[FFML] [R1/2] Hearts of Ice, 26/26

Krista Fisk kristaperry at comcast.net
Sun May 31 23:22:59 PDT 2009


Well, here's hoping this part doesn't suffer from the weird formatting 
the last part suffered from. C&C is welcome and appreciated.

The characters of the Ranma 1/2 universe are the creation and possession 
of the brilliant Rumiko Takahashi.

--------------------------------
Hearts of Ice
Part 26: Phoenix, Part III
by Krista Fisk
--------------------------------



Ranma was in Hell. And he felt pretty good about it.

Admittedly, the only reason he felt good about it was because he had no 
intention of staying. It wasn't exactly the kind of place he wanted to 
spend more than, say, twenty minutes in. Half an hour tops. And not 
because he was scared. Nope. Wasn't scared. Not a bit.

Okay, so the river that brought him here, before forcefully expelling 
him onto the river bank in a violent scarlet geyser, flowed with thick, 
clotting blood rather than water. He'd managed to wipe most of it from 
his face and wring it from his hair and sluice it from his clothes, but 
he still felt pretty gross, and on top of that, the smell was 
nauseating. As for the rest of the scenery, the sky was a starless void 
from which emanated a faint but constant screaming. The bank of the 
river was choked with gnarled, thorny briars and leafless black trees. 
And just beyond the trees, an endless stretch of wasteland.

Then, of course, there were all the dead people.

As far as Ranma could tell, there were two types of dead people in Hell 
that he had observed so far. First, there were the dead people who came 
out of the river. Covered in so much blood it was sometimes hard to tell 
if they were male or female, they were dragged unwillingly out of the 
river by black meter-long chains emerging from their wrists and feet. 
They were pulled screaming and weeping and moaning, tugged along by the 
living chains like demented marionettes being forced to dance by some 
invisible puppet master, through the black brambles and out into the 
wasteland.

Okay, he thought. So maybe that was a *little* unnerving. What did a guy 
do in life to end up like *that*? Not really sure he wanted to know.

Then there were the other ghosts. The kind he'd always heard about in 
ghost stories and saw in bad horror movies. Draped in white, skin pale 
like bleached bone, disheveled black hair, dark eyes wide and rolling 
madly, drifting aimlessly over the ground because they had no feet.

But when it came down to it, Ranma wasn't the kind of guy who got all 
shook up over creepy landscapes and moaning ghosts. He'd played video 
games that were scarier than this place. And he'd *been* a nasty-looking 
ghost himself just a little while ago, and quite frankly, he put quite a 
few of these other guys to shame.

Now all he had to do was get one of these fellow dead guys to help him out.

He decided to leave the bloody puppet guys alone. All of them were too 
busy screaming and fighting to really talk to anyway, and he was pretty 
sure he wouldn't be able to get a coherent answer out of them. So he 
walked up to one of the pale ghosts that was hunching over, drifting 
through the dead black trees.

"Hey," he said, "uh... how are ya?"

The ghost turned toward him, and he was irritated to see that the 
ghost's face was hidden by long, tangled black hair. But at least he 
seemed to have its attention. "I'm kinda new here," he said, plowing on 
in spite of the surreal absurdity of the situation. In Hell, talking to 
a ghost, asking for directions. "I'm looking for Emma-O, and I'm in 
hurry. Can you, uh, tell me which way I should go or something?"

The ghost raised its head -- Ranma still couldn't tell if it was a guy 
or a girl -- and the hair parted to reveal one bulging eye. Its mouth 
opened and a long, pointed purple tongue unfurled and fell to the 
ghost's waist. "Gnaaaaaaaah..." it said.

Ranma backed up slowly. "Okay..." he said, "I'm guessing that's a 'no.'" 
He glanced around, looking at other pale ghosts drifting by, and 
wondered if they all had long dangling tongues that made speaking a 
problem. If so, this was going to suck. He didn't want to head out into 
Hell's wilderness without knowing how to get to the big guy in charge 
and end up going in the wrong direction. He didn't have time to waste 
getting lost. He needed to find Emma-O and convince the god to bring him 
back to life so he could get back to Akane as soon as possible.

"I don't suppose you could at least point me in the general direction?" 
he tried again. The ghost responded by raising its hands and going for 
his neck. "Whoa!" Ranma grabbed the ghost's hands, suddenly really 
wishing he knew if this ghost was a guy or a girl. If it was a guy, it 
was about to get pounded to a pulp. "Knock it off. You don't want to 
tell me, fine, but don't pull any of this spooky gonna-get-you crap or 
I'll have to kick your ass." The single exposed eye glared, and the long 
tongue started to waggle up toward his face. "Blech!" Ranma pushed the 
ghost away in disgust. "Okay, that's it, guy or girl, you try to lick me 
and the other ghosts will be scraping you off the trees." He put his 
hands together, his ki building between his palms, preparing to blast it 
to pieces if it tried to come near again.

It didn't. It dropped its hands, furled its tongue, and turned away.

Okay, obviously being polite was getting him nowhere. Apparently the 
wrong tactic to use in Hell, he thought wryly. He looked around again, 
hoping to spot a ghost that was obviously a guy, wondering if maybe he 
could get the information through force.

"You don't belong here," said a voice behind him.

Ranma whirled and found himself looking down at a really short ghost. A 
kid, he realized, getting a good look at him, probably seven or eight 
years old. Pale and floating like the others, but with hair short enough 
that he could see the kid's face. Unlike the other ghosts, the kid was 
minus the bulging crazy eyes, though they were still deep and completely 
black, like a bird's, which was a little bit unnerving in and of itself.

"You should leave," the kid continued in bleak tones. "Go back. Find 
your ancestors. You don't belong in Hell."

"Well," said Ranma, grateful that the kid could at least talk and seemed 
to have a normal tongue, "I'd like to get out of here, but the only way 
I'm doing that is by seeing Emma-O first."

To Ranma's surprise, the kid barked a short laugh. "Emma-O? *That's* why 
you came here? Why in all the seven hells would you want to see *him*?"

