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The Unbroken Circle: Chapter Nine

Tomuraigassen

Part B

Disclaimer: Takahashi provided the paints, I'm just working on my own easel.

What has gone before:

Ranma emerged from the Orochi's den with newfound knowledge and control over his power. Due to the N'Dori's influence, three months have passed. When Ranma returns home, he discovers that Ukyou and their newborn child were both removed from the plane, and trapped in the Home of the Wayward Spirits. Enraged, he left, searching for a way - any way - to retrieve his wife and daughter. While he's wandering, it's revealed that his mind is on the verge of breaking, and only the touch of Aker's child is keeping him completely sane. At this time, Chame discovers the true nature of the spirit controlling Ryouga, and she meets with Ranma, as Ranma prepares to fight, and if necessary, kill Ryouga.

 

Previous chapters are archived at: http://ranma.stassen.com/uc/

Brief key, trying to stay simple.

<> frame thoughts.

"" frame speech

"{}" frame speech in Mandarin

 

"...Nine in the second place means:

To bear with fools in kindliness brings good fortune.

To know how to take women

Brings good fortune.

The son is capable of taking charge of the household..."

I Ching - The Book of Change

 

"And so killing the enemy is a matter of wrath.

Taking the enemy's goods is a matter of advantage."

Sun Tzu - The Art of War - Chapter 2

 

The scene was set, as the sun sank below the horizon. Both combatants took their time to analyze the other.

Rage wore a broad grin, malice shining from his eyes and reflected in the lazy crimson aura that flared from him.

Ranma scowled, his own aura blazing against the darkness, and matching Rage's easily. The two stared for a moment, each daring the other to make the first move.

Gold and crimson blazed brightly threatening to drown the darkness of the night.

After a tense moment, Rage shifted stances, and lobbed a small bolt of force. Ranma negligently raised one hand, to deflect it, then rushed forward. His foot shot out as he ducked under Rage's counterstrike, and he caught his bandana-clad foe in the knee. The blow sent him spinning, and the two came to rest in their ready stances again a moment later.

Smiling sardonically, Rage taunted, "So, Ranma, I've heard that you couldn't work things out with Akane."

Ranma blinked, ignoring Rage's words. "Ryouga, I know you're in there. Please. I don't want to kill you."

Unnoticed by the two combatants, Katsunishiki was nudging Akari away from the battlefield. Chame glanced at the sumo pig warily, then nodded approval and returned her attention to the battle. She longed to simply leap at Rage, and kill him, but respected Ranma's wishes for the time.

Rage shrugged, throwing another bolt of force against Ranma. The crimson blast of energy dissipated against the golden aura, though the streaks of red surrounding the pigtailed dragon-kin intensified. Ranma darted a quick glance to the streaks, then let out a slow breath, and his aura suffused golden again.

Sighing, Rage balled up his fists and placed his hands on his hips. "This isn't going to be much of a battle. Are you going to fight, or play, small one?"

With a look of resignation, Ranma shook his head. "I want to save Ryouga, Lydd. I don't want you to hurt him."

Smirking, Rage thrust one hand into a pocket, and removed the sword handle that had channeled his essence originally. Gripping it easily in his right hand, a guttering vermilion blade of flaming energy sprang into existence.

Ranma held his arms in front of him, hands on the elbows of the opposite arms, and quickly drew them apart. In a flash of steel, the naked Makaze was in his right hand, while it's sheath landed near Chame. The dark metal seemed to gleam in the darkness, taking on an unnatural glow.

Rage bellowed a challenge, and the two charged one another.

***

Ryouga stared out of Rage's eyes, from the back of his own mind. No longer did Rage have the luxury of focusing, and distorting what the lost boy saw. For the first time in longer than he could recall, Ryouga could see what was truly happening.

Even without a body to call his own, Ryouga smiled. Ranma had always beaten him before, and would again. He realized this fact not with the resignation and anger that had plagued him for the year spent chasing after Ranma, but with a quiet and hopeful feeling.

If Ranma could beat Rage, then he could stop the entity from harming those Ryouga loved. And Ryouga realized then with a certain happiness, that Ranma was a friend, and the anger might be washed away. He refused to let himself feel anger again; that was his new battle. No more would he fuel Rage's existence.

***

The two combatants drew together, seeming to glide across the frigid mud of the field more than to run. Rage held his blade overhead, preparing to bring it down in a slashing blow, while Ranma held his near his side, with the blade pointed towards Rage.

Before the first interchange, they halted, still a dozen feet apart. Rage's face froze, then he sank to one knee, "Ranma... I can't... hold him long... please kill me."

Ranma stepped back, dropping his blade in surprise. "R... Ryouga?"

Rage, Ryouga once more, nodded, as the light of his blade flickered and died. "Hurry, Ranma. I can't be saved. He's part of me now, and I can't hold him back long."

The pigtailed dragon-kin shook his head. "Ryouga... I can't kill you..." He turned away, to face Chame. "Chame! There has to be something-" The pig-tailed boy leaned back, bending at the knees to duck as a beam of crimson energy sheared through the chill air. Chame hadn't even had time to open her mouth to utter a warning, but Ranma had seen her expression as he turned away. Moving faster than gravity would allow, he rolled away and grabbed the sword again through the aid of ki.

Too slowly, he leapt past another beam of energy.

Rage laughed as the lance of hate-fueled power pierced the pigtailed fighter, vaporizing and cauterizing the flesh through the opening it made. Chame leapt over the fence to rush towards Ranma, even as he stared at the fist-sized hole that had been bored through his chest.

The redheaded Machin stumbled to a halt, as Ranma stood despite the injury, his aura slowly ebbing away. The Soyokaze trembled in her grip, as Chame slowly edged back. Rage frowned, confused. "What is the meaning of this, Son of Machin?"

Ranma raised his head slowly, even as the smoke from the seared flesh of his wound stung his eyes. "I am more than a child of the Machin, Lydd. I am a child of Shen-Lung."

Rage dropped his blade, as the last remnants of Ranma's aura were absorbed back into his body. Once it was gone, Ranma shifted forms, while Chame backpedaled furiously over the short fence.

