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The Unbroken Circle: Chapter ten

Shikakejirai

Part A

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

What has gone before:

Ranma fought Lydd, the spirit that was possessing Ryouga, and won, at the cost of Ryouga's life, and Aker's gift. After the battle, Ranma had a vision of the circle, and the method to break it. After blood-bonding Akari's daughter, Yoiko, Ranma returned to Nerima to give Tofu the Makaze. Once there, he blood-bonded Kimiko, then left to find the other daughters. Believing that once he discovers the daughters, he will be able to break the circle, Ranma then threw himself into demon slaying, emerging only after months had passed. When he returned to Chame's house, he discovered that the Home of the Wayward Spirit had claimed both of the new daughters, destroying his plan to rescue them. Among the letters he received, there was a message from Cologne, stating that she knew a way to retrieve the daughters...

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 at the top means:

Isolated through opposition,

One sees one's companion as a pig covered with dirt,

As a wagon full of devils.

First one draws a bow against him,

Then one lays the bow aside.

He is not a robber; he will woo at the right time.

As one goes, rain falls; then good fortune comes."

I Ching - The Book of Change

 

"Dare one ask,

'The enemy, amassed and in good order, is about to approach.

How do I await him?'

I say,

'Seize what he loves, and he will heed you!'"

Sun Tzu - The Art of War - Chapter 11

 

The new day found Ranma asleep, until late in the afternoon. He opened his eyes blearily, for the first time in many long weeks taking the time to truly consider his situation.

He stared at the wooden beams running across the ceiling of his room, deep in thought. <How many lost? What if I can't get Ucchan and the daughters back? They're the key to the circle... the prophecy said that I needed them to break it, but with three of them trapped in the Home of the Wayward Spirit...>

His ruminations were interrupted by a knock at the door. He rose smoothly to his feet, dressed swiftly, then answered.

Chame awaited him, wearing a worried expression, and bearing her staff. Ranma idly noted that the Soyokaze was tucked into her sash, then turned his attention back to her face. "Yes?"

She frowned, pushing the worry aside. "Ranma, I... I don't want you to go to China. It's dangerous. You know it's a trap, and..."

Ranma shook his head once. "I must go."

For a long moment no words were exchanged between the pair, as their eyes bored into one another. Ranma looked away first. He repeated himself, "I'm sorry. I must go."

Chame scowled, and her voice carried a hard, angry edge, "Why must you do this?"

Running a hand through his hair, Ranma sighed. "I don't know... but something tells me that I must."

The redheaded Machin drew back her hand and slapped Ranma viciously. He stared at her impassively, not seeming to have registered the blow, while she clenched her hand into a fist. "Why are you being so stupid, Ranma? I didn't teach you to walk into traps."

Ranma sighed again in frustration, looking down at the small woman. "I'm sorry... but it must be this way. I don't fully understand why, but I have a resonance in the very depths of my soul that tells me that I must, or the circle will not be broken." A momentary flash of emotion crossed his face, and he raised a hand to Chame's, wiping away tears she hadn't noticed shedding. "If... maybe things will work out in the end."

With that, he departed, leaving Chame alone in the too-large and empty house.

***

In the deepening darkness, Mousse crept along an embankment, hoping he didn't make enough noise to alert any listeners.

If he were to hurry, he might be able to help Shampoo somehow, even if it was just to warn Ranma about the trap.

There was the sound of something shifting in front of him, and he froze, praying for the thudding of his heart not to give him away.

After holding his position for ten minutes, pressed firmly into the dirt below a low bush, he released a quiet sigh of relief, and resumed creeping along in mincing, silent steps.

Finding an obstruction, he peered into the darkness, trying to make out the cause for the barrier to his progress. His eyes widened as a figure loomed out of the darkness before him. Falling to his knees, he bit back a yelp.

The figure stared down at him with bemused interest.

Mousse swallowed, licking his lips nervously several times before he found the will to speak. "{I... suppose that I'm not going to make it, am I?}"

The figure slowly resolved into the form of a man, his face unclear to Mousse's eyes. Offering one hand to the boy, he intoned, "A choice, then. Join us, or..."

Mousse stared hard at the figure before him. He didn't want to ask 'or what'; the threat was implicit. He took a moment to glance behind him. The village was too far away to be seen from his vantage. Lowering his head, he sighed. "{What will I gain from this?}"

"What do you desire?"

Mousse raised his head slowly. "{You already know.}"

The two stared at each other for a long moment, then the master nodded curtly. "So be it. Come, join your brothers."

***

Tendo Nabiki stared at the form in front of her thoughtfully. Correspondence courses were not nearly as good as attending an actual college... but it was safer to stay at home, and it gave her a good chance to avoid the social problems associated with having a child while unmarried.

She could have gotten rid of it, but that didn't seem... right... somehow. Aside from which, it wouldn't change anything. The past would still have happened.

The woman set her paper down for the moment, and ran her hands across her belly, wondering. <What will it be like? Will it be a boy? Or a girl?> She frowned, considering. There were a number of ways to handle this situation.

Tofu and Kasumi had expressed their willingness to take care of the child for her, but she felt the need to maintain a connection of her own. Regardless of the way the child was conceived, it was _hers_.

Frowning again suddenly, she pushed herself away from her desk, and sat on her bed, thinking. The night that Kasumi and Tofu had left... and Kimiko had been taken.

Nabiki shuddered at the remembrance of that. She had been alone in the house, except for the child and her father. Her father hadn't been able to do anything, and neither had she... there was simply a black vortex that pushed them away as the crying child was torn from her crib, and the horrible echoing of other voices from with the swilling morass.

Shivering, she wondered if that would happen to _her_ child.

***

Akane lounged in the family room idly, flipping through the channels with no real interest. Settling on a rerun of 'Irresponsible Captain Tylor,' she knuckled back a yawn, and stared at the ceiling morosely.

Lately, there had been a real lack in her life; there was a certain knowledge that something was missing. She wasn't certain what it was, yet, but the familiar urge to run off and find Ranma rose within her again. She crossed her arms beneath her chest, wearing a thoughtful expression. <It's been calm for a while... I might be able to get away with it. But at the same time... I should be here to protect my family.>

There was a muted explosion from the screen as Tylor did something stupid again, and Akane briefly turned to watch the action before becoming pensive again. <What should I do? Tofu can watch things here, and I'm sure that I can do just as much good wandering around, but...> Sitting up straight, she turned the television off and rose, stretching.

