"Good," Ranma observed, "you're learning quickly."
Akane mumbled her thanks to the compliment as she ducked beneath a powerful swing that sliced the air where her head had been moments before. She straightened, quickly correcting her balance. Sweat stung her eyes, and her arms and legs ached from the extended training.
The pair had been sparring for hours. Akane had long since given up on counting how many. Most of her concentration was now focused on holding down the parts of her sleep-deprived mind that seemed intent on floating away from her body. This was not lost on Ranma.
"We should stop," Ranma said, lowering Garyoutensei. She bowed slightly, acknowledging Akane's improvement with the sword. "There's no point training you if I kill you by pushing you too hard, now, is there?"
"I guess," Akane panted, trying to hide her exhaustion. The relief in her face showed through despite her best efforts.
"You handle Shoryoutensei gracefully," Ranma commented, bringing the tip of her blade to press against Akane's weapon. A hiss filled the cavern as a sliver of steam rose from the contact. "You seem to be a natural."
"I don't," Akane countered, between heavy breaths, "feel much like a natural."
Ranma's sword withdrew and retreated into the billowing blackness that surrounded her. Akane watched the blade disappear then turned her unsteady gaze up to Ranma's face. A flush of irritation washed momentarily over her as she observed Ranma looking as refreshed as if their sparring session had never occured.
"How do you do that?" she queried.
"You're not even tired," Akane explained, gesturing toward her opponent. "It's as if you weren't even trying."
"I've been training longer than you, Akane. You can't expect to start at the top."
"I just feel like I've been waving this sword around without learning anything," Akane complained.
"Is that so?" Ranma asked, turning away from her student. She hummed thoughtfully, stepping around the nearest pool. With a suddenness that caught Akane completely off guard, Ranma picked up a small stone, whirled in place and launched it toward Akane at alarming speed.
Akane caught sight of a small grey object for barely an instant before her instincts kicked in and slammed her eyes shut, bracing for the impact upon her face.
The stone did not impact - instead, Akane was surprised by a splash of cold water in the face. She coughed, shaking her head as water went up her nose, and opened her eyes. Her sword obscured her vision; she suddenly noticed that her hands were holding the blade protectively in front of her face.
"You seem to be doing okay, if you ask me."
"How did I ..." Akane muttered, staring at Shoryoutensei almost reverently as she lowered it from her face.
"You wanted to stop the stone," Ranma explained. "The sword drew upon that intent and turned it into action. The sword, the mind, the body, acting as one. That is what you are beginning to learn, even if you didn't know it at the time."
Akane considered Ranma's words as she stared into the rippling surface of her sword. She had not even felt it move, yet it had, in an instant, moved to defend her.
"Your mind created the intention, the sword acted upon it and blocked the stone. The swords act solely on intent. Nothing is an accident."
"What do you mean?"
Ranma rose to her feet, and as she turned toward Akane, Garyoutensei swept out from beneath her cloak. She raised the blade with one hand and sliced quickly through her other arm with it. As Akane reeled in shock, Ranma raised her arm to show that, besides the scars already present, it was undamaged. "Obviously, I don't want to cut off my own arm."
"I ... how ...." Akane stammered, eyes wide as saucers.
"Don't look so surprised," Ranma chided. "Deep down, you already knew that. That said, I do hope the explanation helps you feel like you're learning something."
Wiping water from her face, Akane stepped over to the edge of a spring and gently sat her aching body down, gingerly dangling her feet into the warm water. She let Shoryoutensei rest across her lap, and let out a long, deep breath. "Thanks, I think."
"You're welcome," Ranma replied, stepping around to the far side of the spring. Garyoutensei was once again nowhere to be seen. "I must say, you're picking this up very quickly. I'm impressed."
"Dad always said I was a fast learner," Akane replied with a weary smile. "I've been studying martial arts nearly all my life."
"So have I," Ranma replied. "Martial arts IS my life. I ... wish my father had been around to teach me for more of it."
"It must be difficult," Akane sympathised. "I'd be lost without my Dad."
"It is, sometimes. I know he's watching over me, but ... sometimes I'd give anything to speak to him again."
Akane looked away from the sadness etched into Ranma's face, instead concentrating on the dimly-lit depths of the spring.
"Tell me about your father," Ranma requested, turning away. "I really don't know very much about him."
Akane looked up in surprise, but saw only the impenetrable blackness of Ranma's back, the stark red trail of her ponytail the only relief from the darkness.
"He's a good man," Akane began. "He teaches my family's school of martial arts to anyone who wants to learn them. He's a patient teacher, and everybody who tries his classes ends up coming back. He's ... looked after me since Mother died. He's kind, and caring, and ... a good father."
"He must be proud of you," Ranma commented. "Sixteen, and already a champion, many times over."
