Categories > Anime/Manga > Ranma 1/2 > Mamono Hunter Ukyou

Aijou

by Edward 0 Reviews

Ukyou discovers a family legacy, and she and her friends face off against the monsters known as Mamonos.

Category: Ranma 1/2 - Rating: PG-13 - Genres: Crossover, Drama, Horror - Characters: Ranma, Ukyo - Warnings: [!!] [?] [V] - Published: 2005/10/30 - Updated: 2005/10/30 - 10607 words

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Mamono Hunter Ukyou
Aijou: Mask of Sorrows

By Edward Simons

Based on characters and situations created by Takahashi Rumiko. Ranma 1/2 and characters copyright Shogakukan, Kitty Animation Circle, and Takahashi Rumiko. Devil Hunter Yohko and characters copyright NCS, Toho Company, LTD., and Mad House. This story modified 2004 by Edward Simons.

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We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes-
Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.

Paul Laurence Dunbar "We Wear the Mask"

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Ranma Saotome sprinted towards Furinkan High School, pigtail fluttering behind him as he hurtled along a fencetop bordering the canal. He wasn't fleeing from any of his rivals or fiancées. He certainly felt no eagerness to attend school. Ranma was reveling in the joy of movement itself, in the joy of being alive.

Around him, the leaves had begun exchanging their summer greens for the multihued splendor of autumn. Brisk winds brought a spring to the step and a clarity to the mind. There was magic in the air, the magic of change.

Ranma didn't notice, but he didn't notice a lot of things. Forgotten, his fiancée Akane Tendo lagged behind him, trudging slowly toward school. This morning she had scarcely spoken. It was the anniversary of that day.

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Ukyou Kuonji stood behind the counter of her small okonomiyaki restaurant. She leaned forward, placing her hands on the cold steel of the unlit grill and stared at the empty doorway, imagining a smiling pigtailed boy coming through that door. But dreams so seldom became reality.

"Good morning, Lady Ukyou."

The voice came from behind her, near the entryway to their living quarters, and Ukyou instantly recognized the source. Only her sole employee Konatsu, waitress and former ninja, could make a simple greeting sound elegant and refined. And as usual, Konatsu was the image of femininity from the delicately flowered hair ribbon accentuating long dark hair to the rich ruby lips to the perfectly manicured fingernails to the delicate pastel pattern of Konatsu's kimono.

Ukyou knew how unfeminine she looked in comparison. Ukyou's hair was long, too, but she could never make it shine the way Konatsu did. And her white hair ribbon was practical, just like the tunic and tights she wore while cooking or fighting. She'd never worn makeup, not just because she'd spent ten years pretending to be a boy, but because it was a luxury, an indulgence that she couldn't afford. Ukyou's hands were callused from years of martial arts practice and at school she wore a boy's uniform, a relic of a decade spent denying her true nature and seeking vengeance against someone who never meant to harm her.

Do I wear it to remind me of what I almost became, or because I can't justify the cost of buying another school uniform? We never had much when I was a kid, even before Genma stole my dowry. I don't remember a time when the money wasn't tight.

"Lady Ukyou?"

"What is it, Konatsu?" She glanced back at the waitress and sighed.

"Lady Ukyou, this package came for you last night." It materialized in Konatsu's hands, the sudden appearance the only clue that Konatsu was a genius kunoichi, the best the Kenzan ninja clan had produced in generations. "I apologize, Lady Ukyou, I forgot to mention it at the time."

"Thanks," Ukyou sighed, stuffing the package into her school satchel, sparing only a glance to see it was from her grandmother Madoka, then looking up at the clock hanging near the doorway. "Great, I'm going to be late for school."

My whole life's like that. I was too late to stop that idiot Genma from running off with Ranchan and my dowry when we were kids. When I found Ranchan ten years later, I was too late again. I've got the best claim, my dowry was already accepted, Ranchan and his father both acknowledged me as his fiancée. But somehow Akane's the favored one. Her family supports that engagement, so do Ranchan's folks, even though he and Akane don't get along very well. Maybe it doesn't matter. I can feel him slowly slipping away.

Ukyou sighed again.

Maybe I could even accept losing Ranchan if I thought he'd be happy with her. But Akane won't trust him and she keeps blaming him for stuff that isn't his fault. Ranchan isn't perfect, but he's a lot better than she gives him credit for.

Ukyou glanced back at the clock, its hands continuing their silent relentless motion.

That's what it's about, time. I can't call it back or change it and I never have enough. Akane gets to spend all day with him. I never get to be with Ranchan, I won't even have time to talk to him before class. Maybe fate is against me, something always interrupts, steals any chance I have to spend time with him.

Ukyou stared at the floor for a moment, trying to put the mask of cheerfulness back on her face, ignoring the moisture in her eyes.

"Lady Ukyou?"

"I'm fine, Konatsu," she lied. "I gotta run." She snatched up her school satchel and bolted out the door.

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A lone figure cautiously approached Furinkan High. His classmates occasionally mistook Gosunkugi for one of the walking dead. He was gaunt, creepy looking, and just plain weird. He pretended he didn't care what others said, but it becomes hard to lie to yourself all the time. His mouth twisted into a grimace.

Akane, the girl he loved, did treat him better than almost anyone else did. She merely ignored him. Gosunkugi understood he had no hope of competing physically with her fiancé Ranma or upperclassman Tatewaki Kuno, the kendo champion, or Ryouga Hibiki, the strange boy with the pathetically obvious crush on Akane who occasionally wandered onto the grounds of Furinkan High. Jellyfish showed more muscle definition than Gosunkugi. They had more martial arts skills, too. But he knew the way to make up for it.

Magic works, I know it does. I've seen it. It can give me the strength I crave. It just never works right for me.

Actually, it never worked for him at all. That thought plunged Gosunkugi into new depths of depression. He would've felt more depressed if he had been able to sense the magic stirring in Nerima.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"Ranchan."

He never looked back.

"Ranchan!"

He didn't seem to hear her.

"Ranchan, please."

But he kept pulling further and further away from her.

"Please...please...don't leave...don't leave me."

That's how it had been ten years before when Genma stole her dowry and took Ranma away, leaving her alone and disgraced. Since then, Ukyou had practiced her martial arts with a focused dedication, but that wasn't all she practiced.

Now Ukyou saw a pigtailed figure in a red Chinese shirt speeding along the fencetop ahead of her, saw the same goal she had pursued for most of her life - dear, sweet, stupid, brave, impossible Ranma. The one she loved. She'd been left behind before because she was too slow and she vowed that would never happen again.

Ukyou had been running at a comfortable pace. Comfortable for her, that is. Most people would've been gasping for air, but she could maintain this speed almost indefinitely. Now Ukyou accelerated to a speed that would've been nearly impossible, not to mention wildly immodest if she wore a skirt. She shifted into a long loping stride that devoured the distance separating her from Ranma, dodging several of her classmates also walking to school, classmates who stared openmouthed as a female blur in a boy's school uniform rushed past them.

