Ukyou discovers a family legacy, and she and her friends face off against the monsters known as Mamonos.
Haradachi: Cauldron of Anger
By Edward A. 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 revised 2004 by Edward Simons.
"Come not within the measure of my wrath."
Two Gentlemen of Verona
"Aw, great," Ranma muttered. He stared out the classroom window, where flakes of white were drifting from the sky. "All the leaves haven't fallen from the trees yet and now this happens. How am I supposed to make it back to..."
A swift jab to his ribs interrupted the boy. "Hey, what was that for?"
"We are still at school, Ranchan," his companion whispered, "I though you wanted to keep where you were staying a secret."
He turned from the window and looked across the classroom. Akane and several of the other students were already gone. A handful had stayed, sitting in the far corner, talking quietly, but frequently glancing at Ranma and Ukyou.
"Eyes. This bunch is watching us here. Shampoo and Kodachi are watching us on the way to and from school. I hate all this waiting; when are they gonna do something?"
"Have you ever heard the saying about being careful what you wish for, Ranchan?"
"Be careful what you wish for, you might get it," Ukyou quoted.
"What's wrong with getting what you wish for? Well, unless you're an idiot like Kuno."
"I wouldn't know." She sighed and stared at the floor.
"I, um, did I say something wrong again?"
"No." She looked up and smiled, and Ranma saw something in her eyes again. He swallowed, but he wasn't sure what to say.
Ukyou burst out laughing. "You should see your expression. Like a fish with its mouth hanging open."
"Hey!" But he smiled.
Searching for the boy had been almost a game at first; a chance to get away from the house and knock the rust off his skills of observation, searching, and moving unnoticed.
But it wasn't a game anymore. The boy had been missing for weeks and he couldn't shake the sense of uneasiness, the dread that the boy might never return. He was almost certain where the boy had gone, even though he hadn't seen or heard him leave. He'd spied on her house since that day, but in spite of all his skills, he'd never even gotten a glimpse of the missing boy.
Unfortunately, he couldn't buy the information off Nabiki, either, not while she remained comatose in the hospital. For once, he actually missed the girl. That left him the unpleasant alternative of talking to a woman that he had no desire to face.
He would have put it off, but he heard the front door open, then slam shut. Reluctantly, he advanced towards the entryway, shivering because of the sudden draft and perhaps something more.
"Um, excuse me...." Sasuke squeaked.
Kodachi glared down at the diminutive ninja who served her family. "Here, you may take my coat," she intoned icily, tossing it as she spoke. Sasuke was almost buried under the garment, but he struggled free.
"Excuse me, Mistress Kodachi, but I...."
"What? You're still here? I have no time for chitchat, I must change from my school uniform to my leotard and continue my training."
Sasuke shifted nervously. Kodachi had been practicing gymnastics a lot over the past weeks, when she was even home. She didn't seem to have gotten much sleep over that time, and her curt speech and abrupt behavior showed something was troubling her.
"Well?" she snapped.
"I, um, Mistress Kodachi, have you seen Master Tatewaki? He's been gone for quite a while now."
"I care not what my brother does. Perhaps he has run off with that pigtailed peasant he fancies."
"Perhaps, but I had the impression that Master Tatewaki had intended to visit Akane Tendo."
"Then perhaps you should question her yourself. I have better things to do than worry which of his so-called true loves my brother is currently pursuing. I suppose I should wish him luck for should he succeed with either girl they will no longer be annoying my beloved Ranma Darling. Still, Tatewaki is my brother and wishing luck to him does go against the grain."
"And there is a greater threat than either Akane or the Pigtailed Girl, a threat to my and my beloved's future happiness and I shall not rest until I have freed my darling Ranma from her dark sorceries. I have no time for my brother or his foolishness."
And she was gone, leaving only a scattering of rose petals and the dying traces of her laughter.
"Now what do I do?" Sasuke asked the empty air. "I'm glad Mistress Kodachi hasn't harmed Akane, but that means she is still after someone else. And there's something wrong about Master Tatewaki's disappearance."
Most of the students had already left the school, though one pair still stood in the front entryway. "No point in waiting," Ranma sighed, "This snow ain't letting up anytime soon. I guess I get to walk home as a girl."
"I'm not sure there's quite enough snow for that, Ranchan. Still, why take chances."
"You've got something that can keep my curse from triggering?"
"Ancient Mamono Hunter Secret," she intoned.
"Just watch." She reached into her school satchel and pulled out a dark cylinder about as long as her forearm, though nowhere as thick around. She pressed a hidden catch, and the cylinder popped forward to more than twice its previous length and unfurled.
"Afraid someone will think you're a wimp for using one, Ranchan?"
"It's a lot more manly than turning into a girl," he replied, grasping the umbrella handle firmly, only then realizing that Ukyou had already been holding it.
"Ucchan...I, um, that is, um...." The temperature seemed to be soaring, perhaps that was why his mouth had gone dry.
"Oh. That's, um...." Her face had gone red and she seemed to be staring at their hands. "I, um, guess we better get, um, going. I'll have the dinner rush at the restaurant soon."
Mousse's greeting died on his lips. In the main room of the Neko Hanten restaurant, the handful of customers fell silent as well. Shampoo, granddaughter of the owner and the love of Mousse's life, stalked through the room and towards the stairs.
Mousse stepped forward to greet her, but she backhanded him into the wall, then continued up the stairs to her room.
"What?" Mousse stumbled to his feet. "Who?" But he knew who to blame. "Curse you, Ranma Saotome," he snarled and charged out the front door. The beauty of the falling snow meant nothing to the nearsighted Chinese boy as he raged down the street. Flakes struck his robes, quickly turning to small patches of damp, but not enough to trigger his Jusenkyou curse.
"Where are you?" the boy yelled, "What did you do to Shampoo this time?" But his words were lost in the empty streets.
Then he spied a figure of red, only a blurry manlike smudge without his glasses, standing near the street corner. A flurry of blades and chains sprang from the sleeves of the acknowledged master of hidden weapons.
Mousse's target never stood a chance. Riddled by steel and decapitated, the fire hydrant expired, fountaining its contents across the street, and catching the boy squarely in the chest. Mousse sailed backwards, changing as he did so, crashing into the nearest wall and falling to the pavement, leaving a bedraggled and bespectacled duck, struggling to free himself from robes that no longer fit. Mousse righted himself, flapped his wings and retreated towards the warmth of the Neko Hanten.
The streets were largely empty, with only a few others out in the gathering snow and the unseasonable cold. Even their tracks had disappeared under the thin coating of white, turning streets and sidewalks into something almost magical, like the page of a story not yet written.
Ranma glanced over at the girl sharing the umbrella with him. She smiled and he blushed realizing how close they were, how his hand still touched hers on the handle of the umbrella. He saw the color in her cheeks, realized she was embarrassed as well, yet there was no anger because of that embarrassment, simply a slightly nervous grin and a look in her eyes he didn't fully understand.
I still don't know what I feel, but it's kind of comfortable when I'm with her.
It was more than just a shared past or common interests. A walk with Akane was a walk through a verbal minefield. They didn't argue as much as some people thought, but it was so easy to say or do something that would set the Tendo girl off. With Shampoo, he had a constant sense of unease, wondering what the girl was plotting this time.
Not that I wasn't usually trying to get something when I went out with her, too.
But the Chinese girl hadn't followed them this night and Kodachi had disappeared as well. It felt nice to be able to relax. The only sound was the faint scrunch of their shoes in the snow and Ranma realized how little peace he had experienced since he came to Nerima. He knew the moment wouldn't last, but it still felt good.
"I'm home." But no one answered. "Hello?" Akane removed her shoes in the entryway, though no one came to greet her, then padded down the hallway to the family room.
The go board lay unattended, the stones of an unfinished game scattered across it. Her father and his fuzzy freeloading friend were obviously off on one of their ridiculous attempts to find that unwanted idiot Ranma.
Akane growled, spun on her heel, and stalked back down the hall, turning left into the kitchen. There was no sign of Kasumi, either.
"Usually she's home by now." The words seemed to fade in the empty house and Akane shivered. Everyone was gone and that brought back unpleasant memories. She looked out the window towards the dojo. They kept her mother's shrine there, a reminder of the woman who used to be the center of the family.
But now the dojo reminded her of someone else, a loud and laughing pigtailed boy who'd appeared one day and now was gone again. And the things she had to endure now. The things she had to see. The way Ukyou hung all over Ranma now. The strange ring she wore on her left hand.
"Not that it matters who that jerk gives presents to."
