     (Don't you remember?)
     He shoved the thought away savagely, rubbing his hands over
his face slowly, forcing his breathing to slow.
     The door.  He'd been a fool to go down there, to stir up all
those memories again.  A damned fool.
     (Don't you?)
     The details of the dream began to slip away in the pale morning
light, and he hung his head, kneading the muscles of his shoulders with
his fingers, sweat dripping from his nose to plop softly onto the rumpled
blankets.
     What wonderful symbolism for someone fond of analysing
dreams, he thought darkly.  Doors and keys and unrestful ghosts.
Although ...
     The key hadn't been right.  He remembered how it had
appeared in the dream.  Strange.  And the sword with no blade, that
was obviously a manifestation of feelings of impotence.  And ...
     Nabiki Tendou.
     He stopped kneading his shoulders, letting his hands fall away.
Why had she been in his dream?
     Because, he told himself, you're anxious about what you'll say
when you see her today.  That's all.  There's no great hidden meaning
here.
     No?  But everyone else in the doorways had been dead, had
died because the dark had reached out to them.  Kazuhiro, Kodachi,
and Sasuke.
     He shook his head.  He was reading too much into this dream.
Why would the dark take Nabiki, after all?  She knew ...
     Nothing?  Well, that wasn't exactly true, was it?  She knew
something, perhaps more than she'd told him.  Perhaps enough to place
her in danger ...
     "Gah!" he spat into the empty room.  "It was just a dream!  It
means nothing!"  He climbed out of bed, resting his elbows on his
knees and hanging his head wearily.
     "Nothing," he whispered.  He shivered as the sweat cooled on
his skin, his stomach a sour, twisted ball.
     He felt miserable.  But he would persevere.  If the only way
for him to feel content was to forget his duty, then he would endure the
misery.
     And whatever else had to be endured.

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

     Nabiki tried to ignore the furtive looks she was getting as she
walked through the school gates.  People were whispering behind their
hands and looking at her with odd expressions, which was never good.
She just hoped that nobody had witnessed her little lapse of self-control
a couple of days ago.  If that was what all the buzzing was about, the
damage to her reputation might well be irreparable.
     She wondered, idly and just for a moment, if that was
necessarily a bad thing.
     "Ah.  Nabiki Tendou."  Her eyes narrowed at the sound of his
voice.  As if she didn't have enough problems ...
     "Ah, Tatewaki Kunou," she responded airily, turning to face
him.  She made certain her face showed only her usual expression of
disinterest.  He, on the other hand, looked distinctly uncomfortable.
     "I would speak with you, if you might spare a moment," he said
gravely.  For a moment she considered telling him to drop dead, but
she caught herself.  After all, it wouldn't do to show that she was in
the least upset about what had gone on.  No, that wouldn't do at all.
     "I suppose I might," she said with studied disinterest, "if it was
worth my while."  He fidgeted slightly, and she suppressed a smile.
Squirm, Kunou-baby, she thought.
     "Please," he said, making what he no doubt thought was a
courtly gesture towards the nearby trees.  She preceded him with as
much hauteur as she could muster, which was, truth be told, a
considerable amount.  Once she was standing under the nearest tree
she turned to face him again.  She noted with vague amusement that
their actions had not gone unnoticed by the small knots of students that
had been watching her earlier.
     She just knew she was going to love discovering what all *that*
was about.  And speaking of mysteries ...
     She cocked her hand outwards, letting her bookbag dangle as
she regarded the watch on the inside of her left wrist.
     "Well?" she asked with a calculated hint of impatience.  "It's
your quarter, Kunou-baby."  He stood in front of her, head bowed
slightly.  When he looked up at her, his brown eyes were fiercely
determined.
     "I would speak in regards to our conversation of two days
previous," he began stiffly.  She raised one eyebrow.  This promised to
be good.  He'd had two days to think of how to convince her that her
suspicions were wrong.  Well, big deal.
     "Why, whatever can you be talking about?" she asked
innocently.  He frowned.
     "I believe you remember quite well the conversation I am
referring to, Nabiki Tendou."
     "Oh, Kunou-baby, I have so *many* conversations.  If I don't
recall one, then it must not have been," she shot him her most
disinterested glance, "very important.  You know?"  He met her gaze
evenly.
     "I wish to ... apologize."  Nabiki froze.
