Link activated the helicopter's external sensors, her fingers gliding efficiently over the control pad as she quickly brought several systems online. The screen flickered to life, showing a blue-tinted representation of the forest area directly below them. Between the heavy noise of the chopper's rotors turning overhead and the concentration required to monitor the wide array of sensors, it was several moments until she realised Scar was talking to her.
"Sir?" she asked, without looking up.
"Progress report!" Scar shouted, his voice drowned out by the roar of air surging through the vehicle.
Baker had opened the door and was leaning out into the morning sun, sweeping his gun back and forth as he peered down into the forest. Despite the wide selection of sensor equipment aboard the chopper he insisted on searching with his own eyes. The net effect was a deafening gale that drowned out all but the loudest of speech.
"Sensors online, Sir. No sign of activity below."
"Keep searching," Scar instructed. "She's down there somewhere. There's a lot of ground to cover, and we might not have much time to do it. With Bravo out looking for Blue's chopper we're all Wing has, so let's get to it."
"I hope Ukyo's alright," Angel said, peering over Link's shoulder to view the monitor. "I hope that monster hasn't hurt her."
"Acknowledged, Sir," Link replied, giving Angel a small nod as she added, "I'll find her."
Ever since the incident, Angel had been an emotional wreck. Link supposed she would have felt the same if she had been in the same situation. She was slightly concerned about the attachment Angel seemed to have formed to Wing since the incident, but tried not to dwell on it too much. There would be time to talk to Angel later, after the mission.
A dozen warnings flared wildly inside Ukyo's skull, each more urgent than the last. Blood pressure, oxygen levels, heart rate, each running dangerously low as Ranma's icy grip upon her throat threatened to squeeze the very life out of her. Two piercing blue eyes stared directly into hers, seeming to see into her as she swam at the very edge of consciousness. She tried to move, to struggle, to do anything but look into those eyes, but her body was held in thrall.
"Where. Is. She?"
Where is who? What the hell are you talking about, you crazy bitch? Who? How can I tell you if I don't know?!
"Who?" she croaked, using all of her strength to force the word through her compacted windpipe. All of the outrage she felt, all of the fear and the anger, summed up in one word.
She felt her body move away from the tree, only to be slammed powerfully back into it. She felt a faint awareness of the vibration running through the tree trunk, but felt no pain in her own body. It simply hung limply, a rag doll unable to move of its own accord.
Green leaves, shaken loose by the impact, drifted gently down toward the earth below. Those unlucky enough to fall too near to Ranma shriveled and died, green turning to brown as they curled and crumbled, dissolving into tiny pieces in midair.
"Akane. Tell me where you've taken my Akane!"
The air was thick with the stench of death. She could feel her body growing cold, a profound numbness that was spreading from her fingers and toes, creeping ever closer to her heart. She was losing the fight, she could feel it.
Who the hell is Akane?
Ranma's hands tightened; Ukyo could feel her veins throbbing weakly against their vicelike grip, growing weaker with each passing beat. Her eyelids grew heavier, and she could feel them closing. The darkness surrounded her, sweeping the world away with its deceptively soothing touch.
Something happened then that she did not expect. The leaves stopped falling, instead hanging suspended in midair. The icy chill of Ranma's breath faded to nothing. The faint beating of her heart stopped. All was motionless. She tried to move her eyes, to blink, but she was utterly immobile.
My Lady, can you hear me?
I can hear you. I don't understand ... am I dead?
No, My Lady. I am communicating with you on a high-frequency channel that operates at a much higher speed than most normal brain functions. Using this method we are able to transmit tens of thousands of messages per second.
I ... I don't ... why has everything stopped?
Nothing has stopped, My Lady. You are merely perceiving the world at a much faster rate. That is why you cannot move your eyes. They are moving; but they are moving very slowly.
So I'm still alive.
Yes, My Lady. I suggest that we take steps to ensure you remain so. Listen carefully; we do not have much time.
I ... I'm listening. Tell me how to get out of this.
My tactical analysis of the situation is complete. Without the Frame there is no way for you to overcome Ranma. At this rate, your brain will be starved of oxygen in thirty-seven seconds and you will die. My analysis suggests only one possible means of survival.
Which is what?
Reason with her, My Lady. She is requesting the location of this 'Akane' person. Tell her you know where Akane is. Tell her you will lead her to Akane. If she believes you have information that can assist her, she will cease her attack.
But I don't know anything about Akane! I don't even know who she is.
I suggest we cross that bridge when we come to it, My Lady. It will almost certainly be further in the future than thirty-seven seconds. Once the Frame is repaired, our position will be much stronger.
As quickly as it had stopped, the world moved again. The leaves that were held suspended flitted effortlessly to the ground, skimming along the dried mud as the wind pushed them. The pressure around her throat resumed, her lungs struggled for breath, and at last her heart beat once more.
"Okay ... okay," she managed, choking the words through clenched teeth. The deathgrip upon her throat loosened, and precious air flooded down her throat and into her lungs. She coughed, choking on the sudden abundance of oxygen, and struggled to speak. "I'll tell you."
"Where is she?!" Ranma demanded.
"I can ... I can show you where she is."
