Akane let her feet sink slightly into the waters of the Toyohira River, and sighed gratefully as the soothing water embraced her aching feet with its benignant touch. She smiled in amusement as she watched Ranma deftly hop from foot to foot.
The river's current caught the tiny patches of ice created by her companion's touch and sent them gently drifting downstream toward the ocean. Her own foothold was rather more sturdy; the river itself held her, its current parting around her feet, leaving her standing upon a perfectly still circle of water.
Mt. Moiwa loomed ahead, seeming to tower over them despite its relatively modest five-hundred and thirty-one metre height. It served to mark the edge of the mountainous region to the west and the beginnings of the city of Sapporo to the east. In the winter, the slopes were coated in a thick dusting of light white snow, transforming the green giant into an enormous ski field. Locals and tourists alike tore down the mountainside with reckless abandon as often as the weather conditions would allow it.
Or so Ranma had said.
Their journey from Osaka to Hokkaido had been a long and arduous one, with barely a stop along the way. The past few days, spent trudging around or over mountain after mountain, had been the hardest part of the journey. They had crossed a seemingly-endless string of mountains, although Ranma had repeatedly assured her that the next mountain was the last.
Ranma had talked at great length, recounting the stories Happosai had told her. The old man spoke fondly of the White Illumination and the Snow Festival, celebrations that filled the city with light and cheer during the winter months, warming the temperament of the city despite the chill of the snow.
There was no such snow anywhere to be seen as Akane eyed the southwestern side of the mountain. In fact, the sun had been unusually strong that day, a change from the relatively cool days that had made the trek across Hokkaido a bearable experience.
At least with the sun setting behind them the temperature was dropping as day gave way to a much cooler twilight. There were clouds in the sky, and the telltale prickling of Akane's skin told her it would rain soon. She smiled up at the clouds, coloured a deep red by the alpenglow, and hoped for the shower to begin.
Despite the length and difficulty of the trek, it was not entirely an unpleasant experience. The past three weeks had been a real change of pace as far as Ranma was concerned. Ranma had, following their disastrous attempt at infiltration in Osaka, adopted a more cheery disposition that reminded Akane of the girl she had met in her home so long ago. Similarly, she had felt her own mood lifting, despite the hardships of the journey.
Conversation had flowed more freely between them and Akane had found herself enjoying Ranma's company once more. Ranma had really opened to her, telling her in detail of the times Happosai had brought her to his home in the Shiroishi ward. That was where he was hiding now, Ranma had said, and so that was their destination.
From what she had been told, she had a feeling that she would like the city. She had never been to Hokkaido before, and after their extended separation from civilisation at large, the prospect of seeing a city again had her excited. Other than their overnight sojourn in Osaka, they had studiously avoided populated areas.
I can even call Dad, she thought to herself. It had been a long time since she had been near a phone for long enough to even consider calling anyone. She had wanted to in Osaka, but the urgency of their escape prevented that. She was determined to contact him again now that she had the chance, now that she was in contact with some technology again.
A droplet of water struck her nose, making her blink. It was joined by another, and another, and another, as the skies above opened and a light sprinkling of rain began. She closed her eyes and let out a contented sigh as the liquid ran over her face in tiny rivulets, soothing her muscles.
"Hey, come on," came Ranma's voice. "We can't stop now. This rain is only going to get worse."
"I know, I know," Akane replied, slightly disappointed. Opening her eyes again she glanced to Ranma, who was standing on the far bank of the river. The droplets that fell in the redheaded girl's vicinity hardened into tiny balls of ice, some thudding into the ground around her, others bouncing off the top of her head.
Ranma scowled in annoyance, the dozens of impacts threatening to spoil her previously cheery mood. Akane, berating herself for enjoying the rain when Ranma obviously hated it, stepped easily across the river and joined her companion on solid ground. Despite herself, she couldn't help a smile.
The alarm had sounded twelve minutes prior. As per procedure, Alpha Team had quickly suited up, donning their combat fatigues and body armour. Once their weapons were checked they proceeded to the launch hangar.
Ukyo had never actually entered the launch hangar before; their training simulations had always ended at the doorway to the hangar, where their performance would be assessed. Today, though, was different. This time, the alarm was real.
The hangar was vast, with a startling array of helicopters and what Seraph Wing described as VTOL planes. The AI personality had explained the exploration, infiltration and interdiction roles of the various craft, as well as the expansive structure required to house them several days earlier as part of an overall discussion on the design of the vessel.
Despite the lecture, she found herself staring, open-mouthed, at the one spectacle she did not believe she would ever witness aboard the Leviathan Spring: sunlight.
The ceiling is retractable to allow aircraft launch, and reinforced with ultrastrong materials to prevent pressure implosion whilst underwater, Seraph Wing dutifully explained, before proceeding into its own conjecture. The Leviathan Spring is designed to operate even with this entire hangar flooded, but nevertheless, such an expansive egress in the hull must reduce the vessel's maximum depth by a considerable amount. The ability to launch aircraft must have been deemed a worthy exchange for such a handicap.
I didn't even know we'd surfaced, she replied, shaking her head in wonderment.
I apologise, My Lady, Seraph Wing replied. I should have told you.
The ground beneath them rumbled, as the platform she was standing upon - along with the other members of Alpha Team, Colonel Hunter, a number of ground crew and two transport helicopters - began to rise. A loud whirring sound echoed through the cavern as they were lifted slowly toward the ceiling, the sliver of sunlight growing ever wider above them.
"Several days ago, surveillance operatives reported sightings of Ranma Saotome on the island of Hokkaido. As you may or may not know, the Leviathan Spring was immediately dispatched to investigate these reports," Hunter began. "Our investigation has paid off - fifty minutes ago, Saotome was sighted near the top of Mt. Moiwa, accompanied by an unknown female."