The redheaded dragon-kin placed one hand over her wound, and smiled grimly. The sound of rending flesh rang through the stillness, then the pattering of blood sounded.

Chame blanched, covering her mouth with one hand. There was too much blood raining down for any one person to account for, even though the spray had originated from Ranma.

Ranma knelt, heaving for breath with her cloak draped over her. A red stain seeped out of the edge, marking the ground. She straightened slowly, revealing the swiftly healing wound. "This is the true Ascension, not the shadow of it that I typically wear. Come, Lydd. Let us dance."

Rage charged silently, but Ranma slipped to one side, and they traded blows with hands and feet.

Ranma's knife-hand met Rage's arm block, while Rage's axe kick met air as Ranma rolled away. The blows hit with enough force to shatter stone, and pierce steel, but the combatants weathered the damage and fought on. Still, the battle raged on more than just a purely physical level.

Magical energies swirled through one another, one attack canceling another, as each struggled for the upper hand. Ranma sent a blast of fire, only to have it become enveloped in a spray of ice, which she then redirected with a gust of wind.

In the next physical interchange, the pigtailed combatant snapped one edge of her cloak at Rage, and it sheared through his skin like soft tissue. Rage staggered away, his wounds healing with a rate to rival Ranma's own.

The crimson-auraed boy growled low in his throat, and threw a vicious palm-strike at Ranma. The blow impacted against her chest, and tossed her body across the field.

Groaning from the pain of internal bruising and shattered ribs, she struggled to her feet. Rage halted, and staggered slightly before marching towards her determinedly again.

His march was met by a rush from Chame, her blade flashing in the moonlight like quicksilver. The boy looked up and jerked back at the last instant, while the blade slashed through his shoulder, shearing bone and flesh alike with its keen edge.

He growled again, and waved a hand at her absently. Chame dug her feet into the ground, and Rage's attack met a shielding spell that halted it, barely. Rage clamped his right arm over the gash in his side, while Chame danced away warily. The excess power redirected by the shielding spell bled off into the air, leaving vermilion trails of heat and light behind as it died out.

Ranma shook her head slowly, while the shattered pieces of her ribcage slowly pulled themselves back into place and re-knit.

***

Ryouga rejoiced, knowing that Ranma had every chance of winning this battle. The taint of Rage's touch had wounded the lost boy's spirit, but he was not defeated. He radiated hope, and joy, while he wrestled for control again.

***

Rage slumped to the ground, his right hand fumbling at his wound ineffectually. "Ranma! I can't hold him long! Please kill me!"

Ranma swallowed, unable to ignore the pleading in Ryouga's eyes. The force of Aker's gift held back his attempt to concede to Ryouga's request. "Ryouga... I... I can’t do it! I can't kill you! You have to let us try and save you! Please take control. I know we didn’t get along, but we can try and fix things. We can save you, but you have to help us!"

Ryouga shook his head. "No, you have to hurry. It's not safe; I must die. Only in my death will Rage's spirit be released. Only then will _I_ be released. _Please_, Ranma! You have to hurry!"

Ranma whimpered, as her eyes began to tear up. "Ryou... ga... I... I'm sorry. I'm so sorry, I can't do this. I just can't."

Turning his gaze to Chame, Ryouga plead silently. Chame licked her lips nervously, then nodded. This would not be the first time she had slain, and many times for a weaker cause.

She stepped forward, and raised the Soyokaze to make the killing blow. Rage regained control, as the sword descended, and shot one hand out in an attempt to stop the blade. The Soyokaze was keen enough to pass through his hand easily, only stopping at the elbow when the blade was caught in the crux where ulna met radius in Rage's arm.

Chame wrenched the blade free, as a tortured squeal rose from the magical steel scraping across massively ki-reinforced bone. Rage bellowed, and punched the ground with his good arm, while the two halves of his wounded arm slowly fused back together.

The blow Rage struck resounded, and his aura built to monolithic proportions, rising easily a hundred feet into the air. All of the power in that aura hung for a single, still instant, malevolence in the air, then it resonated through Rage, and slammed into the earth below him.

Ranma stared in shock, tears drying while Chame staggered back, still reeling from the shriek of the Soyokaze being freed. For a brief moment, the tableau froze. Ranma, standing to one side wearing a shocked expression on her face. Chame, hunched over and backing away from Rage. And Rage, kneeling on the ground, one fist still touching the earth.

Then the scene changed, as Rage straightened up, healed. The earth trembled briefly, while a crack opened up at his feet, belching noxious fumes and intense heat.

Chame swallowed nervously, and vaulted over the fence to where her staff still lay. At the edge of her vision, she observed Katsunishiki running away, Akari seated on his back. The Machin nodded to herself again, and picked up her staff in her left hand.

Rage gathered his power back to him, ready to strike the earth again, but halted as Ranma's voice carried across the battleground. "Enough, Lydd. I am your enemy." <Aker, Orochi, forgive me. I follow the path of Ri-Riu.> "Chame. Resonance."

Chame blinked, and released her staff. It floated in the air before her, then slowly began to spin end over end in before her. Cold blue fire seemed to erupt from the weapon, enveloping it in radiance as it blurred into a spinning cerulean disk. She held the Soyokaze across herself, and steadied her will.

After a moment she was ready, and extended her left hand towards her staff, palm outward.

All power within the universe fit within its laws, with few exceptions. The power of dragons is one of those exceptions. The dragons were the original world-builders, along with the older gods, and thus their power was made to define the rules that compose reality.

The power of the dragons worked outside those rules, because it was originally used to _define_ them. And Ranma intended to use that power against Rage. Chame knew some of the power that existed outside the bounds of what was termed reality, and had at rare times managed tenuous control over small amounts of it.

The amount that Ranma could summon could easily put him outside the acceptable limits for reality, and if he exceeded its tolerance, then he could be erased from it. Chame then, had to find a way to make his power and his actions fit within the scope of reality. A way to resonate his power with the natural power of the world.

It was suicide for both of them to even think of it, but the elder Machin didn't hesitate, trusting her young student implicitly.