Once she had finished stretching, she walked over to the wall calendar, and checked it. <It's been over a year since... Ranma left. I should be... moving on, I guess. But I still want to talk to him.>

She frowned, considering. She had missed Kasumi and Tofu's child's birth... and had been gone when she was taken away, as well. But she didn't want to miss Nabiki going into labor, too. And Nabiki would be due soon. Still...

Nodding decisively, she marched towards the dojo. She had to find Ranma... she wasn't sure why, but something told her she had to, and she wasn't about to ignore it.

***

The road was dry and dusty -- a change from the wet weather that Ranma was expecting to plague him. He frowned thoughtfully, and scanned up and down the road, but could sense nothing. No one was nearby, then.

He sighed, and stopped walking, to stand in a loose stance at the center of the road. The dirt beneath his feet resonated with him, and he threw back his head, spreading his arms at his sides as if to receive a blessing from the sun.

He basked in its warmth for a moment before closing his eyes and casting out with his senses. There was a prophecy to be untangled. He had to find others before he could go to China, and he didn't know how long he would have to search to find them.

But he knew he would. Opening his eyes, he reassumed a normal stance, and began striding forward again. <Three more.>

Threads in a tapestry, woven in a tangled skein he could guess the edges of, despite his inability to see the whole picture. The daughters were knotted together, somehow. All he needed to do was find a way to separate one from the rest, and make _her_ destiny different from the others... then he would be able to go to China and use whatever they had found to retrieve them.

He wasn't certain how he knew, but there were three more to be found, then China... and he knew that two of them would be close together again, because there was a pattern. But close in time, or close in space? Perhaps both?

He slipped into the Breath of the Earth, launching down the road with a minimum of effort. Mulling it over, he placed what he knew. <One by blood. With Ukyou... two through the blood bond. Which one is which, then? The prophecy said blood, spirit, and stone first... So next would be flesh, fire, and body. What would the difference between flesh and body be?>

Shaking his head, he tried to clear his mind to catch one of the elusive threads of prophecy in his mind, but none came to him, and the ancestral memories were beginning to fade already. He scowled at that, not wanting to lose Tsuyoi-Ichiro's skills. But the loss of Shen-Lung's memories weren't as profound, since much of it was simply too alien for Ranma to comprehend.

Veering sharply, he changed direction, heading east for the time. He wasn't sure where to look, yet, but felt certain that he would know when he saw it.

And until then, there was the battle... always the battle.

***

"Miss? Miss?" The voice broke Akane out of her reverie.

The youngest Tendo turned to look directly at the blue-haired woman before her, standing next to a slightly more confident black-haired man. "I got distracted. When was the last time you saw him?"

The man shifted his stance, shrugging. "Sorry," he began, apologetically. "Mr. Saotome fought a monster here a couple months ago, but I don't think he's been through here since. Did you know him? You look like another one of the people from the tape they showed us from Nerima..."

Akane waved a hand dismissively, cutting off the older man's speech. "Well, thanks anyway. I have to keep moving, and try and find him, then..."

Hito shook his head, watching the young woman walk away. "Well," he commented. "I hope she finds him... I wonder why she's looking, though."

Tomoku shrugged blandly, not seeing Akane step into a train station across the street. "Could be a fan, could want help, or could just want him."

The man sputtered briefly at that, then laughed, "I suppose that could be true. Well, let's get to work for the day. We're covering the East Side tonight, right?"

***

Ranma peered around him, as though he was seeing the area around him for the first time. His mother's house stood at one end of the street, and the wall that he had destroyed over a year ago had been repaired... but something seemed different about the place.

He shook his head, and strode forward. <I haven't seen Mom in too long, I think I really need to tell her what's going on here.>

After a brief moment of hesitation, he rapped his knuckles on the door, then stepped back and waited. His mother answered the door, her bland expression shifting to pleased surprise when she saw who was waiting for her. "Ranma!" she exclaimed. "I haven't seen you in _months_! How have you been? How is my daughter-in-law?"

He flinched at that, then took a long, slow breath. "I'm afraid that we have more to talk about than I had thought... I have some bad news, Mom."

Nodoka's expression turned grave, and she stepped back, prompting Ranma to enter the house. He stepped in warily, dropping his pack on the floor. Nodoka frowned, asking, "Would you like me to take the cloak?"

Ranma shook his head, and closed his eyes for a moment, as the cloak seemed to disappear. "Not a problem. But... I wish you had told me about who my grandfather was. It cost us... too much I think."

Nodoka reflexively stepped back, as her eyes widened in fright. Ranma scowled, and shook his head. "Not like that, Mother. I was gone, dealing with it, and wasn't able to protect Ukyou..."

The older woman's expression of shock deepened, as she dropped her hands to her sides. "Ranma," she whispered. "What... no... Oh, gods, I'm so sorry!"

Ranma scowled, and shook his head. "There might be a way to bring her back, though. She's not... dead... just gone."

Nodoka shook her head apprehensively. "I'm sorry, Ranma... My parents knew that exposing me to magic when I was young would have... adverse effects... and I had hoped that Genma would be able to keep you away from it as well."

The pigtailed dragon-kin raised an eyebrow at this, and crossed his arms over his chest. "Oh?"

Flushing nervously, Nodoka falteringly explained, "The contract was to raise you to be... well... more base. Less enlightened. More of a man and less in touch with your... heritage."

Ranma blinked at that, digesting the information, then gave a slight nod. "I see. I suppose that makes a sort of sense." He shook his head, dropping his hands to his sides again. "That's not really important at the moment, though. I just thought that I should tell you what had happened... because I think that you're entitled to know." He shrugged indifferently, and turned to the door, calling out, "Goodbye, Mother."

Nodoka blinked, and grabbed Ranma's shoulder, halting his progress. "Ranma... where are you going?"

He stared at his feet for a moment, then turned to face his mother, dislodging her hand. "I don't know. I have to find... certain people. Three of them. Then I'm going to China."

Ranma's mother frowned deeply, releasing a small sigh. "I wish I knew exactly what was going on... and I wish I could help you with it... but I don't like the way you're acting."

He scowled at that, then grumbled, "What am I doing that's worrying you?"

"You're acting like you're planning on not coming back."

Ranma paused, considering those words. After a moment, he shook his head, releasing a small sigh. "No... I don't know. I have to break the circle... It's the only way I'm going to get Ucchan and our daughter back."