Ukyo's ears prickled at the mention of Ranma's name. They had found her?
Did you know about this?
No, My Lady, Seraph Wing replied. I have no access to classified military systems. This is the first I have heard of it.
"We have been given authorisation to engage Saotome directly. We have to hurry if we're going to take advantage of this situation. This is going to be a fluid operation that will involve both Alpha fireteams, so pay attention," Colonel Hunter called, his booming voice drowning out the insistent whirr of the platform.
"The primary fireteam, henceforth designated Red, will be led by Scar," he continued. "You're going to be the ones on the ground doing the dirty work here."
"Sir," Scar acknowledged with a curt nod of his head. He was, like all of them, fully outfitted in combat gear, his helmet clutched under one arm. The multitude of grenades and ammunition strapped to a bandoleer that ran across his chest gave him an extremely intimidating appearance; one that was reinforced by the determined expression upon his face.
"You will deployed by chopper on the southwestern side of the mountain. From the LZ you are to fan out and surround the targets without arousing their suspicion. You are to provide fire support for Wing, who will subdue Saotome. Eliminating her is the primary objective of this mission, and must be achieved. Her companion is of secondary importance. Once she's been taken care of, the body is to be brought to the Spring for analysis. Any questions?"
"Understood, Sir," Scar confirmed. "No questions, Sir."
"The secondary fireteam, designated Blue, will be led by Fox," Hunter continued. "Your chopper will remain on station to provide backup in case things go awry. You have no fixed objective; instructions will be communicated to you if the need arises. You are not to hit the ground unless directly ordered to do so. Understood?"
"Yes, Sir," Fox - a gravelly voice that called over Ukyo's shoulder - acknowledged. She could see the faces of his team with her spatial sense, Seraph Wing accurately reproducing every detail in her mind, but she did not recognise any of them. The AI dutifully searched personnel databases to fill in the blanks, and filed a note for Ukyo to review their profiles at a later date.
"Bravo Team will remain on standby for the duration of the operation, just in case. They will not be deployed to the field unless the situation demands it. Their two fireteams are designated Gold and Silver."
Ukyo felt her stomach tighten as the platform neared its apex. The sunlight was a deep shade of red, silhouetting the Colonel as the platform slowed to a stop, flush with the top of the hull. Not daring to move but longing to look around, she reached out with her spatial sense and examined the outside world for the first time in far too long.
The Leviathan Spring had surfaced quite some distance off the coast, far enough that the land was little more than a green line on the horizon. It protruded high above the water, its hull rocking back and forth ever so slightly with the ocean swell. Salt air filled her lungs and she took a deep breath, ignoring Seraph Wing's measurements of its moisture content.
The engines of two helicopters churned into life, the rotors' motion kicking up strong gusts of air. She had to admit, it felt good to be outside again.
"This opportunity has been presented to us on a silver platter, ladies and gentlemen," Hunter yelled, over the noise of the choppers. "You are authorised to use any and all force to subdue the target. Do whatever it takes."
The city of Sapporo stretched out as far as the Akane could see. The metropolis sparkled a dozen different colours, a sea of lights glimmering beneath the gentle drizzle that tumbled down from the darkening sky above. With the sun's final light dying behind the mountain, the city had taken on an almost magical glow.
"Oh, wow," Akane breathed. "It's beautiful, Ranma."
"I wanted you to see it," Ranma replied with a smile. Her mood had improved drastically since they had taken shelter from the rain, under a cluster of trees. "I've seen many things in my time, and this view is one of the few I truly treasure."
"I didn't know you had an appreciation for things like this," Akane said, slightly surprised.
"It's strange, you know. I wouldn't have thought that myself, either," Ranma replied contemplatively. "I've never had much respect for the human race as a whole. Over the years I've seen them destroy nature, and themselves, more times than I care to remember. But every once in a while, they remind me that they can create something beautiful."
"It's a nice thought, isn't it?" Akane said. "Humans aren't all bad. I used to be one myself, you know."
Ranma failed to suppress a laugh. "Well, they aren't all bad, I guess."
Akane smiled as Ranma's quiet laughter faded into a companionable silence. They had been sitting together for a few minutes, huddled together near the mountaintop, out of sight of any tourists who may have been about. The mountainside was not as isolated as they might have wished - far from it, in fact.
Ranma had decided to wait until well into the night before proceeding down to the city, and Akane had offered no argument. A rest, and an opportunity to enjoy the view, were both welcome.
Akane chewed her lip thoughtfully, weighing up whether or not to press Ranma further on the lab results they had obtained. She had tried on a couple of occasions to ask about them, but Ranma had steered the conversation away each time with remarkable agility. She knew that pressing harder would likely achieve nothing, so decided against trying again. Hopefully, the answers would present themselves soon.
"Why did Happosai choose to live here?" she asked, breaking the silence.
"I don't know," Ranma replied with a shrug. "He used to travel around a lot, never stayed in one place for very long. I guess he must have just taken a liking to this place. He still travels around - his kind have to - but this is the closest thing he has to a home. I guess he finally realised that he needed one."
"I think I understand how he must have felt."
"Yeah, I suppose you would," Ranma replied, sounding wounded.
"Hey, I didn't mean--"
"I'm sorry for dragging you around Japan like this," Ranma said quietly. She stared out over the city, watching the tiny motions of cars moving along the streets between luminescent streams of street lights. "You used to have a home, a school, friends, everything a girl your age should have. Now, you've just got me."
"And sore feet," Akane added. Ranma grimaced; Akane squeezed her shoulder gently and gave an embarrassed smile. "I'm kidding, Ranma."
"I'm not. I'm sorry, Akane. If I knew another way to protect you ...."
"You've got nothing to be sorry about. My old life was so ... ordinary. I went to school, I studied, I came home, I trained. I've been doing that as long as I can remember. It was boring."