"Because," Ranma said with all the authority he could muster, "he's 
going to bring me back to life."

The kid looked up at him, black eyes fathomless. "You want to be 
reincarnated?" he said, somewhat incredulously.

"No," Ranma said, getting irritated. "He's going to bring me back to my 
old life. The one I had before I died."

The ghost kid actually boggled. "You are out of your mind," he said. 
"He's never going to do that."

Ranma's eyes narrowed. There was something weird about this kid -- more 
than just the obvious weird of being one of these pale ghosts.

Aside from the ghost's verbosity in the face of all his silent or 
groaning companions, through their brief conversation, Ranma felt the 
feline part of his soul stir a little. It had come out of hiding the 
moment he was no longer suffering sensory deprivation under the kuei 
curse, and now he realized... he could *smell* something. Down, deep 
under the choking smell of the blood river and the blood that still 
partially coated him, this ghost kid standing in front of him... 
smelled. More than that, he smelled *familiar*.

But he couldn't put his finger on why. He wasn't used to having that 
particular sense be so, well, sensitive. He was about to ask the kid 
just who in the hell he was when the kid waved his ghostly arms, 
gesturing at the pale ghosts around them. "See these people? Do you know 
why we're here? Not because of any wrong we did in life, but because we 
died violent deaths. Because of the way we died, we're tied to the 
mortal realm, and we go there, and we haunt. We haunt because that's all 
we can do unless some clever mortal figures out how to release our souls 
from this curse, and if we're released, we can finally leave this place 
and join our ancestors. But do you know how often that happens?" He 
glared up at Ranma. Ranma just blinked and shook his head. "Hardly 
ever!" the kid continued. "No, rather than trying to figure out why a 
ghost is haunting their house or inn or hot spring or mountain path, 
they hire a priest, and the priest slaps a god name on our foreheads 
which exorcises us and sends us back here. Look."

The kid pointed at his forehead, and Ranma could see a faint black scar 
in the shape of a kanji. "Can't go back until this is gone completely," 
the kid said. "And then what are the chances that a mortal will decide 
to try to help rather than just call another exorcist?"

"Well," Ranma said, "when you go back, can't you just... talk to people? 
The way you're talking to me? Seems better than doing the whole creepy 
moaning ghost thing."

The kid shook his head. "Doesn't work that way. And do you know why? 
Because those are the rules."

Ah. Ranma was getting the picture, and he didn't much like it. It was 
reminding him of the rules he had been bound by when he was under the 
kuei curse. He was starting to feel pretty sorry for the kid. "They 
don't seem like very fair rules," he said.

"And that," said the ghost kid, raising an index finger for emphasis, 
"is my point precisely. The rules aren't fair. And who do you think made 
those rules? The rules that govern the dead?"

Ranma sighed. "Emma-O."

The kid nodded, seeming satisfied. "So like I said. You'd be better off 
joining your ancestors than trying to get your old life back. Emma-O 
made his rules and he sticks to them. See that man?" The kid pointed to 
the bloody river as it frothed. Black chains broke the surface, dragging 
behind a terrified man by his wrists and feet. "That man was a murderer. 
He killed an innocent. Emma-O deals with people like him directly. They 
see him, and he judges them and sends them to spend a few eons sitting 
in a boiling pot of molten metal. He doesn't bother with anyone who 
*should* have gone down the other fork of the river," he said, looking 
deliberately at Ranma, "and even if he did, he wouldn't deal with you by 
helping you."

Ranma stared at the bloody man as the chains dragged him out of the 
river and through the black thorns, heading for the trees and the 
wasteland beyond. "He's going to see Emma-O? All of these guys with the 
chains are going to see Emma-O?"

"Yes," the kid acknowledged grimly.

Ranma grinned. "Thanks, kid. That's just what I needed to know." And 
with that, he took off running past the thorns and dead trees, pausing 
only long enough to gauge the direction the chained ghosts were being 
dragged across the wasteland before he was off running again.

The ghost kid stared after him in stunned amazement. Then he clenched 
his fists and rolled his eyes in exasperation. "Ranma," he shouted, "you 
*idiot*!"

Ranma was already too far away to hear.


~*~

After the bleakness of the bloody river and the wasteland, Emma-O's home 
was a surprise. Ranma wasn't quite sure what he was expecting -- maybe 
something with a skeleton motif, or maybe torture chamber-style 
decorations. Not this shimmering jewel-encrusted palace, perched on a 
grassy island surrounded by a lake of water that glowed with soft golden 
light. Ranma looked it over critically. For a god who was supposed to be 
lord of the dead, the guy sure seemed to like his earthly riches.

A wide scarlet bridge spanned the lake, leading directly to the large 
golden doors of the palace. The doors were open, as if in invitation. 
Come on in, enjoy the glitzy decor and impressive architecture before 
you get sent to writhe in eternal agony. What had that kid said? Molten 
metal?

Ranma looked behind him, back across the wasteland. In the distance, he 
could see two of the bloody puppet guys that he had quickly passed once 
he caught sight of the palace. They were far away, and lurching along 
slowly enough that it would be a while before they made it to the gate. 
Hopefully that would give him the time he needed to talk to Emma-O 
without interruption. He wanted Emma-O to be in a good mood, and he had 
no idea if punishing murderers with endless torment made the god 
grouchy. He rather hoped it did, because he didn't know if he liked the 
idea of trying to make a deal with a guy who enjoyed that depth of human 
suffering, even if it was well deserved.

He turned back toward the open golden doors, and took a deep breath. 
"Okay," he said. "Here goes nothin'."

He passed through the entrance and found himself in a vast hall. Torch 
light flickered on walls that seemed to be encrusted with diamonds. 
Pearls the size of his fist lined arches overhead, from which hung 
silken purple and scarlet drapes that fell to floor. Ranma couldn't help 
wondering who the hell this guy was trying to impress. As he walked 
silently down the hall, navigating between the falls of silk, he 
wondered if he would meet any resistance from guards or servants, but so 
far the place seemed deserted.