Ranma smiled, and held out one hand. The Makaze was on the ground one moment, then in her hands the next. No need to send it flying through the air towards her, no flashing lights, and no invocations. Ranma held power, and real power didn't need bright lights and flashy colors. Not this time.

Rage growled fiercely, and summoned his own blade. "This time, Child of Shen-Lung. The last time."

The pigtailed redhead nodded. "Agreed."

Then the two met, swords blurring in a combat so powerful and ferocious, reality wavered under its intensity.

While Ranma himself had never had much in the way of sword training, he did have the bulk of Tsuyoi-Ichiro's memories, and Tsuyoi-Ichiro had founded the Dakahoshi school of Kendo when he was adopted into their clan, a century ago. Rage had the knowledge and skill of all of the men who he had ever possessed.

And in the twilight, one arcane style met with another.

***

Chame closed her eyes, focusing on her connections to the world around her. Through the staff before her, she was able to vaguely see Ranma and his ties with reality, and through the duality of their swords, she could sense reality's ties to him. She strained to reach out, and pull the ties tighter where they weakened.

Had she not been busy concentrating on reality, Chame might have wept at the beauty and artistry of the fighters' motions.

Her efforts were weak, compared to the task at hand, but she gave it her all. Not trying was worse than failing, in her opinion.

Slowly, grudgingly, the bounds of the universe bent to the force of Ranma's power.

***

Ryouga stood on one end of a field, wresting with himself again. Wrestling with his other-self. Rage. Lydd.

The presence fought viciously, but his reserves were strained, since Ryouga was no longer fueling him, and Ranma was quickly tapping what power he had.

The battle was brief, to an outsider, but for them, seemed to stretch on eternally. In the end, there was only one way the battle _could_ go.

Ryouga simply didn't give in, didn't anger, and Rage's power became less and less, until Ryouga had control again. This was one battle that Ryouga would win. No matter the cost.

He spent a single moment pitying the fact that his control couldn't be permanent, then reasserted his command over his body.

***

Ranma sensed Chame through her connection with the sword, and focused on adjusting the power through a channel that reality would approve of. Ranma's eyes took on a luminous golden glow, much like Herb's, and Rage drew away, stumbling again.

Ryouga held Rage's movements in check. "Ranma... are you ready?"

The redheaded dragon-kin stopped, mid-slash, then stepped back and nodded. "The third time... Yes. I am prepared. I am sorry, Ryouga."

Ryouga smiled blissfully. "Thank you, Ranma."

Ranma focused briefly, then spoke her last words to Ryouga. "It's time. Let go, Ryouga. I want to kill Lydd, not you."

Ryouga's eyes closed, and Ranma began the end. Frost began to form on the ground, intense cold radiating from Ryouga in a triple-spiral. The base of the cold was Ranma's ki, cold from the soul of ice. The frigid taint of loneliness, of abandonment, of loss. And deeper than that, the coldness of the emptiness between realities. The cold of absolute nothingness.

From the chasm that Rage had opened in the earth, heat began to well up beneath him, and Ranma shed a tear. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. Good-bye, Ryouga..." Eyes screwed shut, she uttered the final words, realizing her ki upon the chi of the world, backed with the power of the Shen-Lung dynasty. In a whisper, they emerged, "Mitsuori hiryuu shouten ha." Not a shout, not a battle cry, but a soft, sad declaration of what would be. For a moment, nothing happened, as everything seemed to slow. Then a slight breeze began to pick up.

The hoarfrost on the ground had chilled to only a few degrees above absolute zero, and the heat of Rage's aura, combined with the heat of the magma from the chasm beneath him, met in a clash of immeasurable power. Three spirals combined into one, then spun in a cyclone that whipped air around at many times the speed of sound, a whirling mass of energy an even hundred feet across. It reduced everything in its path to fragments. And at the center of it, burning his energy away, was Rage.

He howled, though the wind tore at his voice even as it did him, pummeling him mercilessly, and laying his flesh open faster than he could repair it. Blood sprayed out from his body, pulled by the force of the wind, and dyed the outer edges of the maelstrom. A faint pink edge to the storm, nearly invisible to the naked eye.

Ranma stood, watching the seemingly endless tide of power, and slowly walked forward. With Aker's gift gone, her already tenuous control over her grief and anger faded. She screwed her eyes shut, and leapt towards the column of force.

***

Ryouga stared in horror, as Ranma prepared to make his sacrifice meaningless. In that moment, depression filled him, much more powerful depression than the pathetic hurt of a boy who was convinced that he loved a girl he didn’t. This was depression at something worse, something deeper. Depression at the inability to help a friend.

He understood why Ranma was doing what she was, but it only made his depression more pronounced. Ryouga reasoned that Ranma was upset at having to kill Ryouga rather than save him. Ryouga was touched by Ranma's concern, but couldn't allow his friend to die that way.

He built up even more dejection, in the center of the terrible storm, with the knowledge of what a poor friend he'd been. Gathering every fiber of his being together for one last action, Ryouga raised his right arm, and shouted, "Shishi Houkodan!"

Even through the terrible power of Ranma's attack, the blast flew true and halted Ranma's leap before she reached the edge of the storm. Ryouga smiled blissfully then, knowing that he had saved Ranma, even as Ranma had saved him. He let control slide back to Rage, as their right arm was reduced to bloody ribbons, then strands, and then a fine red mist.

<Goodbye... friend...>

***

Ranma slammed into the attack from Ryouga, which bore her into the ground and broke her weak hold on consciousness. Chame released her power and collapsed as well, her weapons clattering to the ground beside her.

***

The master and his students approached the limp form in the center of the field. The smaller student glanced at Ranma's prone form, which lay much further away, then shook his head sadly. The second student studiously looked towards the sky, trying not to see anything.

Bending down to investigate, the master gave a satisfied nod. "The body can be healed, and the soul is departed. A perfect vessel. Where is his weapon? It's a key, of sorts..."

The shorter student gestured towards the chasm, still venting heat into the night. "Fell in there."

"Good enough." The master lay one hand against the ground, and there was a slight rumbling as the rift sealed. "Now, to find the soul we want..."

