Ranma panted, leaning heavily against a large boulder as she tried to catch her breath. She had been sprinting constantly for almost three hours now; the moon was well underway on its journey across the sky, and she was utterly exhausted.
"We should stop here," Kayoko announced, from the edge of a nearby pond. "We have some time. Even Kuonji will need some time to recover from being frozen. I can tend to Shampoo's wounds. They are serious, but I will be able to handle them."
"Please do," Ranma puffed, grateful for the opportunity to rest as well as Kayoko's assistance with Shampoo. She was not sure how Kayoko thought she could help with Shampoo's wounds - she was not even sure what the wounds were, having not had a chance to examine the girl. It seemed that Kayoko understood the problem, but after Kayoko's initial assurances that Shampoo would be fine, barely a word had passed between them on their epic sprint.
Ranma was quietly thankful for that fact; if she had tried to speak, she was entirely convinced her lungs would have exploded. She sank down against the smooth surface of the boulder and tried fruitlessly to calm her breath as she watched Kayoko lower Shampoo to the ground.
Now that they had stopped, she was able to get a better look at both Shampoo, and her new companion Kayoko. The Kayoko Tendo that knelt before her only bore a vague resemblance to the child she had once known. They may well have been childhood friends, but she could easily have walked right past Kayoko on the street without recognising her. The face was similar to that of her memories, but Kayoko had truly blossomed into a beautiful woman in the decade that had passed between their last meeting.
Shampoo was alive, but barely. How Ukyo could consider her wounds 'not serious', she did not know. She was worried intensely about her friend, but the voice of experience inside her told her to trust Kayoko, that the Tendo girl would somehow be able to help. It was that feeling that had allowed her to run for hours while Shampoo lay perched across Kayoko's shoulder, dripping blood with every step.
Kayoko managed to sprint just as fast as Ranma, perhaps slightly faster, while carrying Shampoo, and did not even appear to be out of breath. She easily lofted Shampoo's body, and did not seem to be tired at all. As Ranma slowly caught her breath, she wondered just how Kayoko had become so fit. A decade of harsh training on the road had made Ranma extremely fit; how had Kayoko become so strong simply living in a fishing village?
Ranma looked more closely at Shampoo as Kayoko turned to face the water. The dim hue of dried blood stained the Amazon's clothes and skin, a sharp cut along the girl's neck being the apparent source of most of the bleeding. She was almost entirely motionless, but Ranma could see the tiniest amount of movement as her chest slowly rose and fell with each troubled breath.
She thought for a moment of Ukyo, the person she had considered a friend, staring at her with such evil intent in her eyes as Shampoo lay bleeding at her feet. Why on Earth had Ukyo attacked? They had parted on good terms; what had caused the sudden turnaround in behaviour? She frowned to herself, wondering if perhaps she had been tricked all along. Had Ukyo been feigning friendship in order to find Ranma's home? In order to find Genma?
She honestly had no idea, but she suspected that Kayoko knew exactly what was going on. Once Shampoo was taken care of, she intended to find out. Kayoko seemed to greatly fear the prospect of Ukyo catching up with them, but a small part of Ranma wanted the traitor to catch up with them, so she could extract revenge. She closed her eyes and silently dared Ukyo to try and find her.
Come and get me, Ukyo. This time I'll be ready.
"Ranma, I want you to help me."
Kayoko sat at the edge of the pond, slowly lowering her legs to let her feet disappear into the water. Gently, she eased herself down into the water, lifting her hips and jumping in when the time was right. She quickly sank to waist depth, and turned to face the water's edge.
"What can I do?" Ranma asked, slowly rising to her feet. They ached, and stung as she stepped forward across loose gravel and grass, and she winced despite her best efforts to ignore the pain. "How can I help?"
"Pick her up, and pass her to me," Kayoko instructed, gesturing toward Shampoo's body. "Slowly; don't be rough with her."
"Okay," Ranma agreed, and stepped over to the Amazon. She lowered herself to one knee and slipped one arm under the crook of Shampoo's neck; the other under the girl's knees. She stood, taking care to keep the body level as best she could.
"Good. She's in pretty bad shape, so if you knock her around too much it's not going to help her at all," Kayoko said, taking a step backwards toward the centre of the pond. She winced and held up her hands as Ranma almost tripped upon a stray tree root. "Don't rush. She has plenty of time. Come toward me, lower her into the water."
"How's that going to help?" Ranma asked, as she stepped to the edge of the pond. She glanced downward, into the crystalline waters, and wondered aloud, "Isn't this just going to get her wet?"
"Don't ask questions, Ranma. You want her to live, yes?"
"Yeah," Ranma replied, nodding. She supposed this was not the time for questions anyway. She knelt gradually, taking care not to bump Shampoo too much. Leaning forward, she slowly brought Shampoo's body to the water's surface, and Kayoko's waiting arms. Kayoko nodded at her, and Ranma let go.
