Akane stared down at the elevator platform, watching each droplet of water dive into the rapidly-deepening puddles that covered the metal. The liquid was ankle-deep now, and had begun to spill over the elevated edges of the platform and into the abyss below. The added weight of the water made the elevator's progress seem even slower than before - the elevator mechanism, it seemed, was more badly damaged than she had first thought.
The water soothed her anxiety as it always did, and yet she felt somehow saddened by its presence. Her sodden hair clung to her face, releasing blue-tinged droplets of water that ran like azure tears down her cheeks. The water was a thing of beauty - she wanted to rush out and greet it, to dive into the bright ocean swell and let the waters take her where they would. A free spirit, united with the ocean. Not like this, trapped, a sodden rat in a giant metal cage, facing the dark - alone.
Behind her, Nine sneezed and shook his head back and forth, sending forth a cascade of water droplets. She glanced over her shoulder at him and offered what she hoped was an encouraging smile. He returned it, grateful for the gesture. No, she was not alone. There was someone depending on her, now. Did that make her any more or less alone? She thought of Ranma, and of her father. They were both alone, too.
She shook her head to clear it of such morbid thoughts. Her hair whipped back and forth with the motion, striking her in the face. A scowl crept across her features. Almost without realising it she reached out her hand, cupping her palm to gather water. The water was drawn toward it, dozens of droplets curving gracefully through the air to land upon her skin.
A sizable puddle quickly formed and when her hand was full, she closed her fingers. Within her grasp the water changed, solidifying and hardening into a new form. Not quite a liquid but not quite a solid, it was a strange, ethereal ribbon of water that greeted her eyes when she opened her fist. She looked down at it, letting it run along her skin, its touch that of smooth, cool silk.
"How did you do that?" asked Nine, his voice carrying a distinct tone of suspicion. "Control the water, I mean?"
"I don't control it," she insisted. She turned her head and glanced at him over her shoulder. His eyes followed the ribbon as she raised it and tied her hair back in a loose ponytail. She smiled at him, a gesture he did not return. She glanced away again, leaving his staring eyes behind. "I ask it for help, and it helps me."
"Ask it? How do you ask water for something?"
"How? I don't know. I just do," she said. She snorted. "I guess that sounds pretty stupid."
"It's just ... a bit much to swallow," Nine commented. He chewed his lip, glancing at the ribbon in her hair before returning his attention to her face. "It doesn't make sense to me that you can do it and not know how."
"I suppose that's true," she admitted. "It's pretty hard to explain."
How much to tell him? How much did he need to know? How much could she risk sharing? How much could she trust him? How much did she truly know, herself? She found herself having to suppress a smirk.
I think I understand now, Ranma.
"The water is a living creature," she said after a time, looking down at her hands as she held them both forward. As before, nearby droplets of water curved, changing their trajectories to fall gracefully into her hands.
Slowly, she brought her hands together and watched as the water formed into a small group of spheres. The tiny balls leapt from her hand into the air and floated above her skin, circling one another. "It lives, breathes, and feels, just like us."
Nine's eyes widened as more droplets fell into the spheres, which grew and expanded with each addition. "Alive ...?"
"Mm," Akane said with a nod. Ryujin had shown her without words. Trying to describe what she had seen was more difficult than she had imagined. "All life comes from water, and all life returns to water. So, in a way, the water is life."
The spheres danced in lazy circles across her palm, and she smiled down at their display. "When a person dies, they return to the water. Their memories go with them, and the adding of those memories to the water is how it grows, lives and experiences - it lives through us."
"It's a cycle," Nine quietly observed, transfixed by the dancing spheres.
"That's exactly right," Akane agreed with a nod. "A person's memories are what makes them who they are. The water gives us life, and we repay the debt when we die by giving those memories to live on within the water. Nobody is lonely in the water. It's a nice thought, don't you think?"
Nine said nothing, but Akane saw his eyes move to follow the water as the collection of spheres joined together into one larger sphere that rotated slowly, suspended in midair above her palm. A tiny white light sparked inside it, glowing gently as it bounced around within the sphere. It was joined by another, and another, and another, until eventually the sphere itself began to glow milky white.
"It's beautiful," Nine whispered, leaning in closer to stare at the sphere. The gentle glow illuminated his features, casting shadows across the wrinkles in his forehead.
His confused expression drew a laugh from her. It was astounding how the water could make her feel better under any circumstances. Its presence drew the worry and concern from her like poison from a wound, leaving behind the clear, calm serenity she had come to love.
"I think it's showing off," Akane replied, giving him a mischevious smile.
The gunshot rang on in his ears, a shadow of the explosive sound that ripped through the air even as the bullet ripped through flesh. Silence washed the ringing away, leaving behind only the sound of heavy breathing and the clatter of an empty magazine striking the floor. The last monster's glassy-eyed stare gave way as it fell backwards, hitting the ground with a lifeless thump.