"I suppose he is," Akane agreed. "I hadn't really thought about it very much."
"So, you study the Art for yourself?"
"What do you mean? Of course I do."
"I mean, you do it because you want to, not because your father wants you to?"
"Of course," Akane replied with a shrug. "Don't you?"
"I don't know. I'm not sure what I would have done if I hadn't started learning martial arts. I probably would have still studied the Art, but maybe I would have been ... I don't know. A chef, perhaps."
"Maybe. Or a painter, or a violinist, or ... I don't know. I get curious sometimes, what my destiny would have been if things hadn't happened as they did."
"Why? What's the point?" Akane asked. "I mean, if I lost a tournament fight, I could wonder what would have happened if I'd blocked this punch or that kick, or I could just learn from what DID happen and carry on with my life. It's stupid to obsess over 'if's and 'maybe's."
"Your father taught you that?"
"No. I taught myself."
"I can see you're not going to need any help acting decisively," Ranma commented, a smile on her face as she turned to face Akane once more. "But, there is value to be had in examining the past."
"Sure, what happened is important, but not what -could- have happened. If you spend your time worrying about that, you'll just end up regretting everything you do."
"You've put a lot of thought into this, haven't you?" Ranma observed with an air of amusement. Such idealistic zeal was refreshing.
Ranma's question echoed through the cavern, growing ever quieter until silence consumed it. Ranma waited for Akane's reply, and was just about to speak again when the raven-haired girl let out a sigh.
"When I was little," Akane spoke softly, sadly, "I used to lay in bed and listen to Dad cry."
"Akane," Ranma said, biting her lip, all trace of amusement quickly banished from her voice, "I'm sorry."
"Some nights, he'd cry for hours. I usually fell asleep listening to him. I knew why he was crying, but ... for some reason, I didn't cry. Not even once. I'd lay there, wondering why he couldn't just ... stop. I wished I could make him stop, or cheer him up ... or cry with him. But I just lay there, listening. Always, just listening.
"He probably thought I was asleep, that I didn't know any better. Oh, I knew. I understood, better than he did. Nothing was going to bring Mother back. All that we could do was move on with our lives.
"I don't believe in 'what if'. I could ask myself, 'what if Mother hadn't died? Would Dad still cry?', but I can't answer those questions. What I -can- do is find the person that killed her, and make them pay for what they did. If I can avenge her death, I can look Dad in the eye, and tell him not to cry anymore."
The nightmare was always the same.
"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 tried to reach out for his father, to pick him up and carry him to safety, but could not move. He stood motionless, watching his father's breathing, fast and shallow. Crimson blood puddled in the muddy earth, deep red an evergrowing stain.
Ranma stared at his feet, stark white against the rusty ground; a drop of blood splattered across his toes, washing over them as blood dripped from the sword in his hand.
His arm slowly raised the sword, its blade stained red, and held it toward his father, who looked back with hollow, accusing eyes.
And then, Genma was gone.
Gravity gripped Ranma's body, yanking him downwards with savage force. The cold, grey rocks of a cliff face sped upwards past him. A chilling darkness wrapped itself around him as the roaring sound of the ocean below filled his ears ....
A piercing scream filled Ranma's mind, jolting her upright. Bringing her hand to cradle her forehead, she panted for breath. Gods, she hated sleep. She had managed to stave it off for almost a month; she chided herself for giving in to its call.
The nightmare drove cold daggers of panic deep into her heart. She feared the gaunt, lifeless face of her father more than any enemy she had faced. Sleep was an enemy to be conquered, the dreams of the past were haunting spectres that sought to drive her to madness.
Ranma forced herself to her feet, shook herself to banish the drowsiness that fogged her mind, and stretched her muscles. Her body was unaccustomed to sleep, meaning her muscles stiffened up during even the shortest of naps.
Akane slept nearby, looking markedly uncomfortable on the cold stone floor of the cavern. Dim light danced across her face, shadows darting back and forth across her features.
Ranma watched the Tendo girl for a time, silent envy her only companion as she watched over Akane's relatively peaceful slumber. Her father's ghost had long since chased such rest from her life.
She let out a weary sigh and turned her eyes toward the tunnel entrance. The soft light of the torches perpetuated the day, leaving her wondering what time it was outside. The thought passed quickly; the time was largely irrelevant. When Akane awoke, her training would resume.
Her eyes narrowed as she watched the glimmering reflections of the torches in Akane's sword. And so, she thought with a sigh, the nightmare rides on. I'm sorry, Akane. I truly am sorry.
An armada of water-laden clouds continued their bombardment, launching wave after wave of swollen droplets toward the earth below. The sun strained to cast its rays between the clouds, the soft evening light shattering amongst the downpour. The mountain peaks bathed in the rain and light, coruscating amid the sunshower.
