A lone figure stood amongst the fiery maelstrom, silent and motionless amongst the chaotic fury of the flames.
Scorching, unyielding, the swirling inferno circled, an unending firestorm of unbearable intensity. The very air seemed to give way to the rampant blaze, bright red bursts of flame dancing to an unseen rhythm around the empty silhouette.
Blackness enveloped the figure in spite of the fierce orange light cast by the flames. The pitch black gloom seemed to overwhelm the light, to hold the fire at bay. The figure stepped forward, black liquid pooling at its feet, pushing back the wall of fire.
A small puff of frozen mist rose from the shadows as the figure slowly raised its head. Two points of bright white light ignited within the darkness as the figure opened its eyes, throwing off the veil of shadows to reveal a scarred, sunken face framed by frayed, smouldering hair.
"Wha-?" Akane asked, shaking her head as Ranma's voice snapped her free from her daydream.
"I said, we're here."
"We ... are?" Akane asked, utterly disoriented.
The sights, sounds and smells of the forest flooded Akane's senses, washing away the hollow dreams that had held her mind captive. The memories tried to cling on - fire - death - pain - blood - sending Akane reeling, staggering backwards a step as nausea gripped her stomach.
Dropping to one knee, she fought back the urge to retch as memories of Ranma's pale skin, awash with blood, fought to dominate her mind.
So much blood ... dripping, pooling, not warm, frozen.
Her hand came to her mouth. She noticed it shaking, her own skin as deathly white as Ranma's had been, her fingers stained with the same blood.
"Are you okay?"
Ranma's voice once again brought her back to reality, the icy touch of a hand upon Akane's shoulder jolting her into wakefulness.
Shaking her head to clear it, Akane gave a weak nod. She lowered her hand to the ground and pushed downwards, willing herself to rise to her feet. A soft, cold sensation enveloped her hand as she pushed. As she stood, she looked down at her hand once more and noticed it covered in fresh mud.
She cast her eyes over the surroundings. Where once there had been nothing but endless green forest and dry dirt, there now stood an enormous cliff face, extending up from swampy ground into the distant sky. Squinting, she tried to catch a glimpse of the mountain's peak, but could see nothing beyond the clouds.
Her eyes turned to Ranma, who stood back slightly, seemingly hesitant to approach. Akane shuddered at the sight of dried blood upon Ranma's face, and quickly turned away.
"How long have I ..."
"About an hour," Ranma replied, a look of concern upon her face. "I wondered why you were so quiet. I wasn't sure what to say."
"I don't remember anything," Akane said, her voice feeble. "After the fight ... it's a total blank. I was in another world."
"I know it's difficult to deal with ... this sort of thing," Ranma offered. "The mind has strange ways of coping with pressure."
Akane shakily clutched her stomach. "I feel sick."
"I'm ... sorry you had to see that fight," Ranma said.
"Who was that girl?" Akane asked, looking back to Ranma. "And what the hell happened to you when she stabbed you?"
"She ... her name is Ukyo. Ukyo Kuonji. She's a rival of mine."
"Rival?" Akane asked, warily. "That fight was way, WAY beyond simple rivalry, Ranma."
Ranma sighed, turning away. "Her family and mine have been fighting for years.
"I don't know why the feud started," Ranma continued. "All I know is, Ukyo doesn't like me."
"That's putting it lightly," Akane commented, glancing down at the dried blood that stained her gi. "She must have a reason to want to kill you."
"Maybe she does," Ranma replied with a shrug. "I don't know."
"So ... you just let her attack you like that? You let her stab you, without fighting back? Where is the honour in that?"
"Akane, my father taught me many lessons about honour. The one I'll never forget is the one that cost him his life: to charge blindly into battle every time someone issues a challenge is nothing but foolishness."
"Is that how you survive, by running away?" Akane accused.
"I have fought more than my share of battles!" Ranma replied angrily. She stepped toward Akane and pointed at her. "I have no need to justify myself to you!"
Akane felt suddenly dwarfed by Ranma's imposing presence, as though her companion had doubled in size to obscure the scenery, the flowing blackness of the cloak seeming to close in around her.
"... Sorry ..." Akane stammered, stepping back as Ranma loomed over her.
"The feud between the Kuonji and Saotome houses would not end with Ukyo's death. It would only make things worse," Ranma said, turning away from Akane. "I don't want to be a part of that anymore."
"Ukyo doesn't seem to feel the same way. She didn't seem to mind attacking you."
"It doesn't matter," Ranma said with a sigh, the anger fading from her voice. "There's no harm done, and now Ukyo will leave us alone."
"What do you mean, no harm done?" Akane asked, incredulous. "She stabbed you!"
"I'm a quick healer," Ranma replied, with an edge of bitterness. "Trust me, it's easier this way."
"How on Earth can you say that?" Akane asked in slack-jawed amazement. Memories of Ranma's jet-black eyes flashed through her mind. "And how did you ... heal yourself just like that?"