Ryoga wiped his forehead, surprised at the humidity of the air. The hiss of the door behind him also sealed him off from the cooler, air-conditioned air he was used to. A thin sweat began forming on his brow almost immediately; reaching up, he wiped his forehead with the sleeve of his lab coat.
Hot in here, he thought to himself. Dark, too. Perhaps Akane is sleeping?
The room was, fortunately, not pitch black. A dull red light strip overhead hummed quietly as it bathed the room in a faint, ruddy glow that reminded him of a photographic darkroom. On the other side of the room he could see the outline of Akane, laying beneath a thick blanket on the bed.
Her arms rested atop the blanket, a thick leather strap tied over each wrist. An intravenous drip hung suspended from a pole next to the bed, clear liquid running down a tube connected to her left forearm. He swallowed, and stepped closer. Her eyes were half-open but glassy, gazing dreamily off into space. Emboldened by her lack of movement he stepped forward again, and again she did not notice.
Whatever they sedated her with, it seems to be working, he thought. But why are her eyes open?
He was supposed to be conducting an initial assessment for Seraph Wing suitability, as they had with the headless Ukyo, but for the moment he merely wanted to see what this Akane looked like. He had always been told that there were two immortals; the dragon, and the dragon hunter. Ranma was the dragon, Ukyo was the dragon hunter. What did that make Akane?
Coming to the side of her bed, he looked her up and down. She certainly looked normal enough; little more than a teenage girl. But then, appearances could be deceptive. Ukyo looked like a normal teenage girl, as did Ranma, and they were anything but normal.
Even with such thoughts in his mind, it was hard to imagine Akane as anything but a quiet, peaceful girl, laying dozily upon her bed. Her head lolled slightly to one side, her cheek pressing against the abundant hair that covered her pillow.
"My name is Ryoga," he said. "I'm here to examine you. Can you hear me?"
Something unusual caught his eye. The hair beneath Akane's face was changing colour. It was difficult to make out beneath the red light, but it was definitely changing colour. A slightly lighter shade of black - he guessed it was blue, without the red tinge of the light - was silently running down the strands, oozing along her hair slowly, but surely.
What the hell is that?
He'd almost overlooked it; the crimson lighting had almost hidden it from his view entirely. The more he stared, however, the more obvious it became. Almost without realising it, he had leaned over her bed to get a better view.
He jolted upright as he felt Akane's hand surge forward, wrapping itself around his wrist in a solid grip. Panicking, he yanked his arm away as hard as he could, but her hold would not yield.
His wide eyes shot to her face, his panic rising as he saw a tiny smile on lips that had a moment ago been neutral. He looked into her eyes, those deep blue orbs, and let out a gasp. Within them there was a faint white glow, purest alabaster, that defied his efforts to look away. He could feel those eyes upon him, within him, sucking him in, wrapping their gaze around him.
Akane lay face-up in a pool of hot silvery water, a tranquil, rock-bound pond that held her easily afloat. The air around the pool was cold, her surroundings masked by a thick, impenetrable fog. There was no noise save for the sound of a small waterfall, more of the white water tumbling over the edge to renew the pond. Wispy clouds of steam rose from the base of the waterfall, drifting off to join the fog encircling her.
She stretched out, weightless, suspended in the wonderful, soothing liquid. She could not remember ever feeling so relaxed, so centred and at peace. The very touch of the water on her naked skin rejuvenated her, filling her with its delightful heat and easing the pain from her muscles. She let out a long, slow sigh and closed her eyes. The water seemed to wash away her cares and worries, leaving behind only contentment.
This place is wonderful.
The vague question of just where 'this place' was drifted lazily across the fringes of her consciousness but was ignored, unwelcome in a mind filled with the delicate pleasure of the water pouring onto and over her. Stretching her arms out overhead she let out a long, slow, happy yawn. She had been on her feet for so long in the mud and the rain that she had forgotten what a soft, warm resting place felt like.
A faint hum caught her ears, and she opened her eyes to see where it was coming from. A multitude of tiny lights buzzed back and forth through the fog around her, flitting to and fro like fireflies. Even through the thick fog the tiny pinpricks of light shone through, tinting the fog itself white with diffuse light.
"Wow," Akane murmured, entranced by the delicate sway of the lights, each moving independently but somehow bound together, ebbing back and forth through the fog, a luminescent ocean swell. "They're beautiful."
All around her the lights swam, a galaxy of stars dancing to some unknown beat, twisting and swirling around each other with boundless energy. One of them pulled away, bursting through the fog to speed away from it and toward Akane.
She watched closely as it floated toward her in a gentle arc, glimmering with a bright glow that was no longer obscured by the fog. The thought that it might be dangerous flitted across her mind, moving as quickly as the pixyish ball of light before her. The thought was quickly dismissed; this creature was playful, not malevolent. It did not slow as it neared her, but instead veered off its trajectory and began to zip to and fro around her head, zigging and zagging seemingly at random.
The tiny sprite danced around her, skimming occasionally across her skin with a touch that was warm and ticklish. Akane found herself giggling as the little nymph sped across her shoulders and through her hair, sending droplets of water flying as strands were knocked up into the air.