Then there were the rumors, the things Akane overheard in school. The roof during lunch. The athletic equipment shed. Underneath the stage in the school gym. The really disturbing stories of what they did in the school kitchen, the one place school policy barred her from visiting again. Too many people knew someone who knew someone who had seen or heard or even interrupted Ranma and Ukyou in one of those not-so-secret trysting places.
"Pervert. Who cares what he does anyway? It's not like he was ever caring or considerate or dependable like some people."
The phone rang, and Akane jumped in surprise. She scurried back to the hall and picked up the receiver.
The stumbling nervous voice on the other end was no one Akane had expected, Sasuke, the Kuno family ninja.
"Yes, Kuno was here, but I haven't seen him in weeks."
"Please call me if you see him again. I haven't been able to find him and you may be the last person to have seen Master Kuno before he disappeared."
Akane hung the phone up, then swallowed hard, recalling the way Kuno had left - under her power, not his.
Kami, no. What if I hit him too hard?
She sprinted to the family room, pausing just long enough to fling the sliding door open before charging into the night. The koi pond filled much of the side yard and the flagstones that ringed it were cold on her stocking feet.
"Kuno?" she whispered.
Snow gently drifted from the sky and a thin tracing covered most of the grounds, save for a rough circle around the koi pond. P-chan's tracks were long buried, but there was something in the shadows on the far side of the pond, something partly visible beneath the snow. Akane sprang to the far side of the pond and snatched it up.
It was a bokken, a wooden practice sword, and it wasn't one of hers. The wooden weapon was almost certainly Kuno's. He wouldn't abandon it, but there was no sign of the boy. Akane stared numbly at the bokken. She barely sensed something moving behind her, but it didn't give her time to scream.
The restaurant was quieter than the streets. A handful of regulars had stopped by earlier, but asked for takeout. Only the owner, her waitress, and the owner's pigtailed fiancÃ© remained.
"Thanks for the free okonomiyaki, Ucchan. It sure can cost a lot living on your own." His words trailed away. "Sorry, you know a lot more about that than I do."
She gave a faint smile. "That's okay, Ranchan."
"Say, umm, Ucchan, I was...well..."
"Well, if you want to, after you close, I was hoping, umm..."
"Yes?" she repeated.
"I...ahh, ain't trying to be cheap or nothing, but I ain't got much money. I was thinking of going skating, if that's okay with you."
Ukyou furrowed her brow. "Ranchan, are you trying to ask me to go skating with you after I'm done with work?"
He nodded, afraid he would stumble over the simplest of answers.
The Neko Hanten wasn't just quiet, it was closed. Few wanted to dine out in the current weather, and Shampoo had been in no mood to make deliveries. Tables had already been cleaned, floors swept, and a certain white duck locked in a cage where he could not interfere.
"Great-grandmother it be very, very strange. Ranma no sleep at Spatula Girl's. Shampoo watch for many many days, but he no even kiss her. Perhaps stories about them wrong."
"Then why is he no longer staying at the Tendo home? Remember, the Kuonji girl has practiced hiding her true nature for years."
"But Airen is..."
"Ranma has great strength of will, you know how many times he has resisted your charms. He would be capable of hiding his feelings in public."
"But Shampoo watch Spatula Girl's restaurant many many nights now. He eat her food and go back to Doctor Tofu's for rest of night. He no sneak back to Spatula Girl's later."
"Then perhaps she sneaks out to visit him. You said her only employee is a ninja. She could easily have taught Ukyou some of her techniques."
"Aiyah, Shampoo no think..."
"Yes, great-granddaughter, that is your problem. You do not plan carefully enough. You do not expect your opponent to be clever. You must learn to think more like your cursed form - clever, cunning, stealthy - you must watch your prey until the time is right to pounce. I know it is hard to be patient when one is so young, but it is necessary."
"Yes, great-grandmother," she whispered meekly.
"Smile, child. You are not doing badly, I merely wish you to do better."
"Thank you, great-grandmother."
"Now, we should not interfere at Dr. Tofu's. We owe him a debt for the hospitality he showed you when you first came to Japan. Many Japanese wouldn't have even considered employing you or giving you a place to stay. "Besides," Cologne continued, "you would be almost certain to encounter Ranma and Ukyou...together. While there would be a high chance of them being...distracted, they would probably respond with greater fury at the...interruption and there would be no chance of convincing Ranma you are not responsible for his lover's death."
"Life was much simpler back at our village, great-grandmother. Here, the Japanese do not recognize our laws and we must sneak about, hiding our actions instead of boldly executing criminals. I wish we could go home."
"Not until our work is done, my child."
"Did you hear back from the council of elders, great-grandmother? The law allows for if outsider male is already married, his wife can be junior wife to Amazon. Is maybe a way out of this mess. Is not good way, but better than killing someone."
"I sent the message, Shampoo, but their reply was no surprise. The elders' decision is stated rather formally. You would probably find it a boring and difficult read. Neither Akane nor Ukyou is Ranma's wife, so the Law of Junior Wives does not apply. I might, perhaps, be able to persuade the council to make an exception for one, but never for both. For now, they would both be considered obstacles and you know the law."
"Obstacles is for killing," Shampoo recited. "Law is easy to say, hard to do. Girl Ranma, even when angry Shampoo could not kill her. Akane have potential, but is too weak, almost like killing someone not a warrior. Though after Stupid Akane almost get Shampoo trapped as cat forever, or abandon Shampoo when supposed to be ally against Pink and Link, Shampoo very tempted."
"Great-granddaughter," Cologne admonished, "it still surprises me that a warrior like yourself finds killing so difficult. This is probably your father's fault; I still don't know what your mother ever saw in that weakling."
"That why you send Shampoo's father back to village instead of have him stay as cook?"
Cologne ignored the question. "Killing Ukyou should be easier."
"Why? Ukyou willing to fight me from moment she saw me during the Hot Springs Race. Ukyou willing to fight me again later and without power of Super Soba. Ukyou fought with Shampoo against Hinako, fought as a true ally. This be...this will be hard. Shampoo be glad when this over."
"Soon, my child, soon."
The restaurant was closed, but the lights were still on.
"Konatsu, are you sure about this?"
"Lady Ukyou, I trained at this for years. If you want your makeup done correctly, then relax and let me do my job."
"Okay, okay, I just hope Ranchan likes this."
"Between my skill and your beauty he will have no choice but to like it."
Ukyou felt her stomach tighten and her heart dancing in her chest. After all this time, she was finally going on a real date with Ranma. She hoped everything would go smoothly, but that seldom happened in Nerima.
"Hello, are you listening? You have to leave the battle spatula behind."
"Listen, I'm the expert here and it just won't look right."
"Lady Ukyou, please."
She sighed and unstrapped her weapon. It felt wrong to leave it behind.
"And are you sure about wearing that?" Konatsu gestured towards the Yoma ring.
"Well, I won't be needing it again. I'm sure the Mamono was just something that showed up and we'll never see again, like Hayato or Tsubasa. That happens a lot here in Nerima. But I'm keeping the ring as a good luck charm. At least, since I've worn it, I've actually got to spend a little time with Ranchan."
Konatsu nodded. "You do still need to put the battle spatula down, though."
"Oh, yeah." Ukyou blushed and chuckled faintly. "I suppose you're right. At least I still have my hand spatulas." She smiled and twirled the paired weapons she'd acquired during the battle with the Mamono. Konatsu sighed, but knew when to give up. The ninja-turned-waitress didn't mention the letter from Ukyou's grandmother that had arrived that afternoon. She deserved a night to relax, responsibilities could come later.
"See ya, Doc. I'll be back later."
"Ranma, please call me Tofu."
"Sorry, Doc, umm, I mean Dr. Tofu."
"Thank you. Now where are you going at this hour and where did you get those ice skates?"
"I found them in the back a couple days ago when you had me clean out the storage area. Since you weren't using them, I figured I could."
"Didn't you think of asking?"
"Asking what?" Ranma scratched his head in puzzlement.
"If you could borrow the skates."
"Didn't I just say you weren't using them?"
Tofu sighed, wondering just who had been in charge of raising Ranma. "It's better to ask." He paused a moment. "Why do you have two pairs of skates, Ranma? And you seem more nicely dressed than usual."
"I, erm, well, that is...."
"Might you actually be going on a date?"
"I, uh, sorta. How did you know?"
"Believe or not, I have been on a few myself," Tofu smiled. "Be sure to tell me how it went."
"Ain't you gonna ask who? You were kinda pushing Akane when I first got to Nerima."