The pair drifted slowly backwards, Kayoko looking intently down at the Amazon girl, a person she had never truly met or even spoken to, and called out to Ranma.
"It's a serious injury, and she's lost a lot of blood. She'll be fine, but this will take quite a while," Kayoko said. She looked thoughtful for a moment. "Who is this girl ... Shampoo, you said?"
"She's from China," Ranma replied, glancing at the girl in question. "She's bound to me by a debt of honour, or so she says."
"It doesn't sound like you agree," Kayoko observed, as she began scooping water over Shampoo's neck and shoulders.
"I'd really rather not talk about it," Ranma said with a sigh. Thinking about the events in Shampoo's home village brought back too many painful memories.
"Alright," Kayoko said, a thoughtful look on her face. She was silent for a moment before asking another question. "Tell me, then, how did you become a girl?"
"What?" Ranma asked, the question taking her by surprise. She glanced down at herself, and let out a small laugh. Seeing your childhood friend leave as a boy and return as a girl was bound to raise some questions. She wondered for a moment why Kayoko had not asked earlier; in the next she pondered just what answer to give, as she did not have one for herself.
"I don't know how it happened, really. Pops took me to this training ground called Jusenkyo. I fell into a spring, and boom," she said, with a flourish, "here I am."
"A spring, you say?" Kayoko replied, raising an eyebrow as she poured some water over Shampoo's face. "Interesting."
"It threw me off for a while, but then Pops died, and before I knew it I was swimming back to Japan to find you. I try not to think about this body too much. I've had other things on my mind for a while."
"Your father's wishes were more important that your own desire to find a cure for your problem?" Kayoko asked, a smile coming to her lips. "You've grown into a responsible young man, Ranma. I can see why he trusted you with the tooth."
"What's all this tooth business, anyway?" Ranma asked, preferring not to dwell on the compliment. "Why is it so important?"
"Come in, Ranma," Kayoko said, running one hand over the water's surface. "I want you to see this. It will help you to understand."
"Everything," Kayoko replied, raising her head to fix Ranma with her bright blue eyes. She smiled, tilted her head ever so slightly and waited for Ranma to move.
Ranma meant to argue, to question the instruction, to ask for an explanation, but somehow the look Kayoko had in her eyes was explanation enough. She nodded, and with rather less grace than Kayoko before her, hopped into the water without hesitation. The sound of water splashing filled her ears as the cold water embraced her body.
"Brrr," she said with a shiver. "Cold!"
"You'll get used to it," Kayoko observed, still smiling. "Come here."
Ranma waded out toward the pair, the thick mud of the pond's floor making progress slow, and giving her enough time to wonder how Kayoko had glided so gracefully about the water with seeming ease. Eventually, cheeks flushed with embarrassment at the bemused look Kayoko was giving her, she arrived on the other side of Shampoo.
"There are two teeth - Shoryoutensei and Garyoutensei. They are called teeth quite simply because they are blades carved from the teeth of dragons. Genma carried both teeth. Before I was born he gave my mother one of the two teeth; the one known as Shoryoutensei. He asked that it be given to me when I was old enough. The other, he kept for himself."
"Dragons' teeth," Ranma said, flatly. She was utterly unimpressed by this obviously fictional explanation. "He said that's what they were, and your mother believed him?"
"That's right," Kayoko said, simply.
"You've got to be kidding me. There's no such thing as a dragon."
Kayoko laughed; a long, deep laugh that left Ranma wondering what she had said that was so amusing.
"It's ironic that you could say such a thing," Kayoko said. "You are a dragon yourself, Ranma. You just don't know it."
"You say your father never mentioned dragons to you at all?"
"No, never," Ranma replied, shaking her head. "He just talked about training."
"That's a shame," Kayoko said with a sigh. "It took me years to come to terms with what I am. To have it thrust upon you like this is going to be inconvenient."
"Inconvenient?" Ranma asked, incredulous. She had many words to describe what had happened to her so far, and 'inconvenient' was not very high up on the list.
"I'm going to tell you a story, Ranma, if you'll listen. It might put things into perspective for you."
"Okay," Ranma replied with a shrug. If Kayoko had a story to tell, who was she not to listen?
"I've come to terms with what I am, but it's taken me a long time. When I was younger, things were different."
"After my mother died," Kayoko began, "everything in my life changed. Every person in the village began to treat me differently. Every single person, without exception. I didn't understand why at first; I thought perhaps they felt sorry for my sister and I, or perhaps the thought of two young girls living alone as we did made them uncomfortable."
"What do you mean, 'treated you differently'?" Ranma asked. "How?"
"It wasn't anything obvious. It was just ... the way they looked at me. I could see the questions in their eyes. Perhaps they thought I was responsible for Mother's death, I don't know. Whatever it was, I could feel their eyes on me everywhere I went. I could hear their voices in my mind, asking questions about me, gossiping about me when they thought I couldn't hear."
