Chapter 17: The Old Ones

"Will you not stay for the Ceremony of Remembrance?" asked the guard captain.

Ranma shook his head.

"Too much baggage for me in Saffron's past. I may stop by later, but not now."

"Why do you call him that anyway?" the phoenix blurted out, obviously having been bothered by it for a while. He immediately backpedalled. "I mean, you can pronounce his name properly, so why do you say it wrong?"

"It's a habit really, it doesn't mean anything in particular," the immortal evaded.

The phoenix man gave his farewell and his thanks and flew back to his post, and Ranma left the mountain.

If a whisper had been captured by the wind, and if someone had listened very hard, then they might have heard something. It would not have been words, for words whipped away by wisps become the essence of words. They become longings and feelings and hopings and dreamings. But if words were heard, they might have sounded something like this:

"If it means anything, then it is nothing more than a memory, is it? A memory of fire and battle."

And if someone had listened to the essence of words on the wind, they would have found much the same. Or perhaps not. In any case, it does not matter.

After all, who listens to the wind anymore? And who dreams of fire and ice and war?

-tempusnonfugit-

Ranma blinked, and stared into eternity. For the first time in a long time, something was different, to the extent that he did not comprehend it for a few moments.

There had, for a time beyond a normal beings true comprehension, been a rocky, desolate landscape, open to the vacuum of space, waiting for him whenever he opened his eyes. At first it had almost been maddening in its emptiness, but over time he had overcome the crushing loneliness it evoked. The lifeless wasteland had become normal, expected. The World of Silence, as he sometimes thought of it, was melancholy, but Ranma had learned to see the muted beauty of it.

Now though, now there was nothing. No ground, no stars, no Others. Not even blackness met his sight as he floated in a world of nothing.

"Well, this is new," he spoke aloud, expecting his voice to be either muffled or echoing. He was almost disappointed when the sound behaved normally. 'Normal' didn't give much information. "So, then, would the entity responsible for this like to say something?"

There was no immediate response, so Ranma slowly, carefully, collected a glowing ball of energy from the environment, and watched closely. Unlike on Earth, where most free energy came from the ground and the oceans that had brimmed with life, and unlike on Weyard, where such a collection would draw primarily from the 'Sun' (actually a construct of elemental fire and plasma, they really had failed to think an almost depressing number of problems through to their logical conclusions), the oceans, the earth, and the winds equally, here energy flowed from branching streams all around him. It was almost like… a tree. It was a tree, but what sort of tree acted like this, or gave so much energy so freely? Or felt… pleased?

After looking around to see that, indeed, there was nothing revealed by the light, not even ground, he peered closer at his newly made energy globe with a nagging suspicion. And there he found his answer.

"You know, I never got the impression from the stories the gods and goddesses told me that you could take the initiative like this."

There was no response. There was, however, a sense of… waiting, or perhaps expectation.

Seeing that his attempt at conversation had produced no results, Ranma put his hard won diplomatic skills to use. Speaking was, ironically, one of the courses that he had never taken at a college or university during his time on Earth, although he had considered it from time to time as he repeatedly went through higher education under different identities (to think he had once despised learning!) to make sure that nobody figured out that he was aging at such a slow rate. It had never seemed a necessary skill. Finding out that he had somehow been marked as the de facto mediator for every single faction of high-power beings that had fought at Jusendo had been an unpleasant surprise, and he had avoided disasters by the skin of his teeth at the beginning. But he had learned. Like combat, it was all about figuring out the person you were up against.

"But why would you bring me here now, after all this time?

"Why, oldest of the old, you who came before all creation, why am I here?

"What need do you have of me, Yggdrasil?"

-tempusnonfugit-

Felix stood atop the ridge, looking out over the ravine filled with darkness and violet lightning. Even from his position at the foot of the mountains it was impossible to miss.

"When did this start?" Felix asked his companion, the young woodsman Coriolis.