Nodoka blinked at that, then frowned. "Daughter? She as well... I am sorry, then... But why are you intent on leaving?"

The dragon-kin clenched his fist before him, summoning a crackling fistful of ki-flame and inspecting it closely. "Because I'm going to find out who or what took Ucchan away."

Nodoka took several hasty steps back, worried at Ranma's behavior. "Son... please... Don't do anything rash. Think about this calmly. How do you expect to recover your wife and child?"

Ranma frowned, releasing the flame and dropping his fist to his side again. "Hmm. Well, do you remember the prophecy that you spoke on the day that Ucchan, Chame, and I left Nerima together?" Nodoka managed a weak nod. "Good. That prophecy. I must recover the nine daughters."

The words came to Nodoka's lips unbidden, "Nabiki's going to have a child soon, and Tatewaki's sister has a daughter." She stared, clapping her hands across her mouth.

Cocking his head to one side, Ranma's frown deepened. "Oh? I'll investigate there, then. Two, close together... it fits the pattern." He nodded decisively, then turned away. "Thank you, Mother. Soon, I will complete my task."

Nodoka's face turned ashen, and she lowered her hands, blurting out, "Ranma! Don't do this! You're letting the blood of our ancestors drive you mad!"

Ranma scowled deeply, his expression darkening. "Nothing of the sort is happening. I am simply doing what I must. The prophecy tells us, and until I can retrieve Ucchan and the daughters, I will fulfill it."

Steeling herself, Nodoka spun on her heel and marched to the ceremonial rack holding the Saotome blade. She studied it for a moment, then sighed, placing one hand on the hilt. In a level tone, she announced, "Ranma. You are my son. I never want it to come to this, but if you let your grasp of your humanity fade, then... You will have to be destroyed."

Emotions flashed across Ranma's face too quickly to be identified, finally settling on an angry glower. "Mother... Do not threaten me. I am not losing my grasp of my humanity. I promise you... I give you my word of honor, and pledge it in blood. I promise you this: I will not become something you must destroy."

Nodoka swallowed, her eyes still glued to the sword, but lowered her hand. "Very well, then. I do not know that I could stop you... I only hope that you can stop yourself."

Ranma nodded curtly and departed, leaving his mother alone with her sheathed blade.

***

The Kuno manor was largely deserted, with the exception of the occasional servant. Kodachi was tended very carefully; Kuno was not pleased to find out what had happened to the gymnast while she was sedated.

Ranma focused his will briefly, using a few complex magics to render himself unseen before crossing the yard and vaulting the distance up to a balcony where he could dimly sense something that _should_ have been...

He unlatched the sliding glass door, pausing before entering to observe Kodachi. She was dressed in a simple white gown, hugging herself and rocking slowly back and forth while staring at a white bassinet placed on the opposite side of the room. Ranma glanced between the two before turning back to Kodachi, to consider.

Her mind was a drug-glazed morass of confused thoughts, twisting about helter-skelter... but behind that was a vulnerable, sane core. Leaning forward, while she couldn't see him, he peered into her eyes. A slight glaze coated them, hiding whatever intelligence lay within.

Standing up straight, Ranma placed a hand on his chin and thought for a moment. Nodding abruptly, he closed his eyes, and cast out with his senses. If he helped heal her mind, then there would be a bond between them, and he could claim the fourth daughter with her permission. He was hesitant to claim the child without her approval, remembering Akari's reaction...

Kodachi's mind was a twisted maze of pathways, veering in sharply illogical courses on seemingly random vectors. There was a knot at the center, a convoluted, complex, and misshapen bundle of ideas and fantasy wrapped around a grain of reality.

He studied the knot intently. While Kodachi may not have been the most normal person that Ranma had ever known, he doubted that she was truly insane. Studying more closely, he could see that the single grain of truth simply wasn't enough, to her. She needed to see more of it, and with the chemicals coursing through her body, wouldn't be able to.

Focusing for a moment, Ranma set about gently reinforcing the pathways through her mind, while lessening the influence of the drugs on her. He stepped back for a moment, studying the pathways again. Provided she wanted to, she could heal herself, now.

Using his power, he gently nudged her. Maybe it would only be a temporary fix, but she would be able to see things more clearly for the time being. The pathways began to slowly drift apart, strands of fantasy breaking to give the threads of truth room to expand.

Returning himself to his own mind, Ranma studied his handiwork. The glaze was slowly fading from Kodachi's eyes, to be replaced with a confused and scrutinizing look.

Ranma grinned, and released the spells holding his invisibility about him. Kodachi's eyes snapped to him instantly, as she looked him up and down then gave a weak nod. "What..." she coughed to clear her throat. "What have you done to me?"

He ignored the accusation and fear in her gaze, and instead turned to look at the sleeping child in its bassinet. "Your daughter, then?"

She nodded, not turning, and guessing he could sense the gesture regardless. He did, and bent over to study the child more closely. To his eyes, the marks on her face burned brightly, shouting out her destiny. 'Fifth' and 'flesh.' He grinned, then straightened and turned to face Kodachi. "And who is the father?"

Kodachi frowned, not able to navigate the tangled web of memories. "I... don't know."

Ranma nodded once, then raised a hand, palm upwards. "I can be the child's father, then. If you're willing..." he let the offer trail off, studying Kodachi's eyes.

There was a faint glimmering of hope echoed more strongly by her aura as she nodded slowly. "You... you were the father, then?"

Ranma turned his back to her, his cloak obscuring her vision as he began to blood bond the child. "Yes... now." He opened his wrist with an errant gesture, using the edge of his cloak. The sphere of blood formed before him more quickly, almost instantly darkening to black.

He collapsed to his knees, collecting his strength before incinerating the blackened blood. "I will take my leave now. Take good care of this child. Where I go, it is too dangerous to follow."

She nodded, knowing that something too great for her to understand was transpiring before her, despite her inability to tell what. "Will you return?"

Ranma paused on the verge of the balcony, before cloaking himself in his magics. "I don't know. Maybe. When I find a way to the Home of the Wayward Spirit, perhaps."

Kodachi nodded, and Ranma disappeared from her sight.

She rose to her feet unsteadily, and tottered over to the child. "Ranma is your father..."