"So what did you do about it?"
"I was just a little girl, Ranma. I didn't beat anyone up, if that's what you're expecting," Kayoko replied, a bitterly amused tone to her voice. "I did the only thing I could think to do: I ran away. I hid, inside my home. I could still feel them staring at me, but inside my house I was safe.
"That didn't work for very long. After a while, I noticed my sister looking at me in the same way the others had. I asked her why she was doing it, but she didn't understand what I meant. So, I ran from her, my only living relative, as well. I hid in my room, because I couldn't muster up the courage to come out."
"You ... hid from your own sister?" Ranma asked, scratching her head in disbelief.
"I had to. In my room - by myself - I could pretend that everything was okay, that they weren't all talking about me. I could almost ignore the voices. My sister brought food to my room every day, but I refused to go to the hallway to get it. It was easier to go without food than to face her. I stayed there and hid, from everyone and everything."
"How on Earth did you survive, locked away in a room like that?"
"It was strange. For the first few days I was hungry, starving, and I almost gave in. After a week I could think of nothing but food, but I was just too afraid to leave. Before long I noticed that I didn't feel as hungry anymore, and eventually, I didn't feel hungry at all. I've never eaten since that day."
"You're kidding," Ranma replied, flatly. "Now you're just lying."
"It's the truth, Ranma. I promise you, it is the truth. It's the same with sleep; I was too afraid to go to sleep at night, because I thought someone would come into my room and find me while I slept. I stayed up all night every night, just watching the darkness. I was so afraid of what might happen if I closed my eyes ... I don't sleep anymore either."
"Wait a minute," Ranma said, a knot growing in her stomach. She hadn't slept in a long, long time. She had attributed it to the urgency of her mission, but now that she thought about it, she really shouldn't have been able to stay awake for so long.
"You don't sleep either, do you?" Kayoko asked, tilting her head questioningly.
"No, I don't," Ranma replied, staring directly at her childhood friend. "I tried to, but I just can't fall asleep. I just ... gave up after a while."
"There is no sustenance or rest in the higher plane," Kayoko said, lowering herself slightly into the water. "Dragons do not need food or sleep; nor do the Tatsujin. They are eternal."
"What's a ... Tatsujin?"
"I'm amazed that your father would have passed on the tooth to you without telling you any of this," Kayoko said, shaking her head in disbelief. "It's ... reckless and irresponsible. I suppose, considering Genma, that's not really a surprise."
"You didn't answer my question," Ranma pointed out.
"It's not an easy question to answer," Kayoko replied, slowly stroking a moistened hand across Shampoo's forehead. "The point I was trying to make was that it took me years to come to terms with this. You can't expect any easy answers, because there aren't any."
"So what do I do?" Ranma asked, exasperated. She had hoped that Kayoko would be able to shed some light on what was going on, but it seemed that the Tendo girl raised more questions than answers.
"I honestly don't know," Kayoko replied. "Genma told me he would return, but now you are here in his place, and you know even less than I do. I had always hoped Genma would tell me what I had to do, so I could do it and then find Kurumi."
"Find her? Where did she go?" Ranma asked.
"She left about a year ago, for Okinawa. She didn't want to leave, but she had no choice."
"No choice?" Ranma asked. "Why not?"
"I'd been hiding in my room for nearly six months when it started to rain. I don't mean ordinary rain, I mean a fierce rain that just would not stop. It would ease sometimes, for perhaps a few hours, but every single day it came back, without fail."
Ranma held up a hand. "Wait a minute. What does this have to do with anything?"
"The others in the village grew suspicious. There had never been such a relentless rainstorm before, and some of them began to suspect that I was causing it. It was easy for them to lay the blame upon the odd girl who lived alone and refused to come outside, after all."
"How could they blame you for a rainstorm?" Ranma asked, utterly incredulous. "That doesn't make any sense!"
"It sounds like nonsense, I know, but they were right. I always knew I was different to the others, and something inside told me the rain was caused by me, somehow."
"How?" Ranma asked, her confusion growing.
"All in good time," Kayoko said, shaking her head. "My sister found out that a few of the men were planning to come and burn down our house, to exorcise whatever demons lived there. She begged with me to leave with her, to get out of the house and away from them, but I just couldn't. My mother had told me that Genma would come for me, and so I decided to wait for him.
"I told Kurumi to leave, to get away from the village, and that I would find her when Genma came. She said she would go to Okinawa and wait for me. She tied together branches of a tree and dressed them, and with a cloak draped over them, she made sure the villagers saw her leaving. They assumed she had taken me with them."
"So you've been hiding in that house ever since?" Ranma asked, taken aback. "By yourself?"
"Waiting for a man who will never come," Kayoko said, averting her eyes from Ranma. She sighed. "It kept raining, but the others in the village thought I'd left, so they assumed it was just a spell of bad weather."