The students paced nervously, worrying that the Founder or his companion would wake before the master was done. Finally, the master rose, and the body that once belonged to Ryouga opened its eyes. "Who am I?"

The master smiled grimly. "The third of my students. Come, take your new brother along. We must depart." On the foursome's way out of the farm, the master hesitated, standing over Ranma's unconscious form.

One gloved hand clenched one a fist, as black and angry aura enveloped the hand, belying power to rival and surpass the force Ranma had wielded only minutes earlier. The second of the students stepped forward, and placed a hand on the master's shoulder. "Master... we cannot kill him."

The master relinquished his hold on his power, trembling with suppressed anger. Through clenched teeth, he muttered, "I only wish it were otherwise. The desire to destroy him is overwhelming." He snapped his attention back to his third student. "Come. Let us see to replacing that arm."

***

Akari returned to her senses, her child clutched to her chest, as realization flooded through her. She looked down, at the sumo pig beneath her, and smiled slowly. "Katsunishiki? Are you alright?"

The pig tried to look at her over it's own shoulder for a moment, then settled for nodding.

"Let's go home, Katsunishiki."

The pig trotted back towards the farm, across the field it had traversed to avoid the two fighting men.

When they reached the farmhouse, Akari slipped off of Katsunishiki's back, and looked around warily. The sun was just rising, revealing the frozen mud. Much of it was limed with ice and a circular area easily a hundred feet across had been flattened, leaving no fence posts standing.

Akari examined the house, relieved to see it still intact, though half of the barn had been demolished. The remaining pigs blinked at her from the barn's remnants, and she nodded to herself before stumbling across a body.

Eyes widening, she turned it over, noting the red hair. After a moment of hesitation, she hefted the girl over one shoulder, awkwardly holding her child in the other hand, and muttered for Katsunishiki to search for any other bodies. <As long as there's no sign of Ryouga, everything will be okay.>

***

In Ranma's dreams, he saw the circle stretching out before him, arcing over his head, and plunging back down, passing through reality in a flow of reversed time before coming back up, to loop again.

The power to break the circle could not be contained within the same reality as the circle itself without aid that Ranma didn't have.

Then, in the manner of dreams, Ranma was standing at the center of a circle of lights. In the first light, he saw a face. The face of a child that he had never seen before, but recognized instantly. The face of his daughter.

He breathed her name, not even realizing the utterance. "Megumi."

And it was her name, though he had never discussed it with Ukyou. It simply felt right. The child giggled, and disappeared. Ranma turned slowly, studying the lights intensely.

"The circle... if I find all nine daughters, I can get Ukyou back somehow. That's the key to breaking the circle."

***

Ranma woke suddenly, and sat up. She glanced around wondering where she was, and blinked as she felt a sword-point touch against her throat. "Okay, who are you, and what are you doing here?"

The redhead sighed, and casually snapped a hand out to take the blade from the brown-haired girl in front of her.

Akari squeaked, and fell back a few steps.

Ranma set the Makaze on the bed next to her, frowning to note she had been sleeping in the same bed with Chame. "My name is Ranma. I came here to..." She closed her eyes and hung her head. "I came her to kill Ryouga..."

Akari blinked at this, then cocked her head to one side. "Did you succeed?"

The pigtailed redhead winced, even as Chame began to stir. "I doubt he could survive that. I'm sorry, but..." She rubbed her eyes, and groaned, "Damn it. I didn't want it to be like this."

Chame sat up quickly, then climbed out of bed. "Ugh... no, Lydd shouldn't have been able to live through that... the only way he could have survived was if someone more powerful than you stopped the attack."

Akari nodded, still eyeing the pair warily. "I see. I wish... I loved Ryouga... but he was not the same person... it's as through there were two people inside him. Is that what happened?"

Ranma nodded solemnly. "Yes."

For a moment, all three were silent, then Akari shook her head. "I'm going to make something to eat. Are you hungry at all?"

Chame shook her head. "Not really... though I suppose we have some explaining to do, don't we?"

Ranma slipped out of the bed, then turned to face Akari again. "As I said before, my name is Ranma."

Akari studied Ranma suspiciously, then responded, "My name's Akari."

"Nice to meet you, Akari. Do you have any children?" The redhead casually gathered the Makaze, and it disappeared.

The girl blinked at the sight, then nodded. "I have a daughter."

Ranma smiled slightly. "Take me to her." There was no question of obedience in her words, and Akari found herself doing as she was told, while Chame followed curiously.

They entered the nursery, and Akari pointed at the small child, which giggled and fussed as Ranma drew near. Ranma's smile widened slowly, as he shifted back into male form. "Do you see that, Chame?"

Chame looked closely, then nodded. "'Third,' and 'stone.' What do you suppose..." She trailed off, as Ranma produced the Makaze again, then slashed his wrist with it.

Akari gaped openly, as the blood that poured out of Ranma's wound pooled in a sphere that hung in the air before him. He spoke in a conversational tone, "So, Akari, have you named your daughter yet?"

She shook her head, still stunned. "Not... yet..."

Ranma nodded. "Then her name is 'Yoiko.'" Ranma began chanting softly in the Machin tongue, as the wound on his wrist sealed, and the sphere of blood floated over Yoiko. She cooed softly, as the sphere slowly suffused with black blood, and an intense glow radiated from her.

After a few moments of chanting, the sphere was solid black, and Ranma gave a final gesture, absently destroying the sphere.

Akari blinked. "What... what... what did you do?"

Ranma slumped slightly, and Chame rushed to support him. After examining the pigtailed boy, she sighed, "He claimed Yoiko as one of his own daughters. Perhaps a quirk of fate, or something else, but she was not supposed to be born to you. She's now the youngest member of House Saotome on this plane."

Frowning, Akari shook her head. "But... she's an Unryuu..."

Ranma snorted, and straightened slowly. "In name. In spirit, and in blood, she's my daughter now. As it should have been."

Akari began to bristle with rage. "What the hell do you think you're doing!? The only thing left that Ryouga had left on this world, and you just _take_ it away!? Maybe he was a bad person, but he was able to create something wonderful! You insensitive bastard!" Chame intervened, and caught Akari's hand before she could attempt to strike Ranma.