     "Hah?" she asked cleverly.  "You ... ah, what?"  She couldn't
have heard that right.  Could she?
     "I was quite rude to you," he continued, only a slight flush
across the bridge of his nose revealing his inner turmoil.  "I obviously
misinterpreted your actions, and thus offended you gravely.  I behaved
in an inexcusable manner, and I crave your forgiveness."  With this, he
executed a deep bow and held it.  Nabiki blinked.  Then she blinked
again.  He was still down there.
     "Oh, for ... Kunou!  Get up, would you?  People are staring!"
Nabiki prided herself on being hard to shake, but this was utterly
unexpected.  Kunou, admitting he was wrong?  To her?  What was the
world coming to?
     "Will you forgive my transgression?" he asked, still bowing.
She pinched the bridge of her nose, squinting painfully.
     "Look, Ku ... stand up first, would you?"  Reluctantly, he did
so.  She sighed.
     "First, does this mean you admit I was right about the things I
found out?"  His mouth tightened slightly.
     "Not at all," he said stiffly.  "I regret that you jumped to such
wild conclusions with incomplete facts.  Facts, I might add, that you
had no business possessing."
     "Ah, so nothing strange is going on around the Kunou family,
and there's nothing weird about the estate or its history?"
     "That is correct."
     "And you aren't in any danger?"  His eyes widened at that, and his
jaw clenched angrily.  Interesting.
     "Certainly not!" he snapped, sounding offended.  She smiled.
     "Then it's simple," she said happily.  His posture relaxed
slightly.
     "It is?"
     "Yes.  I'll just keep looking around until I'm satisfied."  He
made a strangled noise in his throat.
     "W-what?  But you cannot!"
     "Whyever not?"
     "Because it's not safe!  It ..."  Nabiki cut him off with a puzzled
frown.
     "But you just told me there wasn't any danger.  So why
shouldn't I poke around?"  Kunou's face began to flush, angrily this
time.
     "I forbid it!" he snapped in his best lord of the manor tone.
     His words hung in the air between them for a moment, seemingly
wanting to be somewhere else.  Then Nabiki took one careful
measured step.  Then another, which placed her directly in front of
Kunou, so close that they were almost touching.  She tilted her head
back so she was gazing directly into his eyes.  She felt her nostrils
flaring, but otherwise she held her expression perfectly neutral.
     "You.  Forbid?" she asked quietly.  She saw his Adam's apple
bob nervously as he swallowed.
     "I ..." he began.
     "Be quiet."  She didn't raise her voice, but he twitched as
though he'd been pinched.  She reached up her free hand, grasping the
collar of his shirt gently and drawing his face down so that their noses
were nearly touching.  She let the rime frost of her disapproval creep
into her eyes, where he was sure not to miss it.
     "Perhaps one day, Tatewaki Kunou, there will be a short list of
people who can forbid me to do something.  A *very* short list.  Rest
assured, your name will not be on it."  It was clear from his expression
that this wasn't how he'd expected things to go.  Well, if he thought that
he could push her around just because he'd apologized, he had another
thing coming.
     "You have lied to me," she went on coolly.  "You are *still*
lying to me.  I don't like that.  It irritates me.  It also makes me curious.
If you don't tell me what's going on, then I'll just have to find out for
myself.  And I will, have no doubt of that.
     "Oh, and one more thing.  I don't think I should forgive you just yet.
Not until you come clean with me.  Clear?"  Kunou just stared at her,
clearly at a loss as to how to deal with her intransigence.
     "But ..." he began helplessly.
     "My goodness.  How do you do it, Miss Tendou?"  They
turned together to see Miss Hinako standing not far away in her adult
form, regarding them with a mixture of amusement and irritation.
Nabiki suddenly realized that she and Kunou were standing very close,
and she was holding his face somewhat near her own, and it would be
very easy to misinterpret the entire situation.
     There was some precedent for that, after all.
     "Ah, teach," Nabiki said smoothly, letting go of Kunou's shirt.
"Good morning."  Miss Hinako scowled.
     "If you two are quite finished putting on a show for the entire
school, first bell is in two minutes."  She tapped her watch impatiently
with one long, shaped fingernail, and Nabiki nodded.
     "Sure thing, teach.  Wouldn't want a detention now, would
we?"  Miss Hinako favoured her with a predatory smile.