"Don't think too much about it," Ranma suggested in an impatient tone. "As long as we're still out here, we're in danger. This conversation can wait 'til later."
"I said, later," Ranma insisted, glancing back into the forest. "We have to go inside."
"Inside?" Akane asked, looking back into the forest as well.
"Inside," Ranma confirmed, gesturing toward a small opening tucked into the base of the cliff face, barely visible amidst the long grass that rose in tufts from the swamp.
Akane looked uncertainly back to Ranma, watching her cloak ripple gently back and forth upon the chilled breeze that whistled through the valley.
Glancing up to the sky, Ranma noticed a line of dark clouds in the distance, beyond the far side of the valley. Letting out a small sound of discontent, she turned back to Akane.
Akane gasped in amazement as light flickered into existence, illuminating the enormous interior of the cavern. Ranma stood before her, holding the tip of Garyoutensei to the freshly lit torch.
Ranma slipped the sword back into the folds of her cloak and lifted the torch from the wall. Turning to Akane, she gestured the Tendo girl to enter the cave.
"It's ... a-amazing," Akane stammered, looking around in disbelief.
The narrow tunnel they had entered through was dark, damp and long. Akane was not sure how long, but it felt like they were walking for an eternity. The entire tunnel had been pitch black, and only Ranma's icy grip upon her hand had guided her safely through.
The massive area she now stood in astounded her. She could see the roof looming far above, faintly illuminated by the pale light of the torch, but the far side of the cavern was beyond the flame's reach, remaining hidden in shadow.
The stone walls were wet, covered in patchy expanses of moss; small cracks ran along the wall in places, but for the most part it appeared amazingly smooth.
Akane made out a small pool of water in the ground near Ranma. As Ranma slowly and silently made her way along the edge of the cavern, other pools came into the sphere of light.
Ranma paused and withdrew Garyoutensei to light another torch before continuing around the perimeter of the cave.
Akane watched quietly as Ranma worked, until eventually over a dozen torches were lit, throwing a dim, flickering blanket of light over the entire area.
Ranma made her way over to Akane from the final torch, once again returning Garyoutensei to its home inside her cloak as she drew near.
"We should be safe here for a while," she commented, turning back to face the cave as she came up alongside Akane. "It's not much, but it's better than being in the forest."
"How did you find this place?" Akane asked, her voice echoing through the cave.
"It's a Saotome family secret. Pops told me about it."
Akane shook her head in disbelief, looking across at the twenty or so pools of water that dotted the ground. The distant ones all seemed to be warm; steam rose steadily from them all. The closer ones, however, were not steaming.
"You should have a bath and wash that gi," Ranma suggested. "You brought along other clothes, right?"
Akane nodded, taking off her backpack and lowering it to the ground.
"Good. You can use any of these springs. I ... need to rest for a while, but I'll join you later. Okay?"
"Okay," Akane replied with a nod, examining the pools. "Where are you going to be?"
"Over there," Ranma pointed to a small entrance on the far side of the cavern. "Have a bath, I'll be back soon."
With that, Ranma wandered away from Akane, stepping between the pools as she crossed over toward the distant entrance. She paused and knelt by one, stopping only long enough to splash water onto her blood-stained face. She rubbed at her face for a moment, then continued away from the pool.
Akane watched with interest as the water in the pools near her started to warm up, a thin haze of steam quickly rising before her. The pools nearer to Ranma, however, stopped letting off steam. This continued until Ranma disappeared through the entrance, leaving Akane alone with a puzzled look on her face.
I'm not leaving here without some answers, she decided, and stepped toward a spring.
Lowering herself to her knees, Ranma closed her eyes and winced as a fierce pain gripped her stomach. She held her breath, a hand resting on her stomach as her cloak flowed off her shoulders, down her back, and formed a small, swirling black puddle behind her.
Letting out a long, shaky breath, she opened her eyes and turned her attention to her injury.
"Damn it ...." she murmured, unfastening the wooden ties that held her shirt closed. Pulling the shirt open, she reached inside with one hand and gingerly pressed it to the wound, her breath catching as the touch of her hand brought with it a sharp, burning pain.
"I've done as you commanded," she whispered, mindful of Akane in the next chamber. "Now, release me."
Her whispers echoed gently through the small, stone passage, fading off into silence. She looked up at the wall before her and sighed.
"You promised you'd release me," she uttered into the darkness. "You promised."
The dripping sound of water broke the silence, filling Ranma's ears as it reverberated through the cavern. Warm blood oozed through her fingers, bringing tingling sensation to them as the icy chill was lifted by her blood's warmth. She gripped her stomach more tightly, shuddering at the pain that refused to leave her.
"You made your point, old man," she quietly growled. "Even Ukyo beat me. What if it had been one of the hunters? What then?
"You know as well as I do," she continued at length, speaking into the emptiness, "I couldn't defend her in this condition. She doesn't stand a chance."
Again, she waited. Again, she received no reply. Shoulders slumping, she stared at the ground.
Damn you, she thought, clenching her free hand into a fist. She closed her eyes as she thought of her father; imagined him standing over her, face cast down in shame and humiliation.