Ryoga jammed the spare magazine into his pistol, slamming it home with his palm. The last magazine, the last defence. Yoiko held the other gun, but it too must have been empty, or nearly so. She must have used it. There seemed too many bodies for his bullets alone.
His hands worked on their own, drawing back the slide and releasing it. It slid smoothly back into place with a snap, chambering the round that marked the beginning of the end of his ammunition. Twelve rounds remained. Too far from the launch bay, not near enough to the control room - they were stuck, right in the middle.
"Are you okay?" he whispered, glancing over his shoulder at his sister. She nodded erratically, her gaze not shifting from the darkened depths of the corridor.
"How much ammo you got?" he asked. Her eyes, blazing with adrenaline, flicked to his face for but a moment. He reached for her hands without waiting for an answer. She was shellshocked - there would be none. None that made sense, anyway.
As his hand drew near hers she snatched the pistol away, pulling it out of his reach. He frowned, but could not blame her for her wariness. In her situation, he would not want to be unarmed either. A distant rattle echoed down the corridor, barely catching his ear. It was rhythmic, rapid - footsteps. He swallowed hard.
"They're coming," Yoiko whimpered, her gaze darting back and forth in the dark. "We gotta find a way out of here."
"I know," he replied, raising his pistol. The faint, inhuman sound of screeching reached his ears. Drawn to the sound of gunfire, no doubt. He grimaced, tightened his hold upon the pistol grip. Sweat rolled from his burning palms over his fingers. The sound was coming from behind him, too. There was nowhere to go. This was a mistake. They should not have come.
"Cover my back. Aim for their chests."
"We're almost at the top," Nine observed, pointing upwards. "That looks like a door."
"You're right, it does," Akane agreed, turning her eyes to the direction he was pointing to. Relief came and went, brushed aside by the realisation that, even once they reached the top of the elevator, they were still lost deep inside the enormous submarine. "I wonder where it leads."
She shook her head, determined not to dwell on such pessimistic thoughts. Instead she sank to one knee and lowered the sphere to the floor. The sphere dissipated, the sparks of light dissolving into nothingness as the sphere melted into the water.
Nine's voice broke her concentration. "Do you hear that?"
The pitter-patter of falling waterdrops filled her ears, drowning out whatever sound Nine could hear. She glanced upwards, almost as an afterthought, and her eyes widened. She did not need to hear what Nine could hear. Ryujin's eyes could see quite clearly.
"Yeah," she said with a nod. "I hear it."
In the absence of the sphere's bright light, the shadows above were revealed. They were coming - dozens of them. Coming straight toward the elevator.
I need your help, Akane thought as her hands slowly sank beneath the water's surface. Please. I don't have much time.
Her fingers curled, and within them she felt the water growing warmer. Tiny bubbles danced against her skin as the water heeded her call, swirling energetically around her fingertips as it gathered in her grasp, increasing its density, giving her something to hold. She shivered involuntarily, a sympathetic reaction as the water hardened, trapping the energy contained within.
"What is it?" Nine wondered, peering up at the elevator door. "What do we do?"
Slowly she rose to her feet, drawing from beneath the surface a translucent staff. It glowed faintly, casting a soft blue hue upon the walls of the elevator shaft. She tightened her grip upon it, and felt it ripple against her skin as if to return the embrace. She smiled hopefully, comforted by its presence. With the water by her side, she felt she could stand against anything. She gave Nine a quick glance as she raised the weapon before her.
"I'll protect you. Get behind me."
"I'm coming," Ukyo panted through gritted teeth. She blinked away the hot sweat that rolled down into her eyes. "Wait for me. I'm coming."
Pillar after pillar of the Leviathan Spring's corridors gave way to row upon row of Japanese maples passing by in a blur as she darted between them. Dried burgundy leaves crunched loudly beneath her suddenly bare feet, their touch warm and brittle. Leaping into the air she launched herself off one of the old trees, her bare feet sending snapped branches flying as she pushed herself off and over a thick clump of bushes.
She landed tidily and leapt over a small dried streambed. Her breath surged through her mouth as she pushed her body faster, faster, faster still. She could almost see her now, off in the distance, little more than a tiny silhouette hiding within the bright evening sun. The tiny black shape disappeared over a small rise, its path hidden by the orange orb that hung low over the horizon.
She pushed herself harder, ignoring the burning in her legs and arms, fighting back the stinging pain in her lungs. She would not stop. She would not fail. She would get there in time to ... in time to ....
To save ... Ryoga?
She blinked hard, stumbling as the blood-red hue of the forest vanished, overshadowed by the crimson glow of the Leviathan Spring's emergency lights. The clear twilight air grew heavy with steam and smoke, making her choke upon the heat. She skidded to a stop at a T-intersection and panted heavily, glancing left and then right.