"Akane really can be a sweet girl, though I think you got off on the wrong foot with her, and I wanted to help you see past that. But that was before Shampoo began working as my assistant. She disappeared one night and I didn't find out why until after she returned. When I learned that she was also your fiancÃ©e, I backed off. In the end, it has to be your decision."
"Don't you think I know that?"
"Sorry, Ranma, I guess I'm being a bit too serious."
"That's okay, Doc, you're about the only adult who quit pushing one of the girls on me. Me and Akane's dads keep pushing her. So does my mom. Cologne ain't gonna let me forget about Shampoo. Seems like Ucchan's the only one who ain't got someone backing her."
"That's the girl I met at the hospital," Tofu stated. "Is she an orphan?"
"I dunno. I think her dad is still around and I think she said she's got a grandma, but they don't live around here."
"I see." Tofu glanced at his watch. "Oops, sorry to have kept you. You better get going, the ladies don't like to be kept waiting."
Moments after the boy left, the phone rang.
"Akane? Hello? Is anyone home?" No one answered Kasumi, though the house felt almost as cold as the weather outside. The oldest Tendo girl stepped into the kitchen, placing a couple sacks of groceries on the sideboard, then stepped back into the hallway.
There was a definite draft coming from down the hall. "Father?" No one replied, so Kasumi walked down the hall. The door to the family room was wide open, letting the cold air in. She sighed and her breath was a puff of whiteness.
She stepped towards the door, reaching to slide it closed, then hesitated. It seemed as if there was something moving out in the yard.
Then the phone rang.
Ranma took a breath and mentally reviewed the rules.
First, apologize for being late. Second, compliment her on her appearance.
Then he added his own third rule.
Don't screw it up like that idiot Ohta you saw on that TV show.
He knocked on the restaurant door. It slid slowly open and Ranma found himself speechless. He had called Ukyou his cute fiancÃ©e more than once, but now the word cute seemed completely inadequate. Ranma swallowed and began his verbal katas.
"Um, sorry I'm late, Ucchan. You look, umm, wow, I mean..."
Ukyou blushed, but was unable to reflexively swing her battle spatula at the source of her embarrassment.
Konatsu smiled. Ranma's reaction was exactly what the ninja had foreseen. Also as expected, keeping the battle spatula away from Ukyou had proved just as important as the perfect makeup job. Now to follow discreetly and prevent anyone from interfering with their date.
In the hallway of the Tendo home, the phone beeped incessantly, slowly swinging back and forth at the end of its cord, mindlessly complaining it had not been set back on the hook.
Soun had downed a bit too much sake on this latest 'find Ranma' expedition, but he could still sense something was wrong.
Genma, pragmatic as ever, ignored his friend's latest overreaction and shuffled into the kitchen. One sack of groceries sat on the counter; while a second seemed to have overturned, tumbling the contents to the tiled floor. A variety of fluids spread across that floor, leaking from shattered jars.
Genma frowned. This wasn't like Kasumi at all.
Meanwhile, Soun raced though the house, calling names, flinging doors open. His daughters weren't in the house. Soun raced out the kitchen door, ignoring Genma, and charged into the dojo, but it was empty as well. He circled furiously through the yard, finding no trace of either daughter.
But there was something by the back wall of the property, a misshapen multilimbed thing. In the stillness of the night, Soun swore he heard a strange burbling chuckle, a sound as mindless as the noise of the telephone.
Soun shook his head, not wanting to believe his senses. He looked again, and it was gone. "Saotome!" When his friend didn't appear, Soun raced back to the kitchen. "Saotome, something has taken my girls..."
"Nonsense, Tendo, that's just the sake talking." Genma paused from his contemplation of the groceries, and popped something in his mouth.
"Listen, Tendo, we know Kasumi is too nice for anyone to hurt her," the bald martial artist replied, his speech only slightly garbled by the rapidly disappearing groceries. "And Akane too tough for anything too serious to happen."
"What if she's been kidnapped again?"
"Then that's perfect."
"Perfect? How could that possibly be perfect!"
Genma sighed. "Haven't you seen the pattern? Some martial artist comes out of nowhere and kidnaps Akane. My son, showing all the skills I taught him, beats them and gets Akane back." Genma paused, savoring the moment, as well as a final bit of food. "And Ranma and Akane end up getting closer. If you could loan me some money, I was even thinking of hiring a few kidnappers to help the relationship along."
"Of course, Tendo. I can't help it if I'm the smartest and the best looking."
"But why are you eating my groceries?"
"Um, I search better on a full stomach," Genma replied hesitantly.
"I thought you said we didn't need to look for Akane?"
"Um, I didn't want the groceries to spoil?"
"You could have just put them away."
"Er, I'm just a harmless panda."
"Saotome," Soun growled.
"Look! It's a hundred yen coin!"
Ranma had never managed such an easy victory. The canal winding through Nerima had been Ranma's enemy ever since he moved to the district. Now, after the cold snap of the last week, it was safely frozen and no threat at all. Ranma smiled as he looked down on the long white ribbon of ice.
"Looks pretty good, don't it, Ucchan?"
"Yeah, Ranchan. It sure does."
He glanced back over his shoulder, "Hey, how can you see the canal at all when you're standing right behind me?"
"Oh, um, yeah, the canal looks nice, too." She had another one of those expressions he didn't really understand, her eyes glazed and a fair amount of color on her cheeks.
"Um, Ucchan, you okay?"
"Yes. So how do we get down to the ice?"
"We jump." And Ranma sprang forward, catching the railing and flipping over the fence, then plunging downward to the ice below.
"Ranchan?" She hopped up, balancing on the fence. "I don't think he has any idea how good he looks in those tight pants. Or that soft smooth crimson shirt covering all those taut muscles." Ukyou blushed. "I can't believe I said that out loud. At least he didn't hear me."
"Ucchan?" he called from below.
"Catch me!" and she sprang forward. The rushing air was cold against her skin, and then she was in Ranma's arms.
"Aren't you afraid I woulda missed?"
She shook her head.
"I gotta put you down so we can put the skates on."
"Oh. Um, sure." She was blushing again.
In the hall outside the emergency room, a tall bespectacled man and a beautiful longhaired woman sat on a couch. She clung to him, her face pressed tightly against his chest. Neither seemed to realize she had lost a shoe in her frantic run to the hospital or that her foot was cut and bleeding. Finally, Kasumi raised a tear-streaked face.
"Tofu, I know they're doing the best they..."
"Shh, Kasumi, just rest."
"It doesn't look good, does it?
He wanted to lie, to tell her that everything would be all right. But he only hoped that and he couldn't lie to Kasumi. "Those are good people, they'll do their best."
"And it may not be enough. I lost my mother here and now...now my little sister lies in there. It's happening again and I'm still helpless. If only she'd fight it. She used to be so good at..."
Kasumi began crying again as Tofu slowly and gently ran his fingers through her hair. "This is my fault," he muttered, "I should've been smarter, more observant, more something. It shouldn't happen this way."
Ignoring the weather and the lateness of the hour, Ranma and Ukyou darted along the surface of the frozen canal, the sound of their skates lost among the noise of laughter echoing off the concrete walls. It was far too long since either of them had a chance to laugh or a reason.
Ranma had improved considerably since the since the Charlotte Cup, but he wasn't a master skater, either. If he'd played it safe and cautious, well, he wouldn't have been Ranma.
"Hey, Ucchan, watch this."
The acrobatic spin ended in a jarring thud and Ranma lay flat on his back. Ukyou skated over and knelt beside him. Ranma looked up at a face haloed by the full moon. A mischievous smile crossed Ukyou's face.
"You know, Ranchan, I've been observing Konatsu's martial arts and I think now would be the perfect time to test one of the secret techniques of the shinobi, the female ninja."
"Umm, whatcha talking about?"
"It's a very powerful move." Ukyou's smile grew deeper. "Done right, I'm told it can render the strongest man helpless. Would you like me to demonstrate, Ranchan?"
"Sure, that would be..."
"Remember you asked for this," she whispered. "Crimson Attack." And she pressed her lips to his in the briefest of kisses.
An incoherent scream of rage came from above, ringing off the walls. Ranma and Ukyou looked up to see Shampoo plummet from a bridge over the canal. She landed well, then whipped out a pair of bonboris, huge metal maces favored by the Amazon girl. She was too far away for them to see the tears in the corners of her eyes, but they couldn't help but hear her words.
"Spatula Girl stay away from Airen, if she want to keep breathing!"
Ukyou popped back to her feet, hand spatulas at the ready.