"You know what?" Ranma asked. "I've studied and trained for nearly nine hundred years. I'm stronger, I'm faster, I'm more skilled in battle than anyone else on this planet. My father taught me that being the best was the most important thing in life. I'm supposed to be happy that I'm the best."
"But you're not?"
Ranma shook her head. "If I could, I would trade it all for just one day of an 'ordinary life'," Ranma said with a wan smile. "I'm sorry that I had to take that away from you. I know how valuable it is."
"I never really thought about it like that."
"Being immortal gives you a different perspective on these things," Ranma replied, a smirk creasing her features.
"I've lived ten lifetimes, but I've never really been alive. What kind of life is this, running away day after day? Hiding in the wilderness by myself for nearly a millennium?
"For nine centuries I've watched from a distance. Watched ordinary people living their ordinary lives. They go to work, they go to school, they spend time with their friends and their families and yet none of them truly appreciate what they have. None of them understand how lucky they are, just to be alive."
"They've never known any different."
"You're right. I had a life - a real life, even if it was bizarre by most standards. I know what it means to lose that. I won't let you lose yours."
"Don't worry, I'm not going to," Akane replied, a determined edge to her voice.
"There's that hope of yours again. You should be careful with that."
"Don't give up hope, Ranma," Akane said, after a time. "You never know what will happen. You might get an ordinary life after this is all over."
"I gave up on that thought a long time ago, Akane. That kind of hope is dangerous. Letting go of it is the only thing that's kept me sane," Ranma replied. She gave Akane a sad smile. "No, I've accepted my place in this world. Just as you must accept yours."
"We don't have to accept anything!" Akane replied. "You don't have to be alone anymore. I'll stick with you, and we'll figure this out. We'll find your ordinary life."
"I really would like to believe that. Honestly, I would."
"Then believe it," Akane implored, grasping Ranma's hand. The girl's skin was icy cold, robbing Akane's fingers of sensation, but that didn't matter anymore. "Since the day I met you, you've been telling me to trust you. Now it's your turn to trust me."
"Listen to me. You've been going it alone for nine hundred years. Look how well that's worked out for you. You can hide in the forest for the rest of time, or we can work together and figure out what the hell we're supposed to be doing."
Ranma let out a long, slow sigh. She wanted to run away, to hide and pretend this was not happening. But Akane would not allow that. No, the Tendo girl sat there, staring intently at her with Kayoko's eyes - Gods, those eyes - and she knew it would be useless to resist. She had long known this moment would come; however, she had never imagined it would be so soon.
After Kayoko, she had not dared tell any of the Tendo girls too much. She protected them from danger to the best of her abilities; she did not lead them into it. But ... Akane was different. She had already led Akane into danger at Osaka. It was foolhardy and reckless, but Akane had persevered. Just as Kayoko would have done.
"You're the last of the Tendo line," Ranma insisted, knowing it was futile. "If you die ... I don't know what will happen. I have to protect you."
"I'm going to die one day, Ranma. I'm not immortal. We can try to figure this out before then, or we can wait around to see what happens. I don't know about you, but I don't want to die hiding in the trees. If I'm going to die, I want to die facing these Hunters of yours."
"Damn it, Akane," Ranma sighed. That ferocious tenacity, that unbreakable will; this girl was Kayoko in all but name. "Fine. We'll try it your way."
Your heart rate is too high, My Lady. Try to relax.
Ukyo scowled and wiped sweat from her forehead with the sleeve of her uniform. The heat inside her bulky helmet was positively stifling, and the thick body armour she was forced to wear did not help matters in the slightest. Added to that was the distinct unease of flying for the first time, the dizzying sight of first ocean, then trees, whizzing by the window as the chopper hurtled forward with surprising speed.
Easier said than done, she replied irritably. She had never imagined that her encounter with Ranma would be unfolding in circumstances such as these. Still, the advantages she gained from her alliance with Hunter far outweighed the annoyances. She sighed, and tried to put it out of her mind.
Link has begun receiving GPS telemetry, My Lady. I have opened a connection to her data stream. I'll interpolate the coordinates with your spatial sense.
Global Positioning System. Each member of the fireteam is equipped with a small GPS receiver, which allows for--
Just tell me what it means to me, Seraph Wing.
You shall be aware of the position of your teammates at all times. The knowledge may prove useful.
Thanks, Ukyo replied. She could feel a prickling sensation at the edge of her mind, and became aware of the six others sitting in the helicopter with her. She could also feel the presence of the Leviathan Spring far behind her; somehow she could feel its location, just as she could feel the location of her hands without looking at them. It was a strangely eerie sensation.
"You feeling okay, Wing?"
"What?" Ukyo asked, turning to the source of the voice. Angel, the team medic, was watching her, a curious expression upon her face.
"You okay? You looked a bit out of it there. You've never flown before, have you?"
"No," Ukyo admitted with a shrug. She realised she must have looked strange, silently conversing with Seraph Wing. "I'm fine, though. Just a little lightheaded."
"Okay. Let me know if you feel faint. I can give you something to help."
"Thanks. I'll let you know."
"You'll do fine tonight, I know it," Angel said with a kind smile. "We all know what you're capable of. You have nothing to be worried about."
Ukyo nodded her thanks, then turned to face the window once more. The scenery had faded quickly into darkness, an black sea that stretched out endlessly below. Staring into the darkness was a distinctly unsettling experience - doubly so given what lurked within that darkness.
Where are you hiding, Ranma?
Over the weeks, she had been so caught up in her new circumstances that the impossible had almost happened - she had almost forgotten about Ranma, about her search for vengeance. It was so ingrained into her psyche that she couldn't understand how she could have put it out of her thoughts for so long.