It's happening more often, she thought desperately, her mind swimming in half-remembered images. She bent over and rested her hands upon her knees, panting for breath as she tried to think.
What the hell is happening to me? What are these memories?
Who are you talking to, My Lady?
What? she asked, Seraph Wing's voice catching her off guard.
You were speaking a moment ago, but there is no-one nearby to engage in conversation.
Was I? she stammered, her mind struggling to focus. She leaned heavily upon the nearest wall as dizziness swept over her. The everpresent wail of alarms faded from her consciousness, leaving behind empty silence.
My Lady, are you alright? Seraph Wing inquired, the AI's voice echoing in the sudden emptiness. Your heart rate is erratic and your body temperature is rising abnormally. You should--
"--not be afraid, dear. We both knew this day would come."
The voice was quiet, a woman whispering at Ukyo's ear. She jolted and whirled in place, the sudden movement sending her already-disoriented body sliding down the wall. She could feel it, sense it. A presence behind her, beside her, all around her. She peered into the darkness, but nobody was there.
"Who are you?" she called, her words wild and frightened.
"My time is almost over. But do not regret this. I have brought my fate upon myself."
The ethereal words encircled her, wrapping themselves around her with silken softness. She could see the forest again, aged trees lit by the shards of red sunlight piercing the dying leaves overhead. She breathed, having not done so for a time, and tasted the scent of cut grass in the air.
The voice echoed between the trees, coming from everywhere and nowhere. She spun through the falling leaves, trying to catch a glimpse of the woman, to understand why the voice was so very familiar. Birdcalls filled the air, confusing, distracting.
"Now go. You have a task to complete," said the voice, suddenly concrete. Behind her. She turned toward it, squinting as the sun's glare burned into her eyes--
Alarms screamed inside her head, bright warnings blinking urgently before her eyes as Seraph Wing's emergency response routines surged into action. She felt her whole body shaking with the frantic beating of her heart, the throbbing in her head as hot blood seared her veins. She fell to her knees, clutching the sides of her head as the scorching pain burned into her mind.
Your neural activity is spiralling out of control! I can't stop it!
The sunlight flared across her vision once more, growing brighter and brighter until it obscured all else. She squinted her eyes in a futile attempt to hold back the brilliant light. Slowly, the light began to fade once more.
A woman stood before Ukyo, half-obscured by the trunk of a maple tree. The light of the sinking sun danced over the woman's face, igniting her auburn hair and casting aside the shadows that obscured her features for just a moment.
"You," Ukyo whispered, her eyes widening. "Gods, I ... I know you ...."
The woman smiled.
Ukyo jolted at the distant sound of gunfire. Her surreal fantasy dissolved before her eyes and fell away, leaving her on her knees in the corridor once more. The memories melted into each other, combining and distorting. Within moments, the images were blurred beyond recognition.
She shook her head back and forth as the sights, sounds and smells of the Leviathan Spring flooded back into her senses. Nausea gripped her stomach as the dizzying flood swept over her. She closed her eyes to block it out, but to no avail.
My Lady! Can you hear me?
Her stomach heaved. She coughed, wincing as a burning pain filled her throat. She did not consciously open her mouth, but the sound of her own retching reached her ears. Slowly, as the dizziness subsided, she opened her eyes and looked down at the puddle of vomit below.
I hear you.
That last neural spike almost left you unconscious. Your body is burning itself up. The neural interfaces are malfunctioning, but I cannot identify the source of the problem. You must evacuate immediately and seek full system diagnostics.
No! she growled, pulling herself to her feet. We can deal with it later. I won't let this beat me. Ryoga needs me!
That may be, but you are in no state to help him! Your biokinetic plating is malfunctioning again. I had to take it offline to stop the neural spike. Your neural activity is stabilising, but even with the plating deactivated, it has not returned to normal. The cortical bindings are having difficulty coping. If they fail, we will disconnect.
It doesn't matter. I don't need the damned plating. Just tell me where he is, Ukyo insisted, bringing one hand to clutch at her burning forehead in a vain attempt to push back the agonising headache that had begun to take root there.
I cannot risk that, My--
As you wish ... My Lady, Seraph Wing replied after a time. I am bound to your will, even if your will is foolish. My sensors indicate that Ryoga is directly ahead, further down this corridor.
I'm not going to leave him, Ukyo said resolutely. She took a step forward and shuddered as the nausea made itself known again. But I think I'm going to need your help.
"They're here, Akane."
Akane tightened her hold upon her staff, staring up into the blackness overhead. The rattling sound Nine had noticed had ceased, leaving only the everpresent sound of the water spilling from the pipe overhead. A long, low creak echoed up from the depths of the elevator shaft.
The rattling may have stopped, but she could still see them, looking down at her. Ryujin's eyes could see them hovering menacingly above, a dark cloud overhead. Hidari. Dozens of them, perched like crows upon a small service gantry near the top of the elevator shaft.