"Not good enough, Spatula Girl, Shampoo have bigger pair than you!"
"Once, just once, I get the chance to go on a real date and you have to show up," Ukyou growled back.
Ranma had regained his feet as well, though he felt strangely lightheaded. "Shampoo, Ucchan, I'm sure we can..."
He never finished the sentence as a second figure descended almost silently onto the frozen river between them. Both clothing and hair were dark as the night sky. Konatsu had been raised to conform to the cute and cheery stereotype expected of a girl, and typically behaved that way, but this time the ninja's face was grim, serious. Konatsu shifted to a wide legged stance for greater stability on the ice, drew a sword and pointed it menacingly at Shampoo, though she spoke before the ninja could.
"Out of way, Stupid Ninja Girl, and you no get hurt."
"No." Konatsu's voice was firm and clear. "I lived my life serving the rules of the Kenzan Ninja Clan. Lady Ukyou and Lord Ranma helped set me free from that, but you're trying to force them to obey your cruel, arbitrary, antique Amazon laws."
"Now you insult Amazon tribe. Prepare for pain, Stupid Ninja Girl."
Konatsu didn't flinch at her words, didn't waste time correcting their errors. Anger boiled in the ninja's veins, anger worse than when Konatsu's foster family drugged the ninja with toushintan. Konatsu wanted, needed to lash out, to make someone pay for all the poverty and the misery that life had been.
"You'll have to get past me, Haughty Amazon Girl," the ninja mocked, thrusting forward with the sword. Metal clashed as Shampoo batted it aside with one mace, swinging forward in an overhand smash with the other.
Konatsu backflipped, and the bonbori embedded in the ice with a crunch. Bits of ice were still flying as Konatsu ran up Shampoo's overextended arm, kicked her in the head, and backflipped again, as the Amazon's second mace whistled through the space the ninja had just left.
"She's flatlined," the doctor repeated. His voice was crisp and efficient, unlike the forced drama of the television shows, yet there was an urgency to his words.
"Clear," another called. The rest of the medical staff pulled back, giving room. A shorthaired teen's body convulsed as the electric paddles touched her chest, then lay limply on the gurney.
"Again." It might aggravate her injuries, but that wasn't important now.
Ranma started forward, but Ukyou grabbed his arm.
"But we gotta help."
"Ranchan, what was Konatsu's life like before we met?"
"Um, getting ordered about by a bunch of ugly freaks?"
"Exactly. And do you think Konatsu would have left the ninja clan without our encouragement? That whole life was taking orders, but look now." Ukyou gestured towards the battle. "Instead of a meek waitress, that's a warrior standing against Shampoo, standing without anyone's encouragement. I think Konatsu needs to do this and do this alone to be fully free of the Kenzan Clan."
She didn't know her waitress was already under the influence of something worse. Konatsu had never felt a rage like this. Shampoo had tried to force Ranma into an unwanted marriage using every underhanded trick in her Amazon book and now she dared to try to attack Lady Ukyou.
She's just like the people who ran my life for all those years. Well, she is better looking. Of course, warthogs were better looking than Konatsu's family. She's almost as cute as I am.
The ninja concentrated on Shampoo's twin bonbories, leaping and spinning, but unable to penetrate her guard again. The Amazon's maces were deadly weapons, and she struck back fiercely. Only nimble dodging ensured that all Shampoo shattered was ice.
"I hate just watching."
"So do I, Ranchan, so do I."
"Um, Ucchan, did I ever mention Amazon laws to you?"
"No, is it important?"
Ranma didn't get a chance to answer. He'd been standing close to Ukyou, close enough for a gymnastics ribbon to spiral around them and bind them even closer. A less than fully sane laugh rang across the night.
Kodachi's eerie laugh only distracted Konatsu for a moment, but that was all Shampoo needed to glance a bonbori off the ninja's head.
Something was watching, something old, something not of this world. It was called Haradachi, which meant anger, and there was plenty of that emotion emanating from the combatants below.
Almost effortlessly, the Mamono had used its powers to heighten those feelings. Soon conscience and self-control would be drowned in a sea of fury, leaving raging beasts ready to tear anything apart. Shampoo was nearly there; Konatsu and Kodachi close behind. Best of all, the Mamono Hunter was beginning to fall under Haradachi's influence as well. She lacked the skills, the knowledge to guard against the creature.
The others might destroy the Mamono Hunter. It might even get her to destroy herself. If not, Haradachi planned to use the fury of the ones it had absorbed. Occasionally, a limb twitched from futile struggles to regain control, but Haradachi did not fear their escape. The strange burbling laugh came again from multiple mouths as the Mamono shambled towards a better place to view the combat.
"You wicked, wicked girl," Kodachi called from the darkness above. "How dare you cling to my Darling Ranma in such a familiar manner!"
"Hey, it ain't like Ucchan's doing it on purpose," Ranma replied. "You're the idiot who decided to wrap us up with your stupid gymnastics ribbon like a couple of Christmas presents!"
"I wouldn't mind unwrapping the present, I mean, you tell her, Ranchan."
"Release him this instant!" the gymnast demanded.
Ranma flexed his muscles, expecting to snap the ribbon like it was made of straw. Instead, the slight expansion one way crushed Ukyou closer to his chest. "I...umm...." She'd turned beet red. "Please, not so rough, Ranchan."
Kodachi gave an incoherent cry of rage and flicked her wrist, using the ribbon to send the bound pair skidding across the ice. Ranma spun, taking the hit as they smashed into the concrete wall of the culvert.
"Are you okay?" Ukyou asked.
"Fine," he replied through gritted teeth. "This ribbon's a lot tougher than it..."
This time Kodachi tugged them away from the wall, swinging them forward and upwards, pulling them completely free of the ice. They landed heavily, wobbled, but managed to stay on their feet.
"Okay, now I'm getting annoyed. Ucchan, are your feet still free?"
"Then let's try to unwind this thing." They began spinning, and the ribbon loosened for a moment, but with a simple gesture Kodachi sent more loops soaring over their heads. There wasn't room for a Moko Takabisha. While the chi attack would certainly shred the ribbon, whatever it was made of, he'd also tag himself and Ukyou with it.
Kodachi used the opportunity to bounce them off the concrete again.
"Didn't wanna use this," Ranma muttered, "But we gotta get free and she's earned it tonight." He began spinning the opposite direction with Ukyou following his lead, wrapping themselves in even more of Kodachi's ribbon. Soon all slack was gone and they pulled the gymnast from her perch atop the canal wall.
Kodachi flipped though the air, landing gracefully on the ice. She kept hold of the ribbon as the others continued to spin, drawing her forward in a tighter spiral.
"Wait, Ranma Darling," Kodachi called. "I can give you more pleasure than a mere cook. When it comes to acrobatic skills, none can compare to mine. I know several herbal concoctions which can be used to enhance the experience." The Black Rose continued in some detail, promising an impressive variety of exotic bedroom techniques if Ranma would only be hers.
Ranma tried to ignore her and focus on summoning the Hiryu Shouten Ha. But someone else had never practiced the Soul of Ice, had never learned that kind of control.
"Ucchan, you gotta calm down. Ignore the stuff Kodachi's saying. You gotta keep cool or it's gonna screw up this technique. I dunno what would happen with a source of hot chi this close." His words were a cup of cold water poured into the boiling cauldron of Ukyou's rage; a rage that seethed hotter, fiercer, stronger than even the rage she had when she found Ranma after ten years of searching; a rage that was only brought under control by a stronger, deeper emotion.
Ranma didn't think all that through, he just improvised, like he always did.
"Crimson Attack," and he pressed his lips to Ukyou's. Her eyes grew wide, but she returned the kiss as one passion was washed away by another. Her lips pressed against his, her body crushed against him, and he forgot the ribbon that bound them, forgot everything but her. He barely noticed catching his skate against the shards of broken ice left by Shampoo's rampage, barely realized he had fallen to the ice, pulling her with him.
Konatsu stumbled and nearly fell. The ninja had almost dodged, but almost wasn't enough.
"Stupid Ninja Girl tougher than Shampoo thought."
Konatsu ignored the Amazon's words, ignored the throbbing pain and the flowing blood covering the ninja's face and staining both clothes and the ice below. Through the one eye still open, Konatsu saw Shampoo switch to a two-handed grip on the mace she hadn't thrown. She smiled an unpleasant little smile full of contempt
"Stupid to get distracted," Shampoo added, not taking her eyes from her opponent.
"More stupid to throw away a weapon."
Konatsu hooked the bonbori with a foot, and flung it backwards. The mace went skittering across the ice, ricocheted off the canal's concrete wall, and finally slid to a stop.