Come back here, she thought to herself, squirming at the ticklish touch. One hand raised to try and catch the little creature, but it was speedy and nimble, her hand seeming slow and clumsy by comparison. Determined, she made swipe after swipe, trying to snatch the mischievous little being from the air.
Patience, or perhaps good fortune, paid off; after several misguided attempts, she managed to snag it, caging it between her fingers and the palm of her hand. Delighted, she let out a cry of triumph.
The creature buzzed back and forth, banging against the walls of its cage, but it could not escape. Akane raised her hand toward her face, peeking in between her spread fingers to look closely at the nymph. It shone brightly, thick shafts of white light radiating through the gaps between her fingers.
She stared closely, watching the tiny movements it made as it buzzed back and forth. A small dark patch marked one side, a shadow lurking within the alabaster radiance. She frowned, and made soothing sounds.
"You're hurt, aren't you, little guy?"
"Let me go!" Ryoga yelled, tugging against Akane's hand. Little guy? What the hell was she talking about? This girl was insane!
"Maybe this'll help you feel better, hmm?" she said, in that same distant tone - almost an echo rather than a voice. She smiled, her eyes still locked directly upon his. "Just relax."
Ryoga considered yelling for help - he had no idea why he had not done so already - but for some reason he couldn't bring himself to. There was something about the look on her face - something about the light that shone within her eyes that felt intensely familiar to him, almost soothing. A warmth spread up his arm, and his struggles slowed.
A droplet of water struck his cheek, making him flinch. He glanced upwards, and his jaw fell open. What the hell is that?
Akane smiled intently at the little creature as she lowered her hand into the milky water, submerging it partway. It splashed furiously into and out of the water, tickling the palm of her hand delightfully as it danced about.
"Hey, calm down!" she said through her laughter, wriggling her fingers at the ticklish sensations. "You'll hurt yourself!"
As if on cue, the creature slowed and eventually came to a stop, resting peacefully upon the water's surface. She lowered her head, dipping her chin into the water, and watched it closely, her smile growing wider. It felt wonderful to be helping the creature; there was something so innately right about it that she could not stop smiling.
She wondered for a moment why she had thought to bathe the creature, but could not quite put her finger upon it. Whatever it was, it was right. The water seemed to be just the thing her new friend needed.
"It's nothing that a nice warm bath won't fix. You'll be better in no time!"
"A bath," Ryoga muttered, staring incredulously at the heavy, water-laden rainclouds that had formed overhead, hovering just beneath the ceiling. The room's red light danced among the clouds, illuminating the first few fat droplets of rain as they began to tumble down to the floor. "You call this a bath?"
Before he could say another word, the clouds opened, casting down a torrent of water. He went from dry to drenched in a matter of moments. The rain was not cold, as he had expected, however; the droplets were warm to the touch, almost hot. The many puddles that had formed across the floor let off trails of steam that snaked up to rejoin the cloud overhead. Before long, the room resembled a sauna.
Still firmly secured, Ryoga could do little but watch the rain fall. He knew that this was impossible, that it could not be happening, and yet it was, before his very eyes. He shook his head in wonderment, and let the warm liquid wash over his face. What else could he do?
At least he didn't seem to be in any danger. Far from it - the water's warmth radiated a sense of security, of sanctuary. Even standing in a restricted security zone, in the bowels of a classified submarine, next to a potentially dangerous, regenerative lifeform, he felt somehow safe.
"If I'd known this was going to happen, I would have brought an umbrella," he decided, finally overcome by the absurdity of it all. Closing his eyes, he let the warmth soak into him.
"Hey, you're looking as good as new!" Akane announced, delighted with the progress her friend had made. The newfound brilliance of its glow made her realise just how faded it had been only moments ago. The darkness was gone, the shadow banished.
Slowly and carefully, she lifted her hand from the water, gave her friend one final smile, and opened her hand. The tiny sprite immediately jumped to life, buzzing from her hand and into the air. It hovered there for just a moment before lowering down once more to touch her palm. There it stayed for just a moment, before zipping away from her to rejoin the others in the fog.
She sat up, shivering a little as the cold air touched her bare skin, and smiled as she watched her friend return to its brethren.
Ryoga jumped as his arm was released, realising suddenly how dizzy he felt. He staggered backwards, struggling to maintain his balance, his blurred vision unable to find a reference point amongst the rain. His head spun, flashes of colour spinning in front of his eyes.
His arms wheeled, looking for support but finding none. His cane was long forgotten, and his hands could not find purchase to support him. He felt his body tipping backwards, and a faint sense of dread penetrated the euphoric anaesthesia that had spread through his mind. Something struck his back, or rather, was struck by his back; a small, collapsible table had fallen under his weight, sending equipment flying through the air to crash to the ground below. The table clattered to the ground nearby.
The impact was much softer than he expected; in fact, he barely felt a thing. There was a splash, he knew that much. He gave momentary thanks that he had not fallen face-down into a puddle. He stared up at the ceiling, unable to move, but thankful for the support of the floor. If nothing else, it allowed him to fight off the debilitating dizziness that had afflicted him.
The rainclouds remained overhead, still drenching him with rain, a thousand kaleidoscopic droplets hurtling toward his face. Among them, though, was a large white shape. Puzzled, Ryoga willed his eyes to focus upon it as it drifted down toward him.