For as long as she could remember, it had been the sole driving force in her life. Follow Ranma. Find Ranma. Kill Ranma. It had been the only reason for her existence. How had it been relegated so easily to the back of her mind?
A sign of the times, I suppose. I've been distracted by ... other things.
Ukyo? Can you hear me?
Ukyo almost jumped out of her seat at the voice. Ryoga? Where are you?
I'm sitting at my desk. I built an encrypted communications subchannel into the Core so I'd be able to talk to you.
The military let you do that?
Actually, they ordered me not to. That's why I had to hide it. Even Seraph Wing can't hear what I'm saying to you, or you to me.
There you go, taking risks for me again, Ukyo said, unable to stop herself from smiling. She gave thanks nobody else on the chopper could see her face. I don't want you getting into trouble on my account.
Let me worry about that. I'll be damned if I'm going to let you go out there after the dragon alone. I'm going to listen in on the mission, provide what support I can. Okay?
Okay, Ukyo replied, still smiling. Thanks. I appreciate the company. Good timing, too. I was just thinking about you.
"So what are we going to do now?"
"I guess our first step should still be to contact Happosai, and see if he knows anything about these test results," Ranma said thoughtfully, withdrawing the small folder from her cloak. Opening it, she flipped though a few pages. "That's our best chance right now."
"Does it make any sense to you at all?" Akane asked, peering over Ranma's shoulder.
"Not really," Ranma replied, holding her hand toward the report. A faint glow emanated from her palm, softly illuminating the pages. "I recognise the names of your ancestors, but that's about it. Gods, I'd almost forgotten there were so many."
Akane scanned over the list of names. It depressed her to recognise none of them besides her own, her mother's, and Kayoko's. Her father had never really talked about her mother's side of the family - now, of course, she knew why.
"You knew all of them?" she asked. "What were they like?"
"Unique," Ranma said. She smiled in reminiscence. "Each was as different as the last. I never knew what to expect."
"Would you tell me about them?" Akane asked. She met Ranma's confused glance with wide, pleading eyes. "We've got some time to kill. I don't know anything about my family, and I want to change that."
"Very well," Ranma replied with a sigh. "Which one do you want to know about?"
"I ... I don't know, any of them," Akane stammered, surprised by Ranma's acquiescence. "Tell me about my great aunt. What was her name?"
"Her name was Kasumi," Ranma replied, closing the folder, a troubled expression taking root upon her face.
"She was a nurse. Kind to a fault, gentle, compassionate. She helped those who needed help," Ranma said, closing her eyes in remembrance. "She was a beautiful girl. She could calm anyone's anger with just a few words, heal the sick with the lightest touch of her fingers. When she smiled, the heavens themselves stopped to stare."
"She sounds like a wonderful person," Akane said, smiling.
"She was. She didn't have an angry thought in her whole life. I've never met a more tolerant or forgiving person, before or since. It's almost ironic. She was the very essence of the Lady of Life, without even knowing it. I didn't get the chance to tell her what she was."
"You mean ...?"
"Yes," Ranma replied with a slow nod. She stared out over the cityscape below. When she spoke, her voice dripped with almost palpable sadness. "Her kindness was her weakness. It made her vulnerable. She did not ... survive for long."
"Gods, that's terrible," Akane whispered, bringing her hands to her mouth. She shook her head in disbelief.
"I ... I didn't let her suffer," Ranma said quietly. She reached out and gingerly placed one arm over Akane's shoulders. "It was ... quick."
Akane sank into silence. She appreciated now why Ranma had told her so little. The few words Ranma had spoken carried so much meaning. The very absence of detail filled her mind with horrific imaginings, a dozen different deaths that her great aunt might have suffered through.
Ranma's face told a story of its own. Akane looked deep into those haunted eyes and thought of Ranma putting Kasumi out of her misery like a wounded animal.
She grimaced at her mind's own creations. If nothing else, she took comfort in the fact that they strengthened her resolve. She would not suffer the same fate as the others. She would be different.
"Thank you for telling me the truth," she said at length. She rested her head gently upon Ranma's shoulder. "I appreciate it."
"I know I haven't exactly been forthcoming with the truth, but you have to understand that it's for your own protection. There are some things you just shouldn't have to know."
"I know, Ranma, but you can't shield me forever. I have to know sooner or later. Please, stop hiding things from me. Protect me if you must, but don't protect me from the truth."
Ranma gave a nod but said nothing, apparently deep in thought. Akane considered saying something to her, but decided against it. Obviously, remembering Kasumi was not a pleasant experience for Ranma.
Instead, she leaned back a little and gazed upwards, toward the sky. The ever-expanding cloud cover hid most of the stars, and those that were visible were little more than faint spots hidden behind the bright light of the city below. Somehow, the city didn't seem so peaceful anymore.
"Akane, there's something I want to tell you," Ranma said at length.
"What is it?"
"It's something I've never told anyone before. It's ... it's about my curse."
"Jusenkyo," Ranma replied, a vague trace of bitter amusement in her voice. Akane gave her a mystified look. "The springs, remember?"
"Oh, I remember," Akane replied, recognition dawning. One more tale amongst the multitude she had been told. She was somewhat relieved by the change of subject. "What about it?"
"Well, it's just that ... I wasn't ...."
"You weren't what?"
Ranma's eyes shot open, and she disappeared in a blur of motion. Akane managed scarcely more than a blink; Ranma was crouched, cat-like, her sword drawn and her head flicking back and forth as she scoured the sky. With the shoulder supporting her gone, Akane fell backwards onto the grass.
"Do you hear that?" Ranma hissed, her voice filled with quiet urgency.
"Hear what?" Akane asked, sitting up.
"Listen!" Ranma instructed. Akane did, straining her ears against the sounds of the forest, but no matter how she tried she could not hear anything out of the ordinary.
"What is it?" she asked. "I don't hear anything."