     "No," she purred.  "I assure you that you would not."  Nabiki
sauntered by casually, and after a moment Kunou followed, much
subdued.  Nabiki ignored him and headed for the front doors.
     He'd apologized.  She just couldn't believe it.  Stubborn, dense
Tatewaki Kunou, admitting to error?  Would wonders never cease?
     Of course, she *had* to let him suffer for a while.  He'd managed
to get under her skin and shake her composure (okay, *shatter* it, to
be honest) and she wouldn't let him off the hook so easily.  Eventually,
though, she might let him make it up to her.  Dinner at a restaurant, an
expensive one of course.  And he'd have to come clean about what he
was hiding.  That was non-negotiable.  She absolutely wouldn't give up
now.  But it seemed as though there might be hope for him yet.
     A tiny smile crept stealthily to her lips.  An apology.  How
about that?  Then the smile slipped away.
     I forbid it.  Feh.  Just who the hell did he think he was dealing
with, anyway?

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

     Kunou watched Nabiki's back as she walked away.  He could
still feel the heat in his face.
     Gods, what an impossible woman!  Why could she not listen to
reason?  His hand clenched reflexively on the hilt of his bokken as he
walked to class, oblivious to the stares and giggles of his schoolmates.
     The dream still haunted him.  She'd been in the fourth door,
and the darkness had swallowed her.  What did it mean?  Was it a
premonition?  She'd somehow found a thread leading into the tangle of
his family's secrets, and she seemed intent on tugging it until something
interesting fell out.  And if she was in any danger, clan Kunou was at its
heart.  He had to do something.  The whole convoluted mess was his
responsibility now, after all.
     Yes, he had to do something.  But what?  He had no idea where the
danger might come from, and she wouldn't stop unless he told her what
she wanted to know.
     And that knowledge would place her in terrible danger.
     But, a little voice piped up helpfully, if you don't tell her, she's going
to place *herself* in terrible danger.  Right?
     He clamped down on the little voice.  This kind of help he did
not need.
     He gazed after her as she disappeared into the school.  His
brilliant plan to put her off had been a complete disaster, utterly
ineffective.  Why had he thought that a simple apology would suffice,
anyway?  Had he misread the extent of her offense at his offer?  Or her
sincerity?  He didn't think so.  She had been truly enraged at his offer.
     A bribe, Tatewaki, he told himself ruefully.  Call it what it was,
won't you?  A bribe, and it *was* offensive, done without any subtlety,
the way you'd tip a doorman.  Much more finesse was required to deal
with a woman like Nabiki Tendou.
     But how?  How to ensure that she was removed from harm's
way without placing her in further danger?
     Maddening.  Unreasonable.  Impossible. *Woman*.
     Gritting his teeth, he hurried to his class.

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

     Hinako watched the two lovebirds scurrying off to class.  Well,
Kunou scurried.  That Tendou girl walked like she owned the place.
First Kuonji, then this boy.  How did she manage it?  She was haughty
and insolent ...
     (You should punish her)
     The thought leapt into her head unbidden, and she stopped.
     Well, she hadn't actually transgressed, had she?  She was too
smart for that ...
     (Watch her.  She will.  Then you can wipe the smirk from her
face.  You can *drain* the insolence out of her)
     She smiled an unpleasant smile.  Yes.  That would be nice,
wouldn't it?  She felt a warmth spreading through her belly at the
thought, and she rubbed one thigh absently.
     (Make her stop laughing at you)
     Oh yes.  She laughed at Hinako behind her back.  Many
people did.  Well, those people had better watch out.  Ninomiya
Hinako was not one to forget a slight.
     She'd remember.  She'd remember them all.

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

     Riana tucked the card key into her jacket carefully.  Even if
someone suspected that these levels existed below the building far
above her, they would be unable to access them.  Not unless they
possessed a special card key, and the ability to call forth the mystic
sigils inscribed on it.
     And this particular level was hidden even from most of the
others.  Only a handful of her kind even knew it existed, and of them,
only she was permitted to come down here at will.  And of late, her will
had directed her down here quite often.  Had the others known how
much time she spent in the chamber at the end of this corridor, they
might have regarded it as a weakness.  And that, she could not have.
     Fortunately, as their leader, she was accountable for her time
and whereabouts to no one.