Or maybe not. Up ahead, where the glow of torch light grew brighter, he 
could hear voices. He strained to listen. One voice was faint, pleading, 
and a bit whiney. The other was deep, commanding, and aggravated. Ranma 
was betting the second voice was Emma-O.

Just great. Was someone already there ahead of him, putting the god in a 
bad mood? Not what he needed. Quickly, silently, but carefully so as not 
to stir the drapes with his movements, he made his way closer until 
finally he started catching glimpses through the silk of a tall man 
sitting on a throne. Not just tall, he realized as he edged closer and 
cautiously peeked around a scarlet drape. Big. Like two or three times 
the size of a normal human. He wore the ancient robes of a judge, and 
his immaculate black, pointed beard fell to his chest. Next to the god 
was a large pedestal upon which rested the biggest scroll Ranma had ever 
seen, encased in gold inlaid with lapis lazuli. The scroll was open, and 
Emma-O appeared as if he were trying to read it. Except that the first 
voice, whose owner Ranma couldn't see, was talking.

"Please, I beg you, listen to me!" the voice pleaded, and there was a 
strange quality to the voice, a thinness, that Ranma recognized. He had 
heard it before, twice, on the mountain of the Ancient One. Once, when 
the Snow Woman spoke to him while she was fighting Cologne from her 
domain in the Kami realm. The second time when he had heard Akane's 
voice calling him through the dimensional veil. "I am the victim of 
trickery, you must believe me!"

"There has been trickery indeed," Emma-O rumbled, scowling over the 
scroll. "And you are a fool if you think I shall fall for it a second 
time. Now, for the last time, be silent."

"How can I be silent when you ignore this injustice that has befallen 
me? That you yourself have brought upon me? I tell you, I am not 
Susa-no-o! How many times do I have to explain? I am Hoso-no-kami, and 
Susa-no-o has tricked you, tricked the entire council! You must let me out!"

Ranma grimaced. Apparently he had just walked in on an argument between 
gods. *This can't be good,* he thought.

"I must do nothing of the sort," Emma-O said firmly. Ranma noticed that 
a vein was starting to bulge on the god's forehead.

Emma-O's response brought on a new deluge of near-frantic pleading and 
begging from the being who was apparently either Susa-no-o, or 
Hoso-no-kami, whoever the hell they were. Either way, it wasn't good for 
Ranma because he could see Emma-O's face slowly flushing, and one giant 
fist clenching tight.

"ENOUGH!" Emma-O slammed his fist on the scroll's pedestal, causing the 
scroll to jump a good meter into the air before clattering back down. 
"You WILL be silent, trickster! If you think you can get out of Yomi by 
annoying me, you are wrong. Do not think I have forgotten your last 
sojourn to the seventh hell. You thought I would let you go if you read 
your abysmal haiku constantly for the space of many years, but you 
failed!" Emma-O stood and raised his fist, glaring downward, presumably 
toward whatever dimension the other voice was trapped in. "Your foolish 
attempts at deception WILL NOT ANNOY ME!"

Ranma couldn't help it. He snorted, wondering what Emma-O was like when 
he was actually annoyed.

Emma-O looked up sharply, and he quickly spotted Ranma behind the silks. 
"You!" he demanded, pointing at him with the hand that had just been 
clenched in a fist. "Come here!"

*Well, this is it,* Ranma thought, straightening and thinking of Akane. 
*Remember... be diplomatic.* With that thought, he stepped forward into 
Emma-O's court.

The god's eyes widened slightly in surprise as he saw him, then he 
glared. "You don't belong here, boy. What do you want? Why have you not 
joined your ancestors?"

Ranma bowed deeply before Emma-O. "Because, oh your most high, uh, 
eminence." He winced, wondering exactly how you were supposed to address 
the god of the dead, but continued. "I want to be restored to life."

There was silence. Then, Emma-O said, "Really."

"Yeah." Ranma glanced up from his bow. Emma-O's face was devoid of any 
expression he could read. "I, uh, I was told that you were the guy to 
see about this."

"And who told you this?"

Ranma blinked. Not the question he was expecting. "It was a Chinese 
dragon," he said, straightening from his bow. "The Ancient One." He 
suddenly hoped that was actually the dragon's name, and that he hadn't 
just told Emma-O that it was just some really old dragon.

But Emma-O looked surprised. Then his eyes narrowed, and he peered at 
Ranma intently as he reached for the scroll on the pedestal. "What is 
your name, mortal?"

Ranma barely managed to suppress the smirk that usually manifested in 
his expression whenever he introduced himself. *Diplomatic,* he thought 
to himself forcefully, Akane's face in his mind. *No cockiness.* He 
cleared his throat. "I'm--"

"--just leaving!"

Ranma and Emma-O both stared as the pale ghost kid rushed into the court 
in a most unghostly manner, silks billowing in his wake, grabbed Ranma 
by the arm, and began pulling him out of the room with a supernatural 
strength that took Ranma completely by surprise. "So sorry to disturb 
you, oh glorious one, we'll just be on our way now, don't worry, I'll 
make sure he gets to where he needs to be. His ancestors are waiting!"

"Hey!" Ranma protested, and planted his feet, stopping their progress 
before moving to slip out of the kid's inhumanly strong grip. To his 
surprise, the kid countered, and just as he realized just how unordinary 
this little ghost was, and that he was actually in for a real battle 
just to get free, Emma-O brought everything to a halt.

"You dare!" the god raged, and to Ranma's relief, Emma-O's fury seemed 
directed at the ghost kid rather than him. "You dare appear before me 
wearing a disguise? I will not tolerate such trickery!" And with that, 
Emma-O raised his hand, pointed at the ghost, and suddenly Ranma found 
himself looking eye to bird-black-eye with a tengu.

A tengu that, he realized with a shock, he recognized.

And apparently so did Emma-O. "Masakazu!" he bellowed.

"Hey," Ranma said, "I know you!"