The wounded ninja smiled mockingly. The rage burning inside had grown fiercer, stronger, a fire in the blood that refused to be quenched. The Amazon girl would pay for all the pain she had caused and it didn't matter what it cost. Konatsu heard a deep growling noise, dimly realized the voice came from inside. It didn't matter anymore; Konatsu intended to end this permanently.
Then something else landed on the ice. Both combatants stepped back warily as they eyed the latest potential threat. The form between Konatsu and Shampoo spun to a stop revealing a short brunette with long lustrous hair, dressed in a frilly pink figure skating outfit. Neither had met Azusa Shiratori, the shorter member of the Martial Arts Figure Skating Team known as the Golden Pair, so they were understandably confused. All they knew was that the longhaired, short-skirted girl was either very brave or very foolish. They were right on both counts.
Azusa winked at Konatsu and then twirled to face Shampoo.
"Out of way, Pipsqueak Girl," the Amazon hissed.
"How dare you damage my dear Pierre. Isn't he just the cutest boy you've ever seen?" Konatsu looked puzzled at the new name while Shampoo appeared mildly nauseous.
"Boy? Just how stupid is you, Pipsqueak Girl? Stupid Ninja is..."
"Pierre is a very cute boy," Azusa insisted, then pulled a small mallet out of somewhere and addressed it by name. "So, Marianne, we will have to punish her for daring to harm someone as cute as our darling Pierre."
With that, Azusa launched herself towards her opponent. The shorter girl was fast, but so was Shampoo and the Amazon also had strength and reach. Azusa swung several times, Shampoo only once. It was all she needed. With a shriek, the skater flew through the air, slammed into the concrete side of the culvert, and dropped to the ice, where she lay unmoving.
Shampoo cursed in anger. She'd focused so much on the little pest's mallet that she failed to block the one kick the girl threw. Blooded welled from a deep slash in Shampoo's thigh as she limped forward.
"Ranma, no," Kodachi whispered with a voice full of pain and longing.
He didn't hear her and something tore inside.
"Please, Darling," the girl begged. "I'll accept a menage a trois."
He didn't look her way.
Kodachi remembered her audience. "A threesome, Ranma Darling. Please."
Ranma and Ukyou continued their kiss, oblivious to the gymnast. Kodachi fell to her knees, finally feeling the cold of the winter night through her sheer leotard. She didn't know she was crying.
"Please, Ranma...please notice me...somebody...anybody...please pay attention to me...please...cold...I'm so cold...please..." Her words faded into the night. The next time anyone looked the Black Rose was gone without even leaving her trademark scattering of rose petals.
Azusa's shriek broke their concentration. Ranma and Ukyou were prone on the ice, still tightly bound by Kodachi's ribbon.
"What's going on, Ucchan? I can't see anything with you on top of me."
"Kodachi's gone, I think."
Her face grew pale, but she didn't answer.
She took a deep breath.
"It's bad." The words were inadequate. The ice was gouged and cratered from those attacks that missed, and several patches of blood stained its surface. Konatsu and Shampoo circled, looking for an opportunity. The Amazon was limping; the ninja's face was masked in blood.
"We have to stop them, Ranchan."
"We gotta cut this ribbon." He'd already tried to break it again.
"I can't reach my mini spatulas. Can you grab them?"
He could barely move his arms, but nothing he could touch felt remotely like a throwing spatula. A small amount of common sense kicked in and he stopped before he found anything too interesting.
"It's not gonna work, Ucchan. Let's try to stand up."
His words were given force by the repeated ringing of Shampoo's remaining bonbori against Konatsu's sword. Ranma and Ukyou had barely struggled to their knees when something thumped to the ice behind them.
"What was that, Ranchan?"
It looked like a madman had attempted to build a grayish spider the size of a minivan based on only a brief verbal description. None of the eight legs were the same size and the vaguely oval body was covered with mouths and eyes. The monster also had several arms and its limbs seemed to change in size as it moved. Every motion was accompanied by unpleasant cracking noises and agonized moans from some of the mouths. The others emitted a persistent mindless chuckling. As it shambled forward, puffs of steam rose wherever it touched the ice, leaving small hollows of slowly refreezing water.
"Another one of those things," he answered. Even an idiot could see that it was a Mamono.
Ukyou took a deep breath and began chanting. This time the words were easy, like she'd read them only moments before. "I hold no enmity against those coerced into evil, but to those vile beings who toy with the hearts and souls of men. We, since the time of Ancient Gods, have been your destroyers. Now, the 108th generation Devil Hunter, Ukyou, is here! Beware!"
There was a flash of glowing red light and Ranma and Ukyou spiraled through the air for a moment, then landed back on the ice. Ukyou now wore the crimson Mamono Hunter dress and her soul blade, the magical counterpart of her battle spatula, was strapped to her back. Kodachi's gymnastics ribbon had shredded away during the transformation. Ranma had the brief impression that a good deal more than that had shredded away, that for a fleeting moment the arms he wrapped around Ukyou touched the warm flesh of her back. He blushed at his imagination and hoped he wasn't becoming a pervert like Kuno.
An arm stretched out from the Mamono, extending to three times its normal length. This time the cracking noises and moaning that came from it were louder. Ranma pushed Ukyou out of the path of the monster's claws, then barely flung himself out of the way in time.
Shampoo and Konatsu remained focused on their own conflict, which had long since degenerated into one of the more vicious battles Nerima had seen. Both were limping. Crusted blood covered the side of the ninja's face. Fresher wounds marked Shampoo's leg, and several smaller cuts decorated her arms. The ice beneath them, no longer smooth or even, showed similar signs of damage.
"Ninja Girl better than Shampoo expect, but still going to die."
Konatsu didn't waste breath talking, but prepared for the Amazon's next move. As Shampoo charged, the ninja jumped back, though with less grace than usual. The Amazon's foot caught the edge of one of the countless craters she had smashed in the ice, and she fell forward, impaling herself on Konatsu's sword with a jarring thud. While the ninja stared in horror, Shampoo actually smiled.
"Not bad, Sneaky Ninja Girl, would make good Amazon warrior."
Shampoo's eyes fluttered shut and she fell to the ice, the sword still protruding from her stomach. Konatsu stared in horror at a blood coated arm. Then the ninja's vision blurred.
That's not good. I'm hurt worse than I thought.
Konatsu turned towards Ukyou, seeking aid, but she and Ranma were busy battling a freakish thing.
Is that a Mamono? Wait, I've still got Ukyou's letter from her grandmother. It better be about the Yoma ring. If it's a cookie recipe, we're all dead.
Konatsu pulled the letter out of a sleeve and tore it open.
Gotta give Ucchan time to do that magic stuff.
Ranma advanced towards the Mamono, but halted quickly. He felt an unnatural heat emanating from the creature, saw the slushy puddles left by the creature's shambling across the ice.
Can't get too close. Sure can't touch it.
Not that the creature was letting him. Ranma leapt and spun, avoiding the monster's clawed limbs as they lashed out, changing size and shape at will. Every shift was accompanied by unpleasant cracking noises and low moans.
The boy flipped to the side, ducking under a twisted arm with far too many joints and planting one knee firmly in a pool of cooling slush. The monster paused, examining the girl Ranma had become with half a dozen mismatched eyes.
"Sooo, yoouu chaange, tooo. Like 'aradachi," it burbled in a slurred voice, and more mindless chuckling emanated from the monster's mouths.
Haradachi, that means anger. A living embodiment of that emotion seemed the perfect target for the Hiryu Shouten Ha. Ranma circled, but the Mamono didn't follow. Even as he sought an inner calm, the Soul of Ice, the creature refused to be drawn into the spiral pattern needed to complete the technique. Instead, it advanced steadily towards Ukyou.
Gotta do something. Moko Takabisha? Can't afford to take that chance; there might be someone in there. Kachu Tenshin Amaguriken? Shoulda though of that first. Just gotta move fast enough I don't get burned.
A glance showed him a way to improve that chance. Ranma snatched up a broken shard of ice in each hand and lunged toward the monster.
Ukyou had also considered the possibility of Haradachi possessing a human. When Ranma dodged to the side, she unleashed a storm of throwing spatulas, reversed so only the blunt ends struck the Mamono. They bounced off with a rubbery thud and clattered to the ice.
Unaffected, Haradachi continued to advance.
I wish I knew how this stupid magic ring worked. Gosunkugi probably knew, but he was the most likely suspect in the theft of the rest of her grandmother's letter. Ukyou sighed and hefted the magical copy of her battle spatula.