"Yeah," she whispered. "Stay behind me. I'll take care of this."
Yoiko pressed her back against her brother's, recoiling in horror as the horde of monsters mindlessly advanced, the stares of their empty eyes not leaving her even as the clones passed over the blood-soaked bodies of their fallen brethren. They no longer charged as the first had done. They now seemed aware of the inevitable, content to walk as they closed inexorably upon her.
She felt Ryoga's shoulder jolt, heard the clap of a gunshot behind her - a moment of deathly silence - then the shrill scream, a heavy thud. He made it seem so easy. Her arms shook uncontrollably as she slowly raised her own pistol, both hands clasped awkwardly about the grip, sweat-soaked finger gingerly touching the trigger.
She didn't want to. She had never killed anything before in her life. She had never even held a gun before, let alone fired one. She hated what fate had forced her into. But she had no choice.
Hot tears blurred her vision and stung her cheeks as she stared down the unsteady barrel of her gun. Her finger tensed. Squeezed. The trigger began to move, resisting more than she had imagined it would. It was not that easy to kill someone. She started to squeeze harder.
Her eyes closed themselves, trying to banish the multitude of identical faces from her mind's eye. She could hear them breathing, snarling. She was out of time.
A burst of gunfire shook her, and her eyes snapped open. The monsters were panicked, turning away from her to some unseen foe behind them. The plink-plink-plink of footsteps reached her ears, now loud enough to hear over the hissing and moaning of the monsters.
Her finger slipped from the trigger and her eyes grew wide as she saw what seemed to be Ukyo's head rising over the heads of the monsters. Another gunshot burst through the air. She stared blankly, uncomprehending, as Ukyo's mouth moved. It was a moment later that the sound of Ukyo's voice penetrated her brain and the words broke through:
Nine held his breath as he lowered himself to his knees, trying and failing to suppress the shivering that wracked his body. He was soaked from head to toe, the cold water having long since drained the warmth from his skin, but it was not the chill that caused his body to tremble.
He could feel them lurking above. He did not know how many there were, but even one was enough to fill him with dread. They were just like him, and yet he was somehow different. How, he did not know, but that difference was the reason they hated him, and the reason he hated them.
In his sleep - in the tube - he had heard them inside his mind. Calling to him, screaming at him, their howling voices never ceasing their cries for his blood. When his slumber finally ended and the tube released him he felt an immeasurable sense of relief - at last he had escaped them. The voices were gone. His mind was his own. The feeling of exhilaration was indescribable. An entirely new world had been opened to him. A world free of their hatred.
Then he met Six-Three. Then, it all changed.
Nine clutched his arms to his chest, remembering the look in Six-Three's eyes the moment they had met. In that moment, he realised that he had escaped nothing. Their hatred had followed him. In that instant, his paradise became purgatory.
Six-Three's eyes burned with a hatred so intense it went beyond the complexities of emotion. It was a simple, primal hatred, something so deeply ingrained that it could only be borne out of instinct. The vicious beating he had taken at Six-Three's hands had injured his body, but it was the hatred in those eyes that had injured his soul.
Those eyes. He would never forget those eyes. They were his own eyes. He had escaped the attack with his life, but he knew the scars left by those eyes would not heal. He had realised then that this world was a dark place, that waking from his dream had not delivered him from the torment he had suffered.
Then he met Akane. Then, it all changed again.
She had looked upon him not with hatred but with compassion, understanding and kindness. She had treated his wounds and healed his heart with her gentle words. Even now, as his foul brethren bore down upon him, she stood between him and them, a beautiful ivory goddess standing firm and tall against the darkness.
She moved. He blinked, taken by surprise as she darted forth, leaving a wake behind her as she slid forward through the water. He glanced up and realised that the enemy had already begun to move. He swallowed hard and silently wished his newfound guardian luck.
Three had leapt from their perch and were falling toward the platform, but Akane was already in motion, leapfrogging from the platform railing into the air. She twisted in midair, smashing her staff into the head of her first enemy. His body spun violently from the impact, arms flailing wildly.
Akane shoved both feet into his chest, springing away from him and toward the next. She was halfway between them, her staff held high, when the first's body turned to water and ruptured, the detonation sending globs of water flying in all directions.
Even as Akane brought her staff down to smash into the head of the second her other hand was outstretched toward the mass of water that was once the first. She called out to the water, quickly hardening the globs into sharp shards of ice. A simple flick of her wrist send the shards careening toward the remaining enemy.
The second's body, pushed by the downward strike, smashed powerfully into the elevator platform and ruptured. Akane landed lightly upon the platform as his body's water ran over the edge in a torrent. The third's corpse, impaled by dozens of ice spikes, plummeted past the platform and into the shaft below, a faint bursting sound the only sign of his demise.
Nine stared, open-mouthed, as Akane looked upward with a smirk upon her face. She raised her staff over her head and brought it down to rest across her shoulders.
