She glanced over her shoulder as they walked, the familiar shape of her house growing ever smaller against the horizon with every step she took. A firm knot formed in Akane's stomach and seemed to grow as she walked further and further into the unknown.
She looked ahead again at her companion, a swath of red hair the only part that stood out from the sea of black fabric that blended perfectly into the night. Why was she following this stranger into the darkness? Why was she leaving the only life she had ever known with a person she had met only the day before?
Sighing, Akane tried to ignore the roots of doubt and uncertainty that were taking hold of a mind that was only an hour earlier firmly awash with the fertile seeds of revenge, justice and glory.
"Ranma?" she called out, trying to turn her mind away from such matters.
"Hm?" Ranma replied, slowing and turning her head to glance at Akane. "What is it?"
"I wanted to talk," Akane said, taking a quick couple of steps to catch up with Ranma.
"About what?" Ranma asked, turning toward the Tendo girl as she came up alongside her.
"Well," Akane started, then paused. She had so many questions, it was hard to focus on a single topic. After a moment's thought, she decided upon the most pressing one. "I want to know more about you."
"Me?" queried Ranma, raising an eyebrow. "What about me?"
"Everything about you!" Akane replied with barely-contained curiosity. "You're not like anyone I've ever met. You seem to know a lot about me, but I hardly know anything about you."
"Hmm," Ranma said with a shrug, turning her head to once more look forwards. "What would you like to know?"
"Where do you come from?" Akane began, opening the floodgate of questions. "What's the story with that cloak of yours? How old are you? How did--"
"Slow down, slow down," Ranma interrupted, holding up a hand to silence her companion. "I come from a place quite near to here. It's not there anymore -- it was torn down some years ago."
"That's terrible," Akane commented. "Why?"
"So where do you live?" Akane probed.
"Wherever my feet carry me, I suppose," Ranma replied, gazing ahead into the darkness.
Akane pondered this for a moment, the pair walking on in silence.
"Do you go to school?" Akane asked at length.
Ranma stumbled, caught completely off guard by the question. She looked over at Akane as if the Tendo girl had sprouted a second head.
"What?" Akane inquired defensively.
"I've never been asked that before," Ranma said, a smile coming to her face. "It's a strange question."
"Sorry," Akane huffed, feeling rather put out. "I didn't know it was a strange question."
"In that case, no," Ranma replied, still smiling. "I don't go to school. I'm a little old for that."
Akane narrowed her eyes and peered critically at Ranma.
"How old are you, anyway?"
"Old enough to not need to go to school," Ranma replied, a twinkle in her eye. "Let's put it that way."
Akane looked away from Ranma, turning her eyes back to the street. Silence descended upon the pair, punctuated only by Akane's footsteps.
"Lucky," Akane commented, after a time.
"How so?" Ranma asked, looking over to Akane again.
"I wish I didn't have to go to school," Akane explained.
"I wouldn't be so quick to dismiss it."
"You're only saying that because you don't have to go."
Ranma chuckled softly. "Probably. Well, soon enough you'll be far too busy to worry about school."
"I guess," Akane agreed, noncommittally. "Why are these hunters after me, anyway?"
"I'm not sure why," Ranma admitted. "I haven't quite figured that one out for myself just yet."
"But there must be -some- reason or other...."
"I'm sure there is," Ranma replied with a nod. "When I find out what it is, you'll be the first one I tell."
"That doesn't make me feel a lot better," Akane sighed. "I've been thinking about it a lot. When you find out there's a bunch of people out to get you, it's hard not to wonder why, y'know?"
"I can imagine," Ranma said. "Don't worry, though. I'm going to teach you how to look after yourself."
"You'll see when we get there."
"Where is 'there'?" Akane asked impatiently. She was beginning to get annoyed with the continual lack of answers.
"A small mountain near here," Ranma replied. "There is a training ground there, and I've got a little present for you once we get there."
"A present?" Akane asked, her interest aroused in the extreme.
"You'll see when you get there," Ranma replied with a mischevious smile. "It's a surprise."
"You're not helping, you know," Akane noted with a sigh.
The moon hung low in the sky, its night-long trek across the heavens nearly complete. A thin fog filled the valley with a grey haze. The wet ground caused Akane to shiver in her sleep as she rolled over onto the grass.
Thin droplets of water dribbled down between the leaves of the trees overhead with each gust of wind, occasionally tumbling down to the ground below. It was one such droplet that landed directly on Akane's nose, waking her from her slumber.
"Mwuh?" she asked blearily, sitting up. She blinked several times, eyes half-open, and looked around her.
"It's nearly morning," Ranma's voice floated into her ears, making her turn to face it.
Ranma sat nearby, looking into the small campfire that burned nearby. Akane blinked again, trying to clear her eyes.
"I didn't mean to fall asleep," she said with a yawn.
"That's all right," Ranma replied. "We've travelled pretty far. I think we're safe here for now. You can get some more rest if you'd like."
"I think I'm okay," Akane said as she stretched her arms. "What about you?"
Ranma looked up at Akane for a moment, the flickering orange light of the fire half-illuminating her face. The look on her face was as intense as their first meeting, piercing blue eyes seeming to look straight through Akane.
Eventually, Ranma gave a smile and looked back down at the fire. "I don't sleep very much. I'm fine."
Akane suppressed a shudder as she watched Ranma stare into the fire. Her travelling partner seemed friendly enough, but there were times she was genuinely frightening. Akane couldn't help but wonder where this journey would lead her.
Scooting toward the fire a little, Akane held her hands up toward the flames, trying to warm herself. As always, the air around Ranma was icy cold, but as Akane looked closely, she could see the redheaded girl was not bothered in the least by the low temperature.
Ranma looked over at Akane and noticed her shivering. Reaching behind herself, she took hold of some more wood and placed it upon the fire.
"Thanks," Akane said gratefully, watching the flames dance across the wood, sending puffs of grey smoke drifting upward, accompanied by crackling sounds as the wood dried out.