"Good," said Masakazu. "Run."

"But I have to--"

The tengu grabbed him by the shoulders, looked him in the eye, and said, 
"Trust me."

Ranma glanced at Emma-O. The deity's face was starting to purple as he 
shook with rage.

Cursing angrily, Ranma ran. Masakazu followed right behind.

Once out of the palace, the tengu took the lead. "Follow me," he said, 
"and don't look back."

Ranma didn't look back. He kept his eyes fixed on the back of the 
red-feathered head of the tengu and thought about how the only reason he 
wasn't beating the strange creature up for destroying his chances of 
persuading Emma-O to bring him back to life was because he remembered him.

He remembered that the tengu had come to him in a dream, had sealed the 
spell voices from his mind and had encouraged him to keep searching for 
Akane. He remembered that when he was trapped in the Nekoken, this tengu 
had come and had tried to save him from the Shadowcat. Had banished the 
Shadowcat back to the Kami realm. But not before the Shadowcat had dealt 
him a fatal wound.

So, as angry as he was, Ranma figured that you just can't beat up a guy 
who gave his life trying to save yours.

But that didn't mean that, as soon as they were through running, he 
didn't intend to get some answers.


~*~


Emma-O watched the two intruders go, fuming silently. It took a while to 
calm down and once again regain his center of rational calm, but the 
blessed silence from Yomi helped. Masakazu had obviously come in a 
futile effort to free Susa-no-o, his oft-time partner in crime, who had 
quieted as soon as the strange human boy's presence had been known. No 
doubt now sulking that his rescue attempt had been thwarted, Emma-O 
thought with satisfaction.

Masakazu could run as far as he liked, but it would never be far enough. 
He would face judgment soon enough.

Now, as for that mortal boy... Emma-O looked at the scroll which spun 
under his outstretched fingers. It came to a stop, and his finger fell 
on a name. Ranma Saotome.

He sat on his throne and contemplated. So this mortal whelp was one of 
the humans who had stirred up so much trouble with the Kami realm. He 
didn't think he wanted a human such as this wandering loose in his domain.

"So," he said aloud. "He wants to be restored to life?" With a thought, 
he summoned Tensei-kaze.

A loud rushing sound roared outside the palace, and moments later the 
silks hanging in the great hall twisted and writhed as if caught in a 
storm. Tensei-kaze, barely visible, long hair streaming behind her, flew 
into the court. Faceless, the Wind of Reincarnation bowed before Emma-O.

"Find this boy," Emma-O instructed, pointing to the name on the scroll. 
"Set him on the path of rebirth."

Tensei-kaze whispered voiceless through the hall. The silks fluttered.

Emma-O pondered a moment. "A cat," he answered finally, then he smiled, 
utterly without warmth. "He had a feline taint about him. It seems fitting."

Tensei-kaze bowed in obedience and flew out of the palace in search of 
Ranma Saotome.


~*~


Masakazu led Ranma all the way back to the banks of the roiling, bloody 
river, when the tengu finally stopped and turned to face him. "We have 
to fly from here. You'll need to climb on my back."

Ranma eyed the tengu suspiciously. "Where are we going?"

"Back to the start. Back to the river before it forks."

Ranma shook his head and crossed his arms defiantly. "Look," he said 
seriously, "you know, I appreciate what you've done. I remember what you 
did for me with the blood spell, and how you fought the Shadowcat and 
sent it packing. It killed you, and I'm sorry. It killed me too, but if 
it makes you feel any better, I killed it back."

Masakazu snorted a laugh. "That does make me feel better, actually."

"Good." Ranma couldn't help a grin, but then forced himself back on 
topic. "But I am *not* going to join up with my ancestors, no matter 
what you say, so you might as well give up on that."

The tengu sighed. "I know... I know. If I had realized exactly what had 
happened to you, and if I had known about your promise to Akane, I never 
would have wasted time trying to convince you to go."

Ranma blinked. "Wait, how do you know about that?"

Masakazu's eyes glinted. "I did what I should have done in the first 
place, instead of trying to be your unobtrusive guide in the afterlife. 
I peeked while we were running away from Emma-O."

Ranma frowned. He didn't like being confused. "Whaddya mean 'peeked'?"

The tengu pointed to Ranma's head with a feathered finger. "I looked 
inside your mind. Saw your memories. I now understand why you want to 
return to life, but I promise you, what I said before is true. Emma-O is 
not the one who will do that for you."

Ranma really didn't like the idea of this tengu, friend or not, poking 
around inside his head. "Uh, I'm glad you understand now and all, but 
don't do that again," he said, scowling. The tengu merely nodded. Only 
somewhat satisfied, Ranma continued. "And if Emma-O won't bring me back 
to life, who will? I thought Emma-O was the only one who could do it."

"He is," said Masakazu, "but I have an idea."

Ranma looked at him, surprised. "Really?"

"Yes, but it involves you climbing on my back so we can fly back to the 
river before it forks, preferably before Emma-O, or whatever he decided 
to send after us, catches us."

"Ah," Ranma said, glancing back over his shoulder at the expanse of 
wasteland. He didn't see anything, but that didn't necessarily mean 
there wasn't something there. "Why didn't you say so in the first place? 
Let's go."

The tengu wore a long cloak of woven leaves and pine boughs, which was 
far from comfortable, but Ranma didn't complain. The tengu leaped into 
the air with Ranma clinging piggy-back, and they flew up and over the 
river, heading upstream.

"Can't you go any faster?" Ranma asked. They weren't going slow by any 
means, but they had run faster than the tengu was flying.

"No, because you weigh a ton," Masakazu said irritably. "Now listen to 
me. When you first surfaced in the river, you saw three forks, correct? 
Not just two?"

"Yeah," Ranma said, sliding a little and trying to get a better grip 
without choking the tengu. "But how do you know that? I thought I said 
no more peeking!"