***

The night bore silent warnings to Ranma as he leapt from rooftop to rooftop. There was a faint tugging sensation, as though... He snapped to attention, twisting his body mid-leap, as a darkened blur flashed near him, a blade gleaming in the darkness missing him by inches and clipping the edge of his cloak.

There was a piercing metallic ringing, and a blinding flash as sparks flew from the contact.

Howling in anger, he somersaulted in midair, and grabbed his cloak to him, glowering at the darkened blur as it bounded towards him.

The blade sped towards him again, too swiftly to be clearly seen -- then there was a brief burst of light as the blade was caught between Ranma's clapped hands. The pigtailed boy seethed, "What do you think you are doing?"

Tofu dropped the edge of his own cloak, then stepped back, confused. "Ranma? I thought you were..."

Ranma twisted the Makaze out of Tofu's grip, spinning the blade and grabbing it out of the air. "Mistake or otherwise, I advise you to be more cautious in the future, Sir Ono."

The doctor blinked at that, looking irate. "You don't need to call me 'Sir Ono,' Ranma."

Ranma negligently dropped the sword to the roof below him, ignoring it as it pierced a tile and stuck upright. "Perhaps. You didn't seem to mind last time. You haven't answered my question. What are you doing?"

Tofu stepped forward and wrenched his blade free of the roof tiles, noting the muffled 'crack' as one of them split. "I sensed blood and destruction. It follows you like a curse. I thought you were one of the Legendary."

Ranma raised an eyebrow, rubbing the slowly closing nick in his cloak absently. "'Legendary'? What are they, Sir Ono?"

Tofu shifted his stance moodily. "Ranma..." he began in a low tone. "You cost us our child. Why should I tell you anything?"

The pigtailed dragon-kin dropped the edge of his cloak and frowned at Tofu. "Because if I hadn't, she would have died anyway."

The doctor said nothing for a long moment, then nodded, looking away. "As a warrior, I can accept that... perhaps even as a doctor. But..." He swiveled his attention to Ranma, narrowing his eyes thoughtfully. "What do you know of the disappearances?"

Ranma frowned, studying the sky intently. "Not sure. They're at the Home of the Wayward Spirit. There's a way to bring them back... somehow. I'll find it."

A slight metallic rasping sounded, as Tofu sheathed his sword. He nodded with a satisfied expression. "Good. If you can bring her back. What else?"

The boy stared at the roof, deep in thought. "The fourth is near... I found the fifth, but the fourth is near, somewhere... I must find her to retrieve the others. I only need to thwart one strand of destiny, Sir Ono. Just one... and then I can retrieve the others."

The doctor dropped his head, considering. "Very well... Nabiki has... a daughter. She carries the mark of the fourth. It seems like fate is on your side, Ranma... only affecting those near you. Let's... return. What will you do after you bond her?"

Ranma shrugged, already leaping away, as Tofu paced him. "One more, then to China. The last three are there, I think."

Tofu frowned at that. "Joketsuzoku. Are you certain that it's safe?"

"I know that it's not, Sir Ono." The doctor shivered at the cold tone Ranma gave him. "But tell me about these 'Legendary.'"

The pair halted two rooftops away from the Tendo dojo, as Tofu explained. "The Legendary are people who gain... names and titles. Chame and myself are not that renowned, but... I've met one or two of them. They are powerful, and most of them are very old."

Ranma nodded, staring at the twilight sky for a moment. "I see. So... who are they, and why did you think I was one of them?"

Shifting his feet uneasily, Tofu continued, "When someone has that much accumulated power and knowledge, then... well, then they carry a certain aura with them that tells anyone who can see it what they bring with them."

There was a minute of silence before Ranma responded. "So I have an aura of blood and destruction?"

Tofu dithered for a moment, then nodded. "I'm afraid so."

Ranma said nothing at first, considering it, then shrugged. "It doesn't matter. Before... before I go in, though... I, Akane..." he trailed off, a rare note of concern in his voice.

The doctor shook his head in negation. "She's... she's out looking for you, actually. She wants to talk to you."

Ranma stared at the Tendo home in silence, then sighed. "I don't think that would be a good idea. Sorry. Now, let's get this over with."

***

The room was quiet, giving Kuno cause to hesitate before he entered. His sister had been unwell the last few months, ever since it was discovered that she was... with child. Now that it was born...

He shifted his train of thought, and flipped on the switch. There was a momentary flicker as the halogen bulbs lit up, then the sterile light poured out, flooding the room in its glow. Kuno's eyes darted across the room, searching for something amiss... something out of place.

Not seeing anything immediately, he stepped into the room, glancing back and forth to look for her. The door to the balcony was partially opened, allowing the curtains to rustle in the breeze. The young man's heart caught in his throat for a moment. Kodachi was unstable, but the doctors had told him that she wouldn't put her life at risk... Walking quickly over to the bassinet, he peered in, and prodded the sheets to see if the as-yet-unnamed child lay within.

Finding the sheets to be empty, he tried to ignore the feeling of dread as it began to well up within him. He dashed towards the balcony door, jerking it open in his haste, and nearly pulling it off the railing.

There she was. Sitting in a chair, wrapped tightly in a blanket, facing the city and seemingly oblivious to him. For a moment he feared the worse, seeing her still, and unmoving, then she lowered her head, looking within the blanket wrapped around herself, and made a low cooing noise, eliciting a quiet giggle from the child.

Kuno slumped, leaning heavily against the railing in his relief, and spent a quiet minute studying his sister. The moonlight bathed her in a luminous glow, seeming to have restored something to her that was lacking over the recent months.

Kuno smiled faintly, then asked, "Are you well, sister?"

She turned to face him, mild surprise visible on her expression. "I think so. My memory... is odd. I find something missing. But I cannot say what it is. When... this child is mine?" The questioning tone gave way to a sound of wonder and awe.

The young man nodded, straightening himself to stand nearer his sister. "Yes... it is your daughter."

Kodachi pursed her lips, looking down at the child with a dignified, dubiously impressed expression. "Incredible. I... Ranma told me... that it was not his, but he could make this... our child." She looked up towards Kuno sharply, careful to keep from jostling the child. "Was that merely a fevered dream? Or did it happen?"

The kendoist blinked at that, unsure. After a moment, he admitted, "I do not know. Perhaps... perhaps. Perhaps not." <I had best ask Mrs. Saotome... she might know.>

Kodachi accepted that answer, and turned back to study the child again. "She... she's beautiful."