"How did you start a fire?" Akane asked, looking at the pile of wet firewood.
"I used Garyoutensei," Ranma replied simply, with a shrug of her shoulders.
"Garyoutensei?" Akane asked, surprise in her voice. "Your sword started a fire?"
"Yes," Ranma said with a nod. "It's an elemental blade, infused with fire. It'll burn anything it touches."
"A magic sword?" Akane asked incredulously.
Ranma nodded matter-of-factly. Her tone was even, her face stony. "That's putting it a little simply, but, yes."
"You're kidding, right?"
Ranma shook her head. "No, I'm not."
"A magic sword," Akane repeated. "Uh huh."
"Is it that hard to believe, Akane?" Ranma asked, tilting her head to one side. As she spoke, she grasped the sword and pulled it from beneath her cloak in one smooth movement, bringing it out from beneath her left arm. Holding the handle loosely, she rested the sword lightly across her lap.
Akane studied the blade closely, raising herself up to her hands and knees to crawl closer for a better look.
The blade of Garyoutensei was a pure white that glistened in the moonlight, its smooth curve and sharp edge catching the pale moon's glow. Leaning closer, Akane peered intently at the blade, catching a glimpse of herself reflected in it.
"I can see -- myself ..." she said, examining her own face. Pale orange light flickered across her visage, surrounding it from all sides. She was unsure if the light was from the camp fire or from somewhere else.
Her own eyes stared back at her from the blade with the same intensity she had seen in Ranma's eyes only moments before, and she found herself unable to look away, a reflected fire that danced behind her own eyes holding her transfixed.
"It's warm," Akane mumbled, feeling a gentle, soothing warmth radiating from the milky white blade. The heat was enticing, rousing a desire in Akane to dive into it as if it were a warm bath.
"Don't touch it," Ranma said, her hand gripping Akane's wrist.
The physical contact snapped Akane out of her reverie; she looked up at Ranma confusedly, then down again. Surprise crossed her face as she saw her hand was centimetres from touching the blade.
"I didn't ...."
"I know," Ranma replied, resheathing the blade beneath her cloak. The warmth around the pair vanished, the icy grip of the cold night air around them once again taking Akane into its hold.
"It's in your nature to want to touch it."
"I'm sorry," Akane apologised, shaking her head slightly to clear it.
"Do you believe it now, Akane?" Ranma asked.
"I ..." Akane replied after a moment, eyes trying to follow the sword to its hiding place within Ranma's cloak. "What an unusual sword."
"Magic is a dangerous thing," Ranma stated. "It would be better for you if you knew nothing about it, but that won't be possible. I'll have to teach you."
"Can I hold it?" Akane asked, eyes still intently seeking the blade within Ranma's cloak. "I want to try it for myself."
"You aren't capable of handling it just yet. Perhaps with some training."
"What, you think I'm too much of a klutz to handle a sword?" Akane asked, an edge of irritation creeping into her voice. "I'm not an idiot, you know."
"I didn't say you were, Akane," Ranma replied flatly.
"So why can't I hold it?" Akane said angrily, looking up at Ranma's face. "You think I'm going to drop it or something?"
"Calm down, Akane."
"Just let me try it, and I will!" Akane growled. "It won't hurt!"
"It already has," Ranma commented, matching stares with Akane.
"What?" Akane asked, suddenly confused.
Ranma narrowed her eyes, peering critically at Akane, but said nothing.
Akane withered under Ranma's glare, the anger draining from her mind as the blood drained from her face. She shivered, and looked back down into the fire.
"I'm sorry for snapping at you," Akane offered, scratching the back of her head in puzzlement. "I didn't mean it."
"It's quite all right, Akane," Ranma replied.
"I don't usually get mad like that," Akane emphasised, to herself as much as to Ranma.
"Don't worry about it," Ranma replied. "It's not a big deal."
Akane pulled herself away from Ranma and sat back down beside the fire, pulling her knees in to her chest and wrapping her arms around her legs. Silence descended upon the pair, the crackling of the fire and rustling of the leaves overhead the only sounds they could hear.
Ranma stared intently into the fire; Akane tried to do so as well, but found herself continually glancing at Ranma's face, trying to decipher Ranma's mood from her expression.
Uneasy awkwardness hung over Akane like an itchy blanket and she found herself shifting and fidgeting to take her mind off it. Nothing seemed to help, however, and she eventually decided to risk talking once more.
"Your father gave you your sword?" Akane asked, trying to steer the subject away a little.
"Yes," Ranma replied, not looking away from the fire. "When he died."
"You've lived on your own since then, right?"
"Yeah," Ranma said with a nod. "We travelled a lot when he was alive, so I didn't really stay in one place long enough to make many friends."
"Why didn't you settle down? This wandering thing seems awfully lonely to me."
"I have a duty," Ranma said firmly. "I can't 'settle down'. There are more important things to consider."
"What duty?" Akane asked, dusting off her gi. "Besides dropping by my house and totally messing with my life."
"I'm not sure exactly," Ranma admitted. "All I know is it involves your family and the hunters."
"You don't even KNOW?" Akane asked, eyes wide.
"I don't know all of the details, but I know what we must do for now," Ranma said with a shrug. "From there, I'm sure it will all become clear one way or the other. Father wasn't very specific when he passed the duty on to me."
"What do you mean?"
Ranma looked up at Akane and sighed before looking down into the flames. Bright orange fire danced behind her eyes as she watched the wood burn.
"It's a long story," Ranma replied.
"You're going to have to start telling me about yourself sooner or later, you know. Especially since this involves me."
"I guess we have enough time," Ranma said, after a pause. She sighed, a puff of condensation drifting away from her mouth. "I'll try to explain as best I can."
A low howling sound echoed through the valley of Jusenkyo as strong air currents blustered through the mountain passes. The thin grassblades that dared to grow on the elevated outcroppings whipped back and forth violently with the force of the chill wind, which then proceeded down into the valley below.