Ranma simply looked surprised. "What are you... no, I... I... it was supposed to be this way..." He trailed off suddenly, realizing that wasn't what Akari wanted to hear, then sighed, "She's still Ryouga's child, and yours, but now she's mine as well. I didn't take away, I simply added to what was already there."

Calming slightly, Akari shook her head. "That's not the kind of thing you do to your host. Now get the hell out of my house."

Ranma produced a piece of paper, and growled, "This is the address of a friend who can contact us. If anything happens, tell us. Good luck to you, then."

With that, both of the Machin left. Akari shook her head, sobbing while her emotions finally caught up to her. As she watched the pair leave, she cradled Yoiko to her chest. "That... that... bastard... and he, oh, Yoiko, I don't think I've ever been that angry." Yoiko made a face, and waved her arms around, cheering Akari slightly.

She never even noticed when she had accepted Yoiko as the child's name.

***

Chame walked by Ranma's side, heading in the general direction of Tokyo. After a moment, she cleared her throat. "What are you going to do now, Ranma?"

He shook his head in irritation. "I'm not certain. I have to find the other daughters. I don't know where, but they're out there... somewhere."

Nodding solemnly, Chame was silent for a moment. When she spoke, she haltingly asked, "Aker's gift... is it gone now?"

Ranma glanced at her, then sighed. "Yes. It's gone. I will go to Nerima next, I think."

Chame fidgeted. "And what? Are you planning on speaking with your mother?"

The pigtailed boy shook his head. "No. I don't think so... not yet. I will return Sir Ono's sword, then I'm going to search. The world is wide, Chame. I have to find the other daughters... it's the only way to save Ukyou and Megumi."

Frowning, Chame offered, "I understand. Would you like me to travel with you?"

Ranma stopped, then stared at Chame for a long moment. The offer was more than just to travel with him. She offered to give him whatever he needed, support both moral and magical, and more, if he desired. He blinked, and shook his head. "No. I think... not yet. Not ever, perhaps. I still think of you as an older sister, and..." He trailed off uncomfortably, and resumed walking.

The redhead made a small choking noise, then followed. "I hadn't thought my offer that obvious... I worry about you, Ranma. Except my father, who I haven't seen since I was a child, you're like... no, you _are_ my only family. I don't want... to lose you." <And there's nothing I wouldn't do to help you, because it hurts me to see you in pain. Oh gods, how could I possibly have thought this would hurt them and you less?>

Ranma nodded, saying nothing.

After a few minutes of silence, Chame fumbled with a pocket momentarily, and retrieved a silver bracelet. Ranma winced, recognizing it as the twin to his own. After he accepted it, Chame turned away, "I'm returning to my house. Then I'm going on a journey of my own... if our paths cross, so be it. Good luck on your travels, Ranma."

Ranma stopped walking once more, and bowed deeply to Chame. "Good luck on your travels as well, Chame."

The elder Machin bit her lip, still hesitating, then offered, "If you want to rest, my home is your home."

Ranma nodded again. "I understand."

Chame sped away in the Breath of the Earth, tears trickling down her face. <Ranma... be careful. You're like a brother to me, and I love you too much to bear losing you, too.>

Ranma stared after her for a long moment, then snarled bitterly, "What good is love, anyway? It only brings pain..." He wiped away an errant tear, absently pocketing Ukyou's bracelet. "And why can't I stop caring about someone who I might never see again?" He banished the thought with a shake of his head, and tried to focus on finding the remaining daughters.

***

Tofu stepped away from the cradle where Kimiko lay, shaking his head sadly.

Kasumi bit her lip, and heaved a sigh, "Oh, Tofu... I... it's my fault."

The doctor grimaced. "No, it's not anyone's fault. It just... happened. The fact that it's beyond my abilities..." he trailed off as a knock at the gate sounded from below.

Shaking his head again, Tofu left the nursery, which had once been Happosai's room, and walked towards the door. Kasumi remained with Kimiko for a moment, then followed. Tofu opened the door. "The dojo is around the side... yard... Ranma?"

Ranma stood in the doorway, clothed in his slightly tattered Chinese garb. "Yes. Greetings, Sir Ono. I've come to return your blade."

Tofu gaped for a long minute, then collected himself. "Of course. Come in, Ranma. Is this about the power that we felt a few days ago?"

The pigtailed boy's expression twisted to a grimace of distaste. "I battled Lydd. He had gotten much stronger than when you fought him." There was an awkward silence as Ranma entered, and closed the door behind him. The doctor said nothing, knowing who had won by the fact that Ranma was still alive.

Kasumi bit her lip before the silence built further. "I'm sorry to hear that, Ranma... would you like some tea, or are you hurrying to be with your wife again?"

Ranma flinched at the words. "You... didn't hear?"

The couple glanced at each other, then shook their heads in unison.

The pigtailed boy sighed, "I... who else is here right now?"

Tofu blinked. "Soun and Genma are in the dojo, teaching a class. Akane is out near Yokohama, helping the locals with a small demon problem, and Nabiki is upstairs."

Ranma nodded, and sat down at a seat in the living room. "Very well, then. I don't think I'm ready for that yet. Hmm... Where to begin... Ukyou and Megumi were taken to the House of Wayward Spirits. From what the N'Dori tell me, I am going to be the founder for the circle... and maybe the breaker as well."

Kasumi blinked, a decidedly blank expression covering her face. Tofu nodded slowly. "I'll explain it later, Love."

Sighing, Ranma continued, "According to a bit of prophecy we discovered, I'm supposed to have nine daughters, but they will not all be born to me. So I have to find them, and blood-bond to them. Once I do that, then I should have the power to break the circle. It's merely a matter of finding the second daughter now. Her symbol is 'blood.'"

Tofu blanched suddenly, and Kasumi twitched nervously. Clearing his throat, Tofu explained, "Kimiko... had those symbols on her when she was born..."

Ranma leapt to his feet. "Then I must bond with her. I have to reclaim-"

Kasumi jumped up angrily. "What are you talking about? Kimiko is too weak to do anything like that! She's a sickly child, and I won't let you do anything that can hurt her!"