Forgive me for what I have become, she thought to herself, shame hanging over her like a fog.
"Don't make me beg," she murmured to the ground. "You've humiliated me enough already. I can't even -fight-. I ... want to fight."
I thought you didn't want to fight anymore. I thought you wanted it to end.
Ranma's head shot up, her eyes widening as she stared at the wall.
"I used to," she replied softly. "But now ... things are different. I can feel something inside her, something I haven't felt since ...."
I see. You've changed your mind. I understand why. I feel it too.
"I want to fight. Everything else is gone. The fight is all I have left now. Don't take it away from me."
That is not true. You have Akane. She will join you, just like the others.
"She isn't like the others. She's just like ... I used to be. She wants the fight too. She wants to learn about us."
She is the last. The tree has no more branches. She will join you.
"There are no more?"
None. One way or another, this girl will be the end.
"So be it," Ranma replied, rising to her feet. "I'm ready."
You will train her?
"Give back what is mine," Ranma said, a hard edge to her voice, "and I'll teach her."
Very well - it is done. Do not repeat the mistakes of the past, boy.
Ranma groaned, clutching her stomach tightly as a surging pain lanced through her, burning her to the very core. Falling to one knee, she gasped for air as the burning sensation spread within her, tendrils of flame lapping over her body and trickling through her soul.
Where once her skin had been pale, it shone with a radiant hue; where her bones had been frail, they firmed with a new resolve. She brought her hand from her stomach. The blood no longer flowed from her, the wound no longer throbbed with pain.
Running her hand over her smooth abdomen, she gently caressed the kanji that her skin bore. Closing her hand into a fist, she raised herself to her feet and experimentally threw a punch.
A smile crept across her face as she examined her hand, clenching and unclenching, watching the muscles in her forearm tense and relax. She looked up at the wall once more, a gleam in her eye.
"Gods, I'd forgotten how good it felt."
She swept one arm around behind herself. Her cloak leapt up from the ground, latched onto her arm, and flowed up over her shoulders once more.
The warmth immediately left her body once more, but the radiance stayed; turning, she faced the thin shaft of light that crept into the room from the larger chamber. Narrowing her eyes, she raised her fist.
Akane has taken the first step. You must guide her.
"Not a problem," she declared, determination burning bright behind her eyes. "Ranma Saotome is back."
Akane sighed and tried to relax, but her efforts were thwarted by the flashes of blood that filled her mind every time she dared close her eyes. Rather than think back to the fight, she decided to keep her eyes wide open and concentrate on the present.
The warmth of the water around her felt amazingly good - more so as she realized just how cold she had been after spending so long near Ranma. She was unsure just what it was about the redheaded girl that seemed to suck all of the warmth from her body, but she was determined to find out.
In the meantime, however, she was eager to try and enjoy the warmth of the water as it held her in a soothing embrace. Thin wisps of steam rose lazily from the water, reminding her of her family's bath back at her house.
Her thoughts turned inevitably to her father. She wondered how he was doing, if he was taking care of himself, if the dojo was running smoothly, and a million other small things. She wanted to call him, but doubted that the cave was equipped with a telephone. That would just have to wait.
She sighed, and glanced over at her gi as it floated on the other side of the pool. The blood stains were gone, which struck her as slightly odd - she had bled on her gi many times in the various tournaments she had entered, and blood stains did not usually come off clothing so easily.
She wrung her hands together. Too many strange things were going on for her not to feel nervous. There was something odd about this place, about the girl who had brought her here.
Leaning back, she rested her head on the edge of the spring and looked up at the roof of the cavern, far above. Relaxation, it seemed, was hard to come by.
Despite her best efforts, memories of the fight crept back into Akane's mind. The girl - what was her name? Ukyo? - seemed so determined to kill Ranma. Akane had made enemies in her lifetime, but none of them wanted to kill her - to her knowledge, at least.
She tried to imagine living with someone out to kill you, but found she could not - just as she could not imagine shrugging off a sword through the stomach.
She was no doctor, but she did not think it was possible to lose as much blood as Ranma had and walk away from it. She did not know how much blood the human body held, but she did not imagine it was much more than Ranma spilled in that fight.
As disturbing as the mental image was, she had to admit that she was intrigued by the thought of being able to take such a blow and continue on. It would certainly make one a formidable fighter. Perhaps, Ranma might teach her the secret.
She decided she was glad to have Ranma on her side, rather than against her. However, one niggling thought tickled at the back of her mind and refused to be silenced.
If Ranma shrugged off a sword through the stomach, how on Earth did these "hunters" intimidate her?
Akane shuddered at the very thought of it, and turned her thoughts back to her father, and her life at home. She tried to pretend she was in her bath, after a day of training.
Crossing her arms over her stomach, she stretched out, dragging her feet along the bottom of the spring. The warm friction of the stone rubbing along the soles of her feet was immensely pleasurable. Akane curled her toes slightly and smiled, arching her back a little.