Kuno nodded at that, studying his sister closely. He had expected that if she were to recover, she would want to foster the child away, and only her tenuous grip on reality had prompted her to keep it. <Perhaps this is for the best, then. Mrs. Saotome says that the path to healing does not always seem like the best path to take...>

He nodded, turning to gaze at the moon along with his sister and his niece.

***

Ranma and Tofu dropped out of the night sky in the same breath, alighting on the rear porch of the Tendo home on either side of a slightly bewildered Nabiki. She jumped back in consternation, yelping, "Aaaaugh!"

Tofu winced, and rubbed the back of his head as he apologized. "Sorry about that, Nabiki. I suppose we got carried away."

Ranma nodded once curtly, his eyes studying Nabiki closely. He frowned, recognizing a tainted fringe to her aura. "Ah," he said. "So they did get you. I'm sorry about that... I would have helped, had I been told..." he trailed off, looking deeper. <She's strong... strong enough to build herself up after whatever happened to her.>

Nabiki stared at Ranma in surprise as he stepped forward, seeming to be the night made flesh until he passed into the light from the family room. Shaking her head, she assessed him closely. "Hey... I haven't seen you in a couple of months. How are you doing?" She steadfastly ignored his reference to her capture.

Ranma shrugged, absently dispelling the cloak for the time being. Tofu shifted away uncomfortably, then asked, "What is that cloak, Ranma?"

The boy raised an eyebrow, then shrugged. "The mantle of Shen-Lung. Don't worry about it." He turned his attention to Nabiki, studying her body intently. "You've had a child recently?"

Nabiki resisted the urge to flush under Ranma's scrutiny, and nodded. "Yes... Kasumi's taking care of her right now... I had just stepped out for some air." She narrowed her eyes, catching a subtle hint that Ranma's question was veiling a request. "Why do you ask?"

Ranma raised his hands palm out, in a calming gesture. Nabiki resisted the edges of the spell as it passed across her. "Calm, Nabiki. I'm simply asking..." he trailed off, noting Nabiki's resistance. "Ah. Well then..." He unfocused his gaze, and sighed, collecting himself. "I wish to blood-bond with your daughter, in pursuit of fulfilling the prophecy."

The response was instantaneous. "No way. I saw what happened to Kimiko." She shook her head emphatically. "I know I screwed up, but I already had to go through enough for my mistakes. I'm not going to give up Yuukie."

Ranma blinked at that, his mind rapidly trying to find the meaning in the name. "Not snow... Enlightenment?" he ventured.

Nabiki blinked a few times, then nodded, crossing her arms over her chest. "And you can't have her."

The pigtailed dragon-kin scowled, turning to Tofu briefly. The doctor hedged a moment, then began, "Well, Nabiki... Ranma thinks he can find a way to bring Kimiko back."

Ranma nodded, and continued, "And to do that, I need simply blood-bond the daughters. Sir Ono will be here this time, and hopefully keep it from happening again."

Tofu nodded hastily. "Yes. I... Ranma thinks that he can do it, and I believe that I can keep... whatever it was that happened from happening a second time."

Nabiki scowled and shook her head slowly, dropping her gaze to the floor to consider. "I don't know..." she wavered. She slumped suddenly. "I don't want to put my child at risk... I won her from... from a horrible -- and... I don't want to lose her."

Ranma bowed his head once, seething internally. "As you wish then. Some other way will have to be found..." He turned on his heel, prepared to leave.

The middle Tendo sister raised a hand to halt Ranma before he could step away. "Wait..." she called out weakly.

He paused, waiting for her to speak. After an intense eternity of indecision, she slumped further. "If Tofu gives his word... then... I'll allow it. He... and Kasumi shouldn't be without their child either."

Ranma suppressed a grin, and turned to Tofu. The doctor hesitated a moment before he nodded, and stated, "I swear upon my honor that I will do all that is within my power in the defense of your child, Nabiki." The girl hesitantly nodded, fumbling at the strands of magic power that bound Tofu to his word. The doctor shifted uncomfortably for a moment, then nodded. "It's been a long while since I've been bound so..." He turned to Ranma abruptly. "Let us go, then. You need to be moving again?"

Ranma nodded absently, staring towards the ceiling. He snapped his head down, peering at Nabiki as though he could see through her, then gestured towards the stairs. "If you'll lead the way?"

She shivered briefly, then turned away, marching up the short flight of stairs with Ranma and Tofu falling neatly into step behind her.

The trio halted at the entrance to the guest bedroom, prompting Ranma to raise an eyebrow. "Genma no longer stays here?" he asked.

Tofu blinked, surprised, and turned to look at Ranma more closely. After a moment, the doctor relaxed his inspection, while Nabiki studied the pair inconspicuously. Shaking his head, the elder Machin explained, "Your father, ah... explained matters to your mother, somewhat. I'm surprised you didn't see him..." He glanced at Nabiki, who just rolled her eyes. "Or he might be out drinking with Mr. Tendo."

Nabiki sighed, "Yes... why haven't you talked to your father though, Ranma?"

The boy winced, not looking up for a long moment. Hesitantly, he explained, "I... confronted Genma some... well... almost a year ago, I suppose. Maybe more... we did not part on good terms."

Tofu nodded knowingly, then gestured to Nabiki. The middle Tendo sister shook herself out of an observation-induced reverie, and opened the door to the guestroom-turned-nursery. Kasumi glanced up from within the darkened confines, sitting near a small bundled form resting in a small cradle.

She scowled when the recognized Ranma, projecting her distaste and irritation to her husband. <Tofu, why is he here?>

Tofu shifted his feet nervously, darting a glance towards Ranma before responding. <There is... a chance that we can get Kimiko back...> He realized how weak his justification was as soon as he began, and paused to reconsider.

Ranma shook his head slowly, crossing his arms over his chest. "Isn't it a little late to back out now?" He focused for the merest instant, sending out his own thoughts, overlaid with the suffering he felt he had borne losing his wife, and the driving need to retrieve her.

Kasumi frowned, trying to organize her own thoughts as Ranma's slowly faded within her mind. "How..." she began. "Do you honestly believe that you can save her?"

Ranma nodded, answering the plea in Kasumi's eyes. "I believe so."

Grudgingly, she turned to her younger sister, who had crossed her own arms, and was peering down at her sleeping daughter intently. Nabiki caught Kasumi's questioning gaze and nodded once.