Tofu cleared his throat nervously, "Love, Ranma, calm down. What Ranma proposes... might actually help our daughter..."

Kasumi's anger dwindled, and she eyed Ranma with something similar to hope. "Is that so?"

The doctor nodded slowly. "But... there's also a danger of getting caught up in the prophecy..."

Ranma looked at Kasumi intently, while she struggled to decide whether or not to give her permission. Minutes passed before she hung her head and nodded. "I'll... allow it, then... please be careful, Ranma."

Smiling, Ranma turned to Tofu, who led the way to the nursery. Once there, the pigtailed dragon-kin glanced around warily. "There are a lot of wards here..."

Tofu bit his lip, explaining, "Kimiko was born sickly... we're very worried about her."

Ranma gave a single curt nod, and pulled the Makaze from pocket-space. Kasumi stepped back, concern etched in her face, while Tofu sighed. Ranma slashed his wrist once more, then handed the blade to the doctor. The trio stared at the sphere of blood forming before Ranma, while he masked a sinister grin. <Ukyou, Megumi... no price is too great. I will save you, somehow.>

Ranma healed the wound on his arm once there was enough gathered blood, and set about replacing Kimiko's blood with his own. It was more complicated than that, and altered a small bit of her genetic code, so that Ranma truly _was_ her father, as well as Tofu. Such was the methodology of the Machin blood-bond. It was understandable to Ranma that Chame wouldn't want to blood bond with him, since her connection to her father had already been weakened from bonding into house Ono. It was also understandable that Tofu resented offering his daughter to Ranma, but he could bear the thought of her death less than the thought of her being Ranma's child.

Then it was done, and Ranma obliterated the tainted blood with a gesture.

Kasumi swallowed nervously, while Ranma passed a hand across Kimiko's head. "Her name is Saotome, now." He slumped to the floor, landing awkwardly on one knee, then shifted forms. Her smaller body adjusted to the blood loss, and compensated enough that she was able to retain consciousness. She frowned slightly, as comprehension dawned on her. "'And of three and three...'"

Tofu scowled and heaved a sigh. "Agreed. Now it is Saotome Kimiko."

Kasumi's expression soured. "What does this mean?"

Ranma waved a hand absently. "That she no longer has an inherited illness. She's not going to be sick anymore."

Tofu nodded, causing relief to shine from Kasumi's face. "He's right... but..."

Ranma shook his head. "Enough. I need to start searching. There are another six daughters out there for me to claim before I can break the circle."

The Onos said nothing, as Ranma let himself out, and disappeared.

Kasumi bit her lip, then fussed over her daughter. Smiling slightly, she offered, "It's a small price to pay to have a healthy child, I think."

Tofu sighed, "I suppose. I just wish we could have had a child to carry on _our_ name, instead of Ranma's..."

Kasumi's expression hardened slightly, then she shrugged. "There's no reason we can't have another child later, Tofu. Aside from which, I don't think we should care for Kimiko any less."

The doctor smiled slightly. "That's true."

***

Mousse gathered his courage, and approached Shampoo. The changes in her demeanor had frightened him -- as well as many of the other amazons -- but he still cared for her. Smiling slightly, he said, "{Good morning, Shan Pu.}"

Shampoo eyed him dubiously then nodded. "{Mu Si. I'm an elder now, and you should respect me as such.}"

The hidden weapons master winced at that, then nodded. "{Er... as you wish, Elder.}"

Smiling slightly, the purple-haired girl asked, "{What troubles you, Mu Si?}"

Mousse licked his lips nervously, then sighed, "{I would like to speak with you for a moment... Alone, if you would allow it.}"

Her smiled faded, and Shampoo nodded, walking briskly away. "{As you would, then. Follow me.}"

Mousse followed wordlessly, for once wearing his glasses and recognizing the path leading to Jusenkyou. He frowned slightly. "{Elder, this leads to Jusenkyou.}"

Shampoo nodded silently.

After a time, Shampoo cleared her throat, "Mu Si... it has been... some time since we have truly talked. I have learned much in my studies. I trust things have gone well for you?"

Mousse boggled for a moment, then swallowed nervously. "You've... changed, Shan Pu. You didn't attend the tournament this year. I... think you would have enjoyed it."

Shampoo sighed, and closed her eyes. "The memories would have made that... awkward, Mu Si. That was where I met Ranma, you remember."

Eyes flashing with indignation, Mousse stamped his feet. "Shan Pu! How does that fiend maintain a hold on you over this time?"

Halting her own progress, Shampoo pointed wordlessly towards the pools in the distance. Mousse looked on, not understanding. The Scholar sighed, "Debt of blood, Mu Si. Follow me."

Mousse stumbled along behind Shampoo, as she led him to the entrance of the valley. The guide startled at seeing them, but subsided when he saw Shampoo's copper bracelet.

The amazon hid a smile at that, and gestured towards the nearest pool, "Do you remember this pool, Mu Si?"

Nodding wordlessly, he peered into the depths of the pool, not seeing anything special about it. "Yes... this is the pool where I had gotten my curse from."

Shampoo sighed, "And then you jumped into that pool," she gestured towards the spring of drowned boy, "and exchanged one curse for another, hmm?"

Mousse scratched his head and shrugged. "I... suppose. Why didn't you ever get your curse lifted?"

Shampoo scowled. "Because I know just how much we deserve the curses for our crimes. I can look in these pools and see the truth, Mu Si. I can see it as clearly as the guide, and his daughter. Do you remember when Plum was visiting the village and the mountain lion attacked her?"

Mousse winced and nodded. "How could anyone forget?"

Shampoo snorted. "Then the lion saw the look in her eyes, and fled." She placed one hand on her hip and leaned forward, raising one finger on the other hand to admonish Mousse. "Did you know that Plum remembers when Cuh Lon was young? She remembers when the people of Phoenix Mountain used to come down to the springs to investigate the Font, trying to lift the curse of the Machin."

The bespectacled boy could only blink at that, lowering his jaw in surprise. "W... what?"