At the base of the valley there was a small cluster of springs; in the springs were rickety-looking bamboo poles. On two of the poles were two men, carefully balanced atop their respective perches with one foot each.
"You better be ready, Boy," called Genma, the loose cord at the front of his belt swaying in the breeze.
"Heh," Ranma replied, a smirk on his face. "Let's get this over with, Pops. I still owe you a beating for not helping me with those bandits."
"Quiet, Boy," Genma growled. "You disrespect your father. You should remember to respect your elders, or I'll have to remind you why."
"I could take you down with my eyes closed."
"You are a fool!" bellowed Genma, his deep voice echoing through the valley. "You will die young if you don't learn humility, Boy!"
"So humble me," Ranma replied. "If ya can."
"You are limited by your overconfidence, Boy," Genma noted, unsheathing his sword. A hot wind swept into existance around him as he swung his sword to face Ranma. "I will show you those limits!"
Ranma steadied his stance as Genma launched himself into the air; and so, the battle was joined.
Waiting until the last moment, Ranma leapt backwards, launching himself into a somersault that vaulted him clear of his father's lunge. He sailed lightly through the air as the sound of his father's sword splintering the bamboo reached his ears. As he landed, his father was in mid-air, leaving behind a broken pole, the splintered tip burning.
"Don't you think you're going a bit far?" Ranma asked, hands on his hips, eyes on the smoke rising from his father's blade.
"You are arrogant and cocky!" Genma exclaimed as he landed, levelling his sword at his son. "You will never achieve mastery of our art as long as you consider yourself a master!"
"So by that logic, I'm guessin', neither will you," Ranma countered, his pigtail fluttering behind him in the hot, gusty wind that rocked his bamboo pole back and forth.
"You are too quick to forget who is the teacher and who is the student, boy," Genma snorted, his sword held steady. "That is only the first of your mistakes."
Again Genma launched himself toward Ranma, swinging his sword mightily as he arced through the air -- and once again, Ranma tossed himself aside at the last moment, turning what began as a clumsy jump into a graceful flip as he neared his destination.
"You ain't even close!" Ranma taunted, a smirk on his face. "You're getting slow, old man!"
Genma growled angrily in response and again launched himself toward his son.
The battle continued for some time, the pair's duel leaving a trail of burning bamboo across the field of springs. Both combatants found their space restricted after a time, and eventually, there were only two poles left.
Ranma smirked at his father, who was panting, face flushed with anger.
"What'cha gonna do, old man?" he teased, knowing full well that if his father tried the same tactic, Genma would be left with no pole to land on as soon as Ranma landed on the last remaining pole.
Genma snarled and launched himself into the air once more.
Ranma readied himself to jump again but was taken by surprise as his father suddenly launched his sword at the pole Ranma was standing on.
He did not have a chance to move before the sword skewered the pole; the bamboo snapped as the blade sliced into it, before bursting violently into flames. Ranma squeezed his eyes closed as a burst of flames engulfed his body for a moment as the pole shattered below him. A wave of intense heat struck him like a fist, throwing off his balance.
Ranma wobbled back and forth, coughing on the smoke that drifted up to fill his nose. Trying valiantly to retain his balance, he looked around for another place to land, but Genma had already landed back on the remaining pole. His foot slipped, and Ranma toppled off the pole.
"Respect your master!"
Genma's words filled Ranma's ears in the moment before his body plunged into the icy water.
"I blacked out when I hit the water," Ranma explained, staring into the fire. "He pulled me out of the water; if he hadn't I would have drowned."
"It sounds like he went a little too far," Akane noted. "It was only a training match; by the sounds of it, he was trying to kill you!"
"Went too far? You don't know the half of it," Ranma commented sourly. "As it turns out, the spring was cursed, and when I fell into it, I was cursed too."
"Don't ask," Ranma said with a sigh. "Let's just say life has been quite different for me since that day."
Ranma trudged after her father, her footfalls heavy and strained, much like her mood.
"I can't believe you," she complained. "I can't believe you took me to that stupid place. Didn't ya know it was cursed?!"
"Stop whining," Genma muttered. "I've apologised already, and besides, I wouldn't have knocked you in if you weren't being so insolent."
"You deserve insolence, you idiot!" Ranma yelled, fists shaking in fury. "Look at what you did to me! What the hell'm I supposed to do stuck like this? Huh?"
"You wanted to be humbled, Boy," Genma replied. "So be humble."
"HUMBLE?!" Ranma exploded. "I'll kill you!"
"You deserved what you got," continued Genma. "You are arrogant and foolish. It's about time something knocked you down a peg or two."
"I can't believe you ... I just can't believe you ..." Ranma muttered, numb shock taking the place of her anger. Her life as she knew it was over.
"Stop your complaining," Genma grumbled, waving his hand dismissively. "You're acting like a girl. It's embarrassing."
Ranma responded with several obscene whisperings under her breath. They walked along in silence for a time, Genma scanning the surroundings, Ranma trying hard to ignore her new breasts as she stared angrily at the dirt track below her feet.
"There was a village somewhere around here," Genma noted, after a time, "I saw it a couple of days ago. They live near the springs, maybe they know about a cure."
"Since when do you care about the bad stuff that happens to me?" Ranma queried bitterly. Kicking a pebble away, she muttered quietly, "Stupid old man, puttin' me through all sortsa crap all the time ...."
"I don't want you to be a worthless girl any more than you do, Ranma," Genma noted. "It doesn't do me any good to have a female heir."
"Figures," Ranma said in a huff, glaring at her father.
"Now be quiet and keep your eyes open," Genma continued. "I know that village is around here somewhere."
"They don't look too friendly," Ranma commented, peering through tall blades of grass at the village below. Her eyes lingered on the spears, swords, and other weapons carried by the villagers.
"Yes, well," Genma observed, adjusting his gi, "you are the one who speaks Chinese, so you should go first."
Ranma looked sternly at her father. "Uh huh."