"Helicopter," Ranma replied. Reaching out, she grabbed Akane's hand and pulled her to her feet. "They must be tracking us. Come on, we have to go!"
Ukyo flipped the goggles down over her eyes and switched them to their night-vision mode. She had been trained in the use of the goggles, but despite that the ingenuity of the technology still amazed her. To be able to see so clearly even in the black of night was an amazing advantage. Just one of many advantages technology had presented her with.
"Red deployment complete. Commencing sweep," Scar's voice said over the radio.
"Roger that, Red. What is your status, Blue?"
"We are coming on station and awaiting orders," came Fox's voice.
"Okay, you guys," Scar said. "You know the drill. I want a wide search. Keep it fast, clean and quiet. If you see anything, report it. We'll flank her and close the trap. We're just here to get Wing within striking distance - that's all. I don't want any heroics. Do not try to engage without backup."
A string of "Roger"s echoed through the radio, one after another, Ukyo adding hers at the end. So, this is it. The hunt is on.
She began her trek up the mountainside, her submachine gun held at the ready, her spatial sense acutely aware of the other six moving alongside her, a line that stretched partway around the mountain's base.
The tension had melted from her body, leaving behind a calm composure that felt hauntingly familiar to her. The technology may have changed, but her body had always been well suited to the hunt. Now she was on the ground instead of stuck in that damnable helicopter, she could really concentrate.
The goggles presented her with a grainy, green-tinged representation of the terrain before her. It was much better than going without the goggles, but it was still hazy enough to allow Ranma to slip through if she wasn't careful.
Her spatial sense was a great help in that regard. She had worked hard to develop it, Seraph Wing an ever-patient tutor as she learned to interpret the signals from the Core. She could feel everything in a large circle around her; the lay of the land, the shapes and positions of trees and bushes; even the fleeting presence of the thousands of raindrops that passed through the air around her every second.
Come on, Ranma. Show me where you're hiding.
Akane pressed herself up against a tree trunk beside Ranma, who was peering over her shoulder into the darkness. She panted, grateful for the momentary respite from their lunatic charge down the mountain.
Thunder rumbled deafeningly overhead and she glanced upwards, wondering just when the thick clouds that dominated the sky had appeared. Only a few minutes earlier the sky had been much clearer. She didn't mind at all; in fact, the sudden rain was strangely comforting.
The gentle drizzle had become a torrential downpour, but Ranma was far too focussed to care about the cascade of frozen water that pelted her body. Akane kept a small distance between herself and Ranma, so the ice would not hit her. While the rain soothed her, the ice most certainly did not.
"Why don't we head into the city?" she whispered.
"No, it's easier to hide out here in the forest," Ranma replied. "Why the hell don't they have any searchlights on that helicopter?"
Akane glanced around, not bothering to answer the rhetorical question. She could not make out much of her surroundings - while her night vision had improved over the months, it was still nowhere near as refined as Ranma's. She felt blind, being led by the hand without any idea of where she was going.
"Damn it," Ranma breathed, frustrated. "Whatever they're doing, we can't afford to stay here. Come on."
"I've got movement," came Angel's voice. "Coming my way, and fast. I need backup. Repeat, I need backup."
"You heard the lady," Scar replied. "Move in and outflank them. Hammer, Anvil, circle around behind them. The rest of you move in from the sides."
"Quickly," Angel added. "Damn, they're moving fast. They're going to be on me in a few seconds."
Ukyo whirled toward Angel and rushed toward her, all thought of stealth forgotten as her feet sloshed noisily in the softening earth. She could feel a vague presence at the edge of her spatial sense: Ranma.
Biokinetic plating online, Seraph Wing reported. Lifeform monitors active. Adrenaline supplements administered. You are ready, My Lady.
Ukyo felt the electric hum of the biokinetic shield as it burst into life around her, filling the air with a crackling energy as it neutralised the many raindrops unfortunate enough to intercept its surface. The hiss of hyper-accelerated evaporation rang in her ears.
Good luck, Ukyo, Ryoga said. Be careful.
It's the dragon that will need luck, she replied as she charged through a group of bushes. Switching her goggles over to infra-red, she saw the red glow of Angel's body heat a fair distance away. Glancing uphill, she saw a tiny shadowy shape moving, a speck of blue far darker than the ambient blue of the forest, heading straight for Angel. Cold. Very cold.
Damn it, she's much too fast. This damned rain is slowing us down. She's going to get to Angel before we can intercept.
Then we must slow her down, My Lady.
"Angel," Ukyo called over the radio, her breath heavy as she clambered over a clump of rocks. "How's your aim?"
"Serviceable," Angel replied, her voice noticeably shaky. "But I've only got a sidearm. That's not even going to make a dragon blink."
"It'll slow her down long enough," Ukyo replied. Her spatial sense told her that she was the closest to Angel, and she was too far away to take a shot. If it wasn't for the thickness of the forest, the difficulty of the terrain, and the damnable mud, she would be able to make it easily. "I need you to hit her. Anywhere will do. Just slow her down, and I'll take it from there."
"I'll see what I can do," Angel replied, sounding completely terrified.
Angel has the lowest marksmanship scores of Alpha Team. She was recruited as a medic. This course of action is extremely risky. You are putting her in danger.
"You'll be okay. I know you can do it," Ukyo replied. Have some faith, Seraph Wing.
Angel lowered herself to one knee, her body shivering as she crouched in the cold mud, hiding herself as best she could. The rain was pouring down, pelting her with intimidating force, almost a solid wall of water. She held her pistol forward, aiming at the rapidly-expanding shape of Ranma.
So much for the Hippocratic oath, she thought as she glanced down at the handgun in her shaky hands. I can't believe I'm doing this.