The young woman in front of Mousse sighed, and gestured across the valley. "They don't remember the people who lived here; that was before their time. But the guide knows the 'tragic stories' behind each pool for a good reason. He saw them all happen. When the guide fell into the first spring with his young daughter, they were bound as slaves to its will. That was over three thousand years ago, not long after our people destroyed the Machin."

Mouse blanched and began edging away. "What... what does this have to do with anything?"

Shampoo scowled. "Ranma's people used to call this place home, and our ancestors wronged them. We owe a debt of blood to Ranma greater than you can imagine. I can see the mark of Jusenkyou on you, Mousse. You're covered in the blood of the innocents. You didn't bathe in the cursed waters once, but twice."

After a moment, Mousse shook his head. "So you're going to marry Ranma?"

Her expression softening, Shampoo turned away from mousse, and gazed towards Phoenix Mountain. "No. I'm going to offer myself to him as a sacrifice, to attempt to atone for our wrongdoing."

Mousse's expression darkened. "Shan Pu, that's foolishness-"

Shampoo spun around and interrupted any further speech from the bespectacled Amazon. "Do you think so really? Mu Si, I've learned a few things, and gained a few gifts of my own in my time of study. Can you do me a favor?"

Mousse nodded eagerly. "Anything, Shan Pu."

The scholar closer her eyes, and widened her stance slightly. "Then I want you to come here." She frowned, as Mousse approached. "Stand on my feet, and look over my right shoulder." With a slightly incredulous expression, Mousse did as he was told. He looked at the pools over Shampoo's shoulder, then scrambled away and landed roughly on his rear as he fell down. Shampoo sighed, and knelt near him. "What did you see, Mu Si?"

Eyes wide, Mousse swallowed, "{I... it... there was... blood... how... what...}" He shook his head, trying to make sense of the images. Over and within each of the pools, bloodied wraiths had hung, bound to the pools by chains of blood and hatred.

And the eyes, the worst part was the eyes. Each of them accusing, and all of them were staring at _him_. Accusing _him_. He swallowed, looking towards the pools again. Thankfully, the images were gone, though the memories remained.

Shampoo smiled sardonically. "I have the 'gift' of True Sight for all time. You don't have to see it, but I'll never forget. And I see the blood on you from your curse. I see a wraith in the village that follows Cologne everywhere, weeping. I see the ghosts of children who died cold and alone, wandering the village in search of their parents.

"Plum sees them too. I suppose the guide may, as well, but he doesn't talk about it. Our people, Mu Si, our ancestors did this. We are responsible for making Plum and her father suffer. Their bondage will not end until the spirits of Jusenkyou are put to rest, and that will not happen until we are all dead, or the heir to the Machin tribe releases us. But I don't know that Ranma _can_ forgive us. Especially with what Cuh Lon is planning on doing to him."

Shampoo turned away, tears in her eyes. "And I'm powerless to stop her."

Mousse said nothing, remembering the time he had had to devote to the 'preparations' as much as anyone else. Even the most staunchly opposed would balk at the prospect of backing out now. Too much time and effort had gone into preparing a trap for Ranma.

Mousse cleared his throat, then looked up. "I could find Ranma, and warn him..." His offer died in his lips, as Shampoo shook her head.

She raised her eyes to his briefly, then smiled. "Why do you think we're conversing in Japanese instead of Mandarin, Mu Si? We're being watched. If you try and leave, they'll stop you. And who knows what they'll do now? Our only hope is that Ranma has a heart big enough to forgive us." She frowned, then. "Of course... he may choose to destroy us instead... which may be warranted."

The hidden weapons master realized he had nothing to say, and couldn't loose the image of the bloodied wraiths. He turned to look towards the guide's shack, where Plum was idly playing with one of her dolls. He looked away when he noticed her observing him out of the corner of her eye.

After a long moment he nodded, and walked towards the village, alone.

Conquest of Shampoo was not to be his. He knew, as much as he hated to admit it, that he couldn't change her mind. Added to that, Shampoo was an Elder, a member of the counsel. And then, only _outsider_ males qualified, if he _could_ beat her in combat. He sighed, and clenched his eyes shut as he plodded back towards the village. He wouldn't let himself cry, yet. Shampoo was consigned to a fate far worse than his.

Watching the male amazon disappear over a rise in the path, Shampoo managed a faint smile. It hadn't been pleasant, but it was the truth. And another tool against her great grandmother had been found.

***

Nabiki stared listlessly at the doctor. "I suspected as much."

The doctor squirmed a little under the intensity of Nabiki's stare, and then sighed, "Well, there are alternatives, if you don't want to-"

With a grimace, Nabiki gestured the doctor to be silent. "Doesn't matter. I'm going to keep it. I can't be responsible for killing it..."

The doctor sighed again, "Well, who's the father?"

Nabiki winced, seeing her future dissolve in slow motion before her eyes. Unwed and pregnant was bad enough, but this... "Any one of about fifteen yakuza."

***

Two doctors compared notes, then one dropped his clipboard in alarm. "Oh shit -- you know that irregularity we discovered in Mrs. Kuno?"

The other looked up, seemingly disinterested. "Yeah... I think so. Why?"

Swallowing nervously, the first doctor retrieved his clipboard. "We've got a liability issue here..."

"Oh crap. You're kidding, right?"

"I'm afraid not. Says here that for all matters concerning her health we have to ask Kuno Tatewaki... who's going to make the call?"

***

Ryu couldn't help but smile. Things were working out for him, now. Admittedly, the wedding was a tad... rushed... but even Sakura seemed pleased in the end.

It was harder for Ryu to handle the demon-battling aspect alone, but Ranma's gift made it possible. It was going to be a few months before Sana was able to fight alongside him again. But it didn't dampen his spirits at all.

***

From the depths of Ryugenzawa, where the Yamato no Orochi slumbered once more, the N'Dori spoke as one, "Thus the second in the trinity of trios is ready. The stage is set, and your first breaking draws ever nearer. Founder, you will imprison us, because you must. Then the breaker will release us. Soon, now."

***

It makes sense, in the grand scheme of things, that the Japanese government would want to know about demon and devil infestations. And they politely requested information from those willing to give it up.