"It's not raining now," Ranma observed, gesturing up at the clear sky overhead. As if on cue, the moon peeked between a set of puffy white clouds and cast a pale glow upon the pond.
"You're right, it's not," Kayoko replied, unfazed by the observation. She peered intently at Ranma for a moment before adding, "It hasn't rained since the day you arrived."
Ranma sighed and lowered herself into the water, a thousand and one questions crossing her mind as she stared at the surface. She glanced at Shampoo, who was laying motionless in Kayoko's arms. She had been so absorbed in what the Tendo girl was saying to her that she had almost forgotten about the Amazon girl laying unconscious between them.
She watched as Kayoko tilted Shampoo's head back ever so slightly and scooped water onto the girl's neck, the liquid washing away the dried blood that marked the Amazon's skin. The wound had begun bleeding again, and before long the red stain had returned. Kayoko once again scooped up a handful of water and washed it away, undeterred.
"Is there anything I can do to help?" Ranma asked. She felt as though she should be doing -something- to aid her friend. She had no idea what she could do, but had no desire to do nothing.
"Ranma. Trust me," Kayoko said firmly.
"Okay, okay," Ranma replied with an exasperated sigh. She wanted to grab Shampoo and shake the life back into her, to yell the Amazon's name until she woke up. She frowned, realising the futility of her desires, and tried to think of other things.
"My mother told me many things before she died," Kayoko said, sensing Ranma's restlessness. She offered a smile and gently stroked her hand over Shampoo's shoulder. "Stories, I mean. I thought they were just fables, but after she died I came to realise that they were what your father had told her to tell me."
"What kind of stories?"
"Where should I begin?" Kayoko wondered. "I suppose the beginning is as good a place as any. Let me tell you what my mother told me about the Kingdom of Dragons."
Many thousands of years ago, before the sun rose over the horizon, there existed only Dragonkin. They did not exist on Earth but in a higher realm, in an endless kingdom of light. They were wise and benevolent, and when they saw the birth of a new realm beneath their own, they paid very close attention. They took it upon themselves to watch over this newborn realm, this place that would one day become Earth, to guide it through its youth and guard it from harm.
Watch it they did; for millennia they led the young world through growth and decay, steering it through prosperity and despair. Their eyes were ever vigilant, set upon one task - to keep the Great Balance intact. Ages came and went, but the Great Balance was eternal and infinite.
Beneath the realm of Earth lay another realm known to Dragonkin as the Otherworld, a realm of light and darkness, without physical form. It was from this realm that the dragons drew energy with which to bestow life upon the fledgling Earth. Their gifts were many, and soon the plants and animals they had created covered the world.
The newly-created gateway between the Otherworld and Earth could not be left unwatched, and so two dragons were charged with the task of guarding it. Ryujin the blue guided energy from the Otherworld to Earth, from which life could be born, while Ryukyu the red pulled the energy from the dead and returned it to the Otherworld.
The world prospered under the dragons' rule, and life grew quickly across every part of the world. Eventually, after all else was in place, the Dragonkin decided to create one more race, a final testament to the world they had created. The new race was not to share in the raw power of the animals, nor the ageless endurance of the trees and the grass. This race was to be governed by intellect, wisdom and reason, as the dragons themselves were. Such a race could perhaps, in time, take over stewardship of the realm.
With such lofty goals in mind, the Dragonkin placed mankind upon the world.
For a time, all was well, and the realm prospered. However, mankind grew too quickly, its expansion far outstripping all expectations. The humans were adaptable, intelligent, resourceful. They began to wonder at the nature of their own existence; to ask questions they should not have asked.
This worried the dragons greatly. Mankind was exerting far too much influence upon the world and pushing against boundaries they could not be allowed to breach. That made them dangerous. They had to be controlled, or the Great Balance would be irreparably damaged. Such damage could not be allowed. There was much debate amongst the dragons. Some called for the extermination of this dangerous child race, this ailment which threatened the harmony of the realms. Others called for a moderate approach, declaring that the humans took after the dragons and thus would innately respect the Great Balance. The Balance would protect itself, they declared, and the humans should be left to their own devices.
Eventually, after much discussion, the only decision which all of the Dragonkin would stand behind was that to create a final race - a half-dragon breed borne of the Earth that could traverse the realms at will. A race not just modeled after the Dragonkin, but infused with their very blood. This hidden, immortal race was named the Tatsujin.
The Tatsujin were eternal beings, bound by design to obey their dragon masters, compelled to serve their needs and assist in the guidance of the world. Gifted with the ability to change their forms at will, to better blend in amongst mankind, they served as the eyes and ears of the Dragonkin. Some took the forms of animals, in order to watch the humans from afar; others took on a human guise and saturated themselves with the complexities of human society.