"At least I know how this works."
She was about to charge forward to support her fiancÃ© when Konatsu staggered into view. Color had drained from the ninja's blood-masked face, whose extended hand clutching a sheaf of computer printouts was bloody and trembling. Ukyou snatched the papers from Konatsu, who smiled and collapsed onto hands and knees.
"What is this? What happened?"
Ukyou scanned the battle area. More holes had opened in the ice from the combined effects of the pounding of Shampoo's maces and the heat emanating from the Mamono. A thin layer of water covered much of the remaining ice. Konatsu was conscious, but badly hurt and far too close to the damaged part of the ice. Some girl in a skater's outfit lay by the far wall of the culvert and appeared unconscious. Shampoo lay about halfway between, flat on her back, with a sword plainly embedded in her torso.
"Kami-sama, no. What happened? How could this have happened?"
Ukyou fought to keep dinner down even as she prayed the Amazon still lived. She wished that someone, anyone would show up and take the wounded to safety, but no one did. She looked back at the computer printouts, which were addressed to her. The girl frantically flipped through the pages, searching for the information she needed.
Words of power flowed from Ukyou's lips. Her left hand wove patterns in the air and the red stones of the Yoma ring left glowing trails of light behind it.
Ranma's hammering had gotten got enough of Haradachi's attention that the monster turned towards the boy. It charged, arms flailing, trying to force him into one of the holes in the ice. Ranma barely avoided the monster, slipping and splashing on the skates he hadn't mastered. The boy with the body of a girl was soaked from the waist down and from wrists to elbows. Even as the night air drained his energy, Ranma maintained an icy calmness, a deliberate determination that he would defeat this monster.
Ukyou started chanting and suddenly the noises the Mamono made shifted from their normal unpleasant chuckle to a high pitched moan. The thing stopped and convulsed, its limbs thrashing disjointedly. It stumbled, shuddered and pitched forward on the ice. Suddenly the moaning stopped, the creature convulsed violently, and with an unpleasant squelching sound expelled the naked and unconscious body of Tatewaki Kuno onto the ice.
Ranma eagerly summoned a ball of chi energy, ready to fry the monster.
"Wait, Ranchan, there's still somebody in there."
He growled in frustration, rushed forward, and began dragging the helpless upperclassman away from the thrashing creature.
"Kuno, if you wake up and glomp me I'm gonna leave you for this thing."
Haradachi was in pain, but it was far from finished. It couldn't resist the Mamono Hunter's spell, but it had kept control of the strongest two it had absorbed. With unexpected speed, Haradachi rose and shambled towards the Mamono Hunter, seeking to kill her before she could deprive it of more strength.
Haradachi almost reached the girl when the red-haired changing one leaped on top of it. Steam rose from her sodden clothing as human hands blurred and struck the Mamono more times in the space of a few seconds than the creature believed any human capable of. It spun away trying and failing to pluck the human from its back.
Ukyou began the ritual again. She had sensed three life forces absorbed by the Mamono; now only two victims remained trapped. She didn't dare attempt a banishing before all were freed or she might seal some innocent person into the underworld along with the Mamono.
The second ritual proved as exhausting as the first. It didn't help Ukyou's concentration when the misshapen horror charged her again, Ranma still hammering at its back. It stumbled, lost its balance, and both it and Ranma went skidding across the ice spraying a wave of water as they slid.
Ukyou coughed and wiped water from her eyes. At least they had moved away from Shampoo. The Amazon was probably dead, but if water still triggered her Jusenkyou curse, their problems could get a whole lot worse.
Shampoo wasn't dead; she wasn't even unconscious. She lay there with her eyes closed, wondering how her life had become such a mess. She'd been happy back in China. There she was the best of the young warriors and loved the respect she received because of her skill. Now she was trapped by her own laws, just as trapped as Mousse was by the cage she had locked his cured form into earlier that evening.
The laws required her to kill any outsider female that defeated her or marry any outsider male that managed it. Ranma's curse made it impossible to fulfill both. Now Konatsu had defeated her, too. If Konatsu was a girl, she didn't want to kill a warrior who had earned her respect.
And if the stupid little skater was somehow right, if Konatsu was male, the Amazon laws required she marry both boys. But they also insisted Shampoo could have only one husband at a time, the strongest. They had never considered that an Amazon might be defeated by more than one outsider male.
Ranma would never spend the rest of his life at a tiny village in China, at least not willingly. That's why she gave up the first time. Even before her curse pushed him farther away, Shampoo knew she had failed. When Cologne forced her to return, they resorted to tricks, both magical and otherwise, and by using them they had admitted failure. Shampoo didn't want a drugged puppet as a husband. But the laws made no provision for the male being unwilling. They were written for a simple tribal life, not the complex world outside.
She missed the simple life she once had, where you could blindly follow the rules laid down and blindly trust they would answer every question you might have. Ironically, Mousse might be the Amazon who saw the most clearly for he wanted to change those laws even if it was only for his own selfish reasons.
Now the end was coming and that was simpler, too. If she didn't bleed to death, the sword would finish the job as soon as cold water touched her. Surprisingly, she couldn't see the faces of her mother and grandmother. Amazon tradition said your ancestors would appear at death to guide you to the spirit world.
Maybe they were wrong about that, too.
Shampoo sighed sadly, her breath a faint and fading puff of whiteness. Death was the one enemy even the strongest warrior couldn't defeat and there was no dishonor in losing that battle. She just didn't expect death to be so slow about finishing the job.
The Mamono had regained its feet and was circling in place, flailing its claws to keep Ranma at a distance again. If they didn't lead it away, the wounded and unconscious could end up dead or absorbed by the monster, even if the partially melted ice didn't begin breaking up.
It's after me. Ranchan can distract it, but it's after me.
Ukyou let the second exorcism lapse uncompleted, then hesitated, deciding what to do with her Grandmother's letter.
I miss having pockets.
She tucked the papers down the front of her dress, then ran directly towards the Mamono.
She ignored Ranma's shout and sprang forward, flipping through the air, holding her battle spatula sideways for balance, ignoring the clawed arms that flowed upwards. The claws shredded both front and back panels of the skirt, leaving them a tattered fringe from mid-thigh downwards, but barely missed her legs. Ukyou landed on an unmelted section of the ice and began skating slowly away, daring the monster to follow.
"Ranchan, we have to keep it away from the others."
"You idiot, are you trying to get killed? You can't take this monster by yourself."
"I just need to keep it busy while you get help for the others."
Ranma hesitated, torn both ways. Ukyou was good, one of the better martial artists he'd seen. She should be able to keep ahead of the Mamono. But only if nothing went wrong. On the other hand, Konatsu and Shampoo needed immediate medical attention and Kuno would freeze to death if left exposed on the ice.
His moment of hesitation had serious consequences.
Haradachi had also paused in indecision.
Is the Mamono Hunter fleeing?
This battle was not going the way it planned. One after the other the anger faded from the combatants. These humans changed moods with bewildering speed.
The tall naked one can not be reabsorbed yet. The tiny one is too far away. The dark-haired wounded one is full of sorrow now. The annoying red-haired changing one can manipulate its chi, making it difficult to feed on. That leaves one. Her anger has faded, but there's enough left to use.
Haradachi strained, extending a limb even farther than normal, grabbing the girl's ankle and pulling her forward. Haradachi burbled happily; it seemed the red-haired changing one was not that good at the controlling of emotions.
"Ranma, you have to help Ukyou," the ninja whispered. "We'll be fine,"
"Konatsu, you can't even stand."
"She needs you, not me, Ranma." Even Ranma noticed the bitterness in Konatsu's voice. "Go, help her. I'll take care of the others."
Their debate gave the Mamono the time it required. At first, Shampoo made no noise as Haradachi dragged her towards itself, but she quickly slid into a section of melted ice. The Jusenkyou curse triggered and an agonized human shriek warped into a feline howl. A blood-slick sword, no longer trapped in flesh, clattered to the ice. A small waterlogged cat lay in a spreading pool of darkness.
The Mamono's claws retracted and its arm reverted to its normal length. Ranma turned pale as ice and Konatsu knew the time for hesitation was past.
"Go. Now. Help Ukyou." Konatsu emphasized the words by shoving Ranma backwards. Ranma went skidding past the Mamono, barely staying upright on her skates.
Konatsu had already turned away. Kami-sama, they're my only friends, but I'd just hold them back. I have to trust them, it's our only chance to make it out of here.