Ranma suppressed a grin, and knelt before the cradle. <Two, then. And one more elsewhere... then China... soon... soon...>

Tofu wordlessly produced the Makaze from a pocket of space, and handed it to Ranma. Ranma negligently, twitched his wrist, flipping the scabbard away to catch it in his opposite hand, then lay open his wrist.

The blood pooled before him again, causing both of the women to cringe and take a half-step back. Tofu nodded approval, and accepted blade and scabbard back. After swiftly cleaning and sheathing the blade, he returned his attention to Ranma.

Ranma finished replacing the child's blood with his own, then eradicated the blackened dross of the ceremony. Slightly dizzy, Ranma shifted forms, eliciting a squeak of surprise from Nabiki.

The redhead straightened, rising to her feet. "Sorry," she explained. "Smaller form, I'm able to cheat a little on mass and blood. I'll stay this way for a day or two, until I can recover... but now, I should be leaving."

Nabiki stared slack-jawed. Ranma raised a hand, frowning for a moment, then shook her head and strode out the door. Tofu followed her, waiting until they were near the door before calling out softly. "Wait..."

Ranma paused, wearing a tired expression. "Yes, Sir Ono?"

The doctor frowned again, saying, "That's a lot of blood, Ranma... You shouldn't even be walking right now."

The girl scowled, waving a hand negligently. "Not important. I lost a lot more blood when Chame was hurt, and you had to give her some of mine." She blinked at that, thinking. "Uh-oh."

Tofu raised an eyebrow. "What?"

Ranma shook her head, dismissing the thought. "I just realized that draconian blood might upset her Machin heritage."

The doctor boggled for a minute before collecting himself. Thinking, he slowly said, "That shouldn't be a problem... if it was, it would have shown up right away... the non-Machin blood probably got filtered out and replaced after a while..." He shook his head, turning his attention elsewhere and speaking more quickly. "But you should be careful, Ranma. There's only so much of your own essence that you can suffuse into blood, and then you won't be able to bond anyone anymore."

Ranma blinked at that, raising a hand to her chest and focusing inwards. After a moment she shook her head. "No... I would be able to do that a dozen more times, if I had to... No worries there. I don't plan on bonding any more than I have to."

Tofu frowned again, staring at the floor. "Well," he began. "I hope so for your sake... but remember, as the leader of your own house..."

Ranma scowled, retrieving a pair of ivory bracelets from a pocket of space. "I seem to be missing a certain someone at the moment, hmm? A leader has to have a mate, and I don't. I'm just... I'm no one. Forget it." She turned on her heel and marched towards the door, leaving the doctor to wonder as the night swallowed her again.

She had only just left the house when rain began to fall. He shook his head, latching the entrance to the house, and trying not to think of the significance of the sudden change of weather. "Ranma... I hope you find a way to get them all back..."

***

Mere hours after Ranma left, Akane stomped into the house, bedraggled, worn, and very tired. Her search had been for naught, and left her cranky and irritable. No one she had stumbled across had been able to tell her anything of use, other than Ranma had not been seen in that area for months.

And no luck finding Ranma. Grumbling, she tossed her pack on the floor and kicked off her shoes, then trudged towards the furo. That would set things to right, a nice warm soak, and unless Nabiki had given birth a few weeks early, she would be due soon, and Akane wouldn't have to worry about --

A baby's faint cry rent the air, eliciting a groan from Akane. She changed course, deciding that seeing her new nephew or niece took slightly higher priority than bathing.

The child was in the nursery, its cries fading to a dull whimper as Akane entered. Nabiki lay sprawled on a futon near the cradle, mumbling in her sleep. Akane sighed, then gathered the infant in her arms and studied it closely. She smiled crookedly, then bundled it in a few blankets and crept out of the room.

Making a quiet 'tsk'ing noise, she slid the door shut with one foot, and continued on down the stairs. She paused at the foot of the stairs, making a questioning noise. The child gave a giggle, responding on its own with a weak mental image.

Stunned, Akane barely resisted the urge to drop the child. "Woah..." she muttered. "That's something!" She shifted the girl in her arms, then strode into the kitchen. "I know you'd like it, but I'm not a real mother, so we'll have to settle for getting some milk from the fridge."

The baby made a face at that, then gurgled noisily. Akane laughed quietly. "Just like your mom, aren't you, kid?"

Clicking her tongue, she opened the refrigerator, and fumbled through the carefully organized contents for a moment before producing a bottle. And fumbled the refrigerator shut. Once done, she eyed the stove, the cupboard where the pots were kept, and the baby in her arms.

Rolling her eyes, she threw the bottle in the air, mumbling, "The hell with tradition."

She focused momentarily, and the bottle hung in the air, suspended by thin threads of magic energy, and slowly absorbing the ambient heat.

The child made another giggle at that, prompting Akane to lose her concentration. Her free hand shot upwards and snatched the bottle out of the air by reflex, as she studied the little girl in her arms. "You know..." she commented. "If I didn't know any better, I'd say you were able to see what I was doing there."

Shaking her head, she walked to the back porch, activating a spell to trap the warm air of the room around her and the child like a cloak, then stepped to the yard and vaulted to the roof to look at the moon. The baby giggled once around the rubber nipple of the bottle, as Akane smirked, sinking to sit in her favorite spot.

Basking in the silver radiance of the full moon, she rocked the child slightly. "Ah... Some times.... Sometimes I wonder what I fight for, you know?"

The baby made no response, simply staring up at Akane and suckling loudly.

Akane rolled her eyes, shifting to make the child more comfortable, and adjusting the air around them to retain more heat. "Anyway. I guess I do it for my family... and maybe for myself."

The child gurgled, and Akane subconsciously drew the bottle away, giving the child a few moments to breathe regularly before replacing it to let her feed again. "But then... I guess it's everyone, really. Most people fight because they _have_ to fight. I always wanted to fight, though... I guess it's only recently that I've started wanting a reason. You know what I mean?"

She glanced down at the child, as it stared back up at her blandly. "Huh... didn't know kids could even see things when they were this young. I thought for sure you would need to be older... ah. Anyway. Listen to your crazy aunt Akane. Heh. Fighting demons. It's interesting, that's for sure... but at the same time, it's kind of annoying."

Akane took the bottle away and set it on the roof next to her, where it stuck, magnet-like. "So I guess I'm fighting now, even though I don't want to fight as much... and I guess I'm fighting for you."