Far below, amongst the lush forest bed, a lone figure scoured the base of one of the mountains. Raindrops unfortunate enough to fall into its path froze solid on frigid air, falling as hailstones to shatter at its feet. The crunching sounds of each of its footsteps were ignored as the figure ran its fingertips across the rock surface.
"I can feel you," it muttered, deep in concentration. "I know you're hiding. Show me the way."
Scanning back and forth across the desolate rock, it searched tirelessly, methodically following a pattern with urgent efficiency. Suddenly, its stare shot to the left, catching sight of an anomaly. Where once there had been a bare rock face, there now was a small opening, partially submerged amongst a nearby swamp.
A crooked smile spread slowly across its face. "Very interesting."
A sharp prod in the back jolted Akane from her sleep.
"Wha-? What?" she snorted, rubbing her eyes as she sat up. A vague ache squeezed her lower back and she stretched to loosen her muscles. "What time is it?"
"Good question. You slept for a few hours. I'm not sure what time it is. Now get up."
"It feels like morning," Akane commented with a yawn, as she pulled herself to her feet.
"That's because you just woke up," Ranma commented, peering intently into the dark recesses of the cavern. "It probably isn't morning."
"What's up?" Akane asked, noticing Ranma's distraction.
"We may have to leave," Ranma replied, bristling. The redheaded girl rose to her feet and folded her arms. "I don't think it's safe here anymore."
A burst of nervous energy detonated in Akane's stomach, her sleepy eyes opening fully and staring at Ranma. "What? What do you mean?"
"I think they may have found us," Ranma replied grimly. Akane noticed Ranma's hand disappearing into her cloak.
"They? The hunters? How do you know?" she asked, looking out into the darkness alongside her mentor.
"I can ... I just know."
Akane cast a sideways glance to Ranma. Perhaps this was some sort of test, to gauge her reactions. She swallowed nervously; the expression on Ranma's face did not lend any credence to her theory. She looked back to the shadows, eyes flitting back and forth, searching for any sign of an intruder.
"Very perceptive, Afrit."
A new, male voice echoed through the cavern. Akane jumped back a step, surprised. By the time she landed, Ranma's sword was already drawn and held aloft.
With a disconcertingly casual movement, the shadows shifted, resolving into a human figure that stepped into the light of the torches. A face was revealed, bearing eyes that stared directly at Akane.
Akane stared, open-mouthed, as the hunter stepped forward into the light. Buried beneath a billowing black cloak was ... Ranma. A taller, male Ranma, with jet-black hair tied into a ponytail that touched the floor, but Ranma nonetheless. The scars on his face matched Ranma's perfectly, the intensity burning behind his eyes was identical, the expression he bore was an exact replica.
She stepped back, her throat suddenly dry, and looked back and forth between the two doppelgangers before her.
"How the hell did you get in here?" Ranma called, keeping her sword centred upon the intruder.
"Such hostility, Afrit!" the hunter boomed, voice thick with contempt. "Don't look so put-out. I'm not here for you, I'm here for the girl."
Akane stepped back again as the hunter took another step toward her.
Ranma swept into place before Akane, shielding her. She snarled viciously, pointing her sword toward the intruder.
"You shouldn't have come here," she growled. "I won't let you touch her."
"Always -interfering-, Waterskin, in things that don't concern you. Very well, then, if you wish to stand in my way, so be it."
"Afrit? Waterskin? What is he talking about?" Akane asked, bewildered, looking over Ranma's shoulders. "Is he the one who killed my father?"
"Oh, you don't know? Allow me to introduce Afrit. Waterskin. Shezbeth. Shafan. Kiyo. She goes by many names. It doesn't surprise me that she didn't mention this to you," the hunter intoned, piercing eyes fixing Akane with their gaze. "The truth does not come easily from her."
"You have no right to speak of truth!" Ranma seethed at her taller twin. "Not while you wear that mask of lies!"
"Temper, temper," replied the hunter, dismissively waving a hand at Ranma. He peered over Ranma's shoulder at Akane's face. "Tell me, what do -you- call her?"
"R... Ranma," Akane replied, taking a step back, from both Ranma and the hunter. "What's going on?"
"Ahhh, I see," the hunter replied, as if Ranma's name were a revelation. "_Ranma_. How quaint. It must make you feel almost human, Waterskin."
Ranma clenched her fists, white knuckles straining around Garyoutensei's handle, burning with anger at the hunter. A low, gutteral growl strained to escape from between her tight lips.
"Well, let's dispense with the pleasantries," the hunter continued, unsheating his sword. "I'm here for the child. Get out of my way, _Ranma_, or I'll have to hurt you."
"I'll bleed you dry, you bastard!"