     The shadowed corridor stretched out before her, the light from
the open elevator penetrating only a short distance into the murky
gloom.  She gestured imperiously and lights sprang to life on the smooth
stone walls, receding into the distance where they finally revealed a
large, imposing door.
     Riana walked slowly toward that door, anticipation warring
with her other, more confused emotions.  The only sounds this far
below the surface where the hollow taps of her high heels on the stone
floor and the faint susurration of her breathing.
     Finally, she reached the dark portal that restricted access to the
chamber.  The corridor opened up at this point, and the strange door
towered over her.  It had no visible hinges or knob, just a fierce and
bestial face carved into its centre.  Her icy gray eyes narrowed, and she
traced a shape in the air with one slim hand.  The carving's eyes
opened, and it snapped its fangs together angrily.
     "Open for me," she crooned, holding her hand out to the angry
face.  It sniffed at the proffered hand cautiously and then, satisfied,
stilled its protests.  The door opened silently, and she passed through.
     The inner chamber was large, its corners and heights cloaked in
shadow.  Against the far wall a glowing symbol cast a faint reddish light
that revealed something resting on a low dias.  Her breath caught at the
sight, as it almost always did.  Soon.  But first things first.
     She turned from the doorway, allowing the portal to swing shut
behind her.  She could see well enough in the eerie light of the glowing
symbol, and she moved with confidence.  Visible against the wall inside
the door was a filmy white gauze of spider web.  There was quite a lot
of it, and it spread over the walls and vanished up into the shadowy
heights of the cavern.  She gently laced her fingers into the cool, silky
webbing and closed her eyes, interpreting the faint vibrations that
thrummed through the strands.  After a time, she pulled her hand back
and smiled.
     All was as it should be.  Of course.  The chances of anything
being amiss were so small as to be insignificant, but she had seen the
cost of overconfidence, and she had no intention of falling prey to such
a capricious foe.  That was why she checked things out every single
time she came down here, without fail.  That was why she would
continue to do so.
     That was why she would remain in control while fools like
Tragus plotted against her.
     Sighing, she turned back and walked with slow, measured
strides across the chamber.  As she drew closer she could make out
the glittering object on the dias.  She knelt before it, reaching out her
hand and placing it gently on the cool crystal.
     "I come again, my love," she whispered, stroking her fingers
gently over the smooth surface.  Leaning forward, she could see him
through the crystal, but only dimly.  His arms were out slightly, his head
cocked, as if surprised by something.
     As indeed he had been.  As they all had been.
     And there he lay, entombed in this accursed crystalline trap,
caught between one moment and the next.  Here he lay, as he'd lain for
the past twenty-eight years, leaving her to lead the remnants of their
forces, leaving her to search for the means to free him.  Leaving her to
wait, and worry, for so long.  So very long.
     She hoped, not for the first time, that he was not conscious of
the passing of time.  She wouldn't be able to bear getting him back,
only to find he'd succumbed to madness.
     She leaned forward, running her hands over the odd crystal
shroud, pressing her face close to the surface.  She wished, as she
always did, that she could see him more clearly.  She wished she could
touch his warm flesh instead of this cold stone.  She pressed one cheek
against the crystal, sending her thoughts to him on wings of hope.
     Soon, my love.  One day soon, I promise you.  Then we will be
together again.
     "Ah, Riana.  Faithful Riana."  She jumped, for a moment
convinced that he had finally answered her, and her heart jagged
painfully.  Then she pulled back and saw that the pattern on the wall
was glowing fiercely, the colour of fresh blood.  She gasped as the
image of a face appeared within the pattern, impenetrable black eyes
gazing out at her.  She fell back a step and dropped to her knees, one
hand braced against the stone floor, the other clasped tightly to her
chest, and hung her head.
     "Our Most Dread Lord," she whispered.  "You honour us with
your presence."  He was not actually present, of course, but he could
extend his influence through the link to a certain extent.  Her words
were a mere courtesy, if any courtesy could be "mere" when dealing
with someone so powerful.
     "You keep the faith well, sweet Riana.  I am glad to see that."
     "My thanks, Dread Lord."
     "What of the matter I set you to when last we spoke?"  She
raised her head, meeting the implacable gaze of the face which
appeared as large as she was tall.
     "We captured the foolish ninja easily, and set him against the last
one, as you instructed.  The boy dispatched him with the Weapon, but
since then he has disdained to carry it, and there is no sign he seeks to
restore what was broken."  Anger became visible in those eyes, and the
sight was enough to make her mouth go dry even though she knew it
was not directed at her.