She was the team medic; she wasn't supposed to be involved in direct combat. She certainly wasn't supposed to go one-on-one with a dragon. The others were supposed to be here. Her teeth chattered noisily despite her best efforts to keep her jaw still.
In this state I'll be lucky to hit the mountain, she thought ruefully. How on Earth did I get myself into this situation?
"Angel," Scar's voice filled her ear. "I'm on my way. Hold on. I'm coming to help."
"The sooner the better," she replied anxiously.
"Blue team, we need some backup! Covering this forest on the ground is a nightmare. Can you get to Angel's location?" Scar asked.
"Negative on that," Fox shouted into the radio, over the howling sound of a raging wind. "The wind shear up here is incredible. We're pulling back, the chopper can't take this kind of punishment. I've never seen anything like it."
They hadn't anticipated the dragon's ability to move so quickly over the rough terrain. That was the problem. The gap between team members was too great to cover the distance in time. They should have deployed two fireteams, not just one.
Of course, the net result of that lack of foresight on the part of the mission planner was that she, the least combat-capable of the team, was facing the most powerful entity on the planet with nothing more than a low-calibre pistol and a field medical kit. She wondered, for a moment, whether the reprimand the planning officer would receive would compare to a confrontation with Ranma Saotome.
The weather didn't help. The mission planner would have reviewed the meteorological situation; why weren't they warned about the storm? The wind howled like a banshee as it circled the mountain, drowning out the voices chattering over the radio. She decided she was better off not knowing what they were saying; no doubt it would only worsen her panic.
The air turned cold around her, turning her breath to mist. The dark shapes emerged near her, a deep blue on her infra-red display. She let out a tiny whimper, not daring to imagine just what she was about to bring down upon herself. Concentrating on her training, she aimed her pistol and smoothly squeezed the trigger, just as she had been taught.
The thunderclap of gunfire took Ranma totally by surprise, as did the searing pain that lanced her shoulder. She knew she had been shot the moment it happened - she had experienced it many times before. If she had been prepared for it, she could have shrugged it off.
But she was not prepared; she could do nothing but grunt as her centre of balance was thrown off, her inertia sending her tumbling into the mud below. Akane's hand slipped from grasp, disappearing into the night. A second gunshot rang in her ears, but it was met with no pain. She was sprawled in the mud, presenting a small target, so it did not surprise her that the second shot missed.
A yelp of pain jolted her out of her daze. Her eyes shot open. It was Akane's voice.
"Akane!" she yelled, twisting her body as her eyes flitted back and forth, seeking out her companion. The sound of a bone snapping from the awkward twist of her body registered dully in the back of her mind, but she paid it no heed. "Akane?!"
A flash of lightning burst over the skies above, casting its light down upon Akane, who stood a short way behind Ranma, staring at her own blood-soaked hand. Blood gushed from an open wound in her hip, a torrent of red liquid spilling into the mud and water below.
"It's so warm," she whispered, wide eyes staring in wonderment. She pitched forward and collapsed into the soft earth. With her fall, so too did the storm collapse - suddenly, utterly and completely.
The wind vanished, the rain ceased, and a deathly silence overtook the forest.
"Akane!" Ranma cried, throwing herself to her feet. A dull pain struck her lower back, pushing her forward slightly. Another struck her in her right shoulder, sending a stream of blood dribbling down her arm. She snarled, whirling around to glimpse her attacker. A bullet thudded into her ribcage, crushing bone and tearing flesh as it passed through her body. Another slammed into a tree trunk to one side of her.
A diminutive figure encased in bulky body armour knelt a few metres away, a still-smoking pistol in its hands, pointed directly at her. The muzzle flashed, and another blow struck Ranma in the stomach. Something inside her gave way; her will, her concern, her self-control. There was no longer any thought for the danger she and Akane were in. No conception of the need to hide. No thought for the lapsing consciousness of her ward. There was only fury, anger, and an undeniable thirst for revenge.
"You ..." she growled, shaking with uncontrollable rage as she slowly advanced toward the figure. She gripped her sword with a bloodied hand, the red stain already frozen to her skin. Her mind bubbled with fury, barely able to contain the tortures she would inflict upon the bastard human who had dared to injure her Akane.
Angel squeezed off round after round into the dragon, taking shaky steps backwards as the shots seemed to have no effect whatsoever upon the creature's advance. For all the good the gun did her, she might as well have been throwing mud.
Stop. Stop. Please stop.
She tried to keep her shots steady, aiming for the centre of mass as she had been instructed, but her aim was not well developed and most of her shots strayed wildly off course. It did not seem to make any difference. No matter where the shots hit, the dragon still came.
Stop, damn you. Stop!
She squeezed the trigger again, only to hear the impotent click of an empty chamber. The quiet sound carried the somber weight of a death knell, the same inevitability.
She had been told stories, fanciful fairytales about the dragons. She had always thought them little more than boastful exaggerations, but as she stared at the advancing figure she realised they were all true. To look into Ranma Saotome's eyes - those empty, infinite orbs - was to stare Death itself in the face.
She had abandoned religion as a child and turned instead to atheism, but in her utter desperation she cried out, to any deity that would listen:
PLEASE HELP ME.
Angel is on the move, My Lady.
On the run, more like it. She must have run out of ammo. Find me the fastest way there, Seraph Wing. Who else is close to her?
I've plotted a course for you, My Lady. Hammer is the second-closest to Angel, but his progress is slow.
Damn it. What's taking him so long?
I do not know. The storm's dissipation should have sped his approach.
Angel's lungs burned with every breath as she forced herself down the mountainside, stumbling over tree roots and sliding down slippery slopes. The dragon was right behind her, drawing ever closer, its presence leeching the warmth out of the air and her body. She was slowing, she knew it; even with so much adrenaline surging through her veins she would not be able to keep up the pace forever.