She peered up at the moon, concentrating on it closely, and squinting to try and make out the Sea of Tranquility. "And everyone else, really. Heh..." She looked down at the child, who was already drowsing in her arms. "Ah... I wish I didn't have to deal with these problems... you know what I mean? Every time I feel like I'm about to find Ranma, it's nothing. And I was so... Oh well."

She stood slowly, absently pocketing the empty bottle. "Let's put you back to bed, eh?"

The child made a quiet gurgling noise in agreement. Akane leapt lightly to the ground, then slipped back inside. Nabiki was sound asleep as Akane quietly returned the child to its bed, then crept back downstairs. Rubbing at her eyes, she stepped into the bathroom, stripping quickly, and soaping herself off.

"Feh. Look at me, getting all emotional..." she grumbled, scrubbing herself off. "Oh... Ranma."

She paused then, remembering, and glanced around the furo as a chill ran up her spine. <Of course,> she reflected. <This is where I really... first saw Ranma.> She snorted ruefully, then concentrated her power on a whim. The tile was not true stone, but...

There was a resonance, and Akane reached back through the memories of the tile, searching... There. She smiled to herself, and delicately wove threads of illusion through the tile, as a faint glow illuminated the room, radiating from a suffused ball of light between her hands. She nodded to herself, turning out the light with a gesture, relying instead on her magic.

Before her eyes, woven by the magics she had just wrought, Ranma's shade walked in, pausing a moment to check the 'occupied' sign. Akane shivered, then frowned. She was certain that the sign had not been present when she had walked in on Ranma, but...

Standing, and unmindful of her state, she stepped into the changing room. She studied the illusory sign intently, while Ranma's residual image scrubbed itself off. She crossed her arms over her chest, confused.

After a moment, her illusory counterpart entered, staring at the floor, and jostling the clothing hamper when it entered. Akane resisted the urge to slap herself as her shade ignored the sign falling into the clothesbasket. <Well,> she thought. <That explains a bit.> Shaking her head, she stepped through the memory of herself, as it grabbed a towel.

Stepping through the illusion of the door was unnerving, but she walked forward regardless, ignoring the lack of sensation involved.

Turning around, she watched herself enter, arriving just in time to catch Ranma rising from the bathtub.

Akane's eyebrows rose, as she glanced between her illusory self, and the memory of Ranma. For a long moment, they regarded each other in silence, unblinking. Ranma's wide-eyed gaze betrayed a hint of concern, gluing themselves firmly on a point above and to the right of the illusory Akane's shoulder.

She fought back a blush, noting that her illusory self stared at Ranma, lingering for an unnerving length of time on the lower portions of his anatomy, while Ranma's gaze remained blank and unwavering. <Oh, gods... he tried not to even look at me...> She flushed darkly, realizing that she had joined her illusory counterpart in its observations, and dispelled the illusions. Two whole uninterrupted minutes of staring was more than enough. Someone could walk in and catch her...

Fighting down a shiver, she slipped into the furo, wishing her blush would fade. "Oh... gods," she whispered. "I'm a pervert." After a moment, she giggled at the thought, then shook her head, leaning back into the luxuriating heat of the bath. "Oh... if Ranma knew what I just did I'd never hear the end of it..."

Yawning, she let herself drift to sleep in the furo, where she dreamed.

***

Ranma huddled in on herself, fighting off a strange chill, and the prickling sensation that normally preceded a scrying attempt... but she could sense no scrying directed at her.

Sighing, she reached into a pocket of space, and produced some camping equipment. Unbidden, the thought of Ukyou came back to her, and she retrieved the pair of silver bracelets a moment before pocketing them again. "I'll find you, Ukyou... I swear it." Pausing to drink some water, she hesitated a moment, then swallowed a handful of iron tablets.

She grimaced at the taste, and chased it away with another mouthful of water, then stowed her canteen and the large bottle of pills.

Crawling into her bedroll, she let herself drift into true sleep, her draconian heritage already working on replenishing her blood supply. And she dreamed.

***

On a palette on the floor of her study, where she had stumbled once exhaustion overtook her, Shampoo knuckled back a yawn, trying to ignore the stack of books that she had read through, and the slight headache that assimilating all of that knowledge had given her.

Shifting slightly, she pulled the thick fur that served as her blanket tighter about herself, noting an odd and worrisome chill. She concentrated on ignoring it, focusing instead of the problems ahead of her. And Ranma. Especially Ranma.

She drifted into sleep, and dreamed.

***

On the fringe of the Horizon of Eternity, in a vast house on the edge of the void, another slept, unable to wake yet, and trapped in her own dream.

Still with physical form, she tossed slightly, a fall of chestnut hair concealing her face falling away to reveal the slumbering Ukyou.

And she dreamed.

***

At a crossroads in China, the Band of the Dead were camped out, all of them asleep, with one exception. Their master -- the Lord of the Roads -- brooded over the waning fire, and looked up at the moon, smiling slightly.

A crossroads, at midnight, with a full moon. It was enough.

And he did not dream, but met with another regardless.

***

Three sisters stood before the Lord of the Roads, each of the trinity displaying their displeasure at being called.

"Clotho," he said, indicating the youngest.

She frowned and nodded, responding, "Mahki."

He flinched at that, but turned to the next woman, naming her, "Lachesis."

The matronly woman swept a brief curtsy towards him, calling back, "Wanderer."

The master of the Band of the Dead gave an imperceptible nod, and turned towards the eldest of the trio. "Atropos..." he whispered, scrutinizing her.

The crone smirked, then cackled, "The Lord of the Roads."

In the distance, a bell tolled once. He hid a small smile at that. "I hope to command a boon from thee."

Clotho raised an eyebrow. "You summon us here as though the Fates were tools to respond to your bidding? I think you forget your place, Son of the Thousand-"

Atropos cut her off, snapping, "Do not invoke that one. Enough trouble with that one going back and creating circles as it is. Drawing its attention here would cause even us an inconvenience."

The Lord of the Roads nodded at that. "Indeed. And a perfect circle is nearly done. It is an old one. Soon... I believe that it may be broken."

Lachesis nodded, eyeing him suspiciously. "And what will you do then? Will you merely follow in that one's footsteps?"

He snorted, shaking his head, and spreading his palms. "No... I am merely one of the Legendary, I am not one to challenge the Fates."

Atropos clicked her tongue, waggling a finger at him admonishingly. "But you challenge Fate, do you not?"