Akane was the exception, she didn't speak or even glance up as Ukyou blazed past, but continued trudging towards school like her shoes were full of cement. Deep in Ukyou's satchel, something pulsed with a pale reddish light. Ukyou hesitated, almost missing her stride, then found it again and continued running.

But there were too many people in the way. Ukyou leapt onto the fence and accelerated again. Her chest tightened from the bindings she habitually wore at school, another relic of her years pretending to be a boy. She gasped for breath, but Ukyou preferred that to the distracting bounce that would have occurred.

Something inside her called that Ranma might find that bounce distracting if she wasn't afraid of being a girl, but Ukyou tried to ignore that voice. Ranma had reached the end of the fence, jumped down and passed through the gates of the school. Ukyou leaped after him, but someone had blundered into her path. Her knee impacted against a skull, dropping the unintended victim to the pavement, and Ukyou spun through the air, crashing against the concrete wall that surrounded the school grounds.

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Back at the Tendo home, Kasumi was alone doing chores again. Except for Akane's enthusiastic but inept attempts at cooking, Kasumi was usually alone when it was time to do chores. Yet there was a level where Kasumi was never truly by herself, when she sensed a presence watching over her, especially on this day.

"I'm sorry mother, I really don't know what to do. Akane still isn't dealing with it very well and Nabiki only pretends she is. They're both afraid to let anyone get too close, afraid to get hurt again. At least Akane still expresses things, even if it's often in the wrong way. But Nabiki wraps herself in an armor of indifference and pretends she doesn't care. I don't think I know how to reach her anymore."

Kasumi paused. "I don't think I'm dealing with it very well, either."

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Gosunkugi staggered to his feet, groaned, raised his hand to his head, and nearly collapsed again. Ukyou remained on her hands and knees, but not from physical pain. Ranma had left her behind again and the idiot didn't realize it this time, either. For a few moments, she was that abandoned six-year-old again and she couldn't stop her tears.

"Umm...Ukyou...uhh...you okay?" Gosunkugi winced at how stupid that probably sounded. She didn't respond so he shut up and limped toward the nurse's office. The tears had stopped, but Ukyou still hadn't moved when Akane passed her moments later. Each was too wrapped in their own sorrow to notice the other. Ukyou finally took a deep shuddering breath, rose trembling to her feet, and shuffled towards the school gate.

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Ranma paused and looked at the clock tower of Furinkan High. There was plenty of time before class and for once no one was challenging him to fight, but something seemed wrong. He scanned the scene again, noticing Tatewaki Kuno leaning against a tree, wearing an expression probably intended to represent intense concentration, though to Ranma it looked like the samurai wannabe was suffering from an intense toothache.

Why wasn't Kuno attacking? He still wore a traditional samurai outfit, but that was a bouquet, not a bokken clutched in Kuno's hands. Involuntarily, Ranma raised his hands to his chest, reassuring himself that his Jusenkyou curse hadn't triggered, that he was still male. In a soft whisper, he thanked the kami that he hadn't been splashed with cold water so far and reflexively glanced around for water sources. That meant Ranma missed Gosunkugi limping past, but Gosunkugi was easy to miss.

Then Akane entered the school grounds. Her eyes were downcast, her movements slow and mechanical. Even Ranma could tell something was wrong; Akane didn't normally act this way. Ranma's sense of self-preservation screamed he had better do something before he was blamed for whatever was bothering Akane, but his upbringing had major gaps in it and he had no idea what to do.

Tatewaki Kuno's upbringing had its own flaws, but he had some small grasp of social skills. He glimpsed Akane and a sad smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. Kuno moved to Akane's side before Ranma could react. No poetry sprang from Kuno's lips, just a few quiet words.

"Akane Tendo, I grieve with you in your time of loss. Full well I know that this is the anniversary of your mother's death, and having lost mine own as well, I hope that in some small way I understand your grief. I hope, nay, I pray that you would do me the honor of placing these at her gravestone." The boy produced a bouquet of not red, but white roses.

Ranma smiled, expecting Akane to hammer Kuno, but instead a glance passed between them, a memory of the shared loss of their mothers and of friendship nearly consumed by anger, obsession, and desire.

"Umm, thanks, Kuno. I'm sure she'll like them. This isn't some new way to try to get me to go on a date, is it?"

The pain in Kuno's eyes proved this offer was genuine. Akane mumbled an apology and accepted the flowers, then walked slowly towards her homeroom. Ranma stared in confusion, then looked back at Kuno.

"Surely you are an unthinking brute, Ranma Saotome, but have you truly forgotten this is the anniversary of the death of Akane's mother? Even her mercenary sister honors the day."

"It ain't like that, Kuno. I was there when the family visited her grave last year."

Ranma hadn't forgotten it; the visit to Mrs. Tendo's grave had begun the events that led to his finding and eventually reconciling with his own mother. He did forget when it happened. Ranma had never met Mrs. Tendo; her death would never be as important to him as it was to Akane.

He looked at Kuno again, but there was something in the older boy's eyes.

"I have no desire to fight you on this of all days, Ranma Saotome. Out of respect for the departed, let us delay our next battle until the morrow."

Ranma nodded in confusion and followed Akane.

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Ukyou passed the gates of Furinkan High just in time to see Ranma disappear into the building. She was alone in the middle of the empty schoolyard, but she wouldn't have minded if one specific person was there to share that loneliness.

But there was only a lone white rose lying forgotten on the pavement. Ukyou walked toward it and knelt. "I only need one," she whispered. She stood; barely realizing she had dropped the pale flower into her school satchel.

"What?" She had felt something, sensed another vague impression of a pulse of reddish light, even though her satchel was closed. But there wasn't time to wonder. She didn't feel like running anymore, but Ukyou advanced towards her homeroom at a brisk walk, arriving just before the bell rang.

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For once Ranma didn't nap in class, but that didn't mean he was paying attention to the teacher or the lesson. He risked a glance to his left. Akane's face was a mask, intended to hide her feelings, but sorrow radiated from the girl, a feeling so deep he could feel it, like the depression based attack of Ryouga's Shishi Hokoudan. Ranma wanted to help Akane, but he didn't know what to say. Even if he did, he couldn't say anything in the middle of the lesson without having to battle the teacher, Miss Hinako.

He risked a second glance to his right. Ukyou moved with a pained stiffness, slowly opening her satchel to pull out a textbook. As she did a small package and a cloud of ash slipped out as well. Ukyou coughed and pushed the package back into the satchel. Ranma looked more closely, seeing the knee and elbow of Ukyou's school uniform were torn out, failing to conceal bloody scrapes. There was dirt and now ash on Ukyou's face and clothes. Even Ranma could tell the girl had been crying and she appeared ready to begin again at any moment.

Who coulda beat up Ucchan like that? She's pretty tough. What kind of jerk beats up on girls, anyway?