With a direct, physical presence within the Earth realm, the dragons were satisfied. The Tatsujin were passive observers, but could be used as instruments of change should the need arise. The balance could be maintained if the humans could be manipulated.
However, not all was well in the Earth realm. Some of the Tatsujin grew dissatisfied with their role as servants. Rumblings of dissent filled their hearts, and they - like the humans - began to ask questions. They could traverse the realms at will; a feat even their masters could not accomplish.
Why should they watch over one inferior race at the behest of another? Should it not be the Tatsujin, the most gifted of beings in the three realms, who presided over the higher realm?
The vast majority of the Tatsujin remained steadfastly loyal to their lords, but a small group of Tatsujin - lead by one named Kuonji - began to devise a theory of their own. It did not make sense in their minds that the Dragonkin would create a race that was superior to their own. Was it not more likely that the Tatsujin created the Dragonkin, and had somehow been tricked into believing the lies of the dragons, forever denied their true destiny as rulers of the three realms?
This small group planned and schemed, and eventually devised a plot to overthrow their masters. They convinced their dragon lords that the humans were losing faith; that the masses needed proof of the existence of their creators to remain loyal. At the same time, they warned the most powerful humans of a vast invasion of dragons, a scourge that could wipe out all of mankind.
The humans, fearful and easily manipulated by the Tatsujin, rallied vast armies ready to defend themselves from the coming horde of dragons. Kuonji described the dragons in great detail to the humans, arming them with the knowledge of how best to strike. With the armies lying in wait, Kuonji returned to the higher realm and spoke to the Dragonkin.
The dragons' innate concern for the Balance told them an upheaval in the beliefs and behaviour of humankind would be disastrous. There was much debate amongst them how best to address the problem, but it was Kuonji who proposed what seemed the most effective solution.
The Tatsujin's plan was controversial - it called for a vast rift to be created, a gateway between the realm of Earth and the higher realm. Such a thing had never been considered, and many of the dragons questioned its effect on the Great Balance. They argued that there was a reason dragons could not naturally enter the realm of Earth, and that reason should not be overlooked.
The dissenting opinions were overruled, however, and Kuonji was given permission to proceed with the plan.
An enormous portal was created, a vast bridge spanning the gap between realms. A bright white scar ripped across the Earth's sky, tearing the very fabric of the realm in two. The Earth shuddered and the higher realm itself was violently shaken by the creation of the rift.
Kuonji passed through the gateway, arriving in the higher realm as proof that traversing the realms was safe. The Dragonkin, satisfied with this demonstration, passed through the great fissure. They took on mortal forms as they arrived in the Earth realm to greet the humans they had created so long ago. Kuonji followed behind the last of the dragons and surreptitiously signaled the waiting armies.
The humans, armed with the knowledge the Tatsujin had bestowed upon them, sprung their trap; they launched a vicious ambush upon the dragons shortly after their arrival in the Earth realm. The dragons were far more powerful, but they were vastly outnumbered, and had no knowledge of how to defend themselves. An eternity of existence in a higher realm had not taught them the harsh realities of mortal warfare. The battle was quick and decisive, and at its end the ground was stained red with the blood of a thousand dragons.
A few tried to escape to their own realm, but Kuonji the betrayer closed the rift behind them, leaving them to face their demise. The dragons were slaughtered; all but two of their number fell to the humans. The two survivors were guided away from the slaughter by Kuonji - who feigned loyalty - before the humans could notice them.
These two dragons were Ryukyu and Ryujin, the two dragons sworn to guard the gateway between the Earth realm and the Otherworld. Kuonji convinced them that they were in danger, that they could not wander the Earth as dragons. They were told to transfer their very essence into the form of two blades, that they could be hidden from those who would seek to do them harm.
They trusted Kuonji and agreed to the offer, but they were betrayed just as their brethren had been: the moment they handed over the swords their mortal bodies were killed, their draconic essences stolen. The Tatsujin betrayer fled with the swords, leaving the humans to recover from the losses they had taken in battle.
Kuonji meant to sink into the mists with the swords, but was ambushed; the two swords were once again stolen, and the Tatsujin was left badly injured by the battle. Kuonji vowed revenge on those who stole the swords, and so embarked on an vengeful crusade, seeking retribution on the ones who took them.
"Kuonji was the architect of their downfall. And now, it seems that the betrayer has found the swords she seeks," Kayoko said, a grave tone in her voice. "We are the only obstacles in her way."
Ranma sighed and turned away. This was so much information to absorb. She did not know what to believe and what to dismiss as fiction. Why would her father have kept this to himself? If it were true, why did he not tell her before he died?
It all seemed too surreal to be true. Immortal dragons? A dragon-human war? How could this have happened and yet be completely unknown to her? Surely there would exist records of such a battle. How could such an event go unrecorded?