A stray tree root caught her foot and sent her sprawling into the mud, the impact knocking the wind from her lungs. She slid for fifteen or twenty metres before crashing heavily into a tree trunk. Dazed, she could do little but roll over onto her back and look up at the muddy trail she had left behind her.
Her leg muscles screamed at her, denying her the strength to stand up again. Try as she might, she could not force them to cooperate.
I'm going to die. I'm going to die. I'm going to die.
Her hands flailed about, looking for a weapon, for something to fight off her attacker. It was ludicrous, she knew it, but desperation compelled her to search. It was a futile effort; all she could feel was mud and the tree trunk that had hit her. Clawing at it, she pulled herself up into a sitting position. At least now she was no longer sinking into the bog.
The impact had smashed her goggles beyond repair, so she tossed them aside and reached down for one of the flares she kept attached to her belt. Perhaps one of the others would see it and come to her aid. If nothing else, its light would let her see the face of her killer before she died.
Her hand closed around something small, metallic. Certainly not a flare. The realisation hit her like divine revelation - she carried a spare magazine for her sidearm. In her panic, she had completely overlooked it. Fumbling with her gun, she managed to eject the spent magazine and slam the new one home. She yanked the slide back, released it, and raised the weapon to point at the bushes further uphill.
I'm not out of ammo yet, you demon bastard. Not yet.
It would do no good; she knew that. She knew it would never stop the dragon. But, perhaps it would buy her a few more seconds of life. A few more seconds were worth fighting for. That was all she had left.
She grabbed a flare from her belt, lit it, and tossed it into the mud near her feet. It fizzled for a moment, then burst into brilliant life, its bright red light illuminating the nearby bushes. Perhaps, she thought in a fit of reckless optimism, it might even bring a helicopter to rescue her.
A rustling sound filled the air; she aimed her weapon at the source of the sound and squeezed the trigger. The gunshot echoed over the mountainside, leaving a deafening silence in its wake. Breathing heavily, she swept the gun back and forth over the bushes, looking for any further sign of movement. Shadows danced among the leaves, the flare's bright smoke casting bizarre shapes upon the foliage, but the leaves themselves were still.
Something came flying at her out of the corner of her vision. She turned to it, bringing her pistol to bear, but it was too late. She watched the bushes carefully, eyes keenly searching for motion, but they saw nothing more than the echoes of movement. Whatever had been there was gone.
She reached down to grasp the object that had been thrown, finding its landing place in the mud near her leg. It felt warm, even through the thick gloves she was wearing. Holding it up, she examined it in the flickering red light, and let out a gasp.
It was a bullet. Her bullet. Completely flattened.
Ranma caught sight of her elusive prey, standing between two stout tree trunks. At last, it seemed the desperate retreat had ended, and the soldier had accepted his fate. There could be no escape from the Lord of Death.
Gripping her sword more tightly, she closed upon the soldier. She could almost taste his death upon her lips. The anger burned within her, an inferno in her mind and her heart that pushed all conscious thought aside. There was only revenge.
This foolish human would suffer for what he had done. She raised her sword and leapt at him, her imagination offering up images of the exquisite tortures he would endure, ready for her hands to recreate them.
Except her sword did not make contact. It crashed violently into an invisible wall in front of the soldier, its motion absorbed completely. Arcs of energy sprung up around it, strands of electricity that danced along its surface, holding it back from the soldier's body.
A sound met her ears, a voice that doused the raging fires of anger with a chilling flood of realisation.
"Guess who, Ranma."
Seraph Wing's combat-survival programs went into primary mode, filling Ukyo's mind with information about the location of the strike, its force and direction. Her muscles were instructed exactly how to dodge the attack in the event of the plating's failure, but such precautions were unnecessary, and gleefully ignored. The shield held effortlessly.
"I bet you didn't think you'd see me again, not after what you did last time," Ukyo said, a deep sense of satisfaction dripping from her words as she admired the look of utter shock upon Ranma's face. "Well, I'm here to repay the favour."
"Ukyo?" Ranma asked, the sound more a stunned exclamation of surprise than a question.
"That's right. And here you thought I was a defenseless medic, ready for you to cut up? Wrong. You're not getting anywhere near her."
She thrust a fist toward Ranma; Seraph Wing flooded energy along the Frame fibres in her arms, charging and extending the plating around her hand, expanding it into a globe of energy, an invisible fist. It slammed into Ranma with incredible force, blasting the dragon backwards to crash into a nearby tree. The wood cracked under the force of the impact, a jagged fissure appearing around the base of the tree.
A smile crossed her face as she stepped over toward her foe, who was lying dazed against the splintered wood. The Frame poured energy into her muscles, filling them with boundless strength. She bent and grabbed Ranma by the cloak, lifting the girl with ease, flinging her like a rag doll into the mud. Garyoutensei went flying from Ranma's hands and sank into the heavy mud.
"What ... what are you?" Ranma asked, coughing up a fresh mouthful of blood that immediately froze upon her chin. She struggled against the grip of the muddy bog, reaching with one hand for her mired sword.
"I'm something for you to fear, Ranma," Ukyo replied, stepping on Ranma's wrist. "I'm your equal. I'm not a defenseless human for you to slaughter. You enjoy that, don't you? Killing people who can't fight back?"
Ranma winced in pain as the plating around Ukyo's foot pressed her arm into the sodden soil. She snarled with anger, her efforts to get up held easily in check by Ukyo's newfound strength.
"My mother couldn't fight back, and you killed her. But that's all changed now, hasn't it, Ranma? Now I can fight back, and it's your turn to die. You're not going to murder anyone else."
Ukyo raised her fist, clenching her fingers as she felt Seraph Wing building up an enormous charge in the plating that surrounded her hand. Ranma's eyes widened in startled realisation; they stayed open for only a tiny moment before Ukyo's highly-charged fist came slamming down into her skull.