By force of will, the ninja stood and wobbled towards the mangled cat. "I'm sorry." Konatsu knelt, tearing away a robe sleeve and shredding it, gently wrapping the girl in the improvised bandages, then tucking her inside the self-same robe. Shampoo felt like a sopping ball of ice.
Konatsu hobbled towards Kuno's unconscious body and tried to lift him, but it was too much. Grabbing an ankle, the ninja tugged.
At least I can still drag him. Now all I have to do is scale the wall of the culvert and find help.
"Ranchan, are you alright?"
"No," the short redhead whispered. Ranma would have vehemently denied there were tears on her cheeks, but Ukyou saw them glistening in the moonlight.
"I ain't quitting, Ucchan, but I'm not alright either. We gotta finish this thing before it does any more damage."
The two kept skating, slowly drawing the Mamono away from the others.
Many people claimed Ranma had the thickest skull in Nerima. Others thought Kuno was the obvious choice. Ranma might have nominated Akane for her repeated failure to identify who her pet P-chan really was. If they were speaking literally, the correct choice was Ryouga, but Azusa was a close second.
The excessively cute skater sat up, wondering where everyone had gone. "Owie, that hurt," she complained, but no one replied. She stood and looked around. There were two sets of skate tracks leading away as well as the melted footprints of the Mamono.
She glanced left, then right. "Pierre? Which way did you go?"
There was still no answer, just the faint whisper of the wind.
"Darling Pierre, wait for me. Let me help you fight that icky monster."
Azusa could also be one of the densest people in Nerima.
Kasumi sat on the edge of the hospital bed. Her foot still stung from the disinfectant, but Tofu was gently wrapping it in bandages.
"There, I'm done." He sounded weary, as if he'd walked a thousand miles that night. "I guess I really am useless. I couldn't do anything tonight."
"It's alright, I didn't even notice I'd cut myself until I tried to stand." She blushed, remembering how Tofu had caught her. "It's...well, it's not your fault. I know you did everything you could; I know everyone did."
"But it wasn't enough."
"It wasn't enough for my mother when I was nine. Now I'm twenty, but it wasn't enough again. But that isn't anyone's fault."
"How can you be so calm?"
"Maybe I'm just numb. Maybe I still haven't accepted it yet. Grief is a funny thing, and we all have our own ways of dealing or not dealing with it." Her expression shifted from sad to serious. "But don't you dare go blaming yourself. You're a good man, the best I know."
"Thank you, Kasumi."
She sighed. "Have they been able to call the house?"
"No, it's still busy."
"It's probably better to tell Father and Akane in person. Not that it will be easy."
"I'll call a cab for you."
"Thank you, Tofu."
"And I'm coming with you."
"Thank you. I...I don't want to be alone, not now."
"How long have we been skating?"
"I dunno, Ucchan. Not sure we're even in Nerima anymore.
"We're far enough from the others."
Ranma closed with the monster again, striking it repeatedly, arms and legs blurring into a furious medley of blows.
Ain't gonna give it time. Ain't gonna let it hurt Ucchan. Ain't gonna let it hurt anyone else.
He heard her chanting, knew it was another exorcism, another chance to save people trapped by the monster of rage. The chant ended and a crimson nimbus of light enveloped the creature. The Mamono began writhing again, its body bucking and leaping in pain. Ice, already weakened by the creature's heat, starred and cracked.
It slumped twitching to the ice, its surface convulsing, and a human head began slowly emerging from the prison of flesh.
Somehow, the Lost Boy had retained his trademark bandana. His shoulders and arms were next to emerge, and Ranma darted forward, grasping an arm.
"Let me go!" Ryouga shouted. "She's still in there." Ryouga twisted, pulling free from Ranma's grasp, fighting both the spell and the Mamono's grip. The Lost Boy plunged both hands back into the creature's writhing surface, his muscles strained against the monster's flailing flesh.
"Ryouga, you idiot!"
Slowly, steadily, the Mamono was reabsorbing him. For a moment, it appeared the Lost Boy would lose, but he tore his arms free from the creature again. First a head and then a torso began to emerge from the contorting body of the Mamono. Haradachi howled like a thousand storms, there was an unpleasant wet tearing noise, and Ryouga and Akane's bodies flopped onto the ice.
Ryouga's eyes grew extremely large. He lay atop an unconscious Akane in a very compromising position. The fact that neither one wore a stitch of clothing only made it worse. Before Ryouga could faint, Ukyou called out.
"Get Akane out of here. You have to save her from the monster."
Ryouga nodded, gently picked up Akane, and jumped completely over the fence bordering the culvert, landing in the street beyond, and disappearing down the road.
Ranma looked back. Ukyou was barely standing, trembling with fatigue.
"Did I get the thing, Ranchan?"
"I guess so. It's gone now."
Kasumi leaned against his side in the back of the taxi. Under normal circumstances, Tofu would have been incoherent. The streets were largely empty, and the night was still. Even the cabbie was quiet, but that changed suddenly.
The taxi swerved sharply to the right, narrowly missing someone who had staggered into its path. For a moment it seemed the driver would lose control, but he brought the cab to a sliding stop while cursing loudly about stupid drunks trying to get themselves killed.
"That's no drunk," Tofu insisted.
"Who is it?" Kasumi asked.
"It's hard to tell with all that blood, but I think it's Konatsu."
"A waitress at Ukyou's restaurant."
Tofu flung the door open.
"Please..." was all Konatsu managed before collapsing.
Tofu started to move to the waitress' side, then saw she had dropped someone behind her. Tatewaki Kuno was both unconscious and quite naked.
"Oh my," Kasumi exclaimed. "I knew Kuno was chasing Akane and Ranma, but now he's become an exhibitionist and is chasing this poor girl, too."
"That's not what happened." Tofu pointed to the tracks in the snow. "She's been carrying or dragging the boy for who knows how long." Tofu turned to the cabbie. "We're going back to the hospital."
"Is everybody going to fit?" the cabbie asked. "And why's that boy running around naked in this weather? Just what happened?"
"Kuno can't answer while he's unconscious," Tofu replied. "Konatsu, what happened?"
"Ukyou," the ninja mumbled. "Ranma. Shampoo, oh, Shampoo." There was no sign of anyone Konatsu had named, but Tofu noticed a darkness beneath Konatsu's crimson ninja jumpsuit.
"She's a cat." Tofu stared at the sodden lump of bloodstained bandages. "We have to go to my clinic," Tofu declared, gently maneuvering Konatsu towards the open car door.
"What about a hospital?" the cabbie replied.
"No time." Miraculously, Shampoo still had a faint heartbeat, but she'd never make it to the hospital. She'd be lucky to make it to the clinic. Tofu pressed a point by the base of Shampoo's ear, then another at the small of her back. On a human, the pressure points would slow bodily functions, giving more time before those systems began to fail. He had no idea if it would work on Shampoo's cursed form.
"What's your name?" Tofu asked the cabby.
"Help me get the boy, Kuno, inside the car. And I'll need you to help him into my clinic. Kasumi, you remember those medical books you borrowed?"
"Kuno might have hypothermia and frostbite." Tofu pressed a pair of points on the boy's back. "But that should help." He didn't take time to explain what pressure points were or how it could help. "This girl, Konatsu, has a head injury. Everything else doesn't seem as bad. Sorry to leave you with two patients, but I'm..."
"But you're going to save Shampoo."
"I'm going to try."
Haradachi longed for the angry ones it had absorbed. It had been pleasant to have their voices murmuring in the background, but now it was alone again. The creature's form flowed, reverting to its usual appearance, a bizarre mix of the features of an octopus and a huge crayfish. It needed only a moment of concentration to melt a hole through the ice and plunge into the water below.
Haradachi did not like the cold, but it still had enough energy to almost boil the water surrounding it.
"Mr. Wakamura, please put Kuno on the cot there, and cover him with blankets." The cabbie nodded at Kasumi's command, while she headed for Tofu's kitchen.
"We need warm water. Konatsu, come with me." The ninja followed, making feeble offers of help. Kasumi turned on every burner on the stove, then rummaged through the cupboards, finally finding a pot or pan for each burner.
"What now, Miss?" the cabbie asked.
"Find some towels. Dip them in warm water. Check Kuno's fingers and toes. And his nose. If they've turned white, wrap them in the warm towels."
"Shouldn't I rub them?"
"No. And make sure he's covered in plenty of blankets."
The cabbie disappeared again, while Kasumi prayed she hadn't forgotten something. Checking the water, she called Konatsu over.
"Just sit right there, dear, and we'll get you all cleaned up."