However, as with all things, nothing is perfect. Invariably, someone from another country became envious of the obvious power displayed on the occasional home video of a battle, and wished to acquire it for their own purposes.

The Americans seemed the worst, though the yakuza weren't much better. Devil-hunters were a rare -- and expensive -- commodity on the black market.

***

Akane frowned, sensing the malice from a small team of yakuza who had her pinned behind a stone wall. She wasn't certain how, but their tranquilizer darts could pierce her wards. Luckily the one that had come close hadn't hit her, but it wasn't safe any longer.

She slammed a fist into the ground, growling in frustration at her inability to fight the demon itself, since she had to deal with the lowlifes down the street. Lowering her head, she called out, <Dr. Tofu? Are you ready?>

The doctor sent a sense of affirmation, and she noted his location mentally, while slipping into the Umisen-ken. The yakuza would be ignored, for now, though they would need to be dealt with later... some things were more important.

***

Ranma's dealings with men who tried to capture him or those he considered allies were met with a good deal less civility.

The yakuza thugs panicked, as an irate Ranma plucked the tranquilizer darts out of himself, and dropped them on the ground.

Cloaked as he was in the true Ascension, nothing short of magic would have any lasting effect on him. He had his suspicions about decapitation, but hadn't felt the need to explore that possibility.

A negligent blast of energy destroyed the vehicle that the men were using as cover, then Ranma ignored them, and turned his attention to his quarry.

***

As the frequency of attacks continued, Akane found herself wandering less far afield before being called to assist one group or another, and eventually found herself technically hired by the city of Tokyo as a 'civil servant.'

Once the initial humor wore off, she noted with a grim finality that it was true. Some, like Dr. Tofu, preferred to hide their additions to the ranks. She couldn't fault the doctor for that, but the income she made staying home from school and fighting helped improve her disposition.

But when she wasn't fighting, or training, she found herself wondering where Ranma was.

***

Dr. Tofu Ono, once Sir Ono, eldest son of a proud house of artisans, expert warrior, master mage, and practitioner of family medicine, was unnerved. A certain odd sense charged the air in recent days. Nabiki was due shortly, and he found himself growing agitated. On one hand, Kimiko's health had improved vastly over the intervening months, but...

Kasumi swept into the room, and washed memories of auguries and the past from his mind. He grinned, as she offered an impish grin, showing off her figure. "Let's go, Dr. Tofu. Daddy and the Saotomes will be able to take care of Kimiko and Nabiki."

Tofu nodded, still smiling. Perhaps he was worrying too much.

The couple left, too absorbed in each other to notice a certain sumo-pig carrying his distraught trainer to the Tendo home behind them.

***

For his part, the dragon-kin didn't think much beyond the battle and the search. Those two things were dominant factors in his life, and all else was transient. Certain things, like finding allies to replace the fallen, registered peripherally. Little else did.

Months had passed since he had spoken to anyone he knew, though Chame attempted to reach him occasionally. He found himself wondering what had happened in the meantime, and felt a need to return to Chame's house. Or perhaps visit his mother. The daughters could wait... for a day or two.

***

For her part, Chame operated like a smooth fusion of Ranma and Akane. Raw power, grace, and the knowledge of the devil hunters in the area allowed her to efficiently work her way around the areas she traveled through while accomplishing her task.

The cycle was an old one to her, and her power was tempered with nearly three thousand years of demon fighting expertise. But it was a challenge, since she could only be in one place at a time.

Still, she found herself worrying for Ranma, enough to overshadow the hope of stumbling across her father at some point or another. Finally, the call came from Ranma.

<Chame, I'm going to go back to your house for a while, to check up on things.>

She felt relief wash through her. <I'll meet you there, Ranma.>

***

Ranma slid to a halt in front of the door, where Chame was waiting nervously. She took a moment to absorb his appearance, and frowned. "Ranma... are you alright?"

The pigtailed dragon-kin shrugged. "I've seen better days. I assume you got the mail before me?"

Chame nodded. "Yes... come in and wash up. Your things are still in your room."

Ranma took a moment to note how ragged his clothing had become, and sighed, "Very well, then."

Once bathed and redressed, Ranma entered the dining room, his hair still damp. Chame indicated the stack of mail, and studied her one-time student closely.

Ignoring her, Ranma leafed through his letters, wearing a grimace. After reading the last letter, Ranma sat up, and sighed.

Chame bit her lip, ignoring her own mail for the moment. "Ranma... what's wrong."

Ranma shoved the last two letters towards Chame, who examined them briefly. One from Tofu, and one from Cologne. After reading the letters, Chame blanched. "Oh... dear gods... I'm sorry, Ranma..."

The pigtailed martial artist shrugged. "It's... their daughter, too. And they said they got a letter from Akari, so both Yoiko and Kimiko... the Home of the Wayward Spirit claimed them as well."

Chame stared at the paper in front of her for a long moment, then looked up. "Ranma, it's a trap, plain and simple. Cologne can't _possibly_ know how to save them. Aside from which, how would she know that's what was happening?"

Ranma turned to face her, wearily. "I haven't slept since before I killed Ryouga. I think I'm going to take a nap for a bit, and then I'm going to China. I'll say goodbye to my mother first."

"Ranma..." the dragon-kin ignored her, trudging to his room sluggishly. Once he was gone, Chame lowered her head to her hands and wept openly. <Was this what it was like to lose Mother? I wish I could remember, but Father was driven nearly mad with rage at her loss... Ranma... I wish I knew what to do.>

-----

Author's notes:

The timetable for events gets forwarded a bit, but I feel it's warranted... I hope it's not too rushed.

Also: Mitsuori means 'three' as in 'three folded in one.' So Characters codes for the Microsoft Windows fonts in the range 128 - 159 may not be recognized on other platforms. You are instead recommended to use named entities, e.g. ™ rather than Windows character code 153 (0x2122 in Unicode). Note that as of February 1998 few browsers support the new entities. a 'mitsuori hiryu shouten ha' is a 'three-folded-in-one flying dragon ascension wave.' Kind of easy to see why attacks have such huge names when they're translated, ne?


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