     "So much time, so much planning, so much ... patience.  All
jeopardised by those foolish vermin.  Killing my emissary, stealing that
which belongs to ME ..."  He trailed off, his final words echoing like
thunder in the chamber.
     "He may not be awakened to the danger, Dread Lord.  We
could ..."
     "You will not risk further contact without my express orders."
The words were delivered mildly enough, but she shivered at the power
behind them.
     "Of course not.  However, about the newcomers ..."
     "You still wish to destroy them, sweet Riana?"  She flushed.
     "If it were my choice, yes.  Many of them are undisciplined and
resist my authority. *Our* authority.  They have tasted freedom in the
other world, and desire to hunt more openly."
     "And can you not control them?  Their leaders are gone, after
all."  The rebuke was clear, and she fought her temper back.  It would
not do to lose control in front of this one.
     "I have controlled them to this point.  But now there is one that may
be a problem, and this bears on the problem of the ... boy."  She'd
nearly said Guardian, and that would have been a mistake.  Because he
was no such thing, just a befuddled boy, and to name him Guardian in
front of the Dread Lord would have been a grave error.
     "Go on."  She explained briefly about Tragus and his "possession"
of the teacher Ninomiya Hinako.  The Dread Lord, as usual, betrayed
little emotion.
     "This could be useful to us," he rumbled at last.  "You say you could
not detect this lowborn's presence within the woman?"
     "No, my lord.  Not until he revealed himself to me."
     "Interesting indeed.  He may be able to provide us with
valuable information without revealing our presence to the boy."  Riana
stared impassively at the image of the Dread Lord's face.
     "With respect, my lord, perhaps we should simply act against the
Kunou brat now.  He is alone and confused, and the outer perimeters
of the estate are barely guarded.  With the forces at my disposal, I
could take him easily."
     "I want him alive for now, Riana," came the reply, and she sensed
that she had wandered into sensitive territory.  The Dread One, after
all, had his secrets.  Even from his most loyal followers.  "After all, the
Crystal Barrier is damaged now.  We may require his power to set it
right before we may gain the final prize."
     "But my lord, that's why we have Keisuke!" Riana blurted,
dismayed.  Those icy black eyes bored into her.
     "He is an unproven quantity, whatever his bloodline.  Your plan
is daring, I'll admit, but I'll not dispose of the boy until I am convinced
we do not need him."
     "Even if he is just a boy, you'll never be able to compel him to
help you, Dread Lord," Riana pressed on, aware that she was coming
dangerously close to arguing with her lord and master.  "With his sister
and the ninja gone, we have none to use as leverage on him ..."
     "If it comes to that, I'll simply have to call on the services of my
lovely Sana."  Her eyes narrowed and she felt a warm flush rise,
unbidden and unwelcome, to her cheeks.  She hoped that her reaction
would go unnoticed.
     In vain, as it turned out.  The Dread One's mouth twitched into
a slight smile.
     "Ah, I see you remember her."
     "That ... creature," she spat angrily.  "I do not trust vampires.
They are capricious and unpredictable, slaves to their appetites, and
that one has more lusts than most of her kind."
     "She is also exceptionally powerful," came the mild reply.
     "She is undisciplined and willful!"
     "Ah, yes," he said suddenly, as if just remembering something.
Riana was certain it was just an act, but she didn't dare call him on it.
"You fared rather poorly during your last encounter with her, did you
not?  She bent you to her will and very nearly added you to her harem."
Riana seethed quietly under the Dread One's disdainful gaze.
     "She ... took me off guard," she gritted, thinking of the way
Tragus had ambushed her in her office the previous night.  She'd left
that little detail out of her report, and was now glad that she had.
     "Indeed.  At any rate, I will not consider using her unless you
fail, so your fate rests in your own hands.  If your plan works as you
hope, her presence will be unnecessary."
     "I'm certain that Keisuke will be up to the challenge, Dread
Lord," she said, trying to ignore the cold sweat snaking its way down
her back.  How dare he threaten her with that haughty vampiress?
Riana had held the remnants of this operation together for nearly three
decades in the face of unrest from her troops, cut off from their own
realm and denied help by the Dread Lord himself.  He insisted that their
mission was too delicate to risk calling attention to by intervening
personally, clearly implying that their present straits were of their own
making.
