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The Unbroken Circle: Chapter ten

Shikakejirai

Part C

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

What has gone before:

In the depths of the Gloaming, the border between the Dreamlands and the Kami plane, Ranma was held prisoner by a Concept -- the Concept of Fear. Akane and Shampoo were able to free him, and Ranma finally dropped the Ascension, allowing the full impact of his deeds to affect his once-again human conscience. After Ranma agreed to find the sixth daughter before going to China, Ranma and Chame traveled to visit Tanaka Sana...

 

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

 

Danger.

Ranma wanted to put their daughter in greater danger than she was already.

Sana shook her head slowly, considering his words. "Ranma," she said slowly, her eyes unable to meet his, "I don't... I don't want to endanger Kazue more than she already is."

Bowing his head, Ranma nodded, a sickly pain masked by a very real -- if faint -- relief. "It's... it's better this way, then." He sighed, turning towards his companion. "What now?"

Chame frowned, looking from the child to Ranma. "She... bears the sign. There can be no others. If not her..." She sighed, spreading her hands in a helpless gesture.

The pigtailed boy shrugged, ruffling Chame's red hair in a subconscious gesture. "There will be another way. I'm certain of it."

Nodding uneasily, Chame smoothed her hair back out, while Sana watched them bemusedly, still clutching her daughter.

Ryu frowned, crossing his arms over his chest. "Wait," he said, his expression darkening. "Things... things are already pretty bad for us. I, for one, know that we never would have gotten this far without your help. What... how much more of a risk would it put her through? I mean... can you do anything to counter that risk?"

Ranma winced at the honest hope and worry that Ryu projected. "Not... I..." he trailed off, regarding Chame thoughtfully.

The girl stared at Ranma coolly, then looked away, a frown tugging at the corners of her mouth. "I can't stay here either, Ranma."

Sighing, he turned back to Ryu, shaking his head sadly. "Sorry... I cannot stay here, and neither can she."

The man seemed hesitant, then turned a pleading gaze to Sana. "I don't... Sana and I need whatever help we can get. That's..." he trailed off, scratching the back of his head nervously. "Er... Kazue is not in a good position as it is -- there's a good chance that if something goes wrong the way things are..." he trailed off again, leaving the rest of his message unspoken.

Ranma struggled, seemingly unable to say what he wanted.

Finding his voice again, Ryu explained, "I think... Sana... I think it's better than nothing. I want Kazue to have every chance that she can, so..."

Ranma nodded, still saying nothing.

Taking a deep breath, Ryu turned to regard Sana. "I get the feeling that... one way or another, we have to do this, Sana. We have to do this, or things will just get worse for us."

Sana slumped visibly, managing a weak nod. "I know," she whispered hoarsely, "I know, but... I'm afraid."

Nodding knowingly, Ranma stated, "It's one thing to be afraid... it's another thing entirely to face that fear."

Sana sighed, blinking away moisture in her eyes. "If... if it must be, it must be..."

Ranma placed a hand gently on Sana's shoulder, nodding his understanding. "I will be brief, then. Once it is done..." he trailed off.

***

Chame paced next to Ranma as the pair walked together, enjoying the leisurely pace that they rarely took the time to enjoy of late. The redhead turned towards her taller companion, regarding him seriously. "Ranma?"

He blinked, seemingly distracted. "Hmm? Yes?"

"I'm sorry."

"What for?"

The Machin woman sighed, rubbing at her temples wearily. "Everything," she admitted. "If it weren't for me, then you wouldn't be in this mess... you would... well, who knows... but this... mess... never would have happened."

Ranma shrugged, looking towards the horizon. "Maybe. Maybe not. Something would happen regardless. Maybe something worse. Maybe something not as bad. But this is what happened, and I'm not about to let it go any further... it's not like you _meant_ for everything to go wrong."

Chame nodded, looking away. "Where... where are we going next?"

The boy shrugged again, twirling Chame's staff once before handing it to her. "I'm going to China. I don't know for certain, but I expect that there are things that you have to take care of yourself, right?"

Scowling, Chame accepted her staff, coming to a halt on the road. "Be careful. I know I can't stop you, and you already know it's a trap, but..."

Ranma waved a hand dismissively. "What will be, will be. I know that I _must_ be there. You've said yourself that it's inevitable. So let's be going."

The woman said nothing, falling into step behind him, though her scowl let him know her feelings on the subject.

***

"So."

He glanced over towards the woman at the sound, before turning back to the harbor below him. "Sasebo."