"Link, contact HQ, inform them of our status," Scar said, slinging his submachine gun across his back as he stepped over to Angel. Kneeling beside her, he reached out and put a hand on each shoulder. "Are you okay?"
"She just ... wouldn't stop," Angel whispered, staring at the broken form of Ranma, laying limp in the mud. "The look in her eyes ... Gods above, I thought I was already dead."
"She's stopped now, and Wing couldn't have done it without you," Scar replied reassuringly. "You did a great job, soldier."
"I'm no soldier," she replied angrily, shaking her shoulders free of his touch. "I'm a doctor! What the hell am I doing with a gun?"
"Defending yourself. She would have killed you without a second thought."
"Sir," called Link. The diminutive girl approached the pair of them, glancing nervously at Ranma's body as she walked. "HQ is requesting we bring the dragon's body back to the Spring. Bravo Team's two choppers are en route to pick us up, ETA three minutes."
"I want Angel on board first," Scar replied, giving her a lingering glance before standing. "Wing - what is the dragon's status?"
"She's dead," Ukyo replied quietly, standing over the body. She tilted her head, looking intently at Ranma's blood-soaked face. "If she doesn't stay that way, I'll just have to kill her again."
"That doesn't fill me with confidence. You're going to ride with her in the second chopper. I'm not putting anyone else near her; we've seen how effective our weapons are against her. Once we get her to the Spring, we can figure out how the hell we're going to dispose of her for good."
"We're three short, sir," Link interjected. "Baker is a hundred metres uphill, but Hammer and Anvil are aboard Blue's chopper already."
"What the hell are they doing there? I thought that chopper had left. Get me the pilot."
"Sorry, sir, I can't raise him. I've already tried, he's not responding. Hammer's transmission to the pilot indicates they requested a pickup to evac a wounded female."
"Damn it," Scar fumed. The familiar sounds of helicopters in flight rumbled over the treetops; he glanced upwards into the sky. He didn't have time to worry about Hammer and Anvil for now.
"The pilots are requesting our evac plan, Sir," Link reported.
"Tell them to get down here ASAP. We're riding in one, Wing and the dragon go in the other."
Scar stepped over to Ukyo, raising his submachine gun to point at Ranma as he drew nearer. "Don't move her until our chopper is in the air. I'm not exposing any of my team to her. Once we're all aboard and our chopper's in the air, then you haul her ass into the second chopper. We'll cover you from the air. Got it?"
Ukyo watched the chopper lift off, its rapidly-spinning rotor sending leaves flying in every direction and buffeting branches around with great force. She shielded her eyes as it rose higher into the air, its bright searchlights filling her vision. Pulling the goggles aside, she looked down at the broken form of Ranma.
I do not detect a heartbeat, or any other vital signs, My Lady.
That doesn't mean anything, Seraph Wing. I don't think she was truly alive before, either.
She sank to her knees alongside her fallen opponent. There was so much she did not understand about the dragon. She had for so long thought of nothing but her revenge. Now her rival, her enemy, the reason for the hunt, lay motionless at her feet. Was that it? Was that all she had been striving for, for so very long? Was that the great confrontation she had anticipated?
She clenched her fist, bringing it up to her face. Seraph Wing had made it so easy. Ranma was totally unprepared, and had fallen within seconds. The only emotion she could conjure was a vague sense of dissatisfaction.
She looked down again, the harsh white light beamed down by the chopper illuminating the area surrounding Ranma's body in complete detail. Ranma herself was still hidden, however; her enormous cloak pooled on the ground, giving the impression that Ranma was little more than a head and a pair of hands protruding from a pit of tar.
Reaching down, she took one of Ranma's hands and lifted it, pulling the forearm free of the cloak's protection. It was pale, cold; the bright light coloured it a sickly white pallor, stained red in places from the plentiful blood that was frozen to the skin. A litany of scars ran along the skin, a testament to many years spent fighting, killing. Each hiding its own story. A thin, snake-like dragon was tattooed from elbow to wrist, many of the scars crossing it.
What secrets are you hiding, Ranma? What exactly are you?
She narrowed her eyes as she ran her hand along Ranma's arm. Would Ryoga be able to study this body? Perhaps he could give her the answers she sought.
The second helicopter has landed, My Lady. It is time.
Please, be careful, Ukyo.
Ukyo stood and turned to look at the second helicopter, shielding her eyes from the searchlight. She could see the pilot, little more than a head encased in a helmet visible through the window, as he gave her a thumbs-up. She nodded to him.
This is unusual, My Lady. I'm receiving a burst transmission. I can't quite pinpoint the point of origin.
"Look out!" Angel's voice screeched in her ear with deafening volume. "The dragon - it's moving!"
No! My Lady, it's--
Ukyo screamed in agony as a searing electric fire burst into her brain, surging down her spine and out into every nerve ending in her body. The white-hot, blinding pain paralysed her as a dozen overload warnings flared inside her mind.
--the Frame shutdown procedure, I can't stop--
It felt to Ukyo as though a switch in her mind was thrown. Her body was disconnected, her sense of the world cast aside. She was vaguely aware of her body, still twitching from the electrical shock, as it toppled helplessly forward into the mud. She felt no impact.
"Get that chopper out of there!" came a voice, muffled and distant. She tried to put together the words, find meaning in the sentence, even to identify who spoke them, but her mind refused to provide her any answers.
Flashes of light filled her mind, the occasional burst from one of her senses; she became aware of the metallic smell of blood, the cold, clammy grip of the mud upon her body. She saw a black shape moving away from her, heard the smashing of glass and the distant, echoing pitter-patter of dozens of gunshots.
One sound came to her addled mind, a voice that spoke with crystal clarity through her fogged consciousness, a voice that penetrated the abyss surrounding her.
It was Ryoga, calling her name.