"A few months after you left with Saturos and Menardi," the Proxian said. "The lightning hasn't stopped since then, and the lighthouses don't seem to slow it down at all while they are unbalanced like this. We're lucky that the ground around the lighthouse is somehow reinforced, or we'd be doomed."

"Why though? Why is this happening here? I've sailed across the world, at all the other edges it's still blue! Not some," he gestured at the abyss, "storming blackness."

Coriolis shrugged.

"I don't know and I don't really care. At this point we just have to deal with it. If we're lucky, Agatio and Karst will succeed, and we'll survive. If not… well, we've made mistakes. Bad mistakes. We shouldn't have resorted to kidnapping. It's probably only right that we'd be the first to go."

Felix grimaced, but could think of nothing to say. He put his hand on the younger man's shoulder to reassure him.

"You're going after them, aren't you?"

Felix said nothing.

Coriolis sighed.

"You're a good guy Felix, and I've been proud to think of you out there doing your best, despite everything we did. But you don't have to go. There's no reason for you to help us."

"Why would I need a reason to do the right thing?"

-tempusnonfugit-

This program requests your aid.

It was similar and different to the Wise One's telepathy, Ranma noticed. There was no 'voice' to it, no distinguishing features. It was not deep or gravelly or feminine or… well, anything. It simply… was. And it hadn't actually said what he heard, he could tell that. 'Program' was a descriptor that he could understand, with which he had mentally overridden the true meaning with. A defensive mechanism. He channeled the Soul Of Ice slightly, to help him keep his center.

"I don't have enough power to interfere outside of the pocket dimension," Ranma responded. "But what is it that you want?"

This entity is a source. A program for existence. This being impresses order on disorder to allow life, much as our other half, Niddhog, maintains disorder in order to allow change and growth. From us came users, two of them, for the purpose of action. But they have stagnated, and thereby failed in their duties. They have failed to create.

"Why are you acting now? It should be obvious by now that they aren't going to act until the 'game' runs out of time."

We had hoped that your opposition to the current state of affairs would drive them to cooperate and cease their pointless destruction. While the destruction is natural, unavoidable, and important, it is counterproductive to use it as a goal. Our function is not destruction, regardless of whether or not improvement is the ultimate aim. Our function is not improvement. Our functioning is the enabling of improvement. While infinite time is within our possession, relying on such is wasteful, and therefore a time limit was set by us, unbeknownst to them, for them to take back up their appointed duties. That time has passed.

"But what do you need from me?"

You already know.

Ranma remained silent.

This program will await your answer. There is no time limit on this. You have all the time in the world.

"There are better choices."

Perhaps. You are imperfect, certainly. But you have a talent for succeeding regardless. You get results. Your failures are eclipsed by your successes. We could do worse. And as this entity has stated, our function is not perfection.

"I will consider it. I can't promise more than that."

Acknowledged. This program awaits your answer.

-tempusnonfugit-

"Something is wrong."

"Yeah, the elements are really out of balance."

"Not that," said Ivan. "Something else. Something bad. Unnatural." He grimaced. "I think that, this time, not everyone is going to be able to walk away from the battle with whatever is waiting for us."

"Then we'll just have to be careful," said Sheba, "and stay the course, no matter how hard it gets. Everyone is counting on us, after all."

-tempusnonfugit-

"Cybelle, could I speak to you briefly?"

She stood in a jungle at the heart of the world. This was the womb of life, the warm darkness of the earth, encompassing her completely in this place. The flora engulfed her, cocooned her, the sheer LIFE drawing her in to become one with-

Ranma forced herself out with sheer force of will, to emerge, shuddering, in the same position as before. She gasped, emitting a sound that was half sob, half whimper. Sweat drenched her frame, turning her long, unbound, flame-hued hair into earthy tendrils of red ochre upon touching her nude form. Collapsing on the ground she was too exhausted to move as her roots anchored her, seeking energy, digging deep to draw on the strength of Gaia, to bring her to-