With a sigh, she looked back at the village. Holding apart two clumps of grass, she peered down through them at the settlement below. The buildings were simple huts; the fences, rows of bamboo strapped together. Small columns of smoke rose lazily from several fires that burned near the various huts.
Every person in the village seemed to be carrying some sort of weapon, and Ranma noticed something else unusual about them as well.
"Where are all the men?" she asked herself as she looked left and right across the village.
"Hurry up," Genma said, shoving Ranma forward. "I'm right behind you."
Grunting as she was pushed, Ranma pulled herself to her feet and began walking down the slope toward the village. She made it about halfway before she was spotted by one of the guards, who yelled out to alert the rest of the village.
"Intruder!" the guard called, lowering her spear to point at Ranma.
Ranma approached slowly, arms spread wide, her father behind her in the same position. She kept her eyes locked on the guard's, making no sudden movements, simply continuing slowly forwards.
"Hey," Ranma called out.
"Halt!" called the guard, stepping forward. "Not another step."
Ranma stopped where she was, but was bumped forward as Genma walked into her from behind. She glared over her shoulder at him.
"Pay attention," she whispered to him, scowling. "Do what I do or you're gonna get us in trouble."
Two other villagers, equally well armed, ran out through the village gate and assumed positions alongside the first guard.
"Who are you?" the first guard called. "What do you want?"
"My name's Ranma Saotome," Ranma called in Chinese. She tilted her head, gesturing behind her. "This is my father. We came to ask about the springs near your village."
"Jusenkyo springs?" the second guard asked. "You should stay away from them, outsider. Only a fool would dare go near them."
"What are they saying?" Genma asked.
"They seem to know you pretty well already," Ranma replied with a smirk.
"Ah, my reputation precedes me," Genma said with a smile, puffing out his chest.
"I'll say," replied Ranma, deadpan.
"Outsiders are not welcome here," the first guard said, interrupting Ranma.
"We've already been to the springs," Ranma said. "We need help."
The first guard scowled, while the other two exchanged glances. "Fools. Wait here. Not another step toward the village, or you will die."
"Gotcha," replied Ranma. She watched the first guard turn and walk back in through the gates, then turned and spoke to Genma in Japanese.
"I was right, they don't look too friendly."
"I knew this was a bad idea," Ranma grumbled, edging away from the tip of a spear that was pointed at her. The three guards around them guided them toward the centre of the village, their spears ensuring that neither Ranma or her father wandered off course.
"Quiet, Boy," Genma whispered. "If we play smart, we'll be fine."
They approached a small gathering of villagers clustered together around a fire, excited murmurings passing back and forth between them. Every pair of eyes in the crowd was locked firmly on Ranma and her father.
"Doesn't look like they get visitors often," Ranma noted, looking over at a group of frightened-looking children, a scowling woman crouched behind them, arms around their shoulders. A large sword dangled from the woman's belt.
Ranma's eyes widened as she noticed that the children also carried small daggers attached to their belts. "Definitely don't get visitors often."
"Look, Boy," Genma said, nudging Ranma's arm. "That must be the leader."
Ranma's eyes lingered on the children for a moment before shifting to the direction Genma was pointing. Atop a finely crafted bamboo chair sat a short, shrivelled old woman, whose hair was long enough to pile in a heap on the ground behind her.
Ranma peered at this strange woman. The woman's features were extremely wrinkled, her body hunched over and frail-looking, her face sunken and old. Her eyes were different, though; they burned bright with a youthful curiosity that seemed out of place on a face so old.
"Eww," Ranma commented, shuddering a little at the old woman's aged visage. Compared to the majority of the villagers, who were good-looking in the extreme, the old woman could only be described as ... a prune.
"I am Cologne," the old woman announced, hopping nimbly down from her chair. "I lead this Amazon village. Who are you?"
"I'm Ranma, and this is my dad," Ranma replied, surprised at the old woman's agility. "We just visited--"
"Jusenkyo, I know," Cologne interrupted. She leaned in close to Ranma, closely inspecting the redheaded girl's face. "Hmm. Your problem doesn't seem so bad to me."
"How'd you know it was me that had the curse?"
"You walk like a brutish, unrefined man," Cologne replied with a dark smile. "Any true woman can tell you weren't born female."
"Brutish 'n unrefined!?" Ranma seethed. "Why, you ...."
"Can she cure you?" Genma asked, watching the old woman's inspection of his son. "What's going on?"
"D'you know how to fix this stupid curse?" Ranma asked irritably. "I don't have time to be stuck as a stupid girl. I've got trainin' to do."
"Ha!" Cologne laughed, pulling away from Ranma. "Of course I know how to cure you. I can't imagine why you'd want to give up such a wonderful gift as womanhood, but if that is your clumsy desire ... hot water will revert you to your original form."
"Hot water? That's it?"
"All right!" Ranma exclaimed, jumping into the air. "That's easy!"
"Shampoo," Cologne called over her shoulder, "fetch some hot water for our visitors."
"What did she say?" Genma asked, seeing Ranma's elation. "What's the cure?"
"Hot water!" Ranma explained happily. "That's all, just hot water!"
"So simple," Genma commented, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. "I would have expected something more complicated."
"Whatever, as long as I get to be a guy again, I'm happy," Ranma chimed enthusiastically.
"Agreed. I was worried you'd be stuck in that useless body forever."
"It would do you well," Cologne interrupted in Japanese, "to keep your insults to yourself while you're in my village."
"You speak Japanese?" Ranma asked, eyes wide.
"Yes, and I've heard everything your moronic father has said. I suggest you keep your tongue still from now on, old man."
"Old man? You're one to talk, you--" Genma began, but was interrupted by an enormous splash as a large container of hot water was emptied over Ranma.
"Hot!" Ranma yelled in a once-again male voice as the scalding water poured over his body. He shook his body back and forth, sending water splashing everywhere. This earned him angry glares from his father, Cologne, and the purple-haired girl who had poured the water on him.
"All right, I'm a guy again!" Ranma exclaimed excitedly, looking down at his once-again flat chest.