Her toe ran over a small, smooth bump in the middle of the spring. She raised her head, opening her eyes as she ran her toe back and forth over the small protrusion. It did not feel at all like stone. Sitting up, she tried to peer down through the water at the object, but could not see what it was.
Curiosity got the better of her; she bent forward at the waist, submerging herself, eyes screwed tightly shut as she groped blindly for the object. She felt around blindly for what felt like an eternity - where had the bump gone? Lungs burning, she was about to give up when she felt her fingertips slide over the smooth object.
Closing her fingers around it, she tugged, and the object slid free of the rocks with far less resistance than she was expecting.
Her head burst out of the water, sending droplets cascading all around as she gasped for air. She shook her head back and forth, adding to the water around the spring as she opened her eyes, blinking the moisture from them.
"Phew," she inhaled deeply, catching her breath. As her breathing returned to normal, she looked down at the object in her hand, still beneath the water's surface.
She held a sword handle, slightly longer than twice the width of her hand. It was smooth, black, and cold to the touch, in stark contrast to the water around her hand.
"What the hell?" she asked herself, staring in confusion at the handle. "How did that get down there?"
She lifted the handle, raising it from the water, and stared in utter shock as water seemed to rise with it. Where the sword's blade would be, a column of water protruded from the jet black handle. She raised the sword higher, bringing it entirely out of the water. The water level of the pool dropped slightly as she did.
The blade of the sword rippled slightly as she stared at its translucent form. She could see a faded reflection of her shocked expression as she stared, dumbfounded.
"What on Earth ...." she muttered, bringing her other hand up to gingerly prod at the blade. Her fingertip pushed through the blade's side and emerged on the other side. She was half expecting the sword to be some sort of odd metal, but found to her surprise that the sword was indeed made of water - icy cold water.
She quickly pulled her finger free and rotated the handle slowly, examining the sword closely. It was thin, curved slightly in the middle, and appeared sharp on one side. Her curiosity brought her fingertip close to the sharpened edge, demanding to know how water could be sharp, but common sense won out as her hand retreated.
"I see you've found it," came Ranma's voice.
Akane jumped and spun around. Ranma stood over her, cloak swirling over the redheaded girl's form.
"I do seem to be in the habit of interrupting your baths," Ranma said, flashing a smile. "Sorry about that."
Akane shivered suddenly, and looked down at herself; she was chilled to the bone, her skin once more covered in goosebumps. The sword had held her so captivated she had not even noticed.
"What ... what is ...."
"The sword?" Ranma completed Akane's question for her. "That, Akane, is your family's ancestral sword."
"I ... didn't know my family had a sword," Akane mumbled, turning her attention once more to the watery weapon. The liquid blade hummed quietly as she waved it slightly back and forth, calling to her. She brought it closer to her face and stared into its depths.
"Shoryoutensei ...." she whispered.
"Yes," Ranma acknowledged with a nod, withdrawing her own sword from her cloak. "It's related to my sword. Elegant, isn't it?"
Akane nodded dumbly, vacant eyes staring deep into her family's history. She wondered for a moment how she knew the sword's name. Tearing her eyes from the water, she glanced questioningly over at Ranma.
Ranma's sword, she noticed, had taken on a different appearance - where once it appeared relatively normal save for the whiteness of the blade, it now flickered like a flame, small tongues of pure white fire dancing along its edges.
"Your sword," Akane said in awe, "it changed."
"Indeed it has," Ranma replied with a nod.
"Ranma," Akane said firmly, tightening her grip on Shoryoutensei's handle. "Tell me what the hell is going on. No more secrets."
"All right," Ranma agreed. "Get out of there, put some clothes on. A bath is no place to be playing with a sword."
"You're probably wondering a lot of things," Ranma said, twirling Garyoutensei in circles beside her, "about me, about what's been happening."
"You could say that," Akane replied, squeezing water from her hair. She reached down and grabbed a shirt, draped it over her damp shoulders, and began buttoning it up.
"To tell the truth, it's a very long story," Ranma continued. The twirling stopped as she gripped Garyoutensei, bringing the sword across in front of herself. Swinging the sword in a smooth arc before her, she advanced forward a step, the impact of her foot sending a subdued rumble echoing through the cavern.
"If I told you the whole thing, you'd be an old woman by the time I finished," she said, stepping and swinging again, leading with the opposite foot. "So, I'll have to summarise. I hope you don't mind."
"Any explanation is better than what I know now," Akane stated, pulling a pair of denim pants up over her hips. She shook her head back and forth, sending a cascade of water droplets flying in all directions.
"Hmm," Ranma said, watching as a few droplets of water hit Garyoutensei's blade. There was a slight hissing noise, and small trails of steam rose from the burning blade. She swung the sword, rolling the handle over the back of her hand, only to catch it again as it rolled off. Turning away, she reached up and tapped her chin with her free hand. "Where to begin?"