"Ranma, wait--!" Akane called, but her words went unheeded by the two Ranmas.
"Akane, stay back," Ranma instructed without looking back. Her voice was low, a feral growl that frightened Akane. "I'll protect you."
Meekly, her sweaty grip upon Shoryoutensei loosening, Akane complied.
Two figures faced each other across a myriad of pools. The air hung heavy between them, a wall of steam, keeping the two apart. Garyoutensei threw off a harsh, angry light that infused the steam with a reddish glow.
Unfazed by the waves of heat radiating from Ranma, the hunter stood his ground, sword pointed directly at his opponent's chest, straight and steady. He gave a confident smirk and beckoned Ranma to him.
Ranma growled in barely-supressed fury and accepted the invitation.
Garyoutensei arced gracefully through the fine mist, sailing straight and true toward its target, leaving swirls of steam in its wake. Ranma cried out, bringing forth a powerful overhead slash intended to cleave her opponent's skull in two.
The hunter appeared calm, almost bored, as the pillar of fire hurtled toward him. At the last moment, he raised his sword to parry the attack, easily holding back Garyoutensei's fury. He looked up at the burning sword, giving the scorching air that crackled over his head an apathetic glance.
"You'll have to do better than that," he remarked, casually. With a simple shove of his arm, he sent Ranma staggering backwards. "We've been training, Waterskin. You're no longer as strong or as fast as you think you are."
Ranma said nothing; she skidded to a halt near a pool, and immediately leapt toward the hunter once more. Garyoutensei once more blazed a brilliant trail through the mist, and again the blow was blocked.
Ranma adapted, quickly spinning to slash across the hunter's body, but it too was deflected. A high slash, a low swing, all were blocked. Suddenly, Ranma found herself on the defensive as a flurry of lightning-fast blows rained down upon her from, it seemed, all directions.
With a snarl, Ranma focused her attention on deflecting the maelstrom of attacks, and found herself pushing back at her opponent.
The pair drifted between the pools, trading blows with blinding speed. Garyoutensei sent flames flying in all directions with each strike, flames that burned hot enough to ignite the rock floor. Back and forth the two combatants weaved, locked in an impasse. Blow met counter-blow, swing met parry, offense met defense.
Damn it, Ranma thought, this guy is good.
Ranma ducked under a head-high swing and rolled across diagonally, catching the hunter in the stomach with a powerful kick in mid-roll. The hunter staggered back, off-balance for a moment, and Ranma took advantage, launching herself up into a back flip that sent her feet swinging up to impact on the hunter's chin. Landing with cat-like grace, Ranma raised her sword, ready to lunge forward again.
"Not bad," the hunter observed, rubbing his chin. "That actually hurt a little. I'm impressed. However, it's not going to be enough."
The hunter leapt into motion, blazing toward Ranma with superhuman speed. Ranma barely had a chance to move before his shoulder slammed into her chest, sending her rocketing backwards into the nearest wall. The cavern itself shook with the impact; small rocks, dislodged from the ceiling, rained down onto the floor below.
Ranma slumped down against the wall, gasping for breath. She struggled to push herself up to her feet; a stabbing pain in her chest told her that she had several broken ribs. She winced, and clutched her chest, trying to get her bearings back. A dark shape loomed toward her, and she clumsily raised her sword toward it.
The hunter stepped quickly over toward Ranma. A simple kick sent Garyoutensei spinning from her grasp to land on the ground nearby. He gripped her throat and with brutal force, yanked her upwards, throwing her back against the cracked rocks. He held her squirming body easily against the wall, her feeble struggles easily ignored. With a quick movement, brought his sword up, and rammed it into her chest, skewering her body with utter ease.
Ranma's eyes flew open as the cold steel pierced her heart, a choked gasp escaping her lips as her body slumped, her arms and legs drooping uselessly against the wall. Blood trickled down the blade, warm red liquid staining the hunter's hands as he pinned her in place.
With a smile of satisfaction, the hunter pulled Ranma's limp body from the wall, and using his sword to hold her up, carried her over toward the nearest spring.
Releasing the handle, the hunter watched as Ranma fell into the water with a tremendous splash, and quickly sank below the surface.
Akane stepped back, pressing herself up against the wall as the hunter turned his attention toward her. It had all happened so fast; she hadn't even had a chance to help, and now Ranma was ....
She stared numbly at the pool, the waters rapidly turning crimson red. How had this happened? Only a moment ago she was speaking with Ranma, and now, Ranma was dead, at the bottom of a spring.
Tears filling her eyes, she looked up at the dark hunter, a feeling of helplessness filling her as he stepped easily through the white-hot pools of liquid rock left behind by Garyoutensei. A weighty dread gripped her as she realised she would probably be joining Ranma very soon.