Genma acknowledged his son's transformation with a tight-lipped nod, his eyes locked on Cologne. He scowled angrily, lowering one hand to his sword's handle. Fingers closing around it, his scowl only deepened.
"It isn't wise to insult me," Genma growled.
"You would challenge an entire village of Amazons?" Cologne asked, laughing. "Men truly are fools!"
Ranma looked back and forth between his father and Cologne, who were staring daggers at each other. Glancing around, he noticed the rest of the villagers were readying their weapons.
"Hey, uh, Pops, calm down," Ranma said, putting a hand on his father's arm. "I insult you all the time, don't start getting annoyed about it now ...."
"I won't let this old hag insult me," Genma growled, gripping his sword's scabbard with one hand, the fingers of his other hand tightening their grip on the handle. He tugged the sword, slowly unsheathing it. Ranma felt a surge of burning heat as the sword came into view.
"Nobody insults the Saotomes and lives to tell the tale," Genma said, a smirk crossing his lips. "I hope you're ready to die."
"Uhh ...!" Ranma looked around at the fifty or so armed Amazons surrounding him, and cried out, "What the hell are you doing, Pops?!"
"Quiet," Genma rumbled, his voice carrying a gravity that seemed to shake the very earth beneath Ranma's feet.
Ranma reeled at the venom in his father's voice; he stared wide-eyed at the man before him. Several of the Amazons stepped forward, brandishing sharp weapons, but all stopped in their tracks as Cologne held up a hand, her eyes wide.
"You have a dragon's tooth blade?!" she exclaimed. "What is a man doing wielding that sword?"
"Heh," Genma said with a smirk. "Men are not as weak as your ego would have you believe."
"You fool," Cologne said, eyes locked on the blade. "You can't begin to comprehend what that weapon--"
"I understand perfectly," Genma said confidently. "This blade will destroy you and your entire village."
"You cannot hope to control its power!"
"You'd be surprised what I can do, old hag."
"For the sake of anyone who may have the misfortune of crossing your path, I cannot let you keep that sword. Give it to me, or I will have you killed."
"Whoa, whoa, whoa!" Ranma called out, holding up his hands. "Things are getting a little out of hand here--"
Ranma backed away from the Amazons nearest him, realising his words were having no effect.
"Pops, give them the damn sword!" he called out, realising they stood no chance. "We're gonna get killed if you don't!"
"This is the Saotome family sword. It belongs to me, and will one day belong to my son. The only time you'll touch this sword," Genma said to Cologne, raising his blade, "is when it's slicing you in half."
"Very well," Cologne said with a sigh. She nodded to a group of Amazons standing nearby. "Kill him."
Akane stared at Ranma, wide-eyed, as the redheaded girl fell into silence. The fire had long since died out; smouldering embers were all that remained of it. The early morning sunlight was beginning to break through the foliage overhead.
"Why was your father so mad? I don't get it," Akane commented.
"He was proud," Ranma answered. "Proud and stupid. He honestly thought he could kill them all."
"Wow," Akane said.
"He was acting strange that day," Ranma added. "He wasn't usually that annoyed by insults. I insulted him all the time and it didn't bother him a bit."
Akane said nothing for a moment, mulling the story over. "I don't understand why he was so upset at them. I mean, his daughter seems to be a pretty capable fighter, why did he think girls were so inferior?"
Ranma mulled this over for a moment. She had told Akane some of the story, but not all. The nature of her curse was one thing left out of her retelling - there would be a better time to reveal that.
"I don't know," she said. "I think he was angry because I got cursed."
"What was the curse? You cured it with hot water, right?"
"Hot water was only a temporary cure, it turned out," Ranma said sadly. "They didn't say that at the time, but cold water brought it right back."
"But," Akane began, thoughtfully, "you were in the bath earlier, that was hot water. I didn't notice anything change."
"That's a long story, and it will have to wait for another time."
Akane looked curiously at Ranma; the redheaded girl's expression indicated she would offer no further explanation.
"Okay," Akane said, backing off on that topic. "So what happened after the Amazons attacked you?"
"Father fought them. I'd never seen him that angry before; he was like a madman, slaughtering whoever got in his way. If he hadn't been so angry, he might have survived ...."
"Ranma," Akane said softly, knowing all too well the pain of losing a parent. "I'm sorry."
"I'd never seen him like that before," Ranma softly continued, gazing deep into the fire. "It was horrible; he was like some sort of monster. The damn sword made him think he was invincible."
"If it's so bad, how come you still carry it around?"
"That," Ranma sighed, drawing her cloak tight around herself, "is my obligation."
Ranma watched numbly as his father lunged forward with a mighty swing. The pure white blade danced in a graceful arc through the air, the sword somehow turning motions that were blunt and angry at Genma's hand into smooth, elegant and controlled movements at its tip.
Ranma found himself unable to move, held utterly transfixed by the beauty of the sword in motion. The air itself seemed to sing as the blade carved through it, a trail of white-hot light hanging in its wake for the briefest of moments.
Three Amazon women rushed toward Genma, swords raised high to strike.
Genma's face contorted in a vile snarl, his arms guiding the sword in a semicircle before him, ripping a gash across the midriffs of the three Amazons. Their screams filled the air but they did not merely fall - instead they burst violently into flames and exploded into a cloud of ash as they were burned by the intense heat the blade brought to bear upon them.
A gasp ran through the crowd as the ashes hung in the air, drifting slowly down toward the earth near Genma's feet. The horrific beauty of it captivated Ranma, leaving him unable to tear his eyes away. A sickening, repulsive wave of horror tumbled down through his body, the blood draining from his face as nausea gripped his stomach.
His father had never killed anyone, never struck anyone with the sword before. A few moments ago, he would have thought it ridiculous to think that Genma Saotome would ever kill anyone. That had all changed.
Ranma could see it in Genma's eyes, eyes that burned with an intense desire; a desire to kill. To destroy. A shudder ran down Ranma's back as he stared at his father and saw a man he did not recognise.