Konatsu almost collapsed into the chair, as Kasumi began to wipe the blood away from the ninja's face.
"Don't worry, dear, head injuries always bleed a lot. And it seems to be up by the hairline, so even if there is a scar, it won't ruin a pretty face like yours." Kasumi was more worried about a concussion, but she smiled and continued murmuring encouragement.
Tofu stepped into the kitchen doorway and motioned to Kasumi. "How is she" he whispered, glancing at the ninja slumped in the chair.
"I'm worried about the head injury," Kasumi whispered back.
"You can't let her sleep, Kasumi. Otherwise...."
"I know. You can tell if an awake person has suddenly fallen unconscious. But if they're already asleep, that could hide a serious injury. How is Shampoo?"
"The cold and the bandages slowed the bleeding. I touched...I hope pressure points are the same on a cat as they are on a girl. Things to slow the bleeding even more, to deaden pain, to give her a chance."
"It will be alright," Kasumi spoke firmly. "You always try your hardest and I know you will for Shampoo, too."
"Will it be enough?" he whispered hoarsely. "I've got to get her sewn up. If she even survives the transformation back to human form.... She needs a hospital, not my limited facilities. I've already lost one...."
"I trust you."
Ukyou slumped to her knees, exhausted.
Its gotta be easier to run five miles than cast a spell using this stupid Yoma ring. Maybe I'm not doing it right. I didn't get much chance to read Grandma's notes.
The ice was biting cold on her bare legs.
I am definitely gonna learn how to summon pants for this stupid outfit.
The only trace of the Mamono was a large, irregular hole in the ice.
Ranma skated near. "I think we scared it off. Hey, you look kinda tired, Ucchan."
The ice shattered below her and several ropy blue-gray tentacles yanked Ukyou beneath the surface. As Ranma stared at the dark water, he swore he could still hear the Mamono's mindless chuckling.
Kasumi had learned a respectable amount of medical knowledge from the books that she borrowed from Dr. Tofu, but she lacked practical experience. Kuno seemed to be sleeping peacefully and an examination of his extremities revealed no signs of frostbite.
Most of Konatsu's injuries did not need immediate attention and Kasumi cleaned and bandaged the rest. But she needed to keep the ninja conscious and the best way to do that was by talking to her. Kasumi was in no mood to talk, not after everything else that had happened, but she was used to suppressing her desires for the sake of others. But she didn't need to say much as Konatsu's feelings came spilling out.
"...and then...oh then...I...I won't ever use a sword again. It's my fault...it's all my fault...she's dying."
"You don't know that, dear." Kasumi tried to be soothing, but even with her experience in distracting people from their troubles, she didn't know what words to use. "What about Ukyou and Ranma? You mentioned them before. Where are they now?"
Somehow, Konatsu looked even more depressed. "Gone," the ninja whispered.
Kasumi paused, uncertain of how to reply. "Gone where?"
"Fighting the monster. They should have been back by now. But they're gone." Then it was like a dam broke, and words came rushing out - loss of a mother, then a father, childhood as a near slave of the Kenzan clan, mockery and mistreatment, then a sudden glimpse of hope, an escape to freedom. The ninja mentioned Akane, but Ranma and Ukyou loomed larger in Konatsu's tale, their virtues magnified, their flaws forgotten. Konatsu clearly would do anything for them, had feelings towards them of a frightening intensity.
"Konatsu, they're still human, with human faults. They helped free you, but you sound like you're re-enslaving yourself to them. Love them, yes, but be your own person. Find what you want to do with your life, and do it. The people that care about you will understand."
Awkward silence followed.
"Physician heal thyself," Kasumi murmured.
"Maybe I've fallen into a quiet trap of my own. How long since anything has changed, since I tried to change anything?"
"What do you mean?"
"Perhaps we're more alike than I thought."
He wanted to scream her name, but that wouldn't help. Flinging his coat aside, he dove into the frigid water. He ignored the shock of the bitter cold. He ignored the way that cold clamped his chest like a vise, trying to force the air from his lungs. He ignored the rushing sound in his ears. He wasn't going to quit. He was Ranma Saotome and he never, ever quit.
He swam into the darkness, hunting for any trace of the missing girl or the monstrosity that had seized her.
There! The end of the folded computer printouts Ukyou had carried. Ranma swam along the trail that they left, expecting them to end with Ukyou.
Nothing! Where is she? The canal isn't that deep!
She felt an unexpected calmness, like ice water in her veins.
Sorry, Ranchan. I knew it was too good to last. I'll miss you.
The tentacles encircling her were squeezing the air from her lungs while drawing her towards the Mamono. The monster's surface twitched and a fanged maw appeared where none had been before. Yet even if it had mysteriously melted away, the weight of her skates and her spatulas would still pull her toward the bottom.
Ukyou slipped one arm free of the creature's grasp, then the other, drew her hand spatulas and began hacking at the enfolding tentacles. After several tries, she dislodged one, but another took its place. Ukyou dropped her current weapons and reached for her battle spatula. Another tentacle wrapped around her right arm, pinning it above her head.
Ukyou let the last of the air bubble from her lungs and used her left hand to begin the gestures needed to banish the Mamono to the underworld. Unfortunately, it would probably pull her through with it. She hoped the ritual would still work even when she couldn't speak. She didn't think anyone else could stop this thing.
Kasumi was crying now.
"...when mother died. Nabiki put on the best front, but I think she took it the worst. I was worried because Akane kept fighting it. I still am; she's still too eager to fight back. But Nabiki never fought it at all. She didn't get angry, she didn't cry, she wrapped herself in a protective shell where no one could reach her, no one could touch her, no one could hurt her. She looked strong, but inside she was hollow, cold, empty. She pretended that she cared about nothing, until she wasn't pretending, until she didn't care about anyone, not even herself anymore."
"We lost her body tonight, but maybe we really lost her soul years ago. Nabiki...Nabiki quit caring, caring about anything, anyone. Occasional hints would peek out, signs that maybe she still cared a little about the rest of us, but then they were gone again."
"She still had that brilliant mind of hers, but she wasted it on petty games, petty cruelties, against people who couldn't or wouldn't fight back. She could have been going to Tokyo University next year, but she didn't even try, she didn't care about herself, her future. Maybe that's why she couldn't fight it, couldn't fight what happened."
"Why didn't I see it before. I'm the oldest. I was supposed to protect them, I had to protect them after mother...after she couldn't anymore. I should have seen it. I should have done something."
Konatsu couldn't find a reply, but produced a miraculously clean handkerchief from somewhere and passed it to Kasumi.
"I'm sorry, mother," Kasumi whispered. "I failed you again."
"No, Lady Kasumi, you can't do everything. No one can. Should I blame myself because I'm too injured to help Ranma and Ukyou?" Yet it was obvious Konatsu did.
The ritual was working. It shouldn't have, but it was. A glowing circle of crimson had formed; Haradachi was being drawn struggling into the underworld. But the Mamono clung doggedly to Ukyou, determined to take her there, too.
If I wasn't so tired. If I had any strength left.
Then the enfolding tentacles snapped like rubber bands stretched past their limits. Her vision faded, but she saw Ranma, soulblade in hand. More tentacles erupted from the Mamono, seeking them.
How? I thought no one else could wield my soulblade? It's supposed to be impossible.
But Ranma was an expert in doing the impossible. Ukyou smiled as everything faded from gray to black.
Tofu slumped wearily into a chair. He didn't know how much time had passed, wasn't certain if he'd succeeded or failed. At lot still depended on Shampoo. It was humbling to have to admit his own limitations twice in the same night, but there was only so much any doctor could do. Some wounds to the body or spirit were simply beyond healing.
He knew he should go see how Kasumi and his other patients were doing, but his arms, his head, his eyelids seemed so heavy. He never rose from the chair, but drifted quickly into slumber.
For the hundred thousandth time, Ranma cursed his female form. If the cold water hadn't robbed him of his manhood, he would've had the strength to get Ukyou to the surface sooner and it would've taken only one try to haul her out of the water.
Now Ranma's closest friend lay on the ice, unconscious and unbreathing. A voice inside him nagged that he had kissed her a bit too enthusiastically to merely call her a friend.
He hoped he remembered how to do this right, alternating breathing into Ukyou's lungs and then compressing her chest. After several eternities, Ukyou coughed up a large quantity of water and resumed breathing on her own.
It was Ukyou's turn to be lying flat on her back staring up at Ranma's face haloed by the moon. She smiled weakly, then pressed two fingers to her lips and gently touched Ranma's with them.
"Crimson Attack," she murmured softly.