     Which, to a certain extent, was true.  She watched as the
Dread One's gaze shifted to the crystal prison on the dias.
     "If your lover had not acted so rashly all those years ago, none
of this would be necessary," he reminded her, once again without
rancour.  The words stung just the same, but she bore them stoically.
     "I accept full responsibility, Dread Lord, for his failures."
     "Yes."  And even if he never admitted it, she thought that he
was impressed by that.  "How many more artifacts must you gain to
attempt freeing him?"
     "Only one," she answered in a low voice, fighting not to let her
emotions show through.  "But it has eluded us for some time now."
Perhaps this time, Keisuke ... but no.  She would not get her hopes up
only to have them dashed again.
     "A pity.  Well, sweet Riana.  You know what must be done.
No direct action against the boy or the nexus point.  Understood?"
     "I may have to be ... firm with some of the newcomers,
including Tragus," she said, a glimmer of hope shining through her
personal darkness.  "They desire revenge against those who thwarted
their invasion."  The Dread One gave her another cold, razor-edged
smile.
     "They may take no action which might awaken the boy to his
danger.  You may use any means you deem necessary to ensure that
does not happen."
     "Yes, Dread Lord," she said, bowing low again.  Silently she
exulted.  Oh Tragus, she thought, you will pay for humiliating me!  I will
see you suffer for your lapse, lowborn!
     When she rose from the bow, the Dread Lord's image was
gone, and she sighed, finally letting some of the tension seep from her
body.
     So once more, she was left to preside over a holding action.
She was forced to wait, spending her time tracking down those who
might prove a threat to her and her kind, and waiting for the Dread
Lord's orders to finally take the nexus and complete their mission,
begun so very long ago.
     She stood and stepped back up on the dias, crouching over the
crystal once more.  As she leaned forward her hair spilled down,
pooling milky white against the dim blue surface of the crystal.  She
breathed gently on the cool stone, as if to warm the body of the person
trapped within.
     "Soon, my love," she promised him quietly.  "One day soon
you'll be free, and then we'll finish together what we started thirty years
ago.  And woe to any who would dare stand in our way."  Brushing a
light kiss over the place where she could dimly make out his face, the
face she hadn't seen in so long, she finally stood.  Walking to one of the
shadowed corners, she slipped easily out of her jacket, then unbuttoned
her blouse and dropped it carelessly to the floor.  Her skirt and
undergarments followed, and she stood naked, gloriously free,
stretching her arms toward the unseen ceiling, unaffected by the
coolness of the air.
     With a sigh of ecstasy, her long arachnoid legs burst from her
back, and her eyes began to glow.  She leapt easily, catching the
silken strands of webbing and moving quickly up into the shadows.
Using her oddly dainty spider legs, she moved toward three silk
wrapped bundles that had been woven smoothly into the web.  One
was a mere husk and would have to be disposed of; she made a mental
note to have that matter seen to later.
     The other two, however, were still alive.
     She straddled one of the bundles, clinging easily to the
surrounding shrouds of webbing, and gently parted the gauzy strands to
reveal the face of a young man.  She gazed down at him almost
tenderly.
     "Have you been keeping my darling company?" she asked
softly.  "I don't want him to get lonely, you see."  Immediately, the
other bundle began to thrash, sending tremors through the strands.
Riana just smiled.  That one was still lively, and she'd taken care to
make certain he was securely wrapped.  But this one ...
     His eyes opened slowly, probably in response to her voice.
They were blue, and quite beautiful.
     What a pity.
     "Please," he whispered.  "Please.  Let me go."  His voice was
paper thin, raspy, and totally without force.  She smiled again.
     "Oh, my dear, you'll be leaving here soon.  Don't worry about
that."  She didn't add that he wouldn't be leaving alive.  She was pretty
sure he already knew that.
     Ignoring his weak cries, she bent down and began to feed.

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

     "You know, I heard an interesting rumour in class today."
Nabiki looked up from her lunch.  She and Ukyou were eating on the
roof, very nearly in the same spot where they'd had their discussion on
Saturday.
     "Really?  How interesting?" she asked.  Across from her,
Ukyou was maintaining a carefully neutral expression.
     "Well, according to this rumour, you and our very own Blue
Thunder had some sort of close encounter before school today."
Nabiki snorted.