The hunter drew near, a smile upon his face. His eyes fixed upon hers and he spoke, not in the booming voice of moments ago, but in a voice Akane somehow knew was Ranma's.
"Come with me, Akane. I want to help you."
And then, there was a colossal roar.
The hunter turned, eyes widening as Ranma's blood turned to fire; the calm waters of her grave were instantly transformed into a fiery inferno, belching forth clouds of dark smoke as the water burned. He gasped as Ranma leapt from the flames, twisting through the air, and landed hard on the rocky floor of the cavern.
"How did ... how did you ...."
Ranma rose slowly to her feet, staring at the hunter with eyes stained purest black as she gripped the handle of his sword. She yanked hard, wrenching the weapon free. The blade glowed red hot, hissing violently as she tossed it into a nearby spring.
"Fool," she spoke, her voice a low rumble. "Now you will die."
She thrust her arms back, throwing her cloak off her shoulders. A blast of heated air surged out from her, launching the garment into the air. The cloak shattered into a million droplets of liquid, each sizzling in the heat of the inferno behind her. It quickly evaporated, forming a dark mist that drifted upwards into the clouds of smoke.
The hunter stepped back as Ranma advanced, her dark eyes burning with furious intensity, her hair glowing an ethereal hue of red. Her bared teeth gleamed dangerously in the light of the dozen fires that surrounded her.
She held out one hand behind herself; Garyoutensei leapt from the floor and flew through the flames to her. She caught it easily and swept the sword forward in a slow arc, bringing it level to point at the hunter. A dangerous smile crept across her face.
The hunter backed further away, but found his back pressing up against the wall. He desperately looked left, and right, but to no avail. He was trapped and unarmed. Cursing his arrogance, he threw caution to the winds and hurled himself toward Ranma. He charged at her with blinding speed, letting out a cry as he hurtled toward her. At the last moment he turned aside, attempting to dodge past her and turn toward the cave entrance.
His last-ditch attempt was utterly unsuccessful; Ranma caught him easily, a scorchingly hot hand closing around his throat. She spun with him, letting his momentum carry him in a circle around her, and threw him face-first into the wall.
His face shattered as he slammed into the hard rock wall. He slumped to the ground, coughing up mouthfuls of blood. The flaming intensity of Ranma's presence behind him only intensified the pain; he rolled over onto his back and looked up at her.
"What ... what are you?" he rasped through his shattered jaw.
"I'm not surprised they didn't tell you," Ranma replied, dark, empty eyes staring down at him. Gripping him by the throat, she yanked him upwards, and pinned him up against the wall. "The truth does not come easily from them."
He squirmed desperately in her solid grip, knowing exactly what fate awaited him; knowing he was powerless to stop it. The desperation in his eyes faded, replaced by a hopeless resignation as he felt the heat of Garyoutensei draw near.
Ranma pressed the tip of the blade to his chest and with excruciating slowness pushed it into his body. A scream of agony tore through his lips and echoed through the cavern as the fiery blade worked its way through his chest. She looked at him with half-lidded eyes as he writhed in agony, and leaned in close to his bloodied face, pressing her cheek to his.
"I can taste your death," she breathed hotly into his ear. "Can you feel your soul burning?"
A surge of unbearable heat tore through his body, scorching his mind as it seared him to the core. He tried to scream, but could not move his mouth. All he could do was watch, witness the joy on Ranma's face as she killed him.
She leaned in and ran her tongue along his bloodied lips, purring into his mouth as she tasted his blood. She pressed her mouth to his, kissing him sensually in the very moment before his body and his soul turned to ash.
Thin wisps of smoke rose from the hunter's smouldering remains as Ranma stepped away, wild eyes scanning the cavern, looking for another soul to destroy, another death to create.
Her search was fruitless; she was alone. Snarling in frustration, she started toward the cave entrance. There would be others outside. Others to find and kill.
A wave of realisation slammed into her, a cold tsunami of dread that washed her fury away. If she was alone, where was Akane?
Garyoutensei fell from suddenly-numb hands; Ranma crumpled to her knees, hands pressing at her temples. What had she done?
A droplet of black liquid fell from above, hissing as it struck the heated flesh of her arm. Crying out in pain, she grabbed at her forearm, nursing it to her chest as an icy sensation stabbed at her body.
The first droplet was joined by another, and another, and another; in moments the dripping had become a downpour, black rain soaking Ranma's body, penetrating it with unbearable cold. She shrieked in agony, her mind attacked by a thousand stabbing, frozen needles. The cavern spun wildly before her, and suddenly all she could see was the ground.
The liquid soaked Ranma's motionless body, running together to form small black puddles that quickly coalesced into larger puddles. It took only a few moments for the liquid to join together into one large mass that covered her body entirely.