"Two dragons," Ranma explained after a moment's silence, looking over her shoulder at Akane. She wandered slowly toward the far wall of the cavern, considering each step as she considered each word. "Brothers, actually. Ryukyu, a red dragon borne of fire and ash. Ryujin, a blue dragon risen from the waters of the ocean."
"What about them?" Akane inquired, bending to lift Shoryoutensei from the ground.
"The legend goes that the two brothers were rivals. Each competed with the other, trying to prove himself the better of the two. Ryukyu was jealous of Ryujin's ability to create life. Ryujin was fearful of Ryukyu's power to destroy it.
"Across the centuries, the two dueled constantly. They fought like arch rivals; supposedly, Ryujin blinded Ryukyu in one eye in one of their fights, but Ryukyu wasn't ever able to return the favour.
"They never stopped fighting, until eventually, one day, the fighting came to an end. It was inevitable, I suppose. The spirit of a dragon may live forever but their bodies don't. Ryukyu killed Ryujin. As he died, Ryujin managed to take Ryukyu by surprise and made one final attack that killed Ryukyu, too. Ryukyu fell to what would one day be Okinawa, already dead, and his body burst into flames.
"The flames scorched the earth below his body, and ever since then, nothing has been able to grow there. No grass, no trees, no life at all.
"Ryujin lay nearby, bleeding to death, and as he watched his brother die, he lamented that he had finally given in to his brother's nature and taken life, rather than creating it. He had lost his honour, and could do nothing but die in shame. He cried for his misfortune, and his tears formed a small lake."
"Okinawa? I read about the Ryukyu Kingdom a couple of years ago ...."
"A coincidence, most likely," Ranma said with a smile. "It is supposedly quite an unusual sight - a clear, pure lake of water surrounded by dry, lifeless land."
"The remains of the dragons were undisturbed until nearly a thousand years later, when a chieftain found them, in the 12th century or so, and demanded of his weaponsmiths a weapon forged from the dragons' essence. He desired the power of the dragons to help him conquer Okinawa, and presumably Japan.
"The men feared the dragon's remains, but none dared to oppose the chieftain's will, fearing his wrath if they did. One, however, thought of a way to give the chieftain what he wanted, but to sabotage his plans for domination.
"Instead of creating one weapon, the man created two. One from Ryukyu, one from Ryujin. Two swords, alike in form but opposite in essence. One sword of fire, one of water."
"Garyoutensei, a sword of conquest," Ranma explained, raising her sword. She nodded her head toward the sword in Akane's hand. "Shoryoutensei, a sword of defense."
"How did that stop the chieftain?" Akane asked, inspecting her own sword.
"Just as the dragons themselves were rivals, so are the swords. If one person wields them both, the essence of the dragons will wage their battle inside that person's body.
"I imagine it isn't a pretty way to die," Ranma remarked, watching Akane quickly move her sword away from her face. "The chieftain knows, but you can't ask a dead man.
"Since the two swords cannot be wielded together, it is not possible to use them to both conquer and defend what has been conquered."
"You expect me to believe ..." Akane said, but caught herself. A day ago, if she had been asked whether or not dragons exist, she would have laughed. After seeing a burning sword, a liquid sword, and a girl survive a sword - even a normal, metal sword - through the stomach, she was beginning to adapt to the abnormal. Suddenly, the idea of dragons roaming the Earth did not sound so strange.
"Mmm," Ranma said, letting Akane's sentence fall into silence. "The history isn't that important. The important thing is that I am holding Garyoutensei, and now, you are holding its twin."
Akane glanced down at her sword, a confused expression on her face. "Is that what these 'hunters' are after? The swords?"
"Yes, but I don't think they're after just the swords," Ranma replied. "I'm not sure why, but they are after you, just as they went after your mother."
"Just let them try something," Akane growled dangerously. "If they think they're going to kill me, they've got a surprise waiting."
"Yes, they do," Ranma agreed. "They certainly do."
"Why didn't you tell me about this sword earlier?"
"I know I wasn't entirely forthcoming with you earlier," Ranma replied. "I'm sorry."
"That's one way of putting it," Akane observed. "Another way would be to say that you didn't tell me anything."
"Hey, I told you a lot," Ranma protested. "Garyoutensei is infused with fire, just as I said. Its very essence is fire. In a way, it -is- fire. It's the same with your sword and water."
"The swords have been passed down through our families for nearly nine hundred years. The Saotome art developed techniques centred around fire; the Tendo school seems to have an affinity for water."
"Are you kidding me?" Akane asked, aghast. "I hate water!"
"What do you mean?"
"Well, I, uh," Akane stammered, flushing as she looked down at the ground. "I ... I can't even swim ... very well. It's kind of embarrassing."
"Really?" Ranma asked, curious. "Want me to teach you how?"
"You'd ... do that, Ranma?" Akane asked, surprised.
"Of course," Ranma replied with a shrug. "I can't have my student being afraid of water, now, can I?"
"I ... suppose not," Akane agreed halfheartedly, scratching the back of her head nervously. "Th ... thanks."