     "Oh, that.  That was nothing."  Ukyou chewed slowly.
     "Really?  According to various sources, he *bowed* to you.  Then
you grabbed him and either nearly kissed him or nearly belted him,
depending on who was telling the story.  Sounds like something to me."
Ukyou was watching her closely, wondering what Nabiki's reaction
would be.  Characteristically, she gave nothing away.
     "Really, Kuonji, you shouldn't believe everything you hear."
     "You're being evasive."
     "Moi?"
     "Yup.  Come on, Nabiki.  I was just wondering if this had
something to do with what had you so upset the other day."  Nabiki
stared back at her impassively.  Getting information out of Nabiki was
never easy at the best of times, and Ukyou wasn't at all sure her efforts
would be rewarded.  Finally, however, Nabiki spoke.
     "You gonna eat that?"  Ukyou sighed and passed over the last
bit of her okonomiyaki.  Nabiki grinned and took a bite.
     "You're not gonna tell me, are you?" Ukyou grumbled at last.
Nabiki made thoughtful noises while she chewed.
     "Well," she said at last, "let me ask you this.  How often have
you thought about Kunou since Kodachi died?"  Ukyou was puzzled
by the question.
     "Well, not a lot.  I mean, I felt sorry for the guy, but I've never
thought a lot about him one way or the other."  Nabiki nodded as if that
was the answer she'd expected.
     "And you're not alone.  He hasn't really spoken much to anyone
since then.  But think back.  Who showed up at Furinkan that
day with a magic, glowing sword?"  Ukyou blinked.
     "You know, I'd forgotten all about that," she said.
     "Strange, don't you think?"
     "Well, we've got cursed martial artists, magical artifacts and
now demonic invasions.  I don't think one magic sword makes that
much difference one way or the other."  Nabiki sighed, leaning back
against the retaining wall.
     "Yeah, but this is Kunou we're talking about.  If the guy had a
magic sword, why didn't he ever mention it before?  He's always been
a braggart at heart, you know, and Ranma's embarrassed him more
than once.  So why didn't we ever see it before?  The whole thing's
strange."  Ukyou shrugged.
     "That whole *family's* strange.  I just never thought about it.
We've all had things on our minds, you know?"  Nabiki nodded.
     "That's for sure.  But something's going on with Kunou, and
the more I uncover, the more curious I get."
     "Is that was this is all about?  Kunou?" Ukyou asked incredulously,
and Nabiki turned back to her, an animated sparkle in her eye.
     "Not just Kunou.  There are secrets in that family.  Big ones.
Dark ones.  Maybe even dangerous ones."
     "Then maybe they should stay secret," Ukyou said doubtfully.
Nabiki looked at her as if she was crazy.
     "What *am* I to do with you, Ukyou?  The harder people try to
keep secrets, the more worth knowing they are.  And somehow Kunou
has been keeping a whopper from all of us.  Doesn't that intrigue you?"
     "Honestly?  I have a hard enough time with my own problems
these days, Nabiki.  What kind of secrets are we talking about here,
anyway?  Something to do with money?"
     "Nothing so simple and tawdry, I think," Nabiki told her.
"Whatever it is, though, I think Kunou's worried about it.  Now who do
you suppose he could turn to if he had a serious problem?"  Ukyou
thought about it a little.
     "I guess no one ..." she began.
     "Yeah.  He helps fight off the monsters that killed Ranko's
family, hell, that killed *us* in a different reality, he sees his sister killed
in front of him, and now what?  We should just hang the poor sap out
to dry?  I'll tell you one thing, Ukyou.  I may not be renowned as a
great humanitarian, but I know everything there is to know about debts,
and we all owe him for helping when the chips were down."  Ukyou
thought back to the battle, how hard pressed they'd been.  If only one
or two of them had not been there, they might not have survived.
     "Believe me, I understand," she said softly.  "But what can we do?
If he doesn't want our help ..."  Nabiki waved her off impatiently.
     "Kunou?  He's stubborn, and proud, and just a tad obsessive.  And
it'll be a cold day in hell before he *asks* for help.  So too bad if he
doesn't want anybody poking around.  I may not be descended from
samurai, but I know that when somebody helps save your family and
your town you don't ignore them."  Ukyou stared at Nabiki.  She was
suddenly certain that the other girl knew more than she was telling
about what was going on with Kunou.
     "So you're going to help him."