She felt her feet sink slightly into the mud and half-closed her eyes, wishing that she could forget all that had happened to her. So much had changed in her life that she wondered if she would ever be able to stop and rest again. She sighed, and tossed aside the fantasy. There were more important things to think of.
"So, Ukyo is this ... this Tatsujin betrayer?" she asked, finding the question hard to even ask. She had come to think of Ukyo as a friend during their journey together - how could the strange girl she had befriended be the one responsible for the slaughter of an entire race? It simply didn't seem possible.
"It certainly appears that way," Kayoko's voice confirmed from behind Ranma. "She carries the Kuonji name, and was ready to kill you to take the tooth you carry."
Ranma glanced over her shoulder at Shampoo. Why was she defending this person, the one who had attacked her friend? She gritted her teeth. No, whatever she may have thought about Ukyo was wrong. This girl was an enemy, whether or not she was the traitor.
"Why does she want the swords?" Ranma asked, remembering the many nights she lay near Ukyo with her sword at her side. In all that time, the Kuonji girl had shown no interest in her weapon, let alone made any move to take it.
"I don't know," Kayoko replied, shrugging as Ranma turned to face her. "I assume whatever reason it is, it will not bode well for us."
"Not just us," Ranma added, glancing at the silent form of Shampoo. She sighed, and took one of the Amazon's hands into her own. It was cold to the touch, but nevertheless she gave it a gentle squeeze.
"The betrayer has no regard for humans or dragons," Kayoko said, her voice quiet. She placed her hand atop Ranma's and held it gently. "We must protect the humans as well as ourselves."
Ranma felt goosebumps prickle her skin as Kayoko's hand touched hers. She had long suspected something had changed the day her father had died. The events of that day had created a rift between her and the world around her. She had never been able to quantify it exactly, but she felt somehow ... disconnected, from everyone and everything.
Kayoko's words had given her much to reflect on. There were too many unanswered questions, and the ones Kayoko had offered answers to had simply given way to other, larger questions. With her father and Kayoko's mother dead, who could she turn to for answers?
She pulled her hand away, leaving Kayoko to tend to Shampoo, and waded over to the far side of the pond. If she could not help, she would use the time to think.
She sighed and sank her hands slightly into the water, watching the surface close around them. There was always the possibility that Kayoko was wrong, that she was taking literally something that was merely meant as a story. Somehow, though, that did not seem right. Kayoko's words - her stories - resonated within Ranma, and somehow she knew they were not fantasies. A kingdom of dragons, something that would have seemed ridiculous a few weeks earlier, seemed now to make a strange sort of sense.
Whether or not it was true, she knew that Ukyo would be on their trail. The only plan she had - to find Kayoko - was no longer useful. She had to decide upon a new plan, and quickly. Ukyo would be in pursuit - the reasons why did not change that fact. Ranma could consider the whys and hows later. For now, she had to escape and try to make sense of what had happened.
But, escape to where? She did not have any real home, besides an old house in Edo that was most likely home to someone else by now. She had no family to speak of, and her only two friends were already standing in the pond beside her. She did not have anywhere to go.
Kayoko had a family; Kayoko had a plan. The Tendo girl was going to Okinawa to find her sister. That, Ranma decided, was the best plan for her to follow. She had few friends in the world, and she did not intend to abandon the few she did have. She had left Kayoko behind once, and would not do it again.
If Kayoko was going to Okinawa to find her sister, then Ranma would follow.
Ranma sighed, resting her head in one hand as she leaned on a small rock that protruded from the water's surface near the pond's edge. She had been standing in the water for little more than an hour, but to her it felt as though she had been standing there all day. The thought of Ukyo growing closer by the minute lingered in the back of her mind, refusing to be dismissed.
The conversation between herself and Kayoko had long since faded into silence; the only words spoken now were by Kayoko as she whispered into Shampoo's ear. The continual noise of the surrounding forest ensured that Ranma could not make out what was being said, nor did she particularly care to. She felt like an unnecessary appendage, her abilities useless to aid Shampoo. She was not used to this feeling of helplessness and it disturbed her greatly.
Kayoko had called her into the pond for a reason, but what that reason was she did not know. All she had done was stand around and watch; something she could just as easily have done from the water's edge. She knew that Kayoko would explain to her why she was in the water, but the wait for that explanation was frustrating.
Just be okay, Shampoo, she thought, looking down into the murky waters. Please be okay.
A small rustling noise caught her ear; she glanced toward its source and blinked in surprise as she saw two rabbits sitting between the trees, calmly looking at her. She watched them for a moment, their black eyes glimmering in the reflected light of the moon, their noses twitching back and forth as if following a scent upon the air.
Rabbits were timid creatures, she knew, and never in her life had she seen one stay so calm and still near a human. She jumped, startled, as she became suddenly aware that the rabbits were not alone; from the shadowed depths of the forests were emerging a wide variety of animals, from birds that settled in upon the many branches circling the pond, to wolves, rats, and dogs. A swarm of insects gathered around the pond, forming a swirling, buzzing halo.