"First, though," Ranma said, raising her sword to point at Akane, "let's see how you handle Shoryoutensei."
"You're ... sure you want to do this?" Shampoo asked meekly, seeming to have difficulty summoning up the courage to speak.
"Yes," Ranma replied, sheathing the sword completely and lowering the scabbard. "You beat my old man, and you beat me. I want to learn everything you know about sword fighting."
"Well, I, uh, didn't really beat you with my sword," Shampoo struggled with her words, looking over to her great grandmother for support. It was a futile measure - she withered under the stern gaze of the old woman.
Truth be told, she did not feel she had anything to teach the redheaded girl. She had only been victorious in their previous battle because of her bow, and Ranma did not seem at all interested in learning how to use that weapon - she was entirely fixated upon sword fighting.
Secondly, she did not want to face Ranma in battle again. She had almost lost the last time, and was not foolish enough to believe she had won through skill. It was only luck that saved her life in their last duel, and she did not want to press that luck.
The fact of the matter, however, was that she did not have a lot of choice in the matter. She was bonded to Ranma now by a debt of honour, and her tribe would not accept anything less than total obedience until that debt was paid.
Shampoo sighed. It was futile to argue. "Very well, I'll ... teach you."
"All right," Ranma enthused, drawing the radiant Garyoutensei from its scabbard. "Bring it on."
"You can spend a lifetime studying your sword and still not understand all of its subtleties," Ranma explained. "Unfortunately, time does not allow for that in our case, so we'll start with the basics and see where we go from there.
"The first thing to remember when it comes to sword fighting," Ranma spoke evenly, keeping her sword directed at Akane, "is that it is not unarmed fighting."
Akane nodded from her position a short distance away, but did not speak.
"That might seem obvious, but holding a sword affects your balance, movements and reactions more than you might expect," Ranma continued. As she spoke, she shrugged her shoulders. The simple movement sent her cloak cascading down her shoulders to pool at her feet.
"As you become more familiar with your sword, you will begin to feel it as an extension of your body," Ranma continued, swinging Garyoutensei diagonally down in a quick movement. "The goal is to refine that sense, to sharpen it to the point that the sword is a part of you. Your will, your sword, your body, acting together as one. That is the first step you must take.
"More than any other sword you have ever or will ever use, Shoryoutensei will become part of you. You must impose your will upon it firmly. Control it, or it will control you. You need to act decisively, even in a battle filled with uncertainty. There is no room for hesitation or error. Be confident in yourself.
"Become one with your sword and you will become its master. Don't, and you will become its slave. Always - always - keep that in mind. Now - let's begin."
"You have a good stance," Shampoo observed. "Your feet are a little too close together, but otherwise it looks good."
"I learned the basics from Pops," Ranma explained impatiently. "I don't need to be told again."
"He taught you well," Ranma said with a nod. "You're not bad for a beginner. Good - that'll save us some time."
"Thank you," Akane commented, with something of a smile. It felt good to have someone beside her father compliment her abilities.
The truth was, she had spent hours with her father in the dojo, practicing her swordfighting fundamentals; stance, grip, motion, swings. Most of her life had been dedicated to unarmed martial arts, but when she turned fifteen, her father began to emphasise the roles of various weapons in combat, particularly swords.
At first, the lessons focused on weapons like the bo, tonfa, and sai; she developed competence at the basics but did not find the styles enjoyable or satisfying. As her lessons turned to the katana, however, she found to her surprise that she was beginning to enjoy her lessons, and when her father decided to return to teaching unarmed styles, it was not without much protest from her.
Shoryoutensei was light, swift, and smooth as she practiced a few basic swinging motions. It amazed her how unobtrusive the sword felt. It almost seemed as if she were swinging only a handle.
"Is this thing really going to be able to cut anything?" she asked, eyes on the watery blade. She felt if she tried to hit something, she would just get it wet. "I don't want to break it."
"Try it and see," Ranma suggested, gesturing over toward the nearest wall. "Take a swing and see what happens. Somehow, I don't think you'll break it."
A lone figure stood amid the endless ocean, silent and motionless amongst the rhythm of the waves.
Swirling, turning, a churning whirlpool circled, a bottomless pit of immense power. The air hung heavy with the spraying saltwater mist, deep blue orbs of icy energy screaming through the air as the wind whipped around the unmoving warrior, howling in despair.
The figure stepped forward, raising its arms, bringing with them the frigid cyclone, separating the air from the ocean with ease.
A tendril of water rose to meet the figure's hands, passing through them as if they were not there. It passed as easily through the vortex of the storm, to the very centre of the whirling wind.
An immense blast of water shot upwards through the centre of the tornado, annihilating the air as it went.
Picking up speed, the liquid lance shot toward the sky, piercing the murky clouds overhead. A glorious shaft of sunlight smashed through from the heavens, ripping the clouds asunder. Its radiant glow illuminated the figure standing far below.
A smile crossed her face. Below her, the ocean calmed.
"Not bad for a beginner."