"Yes..." she muttered. "I know that you're going, and I can't stop you."

"Feh. I've been saying that all along. It's about time."

The woman stomped her foot once, frowning darkly at the boy. "Ranma," she said warningly, "listen to me. Please."

He lowered his head and sighed. "Right. What?"

"I will do what I can to stop their trap without falling into it. I won't leave this island. Not yet. I sense there's another task I must do, and another person I must warn. But I will aid you the best I can."

He said nothing for a long moment, simply staring at the ships in the harbor, then nodded once. "Thank you."

Chame bit her lip, holding in some emotion of her own. "Good luck, Ranma..."

He smirked to himself as she turned to leave, whispering, "I'm going to need it." Wrapping himself in invisibility once more, he strode towards a pier, and the ship waiting at the end of it.

***

Chame knelt in the center of her tower, an ancient stone room containing her most valued possessions. "A ring of jade," she whispered, taking up an aged jade loop marked with her father and mother's names. She ran a thumb over the Machin symbols, not reading them, and placed it in the center of an earthen bowl.

"This, my naming ring..." she continued, gathering her power about her, amplified by the rising moon. "I give, and more, to pledge my ward's safety. Father..." she trailed off, swallowing. "Father, if you can hear me, help him. Do not make him stand alone."

With that, she began channeling her power out in a spiral, focused inwards on the ring, willing it to be so. "Rule to Ruin, make this wish so," she incanted in a clipped tone. "Find and protect him, by this sacrifice are you bound."

There was a muffled -- yet to Chame, heart-wrenching -- crack, and the jade ring crumbled into fragments, the mystical energy seeming to nearly flee her of its own accord and speed away, westward.

And then she _was_ the magic, part of the spell, flying westward on wings of force, the landscape of Japan flashing beneath her briefly before the sea, and then the earth again, headed towards the trap that Ranma was planning on triggering.

A moment of pause -- no more -- as she passed over him, and he looked upwards, meeting her presence briefly before she fled. No chances. She had promised she would do what she could, and this would be part of it.

And there, the wards in question, completed, easily enough to contain her, or Ranma, or anyone else she knew, save possibly Tofu. A perfect trap, three concentric circles of wards, and one that wouldn't be seen until it was too late.

Gathering herself for one last burst of will, she screamed, not with her voice, but with her powers, throwing herself into the spell as forcefully as she could.

And dimly, she was aware of something rupturing, and a spell sundering, and a trickle of wetness from her body, and immense tiredness... and then nothing.

***

In China, roughly near the border of Xinjiang and Qinghai, the Lord of the Roads raised his head, his eyes looking eastward. "Come, students," he announced, taking to the road, with the four trailing him closely. "There is something we cannot afford to miss, here."

"What is it?"

"You shall see." He studied the massive surge of magic, as it descended to earth, striking a point beyond his sight, but not his senses. "Ah," his voice dropped to a whisper, "Chame. There you are. Now where is Ileya... So close... so very close." He flinched at something, then dropped his hands to his sides. "I must away. You will find me shortly."

With that, he sped away, dropping into the Breath of the Earth, and then something more, that they did not recognize, streaking along more quickly than the student's eyes could make out.

The students stared at each other blankly for only the merest of moments before following.

***

Cologne surveyed the wards, the weeks of preparation undone overnight, in a nearly cataclysmic surge of magic, disrupting everything but causing no damage to her people.

Shampoo, on the other hand, was amused to no end, simply remarking that it was to be expected, were Cologne to continue on her existing course. Cologne hadn't wanted to hear more of that -- she _would_ win, there was no question about that.

It was just a setback in terms of how quickly. "People!" she barked out, hobbling towards one ruined furrow of earth. "We will not let this stop us. Now we must hurry and replace the wards before he arrives!"

***

Ranma stood on the verge of the earthen field, the sun rising at his back, causing him to cast a long shadow that reached -- almost -- to the houses on the fringe of the village.

His eyes narrowed, an ancestral hate welling up in his blood and barely kept in check. In his shadow, perched atop her staff and surrounded by Amazon warriors, was Cologne. The boy narrowed his eyes further, mere blue slits projecting nearly glacial coldness and inevitability, backed by the faint luminous glow of his heritage.

It was a trap.

He knew it, with every fiber of his being. Every word Chame had spoken to him on the subject of China was a warning that it was a trap. Every premonition and dream since he had gotten the letter from Cologne.