"I know because you told me yourself. You asked me, 'Where does that 
middle fork go?'" That took me by surprise because humans can't see that 
middle fork. It doesn't even really exist for humans, because it leads 
to the realm of the souls of beasts and all creatures of the earth, 
where they await reincarnation."

Ranma processed that silently, absorbing the implications of what the 
tengu was saying. It was the Nekoken, of course. The part of him that 
was apparently irretrievably feline. He had been able to see the middle 
fork because his soul was part beast.

Then he started. "Wait," he said, realizing. "That chick on the bank of 
the river was you too?"

"Yes," Masakazu said. "As I mentioned, I was trying to be an unobtrusive 
guide for you, to help you make the transition from life to afterlife 
with your ancestors. But then you deliberately headed for Hell, making 
me chase after you... to be frank, I thought you'd gone crazy."

Ranma laughed shortly. "So you disguised yourself as one of those pale 
ghosts and tried to talk me into going back."

"Exactly. And I'll be honest, Ranma, I would still prefer that you join 
your ancestors, but I already know you won't simply because you gave 
your promise to Akane. So that leaves us with my idea. What we're about 
to do... it's very risky. I don't even know if it will work."

"If *what* will work?" Ranma asked, getting increasingly agitated. 
"What's your idea?"

"Within the realm of the souls of beasts," said Masakazu, "is a holy 
place where there burns an eternal, sacred flame. It is the place where 
the Phoenix is reborn, the ashes of its former body restored again to 
perfection."

Ranma understood immediately, and felt a sudden thrill of excitement. 
"Hey, so if I can enter that middle fork and reach that flame..."

"You *might* be restored to life," Masakazu said firmly. "Or you might 
give yourself a really bad burn. You're not a phoenix, Ranma. It could 
work, but no one has ever done anything like this before."

"What, you mean no animal, other than the phoenix, has ever jumped into 
the flame?"

Masakazu snorted. "No other animal is crazy enough to want to return to 
the life they just departed. They are perfectly content to wait for 
reincarnation, and perhaps a better lot in the next life, but not the 
phoenix. Constantly burning herself up, being reborn, and burning 
herself up again. Just for fun. Absolutely bonkers, that bird."

Ranma thought about that. "So... is this my best chance to keep my 
promise to Akane?"

Masakazu sighed. "Your only chance. I believe so, yes."

Ranma grinned fiercely. "Then let's do it."

Masakazu just shook his head and flew on.

After a while, the tengu said, "Look behind us. I hear something."

Ranma craned his head to look around. All he could see was the bloody 
river stretching out behind them, the river bank lined with the dead 
black trees. "I don't see anything."

"Nothing at all? No movement?"

"Nothing," Ranma said, squinting in an effort to see farther. "Just the 
trees moving in the wind off in the distance."

Masakazu swore colorfully.

"What?" Ranma said, baffled. "What's wrong?"

"There is only one wind in the realm of the dead," the tengu answered. 
"Tensei-kaze. No doubt Emma-O sent her after us."

Ranma felt a sudden sick dread -- the first real thread of fear he'd 
felt since he had emerged from the river. "Look, man, I don't want to be 
reincarnated."

"So we need to get to the sacred flame before she catches us."

Ranma focused on the movement of trees far behind them. "Uh, I might be 
seeing things, but I think she's gaining on us."

"Hang on. We're almost there."

Ranma looked ahead and saw that the pitch black of the sky was giving 
way to daylight ahead. "Hurry."

Masakazu didn't bother to respond.

Soon, though not soon enough for Ranma's comfort, they were back at the 
beginning, above the wide river where newly dead souls were surfacing in 
the water. By now, Ranma could hear what Masakazu had heard -- the sound 
of the wind howling up the river fork that led to hell. She was close. 
*We're not going to make it,* Ranma realized. The wind was too fast. She 
had already closed the distance between them. But he had to try.

And as for the middle fork...

"Are you ready?" Masakazu called over the sound of the approaching wind. 
"Can you see it?"

He could, but it was like before. The middle fork was like an optical 
illusion that he could only see out of the corner of his eye. "I can 
sort of see it, but not really. It keeps disappearing on me."

"Are you using the Nekoken?" Masakazu asked.

Ranma cursed his stupidity. Of course he would need to be actually using 
the Nekoken to see the path to the beast realm. With a thought, he 
summoned that feline part of him, bringing it to the surface.

He gasped.

He hadn't really used the Nekoken properly since killing the Shadowcat, 
right before he died. He had almost forgotten what it felt like. Power 
flooded through him, and his senses sang. The middle fork snapped into 
view like finally spotting the picture hidden in those weird 3-D 
paintings. "There!" he shouted, and his voice had a rasp to it that 
surprised him. "I see it, go!"

As Masakazu dove toward the middle fork of the river, Ranma looked down 
the bloody river to Hell and saw the wind coming. It was close enough 
that he could see her, a near-transparent, faceless woman shape flying 
directly toward them with unnerving speed.

Then, abruptly, she stopped. Ranma saw her as she hesitated. Her 
faceless head turned back and forth, as if searching.

"Ha!" said Masakazu. "That did it. It's you she's after, not me, thank 
the gods, but she doesn't recognize you when you're fully immersed in 
the Nekoken. You just bought us some time, but we still need to hurry, 
she won't be fooled for long."

Ranma didn't care what caused the reprieve, as long as they had one. 
"Just go!" he shouted -- unnecessarily, since Masakazu was flying at 
full speed -- and he realized his mouth felt funny. Probing the inside 
of his mouth with his tongue, he was startled to discover that his teeth 
were thin and sharp. Looking at his arms, he saw that they now sported a 
fine covering of black fur. *What the hell?*

"Ow, take it easy," Masakazu snapped at him. "You seem to have grown 
claws, so ease up on your grip, if you don't mind."

"What the hell happened to me?" Ranma yelled back, forcing himself to 
relax his grip on the tengu slightly.

"Nothing to worry about," the tengu soothed. "Souls here almost always 
outwardly reflect the inner state."

Ranma blinked. "So when I come back to life, this isn't going to happen 
every time I use the Nekoken?"