Genma intended to kill them all, and none of the Amazons could stop him. This wasn't a fight, it was a slaughter. It had to stop.
Taking a deep breath, Ranma clenched his fists and took a step toward his father.
"STOP!" he bellowed powerfully, his voice echoing through the valley.
Silence fell as Ranma's voice faded into the distance; all eyes turned to face him. A moment of stillness swept across the valley; even Garyoutensei's fiery dance was brought to a halt.
Ranma stared hard at Genma; a crimson fire seemed to burn in his father's eyes, lending the old man an otherworldly appearance. Waves of heat radiated from his father, the air between them distorted by the radiated warmth.
Genma met his son's eyes across the distance between them and his own eyes seemed to soften, his shoulders slumped as if the weight of his actions was suddenly placed upon them. His eyes moistened as he slowly lowered his blade, the tip falling to the dirt below him. A silent moment passed between the two of them, no words needing to be said.
"Son ..." Genma whispered, loosing his grip upon the sword.
It was at that moment that an arrow whistled through the air to pierce Genma's chest.
Shampoo lowered her bow, hand reaching for another arrow just in case. Cologne held up a hand, stilling Shampoo's movements.
"Let them surrender," Cologne commanded. "There will be no more deaths today."
"Pops?!" Ranma cried, dashing forward as his father stumbled.
Genma looked down in shock at the arrow's shaft, protruding from the rapidly-spreading red stain on his gi. Raising a shaky hand, he closed his fingers around the arrow, mind numb with disbelief. Tugging it slightly, his mind was brought sharply into focus by the sudden starburst of pain that jolted his entire body.
Ranma caught Genma as he fell forward, gingerly propping him up.
"Escape ..." Genma choked, blood and spittle flying from his mouth. "We must ... escape, Ranma ...."
"Pops?" Ranma cried, hot tears stinging his eyes.
"Now, Boy ..." Genma wheezed, a stream of blood pouring down his chin. Shakily, he brought his sword to Ranma's hand, placing the handle into his son's grasp.
Ranma cried out in anguish, watching his father wince in agony. Gritting his teeth, he flung himself into motion.
Shampoo quickly raised her bow as she saw movement from the pair of outsiders, and brought forth another arrow.
With a sudden determination and a strength he did not know he possessed, Ranma hoisted his father over one shoulder and took off at a sprint toward the village gates, shoving aside six Amazon women who stood in his way. He was past the gate by the time they hit the ground.
"Such speed ..." Shampoo uttered, awestruck, as she watched the pair disappear in a blur. She lowered her bow, slinging her arrow back into its quiver.
"Carrying the old man, too," Cologne added, nodding thoughtfully. "That child cannot be allowed to keep that sword. Three Amazons have died needlessly - there will be many more deaths if that weapon is not destroyed."
"I will return it," Shampoo vowed solemnly. "I will avenge them."
"They will not be easy prey," Cologne cautioned. "The old man may well be injured, but that means nothing."
"I am an Amazon," Shampoo said, pride swelling in her voice. "They will be no match for me."
"Very well, child," Cologne agreed. "Find them, and bring back that weapon. The time is right for you, great-granddaughter. Succeed, prove yourself as a warrior."
"I won't fail," Shampoo swore, closing her hands into fists. Slinging her bow over her shoulder, she sprinted off after the sword.
Ranma ran wildly through the trees, foliage snapping across his face as he weaved desperately through the forest. Panting hard, forcing air into protesting lungs, he surged forward, jumping across a small ditch.
His eyes stung with tears, his face bled from twigs scraping across it, his shoulders ached from the limp weight of his father upon them.
His hand burned, too; heat from the handle of his father's sword seared his skin. Ignoring the pain, he gripped the sword more tightly.
Where the hell am I going?
Hearing a pained grunt over his shoulder, he loosened slightly his grip upon his father.
"I'll get you out of here," he panted, looking left and right for routes to take.
"Put me down," Genma groaned, breathing heavily.
"What?" Ranma asked, bewildered, as he charged through a bush. "We can't stop, they're right behind us!"
"Put me ... down," Genma repeated, wincing with his words. "Now, Boy."
Ranma reluctantly slowed his run to a stop. Gingerly, he lifted his father from his shoulder and set him down by the base of a tree.
"You must escape," Genma wheezed. "I'm ... slowing you ... down."
"No way, Pops!" Ranma insisted. "I'm going to get some help, and--"
"No," Genma interrupted, shaking his head. He looked down at the deep crimson stain on his gi. "There's nothing ... around here but that village and the mountains."
"Listen ... Boy," Genma grunted, reaching up to squeeze Ranma's arm. "Take the sword ... and go. It is the Saotome ... family legacy. The Saotome name must live on. Don't ... let it die here today because of my foolish act."
"I'm not going to leave you!" Ranma insisted.
"If you only ever obey me once ... obey me now. Please, Boy," Genma pleaded, tears welling in his eyes, eyes dull with agony. "Take the sword ... go back to Japan ... don't ever lose Garyoutensei ...."
"Promise!" Genma persisted, his pasty-white hand shaking as released Ranma's arm. He took hold of his sword's scabbard and handed it to Ranma. "You must do this ... it's important."
Ranma stared hard at his father, tears burning his cheeks, and placed his hand over Genma's. Squeezing it firmly, he nodded, then took the scabbard.
"All right, father," he said solemnly, sliding the sword home into its scabbard. "I promise."
"Go back to our home," Genma continued. "Continue the Saotome legacy. Find ... Kayoko."
"Kayoko?" Ranma asked, puzzled. "Why?"
"You'll find out," Genma replied through a cough, then smiled thinly. "Make me ... proud, Ranma."
"I'll ... try," Ranma said, squeezing his father's hand. "I'm sorry ...."
"Don't be," Genma said with a blood-tinged smile. "You will be strong. You will--"
A rustling noise came from the bushes behind Ranma. He whirled to look behind himself, scanning back and forth across the foliage.
