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Part 15

A Ranma ½ / Tenchi Muyo! crossover story
by Brian Randall

Disclaimer: Ranma ½ belongs to Rumiko Takahashi and Viz Communications.  Tenchi Muyo! belongs to Hitoshi Okuda and Pioneer LDC.

Additional credits: Takada Yuuzou and Kodansha (3x3 Eyes), Takada Yuuzou and A.D. Vision (Bannou Bunka Nekomusume Nuku-Nuku), and Tatsuya Egawa (Golden Boy).

Notes: Diverges from Ranma after volume 24, continuation for OAV 2 in the Tenchi universe (well, one of them). Nuku Nuku is from the OAVs, not TV. Sailor Moon occurs, well, at some point in the series, but it's something of an alt anyway. 3x3 Eyes diverges just before OAV2. This fic uses the bizarrely vague 'Pick One!' scenario. Enjoy.

"Yeah, well, I don't got much of a choice. I'd say it needs to be done, so I'm going to do it. That's about all there is to it." —Attributed to Higurashi Ranma — July 27, 1999 Old Terran calendar.

The first lights of the rising sun speared through a high window in the lodge, illuminating the ceiling and far wall. At least two dozen Marines lounged on their own cots, some sleeping, others merely staring at the ceiling. Yakumo had slept poorly, and lay awake before the sun rose, staring upwards blankly and disturbed by the dream.

The dream that was not his dream. But it was only a dream….

Sighing quietly, he sat up on his cot, grabbing his satchel from the foot of his bed. A cursory inspection and inventory revealed a clean shirt, a pair of pants with one knee torn out and badly stained with blood, his survival knife, the holster for the gun he had discarded, and three grenades. He suspected that the grenades would be minimally effective against the reavers, but wasn't about to discard any advantage immediately.

Tugging the clean shirt on over his tank top, he pocketed the grenades, stuck the knife into the sheath on his belt, then discarded the satchel. He stretched, muffling a yawn, then shouldered his kinetic displacement rifle, nodding at one of the Marines lacing up his boots a short distance away.

Stepping out into the light, he froze, watching Ryu and Ryouga standing opposite one another before the lodge. Ryu sported a cloth bandage around his chest, and Ryouga had finally removed the linen wrapping from his arms, rolling his sleeves up. The two stared at one another intently, Mousse leaning against another building with his arms crossed over his chest as he watched the other boys.

"Ready?" he asked suddenly.

Ryu nodded, mirrored shortly by Ryouga.

"Go!" he cried.

The second that he cried out, Ryu and Ryouga surged towards one another, Ryouga's solid strength allowing him to charge with the rushing power of a freight train. Ryu, however, was faster, and led in with a strike to Ryouga's sternum. A quick, experimental jab.

Ryouga took the blow, shrugging it off, and launched a foot-sweep at Ryu. Not expecting to be rebuffed so easily, Ryu fell backwards to the foot sweep, rolling onto his back as he struck the ground. Ryouga backpedaled, but Ryu, already lying down, curled up his legs, launching one towards Ryouga, catching the other boy's hip. Ryouga staggered, spinning back, and Ryu somersaulted to his feet.

The two boys relaxed from their stances, both looking at one another with appraising glances. "You're built like a rock," Ryu finally said. "I've broken statues softer than you."

"You're not too bad yourself," Ryouga said, rubbing his hip and wincing. "Let's try and tone it down a little, though. I'd like to still be able to fight later today."

Ryu smirked, nodding. "Goes for you too, big guy — I bet you could hit hard enough to put a hole in a reaver."

Ryouga grinned widely. "We'll see."

"Ready?" Mousse asked from the sidelines.

Both nodded again.


Yakumo shook his head, as Ryu and Ryouga charged together again. Walking around the combatants, he leant against the wall next to Mousse. "And here I thought I knew martial arts," he commented quietly.

Mousse smirked, his eyes fixed firmly on the fighters. "We wanted to spar, and we've been too busy to really do it on the ships, or on the…." The boy swallowed, looking slightly ill. "Or on the busses."

"I guess so," Yakumo answered, watching the two fight. "That's pretty rough sparring, if you ask me. I think it would break lesser men."

Snorting, Mousse shook his head. "I think that Ryu's just trying to impress that girl," he confided. He glanced to one side, then brightened immediately. "Stop!" he called out.

The two boys broke apart, glancing at Mousse in surprise. "What?" Ryu asked. "Something wrong?"

"Not really," Mousse said, shaking his head. "But you were both in the healer's hut yesterday, and had to be carried away from the fight. Give yourselves a little breathing room, or you might end up getting hurt again."

"The reavers aren't going to hold back," Ryu complained. "We need to be ready for that."

"Yeah, but if you hurt yourself sparring, then you won't be able to help as much as if you're careful now," Mousse countered.

"Yeah, yeah," Ryu grumbled, sighing. "I got it." Turning to one side, he nodded at a small group of observers that Yakumo hadn't seen approach. "Hey, Mako-chan, you want to show me what you've learned since the last time we sparred?"

The girl shook her head, crossing her arms beneath her chest. "No fighting for you," she chastised. "I asked around, and you haven't even eaten yet."

Ryu hung his head in defeat, sighing, and grabbed a shirt from a nearby post. "Fine, fine," he grumbled. "I'll eat."

Makoto brightened instantly, as Ryu pulled his shirt on, and strode towards her. The other girl near her was Minako, staring at Mousse, and smiling brightly. Moving away from Makoto with slow, deliberate steps, she announced, "You're okay! I was so worried that something happened to you!"

Mousse shrugged, turning his head aside and staring away. "Ah, well, I wouldn't let a little thing like a reaver get me," he stated confidently. Losing some of his aloof demeanor, he turned to the girl as she paused to lean against the wall and catch her breath. "Are you okay? The healer said you would be fine, but… er… you didn't wake up until after she sent me away."

"Sure!" Minako said cheerfully. "I was really tired, but now I feel like a million does!"

Mousse stared blankly for a moment, then nodded. "Okay, then. We should probably get something to eat — we're heading out in about an hour."

The girl beamed a smile at Mousse, as he led the way. He walked slowly, for her benefit, but after a few steps she tripped, and he had to lunge to catch her. "Oops!" she said, giggling. "I guess I should have listened when they told me not to get out of bed."

Mousse sighed, shaking his head. "Climb on my back," the boy suggested, kneeling for her benefit. Beaming a smile, the girl did as he suggested, shooting a knowing wink to Yakumo as he watched.

"So much for that," Ryouga mumbled, sighing.

"Something wrong?" Yakumo asked, bemused.

"Nothing," Ryouga said quietly. "Nothing important, anyway. I was just hoping to spar a bit." He shrugged, offering a bemused smile to Yakumo. "I was hoping Ranma would remember that he was supposed to spar with us, but I don't even know where he is."

"I hate to sound like a whinny little kid," Yohito said, knuckling back a yawn forcefully, "but… are we there yet?"

Genoh shook his head, smirking. "You know the answer as well as I do," he answered across the viewscreen. "If you're tired, you should use the link with your tree once we get across into normal space. We're going to need everyone fully alert for the evacuation procedure."

"I understand… Wait, we're nearly there. Saryu-oh says we've only got a few seconds to go."

"You're right." Genoh looked puzzled, then shrugged. "I don't know that we've ever ridden a current this fast," he confessed. Tapping a switch on his console, he instructed, "All units, prepare to drop Light Hawk Wings on my mark. Once we finish braking to half the fleet's current speed, fold, and finish braking in-system."

Yohito forced himself to stand up straight; he'd never had to maintain a Light Hawk Wing for so long, and the effort was immensely draining to him.

Genoh glanced at another connection, and whispered something that Yohito couldn't hear before switching to general access. "Ginraii fleet, drop sails in three. Two. One. Drop."

Yohito's Saryu-oh, in tandem with Vidarr and Freya-Oh, released their Light Hawk Wings, allowing the outer edge of the massive subspace sail to vanish. The three ships began to brake, as the main body of the fleet surged forward, maintaining their sail for a single second longer, resulting in the formation stretching. The ships at the periphery of the fleet lagged behind, and those at the center began to dart ahead. "Something wrong?" Yohito asked anxiously.

"No," Genoh answered, smiling softly. "The braking pattern distributes the fleet so that we don't end up too close together in normal space. It's smaller, so the distances between the ships will be far less."

"I understand," Genoh said, nodding.

"Good. With our speed, we should be folding in about… three minutes," Genoh answered. "Once we're through, it should be safe to tap your tree if you need to stay awake."

"Okay," Yohito mumbled. "I was afraid that I would burn myself out if I tried it here."

"Likely," Genoh answered, before falling silent, studying some control panel or another. "Tatsuki-san, do you have any crew on your ship to explain the situation to any refugees you evacuate? I'm not picking up any life signals outside of your own."

"Sorry," he said, shaking his head apologetically. "I was in a rush."

"We'll see if we have anyone who can help you out, then," Genoh said, grimacing. "Forces are going to be stretched tightly."

"I can pick up staff from anyone who survived the collapse of the orbital platform," Yohito countered. "It's time to fold."


The crossing from subspace to realspace was faster, and far gentler than Yohito had expected it to be. Within subspace itself, he was unable to see the blue nimbus that surrounded his ship, until he crossed into realspace, staggering momentarily at the adjustment. Saryu-oh reported dozens of other ships folding in nearby, but Yohito ignored that, tapping carefully into the power of the tree.

"No time for sleep," he said quietly. His eyes tracked the visual monitors, as Saryu-oh gathered navigational data, and tried to double-check their location. "Colony 0315," he said in satisfaction. Turning his attention to the link with Vidarr, he asked, "Can I try to contact any surviving defense forces, Laruma-san?"

"Go for it," Genoh said absently, monitoring fleet movements. "Until we get you a retrieval crew, consider yourself free to act within reasonable limits."

"Understood," Yohito said, saluting, and then terminating the connection. Rolling slightly, Saryu-oh broke away from the slowly forming fleet's trajectory, barreling towards the Earth's moon. Opening a broader set of communication channels, he said, "This is Tatsuki Yohito, provisional assistant for Ginraii. Is there anyone out there?"

A response came a moment later, a communications screen coming active. The young man in the Galaxy Police craft that answered looked a bit haggard, as though he had just woken. "I'm hearing you, Tatsuki-san. This is Oe Kintaro, Galaxy Police cadet. Before you do anything, be advised that all ships need to stay within the moon's shadow whenever possible."

Yohito blinked, frowning. "Why's that?" he asked.

Another screen popped up next to Kintaro's, a girl with bluish hair peering at him curiously. "Ah!" she said. "Tatsuki-san! You're here—" she cut herself off suddenly, increasing the channel's security rating. "Sorry," she said apologetically. "You're here about your brother, aren't you?"

"Yes," he said nodding hopefully. "I've come with about four hundred Ginraii ships. Genoh is in charge of the operation, but we estimate the retrieval capacity to be about eighty percent of everyone remaining on Earth. Before we get to work, I'd like to know how my brother is."

"Kohito?" Kintaro asked, raising an eyebrow. "He's here, and he's okay, but that information is classified. I was told I'd be allowed to tell you, though."

"I'd like to speak with him later," Yohito said, sighing in relief. "For now, however, I need to coordinate efforts with you on evacuation."

"Roger that," Kintaro said, shaking himself and seeming suddenly less tired. "Okay, first off, the reavers destroyed the orbital platform. Mizuno-san here developed a way to protect anyone in the moon's shadow…."

Waking with a start, Ranma rolled out of the perch he had slept in — the rafter of the guest room of Cologne's house — and fell towards the floor suddenly. Not in time to catch himself, and not wanting to damage the floor, he allowed himself to pass through it, startling Nuku, who was just waking up.

Halting himself some distance beneath the ground, he floated back upwards, returning to the room. Nuku stared at him with wide eyes from her pallet on the floor, blinking. "Ranma-papa-san?" she asked, cocking her head to one side. "Is something wrong?"

"Just rolled out of bed," Ranma said, landing on the floor, and smiling broadly. "Did you rest well?"

"Yes!" she exclaimed, hopping off of the floor and launching into another of her exuberant hugs. "Nuku-Nuku dreamed of mice," she said quietly. "And chasing them with Ran-oh-ki-niichan."

Ranma snorted, ruffling her hair. "Chasing mice, eh?" He glanced upward as Ran-oh-ki hopped from the rafter to land on his shoulder. "You want to chase mice, rat?"

The creature sniffed disdainfully, looking away.

"Guess not," he said, patting Ran-oh-ki. "Anyway, why don't you get something to eat and find Washuu and Tsunami-chan, Atsuko? They might need help getting ready, and we're moving out today. I need to find Saffron and get all of the people he has fighting with us back here."

Nuku nodded, disengaging herself from Ranma, and turning her attention to a small bag of clothing that Cologne had set aside for her. Ranma left before she removed her shirt, closing the door behind him and teleporting away.