Akane choked, coughing up a mouthful of water. She stared, wide-eyed, at the cavernous gash that scarred the once-flawless rock face.
It had all happened so fast. The swing of her sword passing through the rock like a heated knife through butter. The bright glow of the stone. The cracking sound that rang in her ears like a gunshot. The stabbing cold that sent her reeling. The sudden, violent explosion of water as the wall shattered before her very eyes.
Ranma knelt by her companion, offering a hand. Akane took it, numbly, eyes not leaving the wall as she was pulled to her feet.
Ice-cold water dribbled out of the gaping wound, pooling on the floor; transparent blood, seeping from the injury. Akane reached out and gingerly pressed her palm to the shattered rock, her pale hand shaking in trepidation.
"How ... how did ...."
"Shoryoutensei," Ranma said, examining her sodden companion. "All it touches turns to water."
Akane worked her jaw, trying to form a coherant sentence, but failed utterly, managing only a steady dripping sound as droplets of water fell from her soaked hair to the ground below.
"Now you've seen it," Ranma said, turning Akane toward her by the shoulders, "you must learn to control it."
Ranma sat quietly, listening to the soft sounds of the forest and the trickling of water along a stream that accompanied them. A loud hissing sound filled the air, making her wince, a sharp stab of guilt making her blood run cold.
"I'm ... sorry," she offered, calling over her shoulder. "I didn't mean to."
Shampoo knelt near the stream, holding her right forearm under the surface of the water. Clenching her teeth, she examined the charred gash that ran along her arm, and tried her best to ignore the searing pain that cut into her like white-hot hooks dragged through her skin.
"It doesn't matter," she managed, looking sorrowfully at her ruined arm. Clenching her fist experimentally, she was relieved to find she could at least still control her hand. "Accidents happen."
"I don't usually hit girls," Ranma explained, fidgeting uncomfortably upon the grass. "Things have just been ... kinda weird, lately."
"You don't need to apologise," Shampoo replied, through tight lips.
Pulling her arm from the water, she stared as the skin began to turn a sickly grey colour. She quickly tore a line of fabric from her clothing and set about wrapping the wound in a bandage.
"I guess you don't believe me," Ranma said quietly, "but I really didn't mean to, y'know, hit you."
"It doesn't matter what I believe. If you want to cut me, cut me. If you want to kill me, kill me. I won't stop you."
"Is that how you feel?" Ranma asked, turning to look at Shampoo. "Or is that what the old woman told you to feel?"
"There is no difference," Shampoo stated angrily. Her voice lowered to a hiss. "I killed your father. I cut him open and bled him dry! Now try and tell me you don't want to kill me!"
"Of course I want to kill you!" Ranma shouted, jumping to her feet. She stormed toward the creek, toward Shampoo, who did not try to back away. "I loved my father and you took him away from me!"
"So do it!" Shampoo challenged, looking defiantly up at Ranma. "Take your revenge, kill me!"
Ranma glared down at the Amazon, anger smouldering in her eyes, her sword hand shakily gripping and releasing Garyoutensei's handle. She moved to draw her sword but stopped, turning away instead.
"No, damn it," she seethed. "That's what you want me to do. Pops is dead and killing you won't bring him back. I'm not a killer, no matter how much you want me to be."
"Is that how you feel?" Shampoo asked angrily, cradling her throbbing arm to her chest. "Or is that what your father told you to feel?"
Ranma walked away, fuming, and returned to her spot on the grass. Sitting down quickly, she did her best to ignore Shampoo.
Shampoo sighed and returned her attention to her arm. She could feel her fingers going numb, her skin growing cold. Perhaps the warnings her great grandmother had given her were true after all.
"It's taken you only a week to beat me with the sword," she said without looking up. "I can't teach you anything more."
"Then your debt is paid," Ranma said, her voice even. "I'll take you back to the village, you can get that wound looked at, and that will be the end of us."
"What?" Shampoo asked, surprised. She stood and turned to face Ranma.
"I'm leaving," Ranma explained. "I'm going back to Japan."
"I'm coming with you," Shampoo replied without hesitation.
"No, you're not."
"Yes, I am! You think a few sword lessons pay off my debt? I disobeyed my great grandmother, and I'm -not- leaving until I've regained my honour."
"Too bad," Ranma replied with a shrug. "I'm going, you're not."
"Why? Why are you going?" Shampoo questioned, stepping closer to Ranma, arm still held to her chest. "What's so important that you have to leave right now?"
"My father told me to. I have something to do there."
"So you follow the wishes of your family," Shampoo said, stepping around in front of Ranma. She knelt down, her voice growing desperate. "Don't make me go against the wishes of mine."
Ranma sighed, looking into Shampoo's pleading eyes. Anger giving way to pity, her shoulders slumped. She did not want to, but ... she had no choice.
"This wound is serious," Cologne observed, cradling Shampoo's arm delicately, careful not to touch the burned flesh. "There is not much I can do about it. That damned sword is far too dangerous to be sparring with."
"She only hit my arm," Shampoo said with a sigh. "If she'd hit my neck, perhaps this would be over."