She swallowed, taking a step back as she peered at the multitude of life surrounding her. Predators and prey, animals that were enemies of one another sat quietly together at the forest's edge, each watching her intently, each calm, silent and still.
The moonlight faded, the pale orb swallowed by an enormous cloud bank. The air chilled slightly beneath the cloud's shadow and Ranma shivered, the waist-deep water suddenly feeling warmer by contrast. No, she realised, casting her eyes downward. The water didn't just -feel- warmer, it -was- warmer. Much warmer.
A tiny ball of light burst into existence before her, deep within the water, its shape obscured by the ripples her retreat had left. Bright, white, it was quickly joined by another, and another, each hanging in place for only a moment before slowly gliding toward her. Each left a luminescent trail that glowed white for just a moment before fading to grey, then disappearing entirely.
What on Earth is that, she thought, her mind's voice rising in a panic. She held out one hand to catch one of the tiny glowing specks but it passed effortlessly through her hand, leaving behind nothing but a warm glow upon her skin. Nevertheless she jolted it out of the water, clutching her hand to her chest, cradling it as if injured.
"Ranma. It's time."
The voice startled her; it was loud yet soft, booming yet soothing, and carried a tone she did not recognise. She whirled around to face it, wondering just where it had come from - her question died in her chest as she realised just what the animals were staring at.
The tiny lights she had seen were not alone. Scores of similar lights danced through the water, moving with perfect synchronicity toward the centre of the pond, lining up into a series of concentric rings as they drew closer to Shampoo. Ranma swallowed, her mouth suddenly dry, as her eyes fell upon Kayoko.
Two enormous white wings had sprouted from Kayoko's shoulder blades; they spanned the pond, the iridescent glow of a thousand silver-tipped feathers bathing the clearing in a radiant white light. Kayoko smiled at Ranma, her bright blue eyes seeming to glow with that same brilliant energy as she raised one hand to beckon Ranma closer.
Ranma stepped closer, compelled to answer Kayoko's call, her eyes firmly locked upon those enormous, majestic wings that dwarfed the girl who supported them. A breeze picked up as she stepped closer, circling the pond and setting the perfectly aligned rows of feathers aflutter.
"What ... what the hell?" she asked, her voice whipped away upon the ever-growing wind that circled her. She glanced down at the water again, the surface perfectly calm and still despite the howling wind that twisted atop it.
"Beautiful, isn't it?" Kayoko said, her voice booming effortlessly through the wind. Her hair whipped wildly in the breeze, her wings shook with each gust, but she stood calmly and smiled. "Our children have gathered to see. Even the sky wishes to join us."
"The sky...?" Ranma asked, shielding her eyes from the gale. A bright flash filled the forest for just a moment, illuminating Kayoko's smile as she gestured upward with her eyes. Ranma followed Kayoko's eyes and looked up into the sky; the clouds overhead had grown dark, and from within them an enormous clap of thunder resonated, seeming to shake the very Earth.
"What's going on?!" Ranma cried, rushing toward Kayoko, her hurried wading leaving scattered trails of darkness amid the glowing pool. She came to a stop opposite Kayoko, Shampoo's still body between them. "What's happening?"
"Here they come," Kayoko said, reaching out and snatching one of Ranma's hands with her own. She held it, the palm facing up, and closed her eyes. "Behold, the storm."
Ranma wanted to struggle, to snatch back her hand and demand answers, but somehow she could not. Instead she stood still and watched a single droplet of rain, fat and glowing white, splashed into her palm. She stared, transfixed, as the warm liquid ran across her skin to drip down into the pond below. Another droplet fell, striking her on the cheek; another landed on Kayoko's arm, and before long a downpour of warm, glowing rain had begun, a torrential cascade of water that drenched all three of them.
"What is this?" Ranma asked, bewildered by the warm liquid that gathered in her hand.
"Our gift to this realm," Kayoko replied, leaning closer to Ranma. She squeezed Ranma's hand gently and smiled as glimmering streams of rain ran down her face. "The water holds the essence of life itself. The humans, the animals, all life upon this world arose from this water."
"It's ... alive?" Ranma asked, glancing down at her hand in wonderment. The water felt warm, like the warmth of Satoko's arms as she hugged Ranma goodnight; like the warmth of Shampoo's breath on her neck as they huddled together on a cold night. The warmth encompassed and surrounded her hand, only Kayoko's slender fingers felt cold against her skin.
"It's not alive, it -creates- life," Kayoko said firmly. Stretching her wings, she gracefully curled them around behind Ranma, surrounding the trio in a feathered cocoon. "It grants life to all the people of this world, to the plants and the animals, and now it shall grant life to this girl."