But the time for caring was long since past for him.

He strode forward, his shoes making shallow indentations in the soft, fertile soil, recently dug up.

It was betrayal. And more, it was destiny.

***

Shampoo sat in her house. Cell. Prison.

Too many words to describe the place that she lived, none of them right.

The word she had always wanted for her abode was 'home,' because home meant a loving family, that which she felt she had been denied. True, Cologne did care in her way, but the ancestral hate had destroyed any kinship that Shampoo felt with her great-grandmother.

It wasn't merely that Cologne had sought to ensnare Ranma -- and succeeded -- it was the reasons she had for trying.

Shampoo might have understood had it been for honor, or for family, and she could have understood completely, had it been for life... But it hadn't been for any of those things. It had been for blood. Vengeance. To add to the bloody toll in an already long and pointless war.

She raised her head to the sky, hearing the distant laborers rushing to complete the trap that Ranma was walking into even then. A stray beam of sunlight seeped in through a crack near the crude wooden door... the unlocked door.

***

The amazons near Cologne spread out, encompassing Ranma in a circle, while the old woman merely stepped away, chortling to herself.

Ranma lowered his head, closing his eyes, and spread his arms out, feeling with all of his senses the surroundings. The thirsty soil beneath his feet, its rich loam waiting to nourish life, the clean air, longing to caress the delicate fronds of budding life.

And further, moving warily, their own minds in rough symmetry, the enemy.

The Machin blood in his veins cried out its hatred, and its thirst for vengeance. He opened his eyes slowly, the full glow warning all who knew of it how dangerous he was, and how willing he was to make the battle a final one.

The warriors stepped back in alarm as the full ascension gripped him again, the familiar burning pain encompassing him as his being was... shifted... to accommodate the power he would bear. Then he threw back his head, and screamed, crying out his rage.

***

On the opposite side of the small village, warrior and husband labored alike. There was an urgency to their plan, a need to finish the ward. A giant iron ring buried beneath the perimeter of their village, nearly a half-mile across, and each millimeter of it precisely inscribed with ancient runes and symbols. Cologne and the other elders had worked many long sleepless nights to discover which symbols would be needed, and where... but it was done.

The workers hurriedly beat the crude iron in a rough formation, braiding three giant strands. With the aid of another of their artifacts, iron becoming soft as clay. Merely another foot of the ring to finish inscribing, and the seal would be complete.

Merely another foot, fresh iron being added to the construct and kneaded into place, then to be engraved, and braided.

***

Shampoo's breath caught, as she reached one hand toward the door. Convention. Her society's rules. She was a prisoner, but there were no guards, no locks, and no barriers...

Could she throw that aside to try and help Ranma?

She knew she could, it was a simple matter... just open the door, walk forward, and leave.

She held her breath, bringing her clasped hands to her chest, and squeezing her eyes shut as a tear trickled out. Opening a door was a simple enough thing, but breaking her people's laws?

Heaving an unsteady breath, she put a hand to the latch of the door.

She could. And she would, because without her, Ranma would be alone, and he deserved better. His people did. And she owed him.

***

High atop a nearby mountain range, a tall figure looked down, his angry gaze taking all of it in and watching, even as the four disciples behind him observed, keeping their tongues in check.

"This," he said after a moment, watching the ebb and flow of raw power focus on the boy, "marks the beginning, students. Watch well."

One of them asked hesitantly, in an aged and tired voice, "Is this 'Crown'?"

He did not spare a backward glance. "No. This is merely a failure."

A deep bass rumbled, "Who is failing?"

The figure spun, facing his students, his eyes playing across them for a moment before turned to watch the scene below him again. "Everyone."

***

And through his eyes, hundreds of miles away on an island in the Ryukyu chain, a woman with scarlet hair hissed slowly with hatred, seeing the same scene repeated.

***

The first attacker. Ranma eyed her casually, standing in a loose stance as she rushed at him, perhaps thinking he was unable to defend himself.

His hand swam forward lazily, still faster than she could see, fingers stabbing towards her sternum. At the last second before striking her, with his head tilting to one side to dodge her punch, his fingers snapped upward in the classic 'Buddha's palm strike.' The blow rocked through her body, cracking her ribcage and hurling her back past the ring of defenders to plow up a giant trough of soft earth.

He sneered at them, as they collectively reassessed his strength, and Cologne froze, staring at the now-prone warrior in shock. Her eyes found Ranma's, and the old woman swallowed, wondering what she had gotten herself into.