Ranma vowed to make whoever it was jerk pay for hurting Ukyou, not because she was his friend, not because she was his fiancée, but because it was the right thing to do. He wanted to help Ukyou, he wanted to help both of his fiancées, but he couldn't do anything during class without Hinako trying to drain his chi. Ranma waited eagerly for lunch period, but for once food had very little to do with his anticipation.

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Gosunkugi stared at the ceiling as he lay in bed at the nurse's office. His head and left knee ached, though it didn't hurt as much as the time he attacked Ranma with a suit of power armor and ended up trapped inside when it exploded. But maybe this injury was worse, even though it hurt less. It had to be worse, for he kept hearing a soft whispery voice.

"So...you are weak...helpless...and that is...pleasurable. Your weakness...gives me strength...even a null...a hollow one...can give me strength."

Sweat beaded on Gosunkugi's forehead, yet he felt cold, numb. "It's just my imagination. Or maybe it's my head injury." He glanced at the school nurse, who hadn't reacted at all.

"Yes, it's just my imagination."

Hollow mocking laughter answered. "She cannot hear me, boy. I am old, older than you could imagine, and I move unheard among you. I have waited, waited all these centuries, waited for the time of our return. Though the Ritual was not completed, many of us were still able to come to your world, and your race shall pay for the destruction of the Dark Queen."

"Who are you? What are you? Why?" he whispered hoarsely.

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"Ranma, leave me alone." Akane's voice held a weariness even Ranma recognized.

"But Akane, we gotta talk. I gotta know what's wrong."

"Just go away. You couldn't possibly understand."

"But..."

"I said leave me alone, you jerk."

Ranma retreated, surprised Akane hadn't already hammered him. It was a bad idea to argue with one of the few people more stubborn than he was and for once Ranma realized that.

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Ukyou noticed the little confrontation and winced. It hurt that Ranma talked to Akane first and it even hurt that Akane had pushed him away again. Ranma gave Akane more attention than he gave either of his other fiancées, but so often she didn't seem to value or even want that attention.

You don't know what you've got, Akane. Ranchan was always there for me when we were kids and after he was gone I realized how much I missed that, how much I missed him, how much I trusted him, needed him, depended on him. But I took too long to find him, now he's always there for you and you better realize just how important that is.

You don't know what I'd give for that, Akane. He's got his rough edges, who wouldn't with Genma as a dad, but why can't you see the real Ranchan? Sure Shampoo or Miss Hinako distract him sometimes, he is a teenage guy, but that's his hormones, not his heart. He's not a pervert, no matter what you say. Believe me, I know, I went to a guy's middle school.

And Ranchan accepts people as they are. He even accepts me, even though I don't really know how to be a girl anymore. And he called me cute; he's the only guy who made me feel cute. I'm sure I blushed, I know I couldn't speak or even breathe, but in that moment I knew why it hurt so much when he left, knew my anger had only been a way to hide my real feelings from myself.

They say you feel your heart hammering in your chest at times like that, but it felt like mine stopped for a moment. Ranchan doesn't flatter people. He says what he feels no matter how brutally honest that is. He couldn't have meant my appearance, that meant he still saw something inside me, something I tried to bury, the part of me that dared to care, that risked the pain of love.

But you're afraid of that, aren't you, Akane? Afraid to tell him how you really feel, not that I'm much better. Somehow, in spite of everything, you seem to be winning something you don't seem to value at all. I had ten years to find him and now I'm too late, I'm coming in second in a race with only one winner.

Ukyou glanced at her unopened lunch box, but she had no appetite. She turned her head, staring out the window, then started when Ranma sat across from her.

"Umm, Ucchan are you okay? Who did this to you?"

You did, Ukyou thought and then realized Ranma meant her somewhat battered appearance.

"Oh, um...Gosunkugi, I guess."

"What? That little twerp finally gets some magic power that works and then he does this?" Ranma jumped up. "That jerk ain't gonna get away with..."

"Ranchan," she interrupted, "It was just a stupid accident and this doesn't hurt near as much as..."

"As what, Ucchan?"

"As...don't worry about it, Ranchan. Like I said, it was an accident. I collided with Gosunkugi while running to school and I'm pretty sure he got the worst of it. Don't waste your time being angry at someone who didn't mean to hurt anyone. Don't do like...like I did...I..." Ukyou's voice trailed away.

Ranma dropped back into the chair. Ukyou seemed ready to cry again and he didn't know what to do. His dad had taught him how to fight and sometimes it seemed that was all he could do. But he remembered all the times Genma had said it was a martial artist's duty to help others and even if his father usually didn't live up to the words, Ranma tried.

"Okay, Ucchan, I promise not to do nothing stupid. I just want you to be happy."

She placed her hands over her eyes. Ranma felt something tingling at the back of his neck, knew that in moments the classroom would transform into a circle of anger, a mob of howling voices blaming him for making another girl cry. But Ukyou's hands dropped and she smiled at him even though there was moisture in the corner of her eyes.

"Tha...thanks, Ranchan. Tha...that means so much...so much to me. I...I want you to be happy, too and I hope...that is..."

But Ukyou couldn't seem to find the words she was searching for and the rest of the class was now watching them closely, except for Akane who was rather pointedly not watching them. The room had become deathly silent.

Of course Ranma opened his mouth and filled the silence.

"Um, Ucchan, you're looking kinda scuffed up. Let's go get you cleaned up and take you by the school nurse, just to make sure you're alright."

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Normally, Akane would have gone ballistic seeing Ranma sitting and talking with Ukyou. Her leaning on him as she limped out of the room would have called for a summoning from Hammerspace or punting him into the stratosphere or at least the well-placed application of a school desk to the idiot's skull. But this was the day her mother died and now Ranma was spending that day with someone else. It was the day people she...cared about...left her...left her alone.

Who'd want a stupid tomboy like me anyway? Why shouldn't he run off with the cute fiancée? I've got a lousy temper and any time I try to do anything feminine, I screw it up. The only reason Ranma hangs around is out of some stupid sense of duty.

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Gosunkugi drew back as the door to the nurse's office slammed open. A moment of relief that it wasn't some soulless monster was followed by a moment of panic as he saw Ranma helping an injured Ukyou. Gosunkugi was more observant than Ranma. In other circumstances, he probably would have noticed the blush on Ukyou's cheeks or the way she looked at Ranma or the fact she didn't need to lean on her fiancé's shoulder. Instead, Gosunkugi shuddered and closed his eyes, expecting retribution for Ukyou's injuries, however slight they might be.

Wait, Ranma isn't like that. He knows I'm a wimp. He wouldn't pound me like the guys who take my lunch money. I am a wimp. Akane deserves someone brave and strong like Ranma, not a weak, pathetic, jealous coward like me.

Gosunkugi sighed and stared at the ceiling. His head throbbed with pain, but he needed to think clearly. He was forgetting something important.

After the nurse finished cleaning and bandaging Ukyou's knee, Gosunkugi limped over. "Ranma, Ukyou, please, you have to listen to me. I think, no, I know something is seriously wrong. There's something here at the school and it's going to cause trouble."