The reception deck atop Phoenix Mountain was deserted when Ranma arrived, though; the majority of Saffron's people had gone through the Gate to Australia the previous night. He glanced at the sun, not completely clear of the distant mountain, and settled to the deck, trying to get used to the dual gems in his wrists.

The pattern of blue on his bodysuit, beneath the red robes, was perfectly mirrored, leaving a narrow band of jagged blackness between the two, and the flow of power through them was far greater than he was used to, even when he had used the temporary gem. "Anyone home?" he called out, scratching at his left wrist for an absent moment.

His cry was answered shortly by Kiima, the Phoenix woman dressed in her flowing white robes and holding a half-eaten roll in one hand. Emerging from one of the small side-halls, she stared at him, frowning. "I am here," she said after a moment of pause. "Most of the other warriors are in the lower hall."

At Ranma's blank stare, she sighed, shaking her head. "It is within the mountain," she offered. "If you wish to speak with Saffron, I would ask that you wait. The ceremony he officiates is holy, and outsiders are not welcome."

"As long as it doesn't take too long," he grumbled. "I was just checking in. If he's busy I'll come back later."

"If you insist, but it is a few minutes' flight," Kiima warned. "If you wait only half an hour, I'm sure that Saffron-sama will finish."

"That generally doesn't bother me very much," Ranma said, smirking. Kiima opened her mouth to protest, but Ranma teleported away before she could speak, arriving once more above Jusenkyou.

He spent a moment staring at the waters below, fingering the place on his sash where his sword would hang, had he not left it with Nuku. He sighed, shaking his head, and rose higher, scanning about visually.

The Joketsuzoku village was visible in the far distance, below and to the northeast. Faint plumes of smoke drifted up from the buildings, apparent to his augmented vision. Snorting, he spun, glancing south, towards Phoenix Mountain. The flight would only take a few minutes, as Kiima had said, but Ranma could return whenever he wished. Further west, nearly blending into the landscape around it, Herb's palace sat, abandoned. Shanghai was too far away for even his vision to reach, though Ran-oh-ki's senses echoed about the planet to give him a vague impression that the city remained untouched. Likely the reavers couldn't approach due to the radiation.

Shaking his head, Ranma stared straight down, using Ran-oh-ki's senses to search for reavers. The pools below, and the narrow fields above the western face of the cursed training grounds. That would be the final battleground as Norris and Cologne had decided. Leading away to the southwest, a small valley led into a maze of stone spires and dead ends. Leading directly west was the wide plain that they had traversed while heading to Herb's palace. To the north was a thickly wooded strip of land that eventually led to a monastery that Ranma and his father had visited before heading to Jusenkyou.

Sighing, he rose higher, closing his eyes, as Ran-oh-ki's sensors picked up a signal of an entirely different sort. "There's some good news," he murmured, his gem echoing with faint traffic between the newly arrived ships. On a sudden hunch, he teleported again, he and Ran-oh-ki reappearing in the point directly between the Earth and the moon. The moon itself carried little interest for him, but the Earth….

It seemed as blue as the day he had first seen it, save, much larger from his current viewpoint. He smiled at it, shaking his head, and reminded of Saffron's words. "You would rather destroy it than see it given over to the reavers," he mused aloud. "Is that the right thing to do?"

Ran-oh-ki made an indecisive mewling noise, shaking his head sadly. "You don't think it's right either, do you?" Ranma asked, not looking. "But maybe he's right. If they live, Yosho says they'll spread. But maybe… Maybe there's still a way to stop them. There has to be. And we're gonna find it, right, rat? We'll just get everyone else safe, first."

Releasing a much happier, "Miyah!" the creature nodded.

"Heh. Well, whatever we got to do, we've got people to protect. Let's go check in on everyone, eh?" He tapped his fingers against the gem at his ear. "Washuu? Tsunami-chan? Are you there?"

"We're here," Washuu said, her voice surprised. "Atsuko's with us -where are you?"

"Just overhead," Ranma said, grinning.

"Ranma… halfway to the moon is more than merely 'just overhead'," Tsunami chastised him.

"How did you know?" he asked ruefully.

Tsunami giggled through the communicator before answering. "Shizu-oh told me. Will you be joining us for breakfast, Ranma?"

"Yeah," he said, shaking his head, and teleporting to the source of her communications.

He glanced around the front room of Cologne's cottage, drifting near the door. Tsunami and Washuu turned to regard him, both smiling warmly, though Nuku was absorbed in playing with a bowl of porridge. Nodding, he asked, "How much time do we have?"

"Nearly half an hour, I think," Washuu said, frowning at him. "Cologne is talking to her warriors, preparing them for the journey. What were you doing in space?"

"Admiring the view," Ranma said, shrugging. "I'll get Saffron and his people in a bit — I've already scouted Jusenkyou out, and couldn't find any traces of reavers there. Ran-oh-ki didn't detect the guide, so I don't know where he is, but it's nowhere near the springs, wherever it is."

"Well, there's some time yet, Ranma. Come, sit with us and eat," Tsunami said quietly, gesturing to a nearby seat.

Sword on his hip, Ranma appeared once more on the receiving platform for the Phoenix People. Saffron stood there, half expectantly, and nodded curtly as Ranma floated a half-meter over the cobbles. "Morning," the boy said, nodding back to Saffron. "Everything ready?"

Saffron nodded again, running his fingers across the twin staves tucked into his belt. "Indeed," he said quietly. "We are prepared. What is your plan?"

"Cologne's plan, mostly," Ranma said, shrugging. "The Musk, Norris's men, and Cologne's warriors are all going to walk towards Jusenkyou — we should get there at about sunset today. I'll be checking for reavers along the path, and your people will stay above whenever you can, out of range. Your warriors can use ki, right?"

"Of a certain, as you mentioned before. We will not hesitate to use it, either. Regardless of that, the defilers would appear to be unaware of my forces," Saffron explained. "We are in agreement, however, on the best course of action. Your path will keep us close to Phoenix Mountain. I will travel with you, myself, Ranma." The god turned his head, eyeing the building that Ranma had seen Kiima emerge from previously. "Kiima! Summon our warriors."

She strode from the entrance of the building, pausing long enough to sketch a brief bow to Saffron, and leapt upward, winging her way over the top of another building. Saffron made a thoughtful noise, watching her depart. "Enough of that," he said dismissively. "My warriors will serve as scouts in any areas that you cannot."

Ranma heard a shrill, piercing whistle, and dozens upon dozens of Phoenix warriors burst from the mountainside, and from behind the few buildings Ranma could see from his vantage. They rose upward, forming a massive ring around the top of the mountain, bearing short swords, spears, and nets. Saffron smiled at them, then turned his attention to Ranma. "Will you fly with me, Ranma?"

Ranma raised an eyebrow, as Saffron launched himself upward, wings shedding faint wisps of flame in his wake. "Sure," he said, shrugging, and rising to Saffron's height. "Let's go."

Crouching atop the lodge that had been leant to the Musk, Herb stared at the southern horizon. The sun had risen far enough that the eastern sky was no longer a line of blazing fire, but it was still low enough that the sunlight struck at a steep angle. Phoenix Mountain itself was half lit, half in shadow. Herb's keen eyesight picked out a number of small motes, slowly rising from the mountain, and angling towards the village.

"Excellent," he whispered. Raising his voice, he bellowed, "Lime! Mint! Where are you?"

Mint bounced excitedly from the ground to land next to Herb, and happily exclaimed, "I'm right here, Herb-sama! Lime's looking at the place where all the girls are taking a bath, but I thought I'd wait in case you needed anything. Do you need anything? Because if you don't, I'm going to go look with Lime, and—"

"That's quite enough," Herb snapped, glowering at Mint. "We do not have time for foolish games, and upsetting our allies is pointless. Assemble the rest of the men, and have them waiting in the central courtyard. I will fetch Lime myself."

Sighing, Mint leapt down from the roof, and scurried off to do as Herb had ordered. "Idiots," Herb grumbled, marching towards the area he believed to house the baths.

In short order he found them, high bamboo walls separating them from the outside world. Listening carefully revealed no sounds. Nodding judiciously, he leapt to the top of the wall, peering across the wide stone basin.

The only being present was Lime, laying prone on the stone lip before the water, his body covered with small blue and red flowers plucked from the bushes that surrounded the baths. Shaking his head, Herb leapt again, this time landing at Lime's side. He toed the boy's form experimentally, noting a small lump on his head. "Wake up," he snapped.

Lime roused at Herb's voice, sitting up and dislodging the small flowers. "Huh?" he asked, peering around in confusion.

"We do not have time for this," Herb warned angrily. "Now go to the courtyard — your brother is waiting for you there."

"Okay," Lime said, climbing to his feet and lumbering away.

Sighing, Herb leapt over the gate of the bath, landing before a small party of approaching women, and backpedaling to avoid colliding with them. He felt no need to apologize for the near miss, until he recognized the girl that had strangely captivated him the prior day. "Ah," he said quietly, shuffling his feet about nervously. "Hello, my princess."

Rei blinked, surprised, and glanced about to her companions, all of them female. Furrowing her brow slightly, she asked, "Prince Herb? What were you doing in the women's baths?"

Herb looked over his shoulder, but Lime had vanished, apparently not noticing the approaching girls. "Ah, now that would be a good question," he hedged. "But, ah, there are more pressing matters to attend to, I'm sure. Don't allow me to keep you; Saffron and his people draw closer, and we must leave soon."

The other girls nodded, trouping past Herb and into the baths. Rei crossed her arms over her chest and asked, "Is that so?"

"What reason would I have to lie?" Herb asked, frowning. "Are our realms not aligned, the Musk with your… Mars?"

Rei blushed faintly, and stifled a giggle. "Of course," she said, shaking her head. "Then I guess I'll see you later?"

"I look forward to it," Herb said, nodding vigorously. "Now if you'll excuse me, I must chastise my men for… er… trying to peek into the bath."

Rei's eyebrows shot up at that, but Herb rushed away before she could speak; he wasn't exactly certain what to say, or even why he felt so awkward. "The relationship is entirely political," he muttered to himself, his voice lacking conviction even to himself. "But she is strong, perhaps…." He shook his head to banish the thought, drawing upon the courtyard, where his men stood in disorderly ranks, most of them eyeing Lime and his collection of small flowers.

The courtyard, a few minutes later, was allowed to witness what Cologne guessed would be the final gathering of warriors in her lifetime. She didn't voice those opinions, instead marveling over the collected defenders. The eastern quarter was lined with Norris's Marines, standing in careful formation. To the west, the Musk, slowly shaping into some semblance of order with Herb's angered instruction. The northern quarter was lined with Amazon warriors, far more relaxed and casual than the Marines, but attentive of Cologne as she stood atop the challenge log.

Lining the log on all sides, within the perimeter of the other assembled groups, the original defenders of Tokyo stood in a ring. The girls who Yosho insisted were from Jurai stood together, then Ryu, Ryouga, Mousse, and Yakumo. After them, Yosho, Tsunami, Washuu, and Nuku. As Cologne glanced upward, and to the south, the Phoenix people wheeled over the village, slowly descending, then landing in disorganized clusters.

The spectacle was much more impressive in the broad light of day than it had been the previous night, and these were all warriors, not the women, children and craftsman that had been sent to safety. Landing next to the challenge log, a wash of flame sweeping out in a ring from his point of arrival, Saffron stood on the ashes of the previous night's bonfire. Ranma descended with him, breaking away to drift in the narrow space between Washuu and Tsunami, not actually ever touching the ground. Behind him, under Saffron's watchful gaze, the Phoenix warriors lined up into columns and rows, neatly ordered in ranks defined by the weapons they bore.

Once they had settled into place, complete and total silence descended over the area. Though Saffron's warriors were the largest contingent by far, the god inclined his head to Cologne, deferring to her. Clearing her throat, the woman tapped her staff loudly against the challenge log. "Well," she said, turning slowly in a circle to see everyone. "This is it, isn't it? I think it's something in the way of an achievement, that after all is said and done, we're the ones who have enough strength to keep on fighting."

Nods greeted her assessment, and she smiled, sighing. "Warriors all, brothers- and sisters-in-arms. We fight together, simply enough, so that we can hope to see another tomorrow. Lets all do our best, hmm?"

More nods greeted that, accompanied by a few exuberant shouts from the Amazons. Cologne hushed her own warriors with a gesture. "This is not a contest, or a game. No sparring match or duel for honor. This is a fight for life." Clearing her throat, she added, "We've got a long way to move this many people, and a lot of things can go wrong when we do it. Norris's men will help, but they won't be able to fight the same way we can. The Musk and our styles mesh well enough, but be mindful of your allies. Norris, is there anything else you want to add?"

The man nodded, trotting to the challenge log, and scrambling atop it after a moment of struggle. Clutching one of the support ropes, he glanced around at the warriors, and explained, "If there's anyone who thinks that they would be better off with a fusion rifle, we've got a few surplus — especially after the arms given to us by the, ah, Galaxy Police." He frowned, scratching his head for a moment, then shrugged. "I know that most of you prefer a different style of combat, but if no one here can use them, we might as well throw them away."