Masakazu laughed. "No. If you actually pull this off and return to life, 
you'll look perfectly human even in the Nekoken."

Ranma couldn't help the sigh of relief. The last thing he needed when he 
got back was another shape-changing curse. And it made a little more 
sense that calling up the Nekoken had managed to throw off the 
reincarnation wind. Hopefully it would throw her off for a long time.

And, thought Ranma, looking down at the landscape that was revealing 
itself before them the farther they flew, the animal afterlife certainly 
seemed a lot nicer than Hell. Rolling green hills, thick leafy forests, 
lakes, and in the distance, pine covered mountains. And was that an 
ocean glinting on the horizon?

Everywhere, animals. Ranma thought it looked like a zoo had exploded. 
Herds of animals, dotting the landscape. Flocks of birds in the sky.

But he didn't get a chance to appreciate scenery and the local wildlife. 
Masakazu landed on the bank of the river as soon as they were far enough 
into the realm of beasts that they couldn't see the other parts of the 
river looking back. "Now," said Masakazu, "follow me and run."

They ran. Masakazu led him into a forest so thick with large trees that 
the sky was blotted out by the leafy canopy. The forest floor was 
springy under their step with layers of fallen leaves and grass. He 
could almost smell how ancient this place was.

They ran, and Ranma felt utterly exhilarated. He had never in his entire 
life moved so fast on two feet, even dodging and weaving between the 
trees. And he quickly came to realize, as Masakazu kept pace with him, 
that the tengu had been holding back for his benefit during their sprint 
across Hell's wasteland.

He suddenly wondered if the tengu was holding back even now and decided 
to put it to the test with an extra burst of speed. He sped past 
Masakazu, who just as quickly called after him.

"Yes, you're faster, Ranma, but is now the time to be showing off when 
you're not the one who knows the way to the sacred flame?"

Duly chastened, Ranma let Masakazu take the lead. "Sorry," he said.

"Less talk, more running. We still have a long way to go."

And then, in the distance, beneath the sound of bird song and animal 
chatter, Ranma heard the high wailing of an approaching wind.

"Do you hear that?" he asked.

"I'm hearing a lot of things right now, Ranma, so please be more specific."

"It's her, that wind," Ranma said. He could feel the hair stand up on 
the back of his neck... and all the way down his back. Ugh. He 
shuddered. "I think she figured out what happened."

Masakazu glanced at him, startled. "Well, if you're hearing her before I 
hear her, that means we've still got some time, but it will be close."

Ranma nodded. "Less talk, more running."

*Ultimate Saotome Secret Technique,* he thought. *Don't fail me now.*

Ranma lost track of time. He focused so completely on running, on not 
faltering, on keeping exact pace with Masakazu, that he could no longer 
tell how long they had been running. Half an hour? Half a day? All he 
knew was that the wail of the wind was growing ever louder behind them, 
and so he almost missed it when Masakazu whispered, "We made it."

And they burst into a clearing. The clearing was at least fifty meters 
across, perfectly circular. In the center, a magnificent pure white 
bonfire of flame burned on a stone altar.

And between them and that flame, a very, very large scarlet bird. It was 
almost as tall as the surrounding trees.

It looked at them, spread its wings and let out an earsplitting squawk. 
"Intruders!" it shrieked. "Demons! Man-beasts! Tengu and cat demon! You 
shall not touch my fire! It is mine! MINE! I will snap you up and eat 
you if you come close!"

Ranma groaned. "You could have warned me that the phoenix was going to 
be here guarding this thing," he whispered to the tengu.

"Actually," Masakazu replied, "I was rather hoping she was still on the 
mortal plane. I didn't know she had burned herself up already. And even 
so, she usually only spends a short time here between death and rebirth."

"Just my luck to catch the crazy bird during her special time," Ranma 
groused.

"Your luck works both ways," the tengu replied. "Come on, let's get you 
to that flame."

Ranma straightened and nodded. He had the Nekoken at his command and no 
stupid humongous bird was going to stand in his way.

As expected, the phoenix attacked as soon as he was within striking 
range. Her sharp, deadly beak flashed down with intimidating speed that 
was meant to spear him right through, but he leaped over the attack, 
smashed the bird's head into the ground, and lashed out with one hand, 
shredding the feathers of one wildly beating wing. "Look, you dumb bird, 
I don't want to hurt you, but I got a promise to keep, and I will have 
to hurt you if you don't let me pass." In the distance, he could hear 
the howl of the wind getting swiftly closer. "I don't got time for this! 
Let me pass or I'll have to pound you into the ground."

The phoenix groggily rose and glared at him hatefully. "Shadowcat! 
Hated, hated demon!" it hissed. "Nekoken! I know it when I see it!" She 
flapped her sloppily trimmed wing. "I would see my own soul utterly 
destroyed before I would let a slave of the Shadowcat near my sacred fire!"

Ranma sputtered furiously. "Now, look here! I ain't nobody's slave!"

"It's true," Masakazu said. "He is not a cat demon at all. He is a 
human, and he wields the Nekoken with his own will."

To Ranma's surprise, the bird cocked her head and looked at him with 
sudden interest, though without losing the baleful look in her black 
eyes. "Impossible," she said. "Shadowcat is a terrible demon. Hates 
humans, looks down on them. It would never share its power."

"Who said anything about sharing?" Ranma said, throwing out his chest. 
"The Shadowcat is dead. I killed it. And I'm the sole master of the 
Nekoken!"

"Dead? What? Dead?" The phoenix fluttered, puffed out her feathers, and 
her head bobbed and twitched. "Shadowcat? Impossible!"

"It's true," Masakazu said again. "Ranma killed the Shadowcat. He 
defeated it utterly by turning the Nekoken against it. Look at me, 
Phoenix, see me kind to kind, as kindred spirits, and know that I speak 
the truth."