With considerable reluctance his eyes obeyed, pulling the fuzzy white shape into sharp relief. He could only hold it in focus for a moment, but it was long enough to recognise it for what it was: a single white feather, floating gently downwards toward him.
Moments later, unconsciousness took him.
Ukyo stepped forward carefully, keenly aware of the sword-tip pressing firmly against her neck. She stumbled on a rock, and felt the weapon press deeper, penetrating her skin. She fought the instinct to flinch.
My Lady, Ranma's weapon is pointed directly at a critical Core juncture located between your third and fourth cervical vertebrae. If this juncture is damaged, the Core will cease to function correctly, to say nothing of the harm such damage will do to your body. I recommend extreme caution.
I don't need you to tell me how dangerous it is to have someone point a sword at your neck, Ukyo groused. How much longer is the Frame repair going to take-
Fifty-seven minutes and twenty-three seconds remain, My Lady.
I don't know if I can string Ranma along for another hour. She's no fool. She's starting to get suspicious.
Yes, My Lady.
The march downhill continued, the trees and foliage growing steadily less dense with each footstep. The ground grew muddier and more boglike as the slope lessened, a night's worth of rain having collected near the base of the mountain. Sunlight broke through the trees, and the sound of running water met her ears as she stepped out into a grassy area beyond the forest's edge.
Before her the Toyohira River flowed, its clear waters running rapidly by. The flow was turbulent, the river's banks swelled by the recent downpour of rain. Ukyo stepped to the water's edge and looked down at the pebble-lined riverbed.
Damn it. I'm running out of places to lead her, she said, turning to lead Ranma along the riverbank, following the flow of the water.
"You're stalling for time."
"No, I'm not."
"She's been hurt, hasn't she?"
"No, she hasn't. We're getting close now," Ukyo bluffed. "We're nearly there."
"I hope for your sake that you're not lying," Ranma growled, accompanying her words with a prod of her sword. "Akane is the only thing in this world that matters to me. She is this world to me. If you have harmed my world, then I'll destroy yours, along with all of your precious Phoenix friends."
"What?" Ukyo said, Ranma's words holding her in place. The cold touch of the blade to her neck stopped her from turning. "Destroy my world? What are you saying?"
"They've been hunting me for centuries, just like you. You're not like them, though. I can see their souls; I can destroy them. But you, you hide your soul. When I cut you with my sword I cut your flesh, but not your spirit. But now, you are wearing the uniform of a Phoenix soldier. Now, things are different. You're working together. You're one of them."
What the hell is she saying? Ukyo asked. How can I have been hunting her for centuries? I'm only ... only ....
Gods, I don't even know how old I am.
Your physical condition is that of an eighteen-year-old, My Lady.
I don't think I'm eighteen. I survived having my head cut off, but I don't remember much of anything before that. I could be ten thousand years old and not know it.
Speculation and nothing more, My Lady.
"The Phoenix soldiers are weak. The slightest touch of my sword makes them burn. But you, you are different. You are strong," Ranma said. She fell silent for a moment before speaking, her voice quiet. "They know I can't kill you. And now, they are using you to get to me."
"What are you saying?"
"Gods, it all makes sense," Ranma continued. "You don't have Akane. They have her. They took her, while I was fighting you. You're just a distraction."
She is becoming increasingly agitated, My Lady. You must calm her.
I want to know what she's saying. She seems to know much more about me and what's going on than I do.
To allow her to continue is an unacceptable risk. She may grow violent. I suggest you continue this conversation at a more prudent time.
A more prudent time?
When you do not have a sword at your neck, My Lady.
"If they've harmed her, I will hunt down every single one of those Phoenix bastards, and then I will come for you," Ranma growled. "You may be immortal, but I will find a way to make your soul burn, even if it takes an eternity."
I see what you mean, Seraph Wing, Ukyo said. She thought for a moment. How long will it take to repair the radio? I've got an idea.
Your communication array is much more sophisticated than a mere radio, My Lady. Nevertheless, I estimate it could be repaired in approximately fifty-three seconds by the primary repair modules.
Do it. Get it up and running again.
This will delay the Frame repairs, My Lady. I strongly advise against such a course of action.
Just get on with it. I have a plan.
As you wish, My Lady. Might I enquire as to the nature of your plan?
"You're right," Ukyo called over her shoulder. "You're right. I don't have Akane. They took her."
Ranma's arm grabbed her shoulder. She felt herself being pulled back, and the cold touch of Ranma's blade upon her throat. "Tell me where they took her. Now."
"Submarine ... there's a submarine," she said, trying to keep still as Ranma's arm moved across her chest, holding her tightly. "The Leviathan Spring. She was taken there."
What are you doing? Seraph Wing demanded. This is a mistake!
Our mission was to return Ranma to the Spring, yes? Ukyo countered. This way, she'll come without a fight. There are facilities aboard the Spring to deal with her, aren't there?
Yes, but revealing the location of the Spring is not a wise tactical decision. If she knows the location of the Spring, it becomes vulnerable. There are many people aboard. What if she were to attack it?
She won't. Not if she thinks Akane is aboard. Once we're at the Spring, we can contain her. I'll get Seriatim and cut her in two. I'll kill her, somehow.