"Perhaps some of my warriors can use them," Saffron said, nodding sagely. His booming voice echoed, reaching the furthest reaches of the crowd. "I am unfamiliar with the operation of those devices, but a net can be cast only so many times. Regardless, beyond that, I believe it is time for us to leave. My warriors will fly above, and offer what aid they can when it becomes apparent that such is needed."

"Ah…. Right," Cologne said, chuckling nervously. "Let us begin!"

Patrolling through the woods alongside the main band of fighters, Jim Dew fingered the trigger on his positronic rifle nervously. Not completely trusting himself, the safety had been left on, and he tried not be intimidated by those fighting alongside him. A swarthy brute taller than he by a head, bearing a spear with curved tines, and a pair of nearly petite women. One bore a long spear with a sharp curved blade, and the other carried a staff. Occasional shadows flicked across them from the winged scouts.

"This has to be one of the weirdest missions I've ever been on," he grumbled quietly.

The Musk warrior grunted, shaking his head and motioning the others to be still. They stopped their feet instantly, glancing around worriedly, and Jim thumbed the safety of his rifle off. From one corner of his vision he was able to make out the main body of warriors breaking apart, fanning themselves out. Jim turned his vision back behind him, keeping his feet still, and wishing he could match the silent grace of the women as they bounced effortlessly from the forest floor to cling to branches in nearby trees. "What's going on?" he whispered.

His only answer was an annoyed hiss from the Musk warrior, until he heard a quiet, rustling noise behind him. He whirled, relaxing when he recognized the figure approaching. Eric glanced around, then help up a hand, and curled it into a fist, then gestured towards the rear of the attack force. Jim nodded back, and shifted his footing, a good three meters away from Eric, leveling his rifle and peering through the sight carefully.

A small number of other warriors stood in groups off to the right and left, but Jim was unsettled to see none behind them. That meant that his group was the vanguard. Shrugging his shoulders uncomfortably, he sank to one knee, and licked his lips nervously, waiting. He was aware of Eric doing the same, the Musk warrior remaining as still as a statue.

There was a silence so still and absolute about them that Jim could make out the muter sound of a brook somewhere nearby, and over that, the distant chirp of some bird. A hand dropped onto his shoulder with enough force that he nearly pulled the trigger reflexively. Instead, he bit his tongue — hard — and turned his head to glare at the Musk warrior. The warrior had his eyes fixed on a distant point, and gestured towards it with his spear before removing his hand from Jim's shoulder, crouching low and springing away in complete silence. The women leapt forward with equal silence, shifting several meters away to different positions in another tree before the massive warrior landed, thrusting his spear downward.

It sank through the soft earth as he landed, being driven deep, the warrior's landing a heavy, solid impact. Jim blinked, glancing at Eric for direction, but the senior Marine was focused firmly on the Musk warrior. Turning to look at the place where the Musk warrior had landed, Jim bit his tongue again, as the warrior backed away, the earth beneath him surging violently upwards. "Shit," he swore softly. The earth continued to rise, displacing a mass equal to that of a reaver, which began shrieking loudly the moment it was free of the soil, the spear sticking from its back.

Jim wasted no time, firing directly for the thing's hide, joined quickly by Eric.

Saffron strode forward, padding across the forest floor next to Ranma. The boy had one hand resting on the hilt of his sword, and was scowling intently. "What troubles you?" he finally asked. "Does your partner sense something amiss?"

Ranma nodded, not glancing towards Saffron. "They're out there… maybe half a kilometer away. They get confused if they get too close to the beacon," he explained, nodding towards the device that Lime was carrying behind them. "So they're up to something. I don't know what it is, though."

"Yakumo?" Cologne asked, listening to the conversation. "Might you have an idea?"

Ranma glanced over at the man, but Yakumo shook his head in negation. "I can sense that they're close," he offered, distracted. "That's about it."

Saffron pulled the Kinjakan from his sash, and held it aloft. In a moment, the ring began to spin, glowing softly with the heat it generated. "When they come, we are prepared," he declared. "The one we must protect is here, where we can do the most good, is she not?"

Ranma nodded absently, glancing at Hotaru and offering the girl a smile. His smile faded, as he shook his head, and held out one hand to still everyone. "They're coming," he hissed. "Everyone get ready!"

Saffron cast about himself, confused. "I see nothing," he protested. "Where are they?"

"All around — dozens of them," he grumbled. "Here they come!"

Narrowing his eyes, Saffron peered into the forest ahead of the small army. Shadows flickered about the forest seeming to coalesce before his eyes. "Ah," he breathed. "I see them. There is no need to worry further — I can unmake them easily enough."

Ranma turned to look at him sharply but Saffron ignored the glance, swinging the Kinjakan at the nearest shadows. The ring burst from the tip of the stave, heating up as it did so, and slinging fire behind it. In the time it took to reach the nearest trees, it was a disk of flame three meters wide, trailing intense heat and force behind it. Saffron channeled his own energy into the wake of that fire, the heat of the Phoenix god burning intensely, turning trees into ash rather than setting them ablaze.

Everyone remained silent until the ring returned to the Kinjakan, and Saffron calmly stuck it back into his sash. "And so it goes," he said proudly, gazing into the smoke.

"You idiot!" Ranma yelled, starring into the ruined forest through the haze. "You made 'em really hot, but they're not dead — everyone back! If you touch 'em, they'll probably set you on fire!"

Saffron blinked, as the main battle group began to spread out, and the first of the defilers burst from the clouds of smoke. It was glowing a bright red, heat distorting the air above it, and its eyes were oozing sockets, the softer tissues boiling away, but it unleashed a horrific and tortured shriek, rearing up over Saffron.

Another trio burst free of the forest-turned-smoke, and Saffron had no time left to think. Flaring his right wing out as a shield to protect Hotaru, he reached up with his right hand, and tore his left wing off. "Die!" he shouted, slinging the wing at the creature before him.

The wing, flesh of the Phoenix god, turned into angry, living flame, smashing the reaver back and bowling it over — but not slaying it. "Is there no end to the defilers?" he asked, his wing already returned in a blaze of fire. He swiftly drew the Gekkaja from his sash, and twirled it expertly in his hands. The crescent blade snapped to a position at an angle to the stave, and he shuddered at the chill it emanated. "This will be the end of you!" he cried, furling his wings in, and leaping at the defiler.

From the very beginning, Jim knew that something was wrong. The shot projected a beam of light that struck the reaver, and carried the same deafening crack that it did the last time he had fired it. But this time, the beam simply deflected off the reaver's hide, shearing through a stand of trees and sending them crashing to the ground.

Eric muttered a dark oath, and the pair stopped firing in tandem. The large warrior ducked belatedly when he saw the beams of light, and stepped back. The reaver, as though it were surprised that the beams of light were ineffective, shook itself, then charged at the Musk.

For his part, the man kicked at the reaver, staggering it slightly and then drawing himself into a defensive stance. The women in the trees launched themselves at the creature. A hacking spear bit into one leg, while the staff seemed to batter at the creature without doing damage.

"Crap," Eric said, running his hands through his hair. "What the hell do we do now?"

Jim spread his hands helplessly, and turned to watch the fight.

The warrior beat at the reaver with his hands, but the reaver ignored him and the woman with the staff, focusing instead on the one with a spear. The woman was fast, and skilled, but was unable to attack beneath the onslaught, while the other two couldn't damage it. A lashing claw clipped her shoulder, sending her tumbling away.

Impossibly fast, the Musk warrior snatched her out of the air, and grabbed her spear with his free hand. The woman clung to his neck, hanging against his back, and shouted something in Chinese. Roaring at the top of his lungs, the Musk lunged, slamming his new spear into the reaver — receiving a spindly black claw through his chest in exchange.

Jim jumped up from his crouch, ready to charge, but was restrained by Eric. "What can we do?" he asked the other Marine. "We can't fight it, Dew!"

Realizing the truth of Eric's words, but resenting the fact regardless, Jim sank to his knees, cursing. As he watched, the Musk warrior, still fighting on, even with the reaver's claw stuck through him, seized the woman with the staff, yelling something in Chinese that neither Jim nor Eric understood. The woman clinging to his back reached a hand out, and yelled something else, her hand just seeming to brush against the carapace of the reaver.

The mechanism of it was beyond either of them, but using his own body as a shield for the woman with the staff, the Musk warrior vanished in the sudden storm of black shrapnel as the reaver exploded. Flying some distance away, and then lying unmoving, the girl was the only survivor of the trio. Where the monster had been there was a small crater filled with seething and smoking yellow ichor, the area for dozens of meters around covered in black and twisted shrapnel. Of the two other warriors, there was no sign. "Damn," Eric swore, running to the lone survivor.

Jim glanced around, looking for other groups of fighters, but they were faring about the same; the Marines were largely ineffective, and the other fighters were only able to give as good as they got. Gritting his teeth, he pulled the pair of replacement batteries for his rifle from his neck and threw them to the ground. Eric staggered back to his side, setting the woman down, and fumbling for his radio. "We'll have to call for backup," the officer warned.

"Wait," Jim said, staring at the pair of batteries. "We might be able to do something after all."

Saffron shouted something in a tongue Norris didn't recognize, throwing himself at a reaver and turning into a solid ball of flame. He only had enough time to blink before Pavel shoved him to the ground, throwing himself across Norris protectively.

Norris shoved the junior officer away, but not before a deafening crack echoed across the battlefield, fragments of shrapnel zipping through the air overhead with blinding speed. "What happened?" he shouted.

Pavel rolled away, staying on the ground and fumbled for his radio. "Hot and cold!" he yelled over the increasing din of the battle. "He made the reaver really hot and then froze it — so it couldn't handle the heat differential, and exploded."

Norris raised his head, still lying on the forest floor like Pavel, and peered about cautiously. There was nothing more than roiling smoke where Saffron had been, and Ranma had already divided into two. The female form was standing in red robes with a great sword before Hotaru protectively, while the male was wearing skintight body armor and wielding twin blades of glowing blue energy. "Everyone down!" the male Ranma yelled, facing off against a single reaver.

The redheaded Ranma stepped back, wrapping one arm around Hotaru and crouching slightly, while the darker haired one led the glowing reaver in a tight spiral. "What the hell is he doing now?" Norris complained loudly. "We don't have time to dance! This is a war!"

"Cover your eyes," Cologne warned suddenly.

He ignored the admonishment, until Ranma suddenly dashed towards the reaver, punching upwards and crying out, "Hiryuu-shouten-HA!"

Norris's jaw dropped — there was still nearly a meter between Ranma and the reaver. "You missed!" he yelled. "How could you miss?!"

Ranma — both of them — spared Norris an annoyed glance for a moment, before a sudden, sucking vortex of wind surged towards Ranma, whistling across Norris so quickly that he was pressed back into the ground, and forced to brace himself against a tree root. The wind blew in, and then spiraled sharply upward, taking the reaver Ranma had been facing and the other pair nearby upwards.

The man could only stare, stunned, as the intense wind sucked all the smoke from the battlefield, and continued to bear the reavers upward. The cleared smoke revealed Saffron, crouched low behind a great tree and clearly struggling to resist the intense pull, but not visibly damaged otherwise.

With the reavers gone, for the moment, the warriors about the battlefield picked themselves up, looking on in awe. "I hope if any one else knows that move, they don't hesitate to use it," Ranma declared, nodding at his feminine counterpart. She nodded in return, releasing Hotaru.

"What goes up, must come down," Cologne warned.

"Come down, yes, but in what form?" Saffron asked, climbing to his feet shakily. "While the defilers here may slink through the Earth, my warriors rule the skies."

"There's another wave coming," the female Ranma warned suddenly, the small creature that typically followed Ranma about nodding from Hotaru's arms. "Saffron, try a little less fire this time."

"I fight with you, but you do not give me orders," the god spat distastefully. Ranma — both of them, again — turned to glare at Saffron, and he reluctantly added, "Though I agree with the suggestion you pose."

The male Ranma shook his head and glanced upward, while the female turned to peer at the edges of the kilometer-long stretch of forest that Saffron had turned to ash. "Here they come again," he said, as the three reavers sent airborne crashed back down, much cooler to all appearances, and wrapped in wire nets. A number of spears protruded from their hides, and they were completely unmoving. "Looks like your soldiers did a pretty good job," he said, glowering at Saffron pointedly.

The god sniffed disdainfully, and looked away.

Yosho attended Washuu and Tsunami carefully. In his opinion, Tsunami should have been sent upward, to the safety of the fleet in orbit, but the young woman insisted on remaining with the defenders. Washuu refused to leave, and Yosho could hardly begrudge her that, though he had stopped trying to guess her motive long ago.