"What is it this time?" Ranma asked. "Principal Kuno made up some stupid new rule? Or maybe brought in another teacher like Hinako?"

"No."

"Ryouga wandered by? Mousse found another cheap magic trick?"

"This isn't human, it's something worse, far worse. We may be...no, we are in danger."

"What makes you so sure?" Ranma sounded skeptical.

Deciding that talk of mysterious spectral voices would not aid his credibility, Gosunkugi replied, "I just know. Who else studies magic like I do?"

"Cologne," Ranma replied without missing a beat.

"Maybe Shampoo," Ukyou added.

"Probably Tofu," Ranma continued.

"Who's Tofu?" Ukyou asked.

But Ranma's stomach growled an interruption. Ukyou smiled and pulled a bento lunchbox out of her satchel. "Here you go, Ranchan. Sorry there's a little ash on the outside, I don't know where that came from."

Ranma attacked the food like a man who hadn't eaten in three days. Half the lunch disappeared before Ranma noticed Ukyou wasn't eating.

"It's okay, Ranchan. There wasn't time to make a spare lunch."

"But..."

"It's my fault there wasn't time, Ranchan. Just eat, it's nice to watch you eat my cooking. It's almost like..."

"Like what, Ucchan?"

She blushed and didn't answer as Ranma returned to wolfing down the lunch. Instead, Ukyou recalled the other thing she hadn't had time for and pulled the package out of her satchel.

"What's that, Ucchan?" Ranma mumbled around bites of okonomiyaki.

"Something from my grandma."

"Is it cookies? If your grandma is half as good a cook as you are..."

"It feels too heavy for that, Ranchan. No, it's just this one bit that's heavy." A minispatula appeared in Ukyou's hand and she sliced open the end of the package, then turned it over. A sheaf of computer paper slipped into Ukyou's hand along with something unusual, a strange object, sort of a cross between a bracelet and a ring. After some fumbling, Ukyou put it on her left hand. The ring part fit on her middle finger and a chain ran from it to a loop that circled her wrist. On the back of the ring was the stylized head of some strange four-horned creature. Other than the horns, it vaguely resembled a serpent's head. Twin red stones served for eyes and a green gem was embedded in the creature's forehead.

Gosunkugi, who the others had nearly forgotten about, gasped. "That's a Yoma ring."

"A what?" the others asked.

"A Yoma ring. I didn't think they really existed. They say only some clan of Mamono Hunters can use the ring."

"Mamono Hunters?" Ranma asked.

"Mamonos. Demons. Devils," Gosunkugi explained. "Soulless monsters from the Netherworld. Ageless beings that thrive on death and pain. Soulless monsters..."

"You said that already," Ranma replied. "Besides, I know what Mamonos are; fighting monsters is a martial artist's duty. I'm just surprised there's enough of them that there's a whole clan actually hunting the things. What's next? Sorcerer Hunters?"

"I'm not surprised you haven't heard of the Mamono Hunters. I've barely heard of them and they're supposed to have been around for hundreds, maybe thousands of years."

"So what's the Yoma ring do?" Ukyou asked.

"I'm not really sure," the skinny boy replied. "Who sent you the ring?"

"My grandma Madoka, Madoka Mano. I already said that, didn't I?"

"Did she send anything explaining it?"

Ukyou groaned at her foolishness and grabbed the accompanying letter, skimming several pages of still connected computer printouts. "Stupid dot matrix. Let's see...Mamono Hunters...mother...curse...banishing...healing... Here it is, ritual of activation. Ritual of activating what?"

"Ucchan, aren't you taking this stuff kinda seriously? I mean, c'mon, you really think Gosunkugi knows what he's doing? This is just too weird."

Before anyone could mention Ranma's curse, the lights flickered.

"See?" Gosunkugi insisted.

"So what?"

The lights flicked again, then went out and the school sprinkler system activated. Ranma squawked as the water washed away his true form, activating the Jusenkyou curse that transformed him into a girl. Ukyou shoved the letter inside her satchel to keep it from being damaged. Something told her Gosunkugi was right about all this. She hoped she remembered the incantation; it was too dark to read it now, even if the sprinklers weren't still going.

"I hold no enmity against those coerced into evil."

Whatever that means.

"But to those vile beings who toy with the hearts and souls of men..."

That sounds like Shampoo's line of 'Men what play with woman's hearts go very bad place.'

"...We, since the time of Ancient Gods, have been your destroyers."

Grandma definitely owes me an explanation on this one.

The dark-haired girl paused for breath. "Now, the 108th generation Mamono Hunter, Ukyou, is here! Beware!"

Ukyou felt a chill and a spinning sensation and then a warm energy surrounded her. She sensed a current of magic around her, encasing and protecting her, flowing from the ring. She felt Ranma's curse, a product of the Pools of Sorrow. She sensed an emptiness in Gosunkugi, a strange nothingness she couldn't explain. And she sensed a power, a dark malignance, somewhere nearby. Ukyou shivered and it was not from cold.

"Ranchan?"

But he was gone.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

In the hallway, the sprinklers stopped. Ranma's eyes were still adjusting to the darkness when the lights flickered on again. He squinted and an iron fist slammed into his side. His attacker struck harder than his rival Ryouga ever had, harder than Lime of the Musk Dynasty, harder even than the man-monster, Tarou.

For once, turning into a girl had helped Ranma; his smaller size meant the blow only grazed him. But even that glancing blow launched Ranma through the air, shattering the wall in a spray of wood and plaster. Ranma landed heavily, feeling a desk top crack beneath him. He blinked twice and willed himself to stay conscious. Dimly, he realized this was Akane's desk. The Tendo girl stared blankfaced and silent, though her eyes brimmed with a deep inexpressible sorrow. In a reflexive motion her arms pulled back, then swung down at Ranma with...nothing. Her hammer didn't materialize.

"Miss Tendo, I will not have you behaving in such a manner." Hinako Ninomiya might look like a child, but she was quite serious about discipline in her classroom and she had the power to enforce it. "Perhaps you've spent too much time with that delinquent Mr. Saotome."

Students used to Miss Hinako's methods of discipline dove for cover while Ranma rolled painfully under the desk. His ribs complained bitterly, but he couldn't let Hinako drain his chi; he had a monster to defeat. He glanced up and saw Akane sitting motionless at her desk; her arms still held in front of her as if holding an imaginary mallet.

"Akane, you dummy, get down before..."

"Happo Five Yen Satsu," the teacher yelled and brandished a small coin as a focus to her powers. Chi energy, the energy of life, flowed through that focus, drawn from Akane to Hinako. Akane's eyes fluttered shut and she slumped backward in her seat, then collapsed face forward on to her desk. Normally, the absorbed energy transformed Hinako into a tall and rather well endowed adult, but this time she remained a child. Instead, she gasped in pain, clutched the arm holding the five yen coin with her other hand, and fell to her knees. Hinako uttered an almost voiceless scream and collapsed to the floor, the coin still clutched in her hand.