"I've become stronger," she called with an asperity Nine had never before heard in her voice. "You won't beat me that easily."
Ukyo did not resist as Seraph Wing co-opted her consciousness, lowering its spatial sense over her mind like a veil. The AI's visualisation supplanted and superseded all of her own senses, which were now little more than a distraction. She felt herself disconnect from the world around her and let out a sigh of relief as the quiet, soothing tactical combat interface sank into place around her.
The heat and humidity of the steam-filled corridor was gone along with her nausea, replaced with the infinite clarity of her spatial sense. The sounds, sights and smells disappeared, leaving her in solitude. This was no hazy recollection, no half-remembered fantasy. This was real. This was now. There was no place for confusing memories here - only absolute, perfect precision.
She felt herself hop up against the nearest wall and push off with one foot, her enhanced leg muscles sending her careening headfirst into the air, diving over the horde and toward Ryoga. The sensation was akin to floating as she hung in the air, seemingly suspended in time.
Her arms shifted of their own accord, bringing her guns to bear upon the clones directly below her. She fired, explosive detonations of gunpowder seeming as shockwaves that rippled through her mind. She felt the bullets as if they were a part of her body, stabbing downwards with utmost precision through the bodies of her enemies.
The world seemed to rotate around her and then she sensed gravity shifting; a moment later the floor pressed at her feet once again. Updated tactical information flooded into her brain, a blurred stream of consciousness from Seraph Wing's sensor arrays. The relative positions of Ryoga and Yoiko were dutifully noted and accounted for.
She felt herself moving, spinning, sending volley after volley of supersonic blasts into the crowd that ringed her. A tiny part of her mind kept track of the number of enemies remaining, decreasing the count with each precisely-aimed shot. Every single bullet found its mark, penetrating vital organs with absolute precision. One shot, one kill.
She observed the gunfight with sheltered dispassion, tracking the trajectories of each bullet and the positions of her remaining targets. Her discarded sense of hearing did not hear the screams of her enemies, nor did her unused eyesight show her the haze of bright blood that rose from each bullet's impact.
A low-ammunition warning flared across her mind but was quickly dismissed, handled by an autonomous Seraph Wing module. Without conscious thought her hands deftly withdrew two magazines from pouches on her legs and jammed them into her guns. Barely two seconds passed before she was firing once more.
She felt something then, a glitch hidden amid the complexities of the tactical display. Where moments before there had been only raw, digital data, there was now something new. Something the tactical routines were not designed to handle. Something that punctured the datastream, rose above the autonomous subsystems and demanded the attention of her conscious mind.
A ... memory? Here?
She's ... incredible.
Nine stared, held utterly in thrall by the spectacle unfolding before him. His life outside the tube had been short, his experiences few, and yet he knew in his life he would see few things more astounding than what was unfolding before his eyes in that moment.
Her movements were swift, graceful and deadly, her irenic spirit seemingly cast aside to make way for a bold warrior's soul. His brothers descended upon her, a slavering horde of fists and teeth and yet despite their numbers she effortlessly cut wide swaths through their disorganised ranks.
His eyes followed her, drawn as moths to a flame. Her robe flowed around her, disguising her movements as she curled and weaved. Her movements seemed more akin to an artful dance than combat, filled as they were with gentle arcs and sways. She ducked, rolled, leapt and flipped around, over, under and past her enemies, striking out with astonishing force from what seemed to be all directions at once. Her staff was rarely less than a blur of motion, its dizzying movements leaving flying trails of water in their wake.
She moved at a speed beyond his measure and yet, somehow, she appeared calm, quiet - almost contemplative. Even as her body spun in a fury, casting forth a furious maelstrom of water to strike down her enemies, her face was unmarked by emotion, her heart untainted by anger. She was at peace, and all the more deadly for it.
They can't even get near her, he realised. She's incredible.
He noticed, in his moment's contemplation, that even in the midst of such chaos she managed to steer them all away from him. Surrounded by so many enemies all screaming for her blood, she still thought of him, of his safety. He had not been attacked or even approached because of her.
Perhaps, he thought, the world was not such a dark place after all. Perhaps his situation was not as hopeless as he had feared. Before he could even smile at the thought, it was stolen from him by a sudden flash of anxiety. There was something wrong. Something was coming.
The voice was soft, the words silken and yet they were carried with a strength that took them into the far reaches of the bright white void. Ukyo blinked, taken by surprise. Sound? She had no ears to hear with. How could she hear sounds?
Turning, she was met by a woman in a bright blue kimono, decorated ornately with a spiralling pattern of white butterflies. Somehow, the pattern was familiar to her. The woman smiled at her.
The woman was young, appearing little older than Ukyo herself. Her face - framed by fine blue silk and light auburn hair - was soft, smooth, porcelain painted with a serene smile. Despite the calm expression upon her face, the woman's deep blue eyes were deep, seeming to stare straight through Ukyo, their haunted blue cores carried an intensity of emotion that made her heart ache.