Ranma was at the fore of the group of slowly moving warriors, out if sight in the distance at the moment, while the other defenders were scattered about in loose ranks, Yosho himself near the back, but not in the vanguard. He fingered the key that Washuu had lent him, grimacing in anticipation, and glanced around. Lime grumbled constantly about the beacon he bore, too distracted — for once — to try and eye the women behind him.

Just as well, Yosho supposed, in the grand scheme of things.

Without any warning, the army halted, and Yosho stopped with them, tugging on Lime's shoulder to get the boy's attention. Grumbling, Lime set the cylindrical beacon on the ground, and glanced around. "What's going on?" he asked.

"I sense them," Tsunami whispered, frowning sharply. "They are attacking!"

"Everyone on guard!" Yosho snapped, turning about and summoning his blade with an errant thought. A small force of Musk and Amazon warriors took up ready stances, the smaller ones hiding in trees and vanishing into bushes, the larger ones readying all manner of weapons. "How close are they?" he asked worriedly.

"They do not draw too near," Tsunami said, shaking her head. "Perhaps it is that they cannot — the beacon wards them away…. But there are a great many, approaching from that direction." She pointed towards the vanguard's position.

"How many?" Yosho asked anxiously.

"Perhaps… thirty?" Tsunami offered, frowning, and rubbing at her temples. "I can only guess from what the fleet senses and their Ouke-no-ki relay to me."

"That's way too many," he said flatly. "Tsunami, Washuu — go to Ranma." Smiling with grim purpose, he faced the inevitable charge. "And tell my mother that I'm sorry."

"Don't be so melodramatic," Washuu grumped. "It's not hopeless yet, and I'm not planning on letting you die here."

"Everyone in the vanguard, rally here!" Jim yelled, waving to the other combatants. Even if they couldn't understand his English, the others began to heed him, backing towards Eric and Jim. The other Marines had already thrown their fission batteries onto the pile, and run off to join the main task force, leaving Jim and Eric behind.

"Let's hope that this works," Eric grumbled. "If it doesn't—"

"Then we'll be dead anyway," Jim mumbled, turning his attention to his positronic laser rifle. "I'm more worried that it'll work too well."

Eric grunted sourly, as a pair of Musk arrived, both pursued by reavers, and a trio of Amazons, only marginally effective against the reavers that pursued them. A deafening shriek rang out, and Jim shuddered, seeing another trio of reavers charging in. "Do they know what we're planning?" he yelled as loudly as he could.

"Yes," a warrior woman answered tersely in Japanese, her spear keeping one reaver momentarily at bay. "Hold here, then trap," she said. "Maybe men run with sister."

Eric nodded, and Jim aimed his rifle at the stack of batteries on the ground. "Here goes nothing, and a whole lot of it," he warned. Before he could fire, one of the reavers slashed a claw through the Musk holding it off, charging straight for him. Even more of the creatures began to swarm up out of the ground, charging their small group.

But Eric was there before the reaver reached him, yelling at the top of his lungs, and trying to grapple with the creature. Jim knew Eric was strong; Eric was one of the largest men Jim had known before meeting the Musk, but even Eric was no match for a reaver. "Fire!" he gasped, losing ground quickly. "Do it!"

"Understood," he whispered, closing his eyes, and pulling the trigger. There was a blinding flash of light, the softest touch of warmth against his skin… then nothing.

Hotaru allowed the redheaded Ranma to wrap one arm about her protectively, and leap upwards and back, bearing her to safety as a group of eight reavers charged the defensive line. She landed a dozen meters behind the foremost defenders, setting her down and glancing around worriedly.

At the fore of the line, wings trailing flames of fury, Saffron wielded his scythelike weapon, slashing at a reaver and completely unmindful of the claws that speared him, lay him open, and severed his arms. No sooner had the damage been done than the fires of his being undid it, fires hot enough to melt even the limbs of the reavers where they came into contact with the Phoenix god's blood.

Ranma — the other Ranma, she supposed — squared off with another, blue energy blades flashing, no longer striking the reavers as they once had, and now cleaving cleanly into them. At his side, Herb moved, seeming more to dance than fight, preceded by a circle of flashing blades of light. The blades slammed through a reaver, leaving the carapace to stagger away for a moment, the entire body of ichor seeping out from the massive wounds that had been inflicted before it collapsed.

"Wow," Hotaru breathed, impressed by the play of energies. It had a certain surreal beauty, she had to admit. "We're winning!"

"It's way too easy," Ranma assessed, sheathing her blade, and shaking her head. "There's something wrong here." Turning her head to one side, she glanced at the American man who was staggering back from the line of defenders, being dragged by another Marine. Ranma shouted, "Norris! Something's wrong — what's going on with everyone else?"

Norris fumbled with the radio at his belt and barked something out in English, frowning intently and drawing to a halt near Ranma. "Reports are sketchy," he said, shaking his head. "Pavel, try and contact Eric and find out what his position is. Ray's on the right flank, and Patterson is on the left."

Pavel nodded, and began speaking into his own radio tersely, frowning and shaking his head at the lack of response.

The reavers turned and began to flee, once Herb, Saffron, and Ranma had killed all but three. They sank into the ground, and the male Ranma seemed about to chase, but finally settled for banishing his blades and crossing his arms over his chest. Saffron gestured with his staff, snapping the curved blade back to a straight angle, and then tucking it into his sash.

Shifting uncomfortably, the redheaded Ranma watched Pavel closely. As they watched, Kiima descended from the sky, hovering a short distance over the ground and addressing Saffron hurriedly, though Hotaru couldn't make out the words. In response to the words, Saffron began to glow faintly red, fire pouring off of him in rage. He stalked towards Ranma, and began saying something, thought that too was beyond her range of hearing. The moment that the one Ranma was addressed, the one standing over Hotaru turned to stare fixedly.

"Damn!" she swore, turning her attention to Norris and Pavel, while Cologne drew near apprehensively. "Kiima says that they're surrounding us — we've got about twenty to the north, another twenty to the south, and who knows how many behind us — they're trying to herd us towards Jusenkyou."

"Why?" Cologne asked, shaking his her. "Why would they want to push us to Jusenkyou?"

"There's a cliff north of here," Ranma added, frowning. "They could try and push us towards that, instead."

"People often fight harder when they're cornered," Pavel reasoned. "They may have learned that, and are trying to pick us off as they push us along."

"Or they could have a trap waiting for us," Norris countered. "One way or another, things just took a very bad turn."

"There was no trap there this morning," Ranma growled. "Ran-oh-ki, get Atsuko and check again." The creature made a noise of confirmation, and vaulted upwards, exploding into his ship form before streaking eastward.

Washuu frowned in consternation, glancing up as Ran-oh-ki streaked across the sky, bobbing for a moment to collect Nuku. A tingling sensation surged through her, making her shudder slightly. "Where is Ranma?" she asked, alarmed.

"He is leading the soldiers," Tsunami said, frowning. "Is something wrong?"

"I think so," Washuu mumbled. "Call it a hunch. I—"

She cut herself off, turning to stare towards the vanguard, as a quartet of Marines charged from the forest, yelling frantically. Two of them bore kinetic displacement rifles, and two were completely unarmed. Of the unarmed, one struggled to keep up, an unconscious Musk boy over his shoulder. "Commander Thompson is going to try and stop the charge," he gasped. "What kind of explosive radius do those batteries have?"

Washuu's eyes widened, and she shook her head quickly. "The same as they had when they were complete — oh, no!"

A heartbeat before the flash of light spread out from behind the marines, a shimmering white and blue lattice of force assembled at Tsunami's bidding, erecting a wall across the entire vanguard, and extending nearly a mile into the air. The flash of light was dulled somewhat by the barrier, but was followed nearly instantly by a sphere of fire and devastation, turning the forest before it into vapor, and sending a column of fiery smoke into the heavens.

Tsunami heaved an unsteady sigh at the sight, shaking her head. "It is horrible," she whispered. "What weapons must be wielded against such a force…."

"It was enough," Washuu said quietly. "The… that shouldn't have been possible under normal circumstances."

"We should leave," Yosho stated levelly, dismissing the blast. "That may have stopped them, but there will be more."

"Yes," Tsunami agreed, rubbing at her temples.

"They can't go through that, at least," Washuu countered. "For now we've got an angle of attack that they can't exploit. The leftover radiation will kill them even if they could get through the Light Hawk Wings."

"Fair enough. We'll divide our forces and aid the other flanks," Yosho suggested. "You two should go to Ranma, I'll head south." Not waiting for them to respond, Yosho dashed off, a goodly number of the still armed Marines and assorted other warriors following.

Washuu bit her lip uncertainly, then turned to Lime, who was staring at the aftereffects of the explosion with wide eyes, completely aghast. "You," she said, poking his shoulder. "Get to the middle of the army with that beacon, Tsunami, you should follow him. I'm going to head north. I'll meet you two later, okay?"

Tsunami nodded hesitantly, and began walking west behind Lime with occasional backwards glances to the Light Hawk Wings.

Shrugging his shoulders uncomfortably, Ryouga stood amid his comrades at the southern flank of the army. The Musk and Amazons were drawn up into a defensive line, the Marines behind them a short distance. "Why did they put me in charge?" Ryouga finally asked, watching the reavers milling about in the forest, maintaining their distance without attacking.

"Because Norris likes you more than me," Ryu said absently. "I think it was 'cause I dented his boat."

Mousse snickered quietly, shaking his head. "We've been fighting together since Shanghai, haven't we?" he asked. "Why change now?"

"Actually, I think we've been fighting together since we were on the Kitty Hawk," Minako interjected. "We're just like a laced shoe!"

Ryouga glanced back at her, frowning. "What do you mean by that?" Mousse asked.

Smiling brightly, Minako explained, "It's the binds that tie, remember?"

"Er… something like that," Ryouga grumbled. "Everyone get ready — they're not just going to watch us forever."

A barrier of light that sprang into being to the east, holding back a massive explosion, underscored his words. Shielding his eyes and focusing on the reavers, he made a note to thank Ranma for desensitizing him to distraction techniques, and roared, "Stand your ground!"

Galvanized, the forces turned their attention to the reavers just in time to face their charge. The reavers bore forward, claws digging into the earth and launching them across the ground, slavering jaws open wide, yet without their traditional shrieks.

Ryouga tore bandannas from his head and flung them with nearly reckless abandon — if the ki in his simple attacks could keep the reavers from phasing, it offered that much aid in the battle. Ryu gritted his teeth, clapping his hands together and then sweeping them apart viciously. The vacuum-blades he attacked with reeled another reaver. Rearing upward, it leapt over its brethren, angling directly towards Ryu.

"Shishi houkodan!" the cry tore from Ryouga's lips with far less effort than the last two, a simple ball of ki flinging the reaver backwards and into the other charging creatures. It then tumbled across the ground, becoming tangled with another pair of reavers. Only briefly, but if it helped disrupt their charge, so much the better for it.

Other cries rang out from the defenders, a particularly loud, "Jupiter oak evolution!" sending a veritable forest of angry leaves across the entire line of reavers, staggering them all.

"Awesome," Ryu said, grinning. "They must be new, or something. Total pushovers. Let's go kick some ass!"

Not waiting for Ryouga's permission, Ryu dashed forward, charging the reavers that were only then righting themselves from Ryouga's attack. "No!" Ryouga shouted. "You idiot— Mousse, keep the line in order."

Mousse barely had enough time to react, his chains ensnaring Makoto before she could chase after Ryu. "Stay here!" he snapped. "Ryu's coming back, and we need you here."

The girl growled at Mousse, shaking her head, but Minako interjected before Makoto could say anything. "Mako-chan, you trust Ryu, right?"

Slumping, Makoto nodded, and Mousse unfurled his chains from about her, slinging them towards the rushing charge.

It wasn't far from the vanguard to the northern defensive line, and half of what was left of the vanguard was already running to offer their support. All around, she saw Marines staring at their rifles dumbly, not daring to fire. The reason became clear to Washuu instantly. The gleaming black carapaces of the reavers were now even more polished, enough so that they could deflect the beams of light. While the radiation and ionization couldn't be deflected so easily, the beam of light could cause untold damage to their own forces.

As she watched, the attacking reavers tore a bloody swath through the marines without kinetic displacement rifles, shrieking angrily. For their part, the Musk and the Amazons gave it their all, but it was a slowly losing battle — save a lone island of resistance. Washuu sidled closer to the still-maintained barrier of the Light Hawk Wings, staring intently.

Haruka and Michiru, along with Setsuna, were able hold their own, a pair of Marines with kinetic displacement rifles backing them up. But beyond those three, the Musk and Amazons were pushed back, slowly forming ranks around them to maintain their position. As she watched, a trio of the reavers broke away from the battle, and began charging her.

Swearing at the impulse that had lured her away from the relative safety of the rest of the combat group, she gestured, narrow lines of force winking into existence between a pair of trees on the reavers' path. The first of the charging reavers passed through the lines, energy filaments thinner than an atom, and collapsed into a messy pile of carapace and ichor. The second began to phase, but not until it was too late, and the third passed through them harmlessly.