Ranma groaned and sat up. Pain blazed in his side, his ribs were at least cracked, possibly broken. His vision grayed, but he forced his eyelids open as the thing that had struck him began smashing through the remains of the wall. Over seven feet tall, it resembled a slate gray and somehow mobile suit of samurai armor. It had to be metal yet there was no sheen, no glimmer, no reflection of the light, just dull blank grayness. The only parts not gray were black - the kanji for Aijou, which meant sorrow, imprinted on its breastplate and the dark empty pits in its mask where eyes should have been.

Ranma made the mistake of looking into those eyes.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Ukyou sprinted towards the noise of battle. A glance through the ruined wall showed most of the students had escaped, though a handful still cowered in the corner. Akane lay slumped over her desk; Miss Hinako lay sprawled in the front of the room; and Ranma, damp and female, faced a huge armored creature alone. Ukyou felt a pulse of energy from her Yoma ring and somehow she knew this thing was a Mamono.

"Ranchan!" He stood there, making no attempt to defend himself from the creature. Ukyou rushed into the room and grabbed his arm. Slowly, Ranma turned towards her, and Ukyou stepped back. There was a sorrow in Ranma's eyes, a sorrow deeper than when his strength was stolen by Happosai.

"Ranchan, what's wrong," Ukyou whispered. She reached forward, wanting to hold him, wanting to wipe away his pain. Behind her, the Mamono raised a fist the size of Ukyou's head. She sensed rather than saw it and interposed her battle spatula.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Aijou's power had grown throughout the day as it fed on the anguish and despair of the humans, claiming one after another as its puppet. Now all the serious opponents except the so-called Mamono Hunter were under the creature's control. It didn't need to control her. It felt the grief in her soul. The girl had spent years in sorrow and it would be easy to lead her back down that well traveled path.

Aijou swung its metal fists, driving the girl backwards. She barely blocked the Mamono's blows with her huge spatula. Metal rang against what should have been metal, but only a hollow thud came from the creature.

"Ranchan!" He didn't move and the creature almost hit the distracted girl.

Ukyou tried to shift to the attack, but Aijou was surprisingly fast and every bone-jarring blow drove Ukyou backwards. The monster wasn't tiring, either. It continued forcing her back until she tripped over the rubble and fell sprawling. Her battle spatula clanged to the floor, tantalizingly out of reach.

This would be easier than Aijou expected. It hadn't even needed its puppets to defeat the Hunter. The creature raised a fist for the final blow.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Ranma usually acted before thinking, seldom mused about events or consequences. But this time he had no choice. Ever since he looked into that thing's eyes, or more precisely where it should have had eyes, it was forced on him. Images flashed through his mind, images formerly hidden by chance or time or pride, images driven into his soul with a supernatural force.

Echoes of a crying woman filled an empty house. Something fell from the weeping woman's hands, paper promises that separated her from the ones she loved. Ranma's mother Nodoka didn't know when or even if her husband and only child would return.

Stars shone brightly on an empty road. An exhausted six-year-old tomboy knelt by its side, empty hands stretched forward. She hadn't moved for hours. Pale moonlight caressed a tear-streaked face. The child had cried until she was sure no more tears remained. A faint whisper escaped the girl's lips, "Ranchan". Small hands rose to cover Ukyou's eyes, vainly trying to stop a new flood of tears.

A teenaged boy wearing a bandana hurtled downwards, trying to grasp a rocky wall that was agonizingly out of reach. The red-haired girl and the panda raced along a cliffside, heedless of what they had done. Ryouga howled in helpless rage as he plunged towards the Jusenkyou pool that would wash away his humanity.

A nine-year-old girl smiled as she prepared dinner for her father and sisters, but the smile never really reached her eyes. Years blurred by in instants as the girl grew towards adulthood. Kasumi cooked and cleaned and washed and mended. Only the smile remained constant on the face of the ignored and unappreciated girl. In spite of a decade where people seldom helped or even thanked her, the girl that smiled but seldom laughed continued with her chores, trying to bury the loss of her mother by becoming the one she lost.

Shadows concealed the proud warrior, masking the weakness she would never admit. Japan could be a strange frightening place to a foreigner. "Stupid Airen," she whispered as a single tear meandered down her cheek, "Shampoo no can go home without you. Shampoo no have curse if you come home with her first time. Stupid, stupid, Airen."

Window glass reflected the form of a tall dark-haired girl in a surprisingly feminine nightgown. Her breath fogged the window as she stared across the darkened city. Behind her, the faint glow of the clock read 2:57 AM. Sleep starved eyes refused to close as a greater yearning kept them gazing blankly into the darkness, trying to will away the distance that separated Ukyou from the boy she loved.

A shorthaired girl in yellow pajamas knelt sobbing on her bed, clutching a small black pig squashed so tightly against her chest it could barely breathe. The pet seemed more concerned about her tears than its own discomfort. "That jerk," Akane whispered hoarsely, "Why can't he ever be nice to me? All he does is make fun of me."

A gray metallic monster loomed above a slender dark-haired girl wearing a form hugging crimson Chinese style dress, who lay prone among the shattered rubble of the classroom wall. Several feet away, a dented combat spatula lay near the wreckage of a couple school desks. There was a stillness, a deep silence unlike the previous scenes; yet Ranma could feel his blood pounding in his veins and the throbbing pain in his side.

Ukyou stretched out a hand, reaching not for her damaged weapon, but for him, trying to reach across the gap of fate and time and distance, longing to touch him a final time. Her voice came faintly as if from the bottom of a well. "Ranchan, please."

What's going on? Why is Ucchan wearing a Chinese dress?

And Ranma began struggling free of the creature's influence. He couldn't change the past, couldn't undo mistakes that hurt others, couldn't even make most of them right, but Ranma refused to let this thing kill his closest friend. Ranma's movements lacked their normal fluid grace, but he was moving. He hoped, no, he knew he would be fast enough. He had to be.

Ranma's hands became a blur as he used the speed training of the Kachu Tenshin Amaguriken, the Chestnut Fist Technique, to score a few dozen strikes against the monster's back in a split second. Aijou's armor sounded hollow and even that sound was muffled. The creature slowly turned. It was obviously unharmed.

Ranma, on the other hand, thought he felt something crack inside his left wrist and realized he'd wear his hands down to bloody stumps long before he'd ever damage the thing. But Ranma had faced ghosts and oni and magic and madmen and so-called gods and he would die before he admitted defeat or let them harm someone he cared about.

"You. Leave. Ucchan. Alone."

Ranma brought his wrists together, pointed his arms towards the creature and called "Moko Takabisha!" But instead of the intended two-meter wide burst of chi energy, a pale glowing puff only half a meter across drifted towards the Mamono.

It barely touched the creature, yet metal blistered and bubbled, boiling away from the point of contact. The Mamono gave a high pitched shriek and collapsed with a hollow thud.