Something about those eyes touched her, filling her with a sense of amazement, even reverence, that was almost tangible. She stared, mesmerised by the beauty and majesty that emanated from within that face. Her dry throat protested as she swallowed, and she realised peripherally that she had somehow acquired a body.
A chilled wind dusted them both, rustling the fabric covering Ukyo's new body and giving gentle sway to the kimono of her visitor.
"You ..." she whispered at length as she found the voice inside her new body. "I know you. I saw you ... in the forest."
"I'm glad you remember," the woman replied, visibly pleased. "I was worried that you had long since forgotten everything."
"Where am I? Where did Ryoga go?"
"Don't worry, your body is still fighting for your friend," the woman replied. She smiled kindly. "You think of him before yourself. Your concern for him is admirable."
"Who are you? Are you the one showing me these memories?"
"They aren't my memories to show," the woman replied. The wind abated, leaving them still. "They are yours. You found them yourself."
"Mine?" Ukyo asked, taken aback. "How can they be mine?"
"Even if you don't recognise them, they are your memories," the woman replied. The smile faltered, her eyes turned away.
"How can they be my memories if I don't remember them?"
Ukyo stared at her, eyes locked upon the dancing silk butterflies. The pattern, the woman, they were both so familiar to her. Dancing at the edge of her memory, tantalisingly close to recollection but just beyond her reach. She knew this woman. She could feel it in every part of her being. She knew in her heart that, whoever she was, the woman was telling the truth.
"The curse is slowly corroding your memory," she replied. "I'm sure you can feel it eating away at the edges of your mind."
"Curse? What curse?"
The woman turned away, clasping her hands together behind herself, and began to pace slowly back and forth thoughtfully. Ukyo watched her for a time, waiting for an answer, but somehow unwilling to ask again. After a brief silence, the woman turned to face Ukyo again.
"Tell me. Do you remember who you are hunting?"
"What? Hunting? I ... Ranma," Ukyo said, surprised at her own hesitation.
The woman's friendly expression did not change. "What do you think Ranma did?"
Ukyo swallowed hard. That, at least, she remembered. "She ... killed my mother."
"Is that so?" A silent moment passed before the woman cocked an eyebrow, stepped toward Ukyo and placed her hands upon her shoulders. "Do you even remember your mother?"
Ukyo stared, open-mouthed. She wanted to cry out in outrage at such a humiliating question, to knock down this cruel accusation. Who could forget their own mother? And yet, she could not summon anger or even indignation.
A stark, painful realisation swept across her mind, a chilling thought that sent cold sweatdrops rolling down the back of her neck. She swallowed, unable to ignore a sudden, painful knot in her stomach. Her vision blurred as tears formed in her eyes and she shook her head, unable to speak.
"I didn't think so."
"How can I not know that?" Ukyo asked through sobs as salty tears stained her cheeks. She sniffed and wrung her hands, utterly at a loss. "How could I forget her?"
"Don't be embarrassed," the woman offered kindly. "It isn't your fault."
"Whose fault is it, then?" Ukyo asked, her head dropping limply to her chest. She felt herself gathered into the woman's arms, the warmth of the embrace closing around her. The tears streamed down her face as the gravity of her situation became apparent. How could she avenge a mother she couldn't even remember?
"It is just the nature of these things." The woman's voice washed over the top of her head, as warm and soft as the silk pressed to her face. "You were not supposed to linger this long. The curse is gaining strength, and you are having difficulty coping. It is understandable, even for one as strong as you."
A shuddered breath passed between Ukyo's lips. She held herself tight against the tear-soaked silk for a long time, and when she did eventually speak it was between sobs.
"I ... I want to ask you something."
A thousand and one questions were swirling inside her mind, and yet she could bring herself to ask only three. "How do you know all this? Why do I ... trust everything you say?" she asked, pressing her eyes closed. "Who are you?"
"You already know the answers to those questions, dear. It would be meaningless for me to simply tell you what you should know," the woman replied. "Think. Remembering these things for yourself will make you stronger."
"I remember you, your presence. I feel like I have known you my entire life," Ukyo whispered. "But I don't know who you are. Why don't I know you?"
The woman raised Ukyo's head and pressed her lips to her forehead, using one hand to brush aside her hair. "It's all inside you, dear. It will all come back if you want it to."
"I ... I wish it was that easy, My Lady."
Ukyo's eyes shot open. She pulled herself out of the embrace and stared up at the woman's face. The woman, for her part, appeared as surprised as Ukyo.
"You see?" the woman said, quickly recovering her easy smile. She reached down and wiped tears from beneath Ukyo's astonished eyes. "You're strong. You're remembering already."