Washuu shook her head, sprinting along the barrier of the Light Hawk Wing, away from the reaver. She just needed to outdistance it and give herself a few more moments to prepare another defense.

"The way ahead lies clear," Saffron assessed, as Ranma's two forms recombined. "And the way behind is blocked. What can we do?"

"I don't know," Ranma said, shaking his head. "Ran-oh-ki is telling me that there's nothing at Jusenkyou that he can see out of the ordinary, but I still get the feeling that something's wrong. Hotaru's here, I'm watching over her like the lady said… I don't get it!"

"What lady?" Yakumo asked, frowning, one hand on his rifle.

"Strange lady in a white dress with blonde hair who called me 'Higurashi-sama'," he said, shaking his head. "Why?"

"Oh, fuck," Yakumo said quietly. "Um, I thought it was just dreams and didn't mean anything."

"What are you talking about?" Ranma asked, crossing his arms over his chest.

"Here's the deal, Ranma. Every time you have a dream and I'm nearby, I see your dreams — I don't know why, but you go to this strange place where some woman insists that you're supposed to do her bidding. You tell her to screw off, and then some other lady with blonde hair shows up and tries to help you out. The second time you have a dream of just being with the blonde lady — I think her name is 'Omiki' or something — and she tells you that Tokimi's putting you in some kind of danger. Tokimi says that you're supposed to bring her sister to her, and Omiki is telling you to protect Washuu," Yakumo babbled, stopping at the end to collect his breath. "Tokimi's the one in charge of the reavers, according to their memories. Does that ring any bells?"

"Tokimi," Ranma breathed, scowling. "I… I remember. She told me…." He broke off, stepping away from Hotaru and rising a short distance off the ground. "I have to find Washuu."

Yakumo blinked, certain that as Ranma vanished, his gems had taken on an ominous green hue. "Well, now what?" he asked, turning to look at Norris and Cologne.

Ryouga leapt after Ryu, lashing out with a fist as a reaver lunged for him. Ryu carelessly jumped before another reaver, and began to pummel it mercilessly while it was trying to regain its balance from the shishi houkodan that Ryouga had struck it with. The reaver rolled away from Ryu, sharp claws raking through the air where he stood as he ducked out of the way.

"Get back to the line!" Ryouga shouted angrily. "You idiot! You'll get yourself killed!"

"What are you worried about?" Ryu retorted, ducking a sweeping claw, and countering with a roundhouse kick that sent it tumbling. "These things are pansies!"

Ryouga growled, but had to focus on defending himself. With his back to Ryu, he only needed to worry about a few potential directions of attack at a time. Roaring, he grabbed a claw as it thrust at his chest, and twisted violently, the torque forcing it to flip over. Emboldened by his success, Ryouga placed a foot against the struggling monster's carapace, and heaved with all the strength he could muster. Surprisingly enough, the limb tore free, the reaver rolling away and shrieking in pain.

"Told you so!" Ryu said cockily. "We can beat these reavers easily!" As if to counter his statement, another group of reavers burst from the earth behind the line of their advance, charging to join their embattled brethren.

"Having second thoughts?" Ryouga asked, drawing in all the ki he could muster. The air about he and Ryu grew heavy, the ki slowing the reavers as Ryouga prepared for his final shishi houkodan. This time he'd get it right….

"Yeah," Ryu admitted, stumbling backwards at the sheer number of reavers surrounding them.

"Get back to the line," Ryouga managed, grabbing Ryu and pulling him out of the way of another lashing claw. Ignoring the boy's shouts of protest, Ryouga hurled with all his might, launching Ryu towards the line of defenders. The reavers wouldn't hurt him, he knew. The ki of the shishi houkodan would keep them from moving near him.

Smiling forlornly, he turned his attention to the line about him, but stopped counting when he reached twenty. This time, this time, they would all die to his attack, no matter the cost to himself. His thoughts were rudely interrupted as a hand grabbed his collar, someone lifting him bodily and racing towards the line of defenders. He struggled for an instant to see whom it was, protesting, "I'm not done with my attack yet!"

"Save it," Yosho's voice advised him, the man setting Ryouga down behind the line of defenders. "There's too much battle left for you to throw yourself away right now." The old man whooped a sudden bark of laughter, and shook his head. "If I'm not allowed to die here, neither are you!"

Washuu skidded to a halt at the edge of a cliff to the north, backpedaling frantically, and wheeling about. Pacing towards her with slow deliberation, parallel to the barrier of the Light Hawk Wings, was the reaver.

Collecting herself, she placed her hands before her, palms facing the reaver, summoning a thin barrier of sparkling red light to ward it off. She could just touch the bracelet on her wrist and call to Ranma for help while her shield slowed the reaver…. But her hand made no move to touch the bracelet, and the reaver strode through her barrier without visible effort.

She gaped, hands falling limply at her sides. How had it been able to dismiss her shield so easily? Why couldn't she move her hand to touch the bracelet on her wrist? Was she to perish to a reaver here, of all things, after all that she had done? But the reaver made no move to attack her — merely drawing to a point two meters away and hissing softly.

The foremost claws rose, outlining a crude oval between them, and Washuu could only wonder at her uncontrollable compulsion to stare, unmoving. Between the claws, woven of pure blackness, something was forming. Flat, roughly circular, and slowly growing. A portal, she realized distantly.

A portal to a place beyond the reality she knew, and something… something terrible and powerful beyond that. "No," she whispered, as the portal grew larger, and she was unable to resist the compulsion — the terrible compulsion — to draw closer.

Why had the reavers chosen to do this? Why to her?

"Enter," a voice whispered to her. "Come home. Return."

"No," she whimpered, her traitorous body taking a slow step forward. "I don't want to… Why are you doing this?"

"You must return… you know this," the voice whispered, not from before her, but from within her own mind, coiling about and wending through her innermost thoughts. "Abandon this place. Come."

Ever closer to the portal she drew, her hand rising to press against the inky blackness before her, only centimeters away. "Ranma," she sobbed quietly. "Where are you?"

A familiar sound echoed then, her vision nothing more than the infinite blackness, but the sound cutting through from beyond it. It rang sharply, then again, then three more times, 'snicker-snack'.

Her hand dropped to her side, as the reaver's claws fell, no longer attached to the reaver itself. The compulsion lessened, but she could not back away. Ranma's voice reached her, even though her eyes remained firmly trained on portal before her. "So this is what it's all about," he mused quietly. "This is what everything that was done to this world was done for. Tokimi wants you, Washuu."

"Ranma?" she asked nervously, unable to keep a tremor of fear from her voice. "What are you talking about?"

"Tokimi doesn't care about us," he said flatly. "She only cares about getting her job done, and to her, the ends justify the means. She doesn't want to hurt and destroy us. She only wants you to go home. To go to her."

"Who is Tokimi? Ranma, I don't understand—"

"Do you suppose that she'd be willing to make the reavers go away if I gave you to her?" he asked.

Washuu blinked rapidly, not completely understanding what Ranma was talking about. His hand passed into her field of vision, fingertips carefully wiping tears from her face. The glow of green light from the gem in his wrist sent a tremor of fear through her. "Stop this, Ranma!" she insisted, still captive. "You're scaring me!"

"Yeah, well, I guess dealing with Tokimi constantly kinda scared me a little bit, too," Ranma murmured. "I have some sympathy. How about I send Tokimi a little token of my esteem for her, hmm?"

Washuu closed her eyes tightly, swallowing down the lump of fear. "Ranma? Please… please don't do this!"

"It has to be done," he said tonelessly.

Washuu heaved an unsteady sigh. She couldn't fight against him; something was already keeping her from using her powers… and she didn't know if she had it in herself to fight against him, even if she could use them.

She shivered as Ranma wrapped his arms around her from behind. "Tell me, Washuu," he whispered, his breath warm against one ear. "Do you trust me?"

"Yes!" she exclaimed. "I do, but right now you're scaring me! Please, Ranma—"

"No," he said, loosening his grip on her slightly. "That's enough."

Washuu swallowed back another lump of fear, waiting for whatever would happen next. She did trust Ranma.

"I don't think she understands trust," he said after a moment. "Mouko takabisha."

Washuu's eyes flew open at that, staring at the portal in shock. Ranma's hands were before her, palms towards the portal, and golden ki-flame sprang from them, seeming to ignite within the inky void. Green and blue streamers of raw power writhed about the outer edge of the portal as it began to waver unsteadily. "Ranma?" she asked, surprised.

He said nothing, merely grabbing her tightly, and leaping backwards, off the cliff's edge. "I'm here," he said tiredly, the cliff's face whistling past them as their descent slowed slightly.

"Don't… don't let me go," she said, slumping as control of her body returned to her. Glancing upwards, she saw a flash of light from where the portal had been, followed by an echoing explosion. "What… what was that?"

"A long story," Ranma said angrily. "And a change in plans."

"Are you… angry at me?" she asked hesitantly.

Ranma snorted, stopping their descent, and reversing direction. He paused for a moment to shift Washuu's position so he was carrying her the way he traditionally did, and then answered, "No. I'm angry at Tokimi."

"Who is Tokimi?" Washuu asked, frustrated. "I've asked before, and Clay mentioned her once, but I don't know who she is!"

"She says that she's your older sister," Ranma said after a moment. "I guess that's where all of the bad parts of your family went."

"I would remember if I had a sister like that," Washuu protested. "And where did that portal go, anyway?"

"To her, I guess," Ranma grumbled. "Look, as best as I can figure, she's a goddess of death, or something, and she's pissed because she thinks that you're not doing your job. I get the idea that wherever she is, and whatever she is, she doesn't care for life much, so I imagine that the ki I threw in there is going to make her pretty angry. It's a gamble on my part, but it might buy us some time. Can you tap the gem on my ear?"

Washuu nodded, not completely understanding the situation, and touched the gem. Ranma winced at something from it, and said, "Norris, Pavel, anyone with a radio — tell everyone we're moving towards Jusenkyou. I know we're in trouble in places, but trust me on this one. The reavers will let up if we start running."

Clearing the top of the cliff, Ranma soared across the battlefield. Wherever the reavers had been, they had vanished, leaving only a deserted battlefield behind, survivors slowly picking their way towards the center to regroup. Ran-oh-ki, in his ship form, barreled through the air, and Ranma nodded grimly, lowering himself to the ground at the front of the army, as people belatedly began to move westward.

"Ranma-papa-san?" Nuku asked anxiously across the radio. "What's going on?"

"We're leaving," he said tersely. "To finish this."

"Ranma," Washuu said warning, as Ranma set her down, "you're not going to run off and get yourself killed."

"I don't plan on it," Ranma said. "We've still got to buy everyone else time, don't we?"

After gathering the former crew of Maintainer Shiname's platform onto Saryu-oh and giving them a crash course in Ginraii rescue procedures, Yohito awaited an order from Genoh, sitting idle while the other ships steadily continued the evacuation. The other ships proceeded in cautious sweeps, slowly spiraling in towards one of the large landmasses in the southern hemisphere. 'Australia', the natives called it.

Once he had verified that Kohito was safe, Yohito found the job far more boring than he would have liked to admit, and drummed his fingers against the console before him. More large Galaxy Police ships would be arriving shortly, and he would have to greet them — along with the Galaxy Police craft that was in convoy with him. Detective Kuramitsu was something of a legend, though Yohito had only actually spoken with her cadet, so he was confident that any difficulties could be easily managed.

He raised an eyebrow as Saryu-oh warned him of something on the planet's surface. An explosion, and the subsequent activation of Light Hawk Wings. His eyes narrowed at that, and a frown of worry formed on his face. None of the Ginraii ships were generating those Light Hawk Wings, so where could they be coming from?

Further speculation was cut off, as the massive Galaxy Police convoy chose that moment to drop out of hyperspace, emerging from Lagrange Point Two in a wide, retrograde orbit.

He sighed, activating the necessary communication links and pushing the event from his mind. He was merely a captain, after all; not even the leader of this operation.

Slowly pulling themselves together, worried at the sudden disappearance of the reavers, and more by the presence of the Light Hawk Wings to the east, the army reassembled, and headed in a much more direct course towards Jusenkyou. Kiima watched them from above, frowning. Saffron walked with the humans, strange as that was, but Kiima was not about to question him.

Her own warriors drifted on whatever updrafts were available, resting from the long flight and trying to watch over the battlefield. Reflecting on the brief skirmish, Kiima could only conclude that the forces of the Phoenix People were wholly useless in the last battle. Whistling shrilly, and gathering the attention of her two messengers, she snapped out, "Tell all of our men that the next time the forces below get attacked, we will dive to ground level and fight at the side of those below."

"Lower ourselves to their level?" one asked, concern evident on his features.

"Do not take that attitude!" Kiima yelled. "Saffron-sama fights at the side of those below — are you better than him? He fights — and dies — for those below regularly. Are you too good to even fight?"

Shamed, the messenger shook his head. "I'm sorry, I spoke without thinking—"

"Enough," Kiima growled. "Away. Spread the word. We have better things to do with our time than bicker. Move."