     "Well, at the very least I'm going to find out what's going on."
Nabiki met Ukyou's gaze evenly.  "Look at it this way.  Cologne's
problem became Shampoo's problem, which quickly became our
problem.  That's the way it's always been around here.  None of us live
in a vacuum, no matter what's changed since Ranko left.  If Kunou's
problem is really as big as I suspect, it could easily spread to involve all
of us."  She fixed Ukyou with a steady stare, her eyes gleaming with
excitement.  "Forewarned is forearmed, as they say.  Ignoring this won't
make it go away, and it could make it worse."  Ukyou shook her head.
     "I don't know, Nabiki.  You could be right, but ... who's to
say?  Maybe it's just dirty laundry, embarrassing family secrets,
something innocent like that.  Maybe it's guilt over his sister's death.
With him, it's hard to tell."
     "I remember hearing how the demons were afraid of Kunou's
sword.  Why would he have a sword that scares demons?  No, I think
this has to do with spooky stuff, with monsters and things that go munch
in the night.  And if that's true, then he's got no *right* to hide it from
the rest of us.  Not anymore."
     "So what are you going to do?  I mean, if Kunou won't talk ..."
     "Oh, I've got sources," Nabiki said, grinning.  "Information is
power, Ukyou.  Never forget that."  She waved a business card in the
air casually, and Ukyou squinted at it.  There was a name and a phone
number written on it.
     "Who's Yukio?" she asked.  Nabiki's grin widened.
     "Somebody who very well may have the information I need,"
she answered.  "Let's call her ... a source very close to the heart of the
problem."  Ukyou grinned back in spite of herself.
     "You know, you really should become an investigator.  You've
got a real knack for this.  Just be careful, okay?"  Nabiki winked.
     "No problem.  I leave the dirty work to you martial arts types.
Anyway, when I get a chance, I'm just going to talk to a lonely woman
about her past.  What could possibly happen?"
 
------------------------------------------------------------------------

     Shampoo hummed as she rode, the wind rippling intimately
through her long violet hair..
     It was amazing how much better she felt now that they had
re-opened the Nekohanten.  Perhaps it was just having something to
do, tasks to occupy her time.
     Or perhaps it was the possibility that there might be a way out
of her predicament.
     Nothing was certain, of course, but her great-grandmother's
revelation that the village elder might be able to intervene had given her
hope, and it seemed like months since she had dared to hope about
anything.  So she hummed as she rode, the take-out box securely
fastened to the back of her bicycle.  They were back in business, she
didn't have to worry about keeping Mousse out of her hair for the next
little while, the weather was fine, and traffic was light.
     All was right with the world.
     Which helped explain why she was almost taken unawares.
     Almost.  But not quite.  At the last moment, she sensed the
attack and leapt off her bicycle, twisting nimbly through the air to land
atop a nearby fence.  Some unseen force caught the unattended bike
broadside and smashed it to the ground.  Shampoo crouched warily,
ignoring the slight twinges from her injured ribs as she shifted her gaze
around, seeking the source of the attack.
     She was not totally surprised to see the diminutive form that
appeared from between two nearby buildings.
     "Xi Fan," she breathed.  "Why you here?  Why you attack
me?"  The old woman regarded her stonily.
     "<Well, Shampoo, I bring regards from the council.  It appears
that they do not believe your account of events.  They are very angry at
you for having wasted their time, you see, and have given me leave to
punish you.>"  Shampoo felt a sudden pang of panic.  They couldn't!
Not without hearing her side of things!  What about the elder, and her
chance to have her engagement nullified?
     "<I wish to speak to them myself, honoured elder!  To present
my case!>" Xi Fan snorted.
     "<You have dodged your punishment long enough, girl!  Come,
show me what the mighty Cologne has taught you!>"  She raised one
hand, and the air in front of her palm began to shimmer.
     "<Oh, and one other thing,>" she said to the wary amazon girl.
"<I may punish you as much as I desire without killing you.  However,
in a pitched fight, it is always possible that one may ... slip, thus allowing
a lethal blow to land.  Such a thing would be an accident, and thus the
offending party would get off quite lightly.>"  Her voice had become
low and guttural, her words bitter.  "<Just so we're clear, you
understand.>"
     Shampoo understood.  Shifting her weight slightly, she waited
for the first attack.
 

end part three
Revised Jan. 23/98