A glance showed Akane appeared unharmed, if still unconscious. Ukyou was on her feet again and looked, well, umm... A crimson Chinese dress clung tightly to her chest, the stylized yin yang symbol accentuating, not hiding the obviously feminine curves. A knee length skirt trimmed in gold was slit high up the side, revealing most of Ukyou's well-muscled legs and more than a bit of thigh. Ranma realized he was staring, blushed furiously and began studying the ceiling tiles. He waited for the battle spatula to connect with his skull. Instead, he heard a soft voice.

"Umm, thanks Ranchan. I think you killed that thing."

"He hasn't," whispered Gosunkugi who materialized from somewhere now that the fight appeared over, "And there's someone inside that armor."

"Yeah, right," Ranma snorted. "It's way too small to be that jerk Tarou's cursed form even if he'd wanna chop off his wings, horns, and tail to cram in there. And that Dojo Destroyer guy was way too pudgy. Nobody else is near big enough."

"Ranchan," Ukyou sighed in exasperation, "Gosunkugi knows more about this kind of stuff than we do."

"And where was he during the fight? Probably just hiding till it was over."

"Wouldn't you hide if you were a scrawny weakling without a single shred of athletic ability or combat skill?"

Gosunkugi winced and prayed Ukyou would quit defending him so hard.

"So who ya think is in there, Ucchan? It's gotta be Kuno. He's into all that samurai stuff."

A bokken impacted into the back of Ranma's skull, rather emphatically proving him wrong. Ukyou called Ranma's name as his eyes rolled back in his head and he slumped bonelessly to the floor. Gosunkugi cowered behind a desk with the skill gained from years of practice. Ukyou changed the grip on her battle spatula, going for a defensive stance.

Kami-sama, please let Ranchan be okay.

Kuno circled to her left, his eyes masked by the same inexpressible sadness Ukyou had seen in Ranma's gaze earlier. Akane stood in front of Ukyou, her expression a mirror of Kuno's. Both were obviously under the control of the armored thing regaining its feet to Ukyou's right. Logic said she had no chance of winning, but the girl maintained her protective stance over Ranma's prone body. She sensed this strange armored creature intended to kill them.

"Sorry, Ranchan. I wanted to spend the rest of my life with you; I just thought we'd have a little longer. I wish you were still in guy form. I wish a lot of things."

They attacked in unison. The battle spatula became a metallic blur as Ukyou struggled to block attacks from three directions. Kuno had reach and the Mamono had inhuman strength, but even Akane was dangerous. Ukyou parried most of the blows and rolled with the ones she couldn't block, but slowly, surely, they were beating her to death. Finally, the Mamono's fist smashed the weapon from her hands.

Ukyou still had her throwing spatulas. They'd be useless against the Mamono, but she could hurt or maybe even kill Akane or Kuno. She hesitated, unwilling to take that step. Ukyou glanced down at Ranma and a grim look crossed her face. Mini spatulas appeared between her fingers. Tears flowed down Ukyou's cheeks.

And the wall detonated.

"Excuse me, does anybody know where the Tendo dojo is?"

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Ukyou had carried her battle spatula for most of her life. Even when she wasn't wearing or wielding it, it was almost always within reach. Now it lay forgotten on the classroom floor, ringed by abandoned mini spatulas.

Ukyou fled as if her life depended on it, but it wasn't her life she was worried about. She carried an unconscious Ranma across her shoulders. Every step brought pain, but she never slowed her pace. She would to win this race. She would save Ranma.

She didn't realize she wasn't being pursued.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"Akane, what are you doing in Osaka?"

Ryouga Hibiki was used to being confused but this was worse than normal. Akane was acting strange. Kuno was acting strange. Miss Hinako was unconscious. A girl wearing a Chinese dress, who he assumed was Shampoo, had run off carrying Ranma. Okay, that was normal. Oh yes, and a nine-foot-tall suit of Samurai armor was advancing towards him. So that's what Shampoo had been yelling about before she disappeared. Things like this only happened in Nerima. Slowly the truth dawned.

"This isn't Osaka, is it?"

Normally Ryouga's words would have brought a group facefault among the hearers, but everybody was possessed, unconscious, or an inhuman monster. Well, except for Gosunkugi who was terrified. But there is a limit even to terror, a point past which one either shatters or finds new strength.

"Ryouga, you moron, that thing is controlling them. You have to save Akane from the Mamono."

Ryouga didn't know what a Mamono was, but the thought of Akane being in danger made him very, very depressed. Since he used depression to fuel his chi attack, that also made him very, very dangerous. Ryouga summoned a Shishi Hokoudan, a ball of negative chi, but he didn't release it. The Mamono had grabbed an unresisting Akane, holding her as a living shield.

Kuno moved to intercept Ryouga, who released the Shishi Hokoudan. Kuno grunted as the energy impacted, slamming him back against the wall and dropping him to his knees. Silently, Kuno stood and advanced again. His bokken swung towards Ryouga's head, who caught it one handed. As the kendoist struggled to free his weapon Ryouga stared into eyes that mirrored the pain and sorrow Ryouga felt. He couldn't believe he was feeling sympathy for the older boy, but nothing would to stop Ryouga from protecting Akane and soon Kuno lay unconscious amid a circle of broken desks. Ryouga glanced around but the creature was gone, taking Akane with it.

"I don't know how, Ranma, but this has to be all your fault!"

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Ranma sneezed. He might be wet, but at least this time it was warm water.

"Ucchan, what are we doing here?"

"I need more weapons."

Only Ukyou would instinctively look for them in a kitchen. Japanese schools usually didn't have separate lunchrooms. Students ate in class or on the school grounds if the weather was nice. At Furinkan High, they even let students get lunch delivered from nearby restaurants. Ranma had a perfect memory when it came to food so he knew they were at a restaurant right across the street from the school.

"Why ya wearing a Chinese dress, Ucchan?"

"I don't know. I think it has something to do with the Yoma ring."

"We gotta go help the others."

"Not till we have a plan, Ranchan."

"So we're gonna use the Saotome Ultimate Technique."

"What?"

"Run, think, attack. Run away instead of losing, come up with a plan, then come back and beat your opponent."

"That's an Ultimate Technique?"

"Hey, Ucchan, it works."

She looked at him skeptically.

"Don't worry, Ucchan. Trust me on this."

"Okay."

Ranma paused. He had asked a fiancée to trust him and she instantly said she would. No arguments, no questioning, no doubting, just simple trust. It felt strange. Strange, but good. He smiled and Ukyou smiled back, but Ranma was worried.

Ucchan expects me to solve this mess and I've got no idea what to do. This thing ain't playing around; this is for keeps like when we fought those Musk guys.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"Akane." She didn't respond.

"Akane, where are you?" Despair tinged Ryouga's voice.

"Akane!" The sound seemed to echo down the cold empty halls of Furinkan High.

Ryouga finally noticed someone tapping gently on his shoulder.

"Who are you?" he asked the scrawny boy.