Ducking his head, he darted off, followed shortly by the other messenger, moving on to relay the word.

"Saffron-sama," Kiima said quietly, confident that none could hear her. "Why are we doing this?"

Shifting his shoulders about uncomfortably, as Ranma rejoined the front of the army and began walking forward, Saffron frowned. "Something is amiss," he noted quietly to the boy.

"Damn straight," Ranma growled. "Saffron, you said that you would destroy the planet before you let the reavers have it, didn't you?"

"I did not speak it idly," Saffron allowed, uncrossing his arms and pacing alongside Ranma. "Is your plan to destroy this green Earth?"

Ranma paused for a heartbeat, furrowing his brows and eyeing Saffron. "That's a funny way to say it," he muttered. "'This green Earth'." Shaking his head, he sighed. "That's not it. I don't want to destroy it — I've been fighting to try and protect it all this time. Destroying it… even to spite the reavers, I don't think that's right."

"I will concede that point to you. It lacks a certain honor… but then too, the defilers lack the same."

"Maybe," Ranma grumbled, shaking his head. "If you were going to destroy the planet, how would you do it?"

"The total culmination of my power can create a flare of sunfire that will melt mountains," Saffron declared. "Were I to sacrifice my own immortality to the fullest height of my power, I would only be able to crack the surface of the world open. Even with this continent sundered, I could not destroy an entire planet, and the repercussions for an action like that would be most… dire."

"What? What do you mean?" Ranma asked. "Who's going to get you in trouble for that if you're dead?"

"There are those that govern me, and then, those that govern them," Saffron said evasively. "I wholly doubt that Tsunami-sama would be best pleased by an action like that from me, and even then, it would accomplish nearly nothing against the defilers."

Ranma snorted, shaking his head. "Tsunami-chan's a nice girl. Still, that's not the way to do it, so don't worry too much. If you could make cold like you can fire, things would be really different."

"To freeze the world as I would sunder it with fire?" Saffron mused, narrowing his eyes. "Could such a thing be done?"

"Rei dreamed it, so I guess so," Ranma said dismissively. "But we know enough about it to keep it from happening, right?"

"If we wanted to keep it from happening, yes," Saffron said quietly. "Is that the case?"

Distracted, and worried over the change in Ranma's demeanor, Washuu attended Tsunami, watchful for reavers until they reached Jusenkyou, shortly before sunset. Once there, the Phoenix People landed, shifting about uncomfortably and waiting expectantly. Saffron strode towards them to address them quietly, while the surviving Marines clustered together a short distance away from her.

"What are our total losses?" Norris asked quietly, Pavel at his side.

"Looks like we lost about fifteen, all told," Pavel said apologetically. "From the vanguard, Eric and Jim, from the northern flank, Jon, Patterson, Smith… and more. That's half of your officers, sir."

Norris rubbed at his temples, shaking his head. "I don't know if we can do anymore good here," he confessed. "And that leaves me unsure what to do."

Striding towards the men, Washuu waggled a finger at them. "It's not your fault they adapted to the weapons I gave you," she explained. "If anything, it's my fault for not making the positronic lasers more adaptable. I'm sorry, Norris-san, but maybe you should give some thought into evacuating some of your men. The kinetic displacement rifles work, but even those have a drawback, thanks to the reavers newly developed armor."

"What would you suggest, then?" Norris asked tersely.

"That you leave while you can," Washuu admitted. "I know you want to fight, but there's no sense in anyone throwing their lives away if they don't have to."

"But you can't fight, either," Norris countered, angrily. "We swore we would fight to the end, and I, for one, plan to see it to just that."

"Sir," Pavel said quietly. "With all due respect, I think she has a point. Given the performance of our Marines, we're going to be more of a liability than an aid here. We can barely keep up with the Amazon and Musk warriors, our weapons are potential dangerous to both our allies and ourselves… This is a fight that we should have stepped away from a long time ago."

Norris bit his tongue, spinning on his heel to glare at Pavel. For his part the lower ranking officer merely raised an eyebrow, not cowed in the slightest. Ultimately, Norris sighed, bowing his head. "Damn it," he cursed. "We just can't do enough. I hate this. I hate so much that we can do so little, when so much needs to be done. I hate that we already lost what meant most to us — our home — and that we have to lose someone else's home, next. The bottom line here is that the war is nearly over, and we've lost. I don't know if I can bear that."

Ranma drew close in time to hear Norris's words, and crossed his arms over his chest, shaking his head. "That's not true," he said quietly. Norris snapped his head to stare at Ranma in surprise, all the other Marines doing the same.

"What do you mean?" Norris asked, confused.

"It's not over yet, is it?" Ranma asked, a slow grin building on his face. Washuu knew that grin, and it both calmed and unsettled her. Ranma got that smile when he was planning something sneaky.

"No," Norris said slowly. "But I don't see how we're going to pull a win out of this one, unless your friends up there have a bigger gun they haven't told us about yet."

Ranma shook his head, his smile widening. "But it's not over. And I may get knocked around in a fight, and I may get hurt really bad, but there's something you don't quite understand yet." He glanced at the other Marines, all staring at him raptly, and uncrossed his arms, his right hand falling to rest on the handle of his sword. "Ranma, by any name, doesn't lose. Ever. And since this war's not over yet, I'm gonna win it. I don't think you should worry about what you can do — you've done a hell of a lot more than you think. You got who knows how many people to Australia…

"…People afraid of me. People who wouldn't listen to me if I tried to help them. You fought for a while, and you fought a damn sight better than a lot of people. How many reavers did you and your men kill, Norris? Now compare that to how many reavers were killed before you were forced to leave America.

"You moved all of those people from Tokyo to Shanghai, and you got all of us to the Amazon village. Maybe it's time for you to take a break, Norris. Because you can. I can't. I have to keep on fighting, because I have to win, but you know, when you think about it, you already have won, haven't you?"

He shrugged then, and turned away, not waiting for Norris to respond. Finally, Norris found his voice enough to ask, "What does he mean he can't take a break?"

Washuu bit her lip, staring after Ranma as he strode away uncertainly. "I'm not sure," she said quietly. "He knows… he knows something I'm not allowed to remember yet."

"And what does that mean?" Norris asked, dumbfounded.

"What does what mean?" Washuu asked, raising a hand to her forehead as a momentary surge of pain distracted her.

Amidst a large circle of her warriors — though diminished from the morning meeting — Cologne surveyed them, frowning unhappily. "Welcome to Jusenkyou," she said tiredly. "Don't drink the water. How are we all holding up?"

"Okay," Kura-Wan said, leaning against her spear and casting about warily. "How long we stay awake?"

"We should sleep in shifts, I think," Cologne said after a moment of thinking. "Is there anyone who wants to leave? Anyone who's hurt? Most of the Marines will be leaving — to the stars. We all will, soon, I think."

"Some sooner than others," Jian-Di mumbled, limping into the circle from a scouting expedition, and leaning against Kura-Wan heavily. "Warriors sleep among the stars, after all."

"Perhaps, but we can live there, too, if we want to stop fighting." She thumped the end of her walking stick against the ground, gathering the slowly wandering attention of the women around her. "We've lost a few of our own today, more than I'd like to admit. Against an enemy like this, there is no dishonor in fleeing, I think."

The women shuffled around nervously, none of them willing to run. "Come, come!" Cologne insisted. "Our tribe needs women to continue it — not to end our lives here."

At that, Pei-Lin sat down abruptly, followed a heartbeat later by Kura-Wan and Jian-Di. "We fight," Kura-Wan declared, not even looking to her spear-sisters. "We fight because Pei-Lin will not abandon us, and we will not abandon her. Others… you may have children in your futures. We do not. Leave, and there is no dishonor."

Slowly, hesitantly, a few of the women stood, staring at their feet in shame, while more remained sitting, crossing their arms over their chests. Cologne nodded once they had sorted themselves out, and gestured to the Marines, standing a short distance away. "Go, go with those men, and live," she ordered. "Bring honor to our tribe, and live well."

Ducking their heads meekly, they set their weapons on the ground, and strode to the Marines, heads bowed. Cologne shook her head, studying the eleven women who remained, and sighed. "So, it's come to this?" she asked. "I can't persuade you to go, Kura-Wan? You're one of our finest warriors. Jian-Di? You have a bright future, too."

"I will not abandon Pei-Lin," she insisted. "We swore at the festival six springs ago, and tomorrow will be our seventh."

"Without Pei-Lin, we are incomplete," Jian-Di added. "So we stay."

For her part, the blue-haired woman bowed her head, blushing brightly, while the maces clutched in her hands trembled with the emotion she usually hid. "I am too blessed," she whispered. "And I almost wish you would leave, Kura-Wan, Jian-Di… but I do not have the strength to ask you. Please forgive my weakness."

Jian-Di and Kura-Wan both smiled at Pei-Lin, and shook their heads. In one voice they announced, "There is nothing to forgive."

"And you may yet live to see more springs than you already have," Cologne added. "You speak as noble warriors without hope… but hope lives forever." Cologne glanced to one side sharply as Rei approached, nervously, timid. But the raven-haired girl's attention wasn't fixed on her, it was focused on Pei-Lin.

Stepping gingerly to the woman's side, Rei bowed slightly, her face flushed. In Japanese, she asked, "Is something wrong, Pei-Lin?"

"No," Pei-Lin said fiercely in her own accented Japanese, shaking her head, voice choked up with emotion. "Everything fine."

Rei smiled slightly, and produced a handkerchief from a pocket, before leaning forward and dabbing tears from Pei-Lin's eyes with it. "I owe you this," she said quietly. "I… I didn't really understand what you said, because I don't know Chinese, but I think you're very lucky to have friends as close as you do."

"Yes," Pei-Lin admitted, taking the handkerchief from Rei and wiping away the last of her tears. Standing up, she dropped her maces and hugged Rei tightly. "And Rei is a good girl, still. Pei-Lin is lucky for that, too."

After sorting out who would stay, and who would leave, the leaders of the warrior groups held an impromptu meeting on the cliffs above Jusenkyou. Cologne, Saffron, Herb, and all of those who had left from Tokyo.

Saffron spoke first, his back to the springs, and wide-flared wings shedding light across the entirety of the small plain. "My warriors are unsettled, and reluctant to leave me," he murmured. "But all the same, I have allowed only a smaller number to remain. For all that I would like to win the battle, I would like some of my people to live on, even with me gone."

Cologne nodded her understanding. "Eleven of my warriors remain with us. Twenty are leaving. The rest…." She sighed, shaking her head. "We've not lost so many in a single battle in decades. It saddens me."

"I can imagine," Herb remarked. "Lime and Mint, loyal as always, will remain. One score total remains — the rest I wish to live. My people's heritage must be preserved. I myself wish to see this played out to its very end. Saffron-sama, how many of your own forces remain with us?"

"Kiima flies one wing. Her, and another nineteen warriors remain."

"Norris's men are all leaving," Ranma assessed. "So that means we've got twenty Musk, twenty of the Phoenix People, and eleven amazons?"

"Twenty Amazons!" Rei announced suddenly. "We'll fight with them!"

Ranma glanced over his shoulder at the girls he had once thought of as 'cheerleaders', and they all nodded firmly. "Okay," he said quietly. "Washuu, what else do we have?"

"Atsuko, Mousse, Ryouga, Ryu, Tsunami, myself, Yakumo, and Yosho, Ranma," she said apologetically. "Aside from yourself and Saffron and Herb, of course. I don't know how long we have until we get attacked, though, so I can't guess our hopes of lasting this out."

"I've been thinking about that a bit," Ranma said, tickling Ran-oh-ki's chin absently. The creature purred softly, and sent a signal to one of the ships overhead, which began to descend. "There are way more reavers, or they wouldn't have thrown themselves at us like they did earlier today, I think."

"Yes, but that raises even more questions and problems, too. They can phase-shift and slide through the lot of us — destroy us all at will, if they want to, and yet, they do not," Ami noted. "Why is that?"

"They want to capture someone alive," Yakumo explained. "Like I said in Shanghai. I'm guessing that's why they hold back — they don't want to kill… whoever it is on accident."

"Makes sense," Washuu said, nodding. "But the bigger problem is that as there are more reavers, they gain a certain immunity to the beacon. They can triangulate through it, as their numbers grow, and worse, they may begin to resist its lure and wander elsewhere."

"How much time do we have before they start swarming over Australia?" Cologne asked, frowning sharply.

"Well… hours? Given their reproductive rate, yes, in a few hours they would overcome the beacon, and spread out — but they can't move quickly enough for that to be a worry," Washuu assessed.

Snorting, Ranma countered, "How long did it take them to get to the orbital platform from Earth?" Washuu winced. "I… that's true. What should we do, then?" Ranma sighed. "I know what to do. We just need to give them better bait. They wanted you — as far as I can tell, they've wanted you all along. But there have been plenty of chances where they could have gotten you and they didn't. I think I know why they didn't."