I will attempt to find a less risky solution.
No. Show some faith, Seraph Wing.
As you wish, My Lady, Seraph Wing replied, complete with digitised sigh.
"Where is it?" Ranma asked, tightening her arm's grip.
"It's out at sea," Ukyo replied. "You'll have to take a helicopter to get there."
The repairs are complete, My Lady. Please, be careful.
Ranma fell silent for a moment before speaking. "Your new friends have many helicopters. Bring one, and we'll find out if you're telling the truth."
Scar looked over Baker's shoulder as the helicopter moved in a slow circle above the trees. They had been hovering around the mountain for several minutes, but had so far found nothing besides a flock of frightened birds. Each of his team members was searching in their own way; himself and Baker looking directly down at the ground, Angel and Link huddled around the sensor monitoring equipment at the rear of the chopper.
"Sir! I'm getting a signal!"
"What?" Scar replied, jolted to attention. "From where?"
"From Wing, Sir," Link replied. She tapped at the console with one hand, the other holding her headphones tight against one ear. "It's weak. Seems like it originated a couple of klicks south."
"South. Take this bird south," Scar called to the pilot. "What kind of signal is it?"
"Radio, Sir. Encoded with our standard algorithm. It's pretty garbled - I can't quite make it out. Give me a second, I'll see if I can clear it up."
"She's alive!" Angel exclaimed, delighted. She reached over and shook Baker's shoulder. "Hey, shut the door!"
"What?" asked Baker, pulling the door closed behind him as he turned to Angel. "What'd you say?"
"We've found her," Angel replied, beaming. "We've found her!"
"I've tidied up the signal," Link said. "I'll patch it through to your earpieces. It's still pretty weak, so listen closely."
Scar nodded his acknowledgement and raised one hand to his head, holding the earpiece tightly to his ear. The others aboard the helicopter did the same, each struggling to hear the faint sound.
"Repeat, this is Wing, requesting immediate assistance. Please respond."
"Wing, good to hear from you," Scar replied, intense relief washing over him. He let out a long breath. "You had us worried there for a while."
"None other," he replied. He gave the others in the helicopter a determined look, and found it mirrored in their faces. "We're coming to get you. Just hang in there."
"Stop? Why?" Angel interrupted.
"Angel? Damn it, I didn't want to get you involved in this again. Is the whole team there?"
"Almost," Scar replied, glancing to the two empty seats on the far side of the chopper. "Why should we stop?"
"Listen to me very carefully. I'm not alone. Ranma is holding me hostage."
"What? Are you hurt, Ukyo?" Angel asked.
"No. No, I'm not hurt, but Ranma is demanding passage to the Leviathan Spring. Are there any other choppers nearby? I need an empty chopper to transport her."
"I'll check," Scar replied, and signaled for Link to cut the microphone. She nodded and complied. He sighed. "Damn it. We're the only team in town."
"We're the only chopper in this area," Link confirmed, examining the monitor closely. "Bravo's choppers are searching for survivors from Blue, and the remainder of the helicopters were damaged in our initial skirmish."
Scar rubbed his forehead, sweat staining his gloves. "Well, that leaves us with only one option."
He cast his eyes around the chopper, silently asking each of the others the same question. Baker and Link glanced at each other - Link looked terrified; Baker resolute. They both nodded their assent. Scar turned his eyes to Angel.
"She saved my life," Angel said firmly. "I'm not leaving without her."
"All right, we're in agreement. We'll pick her up ourselves."
A hushed murmur moved through the cabin, accompanied by furtive glances filled with questions. Scar sighed and rubbed the back of his head.
"I know we didn't plan for this, but we have to adapt as best we can. This is going to be a very delicate situation that could get really ugly really quickly, so let's try to keep our cool. If we get her to the Spring without incident we can contain her there, when we're not quite so cramped. Keep that in mind. We only have to get her to the Spring."
Wing, we can confirm we have a chopper inbound to your location, ETA two minutes, came Link's voice.
Roger, Ukyo replied, the communications array implanted at the base of her skull converting the thought patterns into radio waves, transmitting her response. I'll be waiting.
"A chopper is on its way," she said, the sharp blade against her neck preventing her from turning her head. "They'll be here any minute to pick us up."
"All without saying a word," Ranma replied, her frozen breath washing over Ukyo's ear. "Amazing what they've done to you with their technology, Ukyo. Phoenix has certainly advanced over the years. They've come a long way since the rabble of idiotic, drunken mercenaries that held you hostage all those centuries ago, don't you agree?"
Ukyo felt her chest tightening, Ranma's words ringing in her ears. "What? What are you talking about?"
"Oh, you don't remember?" Ranma replied sardonically. "I really shouldn't have saved your life that day. It was Shampoo's idea - she didn't know any better. I did consider simply leaving you with them, I must admit, but you looked so innocent. I was naive in those days. I never imagined you would end up working for them."
"I don't know what you're talking about!"
"I'm surprised you've forgotten," Ranma continued, her voice growing quiet. She leaned in closer, soft lips brushing against Ukyo's skin. When she spoke, her words were empty, devoid of emotion and life. "I haven't forgotten. I remember saving your life. I remember your lies, I remember you pretending to be my friend. I remember your betrayal. And, most of all, I remember what you did to Kayoko."