"You mean ... she's ...?" Ranma stammered, glancing down at Shampoo's face. It was so calm, so still, so empty. Was it possible? Could she have been so wrapped up in thought that she did not notice the death of her friend? She felt the hairs on her neck stand on end, a crackling energy filling the air as she swallowed nervously.
"The waters are leaving her, but it's not too late," Kayoko said reassuringly. She closed her wings more tightly, holding the wind at bay and allowing her voice to drop to a whisper. "Even as they seep out of her body, they can be renewed and replenished. Her memories live on within her; through them, so will she. She will live again, born anew."
"I don't understand," Ranma said, bewildered. She watched in wonder as the glow that suffused the water spread to Shampoo's body - a little at a time, spreading slowly until her entire body shone with the same brilliant light. Ranma looked up at Kayoko in amazement, capturing the winged girl's eyes with her own. Within those stormy blue orbs she saw life; the irises moved, the bright blue colour within them glowing brightly and swirling like a liquid. She stared, transfixed, unable to do anything but mouth the question, "How?"
"You and I, Ranma, we are the gatekeepers," Kayoko said, her hair whipping behind her in the increasingly violent wind that circled around the protective shell of her wings. "All life is bound to us. I create life upon this Earth, you return it so that it may rest before being born again. You ask how, and I say that is what we are destined to do. The decision is ours to make. It was not merely me who saved her - it was both of us."
"The decision ..." Ranma whispered, looking down at Shampoo. The Amazon was resplendent in her luminance, a glorious white aura that contained and supported her. Ranma reached down and stroked the girl's forehead - it was warm, and Shampoo's mouth moved slightly, forming the faintest hint of a smile.
"Life, death, the beginning and the end. You know of what I speak, Ranma. In your heart you understand our duty. It is through us that the great wheel turns, that the Balance is maintained in this realm. We are the sole survivors of our race. There was once a great kingdom that governed, but we are all that remains. We hold this world in our hands; that is both our punishment and our reward."
"I ... I don't ...."
"In time you'll understand," Kayoko said, reaching out to gently touch Ranma's cheek. Slowly, the lights faded one by one until darkness was all that remained. Her wings slowly retracted, folding in upon themselves until they were contained behind her back. "Your answers will come with time."
Ranma jumped as, suddenly, the water surrounding her was cold once more. A dim light faded into existence; she cast her eyes upwards and realised that the clouds were gone, the moon was shining once more, and the rain had ceased. Once more, they were alone.
"Ranma, she's waking up."
The voice was Kayoko's - the Kayoko that she remembered, the Kayoko who had held her so tightly in Edo, the Kayoko she had grown up with. Ranma turned to face her and stared; the wings were gone, the radiant smile and luminous glow were nowhere to be seen. She wondered, for just a moment, if it had all been a dream.
"Ugh ...." moaned Shampoo, her voice straining as she struggled with consciousness.
"Keep still, you're going to be fine," Kayoko instructed, supporting Shampoo with both arms.
"Everything is going to be fine," Ranma added, her eyes still on Kayoko even as she spoke to Shampoo. She gave a puzzled look at the Tendo girl before finally turning her eyes to the Amazon. "You're going to be okay."
"Master," Shampoo croaked, partially opening one eye to look at Ranma. She smiled, even though it obviously pained her to do so. "I dreamed about you, Master."
"You did?" Ranma asked, bewildered.
"I was falling into darkness, and you caught me," Shampoo whispered hoarsely. "Thank you, Master."
"Close your eyes, get some sleep," Kayoko instructed, sliding one hand over Shampoo's eyes to close them. "You need to rest. You've had a hard day."
Shampoo offered no argument; she let her eye be closed, and quickly fell into a deep sleep. Her chest rose and fell slowly with her breath; it was shallow, but steady.
Ranma stroked her forehead gently, and let out a sigh of relief. She did not know what she would have done if Shampoo had not survived. The girl was one constant in a world of upheaval, a friend in a world of strangers. Truth be told, she needed Shampoo as much as Shampoo needed her. She held on to Shampoo for a long time, watching her sleep.
"We must leave soon if we are to stay ahead of the betrayer. We'll carry her if we must."
Ranma nodded - she knew it was true. Ukyo would be pursuing them and they could not afford any more delays. She watched as Kayoko waded away, easily carrying Shampoo in both arms.
"'yoko, wait," Ranma called, turning to the Tendo girl, who stopped midway to the edge of the pond. "Did that ... really just happen? Was it real?"
"It was real, Ranma," Kayoko replied with a nod. "I wanted to show you the world you are now a part of. I wanted to share what I know."
"So I'm ... I'm not human."
"You were born human," Kayoko said, turning away and moving once more to the edge of the pond. She gently laid Shampoo's body upon the grass, then hoisted herself up, lifting her own body out of the water with ease.
"But I'm not anymore."
"No," Kayoko said, water dripping from her body as she stepped away from the pond. "You have become something more."