"Stop wishing for death," Cologne scolded, stepping away toward the fire that burned in the midst of the hut. She took a small vial of liquid from her cloak and held it over the fire, watching the flames lick at it. "Life is a gift, not a burden."
"At least death would end this torture," Shampoo complained. "I don't want to go with Ranma, but what choice do I have?"
"None," Cologne replied, shaking the vial gently back and forth. "We both knew Ranma would want to leave sooner or later. You must turn this experience into a positive one. Learn from Ranma. It will serve you well to be educated in the ways of the world outside this village."
"Besides," Cologne continued, "you must keep an eye on Ranma. She is dangerous."
"I know that," Shampoo agreed, raising her injured arm. "Part of me wishes that ... that I had killed her."
"I know, child," Cologne solemnly observed. "I'm sure Ranma sometimes feels the same way."
"So, why not ...."
"Kill her?" Cologne asked, peering over her shoulder for a moment. "Is that your suggestion?"
"And you think you could live with that? Killing a girl whose only crime was having a fool for a father?"
Shampoo nursed her arm, unable to respond. As usual, her Great-Grandmother was right.
"Ranma has killed no-one. The fault lies all in that damnable sword, and that poor child's bad luck in having it thrust upon her. It will probably destroy her in the end."
"Mm," Cologne hummed, nodding to herself. "If you're not careful, it may well destroy you too."
A silence hung in the air between them as Shampoo considered Cologne's words.
"It's really ... that bad?" she asked, at length.
"That girl carries a dragonstooth blade, Shampoo. That is a grave responsibility, and I fear she is not yet be ready to handle it. That is why you must be there with her."
"You think I can handle it?" Shampoo queried as Cologne brought the vial over toward her.
"No, you can not," Cologne replied, tipping the liquid along a thin strip of fabric. "Never touch the sword. It will bring nothing but death. You must watch Ranma, that is all. Do as she asks, but remember you will be the eyes and ears of the Amazons in Japan. If needs must, you shall return to China and let me know of the situation. I must be kept informed."
"Very well," Shampoo sighed, resigned to her fate. She winced as Cologne coiled the heated bandage around her arm. "That hurts."
"Life often does, child," Cologne opined, tightening the bandage.
"Japan lies to the east, across the East Sea," Ranma said, pointing out toward the horizon. The warm water of the ocean's tide lapped over her toes as she peered off into the distance.
"How do we get there?" Shampoo asked, weighed down by provisions, carried in her left hand. The sensation had returned to her right hand, but she did not want to burden it, just in case.
"The same way I came here," Ranma replied with a shrug. "We swim."
A light drizzle danced across the forest, tiny droplets of rain tumbling gracefully through the air to the earth below. The full moon shone brightly from a gap in the clouds above, its milky light lending the raindrops an ethereal glow.
A solitary figure stepped lightly across grassy land that was quickly turning to a muddy bog. Shrouded in a silken black cloak, the figure melted into and out of the shadows, drifting effortlessly through the night. Watchful eyes glowed white from within its dark form, the pale moonlight illuminating the two orbs as they scanned back and forth through the dense foliage.
Neither the rain nor mud slowed its search as it methodically moved between the trees, silent and almost invisible. Emerging into a clearing, it stopped as a glimmer of light caught its eye.
Before it, half-submerged in a puddle of rainwater, lay a sword that shimmered by the light of the moon. The figure glided toward it, its cloak trailing along behind it in the mud. Tiny raindrops darted into the cloak, the impact of each droplet sending a small ripple through the black material.
The figure knelt down alongside the sword, eyes fixed upon it as a small, pale hand emerged from the darkened folds. A jet-black ponytail dangled into the thick mud, unnoticed by its owner. Thin fingers closed around the sword's handle; the moment they made contact, the puddle of rainwater froze over, hardening instantly into a sheet of ice.
The figure tugged the sword free of the earth's icy grip. Rising slowly to its feet, it held the blade up to the moonlight and peered closely at it.
Sheathing the sword within the wraithlike blackness of its cloak, the figure turned and swept itself away from the ice. Reaching up with one hand, it gently tapped the side of its head.
"It is as I suspected," it spoke, in quiet tones. "Although it seems Kuonji has beaten me here - that means the child is not alone. What do you wish me to do?"
The rainfall grew more intense as dark clouds, laden with moisture, rolled across the night sky to completely obscure the moon. The fragile moonlight was captured entirely by the dark intruders, casting the entire forest into shadow.
"Very well. What of Waterskin?"
A stark, chilled wind howled through the trees, robbing the air of any lingering warmth, however slight. The ghastly cold ensnared the heart of the forest, bleeding the warmth from the ground and the trees. The light pitterpatter of rain hardened into a staccato beat of hailstones impacting upon the frozen ground below.
"As you wish, it shall be done. I will contact you."
Lowering its hand from its head, the figure turned back toward the clearing. The time was right - all that remained was the execution.
"At last, you have awoken. Welcome home, Mother."