"Why not?" Washuu asked, biting her lower lip worriedly, and shooting a nervous glance at the others present at the meeting. "Because the beacon screws with their senses. Either they think it's you, or it hides you from them, mostly. But when that one got close enough, they can tell where you are, right?" Ranma prompted.

Washuu shook her head. "That couldn't be it — the one in my lab came just as close to me." "And there were who-knows how many layers of your laboratory stacked on top of itself there to confuse it."

"I suppose you could be right," Washuu acquiesced. "But what does this have to do with your knowing what to do?"

"They'll all make a beeline for you if the beacon's not there to hide you, right?"

"So you want me to act as bait while you try and stave them off as long as you can? I trust you, Ranma, but—"

"Nah, that's not it," he said, shaking his head, eyes distant.

"Well, what is it?" she asked, unsure.

"Hmm," Saffron mused. "We must obviously offer a greater distraction to them — enough to keep their attention away from those still being removed to safety."

"Right," Ranma mumbled. "But how are we going to do that?"

"I can increase the power of the beacon somewhat," Washuu said, frowning. "By the calculations I've come up with, the Galaxy Police and Ginraii ships should finish the evacuation by about… ten in the morning, tomorrow. That's over twelve hours away. If we make the beacon more powerful, it'll stun them for a bit, but not long, and then they'll all come in force."

There was another moment of silence then, a large Galaxy Police craft sinking towards them through the night sky, and silently teleporting away the troops that had elected to leave. "Well," Ranma said quietly, "that'll have to do, I guess. Keep them as confused as possible, for as long as possible, then engage in a running battle. If we can get them to attack us from the east, they might fall into some of the pools, and that'll help. Then we can just fight them and work our way further west. Just keep retreating from them slowly, if you know what I mean."

"Towards my lands?" Herb asked. "The path is more level than some, and clear. The advantage would belong to neither side, I believe. Is that where you wish to fight?"

"Your men know this land well, do they not?" Saffron asked.

"We do," he affirmed. "Enough so that in a running battle we will use what terrain we can to our advantage. And despite that, I have doubts about the odds of our survival."

"Does it really matter?" Ranma asked. "Even if we just run, we're distracting them, right? We only need to last until, what, ten in the morning?"

"I may be able to do something," Washuu said suddenly. All eyes turned to her, as the Galaxy Police vessel flashed a set of lights at them, and began to rise slowly. "I can increase the power and focus of the beacon — I can make it show itself as being somewhere east of us. That way, when they discern our true location, they come at us straight through Jusenkyou. If those pools do what I've been told they do, they'll slow them down enough to give us a good head start on running. It should take them a few hours to figure it out, though."

"Okay, then we should sleep while it's safe. Ran-oh-ki says the area is clear for a while." Turning to Tsunami, the boy frowned darkly. "Tsunami-chan, this is really dangerous, and I'm not sure you should stay with us anymore."

"I'm sure the Juraian fleet is nearly panicked about you," Yosho added, speaking up finally. "And Ranma is correct — you may be safer with them. We could take you to safety shortly, if you'd like."

The young woman shook her head sedately. "I will remain and see this out," she insisted. "I do not… wish to abandon this green Earth until Ranma leaves."

Ranma frowned sharply, shooting a curious glance to Saffron before dismissing it. "It's your choice," he said quietly, turning to face Tsunami again. "But I'm not really sure that staying here is such a hot idea."

She shook her head insistently, and Ranma shrugged, turning his attention to the group at large. "Okay, Washuu, if you make those changes to the beacon, we should be set. Everyone else should try and grab some sleep while we still can — tomorrow's the last day, and it's probably going to be a hard fight. Saffron and I will take the first watch. With Ran-oh-ki and me scanning, we'll know if any reavers come close. Sound like a plan?"

"It's a plan, Ranma," Ryouga said suddenly, before anyone else could reply. "We can do it. We can win, and make sure everyone leaves safely."

"Okay, then," Ranma said, clapping his hands together, and darting straight into the air overhead.

Saffron smirked slightly, shaking his head. "I am to take watch with Ranma," he mused. "This should be interesting. Kiima, you and your warriors should do as he suggests." With that, he too launched himself upward, a slight wash of flame in his wake marking his path through the air.

Saffron turned to look at Ranma as he caught up to the boy above Jusenkyou. "I did not expect you to be able to convince her," he said mildly, crouching. "It is said that she is far too clever to be outwitted."

"I just lied to her. Just betrayed her trust forever. It's that easy," Ranma remarked bitterly.

"Forever," Saffron mused. "To save a world, perhaps that would be the right thing to do."

"Sacrifices must be made," Ranma whispered, closing his eyes tightly, thin tears trickling from between his closed lids.

"You should rest," Saffron advised. "I do not require sleep — I will watch over you."

"Sleeping would be bad," Ranma said, shaking his head. "If I sleep, Tokimi's there. I'll just sit still for a bit."

"If you insist."

"Can you sense reavers?" Ranma asked pointedly.


"Then I need to stay awake to see if any of them are getting too close."

"And if they are?"

"Then we start fighting right away."

The first traces of dawn's light found Ranma sitting on a cloudbank above Jusenkyou, his eyes closed. Saffron hovered next to him, the winged Phoenix god apparently unable to tire. "Open your eyes, Ranma," Saffron said quietly. "For the sunrise is a beautiful thing to behold, and it may be your last."

At those words, Ranma did as he was told, staring not at the sun, but the land below, as the light of the sun began to streak along, slowly obliterating the darkness. "If only it were that easy," he whispered. More loudly, he said, "I can feel them beginning to move."

"A strange coincidence, that," Saffron murmured.

"No coincidence," Ranma said, shaking his head. "She planned it this way."

"Perhaps," Saffron said quietly. "I remember, not very long ago, I said that I would call you ally, if not friend."

"Yeah?" Ranma asked, descending towards the encampment below. "What about it?"

"Understand that it is a rarity, but I would call you friend now," Saffron said quietly. "You are brave, and I cannot help but to approve of your goals."

"Thanks," Ranma said, sighing. "I'd like to say you were a friend too, huh? This whole thing has gotten so out of hand… I bet if none of this ever happened, we never would have even met each other."

"Who is to say?" Saffron asked, shaking his head. "I am not a master of fate and destiny, I am merely a god. But we might have. Do not be so doubtful."

"I guess," Ranma said dubiously, landing atop the cliff above the pools, and staring out over the camp. Few of the warriors had slept, or at the very least, slept well, and so instead sat restlessly, looking up when Ranma and Saffron landed. Yakumo stood nearby the spot where they landed, eyeing Ranma and Saffron speculatively.

"Morning," Ranma offered. "Rest well?"

"Didn't sleep," Yakumo stated flatly. "But I spent a lot of time thinking, and I'm pretty sure I know what you've got planned."

Ranma stiffened suddenly, one hand dropping to the hilt of his sword. "What do you mean?" he asked tersely.

"I've come close, too. I know what happened — She touched you. Marked your soul, didn't she?" Yakumo pressed, glancing over his shoulder as the camp roused, and then pitching his voice low. "Tokimi's waited until sunrise for a reason. Do you know what it is?"

"I think so," Ranma said, smiling softly. "But there's time for that later. The first of the reavers are coming."

"I see," Yakumo murmured quietly. Behind him, the camp began to rouse. "We should be getting ready, then."

Waking with the rest of those who had managed to fall asleep, Yosho rubbed at his eyes blearily, and allowed himself a moment to ponder the fate of his tree. Tsunami had assured him that Funaho was safe, but the man found himself unused to being so long without being able to contact it. Still, with the refugees largely taken care of, and the number of defenders reduced so drastically, it was the first time since leaving Japan he allowed himself to consider that.

The Musk warriors milled around, leering occasionally at the young women in their exotic outfits and the assorted Amazons for a moment, before Herb called them to attention, reprimanding them harshly. A quick breakfast of hard bread and dried beef was offered among the warriors, but Yosho declined. Either there would be food later, or there was no need to waste time eating again.

Not everyone shared his outlook, more than a few others munching on their trail rations disinterestedly. He stood, stretching, and watched Ranma and Saffron.

The boy spoke with Yakumo quietly, Saffron nodding judiciously from time to time, but saying nothing himself. Tsunami, Washuu, and Nuku all stood in a small group a short distance away, Nuku carrying Ran-oh-ki and looking about curiously, while Washuu and Tsunami spoke.

Finally, the general quiet and stillness was broken, Saffron throwing a large gout of flame upwards to gain the attention of the assembled warriors, and calling out, "They approach. Ready yourselves!"

The Amazons and Musk dropped their food, casting it aside and readying their weapons, while Kiima's forces leapt upwards, hovering overhead with spears and kinetic displacement rifles at the ready.

Ranma stepped away from Saffron before splitting, his female half bearing two long blades of blue energy, while the male drew his sword, both of them looking down at the pools. The first of the attackers arrived, flying up from the land below the cliff's edge, and landing atop the level area above Jusenkyou.

Saffron whirled to face the creature that had flown over his head, then faltered, frowning. Where they had been expecting a reaver, there was nothing more than a small piglet. It bounced against the hard turf, then squealed balefully, and began to twitch, only taking a moment to collapse on its side, breathing, but unblinking. "What the heck was that?" Ryouga asked fearfully, approaching it curiously.

"It can't keep a connection with the other reavers in that body," Yakumo said suddenly. "It doesn't know how to exist on its own — it needs to be able to speak with the minds of the others! So if they touch the springs, they effectively die!"

"For a few minutes," Ranma growled. "Let's make the most of this and start heading west. Washuu, how much longer do we need to distract them?"

"It's about seven now, so another three hours," Washuu said, frowning. "Are you sure—"

"Let's move!" he declared. "Lime, carry the beacon again. Ryouga, you and your group take point with Herb and Yosho. Me and Saffron will stay in the back."

Ryouga snapped to attention instantly, nodding. "You heard him!" he said, rushing to Yosho's side, and gesturing for the man to lead the way. "Let's move it!"

Galvanized, the troop began to move, Kiima's forces lingering overhead for a moment longer, as a few more victims of the pools began to land atop the cliffs. A duck, a cat, a dog…. Eventually, of course one of them would hit one of the pools of drowned human, and then…. Yosho spared no more thought for that, instead focusing on Ryouga. The boy had a horrible sense of direction, despite his leadership of the group he was placed in charge of, and that meant that Yosho had to show him the way. Herb marched forward swiftly, and Yosho fell into step beside him, Ryouga striding between the two, confident that he wouldn't get lost there.

Ranma swore something loudly, as Saffron casually immolated the reavers-turned-animals, and then they fell into step behind the army, heading westward.

The process of running westward was slow, Herb calling the army to a halt ever few steps to allow everyone to recover. Rather than attacking in force, the reavers sent out the occasional lone reaver to scuttle towards one flank or the other, one that vanished before any lasting damage could be done to it, and without attacking.

"What are they doing?" Ami asked worriedly, consulting her terminal for answers.

"Testing us," Yakumo replied tersely. "I can… I can feel them in my head. They're waiting for us to panic, and break for it, because they think they're leading us into a trap."

"The only thing in Herb's valley is Ryouko's damaged slave crystals," Washuu said, shaking her head. "They couldn't possibly have a use for those — the energy wavelengths are too different."

"Maybe, maybe not," Ranma said, shaking his head. "Ran-oh-ki tells me they can't be used as weapons, but the reavers can sense them. They probably just think that's where we're headed because they stick out more than anything else."

"That's partly my fault," Yakumo said, grinning. "I don't want to take control of them, like I did at Shanghai — that costs too much. But I can subvert them a bit. They're easily misled, since they think that I should be one of them."

"You do not strike me as a defiler," Saffron said, peering at Yakumo closely. "But for whatever reprieve we are granted, that is welcome. How much longer until we reach the valley?"

"Perhaps two hours," Herb suggested. "I suspect if we slow too much, they will fall on us."

"Yes," Yakumo said. "So we can't delay too long."

"That puts us in the valley at nine. I think if we get there, then we can just call to be evacuated, and be done with it. It's a small gamble, but almost everyone will be off the planet by then," Washuu noted. "If we do that, then we can put ourselves at the smallest amount of risk necessary after all. Fuji-san, you may have just saved the day."

"I'm all for gambles when it's only my own life on the line," Ranma grumbled. "Otherwise… I don't like the idea much."

Washuu winced at that, and shook her head. "Now, don't be foolish, Ranma — once we get to the valley, we can evacuate, and be done with all this nonsense."

Ranma shook his head. "We'll see," he said quietly. Nothing more was said, then, the entire force moving silently west, until they finally reached the uppermost edge of the valley.

The grasses below waved softly in the breeze, undisturbed by reavers or any other visible signs. Ranma peered over the lip of the valley, and raised one hand. In response, a number of cracked crystals rose from the green expanse, forming a large ring, and glowing with a weak, pulsating blue light. "Okay," Ranma said quietly. "This is it, pretty much."