Smirking, he crossed his arms and nodded. "Indeed I do... but I know better than to risk the ire of three lovely sisters such as thyself..." he let the comment trail off, winking at Clotho suggestively.

The youngest of the Fates raised an eyebrow, intrigued. "And the others?" she asked. "What would you offer them?"

He snorted, shaking his head again. "I offer thee nothing... yet. But I understand thou like trinities. I myself prefer duality... but there is something thou might be able to help me with. Thou, as the Fates, have that power."

Lachesis sighed, rubbing here forehead. "Children are always wanting something, and always for their benefit, Wanderer. What would you give us that _we_ would desire?"

Clotho licked her lips suggestively, commenting, "Aside from the earthy pleasures, that is."

"Those I do not give." He shook his head abruptly. "Enough foolishness. I will show thee."

And with that, he grasped strands of dream and wove them together, while the Fates watched.

***

Akane dreamt.

There was a child crying in the distance, calling out for reassurance that it was not alone. If she didn't hurry, the child would be in peril. She looked around, trying to see where she was. A corridor that stretched into the distance, wide enough for three people to walk abreast, with a door every twelve meters.

She glanced at the rough-hewn gray stone walls, then paced forward, trying to zero in on the child's cries.

Her own footsteps echoed loudly, threatening to drown out the slowly lessening wail.

***

Shampoo dreamt.

She perched atop her great-grandmother's house, peering over the edge and into the village below her. A great sea of darkness had flooded everything, as far as she could see, with writhing tendrils of blackness lapping at the lower edges of the roof.

She shivered, as the darkness parted below her momentarily, revealing a pair of villagers, blindly fumbling through the darkness.

Resisting the urge to cry out, she wiped away a tear. Her dream-self's memories told her that it was too late to save the villagers, even though she was not certain why...

A shape broached the darkness, shrouded in dank cloth, blacker by far than the swirling tendrils below her.

Taint. It was the Taint of the Outsider, and it was corrupting someone. Someone who sought justice, but was twisted by the force of corruption.

She shivered, as a flash of blackened moonlight-turned-blade cleft the villagers below her in twain, and the corrupted one looked up. The blackness receded, revealing an all-too-familiar face.

Ranma.

***

Ukyou dreamt.

Ukyou dreamt that she was asleep, confined into a restfulness that would destroy her -- slowly but surely.

She watched her body from above, agonized at her failure to wake, and knowing that she had to, her child needed her. But she couldn't wake, and the child would sleep if she couldn't wake, and...

***

Ranma dreamt.

Ranma hadn't dreamed in longer than she could remember. She stared around her as she floated above a featureless expanse of gray, too uniform to gauge her altitude.

She spun slowly, floating in place, then noted odd streamers of cloth floating about her.

Looking down, she saw short ribbons secured at her knees and elbows, and longer ribbons about her ankles and wrists. She raised a hand, noting the streaming trail of cloth as it fluttered about, seemingly supported in a draft that did not touch her. A similar ribbon was secured about her waist, and another about her head. She darted forward suddenly, _feeling_ the material as though it were an extension of herself, _tasting_ the wind as she rushed forward, the trailing edges snapping sharply in her wake.

Coming to a sudden halt, she raised a hand again, seeing the cloth swirl about as though agitated before settling to float loosely near her.

She laughed, marveling at the freedom of her reality in the dreamscape, recognizing it as such. She glanced down at herself again, curious, and looked at her clothing. She was wearing an austere white robe, of some filmy yet modest material. Frowning, she ran a hand across it and wondered at its relevance...

***

The Fates watched intently as the Lord of the Roads grasped the strands of dream. "Ahh... the folly of innocence." He spoke softly as he wove the strands. "Do you see then how this would bind them? What it would do to him? How it would shape the circle he attempted to build?"

Lachesis nodded her appreciation, while Atropos and Clotho studied the weave intently.

The Lord of the Roads smiled broadly. "And then we knot them together, like so." With that, he twisted the woven strands into a convoluted knot, complex in its weave.

Atropos smiled at the sight. "No need for cutting, tied like that... very clever, Lord of the Roads."

Clotho frowned, shaking her head. "Oh, Mahki, you see that that's not going to work! Why, in order for it to be feasible..." she trailed off suddenly, studying the knot, then smiled. "Perhaps it would work, then. Do you think it can?"

He nodded, staring directly at Lachesis.

The mother nodded in return. "Agreed, then. You owe us, Wanderer."

"What do I owe thee?" he asked guardedly.

Atropos grinned toothily, waggling a finger. "We will take our price from... him." She pronounced, indicating the strand of Ranma's dream. "And our price will not be so terrible. Yes."

The Lord of the Road considered, scowling. "He is too important to be changed, Crone... thou know this."

Clotho smirked, putting her hands at her hips. "Too late, Mahki. We are decided."

Lachesis nodded in agreement. "And that thread can be removed without disturbing the trinity we love so."

He opened his mouth to complain, but it was too late. A bell tolled twice in the distance, and they were gone.

***

Akane started, as the walls about her shifted, no longer stone, but instead pale, creamy green shoji. The child's cries were no longer audible, but something told her that they were all the more urgent for it.

Quickening her pace, she cast out with her senses, searching.

***

Shampoo rolled backwards in alarm, as the rooftop below her melted into a wooden floor, and the night stretched and twisted into walls about her. Hearing footsteps in the distance, she climbed to her feet, looking about warily.

The Machin Book of Knowledge appeared in her hand, ready to serve as a shield if needed.

***

Ukyou spun, hearing footsteps and sensing an unfamiliar presence around her. She could still not make herself wake, but she drifted away from her body anyway.

If she could find someone else, then maybe she would be able to save the child, at least. She whispered, wondering if anyone would hear, "Megumi..."

***

Ranma's eyes widened as she shifted suddenly, and her accoutrements shifted with her. His robe became course and black, rough against his skin, while the freedom providing ribbons became weighty lengths of chain, no longer providing freedom, but jerking him about like a marionette.

The gray featureless expanse below him melted away into blackness, and he felt a twinge of panic as the chains suddenly tightened, holding him prone.

There was the noise of growling behind him, and luminous yellow eyes began to iris open all around him. Hundreds, maybe even thousands of them.

They were cats' eyes.

He began to scream.

--------------

Author's notes:

Man, that took me for_ever_ to write.

Shikakejirai means, simply enough, 'booby trap.'


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