The boy's only reaction was to shake his head sadly, and wait. Destiny said he had to be here. Something was going to happen, and it was required for him to have any chance to reclaim the Daughters.

***

Cologne hobbled away at her top speed, rushing towards the crowd of workers and elders as they hurried to complete the ward, now on its last few inches.

In her haste, she missed her great-granddaughter emerging from the house they had once shared, and was now Shampoo's exclusively. The violet-haired Scholar watched Cologne's run, then frowned, turning the opposite way and running towards the warriors and their intended victim.

***

Seeing one of their number removed from the battle so easily, and their leader gone, the amazons changed tactics, rushing Ranma as one.

He smiled, leaping over the rushing crowd and landing in the soft soil easily, his cloak deflecting their weapons. "{Do you think you can harm me?}" he mocked. "{I doubt such inconsequential fighters as yourselves can handle me."}

The lead Amazon, a warrior at the age of twenty-four snarled at the collective potential-husband, "{What man has a right to speak to a warrior in such a manner?}"

Ranma stared at her quizzically, puzzled by her reaction. "{What, so it's only permissible for women to speak their minds? I'll have you know, you cannot hope to face me with my power.}"

A group of five broke off from the body of fighters, rushing him as a single unit while the others prepared to reinforce them.

Then the battle was truly on, with the warriors holding nothing back, their fists and maces mere blurs of motion, which Ranma almost negligently deflected, remaining silent. He would win this fight. He knew it.

***

Absently tossing a pair of workers out of the way, Cologne leapt into the trench where the ward was being constructed, picking up where they had left off and continuing their work with renewed vigor. She easily surpassed any two of them in her speed.

Only a few inches before it was complete.

***

Another mace came hurtling towards his head, with easily enough force to crush a man's skull, and he deflected it, hissing when his powers began to ebb, and his knuckles bruised from the blow.

Sensing that their victory was near, the Amazons darted away, letting a fresher group attack the tiring boy.

Snarling, he deflected a sword-point to the ribs, catching a mace on his shoulder in exchange. The women picked up their pace, as a bolt of worry shot through Ranma. The Ascension was slipping from his grasp.

He spun swiftly, his cloak flaring outward and buffeting the women back before the cloak faded away, leaving him tired and confused. "No..." he muttered, gathering a ball of flame in one hand and causing the warriors to step away in fear again.

***

Cologne cackled in glee to herself, moving to the next unfinished strand. It would be perfect. Only two more strands to go, and then, the most dangerous of Ranma's powers should be sealed away from him.

***

Ranma swept the flame outwards around him in a circle, pausing for a moment to shift forms. In her female form again, Ranma grinned viciously, knowing that she would be faster than the attackers even if her magic failed her.

A barrier of force deflected only a single stone before it cracked, leaving Ranma to gape in abject confusion as her magic, too, left her.

Snarling a cry of absolute fury, Ranma summoned her ki, letting it settle into her bones and augment her own strengths further, as she danced among her attackers.

What was going on?

***

Cologne sweated nervously, her hands trembling with strain as she used the speed that the chestnut fist had endowed her with to complete the final, unfinished ward. Soon, and then it would be complete. Their circle of braided iron would bind Ranma to them.

***

Ranma darted between the women, dodging their attacks, and attempting to return blows, but ultimately taking more damage than she was dealing. Another glancing blow to the ribs forced her to dance back, leading them in a short chase.

It was also a few moments of precious time for Ranma to think. The last thing she wanted to do was kill, but her options were growing fewer with every second.

Changing her course, she dashed away from the village, towards the wooded area outside the wide expanse of dirt.

She leapt over another warrior, slamming into a solid, invisible barrier, rattling her teeth with the force before she fell to the ground. Groaning, she regained her feet, while the assorted warriors cheered loudly, thinking that they had won.

Ranma scowled, tapping into the blood-borne hatred that all Machin carried. She would not lose to them, and certainly not like this... but her power was gone. What else could she do?

Then she remembered.

***

And on the edge of the plane that the gods call home, beyond the Gloaming, a beautiful, statuesque lady with midnight hair and snow-white skin smiled softly, calling gently across the distance, "Welcome back, Small One. I have missed you."

***

Blood. Danger.

Attack.

Death.

Death.

Death.

Death...

 

 

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

Author's Notes:

06/16/01

Later than I can even remember.

Since I'm getting out of my slump, and getting back to writing what I enjoy, expect more, hopefully with slightly less delay.


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