The phoenix looked at Masakazu, peered at him intently for a long 
moment. Then, she curved her neck down until her large head was right 
next to Ranma, one eye staring directly into his face. "Tell me," she 
said. "Did you kill Shadowcat Kami side or Mortal side?"

"Uh... Mortal side," Ranma said, and was about to ask what difference it 
made when the phoenix again rose up, wings outstretched, and she 
shrieked again, but this time in a piercing, warbling song of triumph. 
Ranma winced and covered his ears. Which were slightly pointed and 
furry, he noticed irritably.

"Dead! Shadowcat dead!" the phoenix crowed. "Dead forever! No pulling 
itself together Mortal side, oh no!" And the phoenix made a strange low 
warbling sound that Ranma realized was laughter.

"Okay then," Ranma said, "So, uh..."

"You go ahead and touch the flame," the phoenix said, smoothing down her 
feathers while looking at him with gleeful, glinting eyes. "You kill 
Shadowcat, you touch the sacred flame all you like. You die again, you 
come back any time."

Ranma blinked. "Uh... thanks," he said.

"Ranma," Masakazu warned, "listen. Tensei-kaze... she's almost here."

Ranma hesitated as he realized that this was it. He was here, he had 
made it, surpassed all obstacles, and now all he had to do to achieve 
the impossible was to jump into that blinding white bonfire. And hope 
that it actually worked and brought him back to life rather than burning 
his soul to a crisp.

He turned to Masakazu, but the tengu was already there shoving him 
toward the flame. "No time for goodbyes," he said. "Go. And tell Akane 
hi for me."

Ranma turned and clutched the tengu's feathered hand in his own. "I 
will," he said, "and thanks for everything."

With that, Ranma turned and jumped into the flame.

Masakazu shielded his eyes as a searing flash of light filled the 
clearing. A roaring noise, not coming from the approaching wind, blasted 
through him... and then the light and sound faded.

There was no sign of Ranma.

The phoenix clucked a little, folding in her wings. "I like him," she 
said. "Maybe I will look for him Mortal side."

"He's taken," Masakazu said mildly, suppressing a chuckle as the 
phoenix's head drooped a little. Then he shook his head in amazement. 
Ranma had done it.

But he had no time for personal celebrations, because at that moment, 
Tensei-kaze swept into the clearing with a roar of fury. She circled the 
clearing, approached the fire, and howled a cry of angry defeat. 
Masakazu suppressed the urge to gloat -- he certainly didn't want to 
draw attention to himself at that moment, and as far as he knew, 
Tensei-kaze only went after those who were scheduled for reincarnation. 
He most definitely wasn't.

With another cry of fury, Tensei-kaze flew out of the clearing and away.

"Well," said the phoenix, smoothing down ruffled feathers. "What was 
that all about?"

Masakazu merely shrugged. "Thank you, lady," he said, bowing to the 
phoenix, "for your generosity." The phoenix ducked her head and warbled 
softly, and the tengu took that as his cue to leave. As interesting as 
the phoenix had turned out to be, he didn't want to be anywhere near 
here when Tensei-kaze made her report to Emma-O.

What he failed to take into account, he realized later, was that 
Tensei-kaze was even more swift when she wasn't searching for fugitives 
who didn't want to be found, and Emma-O... well, he could be anywhere in 
his domain.

As he emerged from the realm of the souls of beasts, he found himself 
looking up at a very irritated Emma-O.

"Masakazu," the god growled.

Masakazu only had one relevant thought.

*Uh-oh.*


~*~



At the foot of the Ancient One's mountain, the growing pale light of 
dawn was obliterating the stars from the sky when Akane, exhausted and 
nearly dozing, felt Ranma’s frozen, dead hand begin to grow warm in hers.

At first she thought she was dreaming... but then his hand grew even 
warmer, and her eyes flew open. "Ranma," she said, and she looked over 
at Yuki-onna, who was staring at Ranma in amazement, even as she stood 
and slowly backed away.

"Akane-chan," the Snow Woman said, smiling, "I cannot stay for this. I 
must say goodbye for now." And before Akane could protest, Yuki-onna 
faded from sight. But she didn't have time to wonder at Yuki-onna's words.

Ranma was glowing. Bright light seemed to emanate from under the surface 
of his skin. The ice and frost that encased him was melting quickly, 
even evaporating in steam, and his hand was growing warmer to the point 
where it was hot and burning her hand and she was forced to drop it 
against her will.

Then Ranma burst into white hot flame.

"Ranma!" Akane cried, and she had to back up because the heat was so 
intense.

Her shout brought the others scrambling from their tents to see what was 
going on. They stared, speechless, at the sight of Ranma's prone body 
engulfed in flame. His clothes turned to ash in moments, and for a 
terrifying moment Akane thought that Ranma's body would follow suit... 
but instead, the flame continued to burn, and the dried blood coating 
Ranma's skin disintegrated, and the terrible wound in his abdomen closed 
and disappeared. Scars, new and old, vanished under the white flame. 
Then, as if a tiny nova exploded in the center of his being, Ranma's 
body grew so bright that Akane and the others were forced to shield 
their eyes.

Slowly, the light faded. Akane stood, blinking against the after images, 
trying to see, her heart beating in her throat. "Ranma?" she whispered

She heard him take a breath. "Akane," he said.

Akane had never felt more joy than she did in that moment. Ranma sat up 
and reached for her, and she went to him, and then his strong, warm arms 
were around her and she buried her face into his shoulder and wept. She 
carefully placed her hand against the bare skin of his chest, and could 
feel his heart beating, strong and alive. "You did it," she whispered. 
"You came back."

"Hey," said Ranma, and she felt one of his hands reach up and gently 
stroke her hair, almost timidly. "I promised, and I always keep my 
promises."

She smiled. "With such proof as this, how could I ever doubt you again?"

"Well, I hope...." Ranma started, in what almost sounded like a teasing 
voice, when he trailed off. Akane looked at his face, his handsome face 
that she would never get tired of looking at for the rest of her life, 
and saw that he was blushing.

"Ah hell," said Ranma. "Why am I naked?"