Ukyo swallowed, painfully aware of Ranma's sword at her throat. She felt her palms sweating and a strange, sickly feeling spreading through her stomach. She had no idea what Ranma was talking about, and yet there was a strange familiarity to the words ....
"I will punish you until the end of time for what you did to her. You'll die, again and again and again, until death itself is no more," Ranma whispered icily, her words trailing into silence. The sound of her breath filled Ukyo's ear.
Ukyo struggled against Ranma's grip, but the hold was solid, leaving her no leeway. The slippery, opalescent material of Ranma's cloak flowed around her, coiling around her legs, tightly restraining her from her ankles to her hips. The intangible sense of Ranma's presence expanded, a profound sense of emptiness that engulfed her. She felt a dark presence growing behind her, a perception infinitely more vivid than her spatial sense.
"But that's nothing compared to what I'll do to you if they've hurt my Akane," Ranma giggled, a sound filled with manic malevolence. Slowly, she ran her tongue along the edge of Ukyo's ear, and sucked lightly at the lobe. "The others will just die, but you, I'll make you suffer. Gods, you will suffer."
Ukyo shuddered, the tingling sensation of Ranma's frozen tongue sliding moistly against her skin both repulsive and exhilarating at the same time. She closed her eyes, trying to shield herself from the profound coldness that emanated from her captor, but despite herself she could feel her strength ebbing as Ranma's vampiric touch once again leached the warmth from her body.
Gods, what is she doing to me?
"You'll suffer for me," Ranma whispered, her voice changing, becoming deep, echoing within itself. Her words carried an ethereal gravity, demanding Ukyo's attention, her obedience. Their noses touched, their faces pressed together. Ukyo felt the muscles in Ranma's cheek move as she smiled. "You'll suffer in ways you can't imagine, in ways that only the immortal can."
Part of her cried out for mercy, urging her to give in, to surrender to the arctic embrace that held her. Her knees gave way and she fell back onto Ranma's chest, her head lolling onto Ranma's shoulder as frosted kisses trailed down the bare skin of her neck, each sapping her resolve more than the last. Through the spreading numbness she could feel Ranma's hand upon her body, touching her, constraining her. She hung limply, unable to resist.
Death shall be your lover, whispered a voice inside her mind. And you the faithful servant, dying for Ranma, for the rest of time. Bound together for all eternity, just as it should be. This is where you belong. Can't you feel it?
The voice echoed inside her mind, hypnotic, entreating her with its lyrical tone. The haunting words penetrated her body and her mind, compelling her with a will that would not be denied.
Your debt can never be paid. You are mine.
"Nooooo ...." she moaned, a keening wail that died in her throat. Hot tears streamed down her cheeks, their heat hungrily devoured by Ranma's mouth as it caressed her skin. She felt herself surrendering, her mind and her body giving way to the dark, cold void that was consuming her. As it closed around her, one final thought crossed her lips, a faint, whispered cry. "Ryoga ... forgive me ...."
You belong to me, Ukyo. Just ... like ... Ranma.
She panted, the pounding beat of her heart deafening in her ears. Her eyes opened, the bright light of the sun illuminating the pale skin of Ranma's neck, lending it an almost translucent glow. Try as she might to stay still, she found her head tilting toward that porcelain skin, felt the gentle touch of her lips pressing against it.
Yes, whispered the voice, tendrils snaking into her mind. You both want this. I can feel it. Ranma understands, and so shall you.
Even as a drawn-out cry of anguish echoed in the edges of Ukyo's mind, a small smile spread across her face. She could no longer deny the need growing inside her; she nuzzled Ranma's neck, her shallow breath catching in her throat as her show of affection was rewarded, Ranma's hand slowly--
Heads up, here we come!
Both Ukyo and Ranma jolted at the sound of Scar's voice within Ukyo's mind, the cloak leaping from Ukyo's body and retreating to the ground, its departure far more rapid than its insidious arrival. They both snapped to attention, startled, as if jarred from a dream. Her head swam; she shook it, gulping down oxygen as she tried to pull herself from the remnants of Ranma's lustful hold.
"Let me go!" she yelled, willing her body to move. It did not obey, leaving her sprawled across Ranma. Ranma breathed heavily as well, and Ukyo felt her captor's head moving, seemingly glancing around them. Ranma's grip loosened slightly, but Ukyo was too disoriented to take advantage of the momentary lapse.
She felt herself being shoved forwards, leaving the swell of Ranma's chest behind as she swayed back and forth upon her own feet. A moment of silence passed between them.
Come in, Wing. Do you copy?
"Akane. I need to see Akane," Ranma said after a time, in a small, shaky voice that was her own. She took a deep breath and shook her head back and forth. A touch of hardness returned to her voice. "Take me to Akane."
Ukyo felt the grip of Ranma's arm grow tight around her shoulders. She raised one hand to her stomach and clutched it, lowering her head slightly, ignoring the bite of the blade at her neck as it sliced a tiny line across her skin. She dizzily looked down at her own shaking hand and saw the ground beyond it circling hazily, out of focus.