"You," Ukyo stammered, suddenly breathless. She stared numbly as her legs gave way from beneath her, leaving her on her knees. The vague sense of recognition that had been dancing so elusively at the fringe of her consciousness burst into the centre of her mind. The name that had been on the tip of her tongue was suddenly stuck in her throat. "You are ...."
With blood draining from her face, Ukyo collapsed forward, pressing her forehead forcefully to the ground in total submission.
"Lady Nodoka," she whispered, her voice shaking. "Forgive me, My Lady, I didn't mean to--"
"It's alright, dear," Nodoka replied, and Ukyo felt a hand atop her head. She looked up, and Nodoka was smiling down at her. "Now, stop that. If anything, I should be bowing to you."
Ukyo stared in wonder at Nodoka's face. There was a bizarre familiarity hidden within those features, a sense of recollection that went beyond a simple memory. She knew this woman, in a way that she did not understand. To feel such devotion and affection toward a person and not have the slightest inkling of the source of those feelings was an intensely unsettling experience, and yet in Nodoka's soothing presence such discomfort seemed utterly insignificant.
"Get up, dear," Nodoka urged.
"As you wish, My Lady," Ukyo stammered, rising slowly and shakily from the ground. Her head stayed low, her eyes locked upon the ground as her cheeks burned.
"Tell me, why did you bow to me?"
"Because you are my master and I am your apprentice."
"And how do you know that?"
"I ... remembered your face, My Lady. The face of my master."
"Do you remember anything else?"
Ukyo closed her eyes and concentrated for a moment. "Nothing, My Lady. I had forgotten that I even had a master."
"Interesting. So you don't know why you are my apprentice?"
"No, My Lady," Ukyo replied, her cheeks burning. Why was her memory so distorted? Why could she not remember what her master wanted her to?
"Then I have a question for you," Nodoka said. "If you don't know -why- you are my apprentice, why do you accept it as a fact?"
"Because," Ukyo began, opening her eyes as she struggled to find the words. For a moment, she could not. "Because I am bound to your will. I don't know why, but I know that I am."
She was swimming in newfound emotions. On one hand she did not understand how such utter devotion to Nodoka could appear out of thin air - on the other, she could not understand how she could ever have forgotten it. It seemed so natural that, despite its suddenness, the desire to serve felt a part of her. The intensity of her devotion was almost frightening, and yet now that she remembered it, she could not imagine living without it.
Ukyo held her position, waiting for her master's response, but none came. Nodoka's breath brushed over her head, and there was a quiet sigh. Ukyo trembled as she felt the warmth of her master's hand atop her head, soft fingertips running lightly through her hair. Her head craned upwards of its own volition, seeking the contact.
"Very well, then. I have a task for you, if you insist on being my apprentice again. Look at me, and I will explain it."
Slowly, warily, Ukyo raised her head, feeling as though she were breaking an ancient taboo by willingly looking upon the face of her master. She swallowed as Nodoka's face once more came into view, smile still intact.
"This is a supremely important task. In this, you must not fail. Do you understand?"
"I understand," Ukyo acknowledged, bowing her head momentarily. "What am I to do, My Lady?"
Ryoga let out a long, slow, shaky breath.
The corridor was still, the monsters slain. The acrid stench of blood hung heavy in the air, mingling with the smell of scorched gunpowder. Thick blood covered the walls, floor, and ceiling. A fine red mist still floated on the air, slowly descending toward the red sea of bodies below. Water sprayed wildly from the damaged pipes overhead, diluting and spreading the crimson liquid further still.
He swallowed hard, not daring to look down. He was covered in it, he knew. Yoiko was, as well. He could feel her small hand in his, shaking uncontrollably. His own hand was shaking just as much as hers.
Ukyo knelt with her back toward him, arms akimbo, two pistols pointing at the ceiling. He could see her shoulders rising and falling with quick, shallow breaths. He wanted to run out to her, to cry out her name, to ask if she was alright, to hold her in his arms. He wanted to do anything, even if it was just to scream at the horror of it all. But he could not move, he could not speak.
Gods, Ukyo ... is this what I helped to create? What have we done to you?
Slowly, Ukyo rose to her feet. Her bloodsoaked uniform dribbled the blood of her enemies. Her skin, her hair, her entire body was soaked.
Ryoga felt Yoiko's hand tighten its hold on his. Ukyo turned toward them, staring from beneath a bloodsoaked brow with bloodshot eyes that shone with a dangerous gleam. Her guns sank back into their holsters as she approached them, holding them in place with her gaze.
She walked through a stream of water - the biokinetic plating flickered on for a moment, deflecting the water with an angry hiss, before faltering and disappearing, allowing the water through once more. The water ran over her face and carried with it the blood, and seemingly her anger. Her eyes softened as she looked at him, and even within the pipe's spray he could see tears forming there.
"Ryoga," she silently mouthed to him. "Help me."
Her body began to pitch forward. Ryoga, his fear forgotten, dashed forward and grabbed her, closing his arms tightly around her. He held her light frame easily, supporting her under the water's spray.