Ranma slashed herself free, yowling in pain, in anger snarling a challenge at the trees, claws rending-

Ranma shattered the falling rocks, fighting her way out of-

The marsh sucked at her waist already as she pressed onwards towards-

Thousands upon thousands, the black, shiny carapaces of the ants clashed with the red of her blood as they tore into her-

The massive desert beast burst free of the sand and descended upon her, mouth gaping wide, teeth gleaming. No time to move, no escape, she launched upward to meet it and-

The cold of the arctic waters sapped every ounce of strength, but still she pushed on. Ranma's head burst through the surface only to be buried in-

-Pain-

-Lust-

-Hate-

-Pleasure-

-Fear-

-Peace-

-Love for-

-Instinct to-

-Fight better-

-Push farther-

-Try harder-

-Be stronger-

-Adapt-

-Move faster-

-Learn-

-Strive-

-Never yield-

-Win!-

-"This-

-is-

-my-

-will!"

It ended. Ranma emerged to stand undefeated in the jungle at the heart of the world. Undefeated, but not unscathed, she trembled in psychic shock from the tumultuous assault. In this place that was beyond the physical, Ranma stood muddied, bloodied, and bruised, hair unbound and matted to her, cloaked in vines and leaves instead of silks, wearing bracers of bark instead of metal, bare feet compacting the spongy loam of the jungle floor. She stood battered, but unbroken.

A tear drop fell slowly down her face, a silent lament for what she could never have, never allow herself to have. Cybelle wiped it gently from her cheek.

"And to think," Ranma said chokingly, but not bitterly, "people believe that you are a kind, protective goddess of life."

The Earth Mother smiled softly.

"Children like you spoil me," said the goddess. "So few of my children understand the truth of me, and fewer can accept that truth. Who can love both the bountiful harvest and the plague of locusts? But somehow a few do. And you, you most of all, make me proud to be your Mother."

"Tret sends his greetings," Ranma murmured.

Cybelle hugged her close. "And I thank you for that. But that is not why you are here to me, the spirit of all the battle found in nature on this slaughterhouse of a world."

Ranma searched for the words she needed, reaching for the right thing to say. She had come to this place on instinct, seeking an answer to a question. She now had to ask.

"You have known me longer than anyone else. You've watched me, you've tested me, you've fought me. You know everything I am. So, will you help me?"

Cybelle looked at Ranma sadly. "You can't even say it, can you? Ever since that day, you've been dreading such a possibility. You always felt the ploy itself worked too well. You've done everything you can to not be like them, and now you are asked to replace them."

The Earth Mother sat back against one of the vast trees, and the jungle grew even older, even wilder, if that was possible. The goddess once named 'Mother Nature' looked up at her favorite child and sighed.

"What do you want me to tell you?" Cybelle asked rhetorically. She knew her children's hearts. "You will never get a better offer. It is literally impossible. As for the rest… well, I would hate to lose you."

"I can't return to you, Mother. I am tempted, but there is too much resting on my continual existence."

"All that lives on this world dies. All that dies eventually returns to me, after they pass through Iris's realm. Why must you, you who are closest to my heart, be an exception? But I will not hold your decision against you."

For a moment, Cybelle almost looked forlorn. But she answered the unasked question.

"I trust you Ranma. We all trust you. The only question is whether you trust yourself."

Ranma closed her eyes with a grimace, but nodded.

"I can't decide for you," the spirit of Gaia said, "but whatever your choice may be, you will always find welcome here, in my heart."

"Thank you," Ranma whispered. She met Cybelle's eyes, then looked away, unused to the love she found there.

Staring at the sun can be blinding.

"May I…" she hesitated, "may I… rest here for a while?" she asked, no louder than a breath.

Cybelle smiled, and held out a hand.

Her child grasped it.

And, for a little while at least, Ranma lay sleeping. Battered, but unbroken.

Tomorrow, there were things to do.

But today she could rest in the arms of her Mother.