"Go, Boy," Genma groaned. "I'll ... delay them. Go, and survive."
"I'm going to find a way to help you," Ranma said, determinedly, and sprinted off through the bushes. "I'll come back when I do."
Genma watched his son leave, sadly shaking his head. The rustling sounds of his son's progress faded slowly into silence, and Genma let out a long, pained sigh.
"No ... you won't," he said softly. "It's your turn now. I'm sorry, Ranma."
Ranma barrelled through the forest, ducking and weaving under branches and between tree trunks, panting heavily as he weaved through the obstacles. Glancing all around him as he went, he searched for a village, a settlement, anything or anyone that might help his father.
There was nothing to be found, however; the pounding of his heart, the rustling of the trees, the rush of his breath and the scrape of his sword upon the ground were his only companions in the forest.
Frantically looking back and forth, Ranma tried to make out something, anything which offered hope. A tree here, a ditch there ...
Off to his right, Ranma saw it; the boundary of the forest. Sliding to a halt, he threw himself toward the clearing, panting heavily as he rushed toward it. Shoving aside a branch that blocked his way, he emerged from the trees and into the grassy clearing.
His rush slowed to a jog, then a stop, as he saw what lay ahead.
Where do I go from here, he wondered, looking back and forth. He spun on his heels and looked back at the forest behind him - thick, imposing, seemingly impenetrable. It stretched around him in a semicircle, reaching all the way around to the cliff edge on either side of the small clear area.
Turning back toward the cliff, he leaned out over it and peered downwards. Craggy, broken rocks protruded from the cliff edge, weathered by years of rainfall and storms. No sharp edges, but nothing to grip on to either.
Far, far below, enormous waves beat mercilessly on the rocky outcroppings at the base of the cliff, churning sea water sending white spray flying into the air with every impact. The dull thud of each wave breaking travelled up the cliff to Ranma's ears, out of synch with the sight below him.
Ranma, it seemed, was stuck between a rock and a hard place.
"Damn it ..." he seethed, hesitation and indecision taking hold of his mind.
"There is no escape," came a voice from the forest edge. Ranma turned toward its source.
"You!" he yelled, taking up a defensive posture. She had made it past Genma, which meant only one thing.
"You ... you killed my father!"
"He killed my sisters!" Shampoo countered with a snarl. "He paid the price for his actions!"
Ranma stared hard at the purple-haired Amazon girl. Seething with rage, he lowered his hand to the handle of his sword.
"Don't do that," Shampoo warned. "You saw what that blade did to your father. You can't control it any better than he did."
"Don't patronise me!" Ranma raged, gripping the sword. Anger coursed through his veins, fury burning at his soul. "Just shut up and fight!"
"I don't want to kill you," Shampoo stated, drawing her own sword. She pulled her bow off her shoulder and placed it on the ground. "I'm here for the sword. Don't make me kill you to get it."
"Don't worry," Ranma countered, slowly drawing the pure white blade from its scabbard. "You won't."
Ranma raised the sword to point at Shampoo, marvelling at how light and small its presence was. It felt to Ranma as if he were pointing at the Amazon with his own finger. He sliced experimentally through the air in front of him, watching the sword trail a perfect arc. His father had not taught him swordfighting, but it felt utterly natural to him.
Shampoo stared at the sword, transfixed, as Ranma slowly waved it back and forth. Its white edges, somehow infused with a depth that reflected light at her with an alluring glimmer, seemed to call out to her with the voice of a true warrior woman.
"So beautiful ..." she murmured, watching the sword closely. Before she knew it, she was rushing forward to attack its wielder.
Ranma felt the sword rising and put up no resistance, letting it drift upwards. He watched as it slowly lifted itself high above his head, wondering for a moment where it was going. He caught sight of a flash of purple and turned to face it.
Shampoo swung her sword with brutal strength, a mighty overhead chop that would finish the battle in one decisive motion - only to have her sword deflected by a lightning-quick parry from Ranma.
Ranma watched Shampoo's blade graze his; a strange sense of detachment came over him as he twirled the sword sideways, the motion sending Shampoo's sword down past his shoulder, the momentum she had put into the swing carrying her body forward past Ranma. He let fly a couple of quick punches into the girl's stomach, followed by a third into her ribs.
Shampoo gasped, clutching her side as she tumbled past Ranma, falling to her knees as the wind was knocked out of her. Groaning, she looked over her shoulder at the boy standing over her.
"You're fast," she said simply.
Ranma merely grunted in response, taking a step backwards and lowering his sword.
Getting to her feet, Shampoo again gripped her sword with both hands and charged toward Ranma, letting out a wild cry as she swung again.
Again Ranma parried the swing, swapping the sword to his left hand to hold off an attack that would have beheaded him. Shampoo's body was left exposed and he took full advantage, launching a volley of punches that began in the stomach and ran up the chest, ending the attack with a violent uppercut to Shampoo's chin.
The sheer force of the blows sent Shampoo flying backwards, her sword tumbling from her hand as she fell. She landed hard, her sword impaling the ground near the trees.
Blood streamed from her nose as she shook her head, trying to throw off the haze of dizziness that had overcome her. She groaned as she sat up, trying not to vomit as a wave of nausea hit her.
Damn him, she thought. He's too fast. I don't know if--
A humming filled Shampoo's left ear and she turned to see Ranma holding his sword's edge near her neck. She swallowed, the waves of heat radiating from the blade making her sweat.
Defeated, she thought, her heart sinking. She was left only two options.
"Kill me quickly," she said quietly, closing her eyes. "I've failed."
Ranma looked down at the girl before him; trembling, bleeding, defeated. He hated her intensely; a fire burned in his soul, driving him to seek justice and vengeance for his father's death. An angry voice screamed in his ear, telling him to drive the sword through this girl and be done with it.
Raising the sword, Ranma gripped it with both hands and stared down at Shampoo's face, a bloodied, tear-streaked face that offered no resistance, nothing but resignation to fate.