The approaching helicopter kicked up gusts of dust and air, sending dry leaves flying around the pair as the sounds of its rotors grew ever louder. She touched her stomach queasily, feeling very much as though her legs were about to give way.
My Lady, what happened? Seraph Wing asked. I could not sense your presence. Are you alright?
I don't know, Ukyo replied, fighting back nausea. I felt ... I feel sick.
Ryoga's eyes snapped open. Wide awake, his gaze zipped back and forth, taking in his surroundings. The sound of his own gasped breath filled his ears, joined by a multitude of others: the low buzz of the small red light overhead, the distant hum of an air-conditioning unit as it worked to cool the air, the low rumble of the Leviathan Spring's engines.
Vague memories began to resurface. Faint memories of rainclouds, sloshing water and clouds of steam smouldered in his mind, evoking a strong sense of familiarity. He stared at the ceiling, but it was bare; ran his hands along the metallic floor, but it was dry.
Was it a dream?
Slowly, cautiously, he sat up. A small table lay nearby, its legs broken. Fanned out beyond the table were dozens of scattered sheets of paper and mixed among them, tiny shards of broken glass. He stared at the table for a long time, confusion clouding his thoughts.
He quite clearly remembered falling, striking the table, but while the table remained, the water which caused his fall did not. The sheets of paper were typewritten, cleanly printed, showing no smudges or other signs of contact with moisture.
Glancing down at himself, he noted that his clothes were dry, which only added to his confusion. The warm, moist sensation of his shirt stuck to skin was etched clearly into his mind, the memory springing forth with surprising clarity. A scowl crossed his face - none of this made any sense.
Something caught his eye; a small white shape protruding from beneath his leg. A gentle tug revealed it to be a small feather, its length shimmering purest white, despite the pervasive red glow of the room's lighting. He swallowed, his throat dry. He certainly remembered the feather. Slowly, he got to his feet and moved toward the girl laying in the nearby bed. She was responsible for this, he knew, and he wanted to know what was going on.
A dull pain jolted through his left foot, centred on the largest toe, and a dull wooden clatter filled the room. Hopping, clutching his stubbed toe, he looked down at the object he had accidentally kicked.
His eyes widened. It was his walking cane.
His hopping came to an abrupt stop, the pain forgotten. He was standing. Standing on his right leg, the leg Ranma had long ago shattered, fragmented into uselessness. Keeping his left foot aloft, he bent and straightened his right knee; it easily supported his weight, flexing without even the slightest twinge of pain.
His mind stood paralysed for a moment, uncomprehending. Gradually, as the realisation dawned that he was not dreaming, and not imagining, a wide grin spread across his face. He exhaled in a half-laugh, half-cough, scarcely believing what had happened.
"You did this, didn't you?" he asked, turning to Akane. Her eyes were upon him, staring through him, still glowing white at their cores. He swallowed as he stared at her hair. A luminescent hue infused the strands, an unnatural glow that he had seen once before. "Gods, you're a dragon, just like her."
The sleeping Akane did not answer.
Colonel Hunter watched Ryoga emerge from the containment room, his eyebrow quirked. The boy had only been gone for fifteen minutes. Ukyo's preliminary examination had taken much longer. He cleared his throat as Ryoga hobbled toward him.
"Sir. The preliminary examination went well," Ryoga replied, seeming somehow distracted. He hastily added, "but it will take some time to modify a new Seraph Wing to suit her."
"Hopefully not as long as the last," Hunter prodded, his jaw tightening. The time constraints on this initiation were much more demanding than Ukyo's.
"I'll have to look at my data, but yes, it will be quicker than Ukyo's procedure, simply because we have done it before."
"Good. When will you begin?"
"I've got to do some theoretical work first, and consult with Yoiko," Ryoga replied. "We should be underway in a couple of days."
"Glad to hear it. Keep up the good work," Hunter replied. He watched Ryoga hobble away, and called after him, "I shouldn't have to remind you to keep this quiet. Tell Yoiko what she needs to know and nothing more. Understood?"
Ryoga looked back over his shoulder and nodded. "Yes, Sir. Understood, Sir."
Hunter watched the boy leave, narrowing his eyes. There was something different about him, but he could not put his finger upon it. A strange, wild look in his eyes, a slight change in the way he carried himself. He shrugged, and wrote it off as the imaginings of a mind under pressure.
"Send an escort to watch him," said a voice behind him.
Turning, he saw Hammer and Anvil standing in the corridor outside the containment room. Both regarded him cooly, their expressions identical, as always.
"No. I trust him. An escort would only make him suspicious."
"It is foolish to rely on him to keep such a thing secret," Anvil observed. "An armed escort would ensure his silence."
"No, damn it," Hunter countered, anger growing. "That boy is the closest thing I have to a son. I'm not going to treat him like a common criminal just because you two say so."
"As you wish," Hammer replied, acquiescent. "Remember, though, the responsibility lies upon your shoulders."
"We do not need to tell you what will happen if there is an information leak aboard this vessel."
"I know," Hunter said with a growl. He turned and began marching away from the twins. Spooks pissed him off, and he was in no mood to deal with their cloak-and-dagger bullshit. Ryoga was a good, honest boy, and unworthy of their paranoia. "If you'll excuse me, I have other tasks to take care of."