Akane burst out laughing, tears streaming down her face. The laughter 
felt glorious, cleansing, and Akane felt the fears and worries of the 
last five years sloughing from her like an old skin. She felt as new and 
renewed as Ranma was in physical reality.

She turned and looked at her friends. Ryoga, Ukyo and Shampoo were 
wearing almost identical expressions of amazement. Mousse's eyes were 
wide behind his glasses, and Kuno seemed to be struggling to remain 
stoic in the face of what had just happened before his eyes. Nabiki... 
she was grinning like a little kid on Santa Day.

To Akane's surprise, it was Ukyo who managed to break out of her shock 
first. She quickly ran to her tent and was back in an instant with a 
blanket. "Here ya go, Ranchan," she said, carefully keeping her eyes on 
his face. She smiled. "Welcome back."

Ranma took the blanket and covered himself, still blushing. "Thanks, 
Ucchan."

"Any time," she said, and laughed as Akane's eyebrows raised. "Kidding, 
hon," she said to Akane with a wink.

"Hey, Ryoga," said Nabiki, "isn't Ranma's pack in your tent? Doesn't he 
have some spare clothes in that?"

Ryoga blinked, as if coming out of a daze. "Uh, yes. Yes, of course, 
I'll go get it."

Ranma stood after carefully wrapping the blanket around his waist, and 
helped Akane to her feet. She held his hand tightly, and he felt a 
warmth in his chest that had nothing to do with the phoenix fire that 
had brought him back. As Ryoga walked up to him, carrying his pack with 
his clothes, he couldn't help but wonder what this would mean for their 
friendship, now that the blood spell was broken and Ryoga remembered 
everything.

"Hey man," he said as Ryoga handed him the pack. "Thanks."

Ryoga just nodded. "No problem."

Ranma peered at him. "So.... are you...." he faltered, not wanting to 
provoke or embarrass him, especially when Ryoga couldn't be completely 
happy with how things had turned out.

But Ryoga just shook his head, looked at Akane, then gave him a half 
smile. "You came back from the dead for her, Ranma. What more is there 
to say?"

Ranma raised his eyebrows. "So... we're cool?"

Ryoga snorted, turned away and headed back to his tent. "Only as long as 
you treat her right. One misstep, Saotome, and I'll pulverize you."

Ranma grinned.

He looked around at the others and saw Shampoo and Mousse withdrawing to 
a far corner of the camp. He raised his hand in a wave, and they smiled 
and waved back, but made no move to intrude further on his and Akane's 
reunion.

Kuno, on the other hand.... Ranma groaned as Kuno quickly approached. 
Ranma had hoped he could at least get dressed first before having to 
deal with Kuno, but before he could even threaten the kendoist to leave 
him and Akane the hell alone, Akane squeezed his hand and whispered, 
"It's okay, don't worry," to his bafflement.

Kuno soberly gazed at him. "My congratulations on your successful return 
from the dead, Saotome," he said, then bowed. "At this time, I would 
like to offer my deepest apologies for my...."

There was a lot more that Kuno said after that, in extreme flowery 
language, but Ranma was too stunned to process it properly. When Kuno 
finished, Ranma blinked, and said, "Yeah, okay.... thanks. No problem." 
Kuno left, seeming satisfied, and Ranma looked at Akane. He was still 
getting used to them being about the same height, looking at her eye to 
eye, but it wasn't something he minded in the least. "So... what the 
hell was that?" he asked. "Is he for real?"

Akane just smiled and shrugged. "Well, he is for now. Here's hoping it 
lasts."

When she smiled, Ranma's heart thudded in his throat, and he felt caught 
by the light in her eyes as she looked at him.

"Um... Akane?"

"Yes, Ranma?"

"I, uh, kinda need to get dressed."

Akane snorted a laugh, and released his hand. "Go. Get dressed," she 
said. "But hurry back."

And Ranma hurried out of the clearing and dressed, marveling at the 
change in Akane, and the change in himself. He thought about the day he 
first met Akane. How she had walked in on him in the bath, and all the 
chaos that had ensued. Had it only been a little over a year ago?

Far longer for Akane, he realized. But though he had been without her 
for a mere month, it was enough for him to know that he never wanted to 
be separated from her again.

Dressed, and feeling a bit more dignified, he walked back into the 
clearing towards Akane, stopping right in front of her.

"Um... Akane?"

Akane smiled. "Yes, Ranma?"

He took a deep breath. "I... really want to kiss you."

Her smile turned dazzling and Ranma felt weak in the knees. "Okay," she 
said.

He swallowed. "You don't mind?"

"Of course not."

He glanced around out of the corner of his eye. "Everyone is watching 
us," he said.

"Nabiki can take pictures for all I care," Akane answered, and with 
that, Ranma finally realized that it was time. He closed the distance 
between them, gently took her face in his hands, even as her own arms 
went around him, and he kissed her.

Akane kissed him back quite thoroughly. It was a kiss with tears mingled 
with smiles, awkward starts and re-starts, but then they both quickly 
started getting the hang of it.

"Woo-hoo!" shouted Nabiki, somewhere off in the distance. "Go Akane!"

"About time, Saotome!" yelled Ryoga.

After, Ranma rested his forehead against hers. "I waited too long," he 
said. "I should have done this a long time ago."

Akane shook her head, reaching up to wipe the tears from his face and 
her own. "Let's not regret, Ranma. I spent too much time the past five 
years wishing I could have done things differently. But now here we are. 
Let's just go from here."

"I love you, Akane," said Ranma.

Akane choked out a laugh that was half sob. "I thought I'd never hear 
you say those words to me."

"Then I'll say it again," said Ranma. He had faced and defeated demons, 
gods, and his own worst nightmares, all for this. "I love you. And I 
promise you this, Akane. I will love you forever."

Akane believed him.


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


Next:
Epilogue: In which some loose ends are tied up, and the rest is left to 
the imagination.


Author's note:
Honestly, what is there to say at this point? No clue. I'm brain-fried.





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