Anger; furious, devastating, world-shaking anger. Ranma's eyes burned red with rage as he slowly, shakily drew the sword back, poised to strike.
Shampoo felt the heat and humming recede and squeezed her eyes tightly closed, waiting for the inevitable. Tears trickled down her cheeks as she awaited the inevitable, thoughts of her family and her shameful defeat running like phantoms through her mind. Closing her hands into fists, she quietly waited for death.
The silence in her ears was deafening, the wind and the distant pounding of the waves the only sounds she could make out. Taking a deep breath, she opened one eye a tiny fraction.
Ranma stood a few paces away, facing the cliff, staring intently at the sword. Shampoo opened both eyes and stared at the boy, who seemed to be completely ignoring her. Taking advantage of the situation, she leapt to her feet.
"I can feel it," Ranma muttered, staring deep into the pure white blade. He stepped toward the cliff, holding the sword up toward the sky to watch it catch and reflect the sunlight. "I can see into you ...."
"Give me the sword."
Ranma turned to face the voice, lowering the sword slightly. Shampoo stood near the forest edge, holding her bow. An arrow pointed directly at Ranma, and he could see her fingers straining to hold back the bowstring.
He looked away from her and back at the blade. His reflection stared back at him, surrounded by a white hot inferno, the blazing heat between him and his reflection threatening to burn his face, such was its intensity.
"I'm starting to figure this out," Ranma said, glancing in Shampoo's direction for just a moment. "This sword ...."
"Give me the sword," Shampoo repeated, more firmly. "I won't ask again."
"I can't do that," Ranma replied, a dark frown creasing his features. He lowered the sword, and stared intently at Shampoo. "I have a promise to keep."
Shampoo gasped, staggering back a step as wave of heat struck her, the fiery intensity of Ranma's gaze taking her by surprise. Gritting her teeth, she steeled herself, planted her back foot firmly in the ground, and took aim. This had to end.
"Damn you for making me kill again, outsider," she snarled, and loosed her arrow. It sped through the air, straight and true, and plunged into Ranma's shoulder with a sickening thud.
Ranma cried out in pain, instinctively reaching up to grip his shoulder. Blood ran between his fingers as he tugged furiously at the arrow's shaft. Pain burst through his body as he gave a hard tug to dislodge the arrow, causing his sword arm to jerk involuntarily.
Ranma's eyes widened as his sword slipped from his fumbling grasp and tumbled backwards. He grasped desperately for it with fingers clumsy with lack of blood; the sword slipped through them and dropped below the cliff's edge.
"No!" Ranma cried out in desperation, watching the sword spin as it fell toward the rolling ocean far below. Numb shock flooded his mind and heart, the stinging pain in his shoulder all but forgotten as he watched his family legacy disappear into the sea.
"Damn you!" he bellowed, whirling to face Shampoo once more. Rage filled every fibre of his being, rage borne of his father's needless death and his own inability to keep his promise. "I'll kill you!"
Shampoo did not respond; she had already released the bowstring to send another arrow hurtling toward Ranma - this time, aimed at his heart.
He had no chance to dodge or think; he barely had time to breathe before the impact. The crude arrow cracked his ribcage, cruelly piercing his chest. Air rushed from his lungs in a silent scream, his mouth hanging open in disbelief as the force of the arrow pushed him backwards toward the cliff.
Arms flailing, eyes wide in stunned agony, Ranma plunged over the edge.
Ranma hurtled toward the sea, arms groping desperately for something, anything to slow his descent. There was nothing to grasp but air; Ranma gasped for breath as the howling wind pushed up against him. A wave of windy fists assaulted him with brutal force, bruising his body with their intensity.
The fall seemed to last forever, Ranma's body shaking with cold as the windstream robbed him of warmth. The pain in his chest throbbed excruciatingly, his lifeblood slipping from his body as he plunged endlessly downwards. He toppled end over end, utterly out of control.
The spinning of his body slowed, and Ranma managed to catch a glimpse of the ocean below him. The waves broke violently on a rocky outcropping directly below him, and -- a glimpse of white light winked at him from within the ocean spray. Ranma blinked painfully, eyes dry from the harsh wind, and tried to focus on that spot of white.
The white glimmer grew larger, and Ranma was able to make out the blade of his sword protruding straight up from the rocky surface below. Ranma felt a wave of relief wash over him as he realised the sword had become stuck in the rocks and had not been swept away by the tide.
That relief was quickly displaced by a sinking dread as Ranma realised that the sword was pointing straight upwards, and he was heading straight for it.
Ranma's mouth flew open in a piercing scream as he descended toward his doom.
Shampoo's bow clattered to the ground, abandoned, as she heard the scream. She dashed toward the cliff edge, the brutal thud of Ranma's landing reaching her ears just as she reached it.
Horrified, she stared down at the flames below.
Ranma screamed, writhing in agony as his half-crushed body burned on the jagged rocks. His sword gleamed red with his blood, protruding from his back as his body began to burn from the inside out.
He choked on his blood, coughing up mouthfuls of vomit as he clutched his tortured throat with a flaming hand. He felt his skin burning and rolled back and forth across the rocks, frantically trying to put out the fire; all he managed to do was shove the sword deeper into his stomach.
The arrow lodged in his chest burned and crumbled to ash, unnoticed by Ranma as he tried desperately to put out the flames, to pull out the sword, to die; to somehow stop the pain.
An enormous wave reared up and crashed over Ranma; the fire was extinguished with a hiss of steam as the icy water slammed into his body.
She could put up no resistance as the wave powerfully shoved her up against the cliff face, nor could she stop herself from being dragged across the rocks and into the ocean as the wave retreated back into its creator.
Ranma embraced the icy depths as she sank below the surface, and did not fight the darkness as it swallowed her whole. Her final breath bubbled up to the surface, lost amongst the raging tide.
Frozen, silent bliss enveloped her consciousness - silent but for a soft awareness that echoed in her mind.
"Welcome, my friend. I'm so pleased to see you again ...."