"I recognize this valley," Rei said suddenly, grabbing Hotaru's hand, and backing away. "This is the valley from my dream — we can't go in there! If we do, Hotaru will die!"

Washuu snapped her head about, staring at Ranma in consternation. "Ranma, what's the meaning of this?" she asked, suddenly anxious. "Why did you take us here?"

"Yes," Cologne said tersely, frowning. "You've not been yourself lately, but this is even more strange than usual."

"I can explain everything," Ranma said quietly, closing his eyes. "The reavers are here for Washuu, like I said. The beacon is more powerful, yeah, but I can feel the reavers right now, and most of them aren't near us. They can't sense Washuu through the beacon, so they're all branching out. Some of them are halfway to Australia already."

"Ranma?" Tsunami asked quietly. "Why… why did you let this happen?"

"Ran-oh-ki is blocking the Galaxy Police communications out. He does… what he knows we have to." He sighed, drawing his sword slowly, deliberately. "The reavers are going to keep on breeding and destroying until they finish what they came for. And that's to find you, Washuu."

"Ranma," Yosho said sternly, summoning a blade to his hand. "You may be formidable, but I will not allow you to harm Washuu."

The boy chuckled, shaking his head sadly. "I don't want to hurt Washuu. Not at all. But the reavers are only going to be pulled into one group by a lure good enough to let me finish the job."

"Higurashi!" Setsuna exclaimed. "I've come to trust you, and you're double-crossing us, now?"

"Hardly," he spat. "A Juraian ship is coming for you. I remember my promise. I have to protect Hotaru, and that means that I'm going to make sure that she's gone before what has to be done comes about. Saffron… Saffron and I will see it through to the end."

"This is most unlike you," Tsunami said quietly, blinking away tears. "You make a threat against my sister, Ranma."

"Yeah?" Ranma asked, opening his eyes, and slinging his sword across his shoulder. "Well, you have two sisters, Tsunami-chan. I kind of like one, but the other's a stupid bitch. And I am not going to let Tokimi win." Before anyone else could react, Ranma swung his sword sharply, and cleft Washuu's beacon in half, the halves tumbling out of Lime's hands to clatter to the stones atop the edge of the valley.

"Now, everyone, run to the center of that circle," Ranma ordered tersely, pointing down into the valley. "And hurry! The Juraian ship can pick you up from there!"

"Go," Saffron ordered Kiima, who hovered nearby uncertainly. "Go and live. The time for your warriors to battle has come to an end."

Losing all semblance of order, nearly all of the assembled warriors began to scramble down the path to the valley, casting fearful glances at Ranma as they descended. Ranma himself remained, along with Saffron, Cologne, Tsunami, Washuu, Herb, Yosho, Ryouga, Mamoru, and all of the girls with him.

"My men may flee, Ranma, but to me, you are a brother-in-arms. I will not abandon you," Herb stated proudly. "This matter has escalated swiftly beyond what I truly understand, but I remain steadfast, and trust you."

"Trust is good," Ranma said, clapping a hand across Herb's back. The prince of the Musk stiffened at Ranma's touch, then collapsed to the ground, eyes wide and shining with betrayal. "But you can't stay here. None of you can." Herb twitched weakly, unable to move, and Ranma sighed, shaking his head. "Three can stay. Me, Washuu, and Saffron. Everyone else… you have to go. And soon."

The sky overhead began to darken, as a Juraian dreadnought began to descend, a beam from the bottom of the ship locking onto the circle of crystals below. "Ranma, what are you doing?" Yosho demanded, standing over Herb protectively, while Rei drew her own sword.

"What has to be done, damn it!" Ranma yelled. "Don't you get it? This is the only way I can stop Tokimi — even if it's only for a while!" Calming abruptly, he sheathed his sword, slamming it into his scabbard, and then removed the scabbard from his sash. "Atsuko, use Ran-oh-ki to help protect that ship." The girl nodded, as Ran-oh-ki suddenly vaulted skyward, expanding into his ship form, and teleporting Nuku away. "Tsunami-chan, do you trust me?"

All others fell silent, turning to the young woman. She swallowed nervously, and nodded. "I do, Ranma. If I did not trust you, I would not let you use your power," she admitted finally.

"Then you know I don't want to make you unhappy," he said quietly. "I promised you that answer, right? Well, I'll give it to you, but only if you leave to safety, and soon."

"I will not abandon Washuu," she said stubbornly. "I cannot!"

"Then you can leave with her," he said, nodding, and handing his sword to her. "And keep this for me, until I come back."

The young woman nodded uncertainly. "And what of Herb, Ranma?"

"He's okay," Cologne said suddenly. "Just like Shampoo. Ranma, I know what you're doing… are you sure that this is what you want to do?"

"I know it's not what I want to do. But it's what I have to," he repeated. "Cologne, please, take everyone and leave."

The old woman bowed her head, nodding her understanding. "Very well," she whispered quietly. "You were a son that made me proud, Ranma. Mousse! Ryouga! Take Herb, he cannot carry himself. Ryu, you should come with us." With that, the old woman strode off the valley's edge, descending towards the waiting ship.

Finally allowing his summoned blade of energy to vanish, Yosho bowed his head, too. "Very well," he said quietly. "If that's the way it has to be. Ranma, I will speak with you on this later."

"That would be nice," Ranma said quietly. "But there's not much time left. I can feel them coming back — quickly, too."

Yosho nodded again, and turned to Setsuna. "Meiou, you should leave, too. Your plans will come to naught if you remain."

The green-haired woman nodded dubiously, and began to usher the other girls along, only Hotaru resisting. "Ranma-san?" she asked. "How do I know that you'll come back?"

"I can give you my word," he said, shaking his head. "But that's about all."

"Take this," she said impulsively, pressing the Silence Glaive into his hands. "You have to bring it back to me, and you gave your own sword to her."

"Thank you," he whispered, bowing his head.

"And give me a kiss, too!" she added, smiling softly.

Ranma allowed himself a rueful laugh, and leaned forward to gently kiss Hotaru on the forehead. "I will see that this gets back to you," he promised, hefting the Silence Glaive. He glanced upward, and smiled, as a beam from Ran-oh-ki swept across the girl, teleporting her away. The rest of the girls took that as a clue, and leapt down the slope of the valley, running full-tilt for the ring of crystal. Yosho and Mamoru hesitated only a moment before following.

"It is a remarkable thing, to have garnered so many loyal friends and allies," Saffron said quietly. "I envy you."

"Saying goodbye isn't always easy," Ranma whispered. Shaking his head, he divided in two, one offering a hand to each Tsunami and Washuu. Saffron nodded, and leapt off the side of the valley, drifting towards the ring of crystal as the ship began to drift upwards, the beam of light from it vanishing. Ranma teleported both of the women to the center of the ring of crystals as Saffron landed at one edge.

"This ring should act as a kind of amplifier," Ranma explained. "Now that everyone else is gone, it's going to tell every reaver on the planet right where you are, and it'll send them all in a straight line for this spot."

"Ranma?" Washuu asked nervously. "I'm acting as bait to buy everyone time to escape?"

"No," he said, shaking his head. "The crystals have your pattern, and will tell it to the reavers. Now you leave." With that, he teleported again, setting Washuu down on a chair aboard Ran-oh-ki, and Tsunami nearby as well. "Now do you get it?" he asked, smiling.

"Yes!" the woman exclaimed, her hands seizing Ranma tightly. "You think that if you lure them all in, you can kill them! Ranma, I'm not going to let you throw your life away—"

"I'm not throwing my life away," he countered, closing the short distance between he and Washuu, and kissing her deeply. Startled, the woman's grip about him loosened, and he stepped back suddenly. Reacting a fraction too slow, she grabbed his robes.

"Ranma!" she exclaimed, as he vanished, leaving the robes in her hands. "What… Ranma! You have to come back!"

Ranma's forms recombined before Saffron, one hand holding the massive and wicked looking polearm Hotaru had leant him. "We are ready?" he asked tersely.

"Yes," Saffron murmured, glancing over Ranma's shoulder as enough reavers to line the valley began to spill over the edge. "Do you believe this will truly work?"

"If you can give me a few minutes, I think it can," Ranma said, nodding.

Saffron removed the Kinjakan from his belt, and set the spinning ring circling around them in a widening spiral, gaining speed and heat as it continued. "We shall hope," he said grimly, halting the spiral's expansion when the ring of flame was forty meters wide, just outside of the ring of shattered slave crystals. "They approach."

Ranma grumbled, plucking the gems from his wrists, and setting them in the air before him. He took a careful step back, and sighted the bobbing blue crystals purposefully. "Here goes nothing," he breathed, swinging the glaive down on the first gem with all his might. The gem shattered, reduced into a fine, crystalline mist, and Ranma shuddered at the forces released as they began to surge through him through the connection he maintained.

The slowly rising surge of power warned him that there would be more — much more — and soon. Gritting his teeth, he raised the glaive over the second gem, and smashed it, too. The resultant power began to wreathe him in a solid blue nimbus, nearby stalks of grass shattering, and his breath liquefying before him. "I wonder how long I will sleep," Saffron mused, watching Ranma closely. "Are you confident that what you try to do can be done?"

"Yeah," Ranma choked out, trying to resist the heady rush of raw energy through him. "Need… more cold…."

Saffron sighed, glancing at the line of fire as the reavers began to throw themselves at it — rebuffed for the moment by the metal ring of the Kinjakan, if the flame itself did nothing — and pulled the Gekkaja from his sash. "Perhaps this can help?"

Ranma nodded stiffly, the gem on his ear winking brightly. "Just… break this one," he managed, the polearm in his hands beginning to glow softly. The writhing tendrils of blue reached out, enveloped the weapon in a skein of pure force. "Just need a… little more."

Sighing again, and with careful deliberation, Saffron pulled back the Gekkaja, and swung it at the gem forcefully, as the first of the reavers began to surge over the protective barrier. "Yes," Ranma hissed, tapping into the last bit of power he needed to complete what he wanted to do.

The power began to unfold before him, expanding, sweeping across the reavers with blinding speed — speed greater than they could manage to dodge. All he had to do was teleport back… and leave Saffron alone to sleep.

But it was so far to the ship, and he was so tired… so very tired….

Slowly rising away from the planet, Yohito allowed himself a sigh; they were clear of whatever madness was going on below. Saryu-oh shuddered once, the local subspace energy growing too thin to sustain the ship. "What the hell," he breathed, as the ship's rise began to slow. "We're going to smash into the planet," he gasped, eyes widening. "Something's taking all of the energy from local subspace—"

His protest was cut off as something impacted with Saryu-oh, forcing the ship upwards. Saryu-oh's viewports revealed the Earth beneath the ship… changing. A slowly expanding ring of blue crept outwards, slowly, at first, and then with greater and greater speed. "Oh, shit," he breathed, eyes widening as the sensors told him what it was.

A cold so absolute that the atmosphere around Saryu-oh turned liquid and sloughed off the ship's hull. He shook his head, bereft of words, and aware of Washuu sobbing incoherently nearby.

Hotaru sat across from Tsunami, shivering as a sudden… familiar… sensation seemed to call out to her from the Silence Glaive. The weapon that Ranma held, and yet called to her. "Oh, Ranma," she said, shaking her head.

The Silence Glaive, a tool of death, was meant to be wielded by the living, and when the life force of its wielder was exhausted it vanished, reforming in the hands of the proper bearer.

Hotaru gasped, recoiling in horror from the weapon in her hands. "No," she whimpered. "He promised…." She closed her eyes, tears trickling down her cheeks. She had known he was going to come back, that he would do what he thought needed to be done, and then return, but…. But the finality of it echoed through to her from the glaive. It remembered his final moments, the horrific cold, the terrible force…. "It's over," she whispered brokenly. "It's over…."

"You promised you would come back," Tsunami protested, her hands tightening around the sheathed sword. "Atsuko, we have to go back! We can't leave him behind!"

Nuku's eyes were bright with tears, but she shook her head, guiding Ran-oh-ki towards Saryu-oh, as the other ship's acceleration faltered. "Nuku-Nuku doesn't want to lose anyone else. Ranma-papa-san knows. He said… he said Nuku-Nuku has to protect you. Nuku-Nuku will do what Ranma-papa-san says!"

Tsunami bowed her head, shifting slightly as Ran-oh-ki slowed, gently collided with Saryu-oh, and began to accelerate upward again. "Nuku-Nuku… Nuku-Nuku loves Ranma-papa-san. Ranma-papa-san wants you to be safe because Ranma-papa-san loves you!" she continued, tears streaming from her eyes. "If you love Ranma-papa-san, you will let him fight." Out of words for the moment, Nuku bowed her head, sobbing quietly.

Below, the entire planet was slowly consumed with a seemingly endless tide of ice, spreading from Ranma's resting place outwards.


To be continued..

Author's notes: Thanks to The Refuge for helping me make this legible, and thank you for your time in reading my story.

Brian Randall

Interlude 3
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