"Ryoga ... tell me," Ukyo whispered, her eyes falling closed. "My Lady ... tell me why it ... calls me ...."
"I've got you," he said, pulling her body against his. He flinched at the feel of her skin as she shivered in his arms. She was hot - too hot. He turned to his sister. "Yoiko, she's burning up!"
"What's wrong with her?" Yoiko asked, stepping forward to look at Ukyo with wide eyes. Her pistol clattered to the floor, abandoned.
"I don't know," Ryoga replied, his voice wavering, "but it looks serious. We've gotta get her to a hospital."
"We can't take her to a hospital with Seraph Wing implants!" Yoiko replied, taken aback by her brother's words. The fear in her voice was gone, replaced with absolute incredulity. With the threat removed, her usual personality was once more making itself known. "What the hell are you thinking?"
"I don't know ... I don't know!" Ryoga replied, fighting back a panic that was clawing insistently at the edge of his mind. The feel of a limp body in his arms was scaring the hell out of him. He tried to calm himself, to think. "Okay. Okay. We have to get her down to the lab. We can take care of her there."
"No way!" Yoiko exclaimed, grabbing her brother's arm. "We've got Ukyo, now we have to get out of here!"
"Stop it!" Yoiko yelled. "We probably would have made it to the control room and back, but we sure as hell aren't going to survive a trip down to the labs. This sub is burning, and the containment systems are shot to hell. Once they fail completely, this whole sub is going to turn into a furnace."
Ryoga stared at her, his eyes angry, his jaw tight. She grasped his shoulder and shook it, exasperated.
"Even if we make it down there, there's no power. We can't do anything without power. Think about it. If we stay here we are all going to die. We've got her now, and the only way to help her is to get off this sub. Do you want to fight more of those things? Come on!"
Akane panted hard, lungs burning as she forced breath into them. She had been fighting for what seemed like an age. The Hidari clones offered little resistance to her artful strikes; however, they had the advantage of numbers. No matter how many she freed from their bodies, the dark cloud overhead seemed to grow no thinner.
Two more dived at her, one at each side. She raised her staff horizontally, catching one in the face and the other in the chest with the ends of her weapon. Their own momentum did the damage, pressing their bodies into the staff until they popped like overripe tomatoes. As quickly as they were gone, another three appeared to take their place, attacking as one. She spun her staff, swinging it at an angle to catch all three in one strike.
Her strokes were becoming wilder - her muscles were losing the strength to control their movements. Even with Ryujin's help, she could not pretend that her body was not growing weak. Perhaps, she realised, that was exactly what the Hidari were hoping for.
They're trying to wear me down, she thought. Waiting for a weak spot.
As another two charged at her she deftly leapt into a high somersault, vaulting gracefully over their heads. Her staff came down upon their necks, sending them sprawling.
It's only a matter of time. What do I do?
Her eyes caught a glimpse of Nine, still huddled in his corner, watching the fight with wide young eyes. No, she realised, he isn't watching the fight. What, then?
She landed from her somersault and gripped her staff more tightly, readying it for the next attack. But no attack came. The sudden lack of attack was jarring, and she found herself shifted slightly off-balance by the sudden stillness in her own body.
She breathed heavily, the sound of her own breath loud in her ears. She was still surrounded, still heavily outnumbered, and yet - they did not attack. Straightening herself, she planted one end of her staff upon the ground and looked around at the motionless Hidari.
They, like Nine, were staring up into the elevator shaft, their eyes as wide as his. Bewilderment boiled inside her brain as she looked around at the crowd of Hidari. They were ignoring her now, their relentless attacks forgotten. Every single one was staring.
"Ranma," she whispered, as realisation took hold. Her companion was there, standing among the Hidari on the perch far above.
A frigid chill descended upon the platform, freezing the falling droplets of water into hardened balls of ice that smashed violently into the platform, shattering into tiny fragments as they crashed into the metal. The air grew heavy as a mist arose from the water, thick clouds that obscured her vision.
Even inside the warmth of her robe she could not suppress the shiver that ran down her spine. Her staff fell from suddenly-numb fingers and clattered to the ground. A moment later it dissolved into the water. Her breath shook as she exhaled, her frozen breath disappearing into the mists. She wanted to turn and look where the Hidari were looking, but she could not.
She knew what was coming. Ryujin's eyes were opened wide. She finally understood, and with understanding came a cold, paralysing dread. No, it was not Ranma. Not any more. She should have known. She should have seen it coming. If she had known earlier -- but that did not matter.
It was too late for that now. There was no point in running or hiding. There was nothing left but to wait. With the water pipe frozen, the artificial rain ceased. The pitter-patter of falling water disappeared, swallowed up by an unnatural silence. She closed her eyes, silently enduring the painfully long moment of anticipation.
And then, at last, Ranma-Ryukyu moved.