"He is a fool," Hammer muttered as the Colonel disappeared around a corner.
"Yes," Anvil agreed. "The boy is already deceiving him."
"It does not matter. Ryujin's progress is promising. You saw her abilities. Regeneration of that magnitude is far beyond the capabilities of her predecessors. Kayoko has finally chosen an heir."
"She is far more advanced than we had anticipated. She's crossed the threshold - nothing can stop her development now. She will soon surpass Ryukyu. At this point, an information leak is irrelevant."
"Irrelevant, yes, but not without consequences. Contact the Council, request a standby team of Ghosts. We may need them."
"They are already en route," Anvil said. "They will be here within the hour."
Ryoga leaned heavily against the elevator's handrail as the platform slowly ascended the shaft. Sweat ran in rivulets down his back, his heart pounded, his breath came in deep gulps. The Colonel must have known he was lying. Gods, he was a terrible liar.
He just hoped that the Colonel had fallen for his woefully poor acting, and his terribly artificial limping. There had been no examination, nor did he have any plans to modify Seraph Wing. He just needed to buy some time, time to think. He needed to think this situation through.
Come on, he urged the elevator. Go faster. Go.
Sliding his hand into his pocket, he closed his fingers around the feather. It hummed in his hand, radiating a gentle warmth. He had to speak to Yoiko, to Ukyo. There was another dragon. A dragon that had healed him. How many more were there? Why had no-one ever told him?
The helicopter touched down heavily, its skids sliding slightly along the rough earth before finding purchase in a rocky patch, bringing the craft to a halt. Ukyo held up one hand to shield her face from the beating wind as Ranma urged her toward the chopper's door, which slid open as they drew near.
The barrels of two submachine guns met her as the door moved aside, but were quickly lowered as Ukyo shook her head. Her eyes widened as she caught sight of the faces behind the guns - Scar and Baker stared back at her.
What the hell are they doing here? she asked. They were supposed to send an empty chopper!
Apparently, they decided not to, My Lady.
"Get in," Ranma growled into her ear. Ukyo complied, stepping into the chopper. Ranma followed, her sword never leaving Ukyo's neck. Scar and Baker moved to the rear of the chopper, making way for the two newcomers to sit at the front, behind the pilot.
Ranma slid the door shut with her free hand, before sliding it around Ukyo's waist to secure her.
"Lower the guns," she ordered, gesturing with her sword for emphasis. The two men complied, albeit reluctantly. "Now let's get this chopper in the air."
"Do it," Ukyo added as Scar looked to her. Scar nodded and spoke into the microphone inside his helmet, and the helicopter lifted into the air.
Ukyo looked back and forth amongst her four compatriots, wanting very much to speak to them, to ask them why the hell they had come for her in person, but she dared not with Ranma's sword at her throat. Instead, she could only stare at them in frustrated silence.
She glanced at Angel, whose wide eyes were overflowing with concern, asking if she was alright. Despite the intense nausea she had felt ever since Ranma touched her she gave a small nod, and tried to smile at the medic. It was all she could do; she hoped it was understood.
Scar and Baker carried the same determined look. Scar's fingers were twitching at his gun, and she shook her head. No, she mouthed. Don't even think about it.
Guns would do no good against Ranma. They all knew that. Ranma could bring the chopper down in a heartbeat if provoked, and none of the other members of Ukyo's team were blessed with her regenerative abilities. The only strategy was to wait, make it back to the Leviathan Spring. She could tell from the looks upon their faces that they knew that - she could also tell that they did not like it at all.
They were beginning to shiver, their breath turning to mist that hung upon the air. Ranma's presence was beginning to have its inevitable effect upon them. She looked away from them, preferring to look out through the window and watch the forest roll by.
The trees gave way to mountains; the mountains gave way to a bright blue sky. It was a beautiful, sunny day outside. Perhaps, she reasoned, she could pretend it was an ordinary flight, and forget about the sword at her throat and the yawning hole in her soul.
Despite her efforts, her thoughts returned to the moments before the helicopter's arrival, to the dark, cold dream that had possessed her so completely. She remembered little more than fuzzy images, strained recollections of a half-forgotten nightmare. The few memories she held were of strong, intense emotions.
Terror, helplessness, and despair mingled in her mind, the recollection as unsettling as the experience itself. She caught sight of her reflection in the glass windows of the helicopter, and found herself staring. Those eyes, those hollow, blue eyes, terrified her. She did not recognise these eyes upon her face. There was something within them that was not her own.
She shuddered and turned her eyes away, unable to look any more. Ranma's face was also reflected in the glass, glowing in the light of the midmorning sun. A cold, startling realisation washed over her - Ranma's eyes carried exactly the same expression as her own.
They were not the eyes of a killer. They were frightened, hollow, violated. Seeking understanding, searching for comfort, yet unable to find either. Ranma wanted to find both within Akane. Ukyo blinked hard, fighting back tears that threatened to spring up upon her face. She understood the loneliness in those eyes; she had seen it within her own.
She realised then that Ranma was no longer watching the others, but looking back at her. In that instant, she knew that Ranma was asking the exact same question as she.
What the hell did you do to me?