Ranma shivered uncontrollably, barely managing to hold on to her consciousness as the black mass folded around her, forming itself into the shape of her cloak.
The pain slowly subsided, leaving her gasping for breath. She exhaled shakily, a puff of frozen mist rising from her mouth. The cold spread quickly through the cavern, extinguishing the raging fires as it went. The torches too succumbed to the frozen air, dying one by one until Ranma was left alone in the darkness.
Dry smoke filling her lungs, the metallic taste of blood on her lips and sin dripping from her soul, she curled up into a ball and sobbed.
Akane sprinted wildly through the forest. She had no idea where she was going and her feet bled from the sharp edges of dozens of rocks, but she could not slow down.
What she had seen had changed everything. Two black-clad demons trying to destroy each other. No matter what Ranma had tried to say to her, she had seen the proof for herself. Ranma was no better than the "hunter" she was fighting against. Both were killers, murderers. Monsters.
The look in Ranma's eyes had told her everything she needed to know in an instant. Those eyes were not human. Humans did not survive being stabbed in the chest and drowned. Humans did not ... bleed fire.
The moment she had seen Ranma's face, those eyes filled with hate, she had fled. Both Ranmas were too preoccupied to notice her leaving, and that served her purposes ideally. Whatever Ranma was, Akane wanted to be as far away from her as possible.
There were no more questions to be asked.
Trees and bushes flew past her as she charged through the forest, panting as she looked desperately left and right for some recognisable scenery. The valley had been fairly easy to traverse on the journey down, but without the benefit of an elevated vantage point, she found herself sprinting blindly uphill, hoping against hope that she was running in the right direction.
The thought crossed her mind that she had no idea how far she had travelled from home. It had taken several days; it would take her even longer, since she would be guessing most of the way. All she knew was, she had to stay ahead of Ranma, who would surely be in pursuit.
She did not need Ranma's protection. If anything, she needed protection from Ranma.
She scanned the distance, trying to peer through the dense foliage as she battled her way up the steep valley incline. The trees seemed to stretch on forever; however, she rememered they reached barely halfway up the valley.
Damn it, she thought, slowing to a stop as the daunting prospect of running all the way home finally sank in. She leaned forward, panting for breath as her muscles loudly complained.
Her body dripped with sweat, and the humidity in the air doing little to help her cool down. The only part of her that was not hot was the hand that gripped Shoryoutensei; the sword chilled her hand to the bone. She tried, unsucessfully, to ignore it.
She straightened, letting out a deep breath as her momentary rest came to an end, and prepared to continue up the hill. The journey ended after only one step. A loud cracking sound burst through Akane's ears as the ground beneath her gave way, sending her tipping forward into a deep abyss.
A panicked yelp echoed back and forth along the thin crevasse as Akane dangled by one arm, swaying back and forth in the cold wind that buffeted the moist walls.
She swung her head around wildly, taking huge gulps of air as she tried to orient herself. Dizziness gripped her head as she started to hyperventilate. With considerable effort she managed to still her body, closing her eyes and resting her forehead against the rock wall until her breathing slowed to something resembling normal.
Oh gods oh gods oh gods I'm going to die, she thought in a flurry, panic fighting to take control of her brain. She tried to calm herself and think of a way out of her situation, but the quivering sensation of dread that lingered in the bottom of her stomach kept crawling upwards no matter how hard she tried to ignore it.
She cursed her inattentiveness as she looked up at the broken tree root above her; the ground had not been ground at all, merely a cluster of tree roots overgrown with weeds and moss. As a result of her midjudgement she dangled precariously, a tenuous grip upon a wet, rocky outcrop the only thing between her and the jagged rocks far below.
Glancing upward, she noticed another clump of rocks that stood out from the edge, but it was much too high for her to reach, and so she dangled, rocking back and forth on an arm that was growing ever more tired.
What the hell do I do now?
She looked down, trying to find a ledge, or some other foothold to take the weight off her arm, but could see only blackness below her feet. She swallowed nervously, and adjusted the grip of her exceedingly sweaty hand upon the single handhold she could reach.
A featherlight touch upon the back of her neck made her jump in surprise, very nearly losing the loose hold she had. She looked upwards, and saw the outline of a head at the mouth of the abyss. A long red ponytail dangled down, its tip touching ticklishly against the back of Akane's neck. Two deep blue eyes, wide with concern, stared down at her.
"Akane, give me your hand," Ranma instructed, her voice reverberating through the chasm as she reached her hand down into the blackness.
"No way!" Akane called back, voice filled with panic. "Get the hell away from me! I'll get out of here myself, and then I'm going home!"
"Please, let me help you," Ranma pleaded. "There's no other way."
"I don't need help from demons!"
A long silence followed, punctuated only by the echoed grunts of Akane's struggle to hang on to the wall.
"You saw that?" Ranma asked softly, her voice heavy with dejection as it tumbled down into the chasm. She looked away from Akane, down into the abyss. Her voice grew tiny, its tone sad. "I'm not a demon."
"Liar!" Akane shrieked, eyes filled with betrayal and anger. "I saw you die! You said you'd tell me the truth but you didn't tell me anything! For all I know, you might want to kill me too! This is probably just some sick -game- you're playing with me."
Ranma flinched, wincing at the ferocity of the accusation.
"I ... I'm sorry," she lamented, "I didn't want you to know. I thought I would be able to get you through this without ... telling you the truth. I'm sorry, Akane. I thought it was for the best."
"I don't even care anymore," Akane called defiantly, as she struggled to grip the wall with her bare feet. "I don't even want to -know-. I just want to go home. You can keep your hunters, and you can keep your sword."
"At least let me explain--"
"I don't want to hear it! Just leave me alone!"
"Akane," Ranma said with a sigh, "if you don't take my help, you're going to fall, and you're going to die. If I wanted to kill you, I wouldn't be trying to help you out, would I?"
Akane said nothing, the sound of her feet slipping against the moist rock her only response.
"I don't want you to die," Ranma added after a time. "I ... can't let you die."
"Why would I believe that any more than any of your other lies?" Akane asked, her voice straining as she struggled to lift herself upwards.
Ranma looked into Akane's eyes, chewing her lip apprehensively as she watched the Tendo girl struggle for her life. She sighed in resignation, and closed her eyes.
"All right, the truth," she said, her tone suggesting she regretted the words the moment they left her mouth.
"Akane ... I am eight hundred and ninety-four years old."
The sounds from the crevasse ceased as Akane stared upwards in shock. "What?"
"I was born in what would have been the year eleven hundred and eight. For nearly nine hundred years, I have served as a guardian for your ancestors. One by one, I watched each and every one of them die before their time. I ... can't bear to see you join them. Please, Akane. Serving your family is all I know. Let me help you."
"You're ... serious, aren't you?"
Ranma nodded silently.
Akane stared up into Ranma's eyes as they opened. The sincerity, the shame, that hung in those blue eyes pushed aside any doubt in her mind. Finally, Ranma was telling her the truth.
Akane looked hard into Ranma's eyes for just a moment longer. She tossed Shoryoutensei upwards, watching the sword as it flew out of the crevasse to fall to the ground nearby, and reached upwards with her sword hand toward her companion.
Ranma lowered herself into the abyss and with one outstretched hand, managed to take hold of Akane's. "Thank you," she said, as their hands touched, "for believing me."
The deep grey clouds parted for a moment, letting a ray of moonlight break through, if only for a short time. Akane squinted her eyes and watched the light creep out of existence as the clouds squeezed together to close the gap once more. She lay flat on her back, breathing heavily as she rubbed at her aching shoulder.
"Just because I let you help me," she commented, "doesn't mean I trust you."
Ranma stood off a small distance away, facing away from Akane. Her usual habit of looking off into the distance had been displaced by a new preoccupation with the ground at her feet.
"I ... don't blame you. I wouldn't trust me if I were you."
"So tell me why I should trust you. Tell me why I shouldn't be walking home right now, or that's exactly what I'll be doing."
"The only reason I didn't tell you everything from the beginning was for your own protection. The less you know, the better. I just didn't want you to ... to think I'm a monster."
"I saw your face when you came out of that spring, Ranma. I saw something that terrified me. I want to know why you think I shouldn't be afraid, because right now, I ... I'm terrified of you."
"Please don't say that," Ranma replied, her voice barely more than a whisper. "I could never hurt you."
"Why? You haven't even known me for very long. What makes me so special?"
"I swore to my father ... I ... I've spent my entire life trying to defend your ancestors from the hunters. Every single time, I have failed. Every single time. Gods, I can still see their faces every time I close my eyes.
"Nothing means more to me than keeping my promise, Akane," Ranma said, eyes moist as she turned to look at her companion. "You are the last of your entire family tree. Your father married into your family, and your mother is dead. If you die, everything I've tried to accomplish for nine hundred years means nothing. Protecting you is the only thing I care about now."
Akane reeled, taken aback by Ranma's confession. She looked into Ranma's eyes, saw the hurt that lingered, everpresent, behind them.
"I don't know what to say," she admitted at length. "Why ... why is my family so special?"
"My father knew that, but he didn't tell me. I'm sure I'll find out one day, but that day hasn't yet come."
"So you're just ... waiting for that day?"
"When you live as long as I have, you do a lot of waiting," Ranma said with a nod.
"You've been doing this for over eight hundred years? And you can't die?"
"Death has abandoned me," Ranma said, turning away again. "It's taken away everyone I've ever known, but it refuses to come for me. I imagine most people think of immortality as a wonderful gift, but they are wrong. Who would wish for such a thing? What stain does my soul carry that even death refuses to touch it?"
Akane said nothing, letting the question hang in the air between them. She tried to imagine what such a life would be like but could not even begin to comprehend a life of eight hundred years.
"I want to help you, Akane. I want to keep my promise. The hunters will keep coming for you, and I will stop them."
"Tell me about the hunters. You know more than you're letting on."
Ranma sighed as she wrapped strips of fabric torn from her pants around Akane's injured feet. She finished one foot and tied off the makeshift bandage tightly. Lowering the foot to the ground again, she dusted off her hands and raised the other foot.
"They are led by a group that calls themselves the Phoenix. They are just lackeys doing what they are told."
"So, they are the ones that killed my mother?"
"The Phoenix gave the order; the hunters just do what they are told. I don't think, individually, they are very smart."
"Why do you say that?" Akane asked, wincing as Ranma tightened the bandage around her ankle.
"Well, they probably wouldn't keep trying to kill me if they knew I was immortal. They therefore can't be very bright."
"I guess not," Akane hesitantly agreed. "Maybe they're just overconfident."
"The hunter you saw was after you. He probably hadn't been told to fight me; I just got in the way. Too bad for him, I guess."
Ranma pulled the fabric tightly around Akane's foot, and tied it off. She lowered the foot to the ground and stood, looking down at Akane. The expression on the Tendo girl's face made it clear what she was wondering.
"You're probably wondering why he looked like me," Ranma surmised.
"Of course I am," Akane admitted. "He called you 'Mother'. Truth be told, it scared the hell out of me."
"Like I said; not that smart. I'm not his mother."
"The truth of the matter is," Ranma said with a sigh, as she slowly lowered herself to sit and leaned up against a tree, "he was a Hidari, a copy of me. Phoenix grew him in their flesh vats, based on my genes."
"What? Why?" Akane asked, recoiling in horror. "And ... -how-?"
"How, I don't know. Why ... well, they've tried everything they can think of to kill me, but nothing has ever worked. I suppose they thought the only weapon strong enough to kill me would be ... me."
"So they ... cloned you?"
Ranma nodded. "It's a strange thought, isn't it?"
Akane suppressed a shudder. "It's sick. You're ... kidding, right?"
"I wish I were," Ranma replied with a sigh. "Hidari are remarkable copies, physically alike in every way to the original. But, they are not perfect. They're slower, weaker, and mortal."
"If they're copies of you, why was it a ... you know ... a boy?"
"If I knew, I'd tell you," Ranma replied with a shrug. "All of the Hidari I've come across have been boys."
"So you ... fight yourself."
"Yes. I find them, and I kill them."
Ranma looked up to Akane, who stood atop a small mound of earth, looking questioningly back at her. The Tendo girl hobbled slightly on her injured feet, so Ranma had stayed behind her, not wanting to rush her.
"We should head west. The most important thing is that we get away from Tokyo. Now another Hidari is dead, Phoenix will send more into this area to find out what happened. If we're still here, that means trouble for us."
"Wait - is my father going to be all right? I'm not leaving if he's in danger, and--"
"Your father doesn't matter to them," Ranma replied, holding up a hand to silence Akane. "You are their target, not him."
"Are you sure?" Akane asked, looking Ranma dead in the eye. "Absolutely sure?"
"I'm certain. Your concern for him is admirable, but unnecessary. He's in no danger."
"I won't let anything happen to him, Ranma. Tell me the truth."
"I swear, Akane. The further away from him you are, the less danger he is in. He doesn't know where you are - they have no interest in him. I promise, he will be fine."
"All right," Akane relented, still sounding unconvinced. She had seen what the Hidari had done to Ranma, and knew her father would stand no chance. It pained her greatly to leave her father alone knowing those ... things were out there, but if Ranma was speaking the truth, leaving was the best thing she could do for him. "Let's go. West it is."
Ranma nodded, following Akane up onto the mound and watching her step down off it. A glimmer of blue atop Akane's head caught her eye; she blinked in surprise and looked closer. A thin streak of deep blue mingled amongst the Tendo girl's hair, stretching from the centre of her forehead in a jagged line toward the nape of her neck.
Oh gods, she thought, it's happening already.
"Are you going to come, or are you going to stand there all day?"
Akane's voice snapped Ranma out of her reverie. She was some distance further away, looking impatiently over her shoulder.
"I thought you said we were in a rush," she continued.
"Sorry," Ranma replied, tearing her eyes from Akane's hair as she stepped down off the mound. "Let's go."