Gosunkugi winced, reflexively afraid of anyone as strong as Ryouga. He had hammered the Lost Boy repeatedly with a broken piece of a desk and Ryouga barely noticed.

"Go...Gosunkugi," he squeaked, "They...they didn't go this way. I...I can help you find Akane."

Ryouga grabbed Gosunkugi's shoulder and bellowed for him to hurry. The smaller boy nearly collapsed into a babbling heap, but did as Ryouga demanded.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"That's a nice pair you've got there, Ucchan."

"Um, thanks, Ranchan, but don't you think..."

"Aren't they a little big though?"

"What?"

"Well, don't they kinda make it hard to fight the way you're used to?"

"Well, they are pretty badly balanced for throwing." Ukyou twirled a spatula in each hand. Each was about as long as her forearm, far larger than her throwing versions, but notably smaller than her battle spatula.

Ranma stated the obvious, "Paired weapons technique," and Ukyou nodded reply.

"Like some people use sais or tonfas," the girl added.

Ranma was already rooting through a silverware drawer.

"What are you looking for, Ranchan?"

"Spoons."

"Spoons?"

"Martial Arts Tea Ceremony."

"Martial Arts Tea Ceremony?"

"Yeah, never thought I'd need to use it again, Ucchan. Too bad this place doesn't have a teapot."

"Martial Arts Tea Ceremony?"

"Maybe I can find a ladle."

"Martial Arts Tea Ceremony?"

"Hey, it's not any stranger than Okonomiyaki Style Martial Arts."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The wall shattered. As the dust and debris cleared a pair of figures entered the gymnasium.

Ryouga spun and glared at the shorter boy. "I thought you said the monster took Akane this way!"

"Yes, couldn't you hear the Mamono?" Gosunkugi replied nervously. "Wait, that must be..." The creature had been remarkably quiet, especially considering its size. "Yes, that must be its magic, that's why you couldn't hear it."

"What?"

Gosunkugi hardly noticed Ryouga's question. "It called me a null, a hollow one. I've read about them, people who magic doesn't affect. That's why I could hear the Mamono and you couldn't."

The skinny boy glanced towards the gaping hole in the gym wall. By combining his sense of direction with Ryouga's ability to fragment brick and concrete, they had pursued the Mamono through the school, though the large number of impromptu doorways were probably not good for the structural integrity of the buildings.

"So where is it now?" the Lost Boy shouted. "That coward Ranma abandoned Akane and ran off with Shampoo. How can I save Akane if I can't even find her?" Color drained from Ryouga's face and energy began building around the boy.

And then a spoon bounced off the back of Ryouga's skull and clattered to the floor.

Ryouga yelled in surprise, not pain, and spun towards his attacker. Ranma stood framed in the shattered hole in the wall. A dark-haired girl clad in a revealing crimson dress stood next to him. Ryouga blinked in surprise, blushed, and looked away.

"Ranchan is not a coward, you stupid jerk!" Ukyou glowered at the Lost Boy. "And I am not Shampoo!"

"Maybe next time I should just yell 'Ryouga prepare to die' and kick him in the head," Ranma added.

"Ranma, how dare you steal my lines," Ryouga bellowed.

"So where's this stupid Mamono anyway? I gotta kick its big tin butt." But the cockiness of Ranma's words didn't match the expression in his eyes. "Jeez, ya think with all the noise you were making you'd have actually been fighting the thing, Pork Butt."

"Ranma, this is all your fault! Where were you when Akane was kidnapped? She's your fiancée, you're supposed to protect her."

"Aw, shut up, Pig Boy. You're starting to sound like her dad. Hey, what do you mean Akane's been kidnapped? Again?"

Ukyou cut the bickering short by smacking Ryouga on both sides of the skull with her new hand spatulas. "This is not Ranchan's fault, you jerk!"

"Hey, what did you do that for?" the Lost Boy muttered.

"Just shut up so I can concentrate, you idiot!" Ukyou raised her left hand, middle finger extended, in front of Ryouga's face, holding the Yoma ring inches from his eyes. "I think I can use this thing to sense where the monster is, not that I exactly know what I'm doing here."

"It's called Aijou, sorrow," Ranma whispered and for a moment that emotion was mirrored in his expression, before he masked it with another look of confidence.

Ukyou nodded, then closed her eyes and furrowed her brow. Seconds crawled by before she opened her eyes again. "It's under there." Ukyou pointed to the stage area at the end of the gym. "At least, I think..."

Ryouga screamed, "Akane, I'm coming," and raced across the gym, smashing through the wooden side of the stage. Almost immediately, the others heard crashing noises and battle cries coming from inside. Ranma glared at Gosunkugi, remembering the pit of cats from the last time they were beneath the stage, then followed Ryouga.

"Ranchan, wait for me."

Gosunkugi stood alone and unprotected in the middle of the gymnasium, wondering what to do as the sounds of the unseen conflict intensified.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"Ryouga, get down."

He ducked as a hail of spoons whistled past, thudding against the Mamono, then clattering to the floor. The creature didn't react in the slightest.

"Ranma, you idiot, you could have hit Akane!"

"I was aiming for the weak spot."

"Weak spot?"

"Where I tagged it with my Moko Takabisha, Pig Boy. Seems like that's the only thing that hurts it. Now get our of the way so I can get a clear shot.

"I'll do better than that." Ryouga grasped his umbrella with both hands, swinging it like a gigantic bat.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Gosunkugi knew he was useless in a fight, but he couldn't just abandon Akane. While he hesitated, the side of the stage almost detonated outward in a spray of shattering wood and something huge and gray arced through the air.

"Ryouga, you moron!"

"Waaah, Akane, I'm sorry!"

The Mamono's gray shell soared over Gosunkugi's head, landing heavily. The skinny boy held a hand over his eyes as shattered fragments of flooring stuck him, knocking him prone.

"Akane," he stammered, unmindful of his own injuries. He couldn't see her and for a moment Gosunkugi feared she was a bloody pulp beneath the monster. Aijou had been holding Akane when Ryouga gave it the involuntary flight lesson, but she had slipped from its grasp. Fortunately, Gosunkugi protected her from the fall with his own body. While this was not intentional, it was extremely if briefly painful.

Gosunkugi lay unconscious, Akane unmoving. The Mamono stood with a speed surprising for its size and advanced towards them, but found the way blocked by Ryouga and Ranma. Globes of chi power glowed in their hands. The Mamono stood in the open now, unable to dodge both the chi blasts being hurled at it.

"Moko Takabisha!"

"Shishi Hokoudan!"

Perhaps it was luck or perhaps Aijou sensed the nature of the energies. The Mamono pivoted out of the way of Ranma's chi blast and took Ryouga's squarely in the chest. This time there was no scream. Energy flashed across the creature's surface and the light faded away revealing something. The previous damage was gone, wiped away like it never existed, and the creature had grown at least a meter in height.

Its name was Aijou. It fed on sorrow and depression and Ryouga's attack, the Shishi Hokoudan, was fueled by those emotions. Failure to harm the monster made Ryouga even more depressed and he made the mistake of looking into the black pits where Aijou should have had eyes. The effect seemed to occur in slow motion, but it finished in moments. Pieces of the giant Samurai armor separated from each other, spiraled lazily through the air, and reformed around Ryouga. The creature now towered above the others, its head nearly brushing the gymnasium ceiling.

The previous host body struck the floor with a sickening thud and lay awkwardly, like an abandoned doll. Nabiki was unconscious, severely burned in the place where Ranma's chi blast had damaged the Mamono. Aijou had wrung her dry like a sodden rag twisted till it was nearly formless, then discarded her.

She wouldn't have lasted much longer anyway, but Aijou's new host was something unexpected. The Mamono had never tasted such delicious depression. Nothing it had experienced previously matched the flavor and intensity of this host. It was almost intoxicating. As it reveled in the feelings, Aijou let the control of its puppets lapse. Kuno still lay unconscious and forgotten in the classroom. Akane sat up, saw her sister Nabiki's crumpled form, and screamed.

Aijou was incapable of smiling, but it was intensely satisfied. It was in control. It could afford to play with its prey again.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Ranma gulped, wanting to vomit. The smell of burnt flesh is nauseous at best, but he knew Nabiki, felt he was responsible for her injuries. Not even she deserved that. Akane stopped screaming and moved to Nabiki's side, cradling her sister's burned and battered body and calling her name. Distracted, Ranma didn't see the massive fist swing towards him.

"Ranchan!" Ukyou tackled him from the side, knocking him out of the way of the monster's blow. She was not so fortunate, the monster's blow caught her trailing leg and something snapped audibly. Ukyou spun through the air, then slammed to the floor.

"What didya do that for?" Pain blazed across Ranma's side, his damaged ribs reminding him of the injury the creature had inflicted on him earlier. Ranma barely made it to his feet. Ukyou lay still, but he heard her sob with pain.

That thing is a lot stronger than when it tagged me and Ucchan ain't as tough as I am and if I hadn't hesitated...

He didn't remember moving to Ukyou's side.

"What didya do that for, Ucchan," he repeated, but his voice was almost gentle. "You coulda got killed."

"Ranchan!" There was a pained hiss as she took a breath, then released it in a whisper stronger than any shout. "I love you, you idiot."

Ranma's eyes grew wide, his mouth moved, but no words came. Aijou could have smashed them flatter than okonomiyaki, but the creature had tasted pain at their hands and it wanted to toy with them, needed to revel in their sorrow before it ended their lives. And it sensed which human's death would cause the greatest sorrow to its new host. A gigantic hand began to move as the creature savored Ryouga's pain. Slow and inevitable as time it descended towards the girl. Unless she abandoned her sister, Akane would die, and not even Ranma was close enough to save her.

Akane closed her eyes and shielded Nabiki with her body, but the monster's metallic arm stopped inches above her head. A ghostly voice echoed across the gymnasium. Though it came from the Mamono, the voice was Ryouga's. His speech was slow, hesitating, and it was clear the monster made him pay for every word and the price he paid was pain.

"Ranma, stop this," he gasped. "Use...Moko...Taka..."

"Ryouga, you're nuts. You saw what happened to Nabiki."

"Yes. I'll die...before I...hurt Akane."

"No, Ryouga, no." There were tears in her eyes and she shook her head in unneeded emphasis. "Why?"

Fear had always held Ryouga back. Fear of rejection, but now Ryouga feared something more. If Ukyou could find the courage to say it to Ranma...

"I...love...you...Akane."

"You love me?" she echoed softly. "But, Ryouga, I thought..."

"Do it, Ranma," Ryouga hissed in agony, "Now...not strong enough."

"No." Ukyou spoke quietly, but clearly. "We can save him." She lurched to her feet, wincing as she put weight on her damaged ankle. Color drained from her face and she nearly fell, but she remained standing.

The girl began chanting. "We, since the time of Ancient Gods, have been your destroyers. Now, the 108th generation Devil Hunter, Ukyou, is here. Blade of my soul appear!" In a shimmering crimson light, a near-duplicate of her battle spatula materialized in Ukyou's hands, though it was darker, near bronze in coloration and somehow it felt of age and power.

"Akane, grab your sister and Gosunkugi and get out of here," Ukyou called.

"I won't leave you and Ranma to fight this thing alone."

"You have to, Akane, you're the only one still strong enough to carry them both and you have to get Nabiki to a doctor. Ranchan and I will be okay, I promise."

Ranma watched in astonishment as Akane obeyed Ukyou. Akane never listened when he tried to keep her out of combat.

"Ucchan, you oughta get outta here, too."

"This is gonna need both of us, Ranchan. I separate Ryouga from the Mamono, then you blast it."

For one awful moment he thought Ukyou planned to get the monster to possess her. Instead, she soared into the air in a leap that would've been breathtaking even if she hadn't done it with only one leg working properly. She balanced on the creature's arm and swung the battle spatula at its wrist. Ukyou's normal weapon would have bounced off harmlessly, but this was a soulblade. She severed the gigantic arm halfway between wrist and elbow and it slammed to the floor with a hollow thud.

Ranma lashed out with a bolt of chi energy and the monster's severed limb disintegrated. He felt more than heard the creature screaming as Ukyou flipped through the air and deprived it of most of its remaining arm. While he destroyed that, she dropped to the floor and severed the creature's ankle.

Anger, adrenaline, and magic heightened Ukyou's natural strength and balance, but they didn't make her immune to pain. Her injured foot touched the floor and she collapsed, unable to avoid the monstrosity toppling towards her. Ranma dove forward, ignoring his own injuries.

The floor shattered as the huge Mamono slammed into it, but no one lay pinned beneath. Ranma held Ukyou behind the shelter of one of the larger broken hunks of flooring. Flying debris clattered off it and he felt her lean against him.

She's warm. To Ranma warm was a very good thing. His thoughts might have continued down that path, but the creature was still moving.

"Moko Takabisha!" The monster's severed foot was gone.

Ranma rolled to his feet, wrapped an arm around Ukyou's waist, and lifted her up. Together they hobbled toward the Mamono. One swing of the soulblade decapitated the monster. Ukyou dropped to her knees as Ranma aimed another chi blast. The creature's screaming ceased as Ranma obliterated its head. Ukyou split the ruined torso with her soulblade and Ranma pulled Ryouga free of the remains. The boy was still breathing and his body showed no sign of burns.

"Moko Takabisha" echoed a final time and only humans remained in the gymnasium. Ranma and Ukyou collapsed as the adrenaline wore off. Chi energy was life energy and Ranma had thrown it around freely. As he lay exhausted on the floor, he looked over at Ukyou who lay inches away.

"I was so scared, Ranchan."

"What? This wasn't near as bad as... Hey, don't cry, Ucchan. It's okay. We got that thing, just like you said." He stretched a hand towards Ukyou and she grabbed it with both of hers.

She's even